Iron into Flower by Yvette Neisser

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 72 pgs.
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Iron Into Flower by Yvette Neisser is a journey into memory and identity shifts, following the passing of loved ones and divorce and even the journey of motherhood. In her opening poem, “The Arc of the Sun,” a mother takes a trip to Mexico and comes back changed, full of stories she didn’t want to share, and a new perspective, living life moment to moment. Travel can do that to us, inform our perspectives, shift our beings, and move us into a place where we are changed.

Travel weaves in and out of these poems like a teacher providing new perspectives and changing people profoundly. In “Compass Points,” the narrator stumbles “into adulthood,/veering from crevice to crevice,/scraping for my own space,/” reminding us that to traverse the world is to find oneself, carve out our own spaces, while being rooted in family and home like the rings of a tree — “the years … etched rings around my life/first with you, then without you.”

In “Nonfiction,” readers will learn how memory can be parsed out to new generations, even if the entire past is held back. A grandmother shares Holocaust through songs sung in barracks, but she also instills a mantra of “Never again” to the generations that follow. The narrator asks, “Have I borne it well?/Should I wield it/or hide behind it?” only to remind us “It’s not easy, you know,/clamping the lid/on the revolution.//”

By the final section of the collection, Iron Into Flower by Yvette Neisser, the poet has traversed through memory, history, culture, and so much more, to emerge into the flower she is today.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Yvette Neisser is the author of Grip, winner of the 2011 Gival Poetry Prize. Founder of the DC-Area Literary Translators Network (DC-ALT), her translations from Spanish include South Pole/Polo Sur by María Teresa Ogliastri and Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems by Luis Alberto Ambroggio. She also contributed to the anthology Knocking on the Door of the White House: Latino and Latina Poets of Washington, D.C.

Yvette has taught creative writing, poetry translation, and literature at numerous institutions, including the George Washington University, Catholic University, and The Writer’s Center (Bethesda, MD). She has lectured on translation at venues such as the Library of Congress, the Embassy of Argentina, and Georgetown University. For several years, she was a roving “poet in the schools” in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC.

Her passion for international affairs and cultures has been a driving force in both her writing and her professional career. After studying in Egypt and Israel, her work in international development and research has taken her to Africa, the Middle East, South America, and Europe.

Watchman, What of the Night? by W. Luther Jett

Source: the poet
Paperback, 46 pgs.
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Watchman, What of the Night? by W. Luther Jett is a collection that records events as they happen, yet asks the reader to consider what could be done to modify current outcomes and change fate. Opening the collection with “The Builders,” Jett reminds us of all those who have come before us, who have build the societies in which we live and who have left us now responsible for its direction. We cannot simply be the watchman on the sidelines; we must be active participants.

Yet, even in the early poems, like “With an Army at Our Gates,” Jett points to those who still maintain their routines even when things are dire: a mother calling children in to lunch, someone running to the subway, and a man washing his socks. It is to say that life continues on as it has even when danger is ever present. Is this our way of ignoring the danger? Coping with it? These are just some of the questions we should consider.

A War Story

Here is the book
with torn pages.
Only half remains
to be deciphered.

And here is the house
with burnt rooms,
and a few fading photos
scattered across the floor.

And here, here — Forgive me
but these are my bones.
This is the face I was using
Wrap them all tenderly.

Sing of me as you sleep.

There is much to lament in this collection, but there could be hope at the edges that we can change and move in a better direction as a society. This is particularly evident in “Promise” when the snow falls and covers “all that was” and a “a new world/revealed.”

Watchman, What of the Night? by W. Luther Jett traverses history and the present, outlining the struggles of people and even though they may not impact us directly, they are a symptom of societal neglect. Like watchman we stand too idle on the sidelines (complaining, shaking our heads, etc.) and doing little to effect change. Perhaps we need to step down from that watchman’s post and into the fray.

