Islandborn by Junot Diaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa

Published by Dial Books

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Image result for islandborn amazon

Summary:  “Every kid in Lola’s school was from somewhere else.”  When Lola’s teacher assigns the class to draw a picture of their country of origin, Lola isn’t sure what to do.  Unlike her classmates, she has no memory of the island where she was born. She asks her cousin, her mother, and her grandmother about the island, and they tell her about beautiful beaches, fun music, and delicious fruits.  The island sounds so idyllic, Lola can’t understand why her family left it.  Then she talks to Mr. Mir, the superintendent in her apartment building.  He describes the monster that terrorized the island for 30 years until brave men and women “got tired of being afraid and fought the Monster.”  By the time she’s done with her interviews, Lola has enough material to create a book of pictures, which she enjoys sharing with her classmates the following day.  48 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Apparently, Junot Diaz is some big-shot writer at MIT, which I didn’t know since I never read books for adults anymore.  His story of Lola is a beautiful meditation on immigration, memory, and the history of the Dominican Republic, which is the island that both Diaz and Lola come from.  The busy, colorful illustrations should be considered for a Caldecott.

Cons:  Since I am also ignorant of Dominican history, I didn’t recognize the Monster as dictator Rafael Trujillo, and I’m guessing many young readers won’t understand this part of the story either.

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Rodent Rascals: From Tiny to Tremendous–21 Clever Creatures At Their Actual Size by Roxie Munro

Published by Holiday House

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Summary:  Rats! A book about rodents? Yes, and there are rats…and lots of other rodents from the two-inch pygmy jerboa to the 150-pound capybary. Each animal is portrayed in actual size (or as much of it as can fit on a page) with a paragraph of text providing some interesting facts about it. An introductory page explains what makes an animal a rodent; two pages at the end provide researchers with the size, habitat, and scientific name of each creature. Includes a glossary, index, and additional resources. 40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros: Animal lovers as well as rodent-phobes (I just made up that word, but I kind of am one) will learn quite a bit and enjoy the large ink and acrylic illustrations.

Cons:  Is it accurate to have guinea pigs in this book? Back in the days when I was a guinea pig owner (technically, my children were the owners, but you know how that goes), I was told guinea pigs aren’t rodents.  There seems to be some controversy about this, and guinea pigs may be leaving the world of rodents for their own order, as rabbits did before them.

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Princess Pulverizer: Grilled Cheese and Dragons by Nancy Krulik, art by Ben Balistrer

Published by Penguin Workshop

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Summary:  Princess Serena is struggling at princess school, so she decides to change her name to Princess Pulverizer and convince her father, the king, to send her to knight school.  He agrees, on one condition: she has to go on a Quest of Kindness, performing eight good deeds, and bringing back proof of each one.  So the princess sets off, and almost immediately hears about some stolen jewels that she is sure must have been taken by an ogre.  She succeeds in getting herself get captured by the monster, and does in fact find the jewels, but is unable to figure out how to escape the locked tower to return them to their rightful owner.  A knight school dropout named Lucas and his gassy dragon Dribble try to come to her rescue, but they have problems of their own.  In the end, the three of them combine their talents to pull off the good deed, and the princess is ready to move on to her next adventure as part of a team.  144 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  Fans of The Princess in Black, the Hamster Princess, and Princess Pink will be happy to find a new princess series with some fun twists to the traditional genre.

Cons:  The Princess in Black is still my favorite.

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One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock

Published by Scholastic

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Summary:  Allison’s life has been in turmoil since her older brother died in a car accident, a tragedy that has led to her parents’ decision to divorce.  She moves with her mom to North Carolina, and immediately finds a new best friend, Samantha, or Sam. As the girls get closer, Allie starts to realize her feelings for Sam are more than friendship, which seems unacceptable in 1977 North Carolina.  Two gay women teachers and an understanding woman pastor help Allie to accept herself and to try to support Sam as she faces hostility in her conservative Christian home. An author’s note explains more about Allie’s experiences, including Anita Bryant’s anti-homosexual campaign of that time, and how she (the author) came to write the book.  208 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A sympathetic look at a 12-year-old girl struggling to understand her sexuality in a fairly hostile environment.  LGBQT tweens and their friends will relate to Allie’s experiences in middle school and her community.

Cons:  This felt like a book with a message, and some of the characters, like Sam’s mother and the pastor were fairly one-dimensional.

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Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World by Susan Hood, illustrated by 13 extraordinary women

Published by HarperCollins

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Image result for shaking things up hood

Summary:  13 poems honor 14 girls and women (sisters Jacqueline and Eileen Nearne, secret agents during World War II, share a poem), with art for each one from a different children’s book illustrator.  Some of the subjects are better known (Frida Kahlo, Malala Yousafzai) than others (Annette Kellerman, Angela Zhang).  Their fields range from art to science to sports, and each one is in a different form of poetry.  A brief biographical paragraph accompanies each poem, and a timeline at the beginning shows where each woman fits into history, from the early 1780’s to 2014.  Sources and additional resources are listed for each woman at the end.  40 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  Readers will be inspired to learn more about these girls and women, many of whom were well on their way to success in their teens.  The variety of illustrations celebrates women artists as well.

