Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon written by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez

Published by Peachtree Publishers

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Summary:  Starting with President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 commitment to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and ending with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic 1969 walk on the moon, this free-verse history covers the history of the Apollo space missions.  The heartbreak of Kennedy’s assassination and the fatal Apollo 1 fire set the stage for the enormous determination that was required to design and build the vehicles that could safely transport astronauts to the moon and back. Each Apollo mission is described, followed by two pages that show photos and give profiles of the astronauts on each one.  The large, pastel portraits realistically render the people, places, and technology that were all part of the Apollo program. Includes author’s and illustrator’s notes, additional information about Team Apollo and bringing Apollo 11 home (with photos), and a list of books and websites with additional information. 144 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  A fascinating look at an exciting and important chapter in the history of space exploration.  The free verse format makes for a fairly quick and easy read, but there is still plenty of information packed into the text and back matter.  The beautiful oversized illustrations bring immediacy to the story.

Cons:  As a big fan of the movie Apollo 13, I was disappointed that the narrative ended with Apollo 11.

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Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons

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Summary:  Sixth-grader Ollie is off to a rough start in school following the tragic death of her mother.  Seeking an escape after school one day, she wanders through the woods until she meets up with a distraught woman trying to throw a book into the river.  Ollie rescues the book, entitled Small Spaces, and is soon caught up in the story of a woman whose husband sold his soul to “the smiling man”.  When Ollie’s class takes a field trip to a nearby farm, she soon notices many similarities between the story in her book and the history of the farm.  When the bus breaks down and is surrounded by a strange mist, Ollie decides to go get help.  Coco and Brian, two kids she’s had reasons to dislike at school, join her, and the three slowly become friends as they fight for their lives against ghosts, scarecrows, and other evil forces before finally confronting the smiling man in the heart of his cornfield maze.  Ollie is the only one who is able to defeat him, and in doing so, she is able to acknowledge her grief about her mother and begin to move forward with her new friends.  224 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Those ready to move on from Goosebumps will enjoy this truly creepy tale that offers many heart-pounding, suspenseful moments before the final showdown between Ollie and the smiling man.

Cons:  I will never look at scarecrows the same way again.

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Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt With Family Addiction by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Published by Graphix

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Summary:  Jarrett Krosoczka spent his first few years with his mother until his grandparents intervened and got custody of him.  It was not until he was a teenager that he learned that she had been a heroin addict from the age of 13.  Jarrett grew up with Joe and Shirley, his mother’s parents.  Despite their drinking, smoking, and occasional unkind words, they loved him deeply and did their best to provide him with a good home and to support his artistic ambitions. This memoir also includes Jarrett’s memories of friends, school, and the first time he met his father and half brother and sister during his senior year in high school.  Determined not to let his past curtail his future, he graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and has gone on to create many beloved children’s books, perhaps most famously the Lunch Lady series.  Includes an author’s note with more information about his life, the people in the book, and how he came to create this memoir. 320 pages; grades 8 and up.

Pros:  A National Book Award finalist, this graphic memoir is hard to put down (I read it in one sitting).  My already high esteem for Jarrett Krosoczka (whom I once arranged to have visit my school) grew to worshipful admiration as I learned of all the obstacles he has overcome to achieve his success.  The artwork is particularly effective, with the beginning of each chapter including actual documents, many of them letters his mother wrote to him from jail and halfway houses.

Cons:  I was hoping to get this for my middle school library, but the language and subject matter make it more of a high school/adult book.

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Giraffe Problems by Jory John, illustrated by Lane Smith

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Brought to you by the team that produced Penguin Problems, this book features a giraffe named Edward who doesn’t like his neck.  It’s too long, too bendy, too patterned, and a host of other problems.  He’s sure everyone is looking at him and tries to hide his neck with scarves and ties, or by standing behind tall rocks.  He admires the necks of others, like the classically-striped zebra or the heavily-maned lion. A turtle named Cyrus overhears him, and tells him how fortunate he is to have such a long and beautiful neck.  Cyrus has been trying to get a banana off a tree for a week; when he tells Edward, Edward is able to reach it in a matter of seconds. The two admire each others’ necks, and end up feeling a lot better about themselves, even highlighting their necks with bow ties.  42 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  There’s still plenty of humor, but a little more of a message here than there was in Penguin Problems.  The multimedia artwork is eye-catching and could be worked into a less on patterns.

