Contemporary Character 2017: The Real Z

Published: 2017. Author: Jen Calonita, book design Susanne Lagasa Photos by April Mersinger Photography, Michael Frost for Scholastic, Eric Isselee/Shutterstock, Inc.


Pacific Northwest resident Suzanne "Z" Yang loves making movies. Her mother teaches film at a nearby university and her dad's a computer expert, so she has great resources to help her with planning, shooting, and editing movies. She does a lot of stop-motion animation with her American Girl dolls and posts the videos online; they're very popular. So while she's excited, it's a not a huge surprise that she's selected to make a documentary about her city for a film festival in Seattle (it's called "CloudSong" but the timing and setup of it...it's SIFF, the Seattle Independent Film Festival). She has six weeks and a nice chunk of change from the festival to film. She shares the news with her friends right away, and they brainstorm ideas about how to make her film stand out.

Z jumps right into shooting different scenes. One of her friends is part of a band, and they agree to cover "Singing in the Rain" for it. Her other friends are on board to help her, too. But Z is so focused on the contest that she lets a few other things slide, like the school project she's working on with her best friend, Lauren (group projects SUCK). Lauren and some of Z's other friends feel pushed to the side, and until Z realizes that she can't just live in one aspect of her life and apologizes, they're annoyed with her. Z finds a way to balance all of her interests with the contest, and is able to put together a rough shoot of what she has. She invites her friends, online and in Seattle, to watch it together.

Z's friends agree that it's very well-shot, but there's something off about most of the footage. It feels more like a commercial for Seattle. It doesn't feel like it has Z's touch on it. Some of the scenes, like of her friend's band performing in the rain, do feel authentic and unique though. Z accepts the constructive criticism well, and thinks about how she can improve her film. She wants to tell not just A story, but HER story. Z re-edits what she's filmed and gets some more footage, changing her focus to being more "a day in the life" from her perspective. When she's satisfied with her film, she submits Zeattle and waits for the results of the contest.

A short time later, Z gets the news that she won second place! (First went to someone who did a documentary focusing on the Seattle Underground.) Her film will be shown at the film festival! It's not first place so it doesn't have the prize money she was hoping to donate to her school's AV club, but she's going to have her work shown in a real film festival! When the big day arrives, Z even gets interviewed on the red carpet. With this under her belt, Z can hardly wait to see what happens next.


Dedicated to Keiran Cook, "a true American Girl and an excellent first reader."

This book is very fast-paced. Z and her friends are all very energetic and seem to be doing everything at top speed. Makes it a very fast and engaging read.

A lot of the mentions of Seattle fit pretty well with the city. The only thing that really stood out to me as not Seattle was how many people were using umbrellas. Most of us in the greater Seattle area have sort of given up on umbrellas and don't bother unless it's really pouring or we're dressed up for something; it's usually people from out-of-town with umbrellas. Since the rain we usually have is fairly light drizzle and it's often breezy, umbrellas aren't as common as you might expect. So while it makes sense for Z to have rain gear for her camera equipment, people carrying them is a bit odder.

Z has a dalmatian named Popcorn.

Z's mom probably teaches at Seattle Pacific University. They live on Queen Anne hill and her university is close to their house--SPU's on Queen Anne.

Z's friends are a fairly diverse group; she's Korean, one friend is Hispanic, one lives in London (online friend), one uses a wheelchair (also an online friend; they all met at a con). But it's not shoved in your face, and just comes up naturally. Plus the characters are all well-rounded. For example, one girl isn't just the girl in the wheelchair; she's the girl who loves to make online videos and plays basketball too.

An Asian character in Seattle makes a lot of sense: being closer to Asia than the East Coast, there are a lot of people here of Asian descent. Just in my family, I have three aunts, an uncle, three first cousins, a brother-in-law, two nieces, a nephew, and four first cousins once removed who are all or part Korean, Vietnamese, or Filipino. Some were actually born in Asia, some have been here their whole lives.

Z's best friend plays soccer and her favorite soccer ball is bright green. It should have been a Sounders ball; Seattle's pro soccer team colors are "rave green" (a sort of kelly green), "Sounder blue" (a sort of slightly greyish royal blue), and "Cascade shale" (dark grey, almost black).

It's so weird to read about American Girl dolls in an American Girl book.

There are a lot of videos in the style of Z's on the American Girl Youtube channel here.


Contemporary Character 2017: Tenney Shares the Stage

Published: 2017. Author: Kellen Hertz. Cover illustration: Juliana Kolesova and Sonya Sones


Tenney and Logan are starting to mesh well as a duo finally--not perfectly, but with help from Portia and encouragement from Zane, they're able to bring out each other's good qualities rather than antagonize each other. They're meeting more often, despite Logan's odd insistence on not being able to work certain days or times. The turning point seems to be when Tenney writes out some frustrated lyrics to go with a song Logan wrote...not very vaguely describing how he annoys her. Logan responds with a second verse about how Tenney annoys Logan. The song's really good though, and they have fun playing it together. It ends up showing them how to work together.

