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 ( 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.

I Don’t Want to Be a Frog by Dev Petty, illustrated by Mike Boldt

Published by Doubleday Books for Young Readers

Summary:  A young frog wants to be another animal, maybe a cat, a rabbit, a pig, or an owl.  Frogs are too wet, slimy, and bug-eating.  His father argues that there is nothing wrong with being a frog, but his son remains unconvinced.  Along comes a hungry wolf, who tells the young frog that cats, rabbits, pigs, and owls are all on his menu, but that frogs are too wet, slimy, and bug-eating.  “I guess you can’t fight nature,” concludes the frog at last.  “We are what we are.”

Pros:  A lesson in self-acceptance, well-disguised in an entertaining story; with lots of funny dialogue related through cartoon bubbles, and vibrant comical illustrations.

Cons:  Wolves eat kitties and bunnies?

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

Published by Arthur A. Levine Books

Summary:  Yes, the couple who took their fight for legalizing interracial marriage all the way to the Supreme Court was named Loving.  Richard Loving and Mildred “String Bean” Jeter were both from Central Point, Virginia.  When they decided to get married in 1958, they had to travel to Washington, D.C., because Richard was white and Mildred was part African-American and part Cherokee.  They moved back to Central Point, but a few weeks later they were jailed for “unlawful cohabitation”.  Eventually, they made a home in Washington, D.C., but they took their case to the Supreme Court.  In 1967, the Court decided it was unconstitutional to make marriage illegal based on race, and the Lovings were finally able to move back to Virginia.

Pros:  This is a fascinating story, particularly in light of recent changes in laws around gay marriage.  The illustrators are also an interracial couple, and the author’s notes about their marriage and the blending of their artwork are interesting as well.

Cons:  There’s only one photograph of the Loving family at the end of the book, and it’s kind of hard to see their faces.

Catch You Later, Traitor by Avi

Published by Algonquin Young Readers

Summary:  Pete finds himself suddenly ostracized from his seventh grade classmates when his teacher, Mr. Donavan, denounces Pete’s father as a Communist.  It’s 1951, and the Red Scare is in full swing.  Pete doesn’t believe that his dad, a history professor who loves America, could possibly be a Communist, but he decides to emulate his hero Sam Spade and do a little investigating.  He’s unprepared for what he finds as he digs deep into his family’s history.  When an FBI agent starts following Pete around his Brooklyn neighborhood, danger moves frighteningly close.  There seems to be a secret informant, possibly right in the family.  Will Pete be able to solve all the mysteries before his father loses his job or ends up in jail?

Pros:  A combination historical fiction and mystery, this story is a page turner from beginning to end.

Cons:  With 293 pages, lots of plot twists, and multiple historical references, the suggested audience of 8-12 seems a little young.  Grades 5-8 is probably more appropriate.  Also, do NOT judge this book by its cover, which features what looks to be a forlorn alien.

Growing Up Pedro: How the Martinez Brothers Made It from the Dominican Republic All the Way to the Major Leagues by Matt Tavares

Published by Candlewick

In honor of Opening Day at Fenway Park!

Summary:  The book opens with this 1998 quote from Pedro Martinez: “Ramon is the biggest reason I have gotten where I am.  He is the great one in this family.  I am still Ramon’s little brother.”  Tavares then relates the story not only of pitching great Pedro Martinez, but of his older brother Ramon, also an MLB player, who inspired Pedro to work as hard as he did.  Growing up in poverty in the Dominican Republic, the brothers dreamed of playing professional baseball.  When Pedro was 12, his brother began his pro career training at the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Dominican academy.  Pedro tagged along and learned alongside Ramon.  Eight years later, both of them were playing in Los Angeles.  Pedro went on to a legendary career, including leading the Red Sox to a World Series victory in 2004, but his ties to his brother and his home in the Dominican Republic remain strong.

Pros:  Add this to Matt Tavares’ list of great baseball biographies, along with Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Ted Williams.  Sports fans will be inspired by the brothers’ rags-to-riches story and will enjoy the large, vivid illustrations.

Cons:  It would be interesting to know more about what Pedro and Ramon are doing now via the author’s note.

Glamourpuss by Sarah Weeks, illustrated by David Small

Published by Scholastic Press

Summary:  Unlike other cats, Glamourpuss isn’t expected to catch mice or rid the closets of moths.  Her one and only job is to be glamourous, and she excels at it.  She’s shortened her “Meow” down to a single syllable, “Me”, which works nicely when she asks her mirror, “Who is the most glamourous of us all?”  Glamourpuss’s reign over the household comes to an abrupt end one day when her owner’s sister comes for a visit and brings her dog, Bluebelle.  Bluebelle’s tricks and adorable outfits charm everyone until the day Glamourpuss discovers Bluebelle in her room, devouring her cute clothes. Glamourpuss realizes Bluebelle hates these clothes and really only wants to be…glamourous.  A friendship ensues and harmony is restored for all.

Pros:  A fun and funny story with a good message about misleading first impressions.

Cons:  The glittery pink cover will probably turn off boy readers, many of whom would actually enjoy this story

The Death of the Hat: A Brief History of Poetry in 50 Objects by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrated by Chris Raschka

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  Veteran poetry anthologist Paul B. Janeczko has collected 50 poems about objects from nine periods in history, starting with the early Middle Ages and going to the present.  There are familiar selections such as “My Shadow” by Robert Louis Stevenson and “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, as well as lesser-known writers like Chinese poet Bai Juyi and Vietnamese emperor Le Thanh Tong.  The introduction gives the reader a brief overview of the different historical periods.

Pros:  This reminded me of my college Norton anthologies, traveling through time with literature.  Except that I actually enjoyed reading this book.  Norton would also benefit greatly by adding Raschka’s illustrations.  Kids will be motivated to look for objects in their world that can serve as inspiration for their own poems.

Cons:  With the exception of Pablo Neruda, all the poets after the Renaissance are British or American.