The Proudest Blue (Ibtihaj Muhammad, with S. K. Ali)

Hello, friends! Our book today is The Proudest Blue, written by Ibtihaj Muhammad with S. K. Ali, and illustrated by Hatem Aly, a beautiful tale of sisterhood and hijabi pride.

Sisters Asiyah and Faizah (inspired by Muhammad’s own sisters) are at the shop to pick out Asiyah’s “first day” hijab. Immediately, the older sister is drawn to a bright, rich blue, one that reminds younger Faizah of the ocean on a clear day, when it meets the sky and seems endless. As the two walk to school the next morning, they both beam with pride: Asiyah donning her new hijab and Faizah in awe of how regal her sister looks (“I’m walking with a princess”). Yet when the two get to school, the reactions of the other children are mixed: Asiyah’s friends love her new look, but some – such as a young classmate of Faizah’s – are puzzled by it. Worse, several children bully and even threaten Asiyah. Faizah watches as her older sister refuses to acknowledge such ignorance and, remembering lessons their mother taught them to deal with bullies, is filled with pride for her sister all over again. She draws a picture for their mother of two princesses in hijab, and decides on the walk home that when her “first day” comes, she knows exactly what color hijab to pick: the proudest shade of blue.

Stunning. There has been some wonderful kidlit about hijab in the last few years, and this deeply personal and affirming title is a fantastic addition to the sub-genre. Multiple themes are explored, from the deep bonds of sisterhood, the difficulties of facing ostracism and bullying, hijabi and Muslim culture, and how all these can and do weave together. Several passages give bullied children, hijabi or otherwise, a good roadmap for dealing with the hurtful words of others, and the beautiful descriptions and interpretations of the blue headscarf inspire pride for young Muslim readers. The art is fittingly gorgeous, in particular the spreads in which Asiyah’s blue scarf becomes a peaceful sky or a powerful sea. The length is perfect, and JJ and I both loved it. A touching story for readers of all faiths, and a powerful love letter to young hijabi girls. Baby Bookworm approved!

The Itty-Bitty Witch (Trisha Speed Shaskan)

Hello, friends! Our book today is The Itty-Bitty Witch, written by Trisha Speed Shaskan and illustrated by Xindi Yan, a witchy lesson in believing in oneself.

Betty is thrilled to start her first day of school as a “first-grade” witch. However, she’s scarcely in the door before she’s the subject of teasing from two of the other girls, who pick on her smaller size and “kinder-broom”. They dub her “Itty Bitty”, and despite her firm protests of “My name is Betty!”, the young witch can’t help but be hurt by the other girls’ words, feeling itty-bitty on the inside. Upon learning of the school’s annual Halloween Dash broom race, Betty sees the chance to prove herself and earn her classmates’ respect. She gives her all in training, but finds that her smaller size make some maneuvers even more difficult. Can Betty find her groove before the big race, and prove that she’s as formidable an opponent as any other witch?

Encouraging and sweet. Betty’s tale is a classic story of learning to love oneself despite bullying or detractors, and finding one’s strengths to lean into. By the end, it’s Betty’s sharp mind that proves her secret weapon, and her small size ends up being an asset in the race as well. And while the bullies of the book come around to Betty a bit quickly to feel organic, the most important development is that Betty has grown to believe in herself, and no longer lets the words of others make her feel “itty-bitty inside”. It’s an important lesson for young bookworms wrapped in a fun, Halloween-themed package (though this one could certainly be enjoyed year-round). The soft, expressive cartoon characters are winning, and the palette creates a spooky/cute vibe. The length was fine, and JJ enjoyed it (in particular, one classmate’s repeated exclamation of “Wicked!”). A sweet Halloween tale with a timeless message, and it’s Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by a representative of the author in exchange for an honest review.)

What If Everybody Thought That? (Ellen Javernick)

Hello, friends! Our book today is What If Everybody Thought That?, written by Ellen Javernick and illustrated by Colleen Madden, a look at the perils of making assumptions based on appearances.

Third in the pair’s series about bullying and discrimination, the reader is introduced to various scenarios in which a child who is different (a girl with alopecia, a boy with dyslexia, etc.) is surrounded by classmates with presumptive thoughts. “He’s too short to play basketball,” a group of taller boys conclude about a team hopeful. “Too bad she can’t do the relay race in that wheelchair”, a pitying peer thinks of her classmate. But what if everybody thought that? They might never learn that the boy with dyslexia is a talented robotics enthusiast, the girl with alopecia knows her way around a stylish wig, the shorter boy is the quickest and nimblest player on the team, and the girl in the wheelchair is the fastest relayist. By judging others based on outward appearances, we often miss out on getting to know their best qualities, or seeing them as well-rounded people. So before you let judgmental thoughts form your opinions, ask yourself: what if everybody thought that?

