Reviews of 2021 Mind the Gap Award winners

Not all deserving books bring home ALA awards. Our annual Mind the Gap Awards pay tribute to our favorite books that didn’t win. Here’s how we reviewed our 2021 winners.

 

The Old Truck
by Jarrett Pumphrey and Jerome Pumphrey; illus. by the authors
Preschool, Primary    Norton    40 pp.
1/20    978-1-324-00519-3    $17.95
e-book ed.  978-1-324-00520-9    $12.15

The author-illustrator brothers tell the story of a family farm and the truck that assists with chores. As the hard-working truck ages, so does the farming couple’s young daughter. The two are a pair, making this story, despite the title, as much hers as it is the vehicle’s. The Pumphreys allow their retro, earth-toned illustrations room to breathe in an uncluttered, gently paced presentation. Rendered via a mixture of low-tech (hand carved stamps…) and high (…which are then digitally manipulated), the illustrations are infused with cheer (the farmers are always smiling) and playfulness. As a young child, the girl imagines spectacular adventures with the sturdy truck. In a series of three spreads, as she sleeps snug in her bed, we are privy to her dreams — of her and the shape-shifting truck on the ocean, in the air, and in space. As an adult, she becomes the “new farmer” who pulls the tired, neglected truck out of the weeds to rehabilitate it. It’s refreshing to see an African American farming family depicted in a picture book, as well as determined, resilient women who farm. The final spread shows a child (who appears to be the woman’s daughter) on the bed of the newly remodeled truck, representing the next generation of industrious farmers. JULIE DANIELSON

From the March/April 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

How to Find a Bird
by Jennifer Ward; illus. by Diana Sudyka
Preschool, Primary    Beach Lane/Simon    48 pp.    g
8/20    978-1-4814-6705-6    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-6706-3    $10.99

“There are a lot of ways to find a bird.” The two children in this enticing and beautiful picture book demonstrate how. After doing their best to blend in to the landscape, move slowly, and stay quiet, the boy and girl look up into the sky (to spot hawks and starlings and geese), down at the ground (robins and burrowing owls), down at the water (spoonbills and sandpipers), and straight ahead at tree trunks (whippoorwills and brown creepers). Backyard bird feeders mean that birds will come to you, in which case “all you need is a window to find a bird.” The book ends with the advice that the best way to find a bird is to close your eyes and listen: and a glorious double-page spread follows showing a riot of color and bird species and birdcalls. The text pulls readers in with its welcoming and encouraging tone — as well as occasional humor. Rendered in watercolor gouache and finished digitally, the art manages to be both informative and gorgeous. There’s a lot of variation in the page-turns: a motion-filled spread of birds in flight is followed by a still one showing a host of starlings (and a hawk!) at rest on telephone wires; white space is used effectively as well. The book concludes with a spread of “tools and tips” for becoming a bird watcher and even a citizen scientist. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the July/August 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Chance: Escape from the Holocaust
by Uri Shulevitz; illus. by the author
Intermediate, Middle School    Farrar    336 pp.    g
10/20    978-0-374-31371-5    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-0-374-31370-8    $9.99

Shulevitz was just four when the Nazis invaded Poland in September of 1939, forcing his family members to flee their homeland. Thus began nearly a decade of displacement, discrimination, and hunger, as the Jewish refugee family endured the horrors of war and a tenuous peace, moving to northern Russia, Turkestan, back to Poland, and then to Germany, before settling in Paris in 1947. Despite their often-illegal status, the boy’s parents tried to scrape together a living, working any jobs they could find. Throughout the moves and various illnesses associated with subsistence living, young Uri was sustained by his mother’s stories and his greatest pleasure and solace — his near-obsessive love of drawing. This memoir, Shulevitz’s (Caldecott Medalist for The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship and three-time Honoree) first foray beyond the picture-book format, is heavily illustrated with the artist’s lively and expressive grayscale renderings (and occasional black-and-white photographs), punctuating and illuminating some of the most poignant and emotional moments in the narrative. In a number of sections, he enhances the storytelling via a series of dramatic graphic panels. Though touching on many dark and serious topics, this story is totally focused on the fears, triumphs, and sensibilities of a child. It is truly a portrait of an artist as a young man thrust into a maelstrom of a world gone mad and relying on chance to decide his fate. This thoroughly engrossing memoir will sit comfortably on a shelf with Peter Sís’s The Wall (rev. 9/07) and Allen Say’s Drawing from Memory (rev. 9/11). LUANN TOTH

