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⭐️ Book Review: Shark Teeth by Sherri Winston


One recent (and welcome!) trend I've noticed in books written for middle grade readers is the normalization of therapy and other tools for supporting mental health. Books like last year's Simon Sort of Says by Erin Bow, Chris Baron's The Gray as well as the forthcoming Unstuck by Barbara Dee, and Mr. Schu's Louder Than Hunger (among many others!) all feature stories that help destigmatize mental health by emphasizing compassion and support for those who are struggling. Keeping with this trend, in Sherri Winston's Shark Teeth, topics like anxiety, panic attacks and sleep paralysis (which I have experienced myself but have NEVER seen explored in any book!) are all part of Sharkita's journey - as are strategies for managing each. I'm hopeful that, when it feels authentic to the story, this trend continues, because both kids and adults need to see more examples of what it looks like to prioritize our mental health.


On the other hand, one tried and true hallmark of middle grade fiction, is the ubiquity of hopeful (if not 100% "happy") endings. Hopeful endings help provide a safe space for younger readers to process stories featuring trauma. Therefore, while plenty of books written for this age group grapple with some tough topics, there's almost always light at the end of the tunnel. However, as I frequently told my own students, just because there's light at the end of it, doesn't mean the tunnel itself wasn't frightening, painful and in some cases very, very dark. And, y'all. Sharkita Lloyd's tunnel is pretty dark.


Twelve year old Kita is used to being the adult in her family - learning to cook, clean and even pay bills at a very young age in order to cover up Mama's drinking and neglect. This work becomes even more urgent, when Kita and her two siblings, 5-year old Lilli and 8-year old Lamar, are sent to separate foster homes for the summer. When they are finally reunited with Mama, Kita is determined to be the perfect daughter, sister and caregiver in order to keep her family together, a task made all the more challenging given that Lamar has fetal alcohol poisoning and Mama never misses an opportunity to exploit Sharkita's insecurities. Despite her best efforts, the burden of being the sole caregiver in her family becomes too much for Kita to carry alone. And when her worst fears are realized, Kita begins to wonder if keeping her family together is really the best thing for her siblings or even for herself.


As her world begins to crumble, Sharkita's panic attacks and sleep paralysis become more and more debilitating. Thankfully, there's light at the end of the tunnel in the form of loyal friends and caring adults who are determined to help Kita realize that she, too, is worth caring for. On a personal note, as someone who has spent her entire adult life working in (or in support of) public education, I was so moved by the educators in this book, who not only see Kita, but who also do everything they can to help her navigate an untenable situation. For example, Kita's Assistant Principal, Dr. Sapperstein, recognizing that Kita's family is in crisis, intervenes in multiple ways - some of which are very visible, while others remain behind the scenes. Similarly, Kita's school counselor, Dr. Charles, who is as affable as he is effective, helps her develop strategies for standing up for herself and for coping with her pain.


To be clear, Shark Teeth is a tough read. There are moments when Sharkita's tunnel feels both unbearably dark and potentially endless. However, when the light does come, it not only feels welcome but also deeply authentic. And while those readers who relate to Sharkita's circumstances will see in her story a powerful example of what it looks like to find your way out of the darkness, I think ALL readers will connect with Kita's kindess, courage and fierce determination to do the right thing for her family and, ultimately, herself.


 

ISBN: 9781547608508

Publisher: Bloomsbury Children's Books

Publication: January 16, 2024

Audience: Sharkita is in 7th grade; I recommend this book for readers in grades 6+

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