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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Stealing the Sword (Time Jumpers) by Wendy Mass, illustrated by Oriol Vidal

Published by Scholastic

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Summary:  Chase and Ava are at a flea market with their parents when they discover a mysterious suitcase.  The woman who sells it to them acts kind of odd, and when they buy it, a man chases after them to try to get it back for himself.  Inside are several artifacts, including what they think is a dragon doorknob. It leads them back through time to Camelot, where they meet up with Merlin and discover that Arthur is in danger.  Turns out the dragon is no ordinary doorknob, but actually the hilt of Excalibur. The two children prove instrumental in reuniting the sword and its hilt just in time to save the king. The man from the flea market shows up again, still after his suitcase, but the kids manage to elude him and return to the present.  The other artifacts in the suitcase, as well as the pictures on the back cover, assure readers that there will be at least three more books in this series. 96 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  There’s plenty of action in this latest entry from the Scholastic Branches imprint.  Fans of The Magic Tree House may find this a fun series to try for a change of pace; it’s right around the same reading level.  The Branches books always find a ready audience in my libraries.

Cons:  As much as I love Wendy Mass and want to praise everything she does, this is a little too close to The Magic Tree House.  A bookish brother and his slightly younger adventurous sister travel back in time.  Seems like Scholastic could have tried a bit harder for originality.

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Lyric McKerrigan, Secret Librarian by Jacob Sager Weinstein, illustrated by Vera Brosgol

Published by Clarion Books

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Summary:  When Dr. Glockenspiel escapes from his cell and demands one billion, trillion dollars, even the top secret agents prove ineffective.  Glockenspiel threatens to unleash giant moths to eat the world’s books if his demands aren’t met, so it’s up to Lyric McKerrigan, secret librarian, to parachute in to the rescue.  Posing as a custodian, a plumber, and a prison warden, McKerrigan surreptitiously matches the right books up with the people around Glockenspiel. Not only does she bring them to her side, but when the giant moths are released, she tames them with a story.  They turn their attention from books to the doctor’s woolly sweater, and he ends up shivering in his underwear before heading back to jail, a large red “Returned” stamped on his forehead. 48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Sometimes books with a pro-book, librarian hero(ine) message can sound a little desperate, but this one is pretty funny.  Lyric has some good disguises, and the message that there’s a book for everyone is delivered with a light touch.  Kids will enjoy the cartoon-style illustrations.

Cons:  Lyric is a bit stereotypical, with her glasses, hair in two buns, and shown reading with her cat and a cup of tea on the last page.

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Hammering for Freedom: The William Lewis Story by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illustrated by John Holyfield

Published by Lee and Low

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Summary:  William “Bill” Lewis was born on a Tennessee plantation in 1810, where he and his family had to work long days in the fields of Colonel Lewis’s plantation.  At a young age, he was moved to the blacksmith’s shop where he became good enough at repairing and building tools that he was able to make a little money.  By the age of 27, he had saved enough to rent himself out and start his own business in Chattanooga.  By that time he had also married and had a son.  Slowly he saved enough money to buy his own freedom, his son’s, and his wife’s, which meant the rest of their children were born free.  He paid cash for a large house for them all to live in.  Twenty six years after arriving in Chattanooga, he finally succeeded in freeing his mother, aunt, and all of his siblings.  Includes an author’s note with more information about Lewis and source notes.  32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  An inspiring story of an ordinary man who lived a life of hard work, thrift, and community service to improve the lives of himself and his family.

Cons:  I was disappointed to learn in the author’s note that, after all that hard work, Lewis lost a good deal of his net worth post-Civil War.

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The Third Mushroom by Jennifer Holm

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Picking up a short time after the ending of The Fourteenth Goldfish, Ellie continues the tale of her grandfather, Melvin, a scientist (with two Ph.D.’s!) who turned himself back into a teenager in the first book.  He returns from the bus trip he took at the end of book 1 and moves back in with Ellie, her mom, and her new stepdad. Ellie’s best friend Raj is the only kid at school who knows the truth about Melvin, who passes himself off as Ellie’s cousin.  Ellie and Melvin decide to enter the science fair when Melvin discovers an axolotl with extra legs entwined in a jellyfish specimen in his lab. Axolotls can regenerate body parts, and the two of them make a discovery that could have implications for human growth.  There’s plenty of information about science and scientists, but also interesting and emotional details about Ellie’s everyday life, like her attempt at a date with Raj, life with her new stepfather, and the poignant death of her beloved cat. Melvin’s experiments on himself make it doubtful that there will be another book in this series unless there is a different angle than the septuagenarian teenager one.  Includes an author’s note, additional information about the scientists mentioned in the story, and resources for further research on them. 240 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Ellie’s voice gives the story a light touch, even as it deals with pretty heavy subjects like life, death, and love.

Cons:  The science experiment, which seemed like it had some pretty interesting implications, just sort of fizzled out at the end of the book.

