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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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

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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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Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood

Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  As the London Blitz begins, 13-year-old Ken Sparks is sent on the SS City of Benares as part of a group of 90 children evacuating to Canada.  He is glad to go, both to get away from the bombing and because he feels unwanted by his stepmother.  The ship is luxurious, and when the crew assures them they’ve passed the danger zone for torpedoes, the kids relax and enjoy themselves.  During the first night of “safety”, there’s an explosion, and all passengers are hurried to the lifeboats. The Benares has been hit by the Germans and is sinking fast.  Ken is assigned to Lifeboat 8, but forgets his coat, and after running back to get it, ends up on Lifeboat 12.  When the sun rises, they are alone at sea: six boys, one of their chaperones (the only woman), a Catholic priest, and a few dozen crewmen.  They drift for many days, enduring hunger, thirst, trench foot, and the unknown of whether they will live or die. There are many examples of heroism, and Ken plays a part in their rescue with his knowledge of different aircraft.  There’s a happy ending for Lifeboat 12, although many others were not so lucky, including all those assigned to Lifeboat 8. Ken gets a huge welcome home, assuring him that he is loved and cherished by his father, stepmother, and 3-year-old sister.  Includes many pages of additional information, resources, and photographs, including a reassuringly healthy one of Ken Sparks in 2015 at age 88. 336 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  This extensively-researched novel in verse will attract all kinds of readers with its edge-of-your-seat suspense and historical detail.  Fans of the I Survived series will enjoy this real-life World War II adventure featuring kids much like themselves.

Cons:  It was not particularly relaxing reading all the details of the many days at sea.  I do hope I never suffer from trench foot.

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We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins

Published by Disney-Hyperion

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Summary:  Poor Penelope!  It’s tough enough for a young T. Rex going to school for the first time, but when she discovers her classmates are all children, she can’t resist eating them…because children are delicious!  The teacher makes her spit them all back out, but that first impression lasts, and Penelope finds herself without any friends. Her parents explain to her that she can’t eat her classmates, reminding her that “children are the same as us on the inside.  Just tastier.” Penelope tries, but she still has an occasional slip-up until she attempts to make friends with Walter, the classroom goldfish. When she sticks her finger in the water, Walter takes a bite, and Penelope does not like being someone’s snack at all!  Just looking at Walter reminds her to practice self-control, and before long Penelope has turned things around at school and is making friends. 48 pages; ages 3-7.

Pros:  A funny story about a T. Rex that also conveys good messages about treating others how you want to be treated and practicing self-control.

Cons:  I thought Penelope could have been a bit cuter; her head is kind of a cross between a beach ball and a football helmet.

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Interrupting Chicken and the Elephant of Surprise by David Ezra Stein

Published by Candlewick

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Summary:  The little red chicken and her father are back with their bedtime story routine.  This time, Little Chicken has been told by her teacher that every story has an element of surprise….only she heard this as an elephant of surprise.  So in each story her father reads to her, she is on the lookout for that elephant.  Just like in Interrupting Chicken, the father reads a classic fairy tale, and his daughter interrupts, inserting herself and the elephant.  The illustrations for the stories are a bit more dignified, with paler colors and classic-looking characters; the elephant and Little Chicken herself appear in the stories in the style of the rest of the book.  Dad is still awake at the end of this story; on the last page, Little Chicken asks him for help with her math homework.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Fans of the first Caldecott-honored Interrupting Chicken will no doubt enjoy some chuckles as they revisit Little Chicken and her patient, loving father.

Cons:  The premise of the interrupting chicken felt a little tired to me in this one.

A copy of this book was provided to me by Candlewick.

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Tigers and Tea With Toppy by Barbara Kerley and Rhoda Knight Kalt, illustrated by Matte Stephens

Published by Scholastic

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Summary:  Rhoda loves spending weekends in New York City with her Grandpa Toppy and Grandma Nonnie.  On Saturday, Toppy, whose real name is Charles R. Knight, takes his granddaughter to the American Museum of Natural History where he shows her the paintings he created of animals and prehistoric scenes.  Even though he is legally blind, he is able to draw and paint the dinosaurs from their fossilized skeletons. The next day they visit the Central Park Zoo where Toppy shows Rhoda the animals he studied so closely to learn how to draw them accurately.  Rhoda, Toppy, and Nonnie finish off the weekend with a celebratory tea at the Plaza Hotel. Includes author and artist notes with more information about Knight and the creation of the book; source notes; some of Knight’s animal drawings; and photos of Toppy and Rhoda.  48 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  A fun way to introduce the life of Charles Knight.  One interesting tidbit: illustrator Matte Stephens is legally blind, like Knight was, and uses some of the same techniques to create his art.

Cons: I would have enjoyed seeing more of the prehistoric paintings.

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