Cons:  I read this book to two boys who I thought would find it hilarious.  They seemed to enjoy it, but never laughed.  It’s kind of a dry sense of humor, so some of it may be lost on the young.

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Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Army by Art Coulson, illustrated by Nick Hardcastle

Published by Capstone

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Summary:  The big game against Army is the climax of this book, but there’s a long story to be told before that.  Jim Thorpe, like so many other Indian children, was sent to boarding school, where he was forced to have his hair cut, wear school-issued clothing, and stop speaking his native language.  After running away from a school in Kansas, his father sent him to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. He excelled at all sports there, becoming a football and track star and winning a couple of gold medals at the 1912 Olympics.  Later that year, Thorpe and the Carlisle team traveled to West Point to play against a team that included Dwight Eisenhower and three other future generals. The symbolism of the future Army soldiers versus the Indians was not lost on anyone as the Carlisle team played a new kind of football created by coach Pop Warner and won the game 27-6.  Includes additional information on Jim Thorpe, other members of the Carlisle team, Pop Warner, and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, as well as a glossary and a list of additional information sources. 40 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  So many people (including me) know Jim Thorpe mainly as the guy who lost his Olympic medals for playing semi-professional baseball, but there is so much more to his story.  This is a good introduction to Thorpe, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pop Warner, and the early days of football.

Cons:  Due to the picture book format, a lot of the more interesting (and in some cases, horrifying) details are omitted.  For a more comprehensive picture, read Steve Sheinkin’s Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team.

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The Cat Who Ate Christmas by Lil Chase, illustrated by Thomas Docherty

Published by Running Press Kids

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Summary:  When Lily, Rose, Alex, and their parents go downstairs on Christmas morning, they discover that their cat, Jingles, has torn all the wrappings off their presents and is hiding on top of the tree.  Dad tries to get her, but Jingles leaps off, bringing the whole tree down with her.  The family rallies, enjoys their gifts, and goes off to pick up Grandma, leaving the holiday turkey sitting on the counter.  Jingles can’t resist, and when the family returns, their dinner is in ruins.  Jingles goes into hiding, and is still missing on December 26th.  Wanting to lure her back home, the family goes shopping, where they run into Grandma.  The reader will have to look carefully at the illustrations to see where Jingles has been hiding, but he finally reappears, and there’s a happy ending for everyone.  96 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  A fun holiday tale that would make a good quick read-aloud or independent reading book for a chapter book beginner.

Cons:  Not sure I would have been quite as forgiving of Jingles as this family is.

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Ski Soldier: A World War II Biography by Louise Borden

Published by Calkins Creek

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Summary:  Growing up in Sharon, Massachusetts, Pete Siebert taught himself to ski on an old pair of wooden skis he found in his parents’ barn.  As he got older, his parents took him and his sister to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where he became a proficient racer and vowed to one day open his own ski resort.  After graduating high school, he enlisted in the army, the 10th Mountain Division of soldiers on skis. After training in the Colorado Rockies, the division was shipped overseas to Italy, where they took part in a daring nighttime attack on Germans in the Apennines Mountains.  Pete was wounded so severely doctors weren’t sure he would walk again, but he was determined to ski. He persevered and recovered enough to make the 1950 U.S. men’s ski team. And in 1962, his boyhood dream came true when he opened the Vail Ski Resort in Colorado. Includes additional information about Pete Seibert and the 10th Mountain Division, as well as a list of sources.  176 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Told in verse, with plenty of photos, this story will appeal to skiers and World War II buffs.  It’s a quick read, but the story is engaging, and readers will learn a lot about Pete and an unusual chapter in military history.

Cons:  The cover makes the book look kind of old.

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