Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

Published by Carolrhoda Books

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Summary:  Charles and Irene (alter egos for the two authors) are forced to work together on a poetry project in their fifth grade classroom.  Both are apprehensive; Charles is black and Irene is white; he is a non-stop talker while she is quiet and shy.  But through their poems, they find some common ground, like arguments with parents, church, reading, and difficulties with other kids in and out of school.  Race is a common theme, from Irene’s struggles with Shonda, a black girl she would like to befriend, to Charles’s bullying by white kids wearing cornrows and dreadlocks (“I’m confused: why do people who want to look like me hate me so much?”).  They bond over an author visit by Nikki Grimes, and by the time the project ends, their teacher is having to shush them (“Irene, I never thought I’d ever say this to you, but you need to be quiet”) when they talk too much during work time.  Authors’ and illustrators’ notes tell more about their collaboration.  40 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Poetry tells the story of two very different children who discover they have more in common than they have ever suspected in this celebration of friendship and the written word.

Cons:  Irene’s father reaches for a paddle when her two younger brothers get in trouble.  Also, not a con so much as a heads-up to be aware that references to Trayvon, Ferguson, Missouri, and the use of the n-word in rap music may raise some questions.

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Maggie: Alaska’s Last Elephant by Jennifer Keats Curtis, illustrated by Phyllis Saroff

Published by Arbordale Publishing

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Summary:  Elephants Maggie and Anabelle lived at the Alaska Zoo, good friends for many years until Anabelle died.  Maggie seemed lonely, befriending an old tire that she carried with her everywhere.  Finally, the zookeepers decided it would be best for her to move to a warmer climate where she could be with other elephants.  Maggie was transported to the Performing Arts Welfare Society (PAWS) in California, where she quickly was accepted by the other elephants living there.  She now spends her days with her closest elephant companion Lulu, and has happily abandoned her tire.  Includes additional information about elephants and zoos, as well as Q&A with Maggie’s keeper Michelle Harvey.  32 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Kids will enjoy learning the details of Maggie’s life, both in Alaska and California, as well as the logistics for transporting a four-ton elephant from one place to the other.

Cons:  The illustrations were merely serviceable, and more photos (there is one) would have made the back matter more interesting.

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Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Ivy’s life is difficult enough before her house is demolished by a tornado one night.  In the months preceding this tragedy, Ivy’s been dealing with colicky new twin brothers, questions about why she keeps drawing pictures of girls holding hands, and a rift with her older sister that’s directly related to those questions.  While sheltering in the school gym after losing her home, Ivy befriends June, a girl who seems to have stepped out of one of her drawings.  The notebook with those drawings disappears the night of the tornado; then pictures from it start appearing in Ivy’s locker, with anonymous notes urging her to tell someone what is going on.  Ivy feels increasingly alienated from her family and friends until her thirteenth birthday brings a showdown that forces her to start talking about what she is feeling.  The final chapter, “Home”, takes place a year later and shows that Ivy has come to accept herself for who she is and to be okay with not having all the answers.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  More than just a “coming out” book, this is the story of a struggle for self-acceptance that will resonate with many tween and teen readers.  Ivy is fortunate to have loving, supportive friends and family members and to be able to learn to return their love and support.  I hope this book gets some Newbery consideration.

Cons:  It took me a few chapters to really warm up to Ivy.

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The World Is Awake: A Celebration of Everyday Blessings by Linsey Davis with Joseph Bottum, illustrated by Lucy Fleming

Published by Zonderkidz

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Image result for world is awake linsey amazon

Summary:  Rhyming text celebrates the blessings of the world, starting out, “This is the day that the Lord has made.”  A brother and sister enjoy the natural world they find in their yard, then go with their parents on a trip to the zoo.  The diversity of animals is appreciated there.  When the family returns home, the kids appreciate the wide variety of foods available to them.  Finally, it’s time to go to bed, where the narrator notices “Up in the trees, high in the breeze/I hear God’s love in the sound of the breeze.”  The last page ends, as a good bedtime story should, with the children falling asleep.  32 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  The rhyming text and sweet illustrations invite children to look for God in the world around them, appreciating the many good things they experience.  God is completely non-denominational, making this an excellent choice for children of many different faiths.

Cons:  Not all children experience the idyllic world that these two kids live in.

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On Our Street: A First Talk About Poverty by Dr. Jillian Roberts and Jaime Casap, illustrated by Jane Heinrichs

Published by Orca Book Publishers

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Summary:  Poverty and homelessness are explained for young children, using a question and answer format for such queries as “What is it like to live on the streets?” and “Are there children who are homeless?”  Each question is answered on a two-page spread, with stock photos of different people, illustrated with drawings of the same three kids who seem to be the ones having the discussions.  International poverty is addressed, with information about refugees and fundamental human rights. Readers are given suggestions of how to help those who need it, and there is a list of Internet websites at the end, along with notes from both the authors.  32 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Simple, straightforward information is given about topics that are not often addressed in children’s literature.  The authors, a child psychologist and the educational evangelist at Google (who grew up in poverty) make an interesting combination of writers.

Cons:  The stock photos somewhat depersonalize the issues; it would have been more effective to follow the same people or family throughout the book.