But just when things are going so right, Logan fails to show up to a meeting with Zane and Portia to perform their new song. He's not just late, he never comes. Tenney is surprised to find herself wanting to defend Logan and explain his absence, insistently reminding the adults how much Logan loves music. Soon the reason for Logan's disappearance is revealed: he was arrested for shoplifting.

Tenney and Portia go to Logan's house (Tenney and her father had given Logan a ride home a few days before). Logan's not there, but his mother and younger brother are. Logan's mother explains: Logan's brother had had an asthma attack, and when Logan went to pick up his new inhaler at the pharmacy, he'd forgotten his wallet. He intended to pay the pharmacist back later, and thought he had an understanding with her, but when he took the medicine another worker saw and reported it as theft. It turns out that Logan's dad has been on a music tour for months, and might not be back for another few months. Even worse, he won't be paid until the end of the tour. Logan's been trying to help by watching his younger brother and even working as a janitor at his mom's hospital (his mom is a nurse; she's been picking up extra shifts). Tenney tries to be understanding but does an imperfect job of it, and Logan's embarrassed of his circumstances. He ends up quitting the duo.

Tenney is more upset than she expected she'd be. It was only recently that she never wanted to see Logan again, but now that she knows him better and sees how well they work together, she can't imagine performing without him. Her parents and Zane tell her to move on, because Logan either can't or won't focus enough on his music, and will hold Tenney back. But Tenney just has to try once more. Her older brother Mason understands, and drives Tenney around to look for Logan. She finds him at the hospital where he works, and just before his shift is over she meets a young girl with a chronic condition (it's not specified what she has). Logan's told the girl, Alice, about Tenney because Alice is one of Tenney's biggest fans. Meeting Alice gives Tenney an idea for fixing everything.

With Mason's help, Tenney gets permission from the hospital to put on an acoustic session for the sick children there. Logan is happy to agree. Tenney doesn't tell him that she's inviting her parents, Logan's mom, Zane, Portia, and just for good measure, Belle Starr (she's probably too busy, plus Logan's quitting meant cancelling a schedule gig opening for one of Starr's private shows in Nashville). Of course, she doesn't tell anyone besides Mason that Logan's going to be there. They're all peeved when they find out, but it's too late to cancel with all the hopeful children waiting for there performance. After it's over, everyone agrees that with a little help (for example, Logan's brother can come to the Grants' music store for rehearsals and play with Aubrey so that Logan doesn't need to baby-sit) Tenney and Logan are back together.


Dedicated to "John--I love sharing our song with you."

The Southern (or "Southun" as my Georgia-born granny would say) really shows up a lot in this book. Lots of y'all and Southern foods are mentioned, more so than in the previous two books.

Another thing that shows up more in this book is Tenney's habit of assuming she knows what people are thinking and forging ahead with those assumptions, which are often wrong. As in, "Logan must be upset because of X; I'll try to reassure him about X without asking if that's actually the problem."

To her credit, Tenney does realize that she has a pretty privileged life: a loving, supportive, and stable family, and the money and opportunity to foster her natural talent.

Tenney's younger sister Aubrey plays accordion for one of the songs during the acoustic performance. I can't quite imagine how accordion would sound with guitar, but I'm not very musical. The audience loves it, and Aubrey is apparently very good at accordion.


Contemporary Character 2017: Tenney in the Key of Friendship

Published: 2017. Author: Kellen Hertz. Cover illustration: Juliana Kolesova and Sonya Sones


Tenney's excited to start recording her songs in a professional studio. There's a steep learning curve though; things that she thinks sound perfect aren't quite right and need tweaking from Zane Cale (the recording person who sought her out) and Portia. Then Zane pairs her with Logan Everett, a drummer her age. Logan seems to think pretty highly of himself, barely giving Tenney the time of day while taking over her songs with his drumming.

Tenney's also distracted by the fundraiser Jaya's working on. Jaya's cousin lived in Bangladesh, and her school was badly damaged in a storm. They need three thousand dollars for the necessary repairs, or the school year won't be able to continue. And if all the teachers leave to seek work elsewhere, there might not be school the next year either. Tenney wants to help Jaya, but she's so busy with her songwriting that she can't devote the time needed. Jaya ends up enlisting the help of Holliday, of all people. While Tenney acknowledges that Holliday is great at organizing things, she can't quite over Holliday's mean streak. And then Jaya agrees with Holliday that Logan might improve Tenney's music.

Fuming at the idea of Logan touching her songs, Tenney tries to get sympathy from her family and from Portia, but they all remind her that much of music is collaborative, and encourage her to set aside the abrasiveness and irritation from her first meeting with Logan and really try to listen to his music. Tenney has to admit that he has some good ideas; the drum beat that he sent her via text is a good fit for her song. She takes Portia's advice to focus on the music rather than the tension between her and Logan, and the next recording session goes much more smoothly. They get the new song sorted out, and everyone agrees it sounds great.

But then Zane mentions the date of the performance he has booked for Tenney and Logan: the same day as the book sale fundraiser for Jaya's cousin. Tenney doesn't want to screw up her chances with music, so she doesn't tell Zane about the time conflict, reasoning that she can just be late to the fundraiser. She's sure Jaya will understand, but Jaya gets very terse with Tenney when she tells her about it.

