I Got the Christmas Spirit by Connie Schofield-Morrison, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Published by Bloomsbury

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Summary:  From the author-illustrator team that created I Got the Spirit comes this exuberant ode to Christmas.  A little girl goes travels around the city with her mother, excited about Christmas as she embraces its true spirit of giving.  She enjoys singing with carolers, eating crunchy chestnuts, and ice skating in what looks to be Rockefeller Center. She also donates to the Salvation Army and finds a way to help a mother and daughter who are standing on the street with a sign reading “Help, please”.  At the end, she and her mom meet up with her father; as he scoops her up in an embrace; the final page reads, “Peace for all, good tidings, and cheer–let’s live the spirit every day of the year.” 32 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  The text is simple, interspersed with rhythmic words (“Dingle Dingle”, “Zoom Zing”).  Readers will want to pay close attention to the colorful oil paintings to see exactly how the girl expresses her Christmas spirit.  This would be a perfect opening to a discussion about the Christmas spirit and how to spread it.

Cons:  This seemed like it should be a rhyming text.

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No Small Potatoes: Junius G. Groves and His Kingdom In Kansas by Tonya Bolden, illustrated by Don Tate

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Slavery ended just a few years after Junius Groves was born on a plantation in Kentucky.  As a young man, he headed for Kansas to farm.  Starting out as a hired hand earning 40 cents a day, he worked hard to become a foreman, tripling his wages and eventually allowing him to rent his own land to farm.  With his wife Matilda at his side, he saved enough money to buy a farm.  The two of them worked hard, along with their twelve children, to make the farm prosperous.  Their main crop was potatoes: in 1894 he was named Potato King of Wyandotte County by the local paper; six years later, he was called the Potato King of the whole state of Kansas, and in 1902, he was crowned Potato King of the World.  In addition to millions of pounds of potatoes, Junius helped grow a church, a store, a golf course, and a town called Groves Center.  Includes a timeline, glossary, and list of sources.  40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  A real rags-to-riches tale extolling the rewards of hard work, told in a style that almost makes it feel like a tall tale.

Cons:  The potential downside of vying for the title of Potato King of the World at the Thanksgiving table today.

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Pass Go and Collect $200: The Real Story of How Monopoly Was Invented by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Steven Salerno

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

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Summary:  The history of one of the world’s most famous board games isn’t a straightforward one.  The earliest form of Monopoly was a game called the Landlord’s Game, created in 1903 by a woman named Lizzie Magie who wanted to show the injustice of landlord-tenant relationships.  Her game had dice, a bank, two kinds of cards called Luxury and Legacy, four railroads, and 22 properties on lots with purchase prices and rents. The game caught on, although an effort by Magie to sell it to Parker Brothers failed, and the properties were named after Atlantic City, NJ landmarks by a teacher in 1930.  During the Great Depression, a man named Charles Darrow, out of work, redesigned the Atlantic City game board and began selling handmade copies from home. Parker Brothers turned him down, too, but when his game became a big seller, they changed their minds. After buying Lizzie Magie’s patent for $500, Charles Darrow and Parker Brothers went on to make millions with the game of Monopoly.  The author ends with some questions: Did Lizzie Magie make a wrong move? Did Charles Darrow? Whatever the answers, there’s no denying that Monopoly’s a winner for many. Includes Monopoly trivia and math, an author’s note, and a list of sources. 40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  A remarkably complex history is laid out in an understandable fashion, with illustrations that document the evolution of the game.

Cons:  Polls done in 2013 and 2017 have resulted in the discontinuation of the classic iron, boot, thimble, and wheelbarrow tokens.  I was always particularly fond of the thimble.

