Chapter Book Review: She Hit Me First by Robert Mossi Alexander

Green watercolor background. With the title in red at the top. A large profile of a woman with short hair and a headband is behind a profile of Jamillah who had brown skin, a pony tail, and a yellow hoodie. The faces are looking to the right.
Green watercolor background. With the title in red at the top. A large profile of a woman with short hair and a headband is behind a profile of Jamillah who had brown skin, a pony tail, and a yellow hoodie. The faces are looking to the right.
Image description: Green watercolor background. With the title in red at the top. A large profile of a woman with short hair and a headband is behind a profile of Jamillah who had brown skin, a pony tail, and a yellow hoodie. The faces are looking to the right.

She Hit Me First! written by Robert Mossi Alexander, illustrated by Lauryn Taylor Alexander, cover art by Robert Liu Trujillo

From Goodreads:

When Jamillah started Parker Elementary School it was hard for her to make new friends. Unlike her old school, no one there seemed to want to play with her. So, hitting was the way Jamillah solved most of her problems at school. It didn’t make sense to her why it was so important for her to behave and be good when she saw other people around her being rude and unconcerned with how they treated others. With no good examples to model Jamillah continued to find every excuse to hit, but most of the time her excuse was “She hit me first!”

Jamillah’s teacher Miss Raspberry knew there was more to Jamillah than what she was showing. When it looked like Jamillah was about to face the ultimate punishment, suspension from school, Miss Raspberry stepped in to save her. Though grateful in the moment Jamillah had no idea what Miss Raspberry had in store for her. When her other efforts failed to help Jamillah, Miss Raspberry decided to try something different, she introduced Jamillah to a new way of thinking about the world around her.

At its core, She Hit Me First! is a book about exploring kindness, education, and conflict resolution without the use of violence. Jamillah learns through a series of events that she is worthy of kindness and that she has the power to create change in the world around her.

This was a throughly enjoyable little chapter book. I read it through once on my own and then out loud to my older kid who kept asking for just one more chapter before bed. The book has a clear messages about people’s ability to change, to be a model for others to change, and to overcome difficult situations, but the story they are woven into is charming and engaging.

I deeply appreciated the message to parents, caregivers, and educators the importance of having an adult in your corner. Jamillah’s teacher Miss Raspberry (what a great teacher name) makes a commitment to help Jamillah stop hitting when she gets frustrated and to make friends. Kids need someone who will advocate for them and believe in them. Having that one person is so critical to all people, especially children.

Jamillah is dealing with some stuff in her home life that is modeling the coping mechanism of hitting in frustration. She learns to have compassion for her mother’s struggles through a visit and talk from her aunt as well as through reading the story of Maya Angelou. Jamillah doesn’t learn to excuse the behavior, but she does learn that it is not something inherent in her that causes her mother to want to hit. I think this aspect of the story can help kids in similar situations both see their realities reflected and hopefully give them some insight into what lies behind it.

I found this book through the artist who did the cover illustration, Robert Liu Trujillo. We’re big fans of his work in our house. I was doubly excited to see that this was written by an author from the Bay Area which is more or less local to us. The illustrations inside accompany the end of each chapter. They’re really cute and add just a little more to the story. I would say the book is around a third/fourth grade level and the pictures are a nice touch to support readers who want to read chapter books, but need a little break to the actual text. The chapter length is also really good (it made it easy to read “just one more” every night too).

All in all, a great addition to classroom, home and public library emerging chapter book collections.

Purchase the book here (not affiliate links):

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

Chapter Book Review: The Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers: Bullying by Lehman Riley

BullyingThe Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers: Bullying a choice with consequences written by Lehman Riley

From the publisher: What will the Little Wanderers do when they see their classmate Anna being bullied? Will cruel words keep her from achieving her dreams? When Papa Lemon suggests a trip back to 1953, the kids meet a judge named Rosa and get a first-hand look at how bullying has always been a problem. The kids also get an important reminder that their choices can either help or hurt the people around them. 

