Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

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Summary:  A brave group of seven kits ventures into a nearby den to hear what their mother has warned them will be the scariest story ever.  A mysterious storyteller begins with a story about a kit named Mia whose brothers and sisters contract a disease that turns them mad.  It’s pretty scary, and at the end of it, one of the kits decides to leave. The next story is about a kit named Uly who only has three paws, and who is terrorized by a fox named Mr. Scratch–who turns out to be his father.  That drives another kit from the den. And so it goes, with the stories of Mia and Uly eventually intersecting as they manage to escape from one harrowing situation after another. By the end, only the littlest kit is left. When she and the storyteller start talking, their identities are revealed, which neatly ties up the book with an unexpectedly happy ending.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  The scare level is just right for elementary kids, and animal lovers will enjoy it as well.  It’s a pretty long shot, but this book is so unique and so well-written, it would be fun to see it get some Newbery recognition.

Cons:  Beatrix Potter fans might want to skip the story entitled “House of Trix”. 

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The Quest for the Golden Fleas (Zeus the Mighty, Book 1) by Crispin Boyer

Published by Under the Stars (imprint of National Geographic)

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Summary:  Zeus the hamster lives with his friends Demeter (grasshopper), Athena (cat), and Ares (pug) at the Mount Olympus Pet Center.  Artie is the human who runs the center, but when she’s not around, the animals live a secret life, re-enacting the myths they hear on Artie’s  “Greeking Out” podcast.  When Zeus hears the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, he hears it as Golden Fleas, and becomes determined to go on a quest for the Fleas. But when a dragon (lizard) gets loose in the pet shop, it seems as the Demeter and her insect pals may be in danger.  Zeus has to choose between his quest and helping his friend. It’s one adventure after another as the animals survive dangers and learn the true meaning of friendship. Includes additional information on Greek mythology and the gods and goddesses referenced in the story.  187 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Combining Greek mythology with a bunch of lovable pets is sure to be a winning formula for elementary readers.  Lots of illustrations add to the appeal. Look for book 2 coming in May 2020.

Cons:  Zeus isn’t exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

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A Race Around the World: The True Story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland by Caroline Starr Rose, illustrated by Alexandra Bye

Published by Albert Whitman and Co.

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Summary:  In 1889, reporter Nellie Bly declared she could travel around the world in 75 days.  She convinced her boss at the New York World to let her try, and on November 14, she set off from New Jersey.  When Elizabeth Bisland’s boss at Cosmopolitan magazine read about her trip, he convinced her to take a train to San Francisco that night and try to beat Bly back to New York.  The two women, traveling in opposite directions, took trains and ships from one destination to the next, as readers followed their adventures.  Nellie returned on January 25, 1890, to cheering crowds and a ten-cannon salute. Elizabeth made it back on January 30 to a much smaller crowd. But both women had made it in under 80 days, breaking the previous record.  Elizabeth, who had been something of a homebody before, traveled and wrote for the rest of her days. Includes an author’s note and three additional sources. 32 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  My daughter loved Nellie Bly when she was younger.  Come to think of it, I wrote in my eighth grade diary that I wanted to be a reporter like Nellie after reading how she went undercover to report on insane asylums.  So I know Nellie’s story is captivating to kids.  I didn’t know about Elizabeth Bisland, but it makes a great tale to follow both women’s adventures as they hurried around the world.

Cons:  Photos and/or more research material would have made a nice addition, so here’s one for you now.  Elizabeth is on the left, Nellie on the right.

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Little Libraries, Big Heroes by Miranda Paul, illustrated by John Parra

Published by Clarion Books

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Summary:  Even when Todd struggled in school, his mom told him he could be whatever he wanted to be.  After she died, he remembered her teaching neighborhood kids to read and decided to build a box shaped like a small schoolhouse and fill it with books.  His neighbors noticed it during a yard sale, and their enthusiasm inspired Todd to build more boxes. When sales remained flat, Todd and his friend Rick traveled around the midwest, planting boxes in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota.  Their efforts made the news, and little libraries became a big thing. There are now libraries all over the U.S. and around the world. Todd was a hero, the people who were inspired by his idea are heroes, and maybe one day you will start a little library and be a hero too.  Includes an author’s note and additional sources of information. 40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  I always enjoy Miranda Paul’s inspiring nonfiction picture books, and I like how this one emphasizes that even ordinary people can become heroes.  Readers will come away with an idea of something they can do today to help others.

