Sadness is hard to talk about, especially when it’s big. In Charlotte Agell’s new picture book “Maybe Tomorrow? “(Scholastic, ages 2-6) sadness is a large, dark block on a string. A pinkish-purple hippo named Elba has “been dragging it around a long time.” Holding it in one hand, sadness “made her walk slowly. It made her think darkly. It was heavy.” When green alligator Norris comes dancing happily, surrounded by butterflies, to invite Elba to go on a picnic, the sad little hippo declines. She explains that she wants to sit with her block. Norris is patient, showing up to listen and to sit with Elba. The two share some tea together: “good, quiet tea with rain in it.” When Norris persuades Elba to go to the ocean, he promises that his butterflies will help to carry her block. After a time of silence, Elba tells Norris that she misses her friend, Little Bird. Norris tells Elba that though he did not know Little Bird he can help Elba miss her, too. These delicate digital and watercolor paintings by Ana Ramirez Gonzalez are rich with color, as if Norris’s lightheartedness finds a way to merge with Elba’s memories of Little Bird. This is a sweetly simple but perceptive and hopeful story: Though the block has grown smaller and a bit lighter, Elba tells Norris that she will always have it, and Norris assures her that he will help her carry it sometimes.
AIDS can be a difficult subject to discuss with young people, but Ann Bausum’s informative primer presents it with empathy and care. Although AIDS continues to be a global health threat, “Viral” (Viking, ages 12 and up) focuses on the 17 years (1980-1997) when the virus first struck the United States and was at its deadliest here. In addition to laying out the facts, myths and stigmas surrounding AIDS, Bausum discusses the way the disease affected real people. She recounts the experiences of individual gay men who suffered through the first wave of the mysterious epidemic in New York City and San Francisco. She shows that many were compelled to become activists, and she explains how that activism saved countless lives. The book also points out the lack of courage of many national leaders who were unwilling to implement measures that might have contained the outbreak. Bausum makes a strong case that by banding together against AIDS, the LGBTQ community helped to establish breakthrough medical treatment, the patients’ rights movement and marriage equality. Most of all, she brings lost lives into focus with great respect and feeling.
“Truth is a hungry thing,” according to Jason “Jay” Reguero, the 17-year-old protagonist in Randy Ribay’s “Patron Saints of Nothing,” (Kokila, ages 14 and up) a compelling, complex YA novel about family and identity. The search for truth propels Jay on a plane from Michigan to the Philippines during spring break of his senior year to investigate the sudden death of his cousin Jun. Is Jun an addict-victim of President Duterte’s brutal war on drugs? Or is this explanation yet another smokescreen engineered by Jun’s estranged father, a police chief inspector? And if the latter, what is he hiding? To discover answers, Jay sneaks into his uncle’s desk, follows cryptic leads and plunges into the ghetto. But he keeps bumping up against the secrets and shifting motives of his extended family, including their conflicted feelings about his father, who emigrated to America with his white wife and children when Jay was a baby. Ribay deepens this high-stakes mystery with Jay’s reflections on his mixed-race identity and his ambivalence over college plans. As the novel progresses, Jun comes into sharper focus through Jay’s memories and old letters interspersed throughout. Initially, Jay feels he “only knows half” of himself since he has had so little contact with his father’s family. Part of the power of this book is witnessing Jay’s increasing understanding not just of himself but of his “quiet, distant” father, a man trying to give his kids a better life in a land far removed from those he loves.