ALAN Picks (May 2023)

ALAN Picks: Two Retellings and a Basketball

This month’s ALAN Picks features reviews of a mix of young adult and middle grade books that explore the topics of the power of voice, family & friendship and identity. The young adult books include: fantasy retelling Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim and contemporary sports-centered novel Wrong Side of the Court by H.N. Khan. The middle grade book is: the modern retelling The Secret Garden on 81st Street by Ivy Noelle Weir. Check out these reviews for ideas on how to engage students with these books and topics in the classroom. 

ALAN Picks Update: ALAN Picks is now accepting reviews of books published as far back as spring 2020. This gives ALAN members who are interested in reviewing books more great titles to choose from, as well as accommodate some great books released during the beginning of the pandemic that deserve highlighting. If you have some books in mind that you would like to review, please reach out to me!

If you read an ALAN Picks review and end up using the book with your students, let us know! We want to hear all of your great stories and engaging ways you are using young adult and middle grades literature in your classrooms. Remember, ALAN Picks are book reviews by educators for educators! Click on the archives to see previous editions.

–  Richetta Tooley, ALAN Picks Editor

Submit a Review: Would you like to submit a review? Check out ALAN Picks for submission guidelines and email ALAN Picks Editor, Richetta Tooley at with the book title you are interested in reviewing. Rolling deadline.

A Retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Wild Swans” Combined With East Asian Folklore

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

Book Details
Publisher: Ember
Publish Date: July 26, 2022
Page Count: 480 pages
ISBN: 9780593300947
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
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Synopsis: When Princess Shiori’anma is on her way to her betrothal ceremony, she meets a dragon who changes the course of her destiny forever. Shiori soon discovers not only her own magical powers— something that is strictly forbidden in her father’s land of Kiata— but also discovers the dark magic that runs through her stepmother’s veins. Upon her discovery, her stepmother curses Shiori and her brothers. Her brothers are fated to change into cranes by day, but retain their human form at night. Shiori, on the other hand, is forced to conceal her appearance and never speak a word, for a single word could cost her the life of one of her brothers. Alone in a foreign land with magic she has yet to understand, Shiori teams up with her betrothed to take down her stepmother. Along the way, she discovers a far deeper plot that involves not just her own fate, but the fate of Kiata as a whole.


Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim starts out slow, with much of the first quarter of the novel establishing the lore of Kiata and allowing Shiori to discover the power she harnesses. After her discovery of her stepmother’s secret, the novel really starts to pick up. Lim takes the audience with Shiori throughout Kiata, and the visual descriptions the author provides makes the audience feel as if they are with Shiori the entire time. While the characters of Shiori’s brothers were not as well developed, the development of Shiori and her betrothed, Takkan were quite interesting, as the two are quite different but somehow seem perfectly matched. While the examination into Asian culture is richly blended with fantasy elements that create such an interesting world that keeps the audience entranced, the specificity of which culture in Asia is never explicitly described. The complexity of the main villain of the story is thought-provoking and is an interesting look at the dynamic ways that women are treated within this society. A possible criticism could be the cliffhanger/lack of ending within the last chapter. While the novel leaves the audience with a cliffhanger, this book could have easily been a stand-alone novel.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis
Themes of the importance of family and sacrifice are highlighted throughout the novel, but some other themes Lim explores are:

  • Women’s Roles in Society
  • The Power of a Voice
  • Self Discovery and Acceptance
  • The Act of Growing Up
  • Dealing with Trauma and Loss
  • The Influence of Family
  • Celebration of All Creatures

Essential Questions

  • How can the act of growing up affect a person mentally and emotionally?
  • How can family provide support? How can they be an impediment?
  • How can one find their voice when society takes it away from them?
  • How can modern science fiction/fantasy portray more diversity?

Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use:

  • Background of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans and the connection between the themes of that text and Six Crimson Cranes.
  • Discuss the genre of fantasy and the formula the Six Crimson Cranes does/does not follow. 
  • Discuss the importance of representation in fantasy and how some groups are underrepresented. 