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All That Trash: The Story of the 1987 Garbage Barge and Our Problem With Stuff by Meghan McCarthy

Published by Simon and Schuster

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Image result for all that trash meghan mccarthy amazon

Summary:  In 1987, Lowell Harrelson had the brilliant idea to make electricity from the methane gas released by decomposing garbage.  He rented a barge, hired two tugboat drivers, and loaded over 3,000 tons of garbage to be hauled from New York to North Carolina.  When the (incorrect) rumor got out that there was medical waste on the barge, officials in North Carolina refused to let the trash into the state. Thus began a saga that continued for five months and over 6,000 miles as one state after another (and a few countries) refused the barge entry.  Unbelievably, the trash ended up back in New York, where sanitation workers burned it. The news media picked up the story and ran with it, raising awareness about the problem of overflowing landfills and giving momentum to the recycling movement. Includes additional facts about the barge, garbage, and recycling, as well as a very complete bibliography.  48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Meghan McCarthy has a knack for finding obscure stories and bringing them to life, making them relevant to today’s readers.  Her bug-eyed portraits and cartoon bubbles make this entertaining and highly readable, while the text imparts plenty of information.

Cons:  Five months hauling a barge with 3,000 tons of garbage.  Eww.

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The Rizzlerunk Club: Best Buds Under Frogs by Leslie Patricelli

Published by Candlewick Press

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Summary:  When Lily throws up on the first day of fourth grade at her new school, she’s sure she’s doomed to have no friends.  To her surprise, a girl named Darby reaches out, but her teasing sometimes makes Lily uncomfortable.  After a play date at Darby’s house, though, Lily decides she likes her, and the two form the Rizzlerunk Club.  Darby’s happy to have a new friend, too, since her old best friend Jill moved to London over the summer. When Jill returns part way through the year, though, trouble ensues. Jill has a talent for convincing Darby and Lily to do things that get them into trouble, while appearing innocent herself.  Lily finally decides to go her own way, but Darby is miserable. She and Lily reconcile, deciding they’ve had enough of Jill’s bossiness. But there’s another side to Jill, and Darby and Lily get a few surprises that make the Rizzlerunk Club a threesome; a chapter called “The Endish” provides a happy ending while leaving an opening for a sequel.  288 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Funny and endearing, this story perfectly captures fourth grade kids.  Lily, Darby, and Jill are all interesting and complex characters, and their classmates and siblings are fun to get to know as well.  Lily’s cartoon illustrations are a nice addition to the text.

Cons:  The class’s science experiment, feeding two rats a healthy diet and two other rats a junk food diet, seems a bit inhumane.

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The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola

Published by Candlewick

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Summary:  Nek Chand grew up in a tiny village in the Punjab region of Asia, collecting stories from family members and the traveling minstrels who visited during holidays.  Those stories inspired him to create his own world from rocks, sticks, and clay.  As a young man, he was forced to leave his home in 1947 when the Punjab was divided into India and Pakistan, and those who practiced the Hindu religion had to leave Muslim Pakistan.  Nek settled in the city, but longed for his home.  He found a deserted plot of government land and created a secret kingdom from trash that he found along the roads.  He kept his creation hidden for 15 years until government officials discovered it and threatened to tear it down.  When people from the city came to see it, though, they knew it was a work of art worth saving.  They convinced the officials to preserve it, and have continued to do so following Chand’s death in 2015.  Includes an author’s note about Nek Chand and an extensive bibliography.  48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  A fascinating story of an artist who worked to create his vision without much hope of ever profiting from it or even being able to share it with others.  The beautiful illustrations bring the story to life, including a foldout page with photos of the actual “secret kingdom”.

Cons:  A map of the region and additional historical information about India and Pakistan would have been useful.

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Clem Hetherington and the Ironwood Race by Jen Breach and Douglas Holgate

Published by Scholastic Graphix

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Summary:  Clem and her robot brother Dig are orphans whose brilliant archaeologist parents were killed when the kids were young.  After living in an orphanage for years, Clem and Dig decide they are better off fending for themselves. It’s not easy, though, and when old friend (or enemy?) Kilburn shows up and offers them the chance to compete in a race to unearth archaeological relics, they find it hard to say no.  The race is illegal, but the stakes are high. Kilburn is in it for the money, while Clem is more interested in the archaeological value of the items they’re seeking. Each leg of the race is dangerous and filled with adventure, but in the end, Clem and Dig triumph. Kilburn shows his true colors, though, and the kids find themselves on their own once again.  The last few pages reveal that Clem has held on to one of the treasures she found, and is considering using it to fund another race. 208 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Even the most reluctant readers will enjoy this action-packed graphic novel.  The premise of the story is interesting and the artists have created an intriguing fantasy world.

Cons:  There were too many pages of race action that were little more than pictures with “Crash! Boom! Bang!” type text.

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The Quest of the Cubs (Bears of the Ice, book 1) by Kathryn Lasky

Published by Scholastic Press

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Summary:  Svenna, mother of two polar bear cubs, is dismayed to find Roguers at her den one day, demanding that she hand over her children to them to be taken to an unknown destination.  She refuses, saying she will go in their place.  She’s given a few days’ reprieve, during which time she desperately tries to find them a new home and teach them to hunt.  After leaving them with a distant cousin, she is taken away.  The cousin proves to be evil, and the two cubs, known only as First and Second, escape to try to find either their mother or the father they have only heard about in stories.  Plenty of adventure awaits them, and various animals help them, including a fox, a seal, and a snow leopard.  Chapters about Svenna show her to be in a bizarre city where polar bears worship a large ice clock and sacrifice cubs to keep it running.  First and Second (who name themselves Stellan and Jytte halfway through the book) manage to survive on their own to the end of the book, but it’s clear they’re not free of danger and many more adventures await.  240 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Fans of Warriors and Kathryn Lasky’s Guardians of Ga’hoole will enjoy her latest series, which seems to tie in to the world of Ga’hoole (this connection seems like it will become clearer in book 2).  Plenty of animal adventure and a touch of the supernatural will leave readers anxiously awaiting the rest of the series.

Cons:  The anthropomorphizing occasionally goes a little too far, e.g. when the bears are sitting around drinking hot chocolate with a snow leopard.

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