I came across this series a few years ago when looking to build and diversify my chapter book collection and I’m really glad I did. I think you would be surprised by how homogenous chapter books are. I find so many of them are exclusively about contemporary friendships with the occasional quirky character thrown in. They also tend to be pretty white (or feature animal characters). Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite kidlit features any and all of those characteristics, but my library collection wasn’t about me. Plus who wants to read the same type of book over and over again? I’ll tell you who doesn’t- kids.

When I found Papa Lemon, I found a diverse group of friends tackling issues that are relevant to kids, such as bullying in this most recent book, and drawing on history for lessons that can be applied to these issues now. Not only is there time travel (science fiction!), but there is history (historical fiction that isn’t Britain in the Elizabethan era!).

Another thing I especially appreciate about these books is how they aren’t so tediously formulaic (I’m looking at you Magic Treehouse). This might make them a little more difficult to follow for emerging readers, but it’s well worth it. Especially if you’re the parent or teacher or friend reading them aloud to someone.

It’s also incredibly refreshing to see an older character, Papa Lemon, guiding the kids but not being a frail, wizened old man. He’s up and going about his own business, but he points the friends in the right direction when they need a little guidance.

This book in particular feels well polished. Clearly Riley is hitting his stride in writing these stories. I’ve said this before for other books and I want to be clear this is not to imply that previous books were unpolished or bad. It’s just that this one feels like he’s refined his storytelling and gotten the formula down for the story.

In this book in particular I appreciate that the kids take their harassment to their phones and start texting each other about a mistake their classmate Anna makes in class.

These books are great for emerging chapter book readers. They feature an easy to follow plot line with a good lesson woven in. They can be a bit didactic, but I think it’s a really fine line to walk writing these types of books. You want them to be interesting and if you want a message in them you can’t bury that too deeply as the intended audience is still practicing the mechanics of reading (hence the formulaic book series at this level). The whole series is well worth having on your shelves for kids who want to branch out from simple friendship books.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

Picture Book Review: The Royal Adventures of Princess Halima by Jainaba Fye, YaAdam Fye, and Anna Fye

Princess HalimaThe Royal Adventures of Princess Halima: Exploring the Wilderness of Tanzania written by Jainaba Fye, YaAdam Fye, Anna Fye, illustrated by Dolph Banza

From Goodreads: Introducing Princess Halima, the African Princess! Follow Princess Halima of the Kingdom of Affia as she explores the beautiful country of Tanzania while visiting her cousin Dalilah. Her adventure includes hiking Mount Kilimanjaro and a trip to Serengeti National Park! Learn all about Tanzania and its historic landmarks! The Royal Adventures of Princess Halima is a series of tales that will excite, amaze and educate the reader about the different countries in Africa while unlocking the wonders, mysteries of each nation through Princess Halima’s adventures. 

I tested out this book as our nightly chapter book and it was hit. As a parent I appreciate that the book series sets out to demonstrate that Africa is not a country. Not only is it an enormous continent, but it peopled by a huge variety of cultures and histories. Strangely this comes as a surprise to a lot of (usually white) parents, students, and people. Princess Halima introduces readers to the places she is visiting and to her cousins and friends she makes along the way. This was a great opportunity for us to talk about Africa, it’s history of amazing cultures, and its diversity.

The fact that the main character is a princess will appeal to kids in the princess phase. Plus it gives their teachers and parents an opportunity to expand the definition of what a princess looks like and where princesses live. They aren’t just white girls in pink dresses. And they aren’t just interested in clothes and tea parties. Halima is brown-skinned and wearing a more traditional robe and she’s on a trip around the continent of Africa learning about the cultures she encounters as someone who will eventually have a stake in the politics of her own country.

