A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech by Shana Corey, Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

Published by NorthSouth Books

Summary:  Young John F. Kennedy didn’t always do well in school, and he was often sick.  But as he grew up and studied history, he became interested in the meaning of courage and how he could help others in the world. When his older brother Joe died in World War II, Jack became the focus of his family’s political ambitions.  When he was elected President, he quickly took action in a number of areas, like establishing the Peace Corps and starting the space race.  But he was less decisive on civil rights.  African-American leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jackie Robinson pressured him to act more forcefully, but it wasn’t until he saw young people around the country marching and going to jail that he found the courage to speak up.  The “big speech” of the title is his civil rights address, given June 11, 1963, that ultimately led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Readers are encouraged at the end of the book to take action like those who inspired JFK to make this famous speech.  An author’s note gives more background; there are also thumbnail profiles of other famous people in the book and additional resources.  56 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  An inspirational story of the many accomplishments of John F. Kennedy, as well as a look at an area he where he was slow to act, and how others’ deeds finally led him to do the right thing.  The bold paintings complement the bold actions of the narrative.

Cons:  For a picture book, there’s a lot of content for readers to understand.

Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by Sydney Smith

Published by Groundwood Books

Summary:  The boy in the story describes his house by the sea and what a typical day is like for him there.  While he wakes up and eats breakfast, plays with a friend, and does a chore for his mother, his father is deep underground, working in the coal mine.  At suppertime, his father finally arrives home, and the family eats dinner together, then relaxes on the porch as the sun goes down.  One day, the boy says, it will be his turn to go to the dark tunnels underground.  “I’m a miner’s son,” he concludes.  “In my town, that’s the way it goes.”  An author’s note reveals that the story takes place in a mining town on Cape Breton in the 1950’s, but that the boy’s life is similar to that of children in mining towns in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  52 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  The juxtaposition of the beautiful seascape and the darkness of the coal mines is captured by both the text and the pictures.  The repeating phrases, “And deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal,” and “it goes like this” as the narrator describes each part of his day describe an unending rhythm, both to his days and to the years of life in this town.  The illustrations do an amazing job of capturing the changing light and shadows as the day progresses.

Cons:  It’s a pretty heartbreaking ending when the boy, whose life seems pretty idyllic, matter-of-factly states that he will become a miner too some day.

Moto and Me: My Year As a Wildcat’s Foster Mom by Suzi Eszterhas

Published by Owlkids

Summary:  While trying to rescue her kittens from a fire, Moto’s mother was scared by a truck and dropped one of them in the road.  The tourists on the truck didn’t see the mother.  Thinking they were rescuing the tiny serval, they took it to a ranger station.  By the time they got there, the ranger knew Moto’s mother would never take her kitten back, so he was given to Suzi Eszterhas, who was working as a wildlife photographer.  She became his foster mom, taking care of him, but also making sure that he followed his instincts and learned how to live in the wild.  As Moto grew up, he spent increasingly long periods of time in the wild until one day he didn’t return.  Eszterhas feared the worst, but a week later, she spotted him, and he came over to her jeep to greet her.  He was seen again several times by rangers, and Suzi knew she had succeeded as a serval foster mom.  Includes a page of facts about servals.  40 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  An engaging nonfiction narrative that kids could read for either pleasure or research.  Eszterhas is a wildlife photographer, so the many photos are cute and captivating.

Cons:  I’m not really sure how to pronounce “serval”.

The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken

Published by Dial Books

Summary:  Is it a mistake or an opportunity to be creative?  When an artist draws a girl with two different-sized eyes, glasses fix the problem.  When her feet don’t quite meet the ground in the picture, the addition of a pair of roller skates makes it look better.  A strange frog-cat-cow animal becomes a nice-looking bush.  Before long, the page is filled with an imaginative collection of people and animals doing all kinds of activities in a gigantic tree house.  Gradually, the artist moves away from the scene until it appears to be incorporated into the glasses girl’s head…and that girl is starting all over with a new picture.  56 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The beautiful and intricate illustrations convey the message that it’s okay to make mistakes.  There is always a way to fix them, often making the new product better than the original.

Cons:  I found the last few pages confusing.

Waiting for Pumpsie by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by London Ladd

Published by Charlesbridge

Summary:  Bernard lives in Boston and is “crazy, crazy, crazy” about the Red Sox.  He wants them to win, but his mom tells him they have to root for colored players.  It’s 1959, and Boston has the not-so-proud distinction of being the last team in the MLB to integrate.  Jackie Robinson has been retired for two years, and Hank Aaron and Willie Mays are big stars on other teams.  Bernard follows the “Negro stars” on the Celtics and Bruins teams, but the Red Sox remain all white.  Then, during spring training, he hears about Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, a new player in the minor leagues.  Bernard prays that Pumpsie will move up, and in July, it finally happens.  The whole family crowds around the radio to listen to his first game, and when he finally gets up in the eighth inning, Dad wipes tears away as he tells Bernard he can never forget this moment.  The next day, the whole family goes to Fenway to watch Pumpsie, and “for once, the stands are packed with colored faces.”  When Green hits a triple, it feels like a combination of New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July, and Bernard sees celebrations going on all the way back home.  Includes an author’s note and four additional sources.  32 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  An interesting look at a little-known chapter in the story of baseball integration.  The realistic paintings of the action at Fenway Park will be enjoyed by Red Sox fans.  And all fans should know the shameful history of Boston’s segregationist policies, led by Tom Yawkey, the 44-year owner of the team and namesake of Fenway’s Yawkey Way.

Cons:  No photos.

Keep a Pocket in Your Poem: Classic Poems and Playful Parodies written and selected by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Johanna Wright

Published by WordSong

Summary:  Former U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis has put together a collection of thirteen (counting the one on the back cover) well-known poems, along with his parodies of them.  For instance, Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is turned into “Stopping By Fridge on a Hungry Evening”, and Emily Dickinson’s “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers” becomes “Grief Is the Thing With Tissues”. The original poem is included with the new version.  Lewis explains what he has done in his introduction, and invites kids to write their own parodies, or “parroty’s”, as he calls them.  32 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  A fun way to introduce kids to poetry, as well as providing an extension activity for those wanting to dive deeper.  The cute, colorful illustrations include a multicultural cast of children.

Cons:  To me, the word parody denotes a certain degree of mocking the original, which is clearly not Lewis’s intention here.

Apartment 1986 by Lisa Papademetriou

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  On page 214, Callie has just gotten to school late after trying, unsuccessfully, to defend her younger brother from a bully.  She’s (sort of accidentally) skipped school all week.  Placement tests for eighth grade are about to start, and her history teacher is ordering her to get to her homeroom so she won’t be late.  Callie is failing history, a fact that she has hidden from her parents, who already have enough to worry about since her father lost his lucrative new job.  At that moment, Callie’s new friend Cassius, who is going blind, calls to tell her he’s lost in the subway and needs her to come help him.  There’s more, including a grandmother still mourning the loss of her son, who was estranged from his parents after coming out as gay; two wealthy friends who keep asking Callie for the $250 she owes them; and the man in Apartment 1986 of her grandmother’s building, who might be her grandmother’s new boyfriend, and whose apartment seems to be a sort of time machine back to the year 1986.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  The pace is fast and furious, all told in Callie’s funny, honest voice.  Callie tries to be an optimist, no matter what, but by the end of the story, she’s learned that life is both sunshine and shadows, and the best you can do is try to tell the truth about it and hang on to the people you love.

Cons:  Be aware, if you’re purchasing this for an elementary library, that the story line with the estranged gay son is a pretty major one.  I wish this were not a con, but I speak from experience.