Keep Your Head Up by Aliya King Neil, illustrated by Charly Palmer. Denene Millner Books, Simon & Schuster, 2021. 9781534480407
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5+
Format: Hardcover picture book
Genre: Realistic fiction
What did you like about the book? D. wakes up on the wrong side of bed and the day just keeps getting worse: he’s forgotten his gym uniform, draws the bad laptop from the class cart, gets paint on his shirt, and blurts out a math answer, earning a reprimand from his teacher (even though he’s right!) He can feel himself getting “scrunchy”, which means he’s headed for a meltdown. Miss King, D.’s principal, is a trusted adult, and he knows he’ll be able to calm himself once he’s in her office and recalls her wise words, even though he’ll have to head home for the day with his parents. He has to “keep his head up” but doesn’t feel like it’s going to happen today. That’s OK, Miss King says, D. just has to want to try. Neil has succeeded in creating a lovable and real boy in D., giving all of us the opportunity to look at a bad day from his point of view. Her first-person narration is simple but powerful, and filled with organic places to stop and talk about what D. is experiencing and choices he’s making. I loved the examples of support and caring for D. from both Miss King and his parents, along with his own self-talk about how to handle what he’s feeling. All of the characters in the book are Black.
Palmer’s fantastic acrylic paintings pair perfectly with the text. The pictures alternate between close-ups of D.’s face and long views of him trudging along, which will help readers examine both his body language and his more obvious facial expressions. The illustrations are gestural and free, but include enough representation for us to immediately feel at home: the posters on D.’s bedroom wall, his resigned slump at his desk after he gets reprimanded for shouting out, and the moody blue sky with a cloud right over his head as he leaves school.
Anything you didn’t like about it? I wish there’s been a sentence or visual marker to tell me how old D. is. He’s clearly in upper elementary or early middle school but younger than 8th grade (there’s an exchange with guys who are labeled as older kids). I also wished the book didn’t end up with D. being sent home; suspension for behavior is a controversial practice, although it’s routinely experienced by BIPOC children.
To whom would you recommend this book? This would be a great read aloud for an SEL lesson, for a social worker handling a chill skills group, or for families to read at home. It could pair nicely with Judith Viorst’s classic Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day although the takeaways will be quite different. For Alexander, Viorst reassures us that the day will eventually end and tomorrow will be better. Here, D’s mom tells him that the day might not get better, but he can take control of himself and his attitude.
Who should buy this book? Elementary and public libraries. I can actually also stretch that to middle school, if a guidance counselor wanted to use it as an activator for group discussion.
Where would you shelve it? Picture books
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes
Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA
Date of review: October 23, 2021