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Published by Candlewick
Summary: When 13-year-old Lora announces that she wants to leave school for a year to become part of the volunteer army teaching literacy in Castro’s new Cuba, her parents are completely opposed. However, her abuela speaks up in her favor, and ultimately Lora is allowed to go. The young people who go with her are under constant threat from rebels hiding in the mountains who want to see the program fail. Lora almost decides to quit and go home a few times, but her host family and the new friends around her keep her resolve strong, and eventually all her students are reading. At the end of the year she returns home, but her life has been changed forever. An epilogue tells readers what happened to Lora and the people she taught; a lengthy author’s note tells more about the history of Cuba, the brigadistas, and the success of the literacy program. 160 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Readers will be inspired to learn how one person can make a difference–and one who is close to their own age, no less. It was interesting to read about Castro’s rise to power and his ideals for Cuba from the point of view of Cubans.
Cons: The story starts off a bit slow, with the pace picking up when Lora is on her way with the brigadistas.
Published by Clarion Books
Summary: Pandora the fox lives by herself in a land of broken things, but she has a talent for fixing and repurposing them. One day, an injured bird falls into her world, and she sets about making it better. The two become friends, and the bird builds a nest near Pandora’s bed. Soon the bird is well enough to fly, and one day, it flies away and doesn’t return. Pandora thinks her heart will break; while she is lying in her bed, the reader can see a plant rising from the box that held the bird’s nest. The plant grows to cover the world outside Pandora’s house. One day it rouses her from her bed just in time to hear the sound of birdsong and to welcome her friend back to the land of living things. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: The spare text and evocative watercolor illustrations tell a moving and mysterious story that can be appreciated as both a tale of friendship and a fable about taking care of the environment.
Cons: The story may be confusing to younger readers.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Summary: A little girl and her father explore what is round in the world. Round things can hold the promise of new life, like seeds and eggs. They can last an instant, like bubbles, or for billions of years, like stars. Sometimes they start off sharp, like rocks, but wear down to roundness. The girl enjoys being part of a round circle of friends, and the roundness of her father’s arms around her in a hug. The last two pages explain in more depth why so many things in nature are round. 32 pages; ages 3-7.
Pros: A very satisfying exploration of the natural world, with a loving relationship between father and daughter conveyed through the illustrations. This could also serve as a jumping-off point for further explorations, looking for other shapes or patterns in nature and writing about them.
Cons: I’ve seen this book on some Caldecott contender lists; for me, the illustrations weren’t quite of that caliber.
Published by Aladdin
Summary: Abigail Hunter is mystified and not too happy when she receives her acceptance letter from The Smith School for Children, a boarding school she didn’t know her mom had applied to. She makes friends quickly, though, and is settling in when she uncovers a shocking truth. The headmistress Mrs. Smith is actually a spy, and so is Abby’s mother, Jennifer, who has gone missing. Abby is recruited and quickly trained in spying techniques and self-defense, then sent to California to try to lure Jennifer out of hiding and get the top-secret information she has uncovered. Nothing goes as planned, Abby is kidnapped, the mission is botched, and when she finally returns to school, she is relieved of her spying duties. Determined to find her mother, she recruits her friends to help her, and sets off for their home in New York City. There’s plenty of action and high-tech gadgetry, as Abby manages to free herself from one perilous situation after another and finally reunite with her mom. 304 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Plenty of humor and action will make this an appealing choice for many readers, who can look forward to book 2 coming out next summer.
Cons: You’ll definitely have to suspend some disbelief as you read about Abby’s non-stop escapades in the spy world.
Published by Scholastic Press
Summary: The village of La Paz is a very noisy place until the people, wanting some peace and quiet, fire the mayor. The new mayor, Don Pepe, brings in peace and quiet all right, but his ban on singing makes the village as quiet as a tomb. One day a rooster comes to town with his family, and at dawn delivers a loud, “Kee-kee-ree-kee!” Don Pepe tries everything he can to shut up the rooster–putting him in jail, cutting off his food, and eventually threatening to kill him–but the rooster continues his song. “A song is louder than one noisy little rooster and stronger than one bully of a mayor,” says the rooster, “and it will never die–as long as there is someone to sing it.” The inspired townspeople burst into song, Don Pepe skulks out of town, and La Paz is a noisy, lively village once again. 48 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: A timely message in today’s world, celebrating those who will not be shut down by bullies. Kids will enjoy the colorful rooster and exaggerated evil-villain characteristics of Don Pepe.
Cons: While I’ve seen this book on a few Caldecott lists, I found the illustrations a mixed bag; I liked the portrayals of the rooster and Don Pepe, but not so much the ones of the townspeople.
