The Perfect Score by Rob Buyea

Published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Gavin, Natalie, Trevor, Scott, and Randi are all looking forward to sixth grade with Mr. Mitchell, and are dismayed when they learn at the end of the summer that he has left, replaced with Mrs. Woods who is coming out of retirement to teach them.  Each kid is struggling with different issues, including an abusive brother (Trevor), an overly ambitious mom pushing her in gymnastics (Randi), a know-it-all attitude that’s resulted in no friends (Natalie), learning disabilities (Gavin), and immaturity and impulsivity (Scott).  They take turns telling the story of how each gradually comes to enjoy Mrs. Woods’ teaching style, only to see the best parts of sixth grade disappear to make way for standardized test preparation.  The test becomes high-stakes for each one of them for a different reason, and the stress about not doing well results in a plan to cheat.  When their perfect scores arouse suspicion, the truth comes out, but with it comes the truth about many of the other issues in the kids’ lives.  There’s a lot to resolve with both students and teachers, but the school year ends on a high note.  368 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Fans of the author’s Mr. Terupt series will enjoy this new book told in a similar style, with five different narrators.  Many readers will find something to connect with in at least one of the main characters.

Cons:  In today’s Common Core world, a straight multiple choice standardized test seems unrealistic.

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Small Walt by Elizabeth Verdick, pictures by Marc Rosenthal

Published by Simon and Schuster

Summary:  When a blizzard hits town, most of the snowplow drivers go for the big, tough plows.  But Gus agrees to drive Walt, the smallest one in the fleet, and Walt is determined not to let him down.  They plug along through town, and Walt keeps himself going with rhymes such as, “My name is Walt. I plow and I salt. I clear the snow so the cars can go!”  Finally, they reach a high hill with the biggest drifts Gus has ever seen.  “I don’t think we’re up to this,” he says, but Walt has different ideas.  With a bit of slipping and sliding, they make it to the top, then back down again, with mega snowplow Big Buck following close behind.  At dawn, they head back to the parking lot, and even Big Buck has grudging words of admiration for Walt.  As for Gus, he takes off his blue scarf and ties it around Walt’s rearview mirror, cementing their friendship for snowstorms yet to come.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A cross between Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Little Engine That Could, this is a charming story of persistence and optimism with pleasantly retro illustrations.  A perfect read-aloud for the coming winter months.

Cons:  For the purpose of story hours and kids chanting along with a repeated refrain, Walt should have made up one rhyme and stuck with it.  Instead, he kept changing it.

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Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome

Published by Holiday House

Summary:  Harriet Tubman’s story is told in reverse, beginning when she is “an old woman/tired and worn/her legs stiff/her back achy”.  Before that, she was a suffragist, and before that, a Union spy.  The narrative continues back in time, showing Harriet as Moses, conducting slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, and finally, all the way back to a child named Araminta, “who dreamed/of living long enough/to one day/be old/stiff and achy/tired and worn and wrinkled/and free”.  32 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros: A brief, poetic look at Harriet Tubman’s life and many achievements, beautifully illustrated by Coretta Scott King medalist James Ransome.

Cons:  I was disappointed that there was no back matter giving more biographical information.

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The Friendship Code (Girls Who Code book 1) by Stacia Deutsch

Published by Penguin Workshop

Summary:  Lucy is excited to learn how to code in a new after-school club.  Her best friend, Anjali, is part of the theater club, and Lucy doesn’t have any coding friends.  When she gets an anonymous note written in code, she enlists some of the other girls from the club to try to help her solve the mystery.  With the help of her older brother Alex, Lucy and her three new friends create a game that eventually reveals the identity of the note writer.  By the time the mystery is solved, the four have formed a friendship and are ready to move along to book #2.  144 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Two books about girls coding in the same week!  This one manages to sneak a few coding lessons into a book about friendship that coders and non-coders (and soon-to-be coders) will all enjoy.  Written by the creator of the Girls Who Code movement (www.girlswhocode.com) that is starting coding clubs for girls all over North America.

Cons:  Anjali seemed like an extraneous character.

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Click’d by Tamara Ireland Stone

Published by Disney Hyperion

Summary:  Allie has worked hard at CodeGirls summer camp, developing at app called Click’d that’s designed to help people make friends.  Her final presentation is so successful that she’s invited to enter the annual Games4Good competition, where  young programmers showcase their games designed to make the world a better place.  Allie’s plan is to keep Click’d under wraps until after the competition, but her friends’ enthusiasm is so flattering that she ends up releasing it early.  Before long, much to Allie’s delight, the game goes viral, but within a few days there’s a security flaw, and one of her friend’s private texts appears on other kids’ phones.  Allie knows she has to fix the problem before the competition, but the only person who can help her is Nathan, another super coder at her school, a fellow competitor at Games4Good, and her long-time nemesis.  It’s a roller-coaster week for Allie as she navigates the highs and lows of both the tech industry and seventh grade.  304 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  A fast-paced, funny story about two smart and talented coders whose skills don’t always extend to the social world of middle school.  Good messages about friendships are subtly woven into the light, breezy plot.

Cons:  Click’d didn’t really seem like it belonged in the Games4Good contest, going up against other games that addressed homelessness and the world’s water supply.

Draw the Line by Kathryn Otoshi

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  Two boys are drawing lines in this wordless book, their backs to each other.  When they bump into each other, they connect their lines, and the line becomes a string.  The string is fun to play with, until the play turns mean.  As they engage in a tug-of-war, a chasm appears, gradually widening and pushing them further apart.  A shared smile creates the means for closing the gap, turning it into a path that they can travel on together.  48  pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This simple story and black-and-white illustrations could be a starting point for all kinds of discussions about friendship and conflict resolution.

Cons:  A review I read mentioned color in the illustrations, and there are colors in the picture (above) that I found online, but the copy of the book I had was all in black and white.

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The Trail by Meika Hashimoto

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Toby is hiking the Appalachian Trail from his home in Vermont to the northern end in Maine.  From the opening scene, it is evident he’s not as knowledgeable and well-prepared as he should be for such a strenuous journey, but it is equally clear that his determination comes from a need to prove himself.  As the story unfolds, the reader learns of the friendship between Lucas, the leader, and Toby, the follower, and of the bucket list they made one June with ten goals for the summer.  One of these, “Jump off the rope swing at the quarry”, led to Lucas’s death, and Toby’s guilt over this has driven him, a year later, to try to cross off the final item, “Hike the Appalachian Trail from Velvet Rocks to Katahdin”.  Along the way, he befriends two older boys; they save him from hypothermia, and Toby later saves one of their lives.  He also rescues an abused dog who teaches him the power of love. Toby’s growth as a hiker along the journey becomes a metaphor for his personal growth, as he finally learns to forgive himself and move on.  240 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Plenty of adventure and the gradual unfolding of Toby’s and Lucas’s story will keep readers moving quickly along The Trail.

Cons:  The whole “wilderness journey as life metaphor” has been done before (hello, Gary Paulsen); but of course that doesn’t mean readers won’t be able to enjoy yet another take on it.

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