Hissy Fitz by Patrick Jennings

Published by EgmontUSA

Summary:  Poor Hissy!  All he wants is a nap, but Georgie keeps talking to him about her day and school, Dad is into power tools, and three-year-old terror Zeb won’t leave him alone. Is it any wonder Hissy Fitz is cranky and ready to hiss at, spit on, or even scratch anyone who gets too close.  And then when the family’s finally asleep, Hissy’s hunting instinct kicks in, and all he can think of is going outside and slinking around the neighborhood.  Follow a day in the life of this grumpy but loveable cat.

Pros:  Lots of humor, short chapters, and frequent illustrations will make this a good choice for beginning chapter book readers.

Cons:  I remember now why I am a dog owner.

Hippos Are Huge! By Jonathan London, illustrated by Matthew Trueman

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  What is the most dangerous animal in Africa?  A lion? A crocodile?  No, it’s that adorable hippopotamus innocently wallowing in the mud.  Did you know a hippo can bite a crocodile in half, and run 25 miles per hour?  This book is packed with fascinating information about how hippos eat, fight, move, and reproduce.

Pros:  Kids of all ages will enjoy this excellent nonfiction book.  The brief, engaging text and large colorful illustrations make it appropriate to read aloud to preschoolers.  (They’d especially enjoy the double-page picture of males swatting balls of dung at each other with their tails.)  At the same time, there’s enough information here to write a pretty complete report.  There’s even a brief index with a note on how to use it. 

Cons:  The book starts off as a general introduction, then on page 12 introduces a specific hippo whom we follow through the rest of the book.  I didn’t quite catch on to this until the end of the book, which made for a little confusion.  I think the problem was the hippo’s name…Hippo.

Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Sydney Smith

Published by Groundwood Books

Summary:  In this wordless picture book, a little girl in a red coat is walking home from the grocery store with her busy, distracted (think cell phone) father.  As they walk, she finds flowers growing in sidewalk cracks.  Their trip through the city is drab and gray, with her coat and the flowers the only bits of color.  Halfway through, they enter a park, and she starts leaving the flowers as gifts—on a dead bird, with a man sleeping on a bench, tucked into a dog’s collar.  Arriving home, she distributes the rest to her family. As soon as she starts giving away the flowers, the pictures become filled with color.  On the last page, she tucks one final flower behind her ear as she watches a flock of birds overhead.

Pros:  More and more, I love wordless books.  This one has so much to look at, with multiple panels on many of the pages.  The message is simple but beautiful.

Cons:  I felt like there was some greater significance to the last page that I didn’t quite get.

Finding Serendipity by Angelica Banks.

Published by Henry Holt

Summary: It’s the last day of school, and Tuesday McGillycuddy, daughter of famous Serendipity Smith, is excited.  When her mom finishes a book, the whole family celebrates with a relaxing vacation, and Tuesday knows the last book in the Vivienne Small series is almost done.  That night, when she and her dad go to say goodnight to her mom, the window of the study is open, and Serendipity has vanished.  Tuesday types a few sentences on her mom’s typewriter.  The words turn into a silver thread that carry Tuesday into a magical world where stories are created.  She and her dog Baxterr find Vivienne and learn to create their own adventures.  But Serendipity is nowhere to be found, and Tuesday’s not sure how to get herself and Baxterr home.  Will the mother and daughter writers figure out their way to “The End”?

Pros:  Not only is this a good adventure story, but it’s a fun introduction to the art of storytelling.

Cons:  Reading the first chapter, I thought this was going to be an awkwardly contrived metaphor for the writing process.  Stick with it, the story really picks up further on.

The Grasshopper and the Ants by Jerry Pinkney

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Why do those ants work so hard?  The Grasshopper can’t understand it, and urges them to enjoy the spring, summer, and fall.  He’s a musician, traveling around with his banjo in his hands and a drum set on his back.  When winter comes, though, he’s out in the cold while the ants enjoy the cozy home they have made.  Finally, the Queen Ant ventures out into the snow to invite him in for a cup of tea.  A gracious guest, the Grasshopper repays her kindness by providing all the ants with music for a cold winter’s night.

Pros:  Jerry Pinkney doesn’t disappoint with another gorgeously illustrated fable that could be a Caldecott contender.  The story is simple, but the pictures are filled with details all rendered in beautiful watercolors. Kids will pore over all the activities in the ants’ winter home.

Cons:  Maybe it is the subject matter (grasshopper versus lion), but for me, this book is a notch below The Lion and the Mouse.

Drum Dream Girl : How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese-African-Cuban girl growing up in 1930’s Cuba, dreamed of playing drums.  But only boys were allowed to be drummers.  She kept dreaming, though, and practicing any way she could, until finally her father allowed her to take drum lessons.  By the age of 15, she was good enough to play at President Franklin Roosevelt’s birthday celebration, and she went on to perform with many of the great jazz players of her time.

Pros: This is really a poem inspired by the story of Zaldarriaga.  It’s a celebration of following your dream, illustrated with eye-popping neon colors that perfectly capture the celebrations and street cafes where Millo hears the music she loves.

Cons: You’ll need to give some context for kids to understand what this book is about. The historical note at the end is a good place to start.

Fake Snakes and Weird Wizards by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver, illustrated by Scott Garrett

Published by Grosset and Dunlap

Summary:   In this prequel to the Hank Zipzer series, second-grader Hank’s younger sister Emily wants to have a reptile show for her birthday party.  When their parents say they can’t afford the local performer, Hank decides to put together his own show.  Unfortunately, he has trouble learning how to do the magic trick his friend Frankie tries to teach him.  The party looks like it will turn out to be a disaster, but in the end, Hank is able to save the day.

Pros:  This is a funny story with short chapters and lots of illustrations.  It’s written with a font called Dyslexie (www.dyslexiefont.com) which is designed to make reading easier for kids like Hank who have dyslexia.

Cons: If you were born before 1973, the name Henry Winkler will trigger a “jump the shark” flashback to the Fonz.