Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet by Curtis Manley, illustrated by Jessica Lanan

Published by Roaring Brook Press

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Summary:  Are we alone in the universe?  Going back to ancient astronomers, this book quickly traces the history of what humans have learned about the place of Earth in the galaxy.  It then details how scientists are looking for a “just right” planet–not too big, not too small, not too hot, not too cold–that might support life.  Huge telescopes sitting on mountaintops or floating through space gather information on stars and the exoplanets around them. The illustrations show a girl and her family visiting a planetarium, then getting her her own telescope as she learns about the universe.  The last several pages speculate on what life on other planets might be like, and how we might communicate with those life forms. Includes a page of additional information; a bibliography; books and websites with additional information; and a timeline of space exploration on the front and back endpapers.  48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Packed with scientific information, the author does a great job of making a complicated topic accessible to elementary kids; the illustrations of the girl and her family help make it kid-friendly as well.

Cons:  Some of the information was a bit over my head…but readers will still find something interesting, even if they don’t understand it all.

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Meet Miss Fancy by Irene Latham, illustrated by John Holyfield

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons for Young Readers

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Summary:  Frank is excited to hear that Miss Fancy, a former circus elephant, is moving to Avondale Park near his home in Birmingham, Alabama.  Unfortunately, the “No Colored Allowed” sign at the park’s entrance prevents him from going to visit her. He can climb up in a tree and throw peanuts to her, but it’s not the same as getting to stroke her trunk the way the white kids can.  When Frank hears that Miss Fancy has been escaping from the park, he has an idea. He leaves a trail of peanuts from the park entrance to his house, and the next morning, Miss Fancy is at his front door! Using his bag of peanuts, Frank lures the elephant to the zoo, where he is rewarded by the police officer there with a ride on her back.  He triumphantly rides her all the way into the park. Includes an author’s note with additional information and a photo of the real Miss Fancy. 32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A lively, energetic story about a boy who uses determination and ingenuity to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem.  The colorful illustrations add to the fun.

Cons:  Although Frank’s wish comes true at the end of the story, the “No Colored Allowed” sign is still posted at the entrance to the park.

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The Bell Rang by James E. Ransome

Published by Aladdin

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Summary:  On each page, the bell rings, and the narrator’s family gets ready for another day of working in the plantation fields.  Her father gathers wood, her mother cooks, and her older brother Ben offers her a pat on the shoulder, a wave, and one day, a new doll that he’s made.  It turns out to be a farewell gift, because the next day Ben and two other boys are gone. The other two are caught two days later, but Ben never returns.  Did he make it to freedom, or die along the way? The family has no way of knowing, and the last page shows the girl looking at the bell, with a look that suggests she may be thinking of escape as well.  An author’s note tells how so many stories of enslaved people running away focus on the escape and not on the ones left behind. 40 pages; grades 1-6.

Pros:  This simple but haunting story, taking place over the course of a week, gives a different and thought-provoking perspective on slavery.

Cons:  While most reviewers recommend this for ages 4-8, it might be appreciated more by kids in upper elementary grades.

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The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Published by little bee books

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Summary:  With just 16 lines (or bars) of text, the author and illustrator do an amazing job of introducing the history of hip-hop and rap.  Beginning with a nod to poets Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar and singer James Brown, the narrative continues to the early rappers of the 1970’s, graffiti artists, break dancers, and DJ-run block parties.  The graffiti-inspired illustrations enhance the brief text. Notes from the author and illustrator tell of their personal connection to hip-hop and give a bit more history. Includes a glossary and hip-hop who’s who.  48 pages; grades K and up.

Pros:  This is a brief history, but a good introduction to many artists, portrayed with a huge energy by illustrator Frank Morrison.  

Cons:  It’s difficult to recommend an age range: the format would appeal to preschoolers and early elementary, but the content will probably be of greater interest to older readers, who will want to move on to YouTube or other resources to learn more.

