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.

The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Mr. Wolf is attemptng to turn over a new leaf, going from Bad Guy to Good Guy.  He tries to recruit a few other reputed Bad Guys to join him: Mr. Snake, Mr. Piranha, and Mr. Shark.  It’s pretty clear these three are okay with being bad, but they reluctantly agree to go along with Mr. Wolf’s plans.  After a crazy rescue of a cat from a tree, they decide to liberate 200 dogs from the local pound.  The plan, involving a flying snake and piranha, a shark in drag, and a love-struck gorilla, eventually succeeds…after a fashion.  In the final chapter, the Bad Guys admit it felt pretty good to be Good Guys, and offer a preview of the next book, in which they will rescue 10,000 chickens from a high-tech cage farm.  144 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  Reminiscent of the Bad Kitty chapter book format (almost a graphic novel, with just a few sentences per page, mostly dialogue), this is a guaranteed laugh-out-loud hit for readers of a certain age.  Yes, there’s a fart joke (or two), but even I, a good 40+ years past the target demographic, found the whole thing pretty darn funny.

Cons:  This book was released on December 27, so technically it’s a 2016 book, not 2017.

The Search for Olinguito: Discovering a New Species by Sandra Markle

Published by Millbrook Press

Summary:  On August 15, 2013, Kristofer Helgen from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History announced the discovery of a new mammal called the olinguito.  How was this little animal, a relative of the raccoon and the kinkajou, discovered?  Sandra Markle takes the reader through the preceding decade, during which time Helgen studied pelts and skeletons of an animal called the olingo at museums around the world.  He noticed that some of them were quite different, enough to possibly be a different animal from the olingo.  Eventually, his research led him to the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia, where he was able to study the new animal in its habitat, learning enough about it to publish a paper and make his announcement about the new species from the Smithsonian. Includes, glossary, index, and resources to learn more. 40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  An accessible look at science at work, generously illustrated with photographs and maps.  Young scientists will be inspired by the final question: what else is out there?

Cons:  If I discovered a new species based on my knowledge of the olingo, I would come up with a much more original name than olinguito.

XO, OX: A Love Story by Adam Rex, illustrated by Scott Campbell

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  Ox has a thing for the beautiful Gazelle, and sends her letters expressing his admiration.  His first two attempts are answered by identical form letters:  (“Dear _Ox_, I hope you understand that I have many admirers and cannot reply to each one personally.”).  Ox can only see the good in Gazelle (“This is an amazing coincidence!  You have written back using the exact same words!”), and no matter how hard she tries to snub him, he won’t be deterred.  When Ox replies yet again, this time with a photo, Gazelle, now completely frustrated, tears up his letter and picture.  But then she pauses, gazing  thoughtfully at the two pieces of the ripped photo.  The final picture shows her sitting on her bed, taped-up Ox photo hanging on the wall, writing, “Dear Ox,”.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A tale of unconditional love, just in time for Valentine’s Day.  Kids will laugh out loud, and will also enjoy speculating about what happens after the final page.

Cons:  The ambiguous ending may bother some readers.

The Sweetest Sound by Sherri Winston

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Cadence hasn’t enjoyed her birthday since her mother left home the day after she turned 7.  Now she’s about to turn 11, which means she’ll be old enough to make the big move from her church’s Children’s Choir to the Youth Choir…if she can find the courage to audition.  Cadence has a secret: she’s inherited her mother’s beautiful singing voice, but she’s too shy to share it with even her family and closest friends.  Tired of being called Mouse, Cadence struggles to express herself and stand up to her father and friends who mean well but often put their own interests ahead of hers.  After accidentally releasing a video of herself, disguised, singing a gospel song, Cadence becomes an overnight YouTube sensation.  Now she must decide if she’s brave enough to step into the spotlight and let her true self shine.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  An upbeat story with a positive message about being yourself, peopled with a fun, culturally diverse cast of characters.

Cons:  Two of her friends’ mothers, one Chinese and one Jewish, are a bit stereotypical.