The performance goes well, despite Logan playing faster than they had practiced. He says he was reading the crowd and responding to what the people wanted, but Tenney feels like he was competing against her rather than playing with her. Still, she had fun playing, and even gets to talk to her younger sister's favorite musician, Belle Star, and get some advice about keeping friendships through all the hard work. And it's then that Tenney realizes she's stayed too late. She rushes out to her dad's car, but by the time they arrive at the book sale, it's been over for half an hour and everyone's cleaned up and gone home. Tenney calls Jaya and leaves a message, but Jaya doesn't respond. After a while, Tenney takes her dog on a walk to Jaya's house. She starts out apologizing fine, but then it deteriorates into an "I'm sorry you're mad" rather than "I'm sorry I screwed up" apology. Jaya says they need to accept that since Tenney's been "discovered" she doesn't have as much time for friendships, and their friendship will have to take a backseat.

Tenney is surprised to find guidance in Holliday, who points out that Jaya feels ignored, and she's worried about her cousin, who she wasn't able to help as much as she wanted (they only raised a third of the needed amount from the book sale). Holliday suggests Tenney do something to show Jaya that she cares about the things (and people) Jaya cares about. Tenney thinks if she puts on a benefit concert at her dad's music store, she can raise the remaining amount. Given the limited number of people who can fit in the store, the tickets would need to be $15 each, a lot for a benefit concert. But maybe between Tenney have personally talked with Belle Star and Holliday's dad being vice president of Star's recording company, they can get her to come. That would be worth $15! Jaya is touched and happy that Tenney is showing such interest in helping her cousin. And Holliday is ready to help organize. Together, the three girls are sure they'll raise the money easily. Portia will play in the concert too. Tenney even reaches out to Logan to have him perform with her. Due to some rude things Tenney said (both intentionally and unintentionally), Logan says he'll perform to help the cause, but then he and Tenney are going back to solo. She happily agrees--Logan's not the most polite person, either.

Unfortunately, Belle Star is touring out of the country, and can't make the show. But she does post about on Twitter and encourages her fans to go--resulting in more people showing up than can safely fit inside the building! Quickly, they set up in the parking lot, allowing more people to see the show--and buy tickets to rebuild the school. The crowd loves the music, and they raise $5,000, more than enough to rebuild the school. Jaya's cousin sends a thank you video of her class singing Tenney's newest song, inspired by her friendship with Jaya (Jaya's mom recorded the performance). Between the success of the concert and the publicity from Belle Star, Zane says that they should start booking small venues, a step on the way to a recording contract. "They"--he wants Tenney and Logan to be a package deal. When Tenney sees that Logan has already signed the contract (her parents looked it over to be sure Tenney was being treated fairly), she agrees. She and Logan are learning to get along, and to play well together. She's excited to see how far they'll go.


Dedicated to "Mom and Dad, who taught me to sing my own song, and Katie, who was always there to listen to it."

A boy is added to a traditionally-female group (American Girl dolls; Logan's available as a doll), from the South, with blonde hair, named Logan... Remind you of anyone? Louisville isn't even three hours from Nashville.

This book is better about people liking different styles of music than the first one. The big performance that Tenney and Logan have is even at the home of the pop star Tenney's little sister likes, and Tenney is a bit star-struck by her. The pop star's music isn't Tenney's taste, but she's still a professional musician like Tenney wants to be. Tenney also specifically mentions liking Taylor Swift.


Contemporary Character 2017: Tenney

Published: 2017. Author: Kellen Hertz. Cover illustration: Juliana Kolesova and Sonya Sones


To say that twelve-year-old Tennyson "Tenney" Grant comes from a musical family might be an understatement: her father plays all manner of stringed instruments, her mother plays autoharp and sings, older brother Mason plays mandolin and drums (and likes repairing and working on electric instruments), younger sister Aubrey is learning accordion, and Tenney plays guitar and banjo, and writes songs and sings. Her dad is a member of a band, and various members of the family have been in it at times. Currently Tenney does backup vocals, and Mason plays in it too. Living in Nashville, TN is a great place for a family so into the music scene. There are tons of opportunities, even down to organizing a jamboree with the senior center through Tenney's middle school.

Tenney gets a huge opportunity (and surprise) when the band's lead singer suddenly quits before a performance. She volunteers to sing lead, and while it doesn't go perfectly, once Tenney gains some confidence she has a blast and does a great job. Not only that, but a representative from a record label heard her perform and invites Tenney to sing in a showcase at the Bluebird Cafe--the same place singers like Taylor Swift got started, where Garth Brooks and Faith Hill have played. Tenney's elated at the chance to break into the professional music scene, but her parents are more trepidation. They're not sure she's old enough.

The next time Tenney's class meets with the senior center residents about the Jamboree, Tenney ends up talking about the showcase with her senior partner, Portia. Portia plays guitar too, and encourages Tenney that the most important about music isn't age or this one particular showcase, but finding her voice. Tenney has a melody for a new song, but can't find the right lyrics. Maybe doing so will help her find her voice.

