The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

Published by Arthur A. Levine Books

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Summary:  Candice is just trying to get through a terrible summer; she and her mother have temporarily moved to her late grandmother’s house in Lambert, South Carolina, while their home is being renovated so her newly-separated parents can sell it.  When she and her neighbor Brandon discover a letter in her grandmother’s attic, they are launched on a treasure hunt that takes them back to Lambert’s segregated past.  Scenes from the 1950’s through the 1980’s are interwoven with Candice’s and Brandon’s story so that the reader gradually learns about the mysterious James Parker who supposedly has left a fortune somewhere in Lambert.  When the two kids solve the final clue, the past meets the present and some of the wrongs from that past begin to be righted.  352 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  An amazing book that touches on racism, bullying, and homophobia without ever losing its light touch.  It also celebrates reading and puzzles, paying particular homage to The Westing Game.  Reading it, I was reminded of Holes in the way the narrative moved between the past and the present, and everything came together in the end.  Since both of those books won a Newbery Medal, why not this one as well?

Cons:  The solution to a key puzzle seemed impossibly esoteric.

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The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld

Published by Dial Books

Image result for rabbit listened doerrfeld amazon

Image result for rabbit listened doerrfeld amazon

Summary:  Taylor (never identified as male or female) is proud of building a beautiful block tower, until a flock of birds flies through it and knocks it down.  Different animals come along to comfort Taylor; the chicken wants to talk about it, the bear gets angry, the elephant wants to remember exactly how the blocks were arranged, the hyena laughs, the ostrich hides its head, the kangaroo wants to clean up the mess, and the snake suggests knocking down someone else’s creation.  Taylor doesn’t want to do any of those things.  Then the rabbit comes along and sits next to Taylor.  The rabbit just listens as Taylor talks, shouts, remembers, laughs, hides, throws things away, and plans to ruin things for someone else.  Finally, the rabbit listens as Taylor plans to build another amazing structure. 40 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  A perfect vehicle for talking with children about how to be with someone who has experienced a loss.  Although it’s a weighty subject, the presentation is kept light with the cute and sometimes funny animals.

Cons:  There should be more rabbits in the world.

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Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  A man arrives at a lighthouse to take his new job as its keeper.  A cutaway illustration shows him busy, tending the light, painting the walls, and cooking food.  Despite his activity, he’s lonely, and often writes messages that he puts in bottles and tosses into the sea.  After awhile, a tender arrives, bringing supplies and the man’s wife.  They are happy together in the lighthouse, and eventually they’re joined by a third person, their new daughter.  Several years later, electricity comes to the lighthouse, and the family moves away.  A fold-out final page shows a little house on the coast, lights from its windows shining to meet the light coming from their old lighthouse home.  Includes additional information about lighthouses and the people who kept them going.  48 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  A lovely blend of fact and fiction, Caldecott winner Sophie Blackall makes life in a lighthouse seem indescribably cozy, while presenting each scene creatively (I especially admired the lighthouse cutaway, the shipwreck, and the circular images of the wife in labor).  Hello, my new favorite picture book of 2018!

Cons:  I suspect real life in a lighthouse was not this idyllic.  This sentence in the author’s note about foghorns particularly caught my attention: “Some lighthouse keepers learned to sleep through the din of the horn; others nearly went mad when the fog lasted for days.”

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Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez, illustrated by Felicita Sala

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Image result for joan procter dragon doctor amazon

Image result for joan procter dragon doctor

Summary:  From the time she was a young girl, Joan Procter loved reptiles.  Instead of a doll, she carried around her favorite lizard, and she got a pet crocodile for her 16th birthday.  She started hanging out with the curator of reptiles and fish at the Natural History Museum when she was still in high school. He was impressed enough to hire Joan as his assistant, and she eventually took over his job when he retired.  From there, she went to work at the London Zoo, designing a new reptile house. The most amazing part of her new creation was the exhibit featuring Komodo dragons, a fabled but little-known animal from Indonesia.  People assumed they were ferocious, but Joan soon learned they were quite gentle, and one of them, Sumbawa, became something of a pet to her. He often accompanied her around the zoo, at children’s tea parties she held there, and even at a scientific presentation at the Zoological Society in London.  An author’s note gives more biographical information, including the sad fact that Joan was sickly much of her life and died at the age of 34. 40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  Kids will warm up right away to Joan and her love of animals; they’ll also be inspired by her groundbreaking work as a woman scientist.  The illustrations are beautiful, especially the ones of the reptiles.  And who doesn’t love a Komodo dragon?

Cons:  Hopefully no reader will be inspired to bring a baby crocodile to math class, like Joan did.

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Sherlock Holmes and the Disappearing Diamond by Sam Hearn (Baker Street Academy book 1)

Published by Scholastic Press

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Summary:  When John Watson is accepted at Baker Street Academy, it’s elementary that he’ll become friends with classmates Martha Hudson and Sherlock Holmes.  The three have already started palling around when their class witnesses a robbery (“flash rob”) of a valuable diamond while on a field trip. For the remainder of the story, John is trying to figure out what happened; Sherlock, of course, is always several steps ahead of him.  A return trip to the museum results in a showdown between Sherlock and his archenemy James Moriarty, and the thief is revealed, along with a few other secret identities.  In the final chapter, John’s parents are off on an extended business trip and Sherlock’s older brother has mysteriously left for awhile, so Sherlock and John move in with the Hudsons at 221B Baker Street.  More adventures?  Elementary again.  176 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Readers will find the blend of text, illustrations, and cartoon bubbles engaging, while getting a taste (in younger versions) of many of the classic Sherlock Holmes characters and settings.

Cons:  For a book targeted to younger elementary readers, there were a lot of characters to keep track of and a somewhat tangled web of a mystery.

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Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover by Markus Motum

Published by Candlewick

Image result for curiosity mars rover motum amazon

Image result for curiosity mars rover motum

Summary:  In a first-person narration, the Mars rover Curiosity tells her story, beginning before she was built, when scientists at NASA started designing probes to learn more about Mars.  Curiosity (she was named by a sixth grader from Kansas) was to be larger and more advanced than any of the previous probes.  Labeled illustrations show the processes of designing and building her in Los Angeles, then flying her to Florida, where she was launched on November 26, 2011.  After 253 days of space travel and a somewhat precarious landing, Curiosity began the work of exploring Mars that she continues today.  Includes additional information about Mars rovers, a timeline, and a glossary.  56 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  The personification of the rover makes it accessible for elementary school kids; the text, illustrations, and labeled diagrams provide a lot of information.

Cons:  Two design issues: the book is so large it feels a bit unwieldy, and some of the black-on-blue or blue-on-black type/background combinations are difficult to read.

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In the Past by David Elliott, illustrated by Matthew Trueman

Published by Candlewick

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Image result for in the past matthew trueman david elliott

Summary:  Twenty poems are illustrated with oversized paintings of a variety of prehistoric creatures from the trilobite (“So many of you./So long ago./So much above you./Little below.”) to Tyrannosaurus Rex.  (You thought/(if you could think)/you’d live forever./The great T. rex/would never die!/But even kings/are vanquished/when stars fall/from the sky.”).  Early mammals like the smilodon (a.k.a. Saber-tooth tiger) and mammoth are included.  Each illustration is labeled with the geological period when that animal lived.  Back matter includes a note from the author and information about the animals that inspired the poems. 48 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  Dinosaur fans will love the giant (and appropriately ferocious) illustrations as well as the brief, funny poems.

Cons:  Additional scientific information on each page would have made some of the poems more understandable.

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