Giving Thanks: How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday by Denise Kiernan, illustrated by Jamey Christoph

Published by Philomel Books

Summary:  Starting with a few thoughts about gratitude and how it’s expressed around the world, the book moves to the history of American Thanksgiving, with Sarah Josepha Hale’s campaign to create a national Thanksgiving holiday.  Abraham Lincoln finally agreed, declaring the holiday for November 26, 1863.  It was challenging to find much to be grateful for in the midst of the Civil War, but people celebrated and have continued to up to the present.  Turkey dinners, marching bands, and soup kitchens are all depicted as ways Thanksgiving is observed, and readers are asked to cite their own favorite parts of Thanksgiving.  Includes additional resources.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  An excellent resource for those revisiting the history of Thanksgiving, as no mention is made of the Pilgrims or the Wampanoag.  It’s a good update to Thank You Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving by Laurie Halse Anderson (2002).  The excellent illustrations will serve as a good springboard for discussing kids’ heritages and traditions.

Cons:  It felt like the book tried to cover a lot of ground, making it feel a bit disjointed at times.

Boo! Hiss! By Cyndi Marko

Published by Aladdin

Summary:  Phyllis the ghost and Sheldon the snake have a pretty good life together in an old abandoned house, until–horrors!–a human family moves in.  The two of them flee to the attic where they make plans to take the house back again.  They start with the baby, who thinks they are a couple of fun toys, then move on to the older boy, who’s too absorbed in his book and science project to pay any attention.  Back in the attic, Phyllis and Sheldon get in a huge argument over who is scary or not scary, and the family hears lots of strange noises as a result, convincing them to move out.  Suddenly, the snake and ghost start to notice the humans’ more endearing traits and decide they’ve been wrong.  Their “un-scare plan” does the trick, and everyone settles back into the house–all together.  80 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  A cute graphic early chapter book that makes a perfect not-too-scary book just right for this time of year.  

Cons:  This seems like a great series starter, but I don’t see any evidence of book 2.

Always, Clementine by Carlie Sorosiak

Published by Walker Books US

Summary:  Clementine is a super intelligent mouse who has spent her whole life in the lab that bred her and several other mice.  Her closest friend is a chimpanzee named Rosie who also lives in the lab, and whom Clementine sneaks out to visit at night.  Told in a series of letters to Rosie, the story opens with a researcher named Felix stealing/rescuing Clementine and another identical mouse (he just wants Clementine but can’t tell the two apart) and leaving them in a mailbox.  This turns out to belong to a boy named Gus and his grandfather, Pop, who soon discover the mice.  As they get to know Clementine, they realize she is no ordinary mouse, and the APB alert from the lab that they see on TV helps them to understand more about her.  They also learn from the TV that the scientists plan to kill Clementine so that they can study her brain, and they begin to hatch a plan to rescue her, a plan that involves Pop’s background as a chess champion.  Freed from the lab, Clementine learns more about who she really is and how she can use her gifts to help herself and other animals.  Includes an author’s note with additional information about lab animals.  304 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Starting with the adorable cover, this is a book that is sure to appeal to animal lovers and may turn some of them into activists.

Cons:  I felt like I never really got to know Rosie.

Maya’s Song by Renée Watson, illustrated by Bryan Collier

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  Maya Angelou’s story is told in a collection of free verse poems, illustrated with watercolor and collage illustrations.  The story begins with her birth in 1928 and continues through her childhood spent in California, Arkansas, and Missouri, where “her mother’s boyfriend hurt her body, hurt her soul,” leading Maya to stop speaking for five years.  Her love of poetry helped her to recover her voice, and she went on to become a singer and then a poet, befriending James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.  Her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings brought her to national prominence; the story ends with her reading a poem at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration, fulfilling her grandmother’s prophecy that she would be a preacher and a teacher.  Includes a timeline and notes from the author and illustrator.  48 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  This amazing poetry biography is sure to be considered for multiple awards for both the writing and the illustrations.  I was immediately drawn into Maya Angelou’s story; Renée Watson is a masterful poet who tells the most difficult aspects of that story in a way that can be shared with young children.  The illustrations are gorgeous, layered with colors and patterns.

Cons:  No additional resources are given.

Farmhouse by Sophie Blackall 

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  The story of a farmhouse and the family of 14 that lived there is told in one long rhyming sentence.  Starting in the front hallway, the action seamlessly transitions to the parlor (the “serious room”), the attic bedroom where all 12 kids sleep and dream, the barn with its prize-winning cows, the fields, and then back to the kitchen and dining room.  Things wrap up back in the front hall where the youngest child, now an old woman, waits for her sister to pick her up to “drive to the sea, which they’d always wanted to see.”  The farmhouse, now abandoned, settles and is taken over by animals and weather until Sophie discovers it, finding objects that spark her imagination and lead her to the creation of this book.  Includes an author’s note about her discovery of the farmhouse and creation of the illustrations. 48 pages; ages 4-104.

Pros:  There’s been a fair amount of buzz around this book, and I am here to tell you that it’s all true.  I got kind of emotional at the end, appreciating the circle of life that took place in this old farmhouse, and the way it inspired the creation of a beautiful work of art.  The note at the end made me go back and marvel at the details and layers of each illustration. To not consider this for a Caldecott would be a crime against the literary establishment.