Tenney's mom tells her about the time she had a potential record contract, and how the label wanted to change her (including telling her to lose weight not for health but for show). Her own mother even signed over the rights to the songs she'd written, so even if Tenney's mom had wanted to sing her own songs, she wouldn't be able to. Not being able to be herself turned off of the music business, and is why she's so reluctant to let Tenney get so involved at a young age. But if Tenney agrees to take things one step at a time, listen to her parents' guidance, and remember what's really important in life, she can perform at the Bluebird Cafe. The performance is exhilarating, but has a rough start. The man from the record label says that someday, probably soon, Tenney will be ready to sign, but for now she needs to mature as an artist. Tenney tries to focus on the positive (being able to perform, overcoming the difficult opening) but she'd let herself daydream about signing right then.

She's still down the day of the Jamboree, to the point that she doesn't want to perform. She tells Portia, who expresses surprise and disappointment; she loved Tenney's new song (even helped her fine-tune it). Then Tenney gets a big surprise: Portia will play instead. She's been reluctant to perform since a stroke, but not only is she good with music, she was a star in her day, performing under a stage name. She was famous enough that Tenney's mom recognizes Portia instantly when they meet. In fact, Tenney's favorite song was one of Portia's! And Portia has a request: she wants Tenney to get up on stage with her. Her confidence restored by the knowledge that a music legend thinks she's talented, Tenney agrees. The duo perform Portia's famous song, and Tenney does her own song again.

The next school day, Tenney learns that someone filmed the performance and posted it online. Her song has over ten thousand views, and counting! Other students are asking for her autograph, and when her album will come out. Maybe sooner than Tenney thinks: when she goes to her dad's music shop after school, the man from the record label is there. He saw Tenney's performance (Portia is a friend and he came to support her return to the stage) and figures that while she's not quite ready for the big time, if he doesn't sign her someone else will. After talking with her parents, Tenney agrees to accept his tutelage.


Dedicated to "John, who taught me how to listen, and for Kieran, who dances to his own beat."

Tenney's mom owns and operates a food truck.

There's a strong vibe of snobbery against pop music (for example, immature Aubrey liking a singer who her older siblings think is beneath them). I know it's not the same as classical, but it's popular for a reason--even if some of it (okay, a lot of it) isn't my taste, looking down on a huge subset of people for not liking music the "right" way or not liking "real" music bugs me. Especially since on the cover, Tenney looks like Taylor Swift.

Tenney first sings lead at a concert for a "neighborhood association." Sounds like an HOA thing. Not my cup of tea--when were looking for a house last year, there was one really nice one that we concerned making an offer on. But then we found out that not only was it in an HOA neighborhood, the HOA recently elected new leadership that was about to significantly raise the dues and add a bunch of rules.

There's a little subplot with a Mean Girl, Holliday Hayes, who scoffs at Tenney's attempts to break into the music business because she's "nothing special." Holliday's own mother hears Tenney perform and starts going on about how if Holliday hadn't given up on her music and voice lessons, she could have cultivated her talent too. Tenney doesn't take the opportunity to gloat and instead points out Holliday's own talents, like the way she organized the Jamboree.

Mason is heartwarmingly supportive of his sister when the record agent seeks her out, volunteering information about her song writing and singing talents when Tenney is too stunned to talks herself up. Aubrey is helpful in her own seven-year-old way too; making a hairpiece with guitar picks for Tenney to wear at her debut.

Tenney's best friend Jaya is endlessly supportive and confident in Tenney's ability's as well. She's a gifted artist, and designs a logo for Tenney to use when she makes it big.


Girl of the Year 2017: Gabriela Speaks Out

Published: 2017. Author: Teresa E. Harris


Gabriela's mostly excited for the start of middle school, but nervous too. Teagan is going to a magnate school focusing on STEM (for her coding talents), so the best friends will be separated. Still, the first day goes pretty well. Gabriela's glad that Isaiah is there with her; they've become good friends. But in the last class of the day, Gabriela finds herself assigned to sit next to Aaliyah, a perfectionist who saddled Gabriela with the nickname "Repeat" for her stutter. And as the students are getting ready to head home, they're pelted with water balloons. Isaiah's book of poetry by African-American activists is soaked--and Gabriela recognizes Red and one of his friends in the group throwing the balloons.

Apparently, there's a hazing called Sixth Grade Initiation. Red and his friends insist it's all in good fun, but Gabriela points out how unwelcome and unwanted it makes the younger students feel. Red confides that there's more to come, but seeing how it's clearly not enjoyed "in good fun" says he'll try to back off. The next day, the sixth grader students' lockers are decorate with cutting nicknames, like G-g-g-gabby for Gabriela and Fakespeare for Isaiah. Gabriela notices that Aaliyah claims to have not had one, but she has a crumpled piece of paper reading "Lonely Loser" as the older students seem to have noticed that her know-it-all perfectionist attitude is off-putting to her peers. Gabriela does see that Red added "Twinkle Toes" to the corner of her paper (a nice reference to her love of dance), but also sees the sixth-graders calling each other the names to spite each other.

