In This Issue...
#1 Kids' Next List Pick...
Punching the Air
By Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
(Balzer + Bray, 9780062996480, $19.99)"When 16-year-old Amal is wrongfully imprisoned, we not only witness but are swept up in verse as his world darkens with each loss. He loses dreams, friendships, and hope, and makes a final stand for his humanity. The depth of his pain and the betrayal of educators in his life who are supposed to support him is so palpable that, at times, I had to put it down. The beauty comes when his art and self-expression become his salvation. This book is a window that every educator--and, really, every reader--should be made to look through."
#1 Kids' Next List Pick Author Interview...
Indie booksellers across the country have chosen Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam's Punching the Air (Balzer + Bray) as one of their top picks for the Fall 2020 Kids' Indie Next List.
Award-winning, bestselling author Ibi Zoboi has partnered with prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five to write a YA novel in verse about a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated. A downloadable teacher's guide for the book can be viewed here.
Here, Zoboi talks about her collaboration with Salaam for this project. Zoboi also worked with Salaam to provide these answers.
While this story is inspired by Yusef Salaam's experience, it is fiction. Why did you both decide to partner for this project? What did the collaboration look like?
Ibi Zoboi: This collaboration started 21 years ago, when I first met Yusef in college. I was an editor for my college's newspaper and I wanted to interview him for a feature. This was years before he was exonerated and two years after he'd been released. I never got that interview, but when we ran into each other a few years ago at a book festival, we decided to continue where we left off.
How did you craft Amal's character?
IZ: Amal is based on Yusef as a teen. Yusef was selling his self-published book of poetry when I saw him a few years ago, and most of those poems were written while he was an incarcerated teen. One of those poems is called "I Stand Accused," and Yusef had recited in the courtroom after he'd received that wrongful conviction. He was 16 at the time and his ability to address the injustices in his own case with such depth and clarity was the inspiration for Amal.
This book addresses several major issues within the prison system--including plea deals, the 13th amendment, and effective counsel--all of which disproportionately affect Black people. Can you speak to the importance of discussing these issues in a book for young adults?
IZ: One of the major reasons we wanted to tell this story for a teen audience was to remind the world that Yusef was only 15 years old when he was accused of such a heinous crime. He was a child. Fifteen-year-olds don't usually learn about the Miranda rights or the court system. But this is something that young people are going through every day all over the country, especially among Black and Brown populations, as well as the rural poor. It's easy for the legal system to take advantage of children and their families when they don't have access to competent attorneys, or they are bullied into taking plea deals. Many young people do not know their basic rights when it comes to the Constitution. Including the 13th Amendment was a way to let them know that there is a major loophole in this historic document that plays a huge role in their lives. We wanted all these ideas to live on the page so that they can be discussed in the classroom.
In prison, Amal takes part in a poetry class where he is asked to write down a mistake he feels he's made, place it into a bin, and pull out another mistake at random. Why did you include this specific exercise?
IZ: This is actually an exercise I've done with my students as a teaching artist. It was a way to tap into the students' vulnerability and for them to start to connect to their peers. Once they realize that everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes the same exact mistakes they've made, they start to let their guard down.
The book's title, Punching the Air, is an emotionally-charged image evoked several times throughout the book. What does it illustrate to you?
The title has several meanings. It is both an act of victory and an act of frustration. Amal is also wrongly convicted of throwing a fatal punch. Yusef expressed this idea of misplaced anger as a teen, of not knowing where to channel rage. The most powerful moment in the book is when Amal realizes that his punches will be paintbrushes.
Is there any one thing you'd hope readers take away from this book?
IZ: As much as we talk about criminal justice and prison reform or abolition, there isn't much we can do about it right this moment. There are young people who are still entangled in the school-to-prison pipeline. What we can offer them is the power of art. They still have the ability to express their truths in whatever way they see fit. This is how Yusef was able to hold on to his humanity while wrongly incarcerated for over six years.
What role have indie bookstores played in your life?
