Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

Published by Candlewick

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Summary:  On his way home from swim lessons with his abuela, Julian sees some women dressed as mermaids.  He is enchanted and imagines himself growing fins and swimming underwater.  When they get home, abuela takes a bath, and Julian sets about transforming himself into a mermaid.  He creates a flowered headdress, applies some makeup, and makes himself a tail from a lace curtain.  When abuela emerges from the bath, she gives Julian a good looking over, and he thinks, “Uh-oh”.  But she simply gives him a couple necklaces, takes his hand, and leads him to the beach, where the two of them join in a joyful mermaid parade.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A celebration of self-expression, as wise abuela not only allows her grandson to dream of being a mermaid, but takes him to a place where he can display his beautiful costume and join others who are similarly dressed.  Even the real-life illustrations have a somewhat dreamy nature to them.  A first-time illustrator who may get some Caldecott consideration.

Cons:  I read somewhere that the parade in this story is based on the Coney Island mermaid parade.  It would have been fun to read a little about that and/or see some photos.

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A Frog’s Life by Irene Kelly, illustrated by Margherita Borin

Published by Holiday House

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Summary:  A thorough look at frogs and toads (according to this book, a toad is a kind of frog; personally, I can never remember the distinctions) that includes anatomy, habitat, reproduction, and prey and predators.  Each page includes labeled watercolor illustrations of a great variety of frogs. The last couple pages discuss the different reasons why frogs are endangered, and the back matter includes ways kids can help them, as well as an index.  40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  Whether a reader is interested in research or simply learning more about frogs, this book would make an excellent starting place.  The information is engagingly presented, and the large colorful illustrations will appeal to amphibian aficionados.

Cons:  A list of additional resources would have been a nice addition to the back matter.

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Avalanche! (Survivor Diaries series) by Terry Lynn Johnson

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Twins Ryan and Ashley are expert skiers, but they’re no match for an avalanche that thunders down on them when they’ve skied ahead of their parents.  Both get buried, but Ashley manages to dig her way out.  She sees one of Ryan’s ski poles sticking up, and frees him just in time.  A blow to his head has caused temporary amnesia, and it’s up to Ashley to find them shelter for the night and get them to safety the next day.  Ashley’s persistent determination (“grit”) is emphasized as she fights through a knee injury, a threat from a grizzly bear, and deadly cold to save herself and her brother.  Includes tips for surviving an avalanche, websites with additional information, and an excerpt from Lost, the next book in the series due out in July.  112 pages (story is 86 pages); grades 2-5.

Pros:  Fans of the I Survived series will clamor for these action-packed stories of kids surviving natural disasters.  Plenty of illustrations and non-stop adventure make these a great choice for reluctant readers.

Cons:  Each story starts with the survivor(s) telling their story to a nameless reporter, which seems a bit contrived.

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Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  A neighborhood group of kids plays some pretty complex imaginary games in this graphic novel, aided by their extensive use of cardboard to make costumes and other accessories.  Each chapter is written by Chad Sell and another writer, and focuses on a different kid in the group.  There’s some gender bending, with the sorceress being played by a boy in a long gown and heels, and a girl in a mustache taking the role of mad scientist.  While parents occasionally question these choices, the other kids never do, and there is a satisfying aura of acceptance around the games all summer long.  Even the bully is shown to have a difficult home life and is eventually drawn into the fun.  At home, kids are dealing with divorce and absent parents, but the camaraderie and joy of play help them to put aside those issues when they don their costumes.  288 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A celebration of imagination, adventure, and being true to yourself, told in graphic format with a diverse cast of characters and plenty of colorful costumes.

Cons:  There are a lot of characters to keep track of.

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The Creativity Project: An Awesometastic Story Collection edited by Colby Sharp

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Colby Sharp, co-founder of The Nerdy Book Club, embarked on a creativity project with 44 children’s book authors and illustrators, who were each invited to create two prompts.  Mr. Sharp then sent them two prompts from other artists and asked them to create something based on one of them.  This book is the result: a collection of poems, stories, artwork, and comics. Each one shows the prompt that was given (and who made it up), followed by the creative work it inspired.  The names will be familiar to any fan of children’s literature: Lemony Snicket, Jennifer Holm, Dan Santat, Victoria Jamieson, and many, many more. The final section, entitled “Prompts for You” includes intriguing text and pictures to inspire readers.  Includes brief biographies of all the contributors and an index. 288 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This unusual book is fun to read (especially for us nerdy children’s book fans) and an inspiring look at the creative process.  There were some fun surprises (a deliciously creepy tale by Dav Pilkey comes to mind) and enough different genres to keep things interesting.  The prompts at the end will make you want to cast everything else in your life aside and start writing.

Cons:  It takes some persistence to plow through the whole book, and a few of the entries seemed like the writers kind of phoned it in.

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Out of Left Field by Ellen Klage

Published by Viking

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Summary:  Katy Gordon is the star pitcher of her 1957 neighborhood baseball team.  One afternoon, wearing a jersey and cap and being called “Gordon” by the boys, she’s invited by a Little League scout to a tryout.  She makes the team, but when one of the other boys tells the coach that she’s a girl, she’s promptly kicked off.  Supported by her chemistry professor mother, she writes to Little League headquarters, but receives a disappointing response that includes the sentence, “Since the beginning of baseball as an organized sport, it has always been the sole province of male athletes.”  When Katy is assigned a research project at school, she decides to research women in baseball and is shocked to learn how many women have played since the beginning of the game.  Her project gets her some local attention, a story in the paper, and the chance to strike out Willie Mays, but even that isn’t enough to get her back into Little League.  In the end, she’s back to the neighborhood team; the final scene shows her reaching out to a younger girl who wants to play as well.  Includes information about the women Katy researches; an author’s note; a glossary; and additional resources.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Katy is a spunky narrator who will have boys and girls rooting for her in her campaign against the unfair Little League rules.  There are plenty of other interesting historical details, from Katy’s mother’s fight against McCarthyism at her university job to Katy receiving one of the new Frisbees for her birthday.

Cons:  On page 245, Katy’s friend Jules dismisses the Nancy Drew mysteries in this way: “They’re all about the same. Nancy has adventures, her chums get into trouble, Ned rescues them all (emphasis mine), and the mystery gets solved along the way.”  Having read more than 40 Nancy Drew books in my childhood, I feel safe in saying Nancy rescued Ned at least as often as the other way around.

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Night Out by Daniel Miyares

Published by Schwartz and Wade

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Summary:  A boy eats and sleeps alone in some kind of all-boy institution (a boarding school? An orphanage?).  One night he finds an invitation propped up against the bowl housing his pet turtle.  He sneaks out and rides his bike to the shore, where a large turtle ferries him across the water to a cave.  There’s a party going on, and the other animals welcome him with open arms (and wings).  After a night of tea and dancing, he returns to his room.  His turtle can be seen returning to his bowl just as the boy is climbing through the window. The last page shows the boy sharing the story with his new (human) friends. 40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This almost wordless book (38 words) is a celebration of the power of stories to connect with others.  The dedication says it all: “Dedicated to the dreamers. May you always feel invited.”  Daniel Miyares’ evocative illustrations perfectly capture the child’s loneliness and the power of his imagination to create a happy world for himself.

Cons:  Knowing that Daniel Miyares has created beautiful wordless picture books, I felt like the words in this one were unnecessary.

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