ONE SMALL HOP by Madelyn Rosenberg intertwines a climate dystopia with the persistent hope of middle grade fiction. The novel follows Jonathan “Ahab” Goldstein and his group of friends as they navigate typical middle school conflicts and trying to save the world. The novel is set in the not-too-distant future where climate change has hastened extinctions of animals and the toxicity and scarcity of everything from the ocean to plant life. Showers are limited to two minutes, falling into the ocean causes welts and respiratory infections, and being uncovered in the sun is dangerous, even for a short time. Ahab and his friends, Davy and Delphinium (Delph), begin their adventures when a rare find, a live lobster, is found by Leroy, one of their classmates. The lobster dies in the hands of the Environmental Police Force (EFP), and the group decides to go searching for more sea life. When they find the “last bullfrog in Maine,” they decide to save the world, one small hop at a time.
Middle grade readers will appreciate the depiction of resentment towards the older generation for allowing the environment to collapse, and they will be impressed with the antics, determination, and bravery of the friends. Details about improved technology (everyone has very smart phones called “Ones,” indoor nature parks with imitation plants and animals, virtual reality field trips) are familiar enough to be believable in this world. Through it all, friendships and values, coming-of-age scenarios, and typical middle grade adventures are developed. Especially strong is the thread of how Ahab comes to terms with his feelings towards people he doesn’t appreciate or trust, from his father to his classmate Leroy to a mysterious connection nicknamed “Mole Rat.” The progression is portrayed in an authentic and heartfelt manner. When the group makes a momentous decision towards the end of the novel, it’s easy to relate to the sadness and fear different characters experience.
ONE SMALL HOP is a satisfying read for young people who have noticed the disconnect between lip service about caring for the environment and the actions people take on an everyday basis. The main characters are likable and well-developed, and the writing is at once easy to read and stimulating. Human behavior, as well as SUVs, pollution, overuse of resources and more all receive moments of condemnation from the perspective of the “next generation.” And the wistful memories from parents of flower beds, real ice cream, and relaxing by the ocean are met with a mixture of sadness and eye-rolling from the kids who have grown up with “ficken,” covered bike rails, and shower quotas thanks to the perceived former apathy of their parents.
FINDING HOME by Estelí Meza is a warm and comforting picture book about losing one’s home that doesn’t shy away from the sadness, but also reminds the reader how sometimes small joys and smiles can keep us going in difficult times. The themes of moving on but bringing some of your home with you are applicable to any moving situation, but especially the immigrant experience and loss of home and safety due to natural or man-made disaster. The picture book doesn’t shy away from Big Feelings, but it also focuses on accepting help and kindness and starting anew.
The story follows Conejo (all character names are Spanish animal names), whose house has been blown away in a storm. Conejo tries to find his home again and again, and while he receives help from his friends, they also supply him with keepsakes that support him and keep him going in the search for his home. While his friends boost his mood, Conejo also has low points of sadness, and the book gives Conejo space and time to feel that sadness before continuing on his journey. Children’s (and adults’!) feels are validated as Conejo gazes sadly into a stream feels his sadness for a while. The resolution isn’t the happy ending Conejo originally wanted, but it is a fresh beginning that brings his memories and friendships with him to a new home.
Meza’s illustrations are reminiscent of folk art and collage, and the colors are rich without being garish. The hope, sadness, worry, and love the characters feel come through clearly and authentically. Children will enjoy looking for a little bird that appears on almost every page, and the simple but detailed surroundings lend themselves to counting and naming shapes and colors as well. FINDING HOME is a wonderful, warm, and comforting book about loss and working towards a new start. Readers can’t miss the Author’s Note that ends the story.
LALA’S WORDS by Gracey Zhang is a really beautiful story about loving things for what they are, weeds and all. The power for positive attention and words, unconditional affection, and persistence are all included within the text and illustrations. Lala is an active child who loves to jump and get dirty and take care of a patch of green weeds growing up from the concrete. As summer’s heat keeps most people indoors and sluggish, Lala’s energy refuses to be contained and eventually refreshes everyone around her.
Lala’s mother is a busy, exasperated mom whose dismay at Lala’s constant state of dirt and movement seems to be her main source of frustration. Lala shrugs off her mother’s pleas to “Be still” and “Stop playing with weeds” in the dirt. She calls Lala’s visits to the weeds growing from the concrete “jibber-jabber” and doesn’t understand that Lala considers the plants her beloved friends. While relatable, some children and caregivers may see Lala’s mother’s words as too harsh for the behavior they address. However, the contrast between Lala’s loving words to her plant friends and her mother’s scolding is effective. This is especially true when Lala’s mother realizes how special Lala’s relationship with her plants truly is.
The illustrations in LALA’S WORDS are simple and lovely. The only splashes of color are the yellow of Lala’s dress and the green of the plants. Both colors grow as Lala’s care for her friends continues. It will be fun for children to point out how Lala’s yellow spreads to others as the book goes on. This simple picture book makes a heartfelt and encouraging picture book focused on how kind and encouraging words and actions heal and grow beyond expectations.
Two more books about being true to yourself are out now. LLAMA GLAMARAMA focuses on Larry the Llama who loves to dance (shhhh!) and FREE TO BE ELEPHANT ME follows a small elephant named Num-Num who discovers his Me-ness and inspires all around him. Both are geared towards pre-school and early elementary readers, and both are expressive options for read-aloud.
Llama Glamarama, written by Simon James Green and illustrated by Garry Parsons, is a glorious, flamboyant, rainbow-bright picture book about learning to share who you are and realizing that everyone also has something different and special about themselves. Larry loves to dance, but llamas are well-behaved and calm, so he hides his passion from even his closest llama friends. After leaving home and discovering a place where everyone dances and loves bright colors, Larry returns and lets his friends know that he loves to dance. To his surprise, each of his friends has a secret of their own — and everyone is happy to finally fully be who they are! Of course, they celebrate with a rollicking dance party.
Free to Be Elephant Me, written by Giles Andreae and illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees, is just as delightful, but it has a more poignant journey to the celebration of self. Every young elephant must display their talents for an elephant name bestowed by the elephant king, Elephant Mighty. Everyone else seems to know exactly what their special talent is — except for Num-Num. The cruel king ends up naming Num-Num “Elephant Nothing-At-All,” and the little elephant moves far away. Away from tradition and expectations, little Num-Num finds friends quickly thanks to his kindness and generosity. With confidence his new friends help bolster, Num-Num returns home and announces that he is naming himself Elephant Me, and his declaration that “Being YOU is ENOUGH” brings the king to tears. All the animals then celebrate with…you guessed it, a rollicking dance party.
Both picture books have colorful, action-packed pages filled with animals and myriad details for children to discover. Despite the similar messages, the books are more complimentary than repetitive. Llama Glamarama, with its rainbow theme and allusions to Donna Summer and Pride, has a positive LGBTQ+ slant. Free to Be Elephant Me is more about feeling inadequate and realizing that our traditional accomplishments are not equal to our worth. Children and caregivers will enjoy them both!