I would absolutely put these books in a transitional chapter book collection. Some of the vocabulary was a little tricky (for an independent reader, certainly not for a child being read aloud to), but the length and relatively simple story line would make it easy for an emerging reader to get through on their own. Many children are also interested in learning about cultures around the world. Giving them these types of books will open up their minds and worlds as well as give them a high interest topic that will motivate them to read the books on their own.

Diversify your chapter books and give kids who are interested in hybrid fiction-nonfiction types of reading material something to get excited about. I also highly recommend these if you have any elementary grade that studies African cultures. And support authors and illustrators of color and the publishers that support them.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

Chapter Book Review: An Angel for Mariqua by Zetta Elliott

Angel for MariquaAn Angel for Mariqua by Zetta Elliott

From Goodreads: Christmas is coming, but eight-year-old Mariqua Thatcher isn’t looking forward to the holidays. Mama’s gone and Gramma doesn’t know what to do with her feisty granddaughter. Almost every day Mariqua gets into a fight at school, and no one seems to understand how she feels inside. But things start to change when a mysterious street vendor gives Mariqua a beautifully carved angel as a gift. 

I know I’m a little late in reviewing this as it’s a Christmas book, but don’t pass over this review just yet. An Angel for Mariqua needs to be on your shelves. Mariqua’s mother has been incarcerated for a drug offense and now Mariqua is living with her grandmother attending a new school. Grandma is kind, but also elderly and not well equipped to raise a child. At school Mariqua is teased by one boy in particular, but sometimes by others, for having a “jailbird” mother. All this makes Mariqua feel small and angry and she lashes out at her one friend, her grandmother, and her classmates. She’s not a bad kid by any means, but she’s struggling. Then a chance encounter with a street vendor who gifts her a brown-skinned angel and meeting an older girl from her building helps Mariqua begin to come to terms with the big changes she’s faced in her life.

This is such a beautiful story about a girl making friends and learning to find value and the good in herself. She comes to find joy in small things and small kindnesses, while also coming to accept her situation and the friendship people offer her. When she is befriended by Valina, Mariqua also learns to see that others are also struggling. Valina is a beautiful example of a friend who isn’t perfect (she has her own family struggles that prevent her from keeping all her promises), but sets such a good example for Mariqua of how to be gracious and graceful. I absolutely adore the friendship the two girls form. Valina has been where Mariqua is, as far as being angry at the world for unfair but uncontrollable circumstances, and she can offer so much support to Mariqua as she works her way through her loneliness and anger.

The reading level would be good for strong third graders, many/most fourth graders, and fifth grade readers based on the length and complexity of the text. But I read it aloud to my seven year old (second grade age) and she enjoyed it very much. I would put it in a transitional chapter book section in the library.

I would caution libraries and collections to ensure that they have other representations of black children and children of color. While the book doesn’t pander to stereotypes, it does have an incarcerated mother with drug charges and an absent black father. These are very real issues for some children of color, but it cannot be the only narrative in book collections about families of color. Still, this is an incredibly positive representation of the situation and Elliott is such a wonderful, deft, and sensitive writer that you can’t go wrong with having it on your shelf. Make it a part of your holiday collections, displays, and read alouds.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

Chapter Book Review: The Ghosts in the Castle by Zetta Elliott

The Ghosts in the CastleThe Ghosts in the Castle by Zetta Elliott

From Goodreads: Zaria has dreamed of England for as long as she can remember—according to the novels she’s read, everything magical happens there! When her grandfather suffers a stroke, Zaria and her mother head to London to help care for him. Zaria reads fantastic tales to her grandfather every afternoon, and she’s thrilled to discover that her cousin Winston shares her love of wands, wizards, and mythical creatures. But Zaria soon finds that life in London is actually quite ordinary—until she goes on a day trip to nearby Windsor Castle. There Zaria meets two extraordinary ghosts who need help finding their way back to the African continent they once called home.

My daughter is loving this series so much. We quickly read through the first three books at bedtime and will be getting the fourth soon. This one was especially timely because we read it just at the time of the royal wedding (something we were not at all keeping up on, except that it was on the news) and I was able to point out the connection of Windsor Castle to her. It made finding pictures of it really easy.

