The Girl in the Well Is Me by Karen Rivers

Published by Algonquin Young Readers

 

Summary:  Kammie Summers, new to her Texas middle school, is trying to get in with the cool girls.  As part of her initiation, they tell her to stand on top of an old well and sing a song.  Before she can finish, the rotten wood breaks and she falls into the well, where she is trapped, arms pinned to her sides.  After a few half-hearted rescue attempts, the three girls disappear, and Kammie is left alone, unsure if they will ever come back.  As the hours pass, she thinks about her past life, especially the recent arrest of her father for embezzlement, and his imprisonment that led to their move to Texas and descent into poverty.  A rescue party eventually arrives, but by then the oxygen in the well has dipped to dangerous levels and Kammie is drifting in and out of consciousness.  It’s a race against time, as the National Guard is called in and an attempt is made to dig her out of her prison.  224 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  An engrossing premise allows readers to gradually get to know Kammie and her family as her thoughts travel back and forth in time.  The pages will turn quickly for readers anxious to learn the fate of the girl in the well.

Cons:  Anyone even slightly claustrophobic may want to steer clear of this one.

Bringing the Outside In by Mary McKenna Siddals, illustrated by Patrice Barton

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers 

Summary:  An ethnically diverse group of young children enjoy the outdoors in all seasons.  In spring they play in the mud, they enjoy a summer trip to the beach, in fall they play in the leaves, and winter brings cold and snow.   After each outdoor adventure, they bring a bit of the outdoors in.  At the end, they enjoy a box filled with photos of their adventures as well as a few keepsakes likes shells, leaves, and sticks.  32 pages; ages 3-6.

Pros:  The rollicking rhyming text and exuberant illustrations should be enough to pry any young couch potato away from the Xbox and into the great outdoors.

Cons:  The text seemed more like a song than a rhyme, but alas, there was no music provided, and I’m pretty sure it’s beyond my capabilities to make any up.

Pete Milano’s Guide to Being a Movie Star by Tommy Greenwald, illustrations by Rebecca Roher

Published by Roaring Brook Press 

Summary: Pete is generally a big goof; in fact, he sometimes feels like his friends get kind of annoyed by some of his shenanigans. He’s just stolen cheerleader Eliza Collins’s pom poms when he ducks into a coffee shop to hide.  He catches the eye of an eccentric woman sitting at one of the tables with two laptops and a cell phone.  Turns out she’s a movie producer, and she invites Pete to come and audition for a film she’s making.  He decides to give it a try, and, lo and behold, is chosen for the part, starring opposite teen sensation Shana Fox.  Life seems pretty amazing until his friends decide that stardom has gone to his head.  Even worse, his girlfriend is sure he and Shana are romantically involved.  When Shana invites Pete to dinner at his parents’ restaurant, the whole crisis comes to a head.  It looks like Pete will have to decide between a normal life and movie stardom.  256 pages; grades 4-6

Pros:  This latest entry in the Charlie Joe Jackson series is sure to please fans.  Pete is a likeable character who tells his story with humor and honesty, sprinkled with his own illustrations and bits of the script from his movie.  Wimpy Kid readers should enjoy moving up to this series.

Cons:  In many of the illustrations, Pete looks more like a fourth grader than an eighth grader.

The Wildest Race Ever: The Story of the 1904 Olympic Marathon by Meghan McCarthy

Published by Simon and Schuster 

Summary:  How times have changed.  Back when the 1904 Olympic marathon was held, it was part of the World’s Fair in St. Louis.  41  men signed up to participate, but on race day, only 32 showed up.  The course washed out several days before the event, so a new course was mapped, much hillier than the original.  One of the participants was chased off the road by a dog; another kept stopping for snack breaks along the way; a third struggled when his trainer fed him strychnine mixed with an egg white to keep up his energy.  Despite the 90-degree heat, there were only two water stops, and some of the water was contaminated, forcing more than one man to drop out due to stomach issues.  One racer jumped into a car for several miles, then tried to pass himself off as the winner by running the last bit of the race.  In the end, Thomas Hicks, the American guy who consumed strychnine, managed to stumble across the finish line as the first legitimate winner.  End matter includes additional information about the race and a few of the racers, plus a bibliography.

Pros:  Lots of laughs reading about a race that resembled “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”.  Kids will enjoy comparing and contrasting the 1904 marathon with today’s Olympics.  Meghan McCarthy’s pop-eyed cartoon illustrations add a great deal of fun to the story.

Cons:  The cast of characters was a little large to keep track of in a picture book.  I had to keep referring back to a two-page spread at the beginning that profiled the main runners.

Little Cat’s Luck by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell

Published by Simon and Schuster 

Summary: One day Patches feels an urge to find a special place just for her. An indoor cat, she escapes the house and goes off to explore the outside world.  She ends up at a yard dominated by Gus, the meanest dog in the neighborhood.  Undeterred, she finds her way inside his doghouse, where a surprising series of events unfolds.  Finding herself in a difficult situation far from home, Patches must call on the animals around her for help, including, much to everyone’s astonishment, Gus.  Everyone rallies round, and, after a few false starts, a happy ending is in store for all.  224 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  This sweet story is told in verse, with many words moving up, down, and in various directions to illustrate the idea they are trying to convey.  The poetic , form makes it a quick read, but one that is filled with endearing animal characters and a satisfying plot.