From the November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Our Little Kitchen
by Jillian Tamaki; illus. by the author
Primary    Abrams    48 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-4197-4655-0    $17.99

Our narrator explains, with great enthusiasm and gusto, how “every Wednesday, we come together in this little kitchen” to prepare a communal meal for all who are hungry. Meal prep begins with “what we’ve got”: veggies (some quite imperfect) from the urban garden; whatever’s in the fridge (“OH! — Dunno what this is, but it’s GOTTA GO!”); day-old bread; “beans from the food bank? Third week in a row! But it’s what we’ve got, we’ll use ’em somehow.” A sense of effervescent improvisation pervades the tale, through its cookery details and the text’s rhythm and design. We see frequent shifts between main text and dialogue, with speech bubbles barely containing the conversational chatter and even intersecting during “cooperative overlap” (a.k.a. interrupting). Yummy sound effects abound — the rewarding, drawn-out “Slurp” near the end contains six Ss, six Ls, four Us, five Rs, and four Ps, all uppercase and of varying sizes. The illustrations themselves, “done with a nib and ink” and colored digitally, feature sure-handed black outlines, comics-style, around characters of all ages, shapes, races, religions, abilities, and genders, each of whom exudes vibrancy, warmth, individuality, and purpose. It’s no surprise that, per the appended note, the story is based on Tamaki’s experiences volunteering at a community kitchen in a gentrifying neighborhood — with the joyful safe space of the dining room as succor for the longtime denizens: “See you next week!” The endpapers include recipes for vegetable soup (front) and apple crumble (back — because dessert!). ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

From the November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It
by Andrea Davis Pinkney; illus. by Brian Pinkney
Intermediate, Middle School    Little, Brown    224 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-316-53677-6    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-316-53676-9    $9.99

Spanning roughly three generations, covering the years 1927 to 1968, this lyrical oral history of the fictional Little family gives insight into the complex African American experience of Jim Crow and the long fight for voting rights. Loretta Little, affectionately called ’Retta by her father, grows up in Mississippi a generation or two removed from the Civil War, when enslaved Black Americans were technically freed. However, the practice of sharecropping often led to other forms of servitude, so much so that ’Retta’s father said the family had less freedom than the chickens that roamed the land. Quick-witted and determined, ’Retta perseveres through the injustices and reaches out to celebrate joy when and where she finds it, including an unexpected addition to the family. Found and adopted by ’Retta and her sisters, toddler Rollins (a.k.a. Roly) is a Night-Deep child — left in the woods by parents who’d lost hope in their own circumstances. After the family acquires a small piece of land, the Littles are closer to finding hope, and Roly commits his life to patiently encouraging that hope to grow, first with the family land and later as the father of Aggie B., a spitfire who, when she sees voter suppression and intimidation in her community, becomes a fierce advocate for the right to vote. Divided into three movements, Pinkney’s “monologue novel” immerses readers in the first-person accounts. Through a mix of drama, gospel, and rhythm and blues, and with great immediacy, Pinkney introduces readers to an extraordinary family and provides a compelling testimony of resilience. Moving spot illustrations reinforce the brilliance and strength of the Littles’ “truth-talking.” Back matter includes author’s and artist’s notes, details on the dramatic form, information about sharecropping, and suggestions for further reading. EBONI NJOKU

From the November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Hike
by Pete Oswald; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Candlewick    40 pp.    g
3/20    978-1-5362-0157-4    $17.99

A new day dawns as a father wakes his child so they can head out from their city home into the country to go on a daylong hike. They see all sorts of wildlife, encounter and overcome obstacles along their trail, and enjoy some snacks. But this is not just any ordinary hike: upon reaching their destination — a grove of trees — they plant the sapling they’ve brought along and take a selfie next to it. Back at home, they snuggle on the couch looking through their photo album at pictures of previous generations in their family next to each of the trees that they planted (shown closer up on the copyright page, including our brown-skinned father as a child with his light-skinned mother). Oswald’s heartwarming wordless (other than a few sound effects) story lets the digital illustrations carry the narrative. Using varied perspectives, he highlights the action in successions of spot illustrations, while full pages and double-page spreads offer reflective moments in which to marvel at the beauty of Mother Nature. Upon closer reading, it’s clear that the opening and closing pages provide visual clues (the child’s drawings, outdoor supplies) about their journey and its significance. There’s gentle humor throughout, and the loving relationship between this father and child enjoying the outdoors together is movingly emphasized. Oswald’s use of earth tones and textures reinforces the beauty of the natural world and the importance of sustaining it through simple family traditions like this one. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