Published by Amulet Books
Summary: In 1942, at a time when the Japanese empire seemed invulnerable, the U.S. government came up with a plan to bomb Tokyo. Famed aviator James “Jimmy” Doolittle was chosen to lead the raid. The men who were chosen to join him prepared without knowing anything about the top-secret mission they would be going on. On April 18, 1942, sixteen bombers, each with a five-man crew, flew off an aircraft carrier, dropped bombs on their targets, then attempted to fly to China. Fifteen made it, but crashed short of their destinations; the sixteenth landed in Russia. Most of the men survived, although some were taken prisoner by the Japanese, and three of them were executed. Although the mission didn’t do much damage, it was an important morale-booster for the United States that led to more military successes in the Pacific. 128 pages; grades 4-8.
Pros: It’s difficult for me to find superlatives to express how much I love Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales. For those who dismiss graphic works as “trash”, I would invite them to peruse this book and see how the graphics enhance the information. Pages 20-24 show an aerial view of Pearl Harbor before and after Japan’s attack, demonstrating how devastating that was to America in a way words alone couldn’t do. I love all the books; this particular one tells an exciting adventure story placed in the context of the early days of World War II. There is plenty of humor without any disrespect to the heroic men whose stories are told.
Cons: There were a lot of characters and planes (80 men and 16 bombers) to keep track of.
Published by Katherine Tegen Books
Summary: Gizmo is a self-identified Evil Genius guinea pig. Wedgie is a self-identified superhero (“Super Wedgie) Corgi. In alternating chapters, the two tell the story of the early days of a blended family: Gizmo belongs to Elliott, whose father recently married the mother of Jasmine, Jackson, and Wedgie. Gizmo is constantly suspecting evil plots, most notably keeping an eye on Abuela, a native of Peru, where he hears guinea pigs are considered fine cuisine. Wedgie just wants to herd everyone in his pack together and keep them happy. Human dialogue is inserted into the animals’ narrative, making readers more aware of what’s going on in the family when Wedgie and Gizmo are too self-absorbed to accurately report it. By the end of the story, Wedgie, Gizmo, and their humans are well on their way to becoming a family, setting the scene for two sequels due out next year. 179 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: Each animal has his own distinctive voice and point of view, which will have readers laughing and nodding with recognition if they are pet owners. The illustrations add to the fun, and the human dynamics give the story a little more depth.
Cons: As a former guinea pig owner, I’m pretty sure the exercise wheel Gizmo uses is actually dangerous for guinea pigs.
Published by Farrar Straus Giroux
Summary: On the afternoon of November 4, 2013, Sasha, a white agender teen, and Richard, a 16-year-old African-American boy, ended up on the same Oakland bus. For reasons that remain unclear, Richard used a lighter to set Sasha’s skirt on fire as they were sleeping. The results were third-degree burns on Sasha’s legs and arrest for Richard. The 57 Bus traces the stories of the two teens, the events that brought them to that fateful day, and what happened to each of them afterward. It was a hate crime without the hate, a spur-of-the-moment, unthinking prank carried out by a boy who believed he had a good heart. Friends, parents, and teachers share their experiences with Sasha and Richard, and readers will learn that the distinctions between male and female, victim and criminal, and good and evil are not always as clear as they may seem to be. 320 pages; grades 7+.
Pros: So much to think about and discuss in this story. Dashka Slater (who also wrote this year’s beautiful picture book The Antlered Ship) doesn’t flinch from looking at both teens’ stories, but also is compassionate in her descriptions. Richard could have been portrayed as a monster, but instead he emerges as someone who is as much or more of a victim, born to a single teen mom (who seems pretty awesome), raised in poverty, and facing prejudice in the criminal justice system. He shows strength and maturity as he carries out his sentence, and I found myself rooting for a happy ending for him as much as Sasha.
Cons: I’m on the fence about whether to get this for my middle school library. Aside from the subject matter, the f-word is sprinkled throughout, as well as other language.
Published by Roaring Brook Press
Summary: “When’s my birthday/where’s my birthday?/how many days until my birthday?” an exuberant child asks repeatedly as she counts down to the big day. She anticipates eating cake and other treats, inviting friends to a party, and getting presents. The night before her birthday, she vows to stay awake, but ultimately falls asleep, dreaming of tomorrow. And finally…”It’s the daytime!/here’s my birthday!/happy happy! hee! hee! hee!/time for cakey/wakey wakey/happy happy day to me!” 40 pages; ages 3-6.
Pros: I’ve seen this on some Caldecott prediction lists lately. The simple rhyming text and cheerful collage illustrations perfectly capture pre-birthday excitement for the under-ten crowd. This would make an ideal birthday gift.
Cons: I was pretty exhausted by the time the birthday finally arrived.