The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden

Published by Sky Pony Press

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Summary:  Zoey wishes she could be her favorite animal, an octopus.  It would be nice to have eight arms when she’s trying to take care of her three younger siblings while her mother works and tries to keep her boyfriend, Lenny, happy so he’ll let them stay in his trailer.  It would be helpful to be able to have an octopus’s camouflage abilities so her wealthier classmates wouldn’t stare at her ill-fitting clothing.  And it wouldn’t be bad on occasion to be able to shoot a cloud of black ink at the kids who make fun of her or at the social studies teacher who is asking too many questions about Zoey’s home life.  But Zoey is a seventh grade girl, not an octopus, and when her teacher insists that she join the debate club, she starts to learn that discrediting an opponent is a technique, not only for winning a debate, but also for stealing another person’s confidence.  When Zoey sees Lenny doing that to her mom, she starts to think she needs  to intervene.  When her friend Fuchsia’s mom puts the two of them in a dangerous situation with her new boyfriend, Zoey realizes she has to leave her camouflage behind and speak up for herself and for the people she loves.  256 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  A compelling story of a family living in poverty, forced to make impossible choices just to get through the day.  Zoey sees the kids around her worrying about homework, having crushes, and enjoying their friends, but none of that normal middle school stuff can be for her because she is so weighed down by her family situation.  The ending is hopeful, but realistic–there is still a long difficult road ahead for Zoey and her mom.

Cons:  The gun debate subplot didn’t always ring true for me.  Zoey’s friend Silas loves to hunt, which seemed to be presented as the reason guns are okay, but he and his dad were hunting bobcats for sport, which didn’t really convince me that hunting is a good thing.

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Auntie Luce’s Talking Paintings by Francie Latour, pictures by Ken Daley

Published by Groundwood Books

Image result for auntie luce's talking amazon

Image result for auntie luce's talking amazon

Summary:  A little girl tells about traveling to Haiti, her mother’s birthplace, to visit her artist Auntie Luce.  Auntie Luce shows her niece around Haiti, driving through the city before heading to her home and studio in the country.  In the studio are paintings of some of the heroes from Haiti’s past like Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Catherine Flon, and Francois-Dominique Louverture, as well as portraits of the girl’s ancestors.  When it’s her turn to sit for a portrait, she finds it’s hard to sit still for so long; Auntie Luce distracts her with stories about Haiti and its history. At the end of her visit, her aunt gives the girl her portrait telling her, “These colors, this people, this place belong to you.  And you belong to them, always.” Includes an author’s note giving a brief history of Haitian independence and a glossary. 36 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  An ode to Haiti, celebrating its history of independence and its beauty, particularly with the vibrantly colored illustrations.

Cons:  I wish there was more information about the history of Haiti in the author’s note.

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I Lost My Tooth! by Mo Willems (Unlimited Squirrels)

Published by Hyperion Books for Children

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Image result for i lost my tooth mo willems

Summary:  When Zoom Squirrel loses her tooth, her squirrel friends are horrified, particularly when they find out it was a baby tooth!  They’re sure it must be alone, sad, and hungry, and they scatter in all directions to try to find it.  When they’re gone, Zoom Squirrel realizes it’s under her pillow, and goes off to retrieve it.  The other squirrels return to find her gone, too!  Finally, everyone is reunited, and the baby tooth is put into a carriage where it is oohed and aahed over.  Zoom Squirrel has the final word as she concludes with the lesson from the story: “Squirrels do not know much about teeth!”  The final third of the book includes jokes and facts about teeth.  85 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Squirrels may not know much about teeth, but Mo Willems knows plenty about how to tickle kids’ funny bones, and his legion of fans is sure to welcome this new series (at least I assume it will be a series), with a size, shape, and illustrations that are similar to the Elephant and Piggie books.

Cons:  There’s a large cast of squirrel characters, all of whom look kind of similar to me.  Also, the back matter seemed unnecessary, although I suppose jokes, riddles, and fun facts will always find an audience with the preschool crowd.  And I feel foolish offering any criticism, as I know that anything even remotely resembling Piggie and Gerald with Mo Willems’ name on it will be a runaway best seller.

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Eliza: The Story of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by Esme Shapiro.  

