Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant

Published by Beach Lane Books

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Summary:  Flora’s fourth grade year gets off to a rough start; her parents have recently separated, her dog died not too long ago, and the kids in her class seem a lot smarter and more confident than they did in third grade.  Flora is quiet and sensitive, and loves spending hours reading at Wing and a Chair Used Books, where her mother works three days a week.  As the year goes on, Flora makes a new friend, Yuri; gets a new cat, Serenity; and discovers her talent for writing.  When spring comes, her family changes once again, this time in an exciting new direction, and Flora is grateful for everything that has happened to her in the previous year.  160 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  A quiet, introspective book about a quiet, introspective girl growing up in 1972 in the small town of Rosewood, Indiana.  The characters are memorable, especially Flora, Yuri, and Miss Meriwether, the book store owner.

Cons:  Readers seeking a lot of humor/action/adventure may be disappointed.

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Good Dog by Dan Gemeinhart

Published by Scholastic Press

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Summary:  On page 1, Brodie is waking up in a new place, vaguely aware that he has died.  He soon learns that he is in a sort of purgatory, waiting to move on to the mysterious Forever, but still able to return to Earth as a ghost…with the risk of losing his soul.  As his memories of his previous life slowly return, Brodie realizes that his beloved boy Aiden is in danger, and that it’s up to Brodie to save him.  Accompanied by the lovable and loyal, if not too bright, Tuck, Brodie returns to Earth to help Aiden.  The two dogs are pursued by four hellhounds, dogs who have lost their souls and feed off of the souls of “good dogs” to stay alive.  They’re assisted by Patsy, the ghost of a streetwise stray cat who is down to her last bit of soul.  It’s a struggle to the end, but Brodie succeeds in his mission, and the human-canine bond is celebrated in a moving final chapter.  304 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Animal lovers will take Brodie, Tuck, and even Patsy to heart, and between the hellhounds and Aiden’s evil father, there is plenty of action to keep them reading to the end.

Cons:  Brodie’s “good dog” status was hammered home just a bit too hard.  And Dan Gemeinhart?  He needs a better editor to eliminate some of the rhetorical question and answer format of his narration.

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The Dinosaur Expert (Mr. Tiffin’s Classroom series) by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Published by Schwartz and Wade

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Summary:  Kimmy loves science, collecting rocks, leaves, shells, and even owl pellets.  But her favorite collection is her fossils. So she’s excited about her class’s field trip to the natural history museum and eager to share her dinosaur knowledge with the other kids.  But when Jake tells her, “Girls aren’t scientists”, and backs up his statement with photos of male fossil hunters, Kimmy is suddenly less interested in sharing. Mr. Tiffin notices, and leads Kimmy to an exhibit about Zulma Brandoni de Gasparini, a female paleontologist who discovered a dinosaur that was named for her (Gasparinisaura Cincosaltensis).  Even Jake is impressed, and Kimmy regains her confidence and enthusiasm for dinosaurs.  “When I grow up, I want to be just like her,” Kimmy says at the end of the trip. “I think,” replies Mr. Tiffin, “you already are.”  Includes profiles of seven women paleontologists, including one who discovered a fossil from a new species of pterosaur when she was only four years old.  40 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Another charming tale featuring Mr. Tiffin working his magic with another member of his class.  There’s plenty of dinosaur information woven into the story for fossil fans.

Cons:  I hope Jake gets his own story so we can learn why he’s so obnoxious.

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How Are You? Como Estas? by Angela Dominguez

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

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Summary:  In this follow up to How Do You Say? Como Se Dice?*, Angela Dominguez’s two giraffes meet up with an ostrich.  They immediately start asking questions in English and Spanish: How are you? Are you shy? Are you hungry? The ostrich answers no to everything. Finally, she reveals how she is feeling:  She is excited because she has two new amigos! *(If anyone knows how to do accents or upside down question marks in Google Docs, please email me!)  32 pages; ages 3-7.

Pros:  The cute animals will appeal to the very youngest readers, and older kids will have fun learning some Spanish (or reading it for their friends if they already speak it).  

Cons:  A list of all the phrases or words from the book in both languages would have been a nice addition at the end.

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National Parks of the U.S.A. by Kate Siber, illustrated by Chris Turnham

Published by Wide Eyed Editions

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Summary:  This oversized guide to the national parks of the U.S. is divided into seven sections: Alaska, Tropics (Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa), West, Southwest, Rocky Mountains, Central, and East.  Each section starts with a map showing all the parks from that area, then gives more in-depth information (a two-page spread) on a few selected ones. These spreads include the location, date founded, size, and information about various plants and animals that can be found in the park.  Two pages at the end have an A-Z of wildlife: 26 plants and animals with a challenge to find which parks they are from. Also includes information on how to help protect the national parks and an extensive index. 112 pages; grades 1-7.

Pros:  It will take a pretty committed homebody to resist the urge to go exploring after perusing these pages.  The retro illustrations, oversized pages, and fascinating information make every park beckon to road trippers.

Cons:  For such a big book, some of the type is pretty tiny.