RATING: Cinquain

Other Reviews:

About the Poet:

W. Luther Jett is a native of Montgomery County, Maryland and a retired special educator. His poetry has been published in numerous journals, such as The GW Review, Beltway, Potomac Review, and Little Patuxent Review as well as several anthologies, including My Cruel Invention and Proud to Be. His poetry performance piece, Flying to America, debuted at the 2009 Capital Fringe Festival in Washington D.C. He has been a featured reader at many D.C. area venues. He is the author of two poetry chapbooks: Not Quite: Poems Written in Search of My Father, released by Finishing Line Press in 2015, and Our Situation, released by Prolific Press, 2018. A third chapbook Everyone Disappears is now on sale, to be released in late November, 2020. Kelsay Books will be releasing Luther Jett’s fourth chapbook, Little Wars, in June 2021.

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Sway by Tricia Johnson

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 108 pgs.
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Sway by Tricia Johnson is best read a few poems at a time, dipping in and out of nature’s changes and seasons. Johnson’s poems are primarily focused on nature and the narrator is caught up in all the beauty. She’s distracted by it, enthralled by it, and in awe of it – as it should be. In “Nestle,” readers are invited to meet the narrator “in the tall grass/We will settle in its hidden places/Nestled with mother earth” (pg. 12)

Readers will feel like they have fallen into the natural world, where the sun and moon enchant the walk. The narrator is asking us to stop with her, take a breath, and observe … be in the moment. Each season is give its due and Johnson knows how to describe each well, making readers feel like they are there. I don’t think that these poems necessarily depict only Pennsylvania, but they could be in other backyards. Reading the poems in succession can get a bit monotonous. But there are those moments where you fall right into the poem.

Walk (pg. 31)

The smell of fall
Warm air out
The chill felt through fabric
Move to sweat along the back of a scarf wrapped neck
Wink (pg. 34)

One red leaf on my maple tree
Winked out as I walked by
I said hello, introduced myself
Thanked its crimson glow
A nod toward change
A season swooping in
The center glimpse of rose
Wrapped in the nature of green

My favorite poem in the collection has to be “Pumpkin Latte” where deer are the night raiders cannibalizing her pumpkin decorations. It reminds me of the family of deer in my own yard and how they will nibble anything they can. Fruits and vegetables are their favorites, of course.

Sway by Tricia Johnson calls to us, guides us to an appreciation of nature. She’s providing us with paintings and an atmosphere where we can just be and breathe.

RATING: Tercet

Other Reviews:

About the Poet:

Tricia Johnson is a poet wishing to share her work with others, by using the written word to embrace one another’s humanity.  She is a retired teacher.  She lives in the beautiful hills of Pennsylvania with her husband and two sons.  Published work includes the poem “Living with Lupus” which appeared in Still You Poems of Illness & Healing, Wolf Ridge Press 2020.

Accomplished by Amanda Quain (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 9+ hrs.
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Accomplished by Amanda Quain, narrated by Deva Marie Gregory, focuses on high school-age Georgiana Darcy who is struggling to find herself after Wickham entangles her in his drug-dealing scheme at her private school.She is a bit dramatic, probably too many regency romance shows for her.

Gregory is an excellent narrator for this young adult’s redemption story. She provides different voices for Georgie, Fitz, Avery, Wickham, and others.

Georgie is crumbling under the pressure of the Darcy name and its expectations. She’s unsure of who she is and unable to rectify her reputation at the private school where everyone hates her for taking away their best trombone player and drug dealer, Wickham. Even though she had nothing to do with the drug dealing and her room was all Wickham needed, her brother is severely disappointed and ramps up his helicopter parenting.

Georgie, on the other hand, is eager to get out from under the glare of her classmates, Wickham’s threats, and her brother’s oppressive supervision. Her lavish family lifestyle is something she wants to get past but even those around her see her like her ancestors and even her brother — untouchable, able to throw money at problems, and so many other privileged trappings.

Accomplished by Amanda Quain, narrated by Deva Marie Gregory, is a charming story of a young woman looking for herself as forces outside of herself try to force her to be someone she isn’t. She’s artistic, musical, and creative, and clearly not the business/medical mold of the Darcy legacy. While Georgie is a bit obsessive and full of anxiety, which can get tiresome, her gradual evolution in this story is delightful, even when she stands up to her brother, not quite in the most rational or tactful way. Quain is a talented writer, and I look forward to others in this series.

