The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

 Published by Aladdin 

Summary:  Apothecaries around London are being murdered.  Christopher Rowe, apprentice to apothecary Benedict Blackwell, isn’t too worried…until his master sends him on a wild goose chase errand, and he returns to learn that Blackwell has become the latest victim.  Overwhelmed by grief, Christopher discovers an encoded message in the shop’s ledger and sets out to decipher it.  When he realizes Blackwell has named his killer in the message, Christopher knows he is in great peril.  Slowly, he uncovers the dangerous secrets of the Cult of the Archangel, and learns of his master’s involvement in activities designed to unleash the power of God.  Ultimately, Christopher must make certain that these powers don’t fall into the hands of the evil men who are seeking them…and rapidly closing in on Christopher himself.  Grades 5-8.

Pros:  Set in 17th-century London, this murder mystery/historical fiction thriller is a DaVinci Code for kids.  It took me awhile to dig into a book about an apothecary from the 1600’s, but Christopher is given a humorous, modern voice, without taking away from the historical authenticity.  With an escaped evildoer, uncertainty about Christopher’s next master, and the plague pushing against London’s borders, a sequel must surely be in the works.

Cons:  The final showdown gets pretty gory.  Someone loses half his fingers, a couple eyes are put out, and two characters will move into the next installment with a good portion of their faces gone.

Who Done It? By Olivier Tallec

Published by Chronicle Books


Summary:  Each two-page spread poses a question: Who didn’t get enough sleep?  Who played with that mean cat?  Readers have eight to ten choices of kids and animals to figure out who looks sleepy or scratched.  There are twelve questions at all, and answers to all are given at the end.  Ages 3-5.

Pros:  This unique book helps preschoolers sharpen their powers of observation.  The cartoon illustrations are fun, and kids will enjoy playing detective.

Cons:  Be prepared for episodes of hilarity over “Who forgot a swimsuit?” and “Who couldn’t hold it?”

The Bear Report by Thyra Heder

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers 

Summary:  The wordless first few pages show a bored Sophie rushing through her homework so she can watch TV.  For her assignment to write three facts about polar bears, she scribbles, “They are big, they eat things, they are mean.”  As she settles down in front of the TV, a polar bear named Olafur shows up to tell her, “We’re not all mean.”  He then whisks her away to the Arctic where he shows her the beauty of his home, and shares how he spends his days fishing, swimming, and listening to whales.  As the two of them finish their day watching the Northern Lights, Sophie promises her new friend she’s going to go home and tell everyone about him.  The last page shows her immersed in research, surrounded by books, notes, and a map of the Arctic.  Ages 4-8.

Pros:  Nothing like a little excitement to encourage curiosity and learning.  You can almost feel the Arctic chill from the beautifully detailed illustrations.

Cons:  Melting polar ice caps.


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.