Cons: I was occasionally frustrated by only having a little information about someone I would have liked to learn about in greater depth.

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Granted by John David Anderson

Published by Walden Pond Press

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Summary:  Ophelia Delphinium Fidgets is a fairy who has been trained to grant wishes.  Problem is, the sense of wonder in the human world is dropping off, creating a shortage of the fairy dust required to make wishes come true.  So Ophelia’s been biding her time since her training ended, fastidiously keeping up her skills until it’s her turn to visit the human world.  Her chance comes at last, and she ventures forth to retrieve a nickel a girl tossed into a fountain, wishing for a purple bicycle.  Sounds easy enough, but Ophelia’s best-laid plans are foiled at every turn, and she has to deal with airplanes, fire extinguishers, birds of prey, and a not-too-bright dog named Sam who thinks he’s her new best friend.  Ophelia’s also distracted by a boy named Gabe whose path keeps crossing hers and who seems to have a wish far more compelling than a purple bicycle.  When Ophelia is forced to choose between her original mission and Gabe’s wish, she shakes the fairy world to its very core.  Can there be a happily-ever-after ending for both fairies and humans?  336 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  John David Anderson moves away from realistic fiction to create a detailed imaginary fairy world and a funny, slightly neurotic fairy heroine.  Readers will find themselves thinking twice before pulling on a wishbone or tossing a coin into a fountain.

Cons:  The story didn’t really pick up for me until Ophelia left her fairy home and ventured into the human world.

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I Am Enough by Grace Byers, illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo

Published by Balzer + Bray

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Summary:  A young African-American girl asserts, “Like the sun, I’m here to shine./Like the voice, I’m here to sing./Like the bird, I’m here to fly/and soar high over everything.”  She goes on to make similar comparisons, showing her growing, studying, working, sometimes failing, but trying again until she succeeds.  She bands together with a diverse group of girls to proclaim, “And in the end, we are right here/to live a life of love, not fear…/to help each other when it’s tough,/to say together: I am enough.”  32 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  An inspiring message by actress Grace Byers, with beautiful illustrations of a group of girls of many colors and sizes.

Cons:  The rhyming text occasionally seems didactic.

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A Chip Off the Old Block by Jody Jensen Shaffer, illustrated by Daniel Miyares

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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Image result for chip off old block miyares

Summary:  Rocky is little, but he dreams of doing great things like his Aunt Etna the volcano or his Uncle Gibraltar, who rules over huge ships and oceans.  His parents tell him he’s just a pebble, “a chip off the old block”, as his dad likes to say, but Rocky feels like a boulder inside.  Traveling by truck, eagle flight, and car, he visits the Grand Canyon, Devil’s Tower, and Mt. Rushmore.  At Mt. Rushmore, he learns that the destination has closed because Abraham Lincoln’s nose is cracked.  Rocky travels down Lincoln’s face, and realizes he fits perfectly into the crack.  All is well, and Rocky feels like he is no longer taken for granite.  Includes information about the three types of rocks and identifies the famous rocks in the story, along with each one’s type.  32 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  A fun introduction to rocks and some famous geological sites around the world.

Cons:  The ending felt a little forced.

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Chasing King’s Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassin by James L. Swanson

Published by Scholastic

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Summary:  After James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, he was able to elude an international manhunt for more than two months.  James Swanson, author of Chasing Lincoln’s Killer and other books about assassins, tells the stories of Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Earl Ray leading up to the moment their lives intersected.  He then goes on to detail the desperate attempts to save King’s life, and Ray’s escape to Canada and London, where he was finally arrested.  The impact of the assassination on the country and the FBI’s tenacious hunt for the killer (despite J. Edgar Hoover’s hatred of MLK) are also detailed. There are plenty of photos throughout the text and over 100 pages of back matter, including places to visit, timelines, source notes, extensive bibliographies divided by topics, and a very complete index.  384 pages; ages 12 and up.

Pros:  A gripping history (I was almost late for work as I approached the moment of the assassination and didn’t want to put the book down) that is also extremely well documented.  The reading lists are complete enough to use for an entire college class. Even reluctant readers will get caught up in the narrative.

Cons:  This length of the book may be off-putting to some readers, which is unfortunate; with all the photos and back matter, it is really a pretty quick read.

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What Do You Do With A Chance? by Kobi Yamada, illustrated by Mae Besom

Published by Compendium Inc.

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Image result for what do you do with a chance besom

Summary:  A chance, looking like a golden origami butterfly, floats by a child who’s not sure what to do with it.  When it returns, he decides to try to grab it, but falls, missing the chance and feeling embarrassed when others laugh at him.  It takes him quite a while to recover from that experience, but after some introspection, he decides to be brave enough to try again.  Finally, another chance comes along, this one even bigger than the last one.  Feeling more excited than scared, he reaches out and grabs it, eventually climbing on board to soar through the air.  “So, what do you do with a chance? You take it…because it just might be the start of something incredible.”  44 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  The team that produced What Do You Do With a Problem? and What Do You Do With An Idea? has created another discussion-provoking book that will encourage kids to try something new even when it seems scary.

Cons:  Those mean kids laughing when the narrator misses his chance.

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