Brave Like Me by Barbara Kerley

Published by National Geographic Society 

Summary:  What’s it like when your mom or dad has to go overseas to do their job?  Through text and photos, this book explores kids’ feelings and day-to-day lives when their parents are deployed to another country.  The book opens with kids playing with their parents, then sending them off.  There are pictures of children and parents going through their days when they are separated.  The last two pages show the happy hugs of returning soldiers reuniting with their kids.  Back matter includes a map showing where all the photos in the book take place; and information on dealing with separation, who serves overseas from the United States, quotes on being brave, a note for caregivers, and additional resources.  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This would be an extremely helpful book for kids whose parents are traveling abroad in any capacity.  The large clear photos and simple text focus more on the kids’ day-to-day lives and their feelings about separation than on the activities their parents are engaged in.

Cons:  Although many overseas workers are mentioned in the section at the end, the photos included are only of military personnel.

Dog Man by Dav Pilkey

Published by Graphix

 

Summary:  George and Harold, creators of Captain Underpants, revisit a character they came up with in first grade.  Police officer Knight has a strong body but a weak brain; his canine companion Greg has a brilliant mind, but isn’t very big or powerful.  An accident results in Greg’s head being stitched on to Officer Knight’s body, creating superhero Dog Man.  Dog Man has four adventures in this comic book, all of them involving his nemesis, Petey the Cat.  The pictures and text channel a talented first grader, complete with occasional crossed-out words and grammatical errors.  “Extra cheesy Flip-o-ramas” are inserted throughout the text to create some “animation”.  The last few pages have instructions on how to draw some of the characters, and there is a preview of Dog Man 2: Unleashed, available January 2017.  240 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  Once again, Dav Pilkey has his finger firmly on the pulse of an 8-year-old.  Reluctant readers everywhere, as well as non-reluctant ones, will enthusiastically embrace Dog Man and his adventures.

Cons:  I fear that by reviewing Inspector Flytrap and Dog Man in the same week, I may have irrevocably labeled myself “literary lightweight”.

Every Breath We Take: A Book About Air by Maya Ajmera and Dominique Browning, with a foreword by Julianne Moore

Published by Charlesbridge 

Summary:  Brightly colored photographs illustrate the simple text describing how air is all around us and necessary for all kinds of life.  The last several pages talk about how dirty air is unhealthy, and makes several kid-friendly suggestions (ride bikes and walk more, turn out the lights) to help clean up polluted air.  The final two pages have six questions, such as “What is air?” and “Why is clean air so important?” with a few paragraphs of information on each topic.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A simple and beautifully illustrated introduction to the importance of clean air in our lives.

Cons:  Trying to answer the question “What is climate change, and how is it connected to air pollution?” in two paragraphs seems overly ambitious.

Compass South by Hope Larson, illustrated by Rebecca Mock

Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

 Summary:  12-year-old twins Alexander and Cleopatra are on their own in 1860’s New York City after their father disappears.  They join a gang, but a robbery gone wrong leads their arrest.  When they tell the police where the gang leader is hiding, they need to leave town in a hurry.  On their way to New Orleans, they see a newspaper article offering a reward for information about a pair of red-haired twin boys from San Francisco.  The two redheads see a chance to make some money, so Cleo cuts their hair, and they change their destination.  On their way, they meet up with another pair of redheaded twins who have the same idea.  Fate intervenes once again, and each set of twins is split up, with one from each pair ending up on two different boats.  Alex and Edwin are put to work on board their ship, while Cleo (traveling under the name of Patrick) and Silas are stowaways on theirs.  The book alternates between the two, with non-stop adventures all the way.  There are vicious pirates, a hungry puma, an angry gang leader out for revenge, and even a couple of ill-fated romances.  Alex and Cleo discover they have the tools to look for hidden treasure, but the actual search will have to wait for the sequel, Knife’s Edge.  224 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Newcomer Rebecca Mock has created a graphic masterpiece with a roller-coaster ride adventure story from Hope Larson.  Kids will find it hard to put this down, but will want to take their time to study the detailed illustrations.

Cons:  Having two pairs of identical twins in a graphic novel led to occasional confusion about whose story was being told.

Inspector Flytrap by Tom Angleberger and Cece Bell

Published by Amulet Books 

Summary:  In a literary first, a Venus flytrap with dreams of becoming a detective pairs up with a goat named Nina, who pushes Flytrap around on a skateboard and eats everything in sight.  The opening book in the series has the two of them solving three mysteries.  In the first, an art museum hires the pair to identify a mysterious orange blob on a famous painting (hint: it involves a sneeze on the part of the artist); next, they figure out how a giant stinky shoe got on top of a cookie store; finally, they solve the mystery of a missing rose, which leads to a surprise romance for both Flytrap and Nina.  All stories are generously sprinkled with Bell’s black, white, and green illustrations.  112 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  Quirky author Angleberger (Origami Yoda) and his Newbery honoree wife Cece Bell (El Deafo) team up for a wild, crazy, and hilarious new mystery series.  Readers will be as helpless as a bug in a Venus flytrap to resist the second installment, Inspector Flytrap in the President’s Mane is Mising released the same day as this one.

Cons:  Nina the goat is pretty annoying.

Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook Up the National Park Service by Annette Bay Pimentel, illustrated by Rich Lo

 Published by Charlesbridge

 

Summary:  In 1915, there were eleven national parks, but no service to administer them.  Assistant Secretary of the Interior Stephen Mather knew the country needed one, but couldn’t get through the Washington red tape to set it up.  To convince lawmakers, he organized a two-week camping trip through the mountains of California, and hired Tie Sing, a Chinese American trail cook reputed to be the best.  Tie Sing had his hands full, transporting and preparing such delicacies as frogs’ legs and Lyonnaise potatoes, and serving them on a table set with a tablecloth and fine china.  Along the way, he lost a couple of mules packed with supplies and food, and often had to improvise.  He succeeded in keeping the campers well-fed and happy, though, and the National Parks Service will celebrate its 100th birthday on August 25. Back matter includes more information about Tie Sing, the expedition, and several members of the party.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  A fascinating story about a little-known man; Pimentel and Lo have succeeded admirably in bringing to life someone about whom very little is known.  There’s a lot of text, but the story is so engaging that this would make an excellent read-aloud.  As someone who has camped all over the U.S. and Canada, I appreciated Stephen Mather’s philosophy: “Give a man a poor breakfast after he has had a bad night’s sleep and he will not care how fine your scenery is.”

Cons:  It’s my opinion that any activity that involves English plum pudding with brandy sauce, peaches and cream, and a heavy linen tablecloth cannot really be described as “camping”.

A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers 

Summary:  When 11-year-old Rocco is accused of stealing from his parents’ landlord in Italy, he is sold off to a padrone who brings him to New York City to work as a street musician.  In reality, he’s little more than a beggar and a slave, forced to turn over his earnings to the padrone in return for minimal food and shelter.  Hungry and desperate to return home, Rocco joins a band of pickpockets.  He turns out to be a pretty good bandit, and for a while, it looks like he may have found a way to get enough money for a return passage to Italy.  But a bungled robbery results in his arrest, and Rocco finds himself in a reform school on an island off of Manhattan.  A daring escape during the Blizzard of 1888 almost kills him, but he is a rescued by a kind Irish man and his daughter.  Living with them begins a chain of events that puts Rocco’s life back on track and allows him to help other immigrant boys caught in his circumstances.  Back matter includes more information on the historical period covered and about the picaresque novel.  304 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Rocco’s adventures cover a dizzying array of real and imagined people and places from late 19th century New York City.  He’s a scrappy, likeable narrator, and kids will learn a lot of history while enjoying a page-turning set of adventures.

Cons:  The author’s notes seemed a bit too long to hold most kids’ attention.

What a Beautiful Morning by Arthur A. Levine, illustrated by Katie Kath

Published by Running Press Kids

 

Summary:  Noah loves visiting his grandparents, especially his grandfather, who starts off every day with exuberant singing.  But this year, grandpa seems different.  One morning he can’t remember how to cut his French toast.  Worst of all, he wakes up from a nap one day and for a moment, doesn’t know who Noah is.  Noah is understandably upset, but his grandmother steps in to explain that Grandpa is having trouble with his memory.  She reminds him that they should focus on appreciating what Grandpa still has; Noah thinks that’s like appreciating all your toys when your favorite one has been left at the beach.  But later that day, he discovers a way to reconnect with Grandpa, and from then on, he finds he has a special way of helping his grandfather to remember.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A beautiful story about a subject many young kids have to deal with.  The illustrations are gray when Grandpa is struggling with a memory issue, then turn colorful again when he remembers something.  While this story can’t have a completely happy ending, it does conclude on a hopeful note.

Cons:  I would feel foolish critiquing a book written by the man who edited the Harry Potter books.

 

The Summer Nick Taught His Cats to Read by Curtis Manley, illustrated by Kate Berube

Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers 

Summary:  Nick loves his two cats, Verne and Stevenson, and spends his summer hanging out with them.  Unfortunately, when Nick sits down to read, the cats are uncooperative.  So Nick decides to teach them how to read.  It’s an uphill battle, but one day Verne becomes intrigued by the word “fish”, and that opens the door for him.  Pretty soon he has his own library card, and Nick can hardly haul home all the books his cat picks out.  Stevenson stubbornly refuses to join in, though.  One day, Nick discovers a pile of papers under his bed, and realizes that Stevenson has created a wordless story.  When Nick writes words to go with the pictures, Stevenson sticks around and listens to the story. Before long the three friends are all reading, then enjoying acting their favorite stories.  The only thing the cats can’t do is read stories to Nick…but Nick may have a solution to that as well.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This would be a great read-aloud to introduce the joys of reading, as well as the concept that different students learn reading at different times and in different ways.   An engaging story and illustrations.

Cons:   Emerging readers’ expectations may be set unrealistically high when Stevenson goes to bed one night apparently illiterate, and is up reading Treasure Island early the next morning.

The William Hoy Story by Nancy Churnin, pictures by Jez Tuya

Published by Albert Whitman and Company 

Summary:  When William Hoy graduated from high school in 1879, there wasn’t much chance of a deaf man making it in the world of professional baseball.  But Hoy was talented, hard-working, and determined, and he managed to snag a spot on a minor league team in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  He loved the game, but often ran into trouble when he couldn’t hear the umpire make the calls.  After a humiliating incident in which he didn’t know he had struck out, Hoy came up with the idea of the ump using hand signals…the same signals that are used today.  Eventually, he went on to great success as a major league player with the Washington Senators, and lived a long and happy life, throwing out the first pitch of the World Series in 1961 at the age of 99.  Back matter includes author’s note and a timeline.  32 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  A fun and inspirational baseball story about a little-known player who overcame difficulties and changed the game.

Cons:  Hoy’s nickname of “Dummy” (mentioned in the author’s note, not the main text) will need some explanation.