Human Body Theater by Maris Wicks

Published by First Second 

Summary:  In the first page of this graphic book, a skeleton appears on stage and begins narrating a journey through the human body.  In eleven chapters, she covers ten different systems plus the senses.  All kinds of organisms are given faces and personalities, including many different types of cells, bacteria, and viruses.  Delicate topics such as pooping, puberty, and reproduction are handled humorously yet informatively.  In the final act, the skeleton pulls on her muscle suit, skin suit, and clothes to become a bit more human.  Includes an extensive glossary and a brief bibliography.  Ages 10-14.

Pros:  An extremely thorough yet entertaining introduction to the human body.  A lot more fun than a biology textbook.  The illustrations are clever and the text is informative and engaging.

Cons:  The amount of material presented may make a cover-to-cover reading a bit daunting.

Gooseberry Park and the Master Plan by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Arthur Howard

Published by Beach Lane Books

 Summary:  There’s a drought in Gooseberry Park, and it’s up to Kona the dog, Murray the bat, and Gwendolyn the hermit crab to get water to the elderly and baby animals that live there.  Together, they hatch an ingenious Master Plan which requires the cooperation of Murray’s cousin Morton, Herman the crow, a possum, a cat, three young squirrels, and 200 owls.  Working with split-second precision, the team manages to secure and store enough water to keep the animals going until much-needed rain brings the park residents permanent relief.  Grades 1-4.

Pros:  This perennially favorite author-illustrator team have produced a worth sequel to Gooseberry Park.  The story is engaging, but the book is driven by the characters, such as spiritual Gwendolyn (she does Reiki) and motivational speaker Morton.  Readers will cheer for the success of the master plan and root for another book about this wonderful community.  This would be a perfect read-aloud for primary grades.

Cons:  Some of the characters’ quirks may be more appreciated by adult readers than children.

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick, illustrated by Sophia Blackall

Published by Little, Brown and Company 

Summary:  When Cole asks him for a bedtime story, his mother tells him the tale of Harry Coleburn, a veterinarian who rescued a bear at a train station.  It was 1914, and Harry was traveling from Winnipeg to basic training before going overseas to be an army veterinarian.  The bear, named Winnie for Winnipeg, went with him on all his travels, proving himself to be a most intelligent and entertaining addition to the troops.  Finally, it was time to go to the front, and Harry knew he couldn’t take Winnie with him. Winnie moved to a new home in the London Zoo, where he was later discovered by Christopher Robin Milne, and found his way into stories written by Christopher’s father, Alan Alexander (A. A.) Milne.  The story unfolds in much the same way the Winnie-the-Pooh books do, with a parent telling a child a story.  At the end, the mom/author reveals that Harry Coleburn was her great-grandfather and is her son Coe’s namesake.  Six pages of photos of Harry, Winnie, Lindsay, and Cole are included at the end.  Grades K-3.

Pros:  Lovely illustrations illuminate Lindsay’s fascinating and endearing story to her son.  The revelation of the family connection is an interesting bonus, and the photos enhance that.

Cons:  Two excellent, well-illustrated picture books telling this exact same story (see Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally Walker) in the same year seems like a bit of an unfortunate glut on the market.

Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes

Published by First Second 

Summary:  It’s the first day of a new school for Hopper (think Grace Hopper), and she’s trying to figure out why what’s supposed to be the best school in town looks like a haunted house.  She has an unfortunate run-in with three boys before she’s even gotten in the front door, but much to her surprise, one of the boys, Eni, seems like he wants to be her friend.  She eventually learns that he’s trying to figure out the mystery of their weird school.  Together they unlock the secrets of binary and coding to learn how to operate a mysterious turtle robot they find in the creepy janitor’s closet.  Another boy, Josh, joins them for their final descent into an underground room.  There they’re met by the janitor, who gives them a challenge which will either unlock the secrets of their school or banish them from the campus forever.  Grades 3-7.

Pros:  A quick read for reluctant readers and computer geeks alike, this graphic novel has endearing characters and a lot of action.  The introduction to binary, coding, and robotics could generate interest in those topics.  The cliff-hanger ending all but guarantees a sequel.

Cons:  I didn’t care for the green and black color combination of the illustrations.

The Friendship Riddle by Megan Frazer Blakemore

Published by Bloomsbury USA 

Summary:  Ruth considers herself a lone wolf as she starts middle school minus her former best friend Charlotte.  Charlotte’s still around, but she’s hanging out with the popular Melinda these days.  When Ruth finds a mysterious origami envelope with a riddle inside it tucked into a library book, she wishes she could work on the mystery with Charlotte.  Instead, she tries to solve the first puzzle, and the subsequent ones it leads her to, by herself.  Slowly, reluctantly, she finds herself connecting with some of the other smart quirky kids in her class, and revealing the mystery she is working on to them.  A subplot about a school spelling bee pits Ruth against some of her new and former friends, with an exciting spelling showdown near the end.  By the time the mystery is solved and the spelling bee concluded, Ruth finds herself in the center of a close-knit group of new friends.  Grades 4-7.

Pros:  More of a middle school friendship story than a mystery, this story provides a good dose of sixth-grade angst liberally laced with humor, interesting characters, and some fun riddles to solve.

