Ballet Cat: The Totally Secret Secret by Bob Shea

Published by Disney-Hyperion

Summary:  Best friends Ballet Cat and Sparkle Pony are trying to decide what to play.  Sparkle makes several suggestions, but all Ballet Cat wants to do is dance.  After dancing a while, Ballet Cat notices that all is not right with Sparkle Pony.  At first Sparkle Pony doesn’t want to tell her, but after some prompting, he/she (not sure which…we’ll go with he for now) admits his secret:  he doesn’t always want to play ballet but is afraid Ballet Cat won’t want to be his friend if he doesn’t.  Ballet Cat assures him there is one thing she loves more than ballet, and that is being his friend.  On the last page, the two friends are playing checkers, surrounded by craft materials and lemonade, all the activities suggested by Sparkle Pony.  Ages 4-8.

Pros:  Fans of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie series will enjoy this new easy reader.  Just like those books, this has simple illustrations with cartoon bubbles color-coded to each speaker, and celebrates the ups and downs of childhood friendships.

Cons:  This seems a bit too derivative of Elephant and Piggie, with less appealing illustrations.  Also, will boys warm to a series with characters named Ballet Cat and Sparkle Pony?

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

Published by Scholastic Press

Summary:  Otto, lost in the forbidden forest, stumbles upon three mysterious girls and learns the story of how they were cast out by their father, the king, who wanted a son.  They give Otto a magic harmonica.  Many years later, the harmonica passes to Friedrich in Germany, then to Mike in Philadelphia, and finally, to Ivy in California.  Friedrich, born with a large birthmark on his face, is struggling to survive in 1933 Germany as Hitler is coming to power.  Mike is determined to keep himself and younger brother Frankie together when an unexpected stroke of good luck gets them out of their orphanage.  Is his new home too good to be true?  Soon after Ivy’s beloved older brother joins the army, her family is hired to run a farm owned by a Japanese family who has been taken away to an internment camp.  Are they spies, or just a family struggling to survive, like her own?  All three stories converge when the grown-up Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy are brought together in 1951 by their love of music.  Otto’s story concludes the book, revealing the missing part of the harmonica’s journey.  Grades 5-8.

Pros:  If you only read one book in 2015, here it is.  Look for this title next January when Newbery honors are announced.

Cons:  At 592 pages, this book is well into doorstop territory.  Younger readers may struggle to handle the four separate stories.

Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Meg Hunt

Published by Chronicle Books

Summary:  The story of Cinderella is given a few twists.  Cinderella is an expert rocket mechanic.  The family is invited to the Royal Space Parade; Evil Stepmother suggests Cinderella fix up an old spaceship and join them, but then takes off with Cinderella’s toolbox.  Luckily, the fairy godrobot saves the day, and Cinderella has a good time until she has to hastily depart, leaving behind her sprocket wrench.  The prince seeks her out and proposes marriage, but she thinks she’s too young and instead suggests that she become his chief mechanic.

Pros:  Really fun rhyming text, reminiscent of The Three Ninja Pigs and others by Corey Rosen Schwartz.  This just begs to be read aloud, and of course, fractured fairy tales are always a hit.

Cons:  It’s not exactly rocket science…or is it?

Pig and Pug by Lynne Berry, pictures by Gemma Correll

Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Pig and Pug, being carried in a pocket and purse respectively, meet and introduce themselves.  Pug is sure Pig is really a pudgy Pug, which makes Pig mad.  A fight ensues, followed by a chase.  Finally Pug falls into a mud puddle, and Pig calls him, “Pug, the muddy pig”, which makes both animals laugh.  They return to their pocket and purse, and part friends.  Ages 3-7.

Pros:  Kids learning to read will enjoy the simple text, with lots of cartoon bubbles and tongue twisters.

Cons:  That’s the whole plot.  Really.

Water Is Water by Miranda Paul, illustrations by Jason Chin

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  “Drip. Sip. Pour me a cup. Water is water unless…it heats up.”  Each page has a rhyme to show a different form water can take—steam, clouds, rain, snow, etc.  The brief text is beautifully illustrated by incomparable nature artist Jason Chin.  Kids will connect with the brother and sister as they experience the different forms of water in their everyday lives.  End pages give a brief explanation of the stages of the water cycle, a comparison of what percent water different animals are (humans=65%), and resources for further reading.  Preschool-grade 2.

Pros:  A perfect pairing of text and pictures that will explain the water cycle to even the youngest reader.

Cons:  The title struck me as a bit inane, but it makes more sense when you read the book.

Space Taxi: Archie’s Alien Disguise by Wendy Mass and Michael Brawer

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Archie and his dad are transporting an alien named Bloppy in his dad’s space taxi, when a call comes in that there’s an emergency princess rescue to be made.  The taxi gets damaged in the landing, so Dad has to stay with it to make repairs.  Archie and their talking cat Pockets are on their own to rescue the princess.  In order to blend in on the planet, Pockets disguises Archie as an alien with three arms and eyes.  Will he be able to find the princess, get her out of the haunted castle, and return her to the king before the evil B.U.R.P. organization catches up with them?  Ages 6-9.

Pros:  This is a new direction for Wendy Mass, who usually writes for upper elementary and young adult girls, but she hits the mark just as well for younger readers.  Plenty of action and humor, all interspersed regularly with comic style illustrations.

Cons:  You might want to start with the first book in the series, Archie Takes Flight, before reading this one.

If I Had a Triceratops by George O’Connor

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  A boy imagines life with a triceratops, which resembles an oversize dog, complete with lolling tongue, leash, and doghouse.  Readers will enjoy illustrations of the boy trailing after his pet on a walk with a shovel and trash bag, and of two triceratops sniffing at each other’s tails when they first meet.  “If I had a triceratops,” concludes the narrator, “I would be the luckiest kid in the world.”

Pros:  This would be a good writing prompt for kids to write persuasively about why they should have a triceratops (or other animal) as a pet.  The information about the author mentions that there is an earlier book, If I Had a Raptor that is based on cat ownership.

Cons:  That whole shovel and bag thing.