RATING: Quatrain

Fixed Star by Suzanne Frischkorn

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 72 pgs.
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Fixed Star by Suzanne Frischkorn is an amalgam of found poetry and structure poems mirroring the culture and identity that many of us have over time. We find that there are fixed points in our culture and identity and that there also are found parts of those segments of ourselves that we incorporate willingly. There’s a deep restlessness in each of these poems as they deftly move from one to the next, when reading in succession, and it is a skill to be admired.

Frischkorn’s opening poem, “Cuban Polymita,” begins the collection with: “Birth cleaved me in half” If that line alone doesn’t give you a sense of restlessness, the rest of the collection certainly will. It is from this instant of birth in which the narrator begins to move away from her origins: “A lace dress. A first language./All myths once we move north./” (“II”, pg. 2) In these earlier poems, the narrator is looking for the truth in those myths, unraveling the mystery of her heritage. But the narrator is keenly aware that to unravel these hidden pasts is also likely to reveal “what is tarnished,” and to question is it worth the risk?

Once I Dove Into the Caribbean Sea (pg. 36)
Isla de Cozumel, ’93

Cuba, its tide strove to draw me towards you and failed. I departed with a smooth shell and wisps of surrogate sky. How cool marble caressed my bare soles, how heat plied my skin bronze. Not until I slide the silver bracelets from my wrist will the strains of your shore ebb.

Frischkorn’s Fixed Star is an attempt to excavate the movement from past to present to pinpoint the evolution, to understand something that was lost. In that adventure toward discovery, a restlessness propels each of these poems forward and back into the past again, signaling the push and the pull of who and what has birthed us to who and what we become.

RATING: Cinquain

Other Reviews:

About the Poet:

Suzanne Frischkorn is the author of Fixed Star (JackLeg Press, September 2022) as well as the books, Girl on a Bridge, and Lit Windowpane (both from Main Street Rag Press), and the chapbooks American Flamingo, Spring Tide, Red Paper Flower, Exhale, and The Tactile Sense.

She is the recipient of The Writer’s Center Emerging Writers Fellowship for her book Lit Windowpane, the Aldrich Poetry Award for her chapbook Spring Tide, selected by Mary Oliver, and an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism.

Brave Like Mom by Monica Acker

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Hardcover, 32 pgs.
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Brave Like Mom by Monica Acker, illustrated by Paran Kim, is a story of two young girls whose mom is battling cancer and her girls see her as strong and brave. They want to be like her and not shed tears. But these girls are strong when they strive to climb walls, ride horses, and so much more. But their mom reminds them that it is ok to be scared and to cry.

Acker does a good job of showing how mom is brave for her girls, but also how neighbors, their dad, and others help her every day. What the girls see is the actions of their mother, not the helping hands. The illustrations are simple and colorful.

What I wanted was less telling and more showing of this relationship between the kids and the mother and the family in general. Brave Like Mom by Monica Acker, illustrated by Paran Kim, does have a great story with advice for young children of parents struggling with illness.

RATING: Tercet

About the Author:

Monica Acker is a writer and educator. She holds a BA in creative arts and a MAT degree in childhood education. Monica is a member of SCBWI, 12×12, and Children’s Book Insider. She lives in Reading, Massachusetts, with her family.

Why We Never Visited the Elms by Marianne Szlyk

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 37 pgs.
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Why We Never Visited the Elms by Marianne Szlyk are poems that explore what could have been to what is now. Each poem is a journey, a microcosm of the larger journey the collection takes the reader on. The journey begins with the narrator and her mother and why they never visited Our Lady of the Elms, where her mother went to college. She reminisces about the stories she heard and how the college was nestled into a neighborhood. There’s almost a romanticism in these stories, but Szlyk reminds us that not all is rosy in that past, just like it isn’t in the present. “Every Friday the cafeteria would serve/slices of greasy hamburg pizza/that Mom would have pretended to eat//had we stopped by her old school.//” (pg. 3-4)

Just as in “Fishing,” the narrator says, “The surface hides mud, weeds, a murder victim./No one fishes now …” (pg. 5) We look back on our own histories with fondness, even if there is darkness in those old streets and rivers. We can look at those places now with a distance, glossing over a darkness and lifting out the good parts. Szlyk has a knack for exploring the what ifs and that what weres and the what ares. Time slips easily in these poems, and readers can slip behind the curtains to explore places in different times to see change and what stays the same.