When a teacher mentions that student body elections are coming up, Gabriela is inspired to run for representative on the platform of eliminating Sixth Grade Initiation. She has a lot of support from her grade, and Red and his friends like her stance as well. But of course Aaliyah is also running, and she's so good at campaigning that Gabriela feels like she doesn't stand a chance. For a bit, she thinks about changing her platform (Red suggests students be allowed more technology and internet access; he'd like to listen to music while doing in-class work and talk with his deployed mother at recess), but comes to the conclusion that she'd rather run on what's important to her. But is there any way she can win?

A talk with an overwhelmed Teagan (the new school is much harder than she anticipated, and is making her question her abilities) gives Gabriela an epiphany: Teagan is a coder and always will be; she doesn't have to prove it anyone else. Just like Gabriela can be a leader whether Aaliyah believes she can or not (Aaliyah's been saying some nasty things to her like, "How can you stand up for our class if you can't even speak up for your friends?"). Gabriela resolves to speak out against the Sixth Grade Initiation during her campaign speech: even if she doesn't win, maybe she can convince people the harmful tradition needs to go. An email from Isaiah about working together to build a better future rather than against people to win solidifies her view. In an effort to not alienate people, Gabriela tries to help Aaliyah with something, and when that backfires, writes her a poem.

To Gabriela's surprise, her overture works--quickly. Aaliyah writes her a letter apologizing for her treatment of her, explaining that she had decided to stop trying to make friends since it never worked at her old school. She mistook Gabriela's stuttering for looking for a reason to get away from Aaliyah, and held a grudge ever since. The girls quickly start to build a friendship. The timing couldn't be better: when the votes are tallied, Gabriela and Aaliyah are tied. Instead of a runoff election, the girls decided to serve together.


Dedicated to Keith.

Teagan lives with her grandfather.

The book makes it seem like there's only one speech therapist for the whole school district. My oldest has speech therapy, and thanks to a couple recent moves, has been in four different school districts in two states. Each had multiple speech therapists.

There are several mentions of Isaiah's parents pushing him to branch out with his interests because he focuses too much on single subjects. The way it's written, I wonder if they're hinting at Isaiah being on the autism spectrum.

The teachers clearly don't like the Sixth Grade Initiation, but don't really do anything to stop it. For example, if they know mean nicknames will be put on the six graders' lockers, why not have a teacher or two stand in that hallway to stop it from happening? (I really hate hazing like this, even having done things like sports and ROTC that stereotypically have hazing. "Let's make the new people miserable so they feel like part of the group!" I find it works better to treat them like you're happy they've joined.)

Gabriela was running for sixth grade ambassador. Why were the other grades voting for the sixth grade seat? I would understand if she were running for student body president or treasurer or something, but when we did elections in my school, the representatives for any given grade were only elected by their own grade.


Girl of the Year 2017: Gabriela

Published: 2017. Author: Teresa E. Harris.


Gabriela McBride has recently joined a spoken word poetry group, started by her slightly-older cousin Red. He's come to live with the McBrides in Philadelphia while his mother, a military doctor, is deployed. Gabriela was unsure at first about the group, given her stutter, but the prose actually helps her speak a little easier. She's still more expressive with dance, her first love. Conveniently, Gabriela's mom has been running Liberty, a performing arts center, for Gabriela's whole life. But now there's trouble: the building is in dire need of repair, and while it's technically owned by the city, the city will only pay for labor. The McBrides needs to come up with the materials, which is a tall order. Especially with the annual performance review on the horizon. And to make matters worse, Gabriela and Red think they may have caused the power overload that prompted the electrical panel inspection when by turning on some extra lights for a rehearsal

Gabriela suggests finding another place to rehearse while the repair situation is sorted out. She, Red, and her best friend Teagan go to talk to the school principal to see if they can use the gym. The gym is booked solid, but the principal suggests asking the students if they know of anywhere. A Shakespeare enthusiast named Isaiah offers to ask if they can use a room at a nearby Baptist church, where is dad is the pastor. While Gabriela is happy they have a stop-gap solution, she's upset that her stutter got in the way of talking to both the principal and the students. Both times Teagan stepped in and gave brief speeches. Gabriela knows Teagan was just trying to help and be supportive, but she's just as sure she could have gotten the words out if she'd had another few minutes to talk.

The church turns out to be a good place for rehearsals (especially at the price: free!) but it's not the same. Gabriela is still hoping to find a way to get Liberty fixed soon. There are fundraisers, community outreaches, and petition signings. At the signing  rally, Gabriela finally tells Teagan to not talk for her, but since she's been simmering with resentment for so long, she blows up at her (they make up soon after). Still, they collect over two hundred signatures! Well, before Gabriela accidentally spills paint on several pages...first she causes the power overload, now she ruins the petition.

But even with the paint stains, Gabriela and her Liberty friends are able to demonstrate the huge positive impact Liberty has on the community. The city agrees to set aside some money in its budget for the repairs (which now go beyond just electrical, as an inspection reveals) if Liberty can raise $20,000. In two weeks.

