Review: Always Anthony

Always Anthony

written and illustrated by Terri Libenson

Balzer + Bray (imprint of HarperCollins), 2024

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Stacy Nockowitz

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Always Anthony is the newest addition to author/illustrator Terri Libenson’s "Emmie & Friends" series. As with the other books in the series, Libenson zeroes in on a particular aspect of adolescence that many children deal with and offers ways to handle these difficulties through the storyline. In Always Anthony, popular, athletic Anthony Randall is a whiz at science, but he struggles in language arts class. His teacher asks his classmate Leah Ruben to tutor him until he brings his grade up. Leah is reluctant to work with Anthony, as he is “TPFW” (Too Popular for Words), and she has been bullied by the popular kids in the past. As Anthony and Leah get to know one another, he shows her that you shouldn’t judge someone too hastily based on their friends, while she shows him the damage that being a bully or a silent bystander can cause. The book is split between the two kids’ points of view, with Leah’s half done in comic book style and Anthony’s half done in Libenson’s trademark illustrated text. Always Anthony shows the author’s expertise at characterization, as both Anthony and Leah are complex, multidimensional people who learn from one another in a very natural way. Leah, the Jewish character, is honest, likeable, and quietly powerful. Libenson shows other parts of Leah’s life, like her relationships with her widowed mother and her loving brother, to round out her character more fully. While Always Anthony may not be breaking any new ground in its depiction of blossoming friendships and standing up for the little guy, Libenson certainly offers a thoughtful and sweet story about two kids who wouldn’t normally become friends, coming together to teach one another some important lessons.

Leah, her mother, and her brother are portrayed as a traditional Jewish family that celebrates Shabbat and other Jewish traditions while assimilating smoothly with the multicultural population of their town. The bullying Leah was subject to in her past wasn’t because she’s Jewish. While Leah does not hide her Judaism from Anthony, and they do discuss aspects of her faith occasionally, the focus of Always Anthony is the friendship growing between the two characters. Though the mix of authentic tween voices and Libenson’s humorous illustrations helps Always Anthony hit its target audience of 8-12 year olds, the book probably does not contain enough Jewish content to be considered for the Sydney Taylor Book Award.

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Stacy Nockowitz is a retired middle school librarian and former language arts teacher with 30+ years of experience in middle grade education. She holds Master's Degrees from Columbia University, Kent State University, and Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her debut middle grade novel, The Prince of Steel Pier (Kar-Ben), won the 2022 National Jewish Book Award for Middle Grade Literature and was named a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable Book for 2023. The Prince of Steel Pier was a PJ Our Way selection for October 2022, and Stacy received the PJ Library Author Incentive Award in 2020 and 2023. Visit her website at: