The Afterwards is a new story by U.K. poet A. F. Harrold, illustrated by Emily Gravett, the well-known picture book illustrator. Like so many books for kids these days, the story explores friendship, death and loss. It is quite dark at times and some children may find the 'other world' that our young protagonist is able to visit quite creepy in much the same way that Neil Gaiman's Coraline's 'other mother' is creepy. But the ending is positive with a focus on living in the moment, honouring those you loved and being present.
Dear Professor Whale by Megumi Iwasa and Jun Takabatake (illustrator) wasn't quite as sweet and charming as Yours Sincerely, Giraffe, but it still highlighted the importance of friendship, kindness and belonging via the old-fashioned means of communication, letter writing.
The action centres around the reviving of the Whale Point Olympics. The older Olympians are honoured and revered while the youngsters are encouraged to engage in friendly competition and teamwork rather than winning gold medals at all cost.
The empathy message may have been laid on a bit thick this time round, but it's hard to take offence when it's so well-meaning and good-natured.
Front Desk by Kelly Yang is for the older end of the junior fiction spectrum - probably 10+ and is loosely based on her own experiences as a new immigrant to the States in the early 1990's. Yang wanted to tell her son about how she grew up and what it was like being an immigrant. In a letter at the front of the books she says,
I grew up in a motel. I didn't have any toys or nice clothes. My parents were struggling...and life was very, very hard for us; it was hard for everyone in our motel, from the immigrants we hid at night to the guests who stayed by the week, folks who got mistreated by the police and were stuck in the same sad cycle of poverty.
I had been searching for a way the right way to tell my son all of this, a way that didn't scare him, but inspired him....Draft after draft, I dug deeper and deeper until the shame and pain and joy of my childhood were so open and exposed, it scared me.
For such a hard won story, it reads lightly and easily. Diversity is celebrated, as is a strong sense of family and friendship. Belonging, perseverance and hard work are standards held up for admiration. Disadvantage and racism are sadly also on show and not just from the American population, Yang also subtly shows the tensions between mainland Chinese immigrants and Taiwanese Chinese.
One of my new favourites though is Louisiana's Way Home by Kate DiCamillo. Her writing is stunning as always and Louisiana is a delightful, spunky creation. Suddenly, without explanation, Louisiana is on the run with her Grandma. What follows is a journey of major self discovery as Louisiana learns some painful home truths and discovers just how strong and resilient she really is.
We all, at some point, have to decide who we want to be in this world. It is a decision we make for ourselves.
Forgiveness, hope and courage are DiCamillo's calling cards - they shine very brightly in this tender, bittersweet story. And it wouldn't be a DiCamillo story if we didn't also learn about the kindness of (some) strangers (although don't get me started on the grandmother!)
Perhaps what matters when all is said and done is not who puts us down but who picks us up.
I'm starting to loose track of ALL the princesses-turned-monster-fighting-superheroes in The Princess in Black series by Shannon Hale but #6 and the Science Fair Scare is still full of all the fun, derring-do, go-girl attitude of the earlier stories.
It's hard NOT to be charmed by these sassy young things with their alter-ego monster-fighting persona's. But I guess at some point, I'd like to see these girls (& the dashing young Goat-Boy) come out from behind their masks and let the world see who they really are all the time.
Book 6 feels like a transition point. Everyone now seems to be 'in' on the secret and it would be nice if the girls didn't have to pretend to be pretty, prim princesses in public any more.
I love junior fiction at this time of year. It's entertaining, easy reading. But they're not always light on topic or emotional impact. These books feature BIG themes with BIG heart. They are books that can be enjoyed by adults just as much as the younger people in their lives. There is way more to junior fiction than the Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries, and I for one, am very grateful for that!