IZ: Yusef and I talk about this often. We were taking classes where the required reading list were books that were not readily found in bookstore chains. I used to work at Waldenbooks in New York but I shopped at Revolution Books in Harlem and Nkiru Books in Brooklyn because the books we needed for class were on the shelves. Our professor also had booksellers visit our class and he would take orders right then and there. The following week, he would haul boxes of books into the classroom. I absolutely loved that experience. The books felt very special. I still have all those books and, interestingly enough, when I had visited Yusef at his home, he also had those books. We frequented Black-owned bookstores because this is where we went to fill our intellectual well.
Skunk and Badger
By Amy Timberlake
Jon Klassen (Illus.)
(Algonquin Young Readers, 9781643750057, $18.95)"Skunk and Badger has everything I want in an early reader book: madcap silliness, fun science facts about geology and chickens, and a heartfelt lesson told through the mistakes Badger makes on a bumpy road to friendship with Skunk that lead him to reckoning and atonement. Also, Jon Klassen's artwork is beautiful and adds so much to the story. Loved it!"
Witches of Brooklyn
By Sophie Escabasse
(Random House Graphic, 9780593125281, $20.99, hardcover; 9780593119273, $12.99, paperback)
"I'm so excited about Sophie Escabasse's debut graphic novel! I love graphic novels, and Escabasse's style is so perfectly suited to the medium. I adored her protagonist and her aunts, and I was completely swept away by this magical story of a girl coping with loss and new beginnings. As an artist admiring another, I love how Escabasse manifested Effie's magic, and feel certain it's something that will speak to all young artists out there! Full of thoughtfulness and humor, with a grand dash of magic and witchery, I can't wait for more from Effie, Selimene, and Carlota!"
Indies Introduce -- outstanding debuts as selected by independent booksellers
A Wolf for a Spell
By Karah Sutton
(Knopf Books for Young Readers, 9780593121658, $17.99)
"This is the story of a wolf, a witch, and a girl who love the forest but fear each other. The forest is a wild, dangerous place full of wondrous magic, and it is threatened by the kind of men who must destroy what they cannot control. Told through three perspectives, this delicately woven fairy tale speaks to learning to trust others and being brave in doing what's right. Spells are cast, but it is the connections formed that are truly magical."
Indies Introduce -- outstanding debuts as selected by independent booksellers
Short & Sweet
By Josh Funk
Brendan Kearney (Illus.)
(Sterling Children's Books, 9781454934271, $16.95)"Josh Funk pours on the adorable once again as he sets his lovable breakfast duo off on another tasty adventure. Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast realize they're going stale and seek the help of Professor Biscotti to rejuvenate them, but something goes awry. Baron von Waffle and tons of enjoyable puns return, as do illustrator Brendan Kearney's delectably delightful foodscapes. Limes Square made me giggle with glee. This too-short picture book is certainly sweet enough for the little ones, and well worth the carbs for all readers."
Arlo & Pips: King of the Birds
By Elise Gravel
(HarperAlley, 9780062982216, $12.99, hardcover; 9780062982223, paperback, $7.99)
"For fans of Narwhal and Jelly comes a new unlikely pair: Arlo the crow, a king among birds, and Pips, the yellow songbird who's curious to know what makes Arlo so special. During their adventures, Arlo shows his new friend tricks and habits that prove just how crafty crows can be! I found myself laughing along with Arlo's antics and learning a thing or two about crows. A perfect graphic novel for early readers."
Attack of the Underwear Dragon
By Scott Rothman
Pete Oswald (Illus.)
(Random House Books for Young Readers, 9780593119891, $17.99)
"If you think Attack of the Underwear Dragon is a funny title, just wait until you read the book! Pete Oswald's illustrations perfectly bring Scott Rothman's hilarious tale to life. Attack of the Underwear Dragon tells the story of valiant Assistant Knight Cole's adventures and the very real dangers of dragons who wear ginormous underwear. A great story and very amusing illustrations combine with a nice lesson about facing your fears and trying your hardest, making Attack of the Underwear Dragon a delightful read."
Donut Feed the Squirrels
By Mika Song
(Random House Graphic, 9781984895837, $12.99)"This adorable early reader graphic novel will make your day. When Norma and Belly miss out on breakfast because of burnt pancakes, they come across the wonderful smell of donuts from a nearby food truck. Which they must find a way to have. Their adventures are cute, funny, and unforgettable. I can't wait to see if there are more adventures from these two."
By Ann Patchett
Robin Preiss Glasser (Illus.)