Cons:  If you’re trying to teach kids not to write in run-on sentences, you may need to look elsewhere for a mentor text.

What Isabella Wanted: Isabella Stewart Gardner Builds a Museum by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Matthew Cordell

Published by Neal Porter Books

Summary:  The story begins and ends with the empty picture frames hanging in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum following the 1990 robbery of thirteen works of art worth $500 million.  In between, the reader learns of the eccentric Isabella who knew exactly what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to do what she needed to do to get it–even if it meant breaking some laws to obtain European and Asian artworks.  She built the museum herself, living on the top floor and displaying the art on the other three.  When it was done, she opened it to the public twenty days a year for more than twenty years.  Today, the museum is still a highlight to visit in Boston.  Includes an extensive author’s note with more information about Isabella (including her unethical collection practices) and a bibliography.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The lively free verse text and illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Matthew Cordell bring Isabella and her museum to life and pose intriguing questions about the art theft.

Cons:  This is another New England Book Award finalist (the winner was Keepunumuk by Danielle Greendeer in case you’re interested) and may not be of as much interest to those living outside of New England.

Two-Headed Chicken by Tom Angleberger

Published by Walker Books

Summary:  This is a graphic novel about a two-headed chicken being chased through the multiverse by a fried chicken-loving moose.  Each time it/they is/are about to be eaten, the chicken(s) use its/their Astrohat to escape to another universe.  Along the way, there are quizzes, the world’s longest knock-knock joke, and a fish who wants to talk to you about your feelings.  Just when you feel like you can’t handle another universe, you are suddenly in the book, telling the chicken(s) to hurry up and defeat the moose already.  Which they do.  Using the world’s longest knock-knock joke.  208 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  It’s funny, it’s ridiculous, it’s annoying in a good way, and kids will love it.

Cons:  Sadly, I didn’t have jury duty, so I couldn’t run the experiment I tried with Tom Angleberger’s The Rat With the Human Face.

Big Truck Little Island by Chris Van Dusen

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  A truck carrying a 20-ton load arrives by barge to a small island with narrow roads.  Before long, it has skidded off the road and into the mud, backing up traffic on either side.  The kids inside the cars are impatient to get where they’re going.  While their parents stew in the car, the kids get out and problem-solve.  They all know each other, so the two going in one direction agree to temporarily trade cars with the two going the other way.  They’re able to turn around and keep going to their destinations.  Meanwhile the truck gets helped back onto the road and is able to make its delivery: a huge Ferris wheel which is soon set up at the carnival.  Includes a note about the event in Vinalhaven, Maine that inspired this story.  32 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  The rhyming text tells a good story about cooperation and sharing, but it’s the illustrations that really steal the show.  Anyone who is at all mechanically inclined will enjoy the large, colorful pictures of the barge, the truck, and the Ferris wheel. This book was a finalist for the New England Book Award, which I only recently learned about.

Cons:  I lived in Rockport, Maine for a year and never made it to Vinalhaven.

I Am Ruby Bridges by Ruby Bridges, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith

Published by Orchard Books

Summary:  Ruby Bridges tells her story of integrating William Frantz Elementary School in 1960 at the age of six.  While she has heard of Brown v. Board of Education, she is more interested in making friends and who her teacher will be.  She is surprised to be driven to school by four white men, to have a white principal, and most of all, to discover that she is the only student in her classroom.  Seeing that empty classroom makes her finally realize what is going on: she is the first Black child to attend the school, and that will allow other Black students to go there too.  “And that’s a good thing, for Black kids.  For white kids, too…for all the kids, once they finally get here!”  Includes a glossary and notes from the author and illustrator.  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  An inspiring autobiography with bold illustrations that capture young Ruby’s humor and courage.  If you’re looking for a Black history read-aloud for primary grades, this is a perfect choice that shows kids the powerful difference one six-year-old made in a way that they will relate to.

Cons:  You will probably want to supplement this with additional material to explain to kids exactly what it was Ruby did.

Ride On by Faith Erin Hicks

Published by First Second

Summary:  Best friends Norrie, Hazel, and Sam are mystified by the new rider at Edgewood Stables.  Hazel recognizes her as Victoria, a girl she saw compete in a show at the more elite Waverly Stables.  Impetuous Norrie is certain that she’s a spy, sent over to check out the competition, but as the three get to know her, they learn the truth.  Victoria loves to ride but is not as a hardcore a competitor as her former best friend Taylor.  When Taylor refused to let Victoria ride her new horse, they had a falling out, and Victoria left Waverly.  The new group at Edgewood bonds over horses, of course, but also their favorite cheesy sci-fi TV show Beyond the Galaxy.  Between preparing for an upcoming competition and planning a stunt to celebrate the revival of BTG after a 20-year hiatus, the four friends have a busy time of it and come to appreciate the power of their friendship.  Includes an author’s note about her experiences growing up around horses.  224 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Graphic novel fans are going to love this story of Victoria and her new friends at Edgewood.  The story line is engaging and moves easily between the past and present to slowly reveal what brought Victoria to the new stable, and the artwork is gorgeous, especially the portrayals of horses.

Cons:  I hope the author won’t wait as long as the Beyond the Galaxy producers to create a sequel.