The Rough Patch by Brian Lies

Published by Greenwillow Books

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Summary:  Evan the fox and his dog are best friends who do everything together; the first several pages are bright and cheery, showing the pair eating ice cream, hanging out with Evan’s friends, and, best of all, working in their beautiful garden.  “But one day, the unthinkable happened,” and Evan is shown sadly petting the body of his beloved dog. The fox goes through different stages of grief: shutting himself inside, hacking his garden to pieces, then allowing weeds to grow and the garden to become a desolate place.  One day, though, he finds a pumpkin vine growing and he lets it stay.  He gradually begins to take care of it, and by the end of the season, he has a huge pumpkin, worthy of entering at the fair. He catches up with old friends at the fair and even has some fun. His pumpkin takes third place, and Evan gets a choice of prizes: $10 or one of the pups from a box on the stage.  “I’ll take the ten,” says Evan, but he can’t resist a peek into the box…and the final page shows him driving his truck home, a puppy riding on the seat next to him. 40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Wow, this is one powerful book; one of my favorites of the year so far.  Anyone who has dealt with any sort of loss will find it a helpful read, and the story is written in a way that even the youngest will understand.  Plus, the illustrations are adorable.

Cons:  I wish we had learned the name of Evan’s first dog.

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Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano

Published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky

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Summary:  12-year-old Ebo lives with his alcoholic Uncle Patrick in Ghana; his sister Sisi has left to try to get to Europe.  When his brother Kwame also runs away, Ebo decides to try to find him and start a new life in a more prosperous country.  The brothers eventually reunite and make their way across the Sahara Desert to Tripoli, Libya. From there, they work and save money to take a boat across the Mediterranean Sea.  The story is told in chapters alternating between that boat journey and flashbacks relating the events leading up to it. There is extreme hardship, illness, and death every step of the way with a particularly heartbreaking tragedy at the end.  Ebo is persistent and optimistic, though, and his prospects for success in his new country seem promising. Includes a map; a creators’ note that tells more about refugees; and “Helen’s Story”, the story of a Sudanese woman’s harrowing journey to the United Kingdom. 144 pages; grades 6-8.

Pros:  This graphic novel would make an excellent companion to last year’s Refugee by Alan Gratz.  Although Ebo’s story is fictional, the events and hardships seem very real.  The artwork is beautiful, with stunning ocean and desert scenes providing sharp contrast to the difficult story line.

Cons:  While I think older elementary students would find this book engaging and learn a lot from it, be aware there is a lot of death and grief in the story.

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Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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Summary:  Amal loves going to school in her Pakistani village, but when her mother suffers postpartum depression, she must stay home to help run the household.  While doing marketing for the family, she has an accidental run-in with a member of the wealthy Khan family gets her into serious trouble. Her father owes money to the Khans, and Amal is forced to work as an indentured servant in the family’s mansion to pay off his debt.  Her father assures her he will get the money quickly, but as time goes on, Amal sees that she may suffer the fate of the other servants and be forced to stay for years. Amal’s perseverance and determination pay off, and when she sees her opportunity to help herself and others around her, she finds the courage to take it and move forward. Includes an author’s note that ties together the fictional Amal’s life and the real-life Malala Yousafzi. 240 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  A powerful story about a courageous girl in a part of the world that may be unfamiliar to many U.S. readers.  Kids who know Malala’s story will have a connection that will draw them into this book.

Cons:  Amal’s happy ending seemed a little unrealistic, and the author mentions in her note that for many more kids trapped in indentured servitude, there is not usually such a way out.

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The Epic Origin of Super Potato (Super Potato book 1) by Artur Laperla

Published by Graphic Universe

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Summary:  When Super Max is called on to stop Doctor Malevolent from stealing a priceless statue from the museum, it seems like business as usual for this slightly narcissistic superhero.  But the evil Malevolent has a new weapon, and before Max can say “Tater Tots”, he has been transformed into a potato with the villain’s ray gun. Fortunately, his superpowers remain intact, so he becomes a flying, extra-strong potato.  Much of the story is about his attempts to turn back into a human (or at least get some decent hair), but in the end, his quest is futile, and it appears that he will be fighting crime as a potato in future installments. 54 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  Captain Underpants and Dog Man may have to make some space for this new superhero who will appeal (wildly) to their fan base.

Cons:  Max’s/Super Potato’s hair (and his obsession with it) reminded me a bit of a shocking head of orange hair that is frequently in the news.

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Spring After Spring: How Rachel Carson Inspired the Environmental Movement by Stephanie Roth Sisson

Published by Roaring Brook Press

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Summary:  Rachel Carson loved nature from the time she was a child.  She spent a lot of time outside, looking and listening to the wonders around her.  Although she grew up far from the ocean, she loved to read about it and imagined what it would be like.  She also enjoyed writing, and planned to study it in college. But after seeing tiny sea creatures through a microscope, she changed her major to biology.  After graduation, she combined her two interests, writing popular books about the ocean. Her most famous work, though, was Silent Spring, based on her research on the effects of pesticides on the environment.  Although not everyone agreed with her conclusions, enough people were concerned that real changes occurred as a result, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the first Earth Day.  Includes author’s note, notes, and bibliography. 40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  A charming introduction to Rachel Carson’s life, emphasizing her lifelong love of nature, especially the ocean, and illustrated with cartoon-style illustrations.

