Ban This Book by Alan Gratz

Published by Starscape

Summary:  When Amy Anne discovers her favorite book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, has been removed from the library by the school board, she’s outraged.  Turns out her favorite is one of several books taken off the shelves at the request of a parent.  Amy Anne has always been quiet, a “good girl” who doesn’t speak up at home or at school, even when she’s angry.  Slowly, with the help of a few good friends, she begins a protest against the banned books.  It starts with the B.B.L.L., in which Amy Anne turns her locker into the Banned Book Library Locker, and encourages other kids to read the banned books.  When this is discovered, Amy Anne is suspended and her beloved school librarian loses her job.  This only increases Amy Anne’s determination.  She and her friends come up with a plan that involves the whole school, and shows the school board and the mom who initiated the ban how important books–all books–are in the lives of kids. Includes a discussion guide with questions and activities. 256 pages; grades 4-6.

Pros:  An inspiring manifesto in favor of the freedom to read.  Readers will cheer for Amy Anne and her transformation from shy introvert to community activist, fueled by her passion for books.  The author notes at the end that all the books banned in the book have actually been challenged or banned in the last 30 years.

Cons:  Amy Anne’s suspension and the librarian’s firing seemed overly draconian, given the offense.

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Graveyard Shakes by Laura Terry

Published by Scholastic Graphix

Summary:  Katia and Victoria are two sisters struggling to fit in at their snooty new boarding school.  Little Ghost is a playful young ghost who is scared of other ghosts.  Modie is a boy who should have died in an accident, but whose father, Nikola, has found a way of keeping him alive by taking the life of a child every thirteen years.  The characters’ lives in this graphic novel all converge in the graveyard, where Katia and Victoria find refuge from school.  Nikola has his eye on Katia for his latest victim.  Modie no longer wants to be part of his father’s evil schemes, and is ready to be allowed to die in peace.  It’s up to Victoria and Little Ghost to rescue Katia, and bring about a hauntingly happy ending.  208 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Beautiful artwork conveys the darkness of a ghost story that also contains plenty of light, happy moments.  Katia, Victoria, Little Ghost, and Modie all learn the lesson of being true to yourself, and find some unusual forms of happiness and friendship in the end.  Fun Halloween reading.

Cons:  Pardon the expression, but the storyline and characters weren’t as fleshed out as they could have been.

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How to Be an Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild by Katherine Roy

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  When a baby elephant is born, she has a lot to learn; good thing she has a protective family and herd to teach her.  From walking to using her complex trunk to figuring out the different smells in her environment, the youngster will spend several years learning all the elephant ways.  Labelled diagrams and full-page illustrations complement the text to impart all the intricate knowledge the elephant needs to survive.  Includes a note from the author about her research and the endangered status of African elephants, and a list of resources for further information.  48 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  Readers will learn a ton of information about elephants, both through the text and the illustrations, which should be considered by the Caldecott committee.

Cons:  While the book has the look and feel of a picture book, the information and vocabulary is pretty advanced for primary grades.

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Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker by Shelley Johannes

Published by Disney-Hyperion

Summary:  Beatrice Zinker is unlike anyone else in her family.  Her first word was “Wow”, not “Mom”, and she does her best thinking upside-down.  She goes her own way at school, too, but her second grade teacher and her best friend Lenny appreciated Beatrice’s unique qualities.  The first day of third grade, though, doesn’t go so well.  Her teacher, Mrs. Tamarack, has heard about Beatrice, and is determined to keep her in line.  Lenny shows up with a new girl, Chloe, and doesn’t want to carry out the plans she and Beatrice made at the end of second grade.  But even a fall from a tree and a bloody nose can’t deter Beatrice, and by the end of the day she has even managed to win over her bossy older sister. 160 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  Fans of Ramona, Junie B., and Clementine will enjoy Beatrice’s humor and resourcefulness.  She is unafraid of being who she is, yet kind enough to find ways to include her friends and family.  Plenty of zany illustrations help set the tone for Beatrice’s story.

