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Books in Brief: Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds; Stargazing by Jen Wang


Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds, illustrated by Alex Nabaum; Caitlyn Dlouhy Book/Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 189 pages ($17.99) Ages 10 to 14.


The science of boogers – and being a friend. Stealing pocket change, for a higher purpose. Wiping out on a skateboard. Sticking up for a friend even when it costs you. Cracking jokes as if your life depends on it. Greasing up a classmate so he can approach a girl he has a crush on.  Calming panic attacks with the strangest gift ever. Pondering a challenge from a stranger on the street: How you gon' change the world?

These are among the tales, one for each block, told by acclaimed author and poet Jason Reynolds in this poignant, sometimes heartbreaking, often hilarious story collection about the detours taken and the life lessons learned on the walk home from school. Each story is a perfect gem, the characters in one sometimes making cameo appearances in others. On his website, Reynolds writes: "Here's what I plan to do: Not write boring books." And his stories are not boring. Full of surprising twists and turns, they feature fully-drawn characters and realistic situations, kids with secret fears and sorrows, kids who've had bad breaks, kids facing tough choices, kids who have discovered the power of friendship to hold you up from the worst life can throw at you.

In "Water Booger Bears," TJ walks home with best friend Jasmine, back after missing a month of school.  In "The Low Cuts Strike Again," four free lunchers (who met up in a support group for kids of parents with cancer)  cut their hair to "almost bald" and start stealing loose change, as their tiny leader "Bit" works out a scheme to sell penny candy for a profit to the regulars at the pool hall. In "Skitter Hitter," Pia, a skateboarder mourning her older sister, has a fateful encounter with "box-faced baseball player" Marcus Bradford, who has been unmercifully bullying new student Stevie Munson at Brookshire Boys Academy.  In "How to Look (Both) Both Ways," a girl encounters a strange, singing lady every day on her way home. In "Call of Duty," a gamer bravely sticks up for a fellow gamer being bullied by homophobic taunts at school. The gut punch is saved for the last few lines of "Five Things Easier to Do Than Simeon's and Kenzi's Secret Handshake." "How a Boy Can Become a Grease Fire," a tender tale of friendship, is full-out hilarious.

Reynolds began his love affair with words with rap and poetry and his final chapter, "The Broom Dog," opens with a rap about a school bus:

"A school bus is a substitute for a limousine... A school bus is a classroom with a substitute teacher. A school bus is the students' version of a teacher's lounge. A school bus is the principal's desk. A school bus is the nurse's cot. A school bus is an office with all the phones ringing. A school bus is a command center. A school bus is a pillow fort that rolls. ... A school bus is a safe zone. A school bus is a war zone. A school bus is a concert hall. A school bus is a food court."

"Look Both Ways" is a finalist for the National Book Award, as was Reynolds' 2016 novel, "Ghost."


Stargazing by Jen Wang; First Second, 213 pages ($21.99) Ages 8 to 12.

This funny, heartwarming tale of friendship and identity, set in a Chinese-American suburban community, was inspired by events in the life of author-illustrator Jen Wang, gifted creator of “The Prince and the Dressmaker” and “Koko Be Good” and co-author with Cory Doctorow of “In Real Life.”

Quiet, anxious Christine is the violin-playing, high-achieving daughter of demanding, strict Christian parents; confident, impulsive Moon is the sturdy, curly-haired daughter of a poor Buddhist widow whose husband was killed in a motorcycle crash. Christine takes Chinese lessons; Moon doesn’t speak Chinese and isn’t a very good student, preferring to draw in her sketchbook or to dance like her favorite K-pop stars. They become best friends, and Moon confides in Christine that she has visions: Moon is convinced she is a celestial being like the angels she draws – which is why she’s so different from her classmates - and one day the celestial beings will come to take her home. As Christine wrestles with her parents’ expectations and her wish to be accepted by her classmates, she cools to the idea of being Moon’s friend until a crisis strikes.

Wang’s expressive cartoons bring her characters to vivid life in this insightful exploration of the rocky moments and missteps involved, for both kids and adults, in learning to be a good friend. The author includes a note at the end on the autobiographical aspects of Moon’s story including photos of herself as a kid.



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