Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by Jeff Gottesfeld, illustrated by Matt Tavares (released March 2)

Published by Candlewick

Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: Gottesfeld,  Jeff, Tavares, Matt: 9781536201482: Books
Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: Gottesfeld,  Jeff, Tavares, Matt: 9781536201482: Books

Summary:  “The Sentinel’s Creed” appears before the title page, showing the promise made by those who guard the tomb of the unknown soldier.  The narrative is in the first person voice of the unknown soldier, telling the history of the tomb beginning with the soldier’s ultimate sacrifice made in World War I.  In 1921, an unknown was chosen to represent all those who had died in the war and could not be identified.  Over the years, crowds came to see this monument, not always respectfully, so on July 2, 1937, a sentinel began guarding it.  Each guard takes 21 steps south, turns to face east for 21 seconds, turns to face north for 21 seconds, then takes another 21 steps.  The Tomb Guard is one of the most difficult positions to attain in the military, and each sentinel strives for perfection in carrying out his or her duty.  Includes an afterword with a bit more additional information about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  32 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  File this one away for Memorial Day.  It’s a solemn acknowledgement of all the many anonymous soldiers whose lives have tragically been lost to war.  As always, Matt Tavares has created exceptional illustrations to capture the sober topic and the seriousness of purpose of the sentinels.

Cons:  While I appreciated the afterword, I could have enjoyed a lot more backmatter, including photos and information about other monuments to the unknown soldier, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Sydney and Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World by Jacqueline Davies, illustrated by Deborah Hocking (released February 2)

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers Sydney and Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World (9780358106319):  Davies, Jacqueline, Hocking, Deborah: Books

Summary:  Sydney the skunk and Taylor the hedgehog live in a burrow under Miss Nancy’s potting shed.  Sydney’s pretty happy staying at home, warming his feet by the fire, but Taylor has an itch to explore.  So Sydney, a supportive friend, agrees to go on an adventure with Taylor.  After a few packing mishaps, the two set off, map in hand, to explore the world.  Danger awaits them everywhere, as they get lost, face down an angry dog, and almost get run over by a truck.  Taylor has an unfortunate tendency to roll himself, hedgehog-style, into a ball, and it’s up to Sydney to figure out a solution to their problems.  Miss Nancy proves herself an unexpected ally as well.  They finally make it safely back to the burrow, where Sydney proclaims it “the best expedition ever,” before adding, “Promise me we’ll never do it again.”  80 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  This cozy friendship story will undoubtedly charm those just beginning to read chapter books.  I loved the opening illustration of the two friends’ burrow, and the pictures throughout were pretty appealing.  I couldn’t help wondering if the animals’ names were an homage to All-of-a-Kind-Family author Sydney Taylor.

Cons:  As animal friendship stories for beginning readers go, this one didn’t feel terribly original.

Moose, Goose, and Mouse by Mordicai Gerstein, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein and Jeff Mack

Published by Holiday House Moose, Goose, and Mouse (9780823447602): Gerstein, Mordicai,  Mack, Jeff: Books

Summary:  A mouse, moose, and goose are in the market for a new house, as theirs is old, cold, and full of mold.  Their requirements for a new place include: sunny, funny, and comes with a bunny.  They go house-hunting in a train’s caboose, but when the caboose gets loose, chaos ensues.  After a wild ride, the caboose comes to a crashing halt near the sea.  It’s sunny, living in an upside-down caboose is funny, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s even a bunny!  Mission accomplished.  Includes a note from Jeff Mack on how he and Mordicai Gerstein collaborated on this book, and how he completed it after Mordicai passed away in September of 2019.  32 pages; ages 3-7.

Pros:  The rhyming words and ridiculous situations are sure to lead to some rollicking good fun with preschoolers.  I’m usually not a fan of books published posthumously, but Jeff Mack’s note really clarified how the work was done, and this feels very true to Mordicai Gerstein’s original vision for the book.

Cons:  R.I.P. Mordicai Gerstein.

A Year of Everyday Wonders by Cheryl B. Klein, illustrated by Qin Leng

Published by Harry N. Abrams

A Year of Everyday Wonders: Klein, Cheryl B., Leng, Qin: 9781419742088: Books
A Year of Everyday Wonders: Klein, Cheryl B., Leng, Qin: 9781419742088: Books

Summary: “First day of the new year,” begins this book, showing a girl, her brother, and their parents waking up on New Year’s Day. The year of “firsts” continues: first snowfall, first short sleeves, first summer storm, first new teacher. Some events are repeated: by the end of the year, the count is up to 384 for sister-brother fights, but the two manage a gift-getting, hugging reconciliation on Christmas. The final pages show the last wake-up, last snowfall, and last bedtime stories before cycling back to the first day of a new year. 40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros: This is a perfect book to start a new year, with charming watercolor and ink illustrations and milestones that will ring true for most readers.