Cons:  Mrs. Tamarack was still a meanie at the end of the story.

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Rettie and the Ragamuffin Parade: A Thanksgiving Story by Trinka Hakes Noble, illustrated by David C. Gardner

Published by Sleeping Bear Press

Summary:  Rettie has to be mother and father to her three younger siblings, since their mother is sick with consumption and their father is fighting in World War I.  Life in their tenement building is difficult, all the more so when the influenza epidemic hits.  Their building is quarantined, and Rettie is worried that she won’t be able to get out for the Ragamuffin Parade on Thanksgiving.  This is an annual event for poor immigrant children to collect pennies from their more well-to-do neighbors.  Rettie works hard, helping to keep the apartment building clean and washing rags to earn some extra money.  Finally, the quarantine is lifted in time for Rettie to go to the parade.  Not only that, but the cold weather slows down the influenza epidemic, and the war comes to an end in early November.  Rettie joins the rest of America in celebrating Thanksgiving by using the pennies from the parade to buy her family apples and a pumpkin. Includes an author’s note about the Ragamuffin Parade, which may have been the inspiration for the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.  32 pages; grade 1-4.

Pros:  Part of the “Tales of Young Americans” series, this is a heartwarming story of a young girl persevering under difficult circumstances.  Readers will learn a lot of history from Rettie’s story, and the illustrations show a great deal of historical detail as well.

Cons:  Rettie seems a little too good to be true.

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Imagine That: How Dr. Seuss Wrote the Cat in the Hat by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes

Published by Random House

Summary:  In 1954, there were lots of great new books for kids like Charlotte’s Web and Horton Hears a Who!.  Good books for those who already knew how to read; for children just learning, there wasn’t much.  Ted Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, was hired to write a fun and interesting book for beginning readers, using an “official” list of approved words.  He thought it would take him a week or two, but he ended up spending over a year getting it just right.  The result, of course, was The Cat in the Hat, and it became an instant hit, leading Ted to write more books for beginning readers like The Cat in the Hat Comes Back and Hop on Pop.  When his friend Bennett Cerf challenged him to write a book with just 50 different words (The Cat in the Hat had 236), Geisel rose to the occasion once again with Green Eggs and Ham.  Includes writing and illustrating tips from Dr. Seuss, notes from the author and illustrator, and a list of books by Dr. Seuss. 48 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  A fun look at creative genius, with a few pages of Seuss-inspired rhyming text and plenty of Seuss-inspired illustrations.  Messages about perseverance and hard work are subtly woven into the story.

Cons:  A brief biography or timeline at the end would have been a nice addition.

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The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Perez

Published by Viking

Summary:  Maria Luisa (Malu for short) is devastated when her mom announces that she’s taken a two-year teaching job in Chicago.  This means Malu not only has to start 7th grade in a new school, but has to move away from her cool dad who lets her hang out at his record store, listening to her beloved punk rock music.  Her more conservative mom (Malu calls her SuperMexican) keeps imploring Malu to dress and act more like “una senorita”.  Malu gets off to a tough start her first day of school, violating the dress code and getting on the wrong side of popular mean girl Selena, who snarkily calls Malu a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside).  But Malu is nothing if not plucky, and being true to herself eventually wins her friends and leads to the formation of her own punk band.  They turn Selena’s insult on its head by calling themselves the Co-Co’s.  When the band is rejected from the talent show for being too loud, Malu has to decide just how punk she wants to be, as she and her friends plot artistic revenge on the school authorities.  336 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Malu is a winning narrator, interspersing her story with her original zines that give more details about her life, Mexican history, and punk rock.  She is true to herself, while at the same time admitting her fears and insecurities as she navigates a bumpy road toward better relationships with her mom and her newfound friends.

Cons:  It seemed unrealistic that a girl who had never played a musical instrument in her life became the band’s drummer after a single lesson.

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