(HarperCollins, 9780062883391, $18.99)
"Have you ever been blamed for someone else's mistake? That's just what keeps happening to the curious little goat who lives on the very same farm as the dear little lambs who wanted a 'lambslide.' The goat is so curious about the world outside his pen, he constantly escapes to explore, roll down the hill, taste new things, and make new friends. Whenever he escapes, he becomes the scapegoat for a burned pie, a spilled paint bucket, trampled petunias, and even bubble gum left on a chair! The farmer's daughter comes to the rescue and proves everyone has been blaming the goat instead of admitting their mistakes. What a fun way to explore the valuable lesson of honesty and taking responsibility. This delightful story comes to life with cheerful and detailed illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser, and will undoubtedly spark laughter and learning in young children."
Fern and Otto: A Story About Two Best Friends
By Stephanie Graegin
(Schwartz & Wade, 9780593121306, $17.99)"Fern and Otto is a beautiful celebration of discovery, adventure, and friendship. It is a charming reminder that all of life's experiences are more exciting when shared with friends! A sweet story that will resonate with kids of all ages."
By Briony May Smith
(Schwartz & Wade, 9781984896537, $17.99)
"I want to climb inside Margaret's Unicorn and live in this magical world. Margaret's family has just moved to a cottage in the hills to stay with her grandmother when she finds a baby unicorn lost from its tribe. Her grandmother teaches her how to take care of the unicorn, who quickly becomes part of their family, until the next spring, when its mother returns. A beautiful, magical tale about saving wildlife, nurturing it, and knowing when it's time to return it back to nature."
The Oboe Goes Boom Boom Boom
By Colleen AF Venable
Lian Cho (Illus.)
(Greenwillow Books, 9780062494375, $17.99)"A fun, goofy read-aloud highlighting the science behind musical instruments and the sounds they make. Going page by page, instrument by instrument, The Oboe Goes Boom Boom Boom is the perfect way to introduce young children to the instruments in a concert band and to some of the most famous people who played them."
Thesaurus Has a Secret
By Anya Glazer
(Katherine Tegen Books, 9780062916051, $17.99)
"An adorable, delightful, and magnificent picture book! A great read-aloud about reading combining dinosaurs and books. Love the nods to great literature in the illustrations (Jurassic Mansfield Park?!?!). This is a book for kids and adults alike."
A Cat Story
By Ursula Murray Husted
(Quill Tree Books, 9780062932044, $12.99)"Teachers and parents of middle grade students will want this book so they can capture the animal lovers and travelers in the room. It reminded me of the weird and whimsical cat tale told by T.S. Eliot, though set in beautiful Malta. My favorite part is the incorporation of famous historical artwork into the world of the two cats, who dart in and out of everything from Botticelli to Munch."
Cinders & Sparrows
By Stefan Bachmann
(Greenwillow Books, 9780062289957, $16.99)"Witches, ghosts, and beastly creatures, oh my! A spine-tingling adventure ensues when a 12-year-old orphan housemaid is found to be the lost heir of a family dynasty of witches. Add in the creepy Blackbird Castle, a pinch of evil villains, and a dash of spells, mix well, and enjoy a suspenseful mystery of good vs. evil."
By Lily LaMotte
Ann Xu (Illus.)
(HarperAlley, 9780062973870, $22.99; 9780062973863, paperback, $12.99)"A really cute graphic novel about a girl who moves from Taiwan to Seattle. Cici has a close relationship with her grandmother back home, who taught her how to cook some of her favorite dishes. Cici makes friends but is often subjected to microaggressions from these friends as well as adults. She desperately wants to bring her grandmother for a visit and enters a cooking contest to win the money. What comes out of this contest is both surprising and heartwarming."
By Sharon Creech
(HarperCollins, 9780062570741, $16.99)
"This is a truly beautiful story. The writing is like colors painting pictures of Gina's life in my mind and I love it. One Time is a story about imagination, childhood, friendship, growing up, and still being a child inside. The characters are wonderful, and the story is heartwarming and relatable to anyone who has ever felt like the odd one out. Everyone should read this book."