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Thank you, Omu! By Oge Mora

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Omu is cooking up a big batch of delicious-smelling red stew, which she thinks will be “the best dinner I have ever had”.  When a hungry little boy knocks on her door, she decides she’s made enough to share.  Next to arrive is a police officer, then the hot dog vendor.  Omu gives them bowls of stew, too.  As the day goes on, more and more people come, and Omu shares with them all.  When she goes to get her own dinner, she discovers the pot is empty.  But she doesn’t have long to feel bad.  There’s a loud knocking on her door, and Omu opens it to discover that everyone she fed has returned with a big potluck meal to share.  The last page shows the little boy’s thank-you card, and reads “That dinner was the best she ever had.”  Includes an author’s note about her grandmother Omu, the Nigerian word meaning both grandmother and queen.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A heartwarming story of sharing and community that reads a little like a folktale.  The collage illustrations show a diverse cast of characters.  This would make a good holiday read, maybe pairing it with Miracle on 133rd Street.

Cons:  Mr. Hot Dog Vendor seems like he should be able to feed himself rather than knocking on Omu’s door for a free handout.

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Blue by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

Published by Roaring Brook Press

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Summary:  The first spread in this companion book to Green shows a boy and puppy lying together with a blue blanket and the words “baby blue”.  The two grow up together, first a preschooler pulling his dog in a wagon entitled “berry blue”, later an older boy walking his dog in the woods: “chilly blue”.  At least a scrap of the blue blanket appears in every illustration, and a die-cut shape gives a peek to the next picture. Prepare for heartbreak on the pages “true blue”, “old blue”, and “so blue” as the boy deals with the aging and death of his beloved dog.  There’s a wordless page where the boy meets a girl and her puppy, and the last page shows them grown up, walking hand-in-hand, while a dog frolics in the ocean: “new blue”. 40 pages; ages 3-7.

Pros:  I dismissively thought I had “gotten” this book after the first few pages, but the real power of it comes at the end.  Seeger has already won two Caldecott medals, but the gorgeous acrylic illustrations so perfectly tell this touching story that it would be worth considering her for a third.

Cons:  Blue dies.  I choked up just writing this review.

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Mama Dug A Little Den by Jennifer Ward, illustrated by Steve Jenkins

Published by Beach Lane Books

See the source image

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Summary:  Each two-page spread has a rhyme beginning with the line “Mama dug a little den” (“Mama dug a little den/beneath a fallen tree./An earthy home as soft as moss,/a nursery for three” is the first one about red foxes).  A smaller paragraph gives additional information. The illustrations are in Steve Jenkins’ signature cut-paper collage style, and show the animal in its den and some of the surrounding habitat. A final page contains a note from the author about how she came to write the book, and some additional information about what to look for if you find a den to determine what kind of animal lives there.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  In this follow-up book to Mama Built A Little Nest, preschoolers will learn a bit about animal homes and how to discover them in their own backyards.  As president of the Steve Jenkins fan club (well, I would be, if there were such a thing), I appreciated the beautiful illustrations.

Cons:  The back matter was so small and unobtrusive, many readers may miss it.

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Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo

Published by Candlewick

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Summary:  Louisiana Elefante, whom readers of Raymie Nightingale will remember, tells the story of breaking a life-long curse and finding a new home.  One night her Granny wakes her up at 3:00 a.m. for an unexpected trip from Florida to Georgia.  Granny is increasing pain from a dental infection, to the point where Louisiana has to take over driving duties and find a dentist.  The two of them end up in the Good Night, Sleep Tight motel, Granny trying to recover from the removal of all of her teeth. Louisiana busies herself getting to know some members of the local community and trying to earn enough money with her singing to pay their hotel bills.  When Granny vanishes, leaving a note revealing that much of what Louisiana believed to be true about herself is lies, Louisiana is forced to re-create herself and to find a new home. Fortunately, she’s met an unusually kind boy named Burke Allen, and he and some of her other new friends help her get settled while still managing to keep her connections to her friends back in Florida.  240 pages; grades 4-6.

Pros:  A beautiful story of finding your way and forgiving the past to move forward.  Louisiana is a memorable character, as are many of those she meets on her journey.  It’s a quick read, but there’s a lot to digest and discuss. With six starred reviews, there are sure to be some awards in store.

Cons:  Okay, I liked it better than Raymie Nightingale, but I still don’t quite see what all the fuss is about.

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This was another advanced reading copy I received from Candlewick.

So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom by Gary D. Schmidt, illustrated by Daniel Minter

Published by Roaring Brook Press

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Summary:  Each section of Isabella Baumfree’s life (later renamed Sojourner Truth) begins with a page that starts “In Slavery Time”.  “In Slavery Time, when Hope was a seed waiting to be planted,” or “In Slavery Time, when Happiness was a dream never coming true,”.  The last few sections begin with “In Freedom Time”. Each section tells part of Isabella’s remarkable life, starting with her childhood in slavery, and continuing with the determination that eventually led her to run away to freedom, and to bring a lawsuit to demand her son be returned home from a plantation in Alabama (he was).  Fifteen years after running away, now calling herself Sojourner Truth, she traveled across New York, to Washington, D.C., and to other parts of the country, first working to end slavery, then later speaking for human rights in other areas. She died in her 80’s, and the book ends with her quote: “My lost time that I lost being a slave was made up.”  Includes a biographical note and an extensive bibliography with notes about the various sources. 48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  The poetic text and stunning illustrations give a compelling outline of Sojourner Truth’s life.  The excellent bibliography will help readers learn more. Deserving of an award or two for both the writing and the illustrations.

Cons:  There are some disturbing elements to Sojourner Truth’s story which young readers may need some help with.

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