Cons: 384 seems a conservative estimate for sibling fights in a year.

Five favorite graphic novels

My final list for 2020 is my favorite graphic novels, always a fun one for me! I’m going to post one more review tomorrow of the perfect new year’s book, then take a vacation for a few weeks and start to read some 2021 books. Happy new year to you all!

Class Act by Jerry Craft

Published by Quill Tree Books

Class Act: Craft, Jerry, Craft, Jerry: 9780062885500: Books

Jerry Craft outdid himself in his sequel to last year’s Newbery Medalist New Kid. This one followed Jordan’s friend Drew, and asks some hard questions about race and inequality while keeping its light touch and kid appeal.

Fox & Rabbit Make Believe by Beth Ferry, illustrated by Gergely Dudás

Published by Amulet Books Fox & Rabbit Make Believe (Fox & Rabbit Book #2)  (9781419746871): Ferry, Beth, Dudás, Gergely: Books

I can’t wait to get back to school and start introducing the younger graphic novel fans to Fox and Rabbit. There’s plenty of gently humor and friendship stories that include a couple of great sidekicks. Look for book 3 in April 2021.

Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goerz

Published by Dial Books

Shirley and Jamila Save Their Summer (Shirley & Jamila): Goerz, Gillian:  9780525552864: Books

I didn’t read many mysteries this year, but this one was a ton of fun, with a quirky nod to Sherlock Holmes and Watson.

Twins by Varlan Johnson, illustrated by Shannon Wright

Published by Graphix

Twins: A Graphic Novel (1): Johnson, Varian, Wright, Shannon:  9781338236170: Books

Two years later, I’m still trying to recover from the fact that Varian Johnson didn’t win the Newbery for The Parker Inheritance. Thankfully, Mr. Johnson has moved on to produce this series opener about identical twins who begin to discover their differences in middle school and wind up running against each other for class president. It’s billed as book 1…here’s hoping there will be more.

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh

Published by First Second

Snapdragon: Leyh, Kat: 9781250171115: Books

Kat Leyh packed a lot into this unique story, including gender and sexuality issues, domestic abuse, and a touch of magic. This is the fifth year running that at least one of my graphic novel favorites has been published by First Second, and I applaud their standards for high quality and innovation.

Five favorite early chapter books

I wish there were more books published that fit into this category: chapter books for the 7-to-9-year-old crowd that are substantial without being too heavy, that still have illustrations, and that are great to read aloud or independently. Here are five of my favorites that fit that description this year.

The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman, illustrated by Tracy Nishimura Bishop

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

The Silver Arrow: Grossman, Lev: 9780316539531: Books

At 272 pages, this is pretty long for the “early chapter book” genre, but I’m including it on this list because it would make a great read-aloud for that audience. It’s also perfect for those precocious second- and third-grade readers who have out grown the true early chapter books but aren’t quite ready to tackle some of the topics in a lot of middle-grade fiction. And it has a lot of great illustrations!

Real Pigeons Fight Crime by Andrew McDonald, illustrated by Ben Wood

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers Real Pigeons Fight Crime (Book 1) (9780593119426): McDonald,  Andrew, Wood, Ben: Books

We here at A Kids Book a Day take pride in our eclectic tastes and are not tied to some pretentious definition of “great literature”. So yes, Real Pigeons is on this “best of” list, okay? It’s funny, it straddles the graphic novel/chapter book divide, and there’s plenty of action. I would be proud to recommend this to any second grader who asks me.

A Collie Called Sky (Jasmine Green Rescues) by Helen Peters, illustrated by Ellie Snowdon

Published by Walker Books/Candlewick

Jasmine Green Rescues: A Collie Called Sky: Peters, Helen, Snowdon, Ellie:  9781536215717: Books

I haven’t seen too much of this British import series, but I really liked it and would recommend it to any kid who loves animals. Jasmine seems poised to follow in her veterinarian mother’s footsteps, being smart and passionate about animals. It’s a bit long for an early chapter book (160 pages), but has plenty of illustrations to keep things moving along.

A Long Road on a Short Day by Gary D. Schmidt and Elizabeth Stickney, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin

Published by Clarion Books

A Long Road on a Short Day: Schmidt, Gary D., Stickney, Elizabeth, Yelchin,  Eugene: 9780544888364: Books

Short enough (64 pages) for a second- or third-grader, yet with enough substance to keep a fifth grader engaged, this is a perfect introduction to historical fiction. I think Gary D. Schmidt and his late wife Elizabeth Stickney are the only authors to make it on to two of my favorites lists this year.