Everyone gets busy. They solicit donations, sell handmade things...but $20,000 is a lot. Gabriela says that if only more people could see how great Liberty is, they'd want to save it too. That's it: a public performance! Gabriela and her friends enlist the help of one of the adult apprentices at Liberty, but otherwise keep it secret from grown-ups, as they're sure the grown-ups will just take over or not let them do it. They say they want to go to a park on the day of a community picnic while Gabriela's mom and dad get a well-deserved date night. Just before the big day (two days before the budget meeting deadline), Red tells one more adult: someone with the local CBS news affiliate. The TV news reporter shows up in time to record the performance, which the kids put on without any advertisement, and Gabriela is able to push through her stuttering to give a short on-air speech about the importance of Liberty. She stumbles over some words, but she says what she wants to, on her own. And the reporter finishes the spot by directing viewers to the online donation website Gabriela's parents set up.

After their date, Gabriela and Red say vaguely that they weren't just at a picnic and hint not very subtly that Gabriela's parents should check the donations. Gabriela's parents are stunned, and wonder why they were kept in the dark. Gabriela and Red explain that it was their idea to have all the lights on for the rehearsal, so they think they caused the power failure. Since it was their fault, they wanted to fix it themselves. Gabriela's parents explain the extra power draw from the lights was more like the straw that broke the camel's back, and they wish they'd been told about the performance only so they could have helped. But when they all watch the news report, her parents are very impressed with the choreography. And even better, the donations reach--and then surpass by a few thousand dollars--their goal. Then annual end of summer performance review is back on, and it's a huge success.


Dedicated to Linda. Special thanks are also given to Lean Barbosa, MS CCC-SLP for help with the speech therapy parts; to Fatima Grace Groves, Senior Vice President for Program, National Women's Law Center; Sofia Snow, program director at Urban World NYC; and Urban Word NYC First Draft Open Mic for inspiring the "First draft!" tradition for Gabriela's poetry group.

Here's the good news/bad news about Gabriela McBride. Good news: American Girl finally listened to its customers and provided a girl of the year of color, providing more diversity in the line (even if she is another dancer) and dolls that are more easily relate-able to more girls (and the adults to collect them as well), not just with her ethnicity, but with her speech impediment.

Bad news: Gabriela is the first girl in a few years to not get a movie made, which is at best an uncomfortable coincidence. She's also not the only big release; the new Contemporary Characters line has two dolls out, Tenney and Z. Tenney has, at the time of this post, four books to Gabriela's three (Z has two), and in addition to the Tenney doll being released, a boy doll from her line is also out (Logan). So, Gabriela, the first black Girl of the Year and the first non-white Girl of the Year since Marisol, doesn't get a movie and has to share the spotlight. I'll be reviewing the Tenney and Z books as well, because I like complete things, but I'm giving Gabriela the first post (then Tenney then Z, because why not use alphabetical order).

The first scene of this book is set on June 23, 2017, a Sunday.

Since Shawshank Redemption is my favorite movie, you can imagine how I initially pictured an African-American character named Red. But someone in middle school probably doesn't look like Morgan Freeman...

Gabriela and Teagan make bracelets out of embroidery floss to sell for a fundraiser. Red suggests some be in the team colors of Philadelphia's professional sports teams, which is smart (Baseball: Phillies; NFL: Eagles).

I'm surprised that Isaiah's dad, a Baptist pastor, is called Mr. Jordan rather than Pastor Jordan. I'm used to Protestant ministers having a title like that, including my parents' Baptist minister neighbor. But different congregations can have different preferences.

Speaking of dads, Red's isn't mentioned.

Gabriela and Teagan have a good conversation over the phone, but given their ages and the setting (present day) I think it's more likely they would have been texting. Almost no pre-teens and teens I know prefer phone calls to texting.


A Brighter Tomorrow: My Journey with Julie

Published in 2014; author Megan McDonald; illustrators Julie Kolesova and Michael Dwornik

"My Journey" books

These are choose-your-own adventure books written from a first person perspective. Just for ease, I'm going to always pick the first option when I come them, but I'll try to mention the other possible endings. Since the reader is meant to insert herself into the story, the main character (a modern-day pre-teen) isn't named. Since it would sound to weird to me to summarize the story as, "and then (Historical Characters) and I saw a..." I've been using the author's first name, in this case, Megan.


Megan is looking around her new room, in a San Francisco apartment. For now, it's just Megan, her younger brother, and their mom. Her dad is staying behind in Cincinnati for some training classes, in hopes that he'll be able to get a job in California like Megan's mom did. But Megan and her younger brother are concerned that their parents' marriage is failing. Megan misses her friends back home, and misses her dad more.

She notices the bench under the window lifts up to reveal a storage compartment. Aside from the cobwebs and dust, there are a few things from someone who lived there before: a rainbow headband, a 1975 half dollar, a peace sign earring, nail clippers, and a mood ring. Idly, Megan slips the mood ring on, and suddenly the whole room changes. Megan is suddenly very aware that this is not her apartment, although she doesn't understand what happened. She just knows she needs to get out before the people who do live there get back.