That being said, this has nothing to do with a wedding or British royalty. Not really. I absolutely loved getting to meet Zaria, Tariq’s sister from the first book. She’s a really awesome kid and very kind. Zaria takes to her nerdy, smart, and slightly awkward cousin Winston and the two have an experience of a lifetime. The ghosts make this a great read for October, but the puzzle and history make it an interesting read for any time of the year.

I shouldn’t be, but I am always surprised at how well Elliott can jump between types of children’s literature. It’s certainly something other authors are not nearly so successful with. Here Elliott has written a chapter book that most fourth and even some third graders should be able to tackle. I recall the the first two books in the series being slightly easier and shorter than this one which is perfect. As kids improve through reading the series levels up with them. It also makes for a great read aloud (they all do, actually). The plot isn’t overly complicated and the books aren’t too long so it holds the interest and imagination of kids just learning to listen to chapter books.

I know kids love those Magic Tree House books, but they are awful- inaccurate history, THE WORST dialog ever, insipid characters. If you are looking for somewhere to start with read alouds for your kids or students this is a great series. You will enjoy them as much as your kids. They’re full of likable characters, interesting and important history, and magic. If you’re a librarian looking to add to your chapter book collection, please, please, please add these. It’s okay to have those tedious chapter books written for reading practice (although the inaccurate history is issue), but let’s diversify those shelves in terms of the representation AND the writing quality.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.


Chapter Book Review: The Mystery of the Troubled Toucan by Lisa Travis

Troubled ToucanThe Mystery of the Troubled Toucan: A Pack-N-Go Girls Adventure by Lisa Travis

From Goodreads: Nine-year-old Sofia Diaz’s world is coming apart. So is the rickety old boat that carries her far up the Rio Negro river in Brazil. Crocodiles swim in the dark waters. Spiders scurry up the twisted tree trunks. And a crazy toucan screeches a warning. It chases Sofia and Júlia, her new friend, deep into the steamy rainforest. There they stumble upon a shocking discovery.

Heads up! Not all of these feature diverse settings and girls. Some are set in Austria. That being said the Pack-n-Go Girls adventures are a lot of fun. The main character, in this book, travels to Brazil with her dad. Her parents are getting a divorce and it’s a trip for her father to get away and spend some time with Sofia. As in all the books in the series I’ve read, Sofia quickly makes a friend when she arrives at the hotel they’ll be staying in. Together the two girls uncover a poacher trapping pink dolphins and they decide to try and discover who it is and bring them to justice.

These are definitely wish-fulfillment books to some extent. The girls get themselves into situations that, in real life, would be incredibly dangerous and difficult for them to resolve. But that’s okay! I think girls are looking for those types of stories, the ones where they can be the heroes even though they are young and female. I think it also encourages girls to stand up when they see things that are not right. Often the girls are scared and eventually they loop adults into what they’re doing to get back up when needed.

Libraries should absolutely have these books on their shelves. They’re quick chapter book reads, not to easy and not too difficult, great transitional reads. If kids like the conservation efforts in this book they can move on to Manatee Rescue and Carl Hiassen. There are several different places visited by different girls including Mexico, Thailand, and Austria so if readers aren’t ready to move on they can stay with the series. I will say proceed with caution with the others. I haven’t read them and cannot vouch for how well they handle other cultures and countries. Still, they are well worth looking into if you would like to build up your chapter book collection.

Chapter Book: The Hijab Boutique by Michelle Kahn

Hijab BoutiqueThe Hijab Boutique written by Michelle Kahn

From Goodreads: Farah enjoyed her private girls’ school and fun with her friends. Then an assignment meant she had to talk about her mother for “International Woman’s Day” in front of the whole class. Compared to her friends’ glamorous actress, make-up artist, and tap-dancing mothers, what can her modest mother possibly have that is worth sharing with her classmates? To Farah’s surprise, her mother was quite the business woman before putting her career on hold to care for her daughter.

