Superhero Instruction Manual by Kristy Dempsey, illustrated by Mark Fearing

Published by Alfred A. Knopf 

Summary:  Do you have what it takes to be a superhero?  This step-by-step manual takes a young hero-in-training through seven steps to launch his career saving the world.  While he chooses his super name, puts together a uniform, and decides on a sidekick, his sister looks on, hoping to help him, but eventually giving up and going her own (super) way.  Arriving at Step 7: Save the World, our hero goes forth to do just that.  His canine sidekick, however, has a different idea when a squirrel crosses their path.  The ensuing chase proves to be pretty much the opposite of saving the world; meanwhile, his sister is shown helping to clean up a spill, throw away trash, and fix a bike chain.  In the end, the two siblings realize that joining forces may be the quickest path to world redemption.  40 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  A fun addition to the superhero picture book shelf.  Teachers could use this as a procedural writing mentor text.

Cons:  The ending was a little predictable.

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

Published by Graphix 

Summary:  Cat’s not happy about her family’s move from sunny Southern California to Bahia de la Luna in northern California, where the sun only shines 62 days a year.  Her dad has a new job, but the real reason is the climate is better for her younger sister, Maya, who has cystic fibrosis.  In their first days there, the sisters meet a neighbor boy, Carlos, who offers to take them on a ghost tour of their new town.  Turns out there really are ghosts all over town, and when the three kids run into a pack of them, Maya embraces them with her usual exuberance.  But dancing with ghosts proves to be unhealthy, Maya ends up in the hospital, and Cat blames Carlos.  As summer moves into fall, Cat makes new friends at school, continuing to snub Carlos, while Maya slowly makes a partial recovery from her ghostly encounter.  But the ghostliest time of year—Halloween and the Day of the Dead—are just around the corner, and Maya has to decide how she will deal with the spirits that are all around her.  An author’s note talks more about the inspirations for this book and provides a glimpse into her sketchbook.  256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Raina Telgemeier has created another graphic masterpiece.  Ghosts would make a great book group selection, with questions of life and death to discuss and consider.  Old fans will not be disappointed, and new ones will undoubtedly be created.

Cons:  This is a bit darker than Telgemeier’s previous books.

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

Published by Walden Pond Press 

Summary:  Topher, Steve, and Brand have had a good year in sixth grade with Ms. Bixby, one of the Good Ones, according to their system of rating teachers.  So it’s a horrible shock to learn that their teacher has cancer and will be out for the rest of the year.  There’s a farewell party planned for her one Friday, but she ends up in the hospital a few days before.  The three boys decide to skip school and visit her, picking up items along the way to give as gifts.  Most of the story takes place that Friday, told in the alternating voices of the three boys.  There are many adventures along the way, and each boy gradually reveals why Ms. Bixby has been extra special to him during their sixth-grade year.  Have the Kleenex handy for the poignant final chapter when the boys finally connect with their teacher at the hospital, and for the bittersweet epilogue.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  The three boys are interesting and engaging main characters, each one with his own set of problems that are hinted at early on, but only slowly revealed to the reader.  Ms. Bixby proves to be an amazing teacher who has, unknown to the other two, reached out to each boy and changed his life in some significant way.

Cons:  In the scene at the hospital, the writing gets a little overwrought; Ms. Bixby occasionally seems too good to be true.

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.