Published by Schwartz & Wade

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Image result for eliza mcnamara amazon

Summary:  Writing a letter to her soon-to-be-born grandchild, Eliza Hamilton tells the story of her life, starting as an adventurous girl who liked to run and play on her family’s farm in upstate New York.  She writes of her regret that her family owned slaves, and how they eventually freed them. Then she moves on to meeting and falling in love with Alexander Hamilton, and how she helped introduce him to some of her family’s socially prominent acquaintances.  After his death, she worked for many years to preserve his legacy, raise money for the Washington Monument and to continue and expand upon the charitable work the two of them had started. Her proudest achievement seems to have been founding New York’s first orphanage in 1806, an institution that continues to this day.  Back matter includes extensive notes and additional resources, as well as an afterword by Phillipa Soo, the original Eliza from Hamilton: An American Musical. 48 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  An excellent introduction to a lesser-known founding mother, with her accomplishments presented in their own right, not only in connection with her famous husband.  The folk art style illustrations add a lot to the text; older fans of the musical will enjoy this book as well as the youngsters.

Cons:  I’ve seen this book recommended for kids as young as 4 years old.  In my opinion, it wouldn’t be appreciated much by anyone without some background knowledge of early American history.

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Winnie’s Great War by Lindsay Mattick and Josh Greenhut, art by Sophie Blackall

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Expanding on Mattick and Blackall’s 2015 Caldecott-winning Finding Winnie, this book uses a similar format of a mother telling her son about his stuffed bear.  The Bear in question, of course, turns out to be Winnie-the-Pooh, a real bear at the London Zoo discovered by Christopher Robin Milne and immortalized by his father, A. A. Milne.  Before Winnie (full name, Winnipeg) moved to the zoo, she spent a fair amount of time with Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian with the Canadian army, who bought her from a trapper.  The first few chapters tell how Winnie came to be with the trapper (including a Bambi-like scene in which the trapper catches Winnie’s mother and shoots her). Harry and Winnie traveled together as long as they could, but eventually Harry was in the thick of the war in England and had to leave Winnie at the zoo.  There’s an interesting blend of historical fact and fantasy, as Winnie experiences the war through the eyes of a bear cub and is able to talk to various animals she meets. Harry Colebourn was Lindsay Mattick’s great-grandfather, and photos and diary entries on the last several pages fill in some more historical details.  256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This would make a great read-aloud for almost any elementary grade (although there are a few difficult passages to read about Winnie’s mother and the war).  The Pooh connection and Winnie’s wide-eyed view of the world make it accessible to younger kids, while the parts about war could lead to interesting discussions for older ones.

Cons:  I wish there were more of Sophia Blackall’s illustrations.

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Rock What Ya Got by Samantha Berger, illustrated by Kerascoet

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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Image result for rock what ya got kerascoet

Summary:  An artist creates a girl named Viva, then, dissatisfied, begins to erase her.  Viva grabs the pencil.  “Excuse me, lady, artist, ma’am/but I like me the way I am./Before you change one line or dot,/can I try…to rock what I got?”  Unconvinced, the artist tries tweaking parts of Viva: first her hair, then her body, then the background.  Each time, Viva reappears in her original form, with her reminder to “Rock what ya got!”  Finally, the artist remembers a book with that title that she wrote when she was about Viva’s age.  She hugs Viva, happy with her exactly as she is, and makes a promise to herself not to forget this line again.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A catchy line with a good message of self-acceptance and great illustrations showing the artist’s different attempts at altering Viva.

Cons:  I was hoping there would be an afterword…did Samantha Berger really create such a book for herself as a kid?

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Fake Blood by Whitney Gardner

Published by Simon and Schuster

Image result for fake blood whitney amazon

Image result for fake blood whitney amazon

Summary:  A.J. is hoping that sixth grade will be different, but on the first day, things seem depressingly familiar.  His two best friends, Ivy and Hunter, continue to bicker, leaving him out of their ridiculous bets with each other.  Plus, they each had amazing summer adventures while A.J. stayed home and read.  His crush, Nia, is back, as dazzling as ever, but apparently unaware that A.J. exists.  Their new teacher, Mr. Niles, has a cool British accent, but seems pretty strict.  As the year goes on, A.J. tries to become cooler, pretending to be a vampire to impress Nia, who is obsessed with them.  This almost proves disastrous (she wants to be a vampire slayer), but in a weird way brings them together.  When Hunter goes missing and unsettling truths start to emerge about Mr. Niles, A.J. and his friends and sister have to band together to save themselves.  336 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  An entertaining graphic novel with sympathetic tween characters, a fun vampire theme, and good messages about friendship and being yourself.

Cons:  I kept putting off reading this because it seemed long, but once I started it, the pages flew by and I finished it in a day.

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