As my regular readers know, I’m a round-one judge for the Cybils Awards in the Poetry category. Because of that, I’ve been reading tons of verse lately! I’m not allowed to share any details about our process for choosing the finalists, but I am allowed (and encouraged) to review the books as I read, so I figured I’d share four of them with you today. I hope these bite-sized reviews will be enough to feed your fiction addiction!
Unsettled by Reem Faruqi
Published by HarperCollins on May 11, 2021
Genres: Contemporary, Middle Grade, Verse
Cover Artist: Soumbal Qureshi
My content rating: Middle Grade (Themes of bullying; Some violence)
A stirring, hopeful immigration story of Nurah and her family, who move from Karachi, Pakistan, to Peachtree City, Georgia, from Reem Faruqi, ALA Notable author of the award-winning picture book Lailah’s Lunchbox. Powerful and charming, Other Words for Home meets Front Desk in this debut middle grade novel in verse about finding your footing in a new world.
From Pakistan to Peachtree City—Nurah’s stirring story of finding your place.
When Nurah’s family moves from Karachi, Pakistan, to Peachtree City, Georgia, all she really wants is to blend in, but she stands out for all the wrong reasons. Nurah’s accent, floral-print kurtas, and tea-colored skin make her feel excluded, and she’s left to eat lunch alone under the stairwell, until she meets Stahr at swimming tryouts. Stahr covers her body when in the water, just like Nurah, but for very different reasons.
But in the water Nurah doesn’t want to blend in: She wants to stand out. She wants to win medals like her star athlete brother, Owais—who is going through struggles of his own in America—yet when sibling rivalry gets in the way, she makes a split-second decision of betrayal that changes their fates.
As Nurah slowly begins to sprout wings in the form of strong swimming arms, she gradually gains the courage to stand up to bullies, fight for what she believes in, and find her place.
Unsettled tells the powerful story of a family who immigrates from Pakistan to find new opportunities in America. Nurah isn’t happy about the move—she was content in her homeland and feels completely uprooted in this foreign environment. The book tells of Nurah’s struggles to find friends, to understand America’s culture, and to discover her place and embrace her identity. She misses her family, deals with bullies (and worse), and struggles to fit in until she finds an outlet (and a friend) in swimming. Nurah’s journey is both heartbreaking and heartwarming, and the book teaches some important lessons about embracing those who are different and accepting ourselves.
Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrator: Julia Iredale
Published by Candlewick Press on March 9, 2021
Genres: Fairy Tales Legends & Mythology, Fantasy, Middle Grade, Verse
My content rating: MG (Some violence; Slavery; Abuse; Death of characters shown)
The Newbery Medal–winning author of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! gives readers a virtuoso performance in verse in this profoundly original epic pitched just right for fans of poetry, history, mythology, and fantasy.
Welcome to ancient Greece as only genius storyteller Laura Amy Schlitz can conjure it. In a warlike land of wind and sunlight, “ringed by a restless sea,” live Rhaskos and Melisto, spiritual twins with little in common beyond the violent and mysterious forces that dictate their lives. A Thracian slave in a Greek household, Rhaskos is as common as clay, a stable boy worth less than a donkey, much less a horse. Wrenched from his mother at a tender age, he nurtures in secret, aided by Socrates, his passions for art and philosophy. Melisto is a spoiled aristocrat, a girl as precious as amber but willful and wild. She’ll marry and be tamed—the curse of all highborn girls—but risk her life for a season first to serve Artemis, goddess of the hunt.
Bound by destiny, Melisto and Rhaskos—Amber and Clay—never meet in the flesh. By the time they do, one of them is a ghost. But the thin line between life and death is just one boundary their unlikely friendship crosses. It takes an army of snarky gods and fearsome goddesses, slaves and masters, mothers and philosophers to help shape their story into a gorgeously distilled, symphonic tour de force.
Blending verse, prose, and illustrated archaeological “artifacts,” this is a tale that vividly transcends time, an indelible reminder of the power of language to illuminate the over- and underworlds of human history.
A unique blend of fantasy and historical fiction, verse and prose, this book explores the bounds of friendship, philosophical pursuits and freedom. It’s honestly hard to describe this story. It is set in ancient Greece and follows a young slave boy named Rhaskos, who is ripped away from his mother when she is sold and sent off to care for the other main character, Melisto. Melisto is the daughter of an aristocrat, but she is wild and sometimes ill-tempered. The two stories are divergent for much of the book—we spend time learning about each of their lives–but eventually they come together in quite an unconventional way. Rhaskos’s POV is told in verse and Melisto’s in prose, and interspersed among their POV’s are narrations from various Greek gods who give us further insights into their stories. There are also passages about actual ancient Greek artifacts—I loved the way Schlitz wove these artifacts into the story and formed a possible narrative based on them. There is much history blended into this work of fiction (in addition to the artifacts). Sokrates befriends Rhaskos, and his philosophical ideals and way of thinking play a major role in the story. Many other characters are historical as well. The author includes notes at the end of the book describing the historical places and people and letting us know which characters were completely fiction. I think she blended them beautifully. I will say that the book might be challenging for many middle grade readers in complexity, language and content. This is certainly an upper middle grade read, and Schlitz does not talk down to her readers in any way. But it’s the type of book that could be studied in a classroom because it is rich with both history and philosophy—there would be much to talk about!
Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes
Illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Cozbi A. Cabrera, Nina Crews, Pat Cummings, Laura Freeman, Jan Spivey Gilchrist, Ebony Glenn, April Harrison, Vashti Harrison, Ekua Holmes, Cathy Ann Johnson, Keisha Morris, Daria Peoples-Riley, Andrea Pippins, Erin Robinson, Shadra Strickland, Nicole Tadgell, Elizabeth Zunon
Published by Bloomsbury Children's Books on January 5, 2021
Genres: Verse, Young Adult
My content rating: YA
From Children's Literature Legacy Award-winning author Nikki Grimes comes a feminist-forward new collection of poetry celebrating the little-known women poets of the Harlem Renaissance--paired with full-color, original art from today's most talented female African-American illustrators.
For centuries, accomplished women--of all races--have fallen out of the historical records. The same is true for gifted, prolific, women poets of the Harlem Renaissance who are little known, especially as compared to their male counterparts.
In this poetry collection, bestselling author Nikki Grimes uses "The Golden Shovel" poetic method to create wholly original poems based on the works of these groundbreaking women-and to introduce readers to their work.
Each poem is paired with one-of-a-kind art from today's most exciting female African-American illustrators: Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Cozbi A. Cabrera, Nina Crews, Pat Cummings, Laura Freeman, Jan Spivey Gilchrist, Ebony Glenn, April Harrison, Vashti Harrison, Ekua Holmes, Cathy Ann Johnson, Keisha Morris, Daria Peoples-Riley, Andrea Pippins, Erin Robinson, Shadra Strickland, Nicole Tadgell, and Elizabeth Zunon.
Legacy also includes a foreword, an introduction to the history of the Harlem Renaissance, author's note, and poet biographies, which make this a wonderful resource and a book to cherish.
In this poetry collection, Nikki Grimes celebrates many of the unsung Black women poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Grimes shares one poem from each author and then uses that work as the creative springboard for her own verse via the poetic form of the Golden Shovel. In this form, the poet (in this case Grimes) takes a phrase from the original poem and uses each word from that phrase as the final word of a line in a new poem. (The form is explained in more detail at the beginning of the book itself, along with an introduction to the Harlem Renaissance poets). The result is that the reader is presented with a pair of poems that explores the Black experience, one from the perspective of a period poet and one from Grimes. Because Grimes is creating something altogether new from the original poets’ words, the poems don’t always match up thematically (though sometimes they do). It’s incredibly interesting to see where she takes the phrase that she chooses and how she finesses and molds it into a new existence. The collection celebrates Black women of the Renaissance period, but it also gives us a contemporary perspective. In addition, each pair of poems is accompanied by a piece of art from a Black woman artist. These stunning illustrations are an integral part of the reading experience, so I’d recommend picking up a physical copy of this book if you can!
Hello, Earth!: Poems to Our Planet by Joyce Sidman
Illustrator: Miren Asiain Lora
Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers on February 9, 2021
Genres: Picture Book, Verse
We walk on Earth’s surface every day, but how often do we wonder about the incredible planet around us? From the molten cracks below to the shimmering moon above, Hello, Earth! explores the wonders of the natural world. This playful journey across our puzzle-piece continents does not hesitate to ask questions—even of the Earth itself!
Joyce Sidman’s imaginative poems encourage boundless curiosity, and Miren Asiain Lora’s stunning paintings capture the beauty of Earth’s ecosystems, creatures, and powerhouse plants. The book concludes with extensive scientific material to foster further learning about how the earth works, from water cycles to plate tectonics to the origin of ocean tides.
A gorgeous, expansive celebration of science and art, Hello, Earth! is a book to cherish in whatever landscape you call home.
Hello, Earth! is a beautiful picture book homage to our planet. There are poems that talk about the earth and its place in the solar system, its origins, its geological features and biomes, its creatures, humans’ interactions with the planet, and more. The poems are relatively simple and sweet, but the author utilizes poetic devices that add a sense of lyrical style. The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous and contain so many fun little details; it’s almost like an Easter egg hunt to find them all! And at the end of the book is a non-fiction section that talks more in-depth about the concepts from each of the poems, making this sweet book an ideal addition to a classroom library!