Why We Never Visited the Elms by Marianne Szlyk is a time slip. Readers will love the optimism Szlyk imbues her poems with, reminding us that we should focus on the light we have and not the darkest parts of our lives.

RATING: Quatrain

Other Reviews:

About the Poet:

Marianne Szlyk’s most recent book is Poetry en Plein Air (Pony One Dog Press, 2020). Her poems have appeared in Verse-Virtual, the Red Eft Poetry Review, the Trouvaille Review, and other journals/websites. Some poems have been translated into Polish, Italian, and Cherokee. She lives in the D.C. area with the wry poet and flash fiction writer Ethan Goffman and their elderly cat.

Love the Dark Days by Ira Mathur

Source: the author
Paperback, 232 pgs.
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Love the Dark Days by Ira Mathur is a surreal memoir that weaves between a distant past in post-colonial India and ancestral stories and a married woman looking for guidance on writing her own memoir. The narrative digs deep into the past of her ancestry pulling the thread of pain forward into her present. Mathur says in more than one place that she doesn’t feel like she belongs. She’s looking throughout the memoir for her place in the world.

This sense of drift carries readers through the memoir, which reads like a nightmare in places. Her grandmother Burrimummy has fits of anger and sadness, and her rages seem like a woman battling mental illness, though that isn’t outwardly articulated. Shifting from India to Trinidad and other places, Mathur is weaving place with family history, much of it violent and abusive. Whether subject to emotional abuse and dejection or the physical abuse her mother felt as a child at the hands of her own mother, these instances reverberate throughout the female line in the family. These women are damaged and traumatized, but it is unclear if these women  ever sought help or tried to break the cycle.

“When she is angry like this, I don’t know what to feel. I hate it when she thrashes me but am sadder when she doesn’t notice me at all.”

“The servants, sensing my lower status, are careless with me.”

“I’m too dark, too rebellious.”

Mathur’s view of herself is skewed from an early age, and she carries that doubt with her as she matures. She is never good enough. She even says, “Twenty-four years, and in some ways, nothing had changed for me.” But later as she’s seeking to understand this generational violence and neglect, she absolves everyone of responsibility.

“They are like Russian dolls. I understand now. Mummy blames Burrimummy for being unkind. Burrimummy blames Mumma for ill-treating her, and Mumma blames Sadrunissa for thrashing her. They all took out whatever anger they felt over their own lives on their daughters. no one is responsible.”

The sections when Mathur is interacting with poet Sir Derek Walcott are overly long and fawning of a poet whom she admits was accused of harassing women. Her admiration of his poetry is clear, and she does recognize his faults, but if these scenes were meant to tie in with her family’s saga, they did not fit seamlessly into the narrative. They often pulled me out of her story and made me wonder when she would get back to her family. When she does get back to her family, there are still questions that linger about her husband’s behavior, his family’s acceptance/rejection of her, and her relationship with her own children that remain unanswered. Perhaps that’s a future memoir?

In many ways, this memoir is about a woman still coming to terms with her trauma. Intimate, harrowing, and sad, Mathur’s memoir reminds us that “when brutality is normalized, it is passed on, like a legacy, like DNA.” Love the Dark Days by Ira Mathur is most engaging when she speaks about her family and its legacy and its impact on her as a woman and successful journalist.

RATING: Tercet

About the Author:

Ira Mathur is an Indian born Caribbean freelance journalist/writer working in radio, television and print in Trinidad, West Indies. She also is currently a Sunday Guardian columnist and feature writer. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Nothing You Build Here, Belongs Here by Sara Cahill Marron

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 44 pgs.
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Nothing You Build Here, Belongs Here by Sara Cahill Marron is a collection that explores the need to mark our presence in this life, even as we know that it is all impermanent and often fades.