From the March/April 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

The Camping Trip
by Jennifer K. Mann; illus. by the author
Primary    Candlewick    56 pp.    g
5/20    978-1-5362-0736-1    $17.99

City-dweller Ernestine has never been camping, but when Aunt Jackie and cousin Samantha invite her, she gets her dad’s okay and starts preparing: new flashlight and sleeping bag, a homemade batch of trail mix, and a long list of things to pack — all helpfully pictured and labeled in the engaging art. After a long car ride, they arrive at the campground, and Ernestine learns that tent pitching is harder than it looks and that hiking in the woods is tougher than walking to school. Dinner (tofu hot dogs and broccoli salad) and swimming (with fish!) present some new challenges for the girl, but bedtime proves the trickiest time of all. Aunt Jackie knows just what to do to help her niece get over her homesickness and enjoy even the night: “Let’s go look at the stars” — accompanied by a stunning double-page spread in deep purple and black. Ernestine narrates the story in first person and present tense, capturing the immediacy of her experiences. Mann’s skillfully crafted pencil and “digitally collaged and painted” illustrations, in a nicely paced mix of panels, full-page illustrations, and double-page spreads, quietly foster a love for the wilderness while they show how time spent outside can bring families closer. A rare and welcome depiction of an African American family enjoying nature (see also Hike, rev. 3/20). MICHELLE H. MARTIN

From the May/June 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

In the Woods
by David Elliott; illus. by Rob Dunlavey
Primary    Candlewick    40 pp.    g
4/20    978-0-7636-9783-9    $17.99

Once again Elliott (On the Farm, rev. 3/08; In the Sea, rev. 1/12; and others) captures the essence of a habitat and its creatures in poetry that manages to be both pithy and profound. Here fifteen poems, each on its own double-page spread, are devoted to animals of the forest. As in previous volumes, some poems are clever and funny (“Give the skunk / a lot of / room, unless / you care for / strong perfume”); others are almost elegiac in tone. A few are concrete poems, including “The Hornet,” arranged in the shape of a hornet’s nest. Dunlavey’s art is not as in-your-face spectacular as that by some of the previous illustrators of the series but is perfect for setting and subject. His expansive watercolor and mixed-media illustrations feature aptly muted hues, with occasional bright spots: the red flash of a scarlet tanager; the pink of a wild turkey’s neck. The compositions are focused and compelling — the viewer knows exactly where to look on every spread. It’s worth lingering to find details of interest, however. A fox on the hunt “stands red /against the April snow,” and our eye is caught and held by the intensity of her expression and posture. But look closely to see a squirrel clinging, unmoving, to the far side of a tree, and a vole hiding in an underground burrow. An ideal marriage of poetry and art; another successful entry in a long-running and (seemingly) perennially renewable series. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the March/April 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Your Place in the Universe
by Jason Chin; illus. by the author
Primary, Intermediate    Porter/Holiday    40 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-8234-4623-0    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-8234-4878-4    $11.99

The relative sizes of objects can be endlessly fascinating to curious young minds. How many books tall is an eight-year-old? How many eight-year-olds standing on shoulders reach the height of an ostrich? What makes Chin’s (Grand Canyon, rev. 1/17; and others) new science picture book exceptional is how far he takes the concept. Beginning with a group of children and a telescope, the story proceeds through imagined scenarios (see: ostrich example above) to compare trees (from oaks to redwoods); buildings (the Eiffel Tower to the Burj Khalifa to the planned kilometer-high Jeddah Tower); objects in space. As we progress through the pages, the units of measurement grow from inches to feet and then miles, until we are measuring in millions of miles and finally light years, as readers discover our place in the Milky Way and beyond. Complex concepts (such as local galaxy groups and super clusters) are clearly defined throughout in simple captions elucidating Chin’s watercolor and gouache art. Maintaining accurate scale in the comparisons of earthbound objects throughout the first half of the book introduces the concept of relative size in an easy-to-understand way. When Chin moves out beyond Earth’s atmosphere, he takes greater and greater artistic license in his depictions of the inconceivable vastness of our galaxy and everything beyond. Extensive back matter delves deep into current understandings of the size, age, and complexity of the universe. Sources are listed along with child-friendly websites for further exploration of the big and small ideas presented in this out-of-this-world science picture book. ERIC CARPENTER

