A dog lies amid crumbs and chaos thinking, “Cake? What cake?” in Lynne Rae Perkins’s picture book Frank and Lucky Get Schooled (Greenwillow, Ages 4-8). “Sometimes in History there are different versions of what really happened, depending on who is telling the story,” Perkins tells the reader, who may be able to guess what happened to the cake. At this point we have already met Lucky, an exuberant young black dog, and his young human companion, Frank. Their friendship is a particular kind of school — one of camaraderie and learning between species. Lessons Frank might learn in a traditional classroom — science, math, history, art, geography, language — are found here in the simple adventures of life. Perkins, who won a Newbery Medal for her novel “Criss Cross,” introduces concepts in their simplest terms. How many biscuits should a dog get if there are three people in a room? Lucky might insist it is one more than “the biggest number you can think of,” or infinity. Perkins’s lighthearted pen-and-ink and watercolor vignettes take the pair through the seasons and multiple small escapades. This gentle, funny, engaging way of demonstrating how the world fits together and how living creatures understand it in their own ways is a fine celebration of learning.
At 15, Jazz Jennings has already proved to be a formidable transgender activist. She speaks at conferences, hosts a YouTube channel and makes regular TV appearances; her reality show, “I Am Jazz,” recently began its second season. But Jazz’s foremost goal is profound in its simplicity: to be herself. In Being Jazz: My Life As a (Transgender) Teen (Crown, Ages 12 and up), Jazz begins by relating her earliest memories of being “a girl trapped inside a boy’s body,” when she could barely form sentences. Jazz writes with warm appreciation of her mother’s quick recognition of Jazz’s situation and of her family’s firm belief that her diagnosis of “gender dysphoria” was not shameful. The rest of the book tells of Jazz’s eventful childhood and her quest to persuade others to treat her and other transgender people fairly. Addressing kids her age and a bit younger, Jazz writes candidly of her struggles with school principals, soccer officials, mean classmates and her own depression. Like other teenagers, Jazz has romantic yearnings and time-management challenges, but she also possesses an energizing sense of responsibility. Thankful for a family that is loving and supportive, she tries to spread a message of acceptance to transgender youth and all the people around them.
Eleven-year-old Genie Harris turns his inquisitive mind to night stars, dog poop and family secrets in a generous, compelling novel, As Brave as You (Atheneum, Ages 10 and up), by Jason Reynolds. Genie’s first visit to his grandparents in rural Virginia is riddled with questions: How can blind Grandpop get around so well? Why does he carry a gun? What’s in his locked “nunya bidness” room? Genie’s cool older brother, Ernie, doesn’t know, and tetchy Grandpop won’t tell. As the summer unwinds, Genie discovers answers that only lead to more questions, including the reason for the rift between Grandpop and his youngest son, Genie’s dad. Soon, though, Genie has his own secret he’s desperate to hide, with Ernie’s help. Only when his curiosity and Grandpop’s expectations push Ernie into an act of ill-fated bravado does Genie begin to understand the love and guilt that govern the men of his family. Reynolds deftly blends humor and heart through lively dialogue and spot-on sibling dynamics. And Genie’s descriptions are often laugh-out-loud funny. At one point, he likens Grandpop’s harmonica playing to a “cartoon character eating corn on the cob.” Reynolds reveals his range in this middle-grade tale. It’s quite different in type and tone from “All American Boys,” the hard-hitting, urban novel for which he and co-author Brendan Kiely recently received the Walter Dean Myers Award and a Coretta Scott King Honor.