Ways to Make Sunshine by Renée Watson, illustrated by Nina Mata

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Ways to Make Sunshine (A Ryan Hart Novel, 1): Watson, Renée, Mata, Nina:  9781547600564: Books

Another longish book (192 pages), but with a large font and enough illustrations to make it a perfect third-grade read. This book felt like a modern-day Beverly Cleary book and would be great to read aloud, as each chapter is its own small story. Be excited book that 2 coming out in the spring of 2021!

Another list of six: favorite nonfiction books

Your Place in the Universe by Jason Chin

Published by Neal Porter Books

Your Place in the Universe: Chin, Jason: 9780823446230: Books

I notice that Jason Chin has made it onto three of my last five favorite nonfiction book lists, so guess I’m a bit of a fan. His illustrations are awe-inspiring, and I loved the comparisons in this book that made enormous numbers and sizes a little more understandable.

Grow: Secrets of Our DNA by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton

Published by Candlewick

Grow: Secrets of Our DNA: Davies, Nicola, Sutton, Emily: 9781536212723: Books

Explaining DNA and genetics in a way that’s accessible to readers as young as kindergarten is no easy feat, but Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton pulled it off. Watson and Crick would be proud.

We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World by Todd Hasak-Lowy

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers

We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World: Hasak-Lowy, Todd:  9781419741111: Books

I thought I knew a fair amount about nonviolent activism–I’m a Quaker, for Pete’s sake–but I learned so much from reading this book. 2020 had its share of activism and books about activism, but this was the one I found most inspiring.

The Fabled Life of Aesop by Ian Lendler, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

The Fabled Life of Aesop: The extraordinary journey and collected tales of  the world's greatest storyteller: Lendler, Ian, Zagarenski, Pamela:  9781328585523: Books

I’m sure Aesop never imagined he’d be part of the Common Core, but there he is. As a school librarian, I am grateful for this comprehensive introduction to his life and fables, and I also appreciated the sly observations on what it means to have power. Pamela Zagarenski has a couple of Caldecott honors to her name, so don’t count her out this year.

Facts vs. Opinions vs. Robots by Michael Rex

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books Facts vs. Opinions vs. Robots (9781984816269): Rex, Michael,  Rex, Michael: Books

Who knew that when I was playing Kick the Can with Michael Rex and the rest of our neighbors in 1970’s suburban New Jersey that in 2020 I’d be reviewing his book? Well done, Michael, I loved your take on facts vs. opinions. Librarians everywhere should thank you for this book.

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat

Published by Candlewick Press

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team -  Kindle edition by Soontornvat, Christina. Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon .com.

I guess none of us should be surprised that this drama we watched unfold a couple of years ago would be made into a gripping nonfiction tale. Christina Soontornvat added so much context with her sidebars on Thailand, caves, and Buddhism, as well as her personal connection to the story that readers get much more than just a survival story.

Five (okay, six) more favorite chapter books

I struggled to get this list down to five–the random magic number I have chosen for each of these lists. I couldn’t bear to remove any of them, though, so here are the six.

The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman

Published by Viking Books for Young Readers

The Blackbird Girls: Blankman, Anne: 9781984837356: Books

There’s a lot to this book, and it’s probably not for every reader, but those who love historical fiction and strong girl characters will take Valentina and Oksana to heart as they form an unlikely friendship in the aftermath of Chernobyl.

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

The Only Black Girls in Town: Colbert, Brandy: 9780316456388:  Books

Another outstanding friendship story featuring Alberta and Edie who are navigating mean girls, seventh grade, and a mystery that reveals the racism in their town’s history that has persisted to the present day.

96 Miles by J. L. Esplin

Published by Starscape

96 Miles: Esplin, J. L.: 9781250192288: Books

I do not typically use the expression “holy cow” in a book review, but I did indeed do that when reviewing this gripping survival story that I read practically in one sitting.

The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung

Published by Levine Querido

The Boys in the Back Row: Jung, Mike: 9781646140114: Books

This book struck just the right balance between funny middle school story and touching friendship story and made me realize how rare it is to find a middle-grade novel that celebrates boys’ friendships. As the cherry on top, it’s a love letter to marching band geeks like myself.

The Mystwick School of Musicraft by Jessica Khoury

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

The Mystwick School of Musicraft: Khoury, Jessica: 9781328625632:  Books

I always feel a bit guilty that I don’t review more fantasy books; I’ll admit it’s not my favorite genre. Once in awhile, though, I find a great one. I spent a few pleasant weeks this spring listening to Amelia Jones’s adventures at Mystwick on Audible and doing jigsaw puzzles. Despite 2020’s reputation, it has not been without its happy moments.

