Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born by Gene Barretta, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Published by Katherine Tegen Books

Summary:  If 12-year-old Cassius Clay hadn’t had his bicycle stolen in 1954, there might never have been a heavyweight champion named Muhammad Ali.  When Cassius went to the police station to report the theft, Officer Joe Martin suggested he try out his boxing gym.  The boy fell in love with boxing right away, and pushed himself to become the greatest.  He would run alongside the school bus to build his endurance, and have his brother throw stones at him to improve his reflexes.  His dream came true, first at the 1960 Olympics, where he earned a gold medal, and in the years after that, when he won 56 of 61 professional fights, was 3-time heavyweight champ, and defended his title 19 times.  Out of the ring, he fought for the rights of those who were treated unfairly because of race or religion.  Two pages at the end give additional information, including photos of Ali in 1954 and 1966.  There’s also a bibliography and a list of additional resources.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Kids will enjoy the action-packed writing and illustrations, and be inspired by Muhammad Ali’s hard work and compassion.

Cons:  Ali’s biggest fights are described at the beginning, with the story then flashing back to his childhood; the ending seems a little abrupt, since the fights aren’t covered at that point.


Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Published by Dial Books

Summary:  Julia is a girl who doesn’t think of herself as very talented.  Unusually short for her age, she daydreams a lot in school and hasn’t been particularly successful in extracurriculars like soccer and piano.  Her beloved dog has recently died, and she’s feeling at loose ends as the summer begins.  When her mom drags her to an audition for a local production of The Wizard of Oz, Julia is sure that the only member of the family to be cast in the play will be her talented younger brother.  Much to her surprise, she gets the part of a munchkin, and her summer quickly takes a surprising new turn.  A little person, Olive becomes a friend and mentor, pairing with Julia in the role of lead dancer for the munchkins.  The director, Shawn Barr, sees something special in Julia, and gives her an additional role as a winged monkey.  And Julia reaches out to an elderly neighbor, who turns out to have a surprising talent for the theater and some wisdom to share as well.  By the end of the play’s run, Julia is seeing herself in a whole new way, embracing who she is with a newfound confidence.  304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A heartwarming, funny story by the author of Counting by 7’s.  Readers will root for Julia as she stumbles through her time on the stage, but never gives up and emerges triumphant by the end.

Cons:  For all the director was supposed to be so creative, it sounded like his production of The Wizard of Oz was a carbon copy of the movie.

Abraham by Frank Keating, paintings by Mike Wimmer

Published by Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books  


Summary:  Abraham Lincoln narrates the story of his life, beginning with his birth in a one-room log cabin.  He tells of growing up in poverty, reading every book he could get his hands on, working at many different jobs until he was able to study law in Springfield, Illinois.  From there, it’s a pretty quick hop to becoming involved in the fight against slavery, then President of the United States during the Civil War.  The book ends with the Union’s victory, with no mention made of Lincoln’s assassination.  The Gettysburg Address and a brief bibliography are included at the end.  32 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  Told in a folksy voice interspersed with some of Lincoln’s own quotes, this would be a good introduction for primary grades.  The paintings add realistic details.

Cons:  When George, Theodore, and Abraham have been published in the “Mount Rushmore Presidential series”, there’s not much element of surprise about what the next book will be.

Whose Poop Is That? By Darrin Lunde, illustrated by Kelsey Oseid

Published by Charlesbridge

Summary:  Which animal’s poop can be a foot high?  Whose has splinters in it?  Is that bundle of fur and bones a poop?  A question is posed on one page, with a picture of the waste material in question, then the answer is given next, showing the animal who produced it.  Seven animals are profiled, including the extinct ground sloth, which introduces the concept of fossilized poop.  Two pages at the end give additional facts about poops and the animals who make them.  32 pages; ages 3-7.

Pros:  After kids pick themselves up off the floor after splitting their sides over the fact that the word “poop” is in the title of this book, they will actually find out how waste can be used to learn something about animals.  The question-and-answer format makes this a good interactive read-aloud.

Cons:  My Google images search for “Whose poop is that?” had some interesting results.

Game Over, Super Rabbit Boy! (Press Start! series) by Thomas Flintham

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  King Viking has not only kidnapped Singing Dog and taken him back to Boom Boom Factory, but he has left his Robot Army behind to stamp out all the fun of Animal Town.  It’s up to Super Rabbit Boy to get through the six levels required to make it to Boom Boom Factory.  Of course, this is all part of a video game.  The boy who is playing it can’t get through all six levels on the first try…or the second, or the third.  Finally, after many, many attempts, and great persistence, Super Rabbit Boy succeeds, and there is a happy ending for Animal Town.  The video game is put aside, with the words “Game Over” coming from it.  And then the boy’s sister picks it up….  74 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  Another entry in Scholastic’s Branches imprint that is sure to be a hit with the early chapter book crowd.  Lots of video game-inspired illustrations and cartoon bubble dialogue add to the appeal.

