Dunkin and Lily by Donna Gephart

Published by Delacorte Press 

Summary:  Norbert is new to south Florida, living with his mother and grandmother and attempting to recover from what happened to his father, while trying to manage his own bipolar disorder.  Tim has lived in town with his parents and sister all his life, but is fighting his own battle, trying to get up the courage to start eighth grade as a girl named Lily.  Their paths cross before the first day of school, when Tim gives Norbert a new nickname, Dunkin.  Each of them wants to become friends, but their secrets get in the way.  When eighth grade starts, Norbert is unexpectedly recruited for the basketball team and starts spending his time with the same group of guys that regularly torture Tim.  As the year moves on, each of them slowly comes to terms with what is going on in their lives until both Dunkin and Lily are brave enough to show the world who they really are.  362 pages; grades 6-8.

Pros:  Told in alternating first-person narratives, Dunkin and Lily explores the inner lives of kids dealing with heartbreakingly difficult, and potentially dangerous (particularly in middle school) issues.  The courage each of them shows is for the most part realistic, and the supporting players of friends and family members in their lives are sympathetically portrayed.

Cons:  One can only hope that there are a few more vigilant and courageous teachers than there seem to be at Dunkin and Lily’s middle school.

Frank and Lucky Get Schooled by Lynne Rae Perkins

Published by Greenwillow Books


 

Summary:  A bad day for both Frank and Lucky leads them both to the animal shelter, where they meet for the first time.  Lucky is adopted by Frank’s family, and the two of them are off to learn more about the world.  While Frank has to go to school a lot longer than Lucky’s ten sessions, both of them learn about math, science, geography, art, and more by exploring the world together.  A run-in with a skunk provides some chemistry lessons, while a hike through the woods requires map-reading skills.  The concept of infinity is learned by exploring the amount of love between this boy and his dog.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Dog-lovers will enjoy celebrating all the reasons we love dogs.  Both the text and pictures are filled with humor and the joy that kids and dogs bring to our lives.  This would also make a great beginning-of-the-school year introduction to different subjects that are learned in school.

Cons:  Some of the more sly humor may be a bit over the heads of younger readers.

Hare and Tortoise by Alison Murray

Published by Candlewick 

Summary:  Hare, a.k.a. Leapus swifticus, and Tortoise (Slow and steadicus) will be racing today.  A brief intro is given to each race participant:  Hare can hardly stand still for his, while Tortoise almost doesn’t show up for hers.  Then the race is on.  The tale is familiar—Hare leaps to the lead while Tortoise plods along far behind until Hare is tempted to eat some carrots and take a nap, certain of victory.  While he snoozes, Tortoise manages to amble across the finish line.  Hare can’t believe it, but Tortoise is a gracious winner.  “Never mind, Hare, you just might win next time.”  32 pages; ages 3-7.

Pros:  Beautiful illustrations provide plenty of action and humor to this fast-paced and funny retelling of Aesop’s fable.

Con:  While “slow and steady” is alluded to, readers will need to infer a good deal to come up with the classic moral to this tale.

America’s Tea Parties: Not One But Four! Boston, Charleston, New York, Philadelphia by Marissa Moss

Published by Abrams 

Summary:  Everyone knows about the Boston Tea Party, but it turns out that event was just the beginning.  After word got around to the other colonies, Sons of Liberty groups in Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia had their own tea parties to prevent British tea from getting into colonial shops and to protest the hated tax on tea.  The four tea parties are put into context with a thorough look at the events leading up to them, as well as the various players in each colony.  Plentiful illustrations and sidebars add even more information.  End matter includes a six-page author’s note, a timeline covering events from fall of 1773 to the end of 1774, an extensive bibliography, and an index.  48 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Middle grade social studies curricula will be given a boost with this well-written history of the period leading up to the American Revolution.  Thorough research, an engaging writing style, and plenty of illustrations make this an excellent nonfiction choice.

Cons:  There’s a lot of information here for the average fifth or sixth grader to wade through.

Hippopotamister by John Patrick Green

Published by First Second

Summary:  Hippo and Red Panda spend their days in a run-down zoo, until Red Panda decides he’s had enough, and leaves to find a job. Whenever he comes back for a visit, he tells Hippo that he has the best job ever, although his changing hats suggest that it’s always a different job. Finally, Hippo decides to join him. Red Panda tells Hippo that he’s now Hippopotamister, and he has to act like a human. The two friends try cooking, hair dressing, banking, and a host of other positions. In each one, Hippopotamister is a bit unsure of himself, but does his work well; Red Panda, on the other hand, is completely confident, but makes a mess of things and gets them both fired. Finally, discouraged, Hippo returns to the zoo, where he finds everything just as bad as he left it. In one night, he uses his new job skills to fix it all. The animals elect him zookeeper, and Red Panda, with his ebullient personality, is hired on as head of customer relations. 96 pages; grades K-3.