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The Creature of the Pines (The Unicorn Rescue Society, book 1) by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly

Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  From the team that brought you The Inquisitor’s Tale comes this new series for the early chapter book crowd.  Elliot Eisner is bummed to be starting school three weeks into the school year.  That ends up being the least of his concerns after he meets a girl named Uchenna.  The two of them get paired up on what turns out to be the weirdest field trip he has ever been on.  Their class travels to New Jersey’s Pine Barrens with their chronically flustered teacher Miss Vole and the strange and perpetually grumpy Professor Fauna.  They wind up rescuing a small dragon-like creature that turns out to be a Jersey Devil.  After they return to school, the creature gets loose and ends up in the home of the evil billionaire Schmoke brothers.  Elliott and Uchenna are forced to seek out Professor Fauna for help.  The rescue complete, he invites them to join the top secret Unicorn Rescue Society, setting the stage for more escapades with mythical creatures in the next books of the series.  192 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  A unique and promising start to a new series, with plenty of deadpan humor, one-of-a-kind characters, and magic action.  Short chapters, a fast pace, and plenty of illustrations will appeal to reluctant readers.

Cons:  As a New Jersey native, I would have appreciated some back matter about the Jersey Devil.

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Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes by Hena Khan, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini

Published by Chronicle Books

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Summary:  In this follow-up to Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Shapes, the author-illustrator team explores various aspects of Islam by looking at different shapes.  Each page contains a rhyming couplet introducing a shape and a word from Islam (“Circle is a daff, a drum large and round./We fill the air with its festive sound”).  The illustrations portray Muslims from a variety of countries and cultures. Includes a glossary that gives more information about each term from the text and an author’s note describing the importance of shapes and geometry in Islamic art.  32 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  An excellent introduction to the Muslim faith, with interesting illustrations that include a wide variety of beautiful geometric patterns.

Cons:  The information is pretty brief; I was curious about many of the terms, but the glossary only provides a sentence or two about each one.

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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy by Tony Medina & 13 Artists

Published by Penny Candy Books

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Summary:  Tony Medina has written thirteen poems in tanka form (5-7-5-7-7), inspired by photos of the Washington D.C. neighborhood of Anacostia.  The poems capture emotions from despair (“Payday don’t pay much/Every breath I take is taxed/The kind of life where/I’ll have to take out a loan/To pay back them other loans”) to hope (“I went to this school/When I was a shawty rock/Breakin’ in the yard/Wanted to be a rap star–/But a teacher’s not too far!” with an illustration of a young man in dreadlocks teaching science to an enthusiastic group of students).  The opening two pages are a free verse meditation on black boys ending with “We celebrate their preciousness and creativity/We cherish their lives”. Includes profiles of the thirteen artists who provided the illustrations and an author’s note about the title of the book, the tanka form of poetry, and the Anacostia neighborhood. 40 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  A celebration of African-American boys in deceptively simple poetry, with a wide variety of beautiful, intriguing artwork.  Kids who have mastered the haiku may be inspired to attempt the more complex tanka.

Cons:  Although I liked the compact size of the book, the artwork seemed to warrant a larger, picture book sized format.

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Drum Roll, Please by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Published by HarperCollins

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Summary:  The day before 13-year-old Melly is leaving for Camp Rockaway, her parents tell her that they’re getting a divorce.  She is angry and hurt, but as usual, keeps those feelings to herself.  Camp proves a distraction, a place where she can play drums and learn more about music.  She expects to be in a band with her best friend Olivia, but when the two of them are split up, each finds herself with a crush on a bandmate.  Olivia’s feelings for Noel are unrequited, but she doesn’t learn that until she has spent a week ditching Melly to hang around with him.  Melly is surprised by her attraction to Adeline, and isn’t sure how to handle her emotions.  Her relationships with both Olivia and Adeline, as well as her interactions with a tough music teacher, help her to figure out her feelings and express what she wants and needs.  An end-of-camp performance for families shows how much Melly has grown in confidence and learned about herself during two eventful weeks of camp.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  An empowering and fun summer read, perfect for fans of middle school girl fiction.  Melly’s voice is genuine and funny, and readers will cheer for her as she learns to speak up for herself while also valuing her relationships with her friends and family.

Cons:  I really wanted to go to Camp Rockaway.  And to have some musical talent.

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The Promise written by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe, illustrated by Isabelle Cardinal

Published by Second Story Press

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Summary:  Rachel and Toby have been in Auschwitz since the night their parents were taken away by the Nazis.  Before he left, their father gave Toby three gold coins.  Their mother told them to stay together no matter what.  Toby promised to take care of Rachel and not to spend the coins unless she absolutely had to.  When Rachel falls ill in the concentration camp, Toby realizes the situation is desperate enough to warrant using the coins.  She successfully rescues her sister from the sick ward, defying the Nazi guards and earning herself a beating.  The girls are allowed to stay together, though, and survive their imprisonment until the end of the war.  32 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  A beautiful and moving story about courage, loyalty, and hope during the most difficult circumstances.  The authors are cousins, the daughters of Rachel and Toby.

Cons:  Most reviewers recommend this book for grade 2 and up, but I would be hesitant to share it with kids under the age of 10.  The illustrations are kind of creepy, and the death of several characters at the hands of the Nazis is implied.

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