The opening poem “The Three Shades” reflects this impermanence and the unpredictability of what stays and what fades into the dark. Amid the detritus of modern life (Styrofoam cups et. al.), there is still life here, and we are watching it fade, struggle, and die. It’s a sad emptiness to see life dissipate even in anonymity.

The pandemic clearly influences many of these poems and the desire to save others is prevalent in some, but there’s also this commentary on the disconnect from others. “Please/please stay … drown out news,” the narrator in “An Infant Died Today in Illinois” says, but it is clear that the news cannot be ignored and the inevitability of death is ever present.

Marron is exploring the disconnect between us during the pandemic in the tension with our need for connection. Whether it is an overly sharing email to a hiring manager or an imagined conversation with our eavesdropping cellphone (which I suspect sent her on a journey that culminated in her newest book, Call Me Spes), Marron gives readers a lot to think about in terms of the inevitability of death, our desire for connection and to be seen, and the absence of humanity.

Nothing You Build Here, Belongs Here by Sara Cahill Marron reminds us that many times “the enemy is internal,” whether it is the virus that can infect and kill us, the inequality we propagate, or any other selfishness that infects society and its ability to grow and evolve together in divine love and connection. There is so much to love about this collection.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Sara Cahill Marron, native Virginian and Long Island resident, is the author of Reasons for the Long Tu’m (Broadstone Books, 2018), Nothing You Build Here, Belongs Here (Kelsay Books 2021), and Call Me Spes (MadHat Press 2022). She is the Associate Editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly and publisher at Beltway Editions. Her work has been published widely in literary magazines and journals; a full list is available here. Sara also hosts virtual readings for Beltway Poetry Quarterly with her partner in poetry, Indran Amirthanayagam and teaches poetry in modern discourse programs for teens at the public library in Patchogue, NY. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The Wehrwolf by Alma Katsu (audio)

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Audible, 2+ hrs.
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It’s been a Grimm’s Brothers kind of month of reading for me.

The Wehrwolf by Alma Katsu, narrated by Jim Boeven, weaves in myth from Germanic folklore about wolves and sets it just nearing the end of WWII.

Even as Berlin tries to tell its people that the war is not over, even the villages outside the cities can sense the tide is not in the motherland’s favor.

Uwe Fuchs has always considered himself a weakling and unworthy as he was unable to serve for the Reich and stayed behind to care for his own ailing mother. Despite his lot, he cared for his daughter and loved to share with her the dark fairy tales of the wood and wolves, though he feared she missed the point that the wolves represented the bad in the world. But in many ways it seems he missed the point as well.

The narration by Boeven was a bit stilted in the audio, which kept me from really falling into Katsu’s story fully. That was a real drawback for me. But the story itself is definitely a reaction to the political climate we find ourselves in and how it mirrors that of Nazi Germany with its fervor and us vs. them focus. The story itself is a cautionary tale that has roots in reality.

Katsu has knack for creating characters who are flawed and find themselves in otherworldly situations. Uwe is definitely flawed and those flaws are amplified by what happens to him, especially when he takes matters into his hands with the village fighters against the Allies in an effort to be part of the community. Will he be a man who cannot return to his former life?

The Wehrwolf by Alma Katsu, narrated by Jim Boeven, is a short story set in a historical period that highlighted much of the worst in humanity from eugenics to mass extinction efforts. Uwe is a man who is struggling with his own place in society and his community until he finds his pack. But will his one decision to join those working against the allies at the end of the war ruin his life forever?

RATING: Quatrain

Other Reviews:

About the Author:

Alma Katsu is the author of The Taker, The Reckoning, and The Descent. She has been a signature reviewer for Publishers Weekly and a contributor to The Huffington Post. She is a graduate of the Master’s writing program at the Johns Hopkins University and received her bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University. Prior to the publication of her first novel, Katsu had a long career as a senior intelligence analyst for several US agencies and is currently a senior analyst for a think tank. She lives outside of Washington, DC, with her husband.