I love the mother-daughter relationship here. What kid hasn’t looked at their parent and been only able to see a boring/uncool/conventional person, especially when compared to the parents of your peers. Farrah isn’t necessarily embarrassed by her mom, nor does she think the other girls in her class have better parents, but her mother seems so other to her for a time. Thankfully the book shows how that is not the case as Farrah begins to see her mother build a new life for them.

Which leads me to the other part of the book I thought made it stand out. The theme of letting go. Farrah’s father was killed in a drunk driving accident several years before the book takes place. She and her mother have been financially and emotionally stable since then, but they are still stuck in the past to some extent. Farrah’s mother, unbeknownst to Farrah, has decided that while they loved the life they had in their expensive, prestigious neighborhood it’s time for her to let go of that and make a new life of meaning for herself and her daughter. She and Farrah talk about this and agree that they aren’t forgetting her father, they are letting go and moving on in a very healthy way.

In some ways this book may have a hard time finding its place on library shelves, but not in the collection. It’s slim and unassuming, but the language, particularly the vocabulary, make this higher level. My first instinct was to consider it a chapter book and it certainly could be a good transition from the chapter book section into the middle grade section. But it would also be at home in the middle grade section based on the age of the characters and vocabulary. Just be sure it doesn’t get lost on the shelf. I think the author must be Canadian? Some of the slang sounds Canadian despite the Los Angeles setting.

This book should be on your shelves despite it being tricky to categorize, though. It shows a beautiful mother-daughter relationship between two strong Muslim women. It’s also wonderful to see a book about hijab and women who wear hijab that isn’t focused on explaining the religious aspect of it. Sure, hijab has to do with faith, but Muslim girls (and boys!) know this already. They don’t need convincing that women who choose to wear it for any reason are not necessarily oppressed. It feels like a lot of those books exist to explain hijab to non-Muslim audiences and make them more comfortable, but books like this and My Own Special Way are clearly for families who are Muslim and will take it in stride or for families who don’t feel like they need to have other people’s religious choices defended so they can accept them.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

Middle Grade Review: A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold

Boy Called BatA Boy Called Bat written by Elana K. Arnold, pictures by Charles Santoso

From Goodreads: For Bixby Alexander Tam (nicknamed Bat), life tends to be full of surprises—some of them good, some not so good. Today, though, is a good-surprise day. Bat’s mom, a veterinarian, has brought home a baby skunk, which she needs to take care of until she can hand him over to a wild-animal shelter.
But the minute Bat meets the kit, he knows they belong together. And he’s got one month to show his mom that a baby skunk might just make a pretty terrific pet.

I actually think this one is on the cusp of middle grade and chapter book. It looked a lot longer than it actually was because it had large spacing between the lines and larger font size, but the content wasn’t predictable in the way that chapter books usually are. Which, of course, makes it a good fit for kids moving out of chapter books and into the regular middle grade section of the library.

The story itself will be familiar to nearly all kids. Bat wants to keep the animal his mom has found (it just so happens to be a skunk) and he needs to figure out how to convince her to let him keep it. The fact that Bat loves animals will also resonate with many readers. Bat is lucky enough to have a veterinarian for a mom and she is able to keep the skunk kit for a little while. Bat knows he’ll have an uphill battle getting his mom to come around to at least letting him raise the skunk until it’s ready for release back into the wild, let alone allowing him to keep it as a pet. The book moves not slowly, but it’s a slice-of-life type story so there aren’t any fast paced scenes or major excitement.

Bat’s sister gets a shout out (or call out) here. She has her moments of being a fine human being, but most of the time she was kind of a jerk. Maybe it’s her age? Maybe it’s because I’m an only child and don’t get the sibling dynamic? She’s just sort of an all around twit and she wasn’t overly kind to Bat. Sometimes she seems to barely tolerate him. I don’t expect her to be a saint, but on the other hand she was just a straight up mean. I suspect that family dynamic will resonate with a lot of readers, though.

