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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The Sockeye Mother by Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett David Huson), illustrated by Natasha Donovan

Published by Highwater Press

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Summary:  The life of a sockeye salmon is described from the time she hatches from an egg until she returns to the same spawning ground two years later to lay her eggs before dying.  The sockeyes’ connection to the Gitxsan, indigenous people of British Columbia, is alluded to, as well as the reverence these people have for the fish that help sustain them.  The balance of nature is also described in a section called “A Replenishing Death”, when the salmon’s body becomes fertilizer for the flora in and around the water. 32 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  The author grew up in the Gitxsan Nation and imparts both scientific and cultural information in this brief story of a sockeye salmon.  The close-up illustrations vividly bring to life the different stages of the fish’s life, as well as the people and animals around her.

Cons:  This may not be a book many kids will pick up on their own, but with some guidance, they will find it an interesting resource.

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The Last (Endling book 1) by Katherine Applegate

Published by HarperCollins

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Summary:  Byx is part of a small pack of dairnes, dog-like creatures prized for their soft fur and hunted almost to extinction.  One day she goes off from the pack by herself and ends up rescuing a small creature called a wobbyk, whose name is Tobble.  During her absence, humans come and slaughter the rest of the dairne pack leaving Byx alone and possibly the only one left of her species.  Heartbroken and with no other options, she ends up traveling with Tobble, a human girl (disguised as a boy) named Khara and her horse, Vallino, as well as a felivet (a huge catlike creature) named Gambler.  This unlikely band travels through the city of the cruel Murdano, the human ruler who has ordered the death of the dairnes and who may be trying to extinguish felivets as well.  Their journey ends in the far north, where Byx glimpses a floating island that may or may not house another dairne pack.  Their destiny is uncertain at the end of book #1, but this motley band of travelers knows that they have become a family.  400 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  I might as well confess here, I’m not much of a fantasy fan, but I willed myself to tackle this 400 page book because it’s gotten excellent reviews, and I enjoyed Katherine Applegate’s book trailer about it.  It was worth the push, with beautiful writing and exquisite illustrations (I wish there were more).  True fantasy fans will love the unique characters and non-stop adventure, and will be anxiously awaiting book 2.

Cons:  With a couple of notable exceptions, humans don’t come off too well.  You may find yourself wishing you were a dairne, a wobbyk, or a felivet.

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La Frontera/The Border: El Viaje Con Papa/My Journey With Papa by Deborah Mills and Alfredo Alva, illustrated by Claudia Navarro

Published by Barefoot Books

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Summary:  Alfredo tells the story of his life in Mexico, how his father was no longer able to support the family, and his parents’ decided to send him and papa north to the United States.  A coyote led the two of them to the Rio Grande, gave them an inner tube to float across, then disappeared with their money.  After a grueling week of traveling on foot, they found a shack to sleep in, and a friend of Alfredo’s grandfather picked them up and drove them to Texas.  They settled in to the Embassy, a collection of broken-down vehicles parked behind a factory.  When Alfredo started school, his father gave him a $100 bill to buy a bus ticket back home if he was picked up by immigration officials and sent back to Mexico.  After a difficult transition, Alfredo enjoyed school.  President Reagan granted amnesty to immigrants, and Alfredo and his father were able to start the path to citizenship.  Best of all, four years later, the rest of the family was able to come to the United States.  Includes photos of Alfredo and his family, and extensive information on Alfredo’s story, borders and culture, and immigration.  In English and Spanish.  48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  A grittily realistic story of a family seeking a way out of desperate poverty in the United States.  Although it takes place more than 30 years ago, the story is more relevant than ever to readers today.  Putting a face on “illegal immigrants” will help students have greater empathy for others in a similar situation, and those who have experienced a journey like Alfredo’s will feel a connection to him and his father.

Cons:   Too bad certain government officials in Washington, D.C. aren’t reading this.

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Pip and Pup by Eugene Yelchin

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

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Summary:  At the beginning of this wordless book, Pip, a fuzzy yellow chick, hatches out of her egg and goes exploring.  The first animal she sees is sleeping puppy Pup. She pecks on his nose, then gets scared when he wakes up and chases her.  She goes back to her eggshell; when it starts raining, she uses the bottom half as a boat and the top half as a hat. She paddles back to Pup, who is feeling unhappy in the rain.  When Pip puts half her eggshell on Pup’s head, a riotous game begins that ends when Pup accidentally crushes the eggshell. His way to make amends? Bringing out a tennis ball which seems like it will start a whole new game.  32 pages; ages 3-7.

Pros:  A cute story of friendship by Newbery honoree Eugene Yelchin (Breaking Stalin’s Nose).  The personalities of both animals come through loud and clear even though there are no words.

Cons:  It’s a pretty simple and straightforward story, without as many interesting details as some wordless books have.

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Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

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Summary:  Katherine Johnson became more widely known with the book and movie Hidden Figures.  This picture book biography covers her life from her childhood in West Virginia through her role in helping to rescue the Apollo 13 crew.  In between, she graduated college at age 18, became a teacher, then moved on to NASA, beginning her career as a “computer”. Her brilliance in math earned her promotions, allowing her to work on Project Mercury, where astronaut John Glenn requested her calculations before flying.  She then moved on to calculating the flight paths for the Apollo missions, which is how she came to be called on when Apollo 13 was in trouble. Her assignment was to calculate a flight path that would bring the astronauts home with the little fuel they had left. She succeeded; the final page shows her gazing into space, a path of calculations connecting her to the moon, with the sentence, “She was now a star herself.”  Includes additional biographical information and sources. 40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  A good overview of Katherine’s life through 1970, with additional information in the back matter.  Both the text and the illustrations emphasize the importance of math in Katherine’s life and work.

Cons:  A timeline would have been useful.

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Mr. Wolf’s Class by Aron Nels Steinke

Published by Graphix

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Summary:  New teacher Mr. Wolf has his hands full with 17 lively elementary students…or at least there are 17 until Penny, sleep-deprived from her baby brother’s crying, falls asleep in a box in the library.  A missing student is only one challenge Mr. Wolf has on his first day of school; he also deals with lunch-eating rats, kids cutting the line, and a boy who spends math time surveying his classmates on whether they prefer ice cream or farts and charting the results on a Venn diagram.  Mr. Wolf rises to all occasions, though, and the kids are pretty happy as they head home at the end of the day. Stewart and new girl Margot bond on the bus ride home; Margot comes to the rescue when Stewart leaves his shell collection on the bus, and a new friendship is made.  Book #2 (Mystery Club) is due out in February.  160 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Aron Nels Steinke has clearly spent some time in an elementary school, and I laughed out loud at some of the scenes that will be recognized by most teachers and students. I loved this graphic novel from start to finish, and recommend it as first-day-of-school reading for anyone who will be going back to school in September.

Cons:  The evil Mr. Mane, a lion teacher who steals Mr. Wolf’s stapler, but then pretends not to have done so with false friendliness.

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