The bottom level of the building is a thrift shop now. A calendar shows what happened: somehow the mood ring transport Megan back to the apartment building in 1975. A girl Megan's age comes over, Julie Albright, and asks if Megan is looking for anything in particular. Megan buys a small charm with her 1975 coin, and she and Julie quickly bond over the mood ring (after all, Julie has one just like it, somewhere in her room...) and basketball. Julie's mother, who owns the store, tells Julie she needs to get ready to go to her dad's. Embarrassed, Julie whispers that her parents are divorced (it's far more rare in 1975) and that her teenaged sister doesn't always come to see their dad. Megan wants to do something to cheer Julie up.

First choice: suggest a visit to the beach or think of something else

The closest beach is currently dealing with a garbage problem, and the girls figure they can do their part to clean it up. Megan privately wonders if the beach is still there in her time or if it's been built up with construction. Megan and Julie aren't the only ones helping clean up the beach. They're happy to see other volunteers picking up various items, although even when their bags are full to bulging, there's still so much litter. Julie thinks she recognizes a sunbather: it's her sister Tracy, with her friend Mike. But Tracy told Ms. Albright that she was studying at the library. Julie goes to confront her sister, but is blown off. As Tracy and Mike leave, they whisper something to each other and laugh, then offer to carry the trash bags to the parking lot. Megan and Julie hand over their bags but don't feel right about the encounter.

Next choice: keep cleaning up or go after Tracy and Mike

The girls distract themselves by seeing who can find the most interesting thing as they continue to clean the beach. A strong contender emerges: a sea otter pup is tangled in some tough plastic trash. Julie and Megan signal for other volunteers to get the animal rescue group nearby, and rush to make sure the pup won't drown. Thinking quickly, Megan takes the nail clippers from her pocket and snips away the offending litter. The pup doesn't move much, appearing to be weak from its ordeal. Soon an animal rescue is on hand, and wraps the pup carefully in a towel. They carry the pup to a calmer part of the beach, and are elated to hear its mother calling for it. The pup wriggles out of the towel swims to its mother. Megan promises herself that she'll spend more time with her brother and teach him the importance of helping the planet.

About Julie's Time

Although the 1970s was relatively recent, a lot has changed since then. Girls and women were discouraged from participating in sports until legislation required them to be treated the same as boys and men in academic settings (obviously this doesn't always happen, but Title IX has made things easier). Environmentalism was also fairly new; curbside recycling wasn't a thing yet, and the Endangered Species Act was only passed in 1972.


Dedicated to Jordana.

Maybe Megan's best friend doesn't care, but I'd rather not have a nickname that sounds like "cloaca." That's the term for the opening some animals have that serves as the entrance and exit for reproductive purposes as well as elimination of urine and feces (monotremes, for example; the term means "one hole"). Chloe --> Chlo-coa Puff.

Megan's clothes don't magically become era-appropriate, but they're not too far off. She ends up just looking unstylish rather than completely out of place.

This story takes place just before Julie makes the school basketball team.

Some of the endings are online-only. So, these aren't good books to take anywhere without an internet connection.

Some other possible endings: helping Julie and Tracy see that they're both hurting from the divorce but if they help each other they'll heal faster shows Megan that she should be more open to her own younger brother; playing a boys vs girls basketball game with Julie and Tracy can inspire Megan to be more kind to her younger brother; it can also show her the importance of good sportsmanship and trying your best no matter what the odds; or it can inspire Megan to be more confident; the confidence can also translate into Megan being more willing to admit to her brother that she's scared too, rather than trying to put on a brave face for him (he sees right through her anyway, and desperately wants to talk about things); opening up to Julie about having trouble fitting in at school can encourage Megan that she and her best friend in Cincinnati can stay friends, and that not everyone at her new school is a jerk; standing up for Julie against some bullies convinces Megan to try making new friends; helping Julie smooth over an argument she had with her best friend gets Megan thinking she needs to reach out more to her best friend in Cincinnati


Music in My Heart: My Journey with Melody

Published in 2016; author Erin Falligant with Denise Lewis Patrick; illustrators Julie Kolesova and Michael Dwornik; author photos by Reverie Photography and Fran Balter Photography

"My Journey" books

These are choose-your-own adventure books written from a first person perspective. Just for ease, I'm going to always pick the first option when I come them, but I'll try to mention the other possible endings. Since the reader is meant to insert herself into the story, the main character (a modern-day pre-teen) isn't named. Since it would sound to weird to me to summarize the story as, "and then (Historical Characters) and I saw a..." I've been using the author's first name, and since I "borrowed" Erin Falligant's name more recently, I'll use Denise.