Cons:  It took a few tries for me to get beyond the first couple of pages.  A little perseverance might be needed for readers to get engaged in the story.

Yaks Yak: Animal Word Pairs by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt

Published by Clarion Books

 

Summary: Yaks yak, dogs dog dogs, crows crow. Each two-page spread has an animal whose name is also a verb; the illustration depicts the animal demonstrating the action and includes a definition of the verb.  The final two pages list all the words, with a history of both the animal name and the action word; at the top of the list is a definition of homographs, words that are spelled and pronounced the same but have different meanings.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Word lovers will have lots of fun with this book and will enjoy thinking of more homographs when they’re finished.  The illustrations are adorable with plenty of humor.

Cons:  I struggled to think of even one other animal homograph…bears bear bears?

 

The Typewriter by Bill Thomson

Published by Two Lions 

Summary: Two boys and a girl are riding their bicycles past a closed amusement park, when they spy something on top of a bee ride. It’s an old typewriter case.  These three members of the iPhone generation are intrigued by the old machine.  The girl puts a piece of paper in the roller and types “Beach”.  Instantly a beach appears.  The kids take turns creating a beach ball, ice cream, and, mistakenly, a giant crab.  Fortunately, they have the presence of mind to type “Big wave”, which takes care of the monster crustacean.  Finally, the girl types “The End”, and the kids find themselves back at the amusement park on the same wintry day.  They box up the typewriter and put it back where they found it, then continue on their way.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The author of Chalk and Fossil has created another wordless tour de force with gorgeous life-like illustrations telling a story of creativity and imagination.

Cons:  The plot seemed a bit too derivative of Chalk.

Just My Luck by Cammie McGovern

Published by HarperCollins 

Summary:  Benny feels like he can’t get a break.  His father’s just out of the hospital following an accident that Benny feels was his fault, and he’s far from completely recovered.  He got Mr. Norris, supposedly the best fourth grade teacher, who is proving to be a bit of a disappointment.  And then there are the struggles Benny deals with every year, like low grades on spelling tests and keeping an eye on his older brother George, who has autism.  His oldest brother is on the basketball team and has a pretty girlfriend, even George can do tricks on his bicycle, but Benny can’t seem to find anything he’s good at.  He tries to follow his mother’s advice: when bad things happen, you should think about someone else’s problems and try to help them.  Slowly, with two steps forward and one backward, Benny begins to find his strengths and to realize he has the power to make his own luck.  240 pages; ages 8-12

Pros:  This beautifully written book will be enjoyed by fans of Wonder, Absolutely Almost, and The Meaning of Maggie…all stories of kids in difficult circumstances learning to find their own strengths with the help of caring teachers, friends, and family members.

Cons:  This is one of those books that’s hard to sell to kids.  It sounds like it could be kind of a downer without a lot of action, yet I found it so compelling I read it in less than 24 hours.

Swap! by Steve Light

Published by Candlewick Press

Summary: Two sailors have a problem: their ship is too old to sail. When one of them loses a button, the other has an idea.  Swap!  They swap the button for two teacups; two teacups for three coils of rope; two of the coils of rope for four oars.  Slowly their collection grows until they have enough items to refurbish the ship.  Then it’s anchors a-weigh, and they are back out to sea.  40 pages; ages 3-7.

Pros: Although the story is simple, the artwork is not. Similar to Light’s two previous books, Have You Seen My Dragon? And Have You Seen My Monster?, the main story is told with color, while the black-and-white activity is mostly in the background. That activity is pretty complex, though, and will have kids poring over the pages to see all that’s happening.

Cons:  Due to the detailed illustrations, this is probably better for one-on-one sharing than reading to a large group.

Bloom by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by David Small

Published by Atheneum 

Summary:  “Once upon a time, in a beautiful glass kingdom, there lived an unusual fairy named Bloom.”  Bloom uses her magic to help keep the kingdom beautiful, but she’s muddy and heavy-handed (and footed), and eventually, through mutual agreement, the kingdom and fairy part ways.  Many years later, the glass all over the kingdom is breaking, and no one can fix it.  It’s decided that a messenger should go into the forest and convince Bloom to return.  The king tries and fails, the queen tries and fails; the last hope is an ordinary girl named Genevieve.  Unlike the king and queen, Genevieve isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and Bloom teachers her how to use the mud to make bricks and build things.  Delighted, Genevieve returns, teaches others her new-found skills, and saves the kingdom. 40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Award-winning author-illustrator team Cronin and Small contribute to make a magical tale that extols the virtues of hard work and girl power.

Cons:  “[T]here is no such thing as an ordinary girl,” said Bloom.  Just in case you missed the message of the story the first two or three times.