Cons:  This story was a little simple even for my low-brow taste.  Still, I’m confident it will be loved by those in the intended demographic.

A Perfect Day by Lane Smith

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  It’s a perfect day for Cat, Dog, Chickadee, and Squirrel.  Cat is enjoying the warm sun in the garden, Dog is cooling off in the wading pool, Chickadee is enjoying the birdseed Bert just put in the feeder, and Squirrel has a whole corncob to himself.  But then…Bear shows up.  Bear crams the corncob in his mouth, scarfs down the birdseed and the water in the pool, and rolls around in the garden before falling asleep in the sun.  It’s a perfect day for Bear, as Bert, Cat, Dog Squirrel, and Chickadee watch from the window.  32 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  A funny story, beautifully illustrated by Caldecott honor winner Lane Smith.

Cons:  The whole premise seemed like a bit of a downer for everyone but Bear.

I Got This: To Gold and Beyond by Laurie Hernandez

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  16-year-old Laurie Hernandez is living the dream, having won a gymnastics team gold medal and a silver for balance beam, at the 2016 Summer Olympics.  Upon her return, she traveled with the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, while simultaneously competing in (and winning) Dancing with the Stars.  This autobiography tells about growing up in New Jersey as part of a loving and supporting family, overcoming a serious injury, and what it takes to become a champion.  Includes 8 pages of color photos, a list of Laurie’s gymnastics records, a glossary of gymnastics terms, and several pages for readers to record their own goals and dreams.  240 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  An upbeat, inspiring memoir.  Laurie was the first U.S. Latina gymnast to win at the Olympics, and clearly takes being a role model seriously.  Gymnasts and Olympics fans will find this a quick and enjoyable read.

Cons:  There’s not a lot of deep insight here.

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King

Published by Arthur A. Levine Books

Summary:  11-year-old Obe is struggling to find his way through sixth grade.  His family’s land has been sold to developers, taking away the cornfield he and his best friend Tommy used to play in.  And Tommy’s turned on him, hanging out with the new development kids, who make fun of Obe for cleaning up the creek near his house.  Then one day, Obe sees an animal that’s a little like a dog, a little like a pig, but definitely different from either one.  Strangest of all, this animal eats plastic.  Obe names him Marvin Gardens, and the two secretly become friends.  Marvin’s one fault is his toxic poops, and they end up getting Obe into some trouble with the neighborhood kids.  Obe has to figure out whom he can trust among his family, friends, and teachers as he prepares to reveal the secret of Marvin Gardens.  256 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  An environmental story with a likable protagonist, who figures out some things about his family, growing up, and himself, as he works to help his new friend and protect an unknown new species.

Cons:  The many problems resolved themselves a little to neatly in the last couple of chapters.

A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Anna DiVito


Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  Which First Lady raised silkworms in the White House?  Who crocheted 3,500 pairs of slippers while her husband was President?  Kathleen Krull profiles each U.S. President’s wife, including Melania Trump, in 20 chapters.  Some, like Martha Washington, Jackie Kennedy, and Michelle Obama, get their own chapters, while others are put in groups of two to five.  Biographical information is given, along with each woman’s contributions to her husband’s administration.  There are boxes of interesting informational tidbits through each chapter, as well as a “Women Break Through” section that shows what was going on for women at the time.  Two drawings of each First Lady are given, one a portrait-style head shot and the other showing her in the White House.  A final chapter summarizes the role of the First Lady and how it has changed over time.  Includes a list of selected resources and an pretty extensive index. 256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  I read this fascinating book in a single day.  The chapters about lesser-known First Ladies are particularly interesting.  Krull’s writing style is so engaging, the pages just fly by.

Cons:  It seemed odd that there was no mention of Hillary Clinton running for President, given that Melania Trump was profiled.  

Elon Musk and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (Young readers’ edition) by Ashlee Vance

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  If you haven’t heard of Elon Musk, maybe you’re familiar with the Tesla electric car.  Or SpaceX, the company that’s sending reusable rockets to the International Space Station at a fraction of NASA’s cost, and is planning how to colonize Mars.  Or maybe you’ve leased some solar panels from SolarCity.  All of these companies have Elon Musk as the driving force behind them.  A brilliant visionary who grew up in South Africa, Musk emigrated to the U.S as a young man, and made his way to Silicon Valley just in time for the dotcom boom.  He got in on the ground floor of PayPal and made a fortune, which he then proceeded to plow back into his companies, determined to create a better, less oil-dependent world.  It’s been a roller coaster ride from multimillion dollar fortune to near bankruptcy and back again as Elon Musk dreams of the impossible…and then proceeds to make those dreams come true.  274 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Musk’s story will inspire technology-loving readers who will be excited to learn it’s possible to save the world and make a lot of money in the process.

Cons:  I glazed over a bit on some of the more technical descriptions.