Wonderful. I wasn’t a huge fan of the previous book in this series, so I went into this one not knowing what to expect, and was very pleasantly surprised. The art and text have a wonderful clarity of tone and purpose that creates a multi-layered look at how destructive thoughts can harm not only the people we have them about, but ourselves as well. Even details like the pseudo-subliminal affirming messages hidden throughout the artwork (“U can do it!”; “Run your own race at your own pace”) help further the message of positive thinking. I really like the idea of teaching kids to question their own biases and examine their gut reactions; it’s a quality that people of any age could use more of, because it allows us to build empathy and understanding. The diversity in the art is fabulous, the length was fine, and JJ enjoyed it. A wonderful reminder to never judge a book by its cover, and it’s Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by a representative of the author in exchange for an honest review.)

Spiky (Ilaria Guarducci)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Spiky, written and illustrated by Ilaria Guarducci and translated by Laura Watkinson, the tale of a troublesome creature.

Spiky is aptly named; for one, he is covered in sharp spikes, and for another, he is as nasty as can be. He spends his days roaming the forest and terrorizing the other creatures: he steal snacks, captures birds, and teases everyone. He’s perfectly content being the meanest, spikiest fellow in the forest… that is, until the day that Spiky’s spikes all fall off! Suddenly he is pink, naked, and defenseless to the teasing of the animals he previously bullied. Feeling lost, he runs into a bunny, who invites him for a nice walk and chat. And without cause to be nasty anymore, Spiky begins to open up to friendship. So, what happens when his spikes suddenly grow back?

Usually JJ and I have similar feelings towards books, but this was a rare case of disagreement. JJ loved Spiky, from his name to his antics, and was very pleased. I, on the other hand… While I understand what the book is going for, the character design, themes, and perhaps translation came together to create a few moments that felt vaguely weird to me as an adult. For instance, the explicit recounting of Spiky committing acts of animal abuse (tearing off butterfly wings, poking holes in the shells of snails, etc) is played for laughs; at the end, snails are implied to still deserve abuse because they’re “slim”. Moreover, a sequence in which pink, naked, and vulnerable Spiky is taken in by a friendly family of bunnies is sweet, right up until the page devoted to showing how Spiky, without his spikes, can now be physically close to others, and how “good” it feels. Since he is also repeatedly referred to as being nude, this emphasis on physical touch has a subtext that set off my mom alarm a bit. Another reviewer mentioned the classic and problematic trope of dark skin=bad, light skin=good, also making an appearance. So I’m conflicted. JJ loved the story, but I don’t know how comfortable I feel reading it to her again, or recommending it here. So I’ll say to perhaps read it and form your own opinions – but it won’t be getting our seal of approval.

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by a representative of the author in exchange for an honest review.)

Chrysanthemum (Kevin Henkes)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, a sweet tale of the joys of being unique.

When Chrysanthemum was born, her parents chose a name that encapsulated everything they felt about her, that she was precious and priceless and beautiful and fascinating. As she grew, Chrysanthemum loved her name – the way it looked written out, the way it sounded when her parents said it, and simply that it was hers. But when she starts school, and the other children tease her for her distinctive name, she suddenly feels ashamed of it. As the mean girls, lead by Victoria, cruelly bully her, even her parents’ love and support can’t stop Chrysanthemum from feeling sick over her name. However, their class is about to meet a very cool and popular teacher… one with a unique name of her own.

Using a cute plot with a sharp of edge of honesty to it, this story examines how bullying can hurt long after the words are spoken. It’s heartbreaking to watch the cruelty of others turn something a child loves about herself into something she feels shame for, but is definitely a story that many kids can relate to. As a parent, it’s tough to watch the little mouse’s own parents do everything they can to buoy Chrysanthemum’s spirits at the end of each day, only for her to still have nightmares, anxiety, and then her heart broken again the next. The ending is a little tidy, and I wish Chrysanthemum could have found a way to love her name again without having to be validated by another outside source. Also, it seemed petty that Victoria’s blunder in the epilogue is then mocked by Chrysanthemum – she shouldn’t need to sink to her bully’s level. But as a story of knowing how to recognize which people’s opinions to value, and loving yourself for who you are, it’s still a pretty special story. A little longer, but JJ didn’t mind because the story and text were compelling, and the illustrations are a bit dated but still adorable. Overall, Baby Bookworm approved!