Denise is at piano practice, feeling uninspired. But when her teacher has her play "Lift Every Voice and Sing" the song makes her nostalgic for her recently deceased grandmother. As she plays, Denise feels more caught up in the music than she ever has before. When the song is finished, Denise is shocked to see she's in a church building rather than her piano instructor's home. A girl her age is there, awed by Denise's song. She introduces herself as Melody, and says that if Denise doesn't mind, Melody will go upstairs to get her grandmother, who would love to hear the song. Melody also mentions the Civil Rights march advertised on a poster as being last summer, meaning Denise is in 1964. Denise obliges, and performing the song again transports her back to piano lessons. The second Denise gets home, she takes the sheet music to her own piano--she can't wait to get back to Melody's time. Once there, Melody thinks Denise is waiting for the Student March to Freedom Club, which her sister Yvonne leads, while Melody's grandmother assumes Denise is part of the traveling youth choir visiting the church.

First choice: agree with Melody's grandmother or with Melody

Denise follows Melody's grandmother, Mrs. Porter, up the stairs only to find out that the tour bus already left. It will be back in a few days, though. Melody suggests that Denise stay in town, and Mrs. Porter agrees to open her home to her. At Mrs. Porter's, Denise is impressed by a beautiful upright piano, and Mrs. Porter hands her some more inspirational music. Melody sings along while Denise plays. Melody's older brother Dwayne happens by, and joins the concert. Denise is soon awestruck when she learns he's a Motown singer, and that Melody has sung backup vocals for him. Real professional singers! Dwayne invites the girls to a recording session, but they had already made plans to accompany Mrs. Porter to a concert hall for a gospel music performance.

Next choice: stick with the original plan or go to the recording session

While the recording session would be amazing, Denise keeps thinking of her own grandmother and how much Mrs. Porter reminds her of the woman she misses so much. After dinner with Melody's grandparents, who both invite Denise to call them by the names their grandchildren use (Big Momma and Poppa), they head for the performance hall. The concert is every bit as awe-inspiring as the recording session might have been, especially with their seats so close to the stage (Poppa claimed to be "too tired" to attend the concert, letting Denise have his ticket). But when the last notes fade, the owners of the venue mention something about this being their last concert--the building is due to be demolished for urban renewal. The owners live there; they'll have to move in with their daughter for the time being. Denise thinks that her father, a congressman, could surely help...then remembers she's about fifty years in the past. But maybe she can do something. She stays up most of the night thinking about the issue, as does Melody (who also spends the night at her grandparents'). In the morning, Big Momma suggests that the girls could go with Melody's aunt and uncle to Windsor, Ontario for the Emancipation Day celebration.

Next choice: try to help the concert venue's owners or go to Windsor

Reasoning that they won't feel right celebrating when there are immediate problems at home, Denise and Melody decline the trip. They go to Melody's house, where her older sister Yvonne has an idea. She says the protest group she heads can encircle the building, preventing its demolition. Mrs. Ellison is worried that such a spur-of-the-moment protest will be too dangerous, especially when the opposition has bulldozers.

Next choice: do the demonstration or think of another way to be heard

When Yvonne takes the girls to the building the next morning, they join a large crowd of protesters. Several police officers are on hand, warning them that standing in the way of city business could get them arrested (some officers look reluctant to do so, and are clearly hoping for a peaceful resolution). Sure enough, Yvonne and some teenagers are eventually led to a police van. Melody rushes toward her sister, and she and Denise are separated. It's all too much for Denise. She finds someone who can get a message to Melody (she'd already told Melody she was going home after the protest) and slips inside the building to play the song on the piano that remains inside. When she's back in the present, she rushes to her mother, who happens to be her school's principal and had mentioned that the music program would suffer due to budget cuts. Denise tells her that music is worth fighting for, and they can't just give up. They have to take a stand and try.

About Maryellen's Time

Nearly everyone knows about high-profile Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr, but he and others were bolstered by the support of ordinary citizens. Even young children joined the cause: six-year-old Ruby Bridges was the first black student to attend a white school in the South, and despite death threats, didn't miss a single day of first grade. Nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks attended a Civil Rights event in Birmingham and consequently spent a week in jail. She was one of several hundred children at the "Children's Crusade" who marched because their parents faced backlash from the racist employers.


Dedicated to "Mark, who understands the power of music."

The keys on the Porters'  piano are more yellow than white. I think the 1964 keys are ivory; a lot of older pianos used ivory.

Assuming Denise goes back in time to the same month and Windsor's Emancipation Day celebration is around the same time now as it was in 1964, this story mostly takes place in early August.

Some of the endings are online-only. So, these aren't good books to take anywhere without an internet connection.

Some other possible endings: Denise can meet Rosa Parks who encourages her to speak out in order to get more books by African-American authors in the library; seeing how Melody's friends and family never give up or give in as they strive for equality inspires Denise to speak out against even small injustices; it can also push Denise to want to improve her city by working with her politician father; making new friends and working together to a greater goal can help Denise feel less shy back in her own time; seeing Melody's brother pulled over for "driving while black" can make Denise think about role models and how it's more important to emulate people's good character rather than their fame; organizing a fundraiser in 1964 gives Denise the idea to do the same to help the struggling music program at school; attending the celebration in Canada can show Denise that she can trust herself; or that even though physical buildings like the concert venue might not last, the intangible things that Civil Rights workers are striving for can last forever if they're cherished;