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Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon written by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez

Published by Peachtree Publishers

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Summary:  Starting with President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 commitment to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and ending with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic 1969 walk on the moon, this free-verse history covers the history of the Apollo space missions.  The heartbreak of Kennedy’s assassination and the fatal Apollo 1 fire set the stage for the enormous determination that was required to design and build the vehicles that could safely transport astronauts to the moon and back. Each Apollo mission is described, followed by two pages that show photos and give profiles of the astronauts on each one.  The large, pastel portraits realistically render the people, places, and technology that were all part of the Apollo program. Includes author’s and illustrator’s notes, additional information about Team Apollo and bringing Apollo 11 home (with photos), and a list of books and websites with additional information. 144 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  A fascinating look at an exciting and important chapter in the history of space exploration.  The free verse format makes for a fairly quick and easy read, but there is still plenty of information packed into the text and back matter.  The beautiful oversized illustrations bring immediacy to the story.

Cons:  As a big fan of the movie Apollo 13, I was disappointed that the narrative ended with Apollo 11.

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Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons

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Summary:  Sixth-grader Ollie is off to a rough start in school following the tragic death of her mother.  Seeking an escape after school one day, she wanders through the woods until she meets up with a distraught woman trying to throw a book into the river.  Ollie rescues the book, entitled Small Spaces, and is soon caught up in the story of a woman whose husband sold his soul to “the smiling man”.  When Ollie’s class takes a field trip to a nearby farm, she soon notices many similarities between the story in her book and the history of the farm.  When the bus breaks down and is surrounded by a strange mist, Ollie decides to go get help.  Coco and Brian, two kids she’s had reasons to dislike at school, join her, and the three slowly become friends as they fight for their lives against ghosts, scarecrows, and other evil forces before finally confronting the smiling man in the heart of his cornfield maze.  Ollie is the only one who is able to defeat him, and in doing so, she is able to acknowledge her grief about her mother and begin to move forward with her new friends.  224 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Those ready to move on from Goosebumps will enjoy this truly creepy tale that offers many heart-pounding, suspenseful moments before the final showdown between Ollie and the smiling man.

Cons:  I will never look at scarecrows the same way again.

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Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt With Family Addiction by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Published by Graphix

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Summary:  Jarrett Krosoczka spent his first few years with his mother until his grandparents intervened and got custody of him.  It was not until he was a teenager that he learned that she had been a heroin addict from the age of 13.  Jarrett grew up with Joe and Shirley, his mother’s parents.  Despite their drinking, smoking, and occasional unkind words, they loved him deeply and did their best to provide him with a good home and to support his artistic ambitions. This memoir also includes Jarrett’s memories of friends, school, and the first time he met his father and half brother and sister during his senior year in high school.  Determined not to let his past curtail his future, he graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and has gone on to create many beloved children’s books, perhaps most famously the Lunch Lady series.  Includes an author’s note with more information about his life, the people in the book, and how he came to create this memoir. 320 pages; grades 8 and up.

Pros:  A National Book Award finalist, this graphic memoir is hard to put down (I read it in one sitting).  My already high esteem for Jarrett Krosoczka (whom I once arranged to have visit my school) grew to worshipful admiration as I learned of all the obstacles he has overcome to achieve his success.  The artwork is particularly effective, with the beginning of each chapter including actual documents, many of them letters his mother wrote to him from jail and halfway houses.

Cons:  I was hoping to get this for my middle school library, but the language and subject matter make it more of a high school/adult book.

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Giraffe Problems by Jory John, illustrated by Lane Smith

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Brought to you by the team that produced Penguin Problems, this book features a giraffe named Edward who doesn’t like his neck.  It’s too long, too bendy, too patterned, and a host of other problems.  He’s sure everyone is looking at him and tries to hide his neck with scarves and ties, or by standing behind tall rocks.  He admires the necks of others, like the classically-striped zebra or the heavily-maned lion. A turtle named Cyrus overhears him, and tells him how fortunate he is to have such a long and beautiful neck.  Cyrus has been trying to get a banana off a tree for a week; when he tells Edward, Edward is able to reach it in a matter of seconds. The two admire each others’ necks, and end up feeling a lot better about themselves, even highlighting their necks with bow ties.  42 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  There’s still plenty of humor, but a little more of a message here than there was in Penguin Problems.  The multimedia artwork is eye-catching and could be worked into a less on patterns.

Cons:  I read this book to two boys who I thought would find it hilarious.  They seemed to enjoy it, but never laughed.  It’s kind of a dry sense of humor, so some of it may be lost on the young.

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