Cons:  Not so much of a con as a heads-up that both Ruth and Charlotte have same-sex parents; Ruth mentions her sperm-donor father.  There’s a funny, but lengthy, bra-shopping scene, and a few other middle school topics to be aware of if recommending this book to an elementary school student.

The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition by Chris Barton, illustrated by Cathy Gendron.

Published by Millbrook Press 

Summary:  Although the Nutcracker ballet seems like a timeless holiday tradition, it’s only been around since the second half of the twentieth century.  Three brothers from Utah, Willam, Harold, and Lew Christensen, were responsible for bringing the Russian ballet to the U.S.  The Christensens came from a dancing family and grew up to become dancers, vaudevillians, and, eventually, teachers and producers.  During World War II, money and dancers were both in short supply.  The brothers were working in San Francisco and needed a hit to keep ballet alive in that city. When Willam heard someone whistling Tschaikovsky on a city street, he was reminded of a production of the Nutcracker he had been involved with years before.  The brothers’ low-budget production premiered on Christmas Eve and was a huge hit.  Over the next several years, the show spread to other cities across the country, so that by the 1960’s, the Nutcracker tradition had taken hold.  Back matter includes notes from the author and illustrator about their research, a timeline, a summary of the story of the Nutrcracker, and suggestions for further reading.  Grades 2-5.

Pros:  I was surprised to learn how recently the Nutcracker came to America.  The history was interesting, and the illustrations, inspired by Edgar Degas, capture the grace and beauty of ballet.  The conversational tone of the text keeps the story moving along.

Cons:  Some of the details of the brothers’ lives seemed extraneous to the main story.  A little editing might have made this a better read-aloud for younger readers.

Time for Cranberries by Lisl H. Detlefsen, illustrated by Jed Henry

Published by Roaring Brook Press 

Summary:  This year, Sam is old enough to help his parents with the cranberries.  He enjoys driving with them to the marsh, then participating in each step of the process that gets the berries from their vines to the delivery truck.  After the harvest, the whole family enjoys cranberry pies for Thanksgiving.  Back matter includes recipes for cranberry sauce and cranberry pie, a glossary, and an author’s note that describes her family’s Wisconsin home in a cranberry marsh.  Grades K-3.

Pros:  Lively illustrations of the family and the various trucks and machines involved in harvesting match Sam’s enthusiasm as he describes the process.  Perfect for Thanksgiving story times.

Cons:  I didn’t quite follow all the steps of harvesting.

The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics (Young Readers’ Edition) by Daniel James Brown, adapted for young readers by Gregory Mone

Published by Viking 

Summary:  How did a state university rowing team composed of the sons of poor farmers and lumberjacks beat not only the elite Ivy League, but every team at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin?  Here’s the story, beginning with their first day of freshman year.  For Joe Rantz, one of the team members, the story goes back even further, to his impoverished childhood and repeated abandonment by his father and stepmother.  Left completely on his own at the age of 15, he had to overcome deep-seated fears to learn to trust his teammates and work together with the seven other boys in the boat.  A timeline and a description of “the art of rowing” are included at the end.  Grades 4-8.

Pros:  Joe’s story is inspiring, as is the gold-medal race, in which the U.S. team was given a disadvantageous placement by the Germans, and had to row with one of their key members gravely ill.  Sports fans will enjoy learning what it took for this ragtag team to become champions.

Cons:  It would have been nice to get a little more background on some of Joe’s teammates.

Merlin (Shelter Pet Squad) by Cynthia Lord

Published by Scholastic Press 

Summary:  Second-grader Suzannah and her friends are back for the second installment of the Shelter Pet Squad series.  This time, they are captivated by Merlin, a lively ferret who loves to hide, steal shiny objects, and play.  Wanting to make sure he finds a perfect home, the kids decide to make up a ferret quiz for any potential adopter.  As the youngest member of the group, Suzannah sometimes struggles to keep up with the other kids, so she decides to do her research from the biggest book she can find.  But she’s not quite ready to tackle such a weighty reading assignment, and her sketchy reading causes her to give Merlin a toy that almost proves disastrous.  Fortunately, she’s surrounded by friends who are glad to help, and a happy ending is in store for all, including Merlin.  Grades 2-4.

Pros:  Newbery honoree Cynthia Lord has created an early chapter book series that has a bit more depth and character development than many books of this level.  Kids will love reading about animals and the children who get to help them.

Cons:  Readers may be disappointed to learn that seven-year-olds working with animals in a shelter is, in general, purely fictional.

This Is My Home, This Is My School by Jonathan Bean

Published by Farrar Straus Giroux 

Summary:  A boy explains how his home is his school, too.  His three sisters are his classmates, his mom is his teacher, and his dad is the substitute who takes over at the end of the day. They have many classrooms, including all the rooms in their house, the telescope on the back deck, and the public library.  Recess and gym are spent in the backyard, hanging out in the tree house and playing soccer with friends.  Sometimes there are field trips to do art or explore nature.  There are opportunities for learning all day long, right up to the final bedtime story.  Endpapers show the real Jonathan and his three sisters during their own homeschooling days.  Ages 4-8.

Pros:  Homeschooling is presented in a positive light, with a loving family supporting each other in all their educational endeavors.  The illustrations are appropriately childlike and busy, showing the chaos of four curious, active children pursuing learning.

Cons:  It looks pretty exhausting.