Archie the Daredevil Penguin by Andy Rash

Published by Viking

Summary:  On the one hand, Archie’s afraid of swimming with the other penguins because of all the strange creatures lurking in the briny deep.  On the other hand, he’s got more courage than anyone else in his attempts to avoid swimming by flying (shooting himself from a giant slingshot, leaping off an ice-brick wall with a pair of wings strapped on, etc.).  The other penguins applaud his bravery, but what they really want is for Archie to join them on Iceberg Nine for a fish fry.  The only way to get there, as far as they’re concerned, is to swim.  Finally, Archie tries firing himself over to the iceberg on a rocket, which melts the ice and strands him in the ocean.  He’s in for a few surprises out there in the briny deep, but the bottom line is, he discovers he loves swimming.  Ages 3-7.

Pros:  This would be a fun read-aloud, with its cartoon-bubble dialog and entertaining penguin characters.  There’s a good lesson about overcoming fears and trying new things.

Cons:  Archie’s rocket fuel is probably not helping the polar ice cap situation.

Swan: the life and dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad

Published by Chronicle Books 

Summary:  When Anna Pavlova was a small girl growing up in Petrograd, her mother took her to see a ballet.  From then on, she could think of nothing but dancing.  After two years of dreaming, she was finally admitted to the Russian Imperial Ballet School.  While she had natural grace and beauty, her body was very different from the sturdy, acrobatic dancers of the time.  Nevertheless, she worked hard and became a famous ballerina, best known for her role as the lead in The Dying Swan.  Always remembering her own impoverished childhood, Anna traveled the world, bringing dance to people who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to experience it.  Sadly, at the age of 50, she was in a train accident, caught pneumonia from being outside in the cold, and died.  Grades 1-5.

Pros:  Dance fans will love this beautifully illustrated book with spare, poetic text telling the inspiring story of Anna Pavlova’s life.

Cons:  The text is spare enough that readers might be a bit confused by some aspects of the story.  Be sure to read the author’s note at the end for some clarity.

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Published by Feiwel and Friends

Summary:  Jackson’s imaginary friend Crenshaw has come back.  The oversized cat was his companion four years ago when his family lost their home and was forced to live in their van for fourteen weeks.  When they finally were able to move into an apartment, Crenshaw disappeared.  Now Jackson’s parents are arguing about money again, planning a yard sale to sell almost all of their possessions.  When Crenshaw starts showing up again, surfing at the beach or taking a bubble bath, Jackson is taken back to the time his family was homeless.  He doesn’t know what to do, but he knows he can’t ever live in a van again.  Is it possible that his imaginary friend could be the key to helping him and his family?  Grades 4-6.

Pros:  A moving story of a close, loving family caught in difficult circumstances.  The short chapters keep the story moving quickly.  This would make a good selection for a book group or literature circle, as even younger kids would find interesting topics for discussion.

Cons:  I judged this book by its cover, and thought it would be a somewhat humorous story about a boy and his imaginary friend.  Although there was humor in it, it was a much more serious story than I anticipated.

Wrap-Up Wednesday: Artists

These artists aren’t world-famous, but each contributed to the world of art in a unique way:

Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews by Kathleen Benson, illustrated by Benny Andrews.  Published by Clarion Books.

Born to sharecropper parents in Georgia, Benny Andrews was an artist, teacher, and advocate for artists of color.  He started a prison art program and traveled to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to teach art to kids there.  His paintings are used to illustrate the book.


Funny Bones: Posada and his Day of the Dead Calaveras by Duncan Tonatiuh.  Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers.

Jose Guadalupe Posada was a Mexican printer and political cartoonist who became best-known for his prints of Calaveras (skeletons) to celebrate Dia de los Muertos.  The book speculates on the meanings of some of the more enigmatic prints and shows the techniques Posada used to create his art.


Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jamey Christoph.  Published by Albert Whitman and Company.

Growing up in 1920’s Kansas City, Gordon Parks was told he’d be a porter or a waiter.  He did work as a waiter, but buying a $7.50 camera changed his life.  He went on to work for magazines like Life and Vogue, using his photography to work for human rights, and directed the movie Shaft.

How the Sun Got to Coco’s House by Bob Graham.

Published by Candlewick Press 

Summary: The sun is the star of this book as it travels around the world while Coco is asleep. It travels through frozen forests, across the desert, and over the mountains.  The sun is playful, joining with the wind to blow off a fisherman’s cap.  It’s patient, as it waits outside a window to be let in.  Finally, it barges through Coco’s window.  After rushing around the world, the sun has time to spend the day playing with Coco out in the snow.  Ages 4-6.

Pros:  This is a great introduction to the concept of time zones, with the sun rising in different places on earth at different times.  The watercolor illustrations beautifully capture sunrise in a wide variety of environments.

Cons:  It seems to be cold and snowy in every place on earth.

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Published by Henry Holt

Summary: Emily’s parents have a plan to live in all 50 states, and this year’s move is to California. Emily has learned not to put down roots, knowing that she’ll have to move again before long.  In spite of her resolve, she finds herself in a friendship with her neighbor James, who shares her love of books and puzzles.  She introduces him to Book Scavenger, the online book treasure hunting game created by San Francisco publisher Garrison Griswold.  About the time of her move, Griswold is shot in a BART subway station.  Soon after, Emily and James find a mysterious copy of The Gold-Bug by Edgar Allan Poe, and soon discover it’s the first clue in a new game Griswold was about to debut when he was attacked.  As the publisher’s life hangs in the balance, Emily and James race to solve the Poe puzzles before Griswold’s enemy can discover the whereabouts of his book.  Grades 4-7.

Pros: A fast-paced mystery for fans of ciphers, codes, and puzzles. Emily and James are endearing characters, and there are a couple of interesting subplots about Emily’s family’s unusual goal to live in all the states, and a rivalry between James and a fellow cipher fan.

Cons:  At 343 pages, the intricate plot occasionally becomes a bit unwieldy.

Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson, illustrated by David Shannon

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers 

Summary:  Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer Robbie Robertson teams up with Caldecott honor winner David Shannon to tell the story of how the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy was formed.  On page one, Hiawatha’s entire family has been killed, and his village burned to the ground.  In the midst of his despair, the Peacemaker approaches him, paddling a mysterious stone canoe, and invites Hiawatha to join him on a mission of peace.  The Peacemaker brings a message of forgiveness and peace to the Iroquois nations, but his voice is soft and he speaks with a stutter.  He needs Hiawatha’s powerful speaking abilities to convince the nations to stop their fighting.  Finally, everyone has joined together except the Mohawk, led by the evil Chief Tadodaho.  Tadodaho is the one responsible for the destruction of Hiawatha’s village.  Hiawatha must look deep within himself to find the forgiveness that is the only way to bring peace to the entire Iroquois nation.  Includes an historical note that tells the history behind this story and an author’s note that adds the personal tale of how Robertson came to write this book.  Grades 3-8.

Pros:  David Shannon’s beautiful paintings illustrate this fascinating blend of history, folklore, and mythology.  Take some time to appreciate the details of the story which has timely messages about peace and forgiveness.

Cons:  I found the story confusing until I read the historical note.  Some sources recommend this book for ages 4-8, but I don’t think audiences much younger than ten would fully appreciate it.