Cons:  You’d think I would be all over the little library idea, but somehow it has never really grabbed me.  Guess I just prefer big libraries.

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Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly

Published by Greenwillow

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Summary:  Lalani lives in a village suffering under a drought.  She takes a trip up the forbidden mountain near the village, and meets a strange man there who grants her wish for rain.  Unfortunately, he causes the rain to fall without ceasing, and when flooding begins, the villagers blame Lalani. Meanwhile, her mother has fallen ill with mender’s disease, an illness that is nearly always fatal.  Lalani decides to travel over the sea to the fabled land of Isa. Many men from her village have sailed away in search of this land, but have never returned. Her voyage turns out to be perilous, but she is kind to all the strange creatures she meets, and they help her get the help she’s seeking.  Her friends at home take care of some difficult situations there, so that everyone is reunited for a happily-ever-after ending. 400 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  I wouldn’t be surprised to see this win the Newbery medal or honor.  It’s a beautifully written book with amazing world building that is based on Filipino folklore.  There are many interesting characters (human and otherwise), settings, and legends that fans of folklore-inspired fantasy are sure to love.

Cons:  While I can appreciate the mastery at work here, this genre is just not my cup of tea, so I really had to push through to the end.  If you liked The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill or Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, you will undoubtedly love this.  If you didn’t, come sit next to me.

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Pokko and the Drum by Matthew Forsythe

Published by Simon and Schuster

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Summary:  “The biggest mistake Pokko’s parents ever made was giving her a drum.”  Pokko’s playing is so loud they can’t hear each other talking.  One day, her dad suggests she take it outside, reminding her, “We’re just a little frog family that lives in a mushroom, and we don’t like drawing attention to ourselves.”  As Pokko bangs her drum through the forest, a raccoon is seen lurking. A banjo-playing raccoon, that is, who joins in. Next comes a rabbit with a trumpet, and a wolf who just enjoys the music. When the wolf eats the rabbit, Pokko sternly informs him that is not allowed, opening the way for all members of the food chain to join the band.  At the end of the day, the group sweeps into Pokko’s house and carries her parents along. “I think that’s Pokko down in front!” exclaims her father. “And you know what? I think she’s pretty good!” 64 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  I found this book pretty hilarious, and the message of literally marching to the beat of your own drum is deftly delivered.  The watercolor illustrations give the story a slightly surreal, slightly retro feel.

Cons:  The wolf eating the rabbit felt like an unnecessarily disturbing detail.

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Shine! By J.J. and Chris Grabenstein

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  When Piper’s dad gets a job at the exclusive Chumley Prep, he’s thrilled that Piper will be able to attend seventh grade at the school where her late mother was a star.  Piper’s not so sure about going to school with all the rich, smart students at Chumley; she’s always thought of herself as someone who blends into the background. But when the Excelsior award is offered for the student who best exemplifies excellence during the winter term, Piper can’t help getting caught up in the excitement.  Mean girl Ainsley is out to crush the competition, but Piper’s quirky but loyal new friends want to see someone from their group win for a change. Piper’s love for science seems like a path to set her apart, but life isn’t always fair at her new school. She finds herself having to choose between winning and doing the right thing for her new friends…and for herself.  224 pages; grades 3-6

Pros:  Chris Grabenstein has a talent for writing funny, engaging stories that even reluctant readers enjoy, and this new offering, written with his wife, is sure to be popular.  The message that kindness counts more than winning is one that teachers and parents will embrace as well.

Cons:  Once again, I find myself feeling jaded; after reading a plethora of positive reviews, I found this story pretty predictable with a cast of characters (rich, snobby mean girl; quirky best friends; eccentric but kind teachers) one that I have seen more than once before.

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