Brother’s Keeper by Julie Lee

Published by Holiday House

Brother's Keeper: Lee, Julie: 9780823444946: Books

I would not have predicted that a survival story featuring a brother and sister escaping from 1950 North Korea would have made it on to my list of favorite 2020 books, but look, here it is.

Five more favorite picture books

These were some of my personal favorites this year. As I look at the list, it seems to reflect 2020: lots of emphasis on the joys and sorrows of family and home.

Golden Threads by Suzanne Del Rizzo, illustrated by Miki Sato

Published by Owlkids

Golden Threads: Rizzo, Suzanne Del, Sato, Miki: 9781771473606:  Books

I loved this little fox and the friendship he finds with two different girls; also the concept of wabi-sabi that is explored in the story: finding beauty in things that are imperfect.

The Camping Trip by Jennifer Mann

Published by Candlewick

Camping Trip: 9781406393507: Books

This story perfectly captured a weekend camping trip: swimming, hiking, s’mores, homesickness. The illustrations reminded me a little bit of G. Brian Karas, upon whom I shall heap praise a bit further down.

Hike by Pete Oswald

Published by Candlewick

Hike: Oswald, Pete, Oswald, Pete: 9781536201574: Books

Another excellent introduction to the great outdoors, this one a wordless book celebrating a father-son bond created during their shared hike. This could easily have been on my Caldecott contender list.

Almost Time by Gary D. Schmidt and Elizabeth Stickney, illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Published by Clarion Almost Time (9780544785816): Schmidt, Gary D., Stickney,  Elizabeth, Karas, Mr. G. Brian: Books

A quiet story about waiting: for a tooth to fall out and for the maple sap to start running. This one also celebrates the father-son bond. And I am a sucker for G. Brian Karas illustrations.

Saturdays Are for Stella by Candy Wellins, illustrated by Charlie Eve Ryan

Published by Page Street Kids

Saturdays Are For Stella: Wellins, Candy, Eve Ryan, Charlie: 9781624149214: Books

With so many families experiencing loss this year, this book is a comforting read about the circle of life, and how joys and sorrows can balance each other out.

Five Newbery Predictions

My five-year record is slightly better for Newbery than Caldecott: five out of 25 predictions. I love the title of my post in 2018: “Five books I’d like to get a Newbery–and why I am probably wrong about just about all of them” (I should have left out the “just about”). With all these lists, I always enjoy hearing your ideas in the comments!

King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender

Published by Scholastic

King and the Dragonflies: Callender, Kacen: 9781338129335: Books

Having already won a Boston Globe/Horn Book Award and the National Book Award, King and the Dragonflies is likely to pick up a few more awards in January, including possibly the Newbery. It wasn’t a top favorite of mine, but I understand the book’s importance (middle grade novel with a gay black male protagonist), and I’d be remiss not to put it on my predictions list.

Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros

Published by Quill Tree Books

Efrén Divided: Cisneros, Ernesto: 9780062881687: Books

Ernesto Cisneros really hit one out of the park with his debut novel. Efrén is such a likeable, believable character, and his situation (undocumented parents, mom deported) is one all American kids should be aware of. I know this won’t influence the Newbery committee, but I love that cover! Also a likely contender for the Pura Belpré award.

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

Published by Dial Books

When Stars Are Scattered: Jamieson, Victoria, Mohamed, Omar, Jamieson,  Victoria, Geddy, Iman: 9780525553908: Books

The graphic memoir of two Somali brothers who spent much of their childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp…okay, I’ll admit it’s a long shot (especially when a graphic novel won the Newbery last year), but if I had to pick a favorite book from 2020, this would probably be it. And it was a National Book Award finalist, so one never knows.

We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly

Published by Greenwillow Books

We Dream Of Space: 9780063057807: Books

Erin Entrada Kelly masterfully weaves together the three third-person voices of siblings Bird, Fitch, and Cash during the weeks leading up to the 1986 Challenger explosion. Kelly won the 2018 Newbery for Hello, Universe; personally I enjoyed We Dream of Space even more.

A Game of Fox & Squirrels by Jenn Reese

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

A Game of Fox & Squirrels: Reese, Jenn: 9781250243010: Books

There were quite a few books dealing with child abuse this year, and if I’m being completely honest, probably Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a more likely winner. But there was something about Jenn Reese’s book that really won me over. Her approach to the subject was so unique, and the way she let the horror unfold, so subtle, that I’m choosing her for a place on my list.