From the November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents
by Kate Messner; illus. by Adam Rex
Primary    Chronicle    48 pp.
3/20    978-1-4521-7488-4    $18.99

“No matter who holds the job right now, the presidents of tomorrow are always out there somewhere.” There are picture books aplenty about United States presidents, but make way for this breath of fresh air. Messner presents brief profiles of each one through a particular lens: starting in 1789 with George Washington, she makes her way down the timeline to the current day, looking at which future presidents were alive when each predecessor served and what they were doing at the time. For instance, when Washington served, nine future presidents were already alive, though Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor were still children. We often see more than one president at a time as we move through decades, accompanied by text boxes imparting relatable or little-known facts. Rex breathes life into these illustrations, showing the humanity absent from official portraits. Each president pictured is tagged with a number on these busy but never cluttered spreads so that we always know who’s who. And Messner doesn’t sugarcoat or whitewash history: “Most [of America’s earliest presidents] were wealthy, white, Protestant men,” she writes, and she notes that while Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal,” he himself owned slaves. The mood turns to awe-inspiring at the close, when we read that “at least ten of our future presidents are probably alive today,” the art here showing an inclusive group of children and adults at a museum of presidents, gazing hopefully into the unknown, “getting ready to lead.” Back matter includes a substantial bibliography. JULIE DANIELSON

From the March/April 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Flamer
by Mike Curato; illus. by the author
Middle School, High School    Godwin/Holt    368 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-62779-641-5    $25.99
Paper ed.  978-1-250-75614-5    $17.99

Aiden is not looking forward to starting public high school in the fall; his Catholic schooling heretofore has had its challenges — “jerks” — but at least it had become familiar. A summer at Boy Scout camp provides a break from his squabbling parents and a chance to breathe (“Everything is so quiet” in the woods) before school starts. Not so fast: camp also has bullies, whose taunts referencing Aiden’s presumed sexual orientation are only exacerbated by Aiden’s growing love for another camper, the athletic and sweet-natured Elias. Grownup LGBTs will know exactly what Aiden is going through, but this book speaks so well to those kids currently undergoing the ordeal. The graphic novel takes its time to fully pull readers into Aiden’s psyche and his setting, which provides the pleasures of summer and friendship and nature along with the rewards of Scout activities. (Orienteering!) The drawing is expertly cartooned, and the palette is black and white with occasional, and then increasing, daubs and splashes of red whenever passions — of many kinds — ride high. The variation of small, storytelling panels and full-page and double-page spreads for big moments is wonderfully effective, and the climax — Aiden in a literal dark night of the soul in the outdoor chapel — is high drama indeed, emotionally powerful, proudly and extravagantly spiritual (and as Catholic as any Graham Greene epiphany). He comes through it to have one perfect day at camp to sustain him going forward. If you will forgive the editorial intrusion, I wish I had had this book fifty years ago. ROGER SUTTON

From the November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

A Girl like Me
by Angela Johnson; illus. by Nina Crews
Preschool, Primary    Millbrook    40 pp.    g
2/20    978-1-5415-5777-2    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5415-7891-3    $18.99

It seems not even the sky’s the limit for the imaginative, adventurous, inventive girls depicted in this inspirational picture book. Johnson’s upbeat text, paired with Crews’s innovative, exuberant photo collages, delivers a message of encouragement and empowerment. “I always dream,” reads the opening line, and the accompanying illustration presents close-ups of three young women of color, their eyes closed, against a patterned background of blues and purples. Subsequent spreads show each girl recounting fantastic dreams, which position them as superheroes “in Supergirl underwear…in flowing scarves and a cowgirl hat.” They fly, stand atop tall buildings, and dive deep into oceans; but most importantly, they resist others’ warnings, denials, and chastisement about “a girl like you.” As the story goes on, more young women join the scenes, offering an ever-broadening depiction of girlhood; the closing spread, featuring headshots of each of the participants, coupled with her own words about her dreams, grounds this interpretation in the lived realities of real children. This is not trite girl-power pablum; it’s a rallying cry for girls to reject limitations others might place on them and their dreams. MEGAN DOWD LAMBERT

