Who Will Bell the Cat? by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Christopher Cyr

Published by Holiday House

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Summary:  In this retelling of an Aesop’s fable, a group of mice takes care of a sick cat, only to be terrorized by her when she recovers.  The mice discuss how to solve their problem, and one of them suggests tying a bell around the cat’s neck so they can hear her coming. It’s a great idea, but who will do it?  They try and fail several times until a human family moves into the house. The young girl in the family finds the bell and ties it around the scowling feline’s neck. Now the cat problem is solved, but old Wise Mouse reminds them that humans can be even more dangerous.  “When you use a tiger to get rid of a lion, what will you do with the tiger?” 32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Large, realistic illustrations of cute animals illuminate this longer version of an ancient fable.  Readers can discuss the ending and what may happen to the cat and mice now that humans are on the scene.

Cons:  It’s kind of a downer.

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Knockout by K. A. Holt

Published by Chronicle Books

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Summary:  In these sequel to House Arrest, Levi, the sickly baby from the first book, is now in 7th grade.  Timothy, his older brother and the protagonist of book one, is applying to medical school.  Levi’s health has improved, but he still has some limitations, and his mother and brother tend to be overprotective.  His divorced dad is more laid-back and encourages Levi to try a sport. When Levi has a few sessions at the boxing gym, he proves to be a natural.  He ends up lying to both parents in order to continue pursuing the sport. In addition, his tendencies to be the class clown are pushing away his best friend, Tam, who is spending a lot of time with a new girl.  A medical crisis forces Levi to be honest with his friends and family, and to look at what is most important to him and what he can do to move in a new direction. 288 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Fans of K. A. Holt’s other books, as well as Kwame Alexander’s Booked, The Crossover, and Rebound will enjoy this fast-paced sports-themed novel in verse.  

Cons:  It took me a little while to warm up to Levi and get engaged in his story.

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I Got It! by David Wiesner

Published by Clarion Books

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Summary:  In this almost-wordless picture book, a boy convinces a slightly bigger kid to let him play baseball.  He’s sent to the outfield, and soon a ball is heading his way.  “I got it!” he calls, and immediately, a series of outcomes starts playing out in his mind.  The first is pretty straightforward: he trips over a root, falls on his face, and his teammates cringe in disbelief.  As the ball moves closer and closer to his glove, his imaginings get wilder: he pictures himself colliding with a tree; shrinking so that an enormous ball looms over him; flying with birds over the heads of his oversized teammates.  And then–”I got it!”–he catches the ball.  The other kids cheer wildly, and the boy walks off the field with them, confidently tossing the ball into the air.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Another (almost) wordless wonder from Caldecott medalist David Wiesner.  Readers will need to look closely to understand what is going on, but they will be rewarded with a happy and satisfying ending.  As always, the illustrations are gorgeous and wildly imaginative.

Cons:  I didn’t get it; I had to read reviews to figure out what was going on.  Once I understood the concept that the boy was imagining different outcomes, it all fell into place for me, but I’m guessing many kids will need some help understanding this.

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The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

Published by Arthur A. Levine Books

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Summary:  Candice is just trying to get through a terrible summer; she and her mother have temporarily moved to her late grandmother’s house in Lambert, South Carolina, while their home is being renovated so her newly-separated parents can sell it.  When she and her neighbor Brandon discover a letter in her grandmother’s attic, they are launched on a treasure hunt that takes them back to Lambert’s segregated past.  Scenes from the 1950’s through the 1980’s are interwoven with Candice’s and Brandon’s story so that the reader gradually learns about the mysterious James Parker who supposedly has left a fortune somewhere in Lambert.  When the two kids solve the final clue, the past meets the present and some of the wrongs from that past begin to be righted.  352 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  An amazing book that touches on racism, bullying, and homophobia without ever losing its light touch.  It also celebrates reading and puzzles, paying particular homage to The Westing Game.  Reading it, I was reminded of Holes in the way the narrative moved between the past and the present, and everything came together in the end.  Since both of those books won a Newbery Medal, why not this one as well?

Cons:  The solution to a key puzzle seemed impossibly esoteric.

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The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld

Published by Dial Books

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Image result for rabbit listened doerrfeld amazon

Summary:  Taylor (never identified as male or female) is proud of building a beautiful block tower, until a flock of birds flies through it and knocks it down.  Different animals come along to comfort Taylor; the chicken wants to talk about it, the bear gets angry, the elephant wants to remember exactly how the blocks were arranged, the hyena laughs, the ostrich hides its head, the kangaroo wants to clean up the mess, and the snake suggests knocking down someone else’s creation.  Taylor doesn’t want to do any of those things.  Then the rabbit comes along and sits next to Taylor.  The rabbit just listens as Taylor talks, shouts, remembers, laughs, hides, throws things away, and plans to ruin things for someone else.  Finally, the rabbit listens as Taylor plans to build another amazing structure. 40 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  A perfect vehicle for talking with children about how to be with someone who has experienced a loss.  Although it’s a weighty subject, the presentation is kept light with the cute and sometimes funny animals.

Cons:  There should be more rabbits in the world.

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Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  A man arrives at a lighthouse to take his new job as its keeper.  A cutaway illustration shows him busy, tending the light, painting the walls, and cooking food.  Despite his activity, he’s lonely, and often writes messages that he puts in bottles and tosses into the sea.  After awhile, a tender arrives, bringing supplies and the man’s wife.  They are happy together in the lighthouse, and eventually they’re joined by a third person, their new daughter.  Several years later, electricity comes to the lighthouse, and the family moves away.  A fold-out final page shows a little house on the coast, lights from its windows shining to meet the light coming from their old lighthouse home.  Includes additional information about lighthouses and the people who kept them going.  48 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  A lovely blend of fact and fiction, Caldecott winner Sophie Blackall makes life in a lighthouse seem indescribably cozy, while presenting each scene creatively (I especially admired the lighthouse cutaway, the shipwreck, and the circular images of the wife in labor).  Hello, my new favorite picture book of 2018!

Cons:  I suspect real life in a lighthouse was not this idyllic.  This sentence in the author’s note about foghorns particularly caught my attention: “Some lighthouse keepers learned to sleep through the din of the horn; others nearly went mad when the fog lasted for days.”

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Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez, illustrated by Felicita Sala

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

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Image result for joan procter dragon doctor

Summary:  From the time she was a young girl, Joan Procter loved reptiles.  Instead of a doll, she carried around her favorite lizard, and she got a pet crocodile for her 16th birthday.  She started hanging out with the curator of reptiles and fish at the Natural History Museum when she was still in high school. He was impressed enough to hire Joan as his assistant, and she eventually took over his job when he retired.  From there, she went to work at the London Zoo, designing a new reptile house. The most amazing part of her new creation was the exhibit featuring Komodo dragons, a fabled but little-known animal from Indonesia.  People assumed they were ferocious, but Joan soon learned they were quite gentle, and one of them, Sumbawa, became something of a pet to her. He often accompanied her around the zoo, at children’s tea parties she held there, and even at a scientific presentation at the Zoological Society in London.  An author’s note gives more biographical information, including the sad fact that Joan was sickly much of her life and died at the age of 34. 40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  Kids will warm up right away to Joan and her love of animals; they’ll also be inspired by her groundbreaking work as a woman scientist.  The illustrations are beautiful, especially the ones of the reptiles.  And who doesn’t love a Komodo dragon?

Cons:  Hopefully no reader will be inspired to bring a baby crocodile to math class, like Joan did.

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