By Elizabeth C. Bunce
(Algonquin Young Readers, 9781616209186, $17.95)
"Myrtle can give Sherlock Holmes a run for his money! This audacious and bright young detective will stop at nothing to discover what happened to her neighbor. She's wicked sharp, but that will only take her so far. Luckily, she's assisted by the invincible Miss Judson, governess and mentor. I flew through this exciting mystery."
Séance Tea Party
By Reimena Yee
(Random House Graphic, 9780593125328, $20.99; 9781984894151, paperback, $12.99)
"Lora doesn't want to grow up like the rest of her friends; she wants to keep playing outside, imagining far-away places and crazy adventures. When she meets Alexa, a ghost about her age, Lora thinks she has solved her problem--she doesn't want to grow up, and Alexa never will. But as their friendship grows and Lora begins to meet more living people who have similar interests, they both begin to realize that maybe growing up isn't bad, it's just hard."
Three Keys: A Front Desk Novel
By Kelly Yang
(Scholastic Press, 9781338591385, $17.99)
"A heartfelt and powerful middle grade novel about southern California in 1994 grappling with immigration and Proposition 187. While I haven't read Front Desk, its sequel stands well on its own. Mia Tang, daughter of Chinese immigrants, helps run their motel with the help of a rainbow cast of locals and friends. When her best friend's father is arrested and threatened with deportation, they all band together to fight for his release amidst the Prop 187 protests. The novel explores friendship and determination in ways that will bring tears and laughs."
By Nic Stone
(Crown Books for Young Readers, 9781984829665, $18.99)
"Wow! Nic Stone is a powerful writer who has brought us what she calls her most difficult book to write. Quan is in a detention center, writing letters to his friend Justyce about his experience being locked up. His story about how he got there is pieced together through events from his childhood leading into present day. This book, though fictional, examines the experience of being born Black and how the system is designed to the detriment of the Black population. This book should be required reading!"
By Dylan Farrow
(Wednesday Books, 9781250235909, $18.99)
"Dylan Farrow shows potential to be the next big name in YA fantasy with her stunning debut, Hush, about a world full of secrets and the girl willing to speak them all. With a deeply layered magic system reminiscent of Alison Croggan's Pellinor series and fierce characters on par with Tamora Pierce's Tortall, Farrow blends classic high fantasy with a strong feminist message of self-belief and courage. You don't want to miss this one."
The Left-Handed Booksellers of London
By Garth Nix
(Katherine Tegen Books, 9780062683250, $19.99)"This is a fast-paced, rich, and entertaining read. The deep magic consumed my attention; I was in love with Merlin's overflowing personality and Susan's unflappable drive, and I had so much fun with the concept of booksellers who double as guardians against Old World magic. This book has a lot of crossover potential for audiences, between the high and urban fantasy and the accessibility for teen and adult readers alike. This is sure to be one of my top recommendations when it comes out. I love a good bookseller with a sword!"
The Magic Fish
By Trung Le Nguyen
(Random House Graphic, 9780593125298, $23.99, 9781984851598; paperback, $16.99)
"Tien connects with his mother through the fairy tales they read together to improve their English. As he finds escape in the stories, he tries to find the words to tell his parents he's gay. Meanwhile, his mother's memories of her family and home in Vietnam are awakened by the stories she reads with her son. Beautifully done and truly magical."
The Silvered Serpents
By Roshani Chokshi
(Wednesday Books, 9781250144577, $18.99)"Roshani Chokshi is back with her amazing characters and gorgeous writing that make it so hard for me to put her books down. The Silvered Serpents is a perfect follow up to The Gilded Wolves. Picking up a few months from where we left off, we join the characters as they're all grieving the death of a friend. We explore each character more fully while they work together to solve the mystery of The Divine Lyrics. But everyone has secrets, and those secrets are creating cracks and fissures within the group. I loved every aching, heartbreaking moment of this book and can't wait for the finale. Chokshi is at the top of her game with this sequel!"
The Truth Project
By Dante Medema
(Quill Tree Books, 9780062954404, $17.99)
"The Truth Project is a deep, moving, conversation-starting story written in verse, emails, and texts about a girl who learns hard truths about her birth, her identity, and her parents. Her family lessons read flawlessly side by side with her young adult dramas with boys, girls, friends, school, poetry, plans, and a gamut of emotions. If finding identity and searching for belonging in any setting is what you're looking for, read The Truth Project!"