Fairy Tale by Stephen King (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 24+ hrs.
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Fairy Tale by Stephen King, narrated by Seth Numrich and a bit by King himself, is a dark Gothic story in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm. In a parallel world beneath an Howard Bowditch‘s shed, Charlie Reade‘s worldview and his promise to be a better man if only his father would stop drinking alcohol. Reade’s blossoming relationship with Mr. Bowditch is touching and odd all at once, but I expect nothing less. But the fairy tale doesn’t begin until Reade learns about what’s in the shed and what it could possibly mean for the dog, Radar, they love.

In an adventure that Reade never expected to have when he sought to save the life of an old dog, he learns a great deal about human frailty and how dreams and ideals do little in times of crisis. Even Mr. Bowditch was aware of those failings, noting that cowards bring gifts. King is so adept at creating flawed characters and adventures to strange worlds where young men must test their metal against the deep dark evil of an unknown and scary place.

Reade comes of age in this story and he is not as too-good-to-be-true as he seems. He faces untenable situations and tough choices throughout his travels. I don’t want to give too much away, but the character not only evolves but even more clearly understands his own limitations. Dark and horrible things happen here, and are their moments of crassness from the evil characters that make you cringe, of course. These elements make this dark world seem even more real.

Anyone who knows me, knows I love reading Stephen King’s books. Not all of them capture my full attention, even if I love them. I even conned my friend Anna (aka Diary of an Eccentric) to read my favorite King book (IT) in a read-a-long. But some of King’s books have not totally absorbed me from start to finish like IT. Fairy Tale is an exception and has entered the pantheon of King favorites.

RATING: Cinquain

Other Reviews:

About the Author:

Stephen King is the author of more than fifty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. His recent work includes Doctor Sleep and Under the Dome, now a major TV miniseries on CBS. His novel 11/22/63 was named a top ten book of 2011 by The New York Times Book Review and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller as well as the Best Hardcover Book Award from the International Thriller Writers Association. He is the recipient of the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.

A Beginner’s Guide to Being Human by Matt Forrest Esenwine, illustrated by Andre Ceolin

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Hardcover, 32 pgs.
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A Beginner’s Guide to Being Human by Matt Forrest Esenwine, illustrated by Andre Ceolin is a book for ages 4-8, but I bet there are some adults who could use this lesson in empathy and compassion. I loved that this picture book opens with a discussion of what it means to be human. It also explains what family means and that it doesn’t necessarily have to mean you are only related by blood. This opens the door to children, allowing them to see that adopted children and more are families, too.

Esenwine offers “pro tips” throughout the book to help kids navigate their emotions and social situations in which they normally would just react on instinct. He demonstrates how sometimes situations arise because of emotion and that we have to be able to recognize it and adapt to help others when we can. This ability to empathize will enable kids to show compassion for others. Compassion is something every child should learn at a young age, and some adults should be re-taught the concept.

The illustrations show a diverse group of students, which is another fantastic way to bring home the diversity of humanity. The Golden Rule is mentioned about mid-way through the book, but it does seem to come out of nowhere. So a little more contest or a child talking to a family member or a teacher about it, might have been less awkward in the narrative.

Overall, the illustrations where the kids are working out differences or situations themselves after learning these terms are the most effective. A Beginner’s Guide to Being Human by Matt Forrest Esenwine, illustrated by Andre Ceolin, definitely provides young kids, their parents, and teachers with tools they will need to help children navigate social interactions and other situations.

RATING: Quatrain

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About the Author:

Matt Forrest Esenwine is an author and poet from Warner, New Hampshire. His debut picture book, Flashlight Night (Boyds Mills Press, 2017) was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the Best Books for Kids of 2017. His picture book Once Upon Another Time (Beaming Books, 2021), co-authored with Charles Ghigna, was deemed “a necessary addition to picture book collections” by ALA’s Booklist. His poetry can be found in numerous anthologies including The National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry (National Geographic Children’s Books, 2015) and Construction People (Wordsong, 2020).

About the Illustrator:
André Ceolin studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He has illustrated over twenty books for children. André lives in Brazil with his family.