It also bears mentioning that Bat’s parents are divorced. They don’t share equal custody, but Bat and his sister do spend a weekend with their dad. There isn’t any drama around the parents or the divorce or the custody. It was refreshing to see a split family like that in a book. At some point families do get on the with the business of living after a divorce and not all families have drama around new spouses or children (a common trope of divorced families I’ve noticed in children’s literature). As a kid from a divorced family I can say my own experience matched this much more closely than most depictions I have seen in kidlit.

Bat is supposed to be nonneurotypical. He isn’t great at reading social cues and facial expressions. He can be pretty literal and he stims sometimes. To me he outwardly seemed like a handful of nonneurotypical children I have worked with over the years. Does that mean he’s a perfect representation of someone who is? No. I felt like it was fairly nuanced, more so than other books I’ve read, but I don’t feel comfortable speaking directly to that representation. Especially since the book is narrated by and seen from the perspective of Bat. Certainly we need representation, but not at the expense of accurate representation. I can say it didn’t seem to veer into the inspiration porn kind of narrative that books like Wonder do.*

The story itself is a lot of fun and will be recognizable to many a pet-desperate kid, but if it doesn’t give a full and correct picture of autistic kids then it doesn’t matter how good the story is. I would cautiously recommend this to libraries.

*The blog Disability in Kidlit reviewed the book with an eye toward the representation of ASD. You can and should read that here.

Rerun: Mikis and the Donkey by Bibi Dumon Tak

Mikis and the DonkeyMikis and the Donkey written by Bibi Dumon Tak, illustrated by Philip Hopman, translated by Laura Watkinson

From Goodreads: One day, Mikis’s grandfather has a surprise for him: a new donkey waiting! Mikis falls in love with the creature, but his grandparents tell him that the donkey is a working animal, not a pet. However, they still let Mikis choose her name — Tsaki — and allow the two of them to spend their Sundays together. Mikis and Tsaki soon become fast friends, and together the two have some grand adventures. Eventually, both Mikis and his grandfather learn a bit more about what exactly it means to care for another creature.

Mikis and the Donkey is such a sweet gentle story. Mikis is completely captivated with the donkey his grandparents buy to help with some work around their property.

Mikis seems to understand the donkey and loves her from the start. He speaks up for her health and her happiness. His grandparents are rather baffled by his affinity for the animal, but with some cajoling from Mikis, they support his doting on her. The funniest part is Mikis and his friend’s idea to introduce Tsaki to another donkey who lives just outside their small village. Adults will see what comes next, but Mikis’ total and utter surprise at the baby donkey who results from this donkey friendship is hilarious and sweet.

In addition to the story line about Mikis and Tsaki, there is a friendship story between humans too. One of Mikis’ classmates, a quite girl, is captivated with Tsaki. Over their love of the donkey Mikis and this little girl become close friends. Mikis discovers that though she is quiet the little girl has a lot to offer.

I think the book would make a great read aloud and it’s certainly one for any animal lover. The book does have a slow pace which might make it less popular. I see it as one you would book talk to specific kids instead of one that will fly off the shelf at every opportunity. The book isn’t too long, but I suspect the reading level is a little bit higher. It would probably go in our tiny “mellow yellow” section which is a transition from our red chapter books to our higher yellow fiction books (things that are usually called middle grade). I still think it would be fine for kids who are working their way up through chapter books.

Updated 7/10/2016: I forgot to note, since the summary from Goodreads doesn’t say, the book is set in a small village on the Greek island of Corfu. In someways I think this might be an interesting way to make the connection between the Syrian (and others) migrant crisis, as many of them are washing up and landing on the Greek islands. It might be a little contrived, but you could certainly talk about other events in this part of the world in conjunction with looking at the story of Mikis.