This lesson from examines the ways in which cultural representation is explored in the text and how that representation can be reflected onto modern society.

Formative/Summative Assessments

Formative: Students can make connections between different locations Shiori visits that follow the development of her character. Students can provide an analysis of the growth Shiori experiences over the course of the novel. Further reflection and analysis can occur by incorporating the writing of journal reflections at the beginning of class that can then lead into a discussion, or mini-group projects that the students do together to find excerpts from the text that show examples of growth.

Summative: A summative assessment for students after reading this text could be a presentation on how this text compares or differs from another fantasy novel. Possible points of discussion that should be included are the roles of race, gender, family dynamics, character development (as was discussed during the reading of the text), and overall plot shape that are similar/different from Six Crimson Cranes. This project would require students to take excerpts from one other YA fantasy novel to compare to Lim’s Six Crimson Cranes.

Review by: Caitlin Leonard, senior at Colorado State University, English Creative Writing undergraduate, Fort Collins, Colorado.

A Modern Retelling of the Classic Story

The Secret Garden on 81st Street by Ivy Noelle Weir Illustrated by Amber Padilla

Book Details
Publisher: Hachette Book Group
Publish Date: September 2021
Page Count: 247
ISBN: 978-0-316-45970-9
Genre: Graphic Novel, Fiction, Retelling
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Young Mary Lennox had never had a close relationship with anything in her life, but that all changes when her parents die in a tragic accident and she is whisked away from her Silicon Valley home and all is technological luxuries to live with her mysterious uncle in his modern day low-tech New York City home. A very different setting than the original story, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett , that takes place in 1900’s England. 

At first it seems that she is still without a close relationship to anyone in the world, but all that soon changes when she discovers a key that leads her to the secret rooftop garden of her uncle’s late husband. Now, with the help of her new friend Dickon and her reclusive cousin Collin, Mary takes on the incredible task of bringing the garden back to life, while also bringing her family and herself back to life in ways she could never imagine. 


A very fun retelling of the classic story The Secret Garden on 81st Street stays true to the original story while also adding more representation, such as anxiety, same sex and inter-racial couples, and featuring a young Black girl as the main character. This is a great story to teach to children who may be off-put by the age of the original story and for students who may need to see more of themselves represented in literature. The modern day city setting will also make it easier for modern children to connect to the story as they will be able to see things that they recognize within the pages. The beautiful artwork and well done story helps to keep the story fun and light while also informing kids of different real world issues.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis:
Educators may wish to use this text as an alternative to teaching the classic as it stays true to the original story, but with a modern twist added. The story can offer students an age appropriate insight to grief, anxiety, and hardwork. Some of the thematic topics included within the text include: 

  • Coming of age
  • Life and death
  • Family
  • Change vs Tradition
  • Friendship 
  • The power of words
  • The power of actions

Essential Questions: 

  • How can we help our friends when they are having a hard time?
  • How can our actions affect the moods of others? 
  • Does everyone experience everything in the same way?

Teaching strategies and activities to use

  • An overview of the original story and a side-by-side comparison
  • Discussion on the power of emotions and how it relates to the novel
    • Ex. How we see characters like Mary, Colin, and Uncle Archie deal with their complicated emotions in the text and what it teaches us about our own emotions in the real world. 
  • Reflect on the hard work and the payoff
    • Ex. Look at the many phases of Mary, Dickon, and Colin rebuilding the secret garden. All the research that went into recreating the garden, all the times Mary was so discouraged she almost gave up, and the period of time when all they could do was be patient. Then look at the payoff that came from all the hard work, a beautiful rooftop garden, Colin feeling reconnected with his dad, Uncle Archie feeling reconnected to his late husband, and Mary finally making a connection with her Uncle Archie and making the first true friends of her life. 
Formative/Summative Assessments

Formative: Once the lesson/reading of the book for the day has wrapped up the teacher will pass out mini whiteboards and markers to the students and have them draw or write what they understand about the reading on the whiteboard. This is a low stakes non-graded activity that will allow kids some time to creatively show what they understand. While students are doing this the teacher should walk amongst the room and chat individually with students about what they do and do not understand about the story. 