Pros: This graphic novel has cute illustrations and lots of gentle humor, with a satisfying ending. Kids will enjoy learning how to draw Hippopotamister and Red Panda on the last page.

Cons: The lengthy job search got a bit repetitious.

Princess! Fairy! Ballerina! by Bethanie Deeney Murguia

Published by Arthur A. Levine Books 

Summary:  When three little girls get together for a play date, they can’t agree on what to play—princess, fairy, or ballerina.  Each one makes a compelling argument for her favorite, but the other two refuse to give in.  The fairy suggests a contest, but should it be a flying contest, a throne-sitting contest, or a balancing contest?  Pretty soon, no one is speaking to anyone else.  A croaking frog and a rainy day provide some much-needed distraction, and wings, tiaras, and ballet slippers are tossed aside in favor of some happy puddle-stomping.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A good lesson in friendship and compromise.  A princess, fairy, AND ballerina on the cover is sure to attract the attention of many readers.

Cons:  Just a bit gender stereotypical.

Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

Published by Orchard Books 

Summary:  Imagine Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, both civil rights activists who lived in Rochester, New York, sitting down to tea and cake together.  That’s the starting point of Two Friends, which then takes a look back at the early life of both Anthony and Douglass and how they became involved in the struggles to end slavery and give women the right to vote.  An author’s note gives a bit more information, as well as dates when both goals were achieved in the United States.  32 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  An interesting introduction to two important 19th century activists whose civil rights struggles are still relevant today.  The colorful folk-artsy illustrations nicely portray Anthony, Douglass, and their homes in Rochester.

Cons:  A pretty brief introduction with only a little biographical information.

Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

Published by Scholastic 

Summary:  Joe is dreading the start of fifth grade.  His only two friends moved away, and his learning disability makes it hard for him to focus and an easy target for Dillon, the class bully.  Ravi is freshly arrived from India, accustomed to social, academic, and athletic success, and in for a rude awakening when his skills don’t always translate well to American culture.  He’s sure that Dillon, the only other Indian boy in the class, will be his new friend.  Each day of the first week of school brings new troubles, until both boys take Thursday off, ready to call it quits.  Fortunately, both Joe and Ravi have loving and supportive, if occasionally misguided, families who are willing to listen and try to help them.  By Friday, they’ve each come up with a new plan, and, by working together, manage to at least temporarily derail Dillon and discover that a new friend can be found in the most unlikely circumstances.  240 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  A heartwarming and accessible story for elementary readers.

Cons:  Ravi may come across as arrogant at the beginning of the story.  Don’t give up on him…he learns some important lessons by Friday.

The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart, illustrations by Sydney Smith

Published by Groundwood Books

 

Summary:  While a monk seeks knowledge among his manuscripts, his white cat, Pangur, seeks something a little more substantial; namely, a tasty mouse.  The first several pages are wordless, following Pangur as he explores the monastery, finally arriving at his master’s door and sticking a paw under to alert the monk to his presence.  The monk then narrates their activities, concluding with a happy ending in which the cat snares his prey and the monk finds an answer to his puzzle.  The author’s note at the end explains more about the poem “Pangur Ban”, written by a ninth-century Irish monk, on which this book is based.  32 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  A poem by a ninth-century Benedictine monk seems like an unlikely source for a children’s book, but somehow this works, due in large part to the beautiful illustrations that perfectly enlarge upon the simple text.  Cat lovers will be captivated by Pangur and his antics.

Cons:  Probably better for one-on-one sharing than reading to a larger group.

Duck, Duck, Porcupine! by Salina Yoon

Published by Bloomsbury 

Summary:  Big Duck has all the answers…or at least she thinks she does, and isn’t afraid to let her friends Porcupine and Little Duck know about them.  It’s Little Duck, though, who’s really paying attention.  Even though he doesn’t say a word, he manages to fix things when Big Duck’s ways don’t quite work out.  Duck, Duck, and Porcupine have three adventures in this book: going on a picnic, celebrating Porcupine’s birthday, and planning a camping trip.  Each story is told entirely through dialog (in speech bubbles) and simple illustrations.  64 pages; grades K-2.

Pros:  These funny stories and colorful illustrations will find a ready audience with Elephant and Piggie fans.  Each character has a distinctive personality, even Little Duck, who never says a word.  I love how he gazes at the reader at the end of each story, as if he can’t really believe Big Duck is for real.  Perfect as either a read-aloud or for beginning readers.

Cons:  Porcupine’s character isn’t quite as well-developed as the two ducks; hopefully we’ll get to know him a bit better in future installments.