From the March/April 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

I Am Every Good Thing
by Derrick Barnes; illus. by Gordon C. James
Preschool, Primary    Paulsen/Penguin    32 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-525-51877-8    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-525-51878-5    $10.99

Barnes and James reunite, after the multi-award-winning success of Crown (rev. 11/17), for this beautiful and necessary book that affirms Black boys and their right to thrive. James’s vibrant oil-paint illustrations harmoniously depict Black boys in motion, in contemplation, and in full vitality as they skateboard, swim, or stand contemplatively in the outdoors. Barnes’s refrain throughout the book of “I am” (“I am a roaring flame of creativity. / I am a lightning round of questions, and / a star-filled sky of solutions”) is a powerful, present-tense reminder that normalizes the robust lives Black boys deserve to live, in stark contrast to the dedication page, which lists a number of murdered Black men and boys, many of whom were denied their own boyhoods. I Am Every Good Thing lets Black boys know they are loved and valued just as they are, with unlimited possibilities. Movingly, one boy affirms for himself and for the reader, “I am not what they might call me, / and I will not answer to any name that is not my own.” Fortunately, Barnes and James provide us with a range of powerful, positive names to call Black boys as they urge us to see them, to love them, and to let them live their lives as they deserve. KIM PARKER

From the September/October 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Twins
by Varian Johnson; illus. by Shannon Wright
Intermediate, Middle School    Graphix/Scholastic    256 pp.    g
10/20    978-1-338-23617-0    $24.99
Paper ed.  978-1-338-23613-2    $12.99
e-book ed.  978-1-338-23619-4    $7.99

It’s the first day of sixth grade for the identical Carter twins, and while Maureen is more than content to face the year with her sister the way they always have — together — Francine is ready for a change. Differing class schedules provide Francine with hopes for autonomy, and Maureen with anxiety. Separated from her sister and core friend group, Maureen has no desire to build the self-confidence everyone claims she needs until she is threatened with a less-than-stellar grade in her Youth Cadet Corps class. For extra credit, Maureen runs for president of the student council, with only one obstacle/opposing candidate in her way — Francine. Known as the “talker” as opposed to the “thinker,” Francine has her own reasons for running for office, and — to the chagrin of a well-rounded cast of family and friends — a contentious political season threatens the peace in the Carter household. The story is told largely in Maureen’s voice (her narration appears in rectangular boxes), and judicious use of speech bubbles, white space, and varying perspectives moves this graphic novel along without being obtrusive. Johnson and Wright have expertly teamed up to create a relatable story for all middle schoolers, with distinct reminders — from hair bonnets to an incident of discrimination in a shopping mall — that a majority of the characters are Black. Fans of Raina Telgemeier and Jerry Craft will appreciate the Carter twins’ attempts to maneuver their way through middle school and the political process while learning to act with civility and, above all, as sisters. EBONI NJOKU

From the November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Black Is a Rainbow Color
by Angela Joy; illus. by Ekua Holmes
Primary    Roaring Brook    40 pp.
1/20    978-1-62672-631-4    $17.99

A young girl sits on her stoop contemplating the colors of the rainbow, then notes, “But my color is black…and there’s no black in rainbows.” There is, however, black in a crayon box, black in nature (“a feather in snow”), and black in fun (“the bottoms of summertime feet”). And the black of Black culture is rich indeed, as the succeeding pages show. The rhyming text uses familiar symbols and motifs (black-eyed peas, a cooking skillet “for bread to fry,” blues music) as well as allusions to specific examples of African American art, music, poetry, and literature (“Black are the birds in cages that sing”) to create a mosaic of a community and culture that survives and thrives. Holmes’s illustrations use heavy lines and strong colors with soft touches of collage detail to represent everyday children as well as the iconic figures referenced in the text. Details in the back matter increase the book’s value: there’s a playlist; an explication of selected phrases (“Robe on Thurgood’s Back”; “Dreams and Raisins”); several poems by Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar; “A Timeline of Black Ethnonyms in America” (from Negro to black to Black); and a bibliography (for adults). A treasure trove of positivity, strength, and pride for anyone seeking to uplift and educate young people. AUTUMN ALLEN

From the January/February 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Mind the Gap 2021 is from the July/August 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2021.

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