Summative: Once the class has finished the novel the teacher will introduce a group project assignment. Students will gather in groups of 2-3 and create their own short graphic novel strip focusing on hard work, as seen in the novel, or focusing on helping someone with hard emotions, as also seen in the novel. 

Review by: Brooke Miller

A Young Pakistani overcoming trials and tribulations for his dreams of the NBA.

Wrong Side of the Court by H.N. Khan

Book Details
Publisher: Penguin Teen Canada
Publish Date: March 15, 2022
Page Count: 312
ISBN: 9780735270879
Genre: Young Adult fiction, Sports fiction
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Synopsis: The story revolves around Fawad Chaudhry, a fifteen-year-old Pakistani American. He lives in Regent Park, a low income community. He dreams to be the first Pakistani player in the NBA and luckily he has a great set of friends that root him on. However, he is under constant stress from his mother wanting an arranged marriage with his cousin, his neighborhood bully, Omar, and the vicious, violent cycle that resides in Regent Park. Fawad overcomes each obstacle with his chin up as her pursues his dream of professional basketball.


This story of Fawad and his struggles to become not only a better basketball player, but to be a better person for his family and friends, is nothing short of charming and inspiring. Themes of forgiveness, revenge, and loyalty resound throughout the book. Fawad is young and uncensored in his thoughts and he is always striving to protect his friends and family. Unlike other stories about immigrant families, Fawad doesn’t deal with racism at all in this novel. In fact, his community is compared to the United Nations with how much culture and language is spread throughout, whether that be Vietnamese, Chinese, or Bangladeshi. Regent Park is not only multinational, but holds the ties of Fawad’s friends through their beliefs, holding prayer and lessons together. The story is focused around Fawad’s heart, how much he persists despite being answered with violence. His understanding that revenge is how violence perpetuates, keeps him anchored to his passion and his family. Though, he will defend his friends to the bitter end if provoked. The story is sprinkled with romance as Fawad falls in love with a girl from the richer side of town. As a Korean American, who watched basketball growing up, I have an understanding of Fawad’s dream. In basketball and even just mainstream sports, Asian Americans can only really look up to Jeremy Lin. There’s just an abysmal amount of representation there, and it makes Fawad’s dream and surely millions of other kids’ dreams feel unachievable. It’s especially difficult for Fawad because of such an abrasive situation in his neighborhood. Nonetheless, Fawad ambition never fails him despite the tragedy that falls on his shoulders, whether it be his family or his friends. Despite not personally knowing a lot of the vernacular or young slang in the book, I believe readers of all ages can find Fawad’s resolution gratifying and encouraging.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections

  • Identity
  • Family/relationships
  • Grief
  • Forgiveness
  • Poverty
  • Violence

Essential Questions

  • How do you overcome labels given to you by society and/or family? 
  • How do the themes of violence, vengeance and dreaming engage with each other?

Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use

  • An overview of different practices of Muslims such as prayer, fasting, and calligraphy
  • Pair with texts that address racism, Islamophobia, especially in wealthy communities
  • Discussion and research the impact of single parent families in low income communities/how that affects children growing up.
Formative/Summative Assessments

Formative: Students should keep a reading journal to document the events that take place in the story. Each chapter should have a paragraph, describing what took place and how that could affect our main character’s attitude and perception or even how the student feels if those events took place in their shoes. The journals should be discussed with the class after every few chapters to obtain a larger perspective.

Summative: Students should be split into groups and tackle one of Fawad’s relationships in the story, whether that be his mother, his sister, his girlfriend, his friends, or his coach. Each group will analyze their relationship and how it evolves from the beginning to end. The groups should also take note of how each character changed or didn’t change. Students should use textual evidence from the book and cite their journals from the formative assessment for certain events that took place in the story.

Review by: David Lee, junior at Colorado State University, majoring in Graphic Design and a minor in English, Fort Collins, Colorado.