Cons:  The notes gave a lot of interesting information about Carson’s life, but are written in a small, cramped font, and are likely to be overlooked by young readers.

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Saving Fiona: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Baby Hippo by Thane Maynard

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  When Fiona the hippo arrived two months prematurely, her caretakers at the Cincinnati Zoo sprang into action to save her.  At 29 pounds, she was about one-third the healthy weight for a newborn hippo, and was too weak to climb on her mom’s back or to nurse.  The staff watched over her day and night, creating a hippo formula based on her mother’s milk to feed her. When she was a few months old, she began gradually transitioning to her parents’ care.  Fiona became something of a social media sensation, and a Google News search reveals that as recently as two weeks ago, her growth spurt was making headlines. Includes four pages of back matter with additional information about hippos.  48 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  This is my favorite kind of animal nonfiction book…an engaging story, lots of adorable photos, and plenty of information that would make it a good research resource.  I was surprised to read that hippos are the most requested animals at the zoo, but after seeing the photos of Fiona, I can understand why.

Cons:  Some resources about hippos for additional research would have been a nice addition.

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Kiki Greenbriar?

Making Friends by Kristen Gudsnuk

Published by Scholastic Graphix

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Summary:  Dani is struggling to make friends in seventh grade after she and her two best friends are put in different classes.  When she finds her deceased great aunt’s sketchbook (at a truly dysfunctional family gathering), she soon realizes that it’s magic.  When she draws dreamy Prince Neptune’s head (from her favorite comic series), not only does it come to life, but it starts calling her Princess Dani and declaring its love for her.  Dani’s next creation is a new best friend named Madison; this situation soon becomes awkward as Madison starts to wonder why her parents have left her in a new town and never call. As Dani tries to figure out how to use her new powers, she begins to make some non-magical friends as well.  When Prince Neptune turns out to have an evil plan in mind, Dani’s new friends rally to her side to defeat him. Turns out they all have a bit of magic in them, and there’s a hint of a sequel for these newly minted 7th grade superheroes. 272 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Fans of Raina Telgemeier, Victoria Jamieson, Jennifer Holm and the rest of the “girl” graphic novel crew will enjoy this new entry.  The middle school angst and friendship drama are real, and this one has a bit of the supernatural added.

Cons:  The battle against Prince Neptune bordered on the absurd.

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Sunny by Jason Reynolds

Published by Atheneum

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Summary:  Sunny’s the fastest miler on the Defenders track team, and easily takes first place at most of their meets. But he’s struggling with his reasons for running, and one day he comes to a halt before the finish line and refuses to finish his race.  Turns out his mom was a runner; when she died giving birth, his dad decided it was up to Sunny to carry on her legacy. Writing in his diary, Sunny tries to figure out his dad, his homeschool tutor Aurelia, his Defenders teammates, and himself. What Sunny really loves is dancing.  When he shows the coach some of his moves, Coach sees the beginnings of a champion discus thrower, and Sunny moves into a new role in the team. Book 4 in this series, Lu (the final installment) is due out in October.  176 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Another excellent entry into Jason Reynolds’ Track series that includes Ghost and Patina.  You don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate the humorous narration, interesting characters, and emotional impact of all three of these books.  Can’t wait for the thrilling conclusion!

Cons:  I don’t know if it was the diary format or the slightly shorter length, but I just wasn’t quite as invested in Sunny as I was in Patina and (still my favorite) Ghost.

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Mr. Monkey Bakes a Cake by Jeff Mack

Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  When Mr. Monkey decides to bake a cake, bananas figure heavily into the production.  So much so, that Mr. Monkey is too stuffed to sample his cake when it comes out of the oven.  No problem…he decides to take it to the big cake contest. The trip is fraught with peril, as Mr. Monkey encounters traffic, a deranged biker, and multiple chases by a variety of animals.  He manages to arrive safely with his cake, only to discover that the contest is over. Don’t worry, Mr. Monkey has a way of making pretty much any situation turn out okay. 64 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Filled with slapstick humor, this is sure to be a hit with the newly independent reading crowd.  A second book, Mr. Monkey Visits A School is also available.

Cons:  64 pages seemed a little long to me.

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The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Published by Greenwillow Books

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Summary:  Boy has lived his life on a French manor that has recently been ravished by pestilence and other misfortune.  As a hunchback, he is frequently the object of bullying and ridicule. When a stranger named Secundus appears and tells Boy he is on a pilgrimage to collect relics of St. Peter, Boy is intrigued.  He thinks if he can get to Rome, he can ask St. Peter to remove the hump on his back and turn him into a regular boy. As the two travel together, meeting up with all kinds of adventure, it becomes clear that Boy is not a regular boy and never will be one.  He has a secret that he slowly begins to share, and by the end of their journey, both Secundus and Boy have been transformed. Boy ends up back home on the manor, but it is clear life will never be the same for him again. 288 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  An intriguing story that may appeal to fans of The Inquisitor’s Tale, which also takes place in France about a century earlier (1242 vs. 1350).  Boy is a kind and gently funny narrator, and Secundus is a fascinating character of mysterious origins who is transformed by traveling with Boy.  Beautiful woodcut illustrations appear at the beginning of each chapter.  A possible Newbery contender.

Cons:  These medieval French tales can be a hard sell for most elementary school crowds, and if I had to choose one to recommend, I would go with The Inquisitor’s Tale.

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