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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The Princess and the Pit Stop by Tom Angleberger, illustrated by Dan Santat

Published by Harry N. Abrams

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Summary:  When the Princess makes a pit stop at the car race, she learns that she’s in last place with one lap to go.  Determined to win, she takes off, aggressively passing one fairy tale character after another (“She spun out Rumpelstiltskin and butted in front of the three billy goats gruff”).  Many of the characters make reference to their stories (“And the Gingerbread Man admitted, ‘She CAN catch me!”).  The narrator is a frog announcer, screaming into a microphone.  On the last page, the princess, who has thrown a celebratory party at the castle, grabs his hand saying, “C’mon, Prince! We’ve got a dance contest to win!”  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  You really can’t go wrong pairing Tom Angleberger and Dan Santat (an aside: this is the fourth book illustrated by Dan Santat I’ve reviewed this year; the man is an illustration machine).  The story and the pictures are pure fun, and kids who know their fairy tales will enjoy the literary allusions.

Cons:  The ending seemed a little anticlimactic.

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Marie Curie by Demi

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

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Summary:  When Marie Curie was born in 1867 Poland, life was difficult.  She had a loving family, but her mother and older sister died when she was still a child.  She and another sister, Bronya, wanted to go to the Sorbonne in Paris, but the family could only afford to send one of them.  Bronya went first, became a doctor, and supported Marie when she was through. Not only did Marie complete degrees in physics and math at the top of her class, but she met another brilliant scientist, Pierre Curie.  They married and pursued their work together, unlocking the secrets of uranium and radium. They won the Nobel Prize in physics; after Pierre’s tragic death, Marie continued their work and won another Nobel in chemistry. The dangers of radiation were unknown at the time (illustrated on the two pages showing women drinking radium and using it in beauty products), and Marie eventually died at the age of 66 from her long exposure to it.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  An excellent introduction to Marie Curie’s life; complete, but straightforward enough for primary graders.  Demi’s illustrations are gorgeous, especially the patterns she uses for clothing, curtains, and carpets.

Cons:  Spending four years trying to determine the atomic weight of radium sounds like kind of a drag.

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The Missing Baseball (Zach & Zoe Mysteries) by Mike Lupica

Published by Puffin Books

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Summary:  Zach and Zoe are eight-year-old twins who love sports and solving mysteries.  When Zach brings his prized autographed baseball to school for sharing, he is dismayed when it disappears during lunchtime.  Zoe is on the case, scouting the area for clues and trying to piece together what happened when the kids were out of the classroom.  Meanwhile, it’s Spirit Week, and the entire third grade is competing for points to see if the Blue team or the White team will get the highest score.  It all comes down to a final baseball game, with Zach and Zoe each captaining their teams, for the resolution of both the Spirit Week competition and the missing baseball mystery.  80 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  In his first foray into books for younger kids, Mike Lupica does a nice job of creating a mystery that has plenty of sports action.  A good series for fans of David A, Kelly’s Baseball Mysteries and MVP series.

Cons:  I found Zoe and Zach’s parents  pretty annoying; it seemed like every other page featured one of them offering advice or one of the kids recalling some pearl of wisdom from Mom or Dad.

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How to Code a Sandcastle (A Girls Who Code Book) by Josh Funk, illustrated by Sara Palacios

Published by Viking Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  The narrator has been trying to build a sandcastle all summer, but for one reason or another, hasn’t been successful.  On the last day of vacation, she brings her robot Pascal to the beach with her to help build the castle. She explains to the reader what she is doing as she codes Pascal to find a good spot, create a big pile of sand, gather decorations, and shape and embellish the castle.  She makes mistakes as she goes, but figures out what she’s done wrong and corrects them. When the tide comes in and washes her sandcastle away, she can uses the program she’s created to have Pascal build another one, this time with a moat around it. At the end, she and Pascal are ready to create an entire kingdom of sandcastles.  Includes an explanation of code, sequences, loops, and if-then-else statements. 44 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  A fun introduction to coding terms for the picture book crowd.  The foreword, by Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, explains the importance of introducing coding concepts to young children.  The illustrations and different fonts add to the educational value.

Cons:  It would have been helpful to see the entire program for the sandcastle written out somewhere.

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