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The Unteachables by Gordon Korman

Published by Balzer + Bray

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Summary:  55-year-old Zachary Kermit was once a superstar teacher on the rise, but after being falsely accused of taking part in a cheating scandal, he became disillusioned.  Now he’s just putting in his time until he can retire and collect his pension. His final year, he’s assigned to room 117, the class of “unteachable” eighth graders who are basically being warehoused until the school can pass them on to the high school.  At first, Mr. Kermit just passes out worksheets, then spends the rest of his day with a crossword puzzle and oversized cup of coffee, while the students entertain themselves however they want. But slowly, against his will, he starts to connect with the students, and vice versa.  When the kids learn that the superintendent plans to fire him, trying to save the district from having to pay his pension, they find hidden resources within themselves to try to save his job. Will Mr. Kermit get another shot at teaching, or is it too late for him? 288 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A classic Gordon Korman story, with a fast-paced plot, plenty of humor, and a story told from multiple points of view.  Fans will not be disappointed.

Cons:  While I enjoyed the story, I didn’t feel it was quite up to the standards of some of my Korman favorites like Restart and Schooled.

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There Are No Bears In This Bakery by Julia Barcone-Roach

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  The cat narrator is a tough detective, prowling through the night to investigate unusual sounds. Last night, when he checked out what he thought was a gigantic mouse behind the bakery, he discovered a bear cub.  “The problem was clear. And I was on the case,” he says, but the pictures tell a different story, showing him helping the bear access cake, donuts, and other treats. Just as they’re finishing up, the mother bear appears, scaring the cat.  “Lights out!” he exclaims, as he is engulfed in darkness…but it turns out he’s just being wrapped in a giant bear hug. Mama Bear explores the bakery, and then all three animals go their separate ways. The sun is rising as the cat returns home, curling up for a nap after a hard night’s work.  The last page shows the baker standing open-mouthed as she surveys the wrecked bakery; the shadows of the two bears can be seen outside the window. 40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  There will be plenty of laughs over the antics of these three animals, and the discrepancies between the cat’s narration and the illustration.  The language is rich, and could serve as an introduction to similes or a mentor text for mysteries.

Cons:  The baker has a tough day ahead of her.

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Game Changer! Book Access for All Kids by Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp

Published by Scholastic Professional

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Summary:  Book Whisperer Donalyn Miller and fellow Nerdy Book Club member Colby Sharp share insights about how to get kids to read a lot of books, across many genres, at school and at home, all through the year.  They address common issues: kids who don’t have access to books, kids who don’t like to read, finding time in a busy school day and in homes that are filled with other distractions. There are no easy answers, but if teachers are willing to put in the hard work of doing a lot of reading themselves and employing a variety of strategies, and administrators are willing to give teachers the autonomy to try those strategies, they will be rewarded with schools filled with enthusiastic readers.  In addition to the two authors’ experiences, there are stories from over twenty teachers and administrators. Includes a list of references, author bios of all the contributors, and an index. To get additional resources, you have to go to https://www.scholastic.com/pro/Game-Changer!.html; the password is “opportunities”.  144 pages.

Pros:  Teachers and librarians needing a shot in the arm in the middle of the school year will find inspiration here, as well as lots of new ideas to try in their schools and classrooms.  

Cons:  Too many times, the takeaway from books like this is “let kids read whatever they want”, which unfortunately leads to a lot of Diary of A Wimpy Kid and graphic novel reading (don’t ask me how I know this).  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if you read this book carefully, you’ll see how much work is required of teachers, librarians, and administrators to create readers who appreciate a deep variety of literature.  

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Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins by Michelle Meadows, illustrated by Ebony Glenn

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

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Summary:  Janet Collins was determined to be a dancer, even though she faced discrimination from an early age.  Her mother was a seamstress who paid for her dance lessons by sewing costumes. Janet was turned away from ballet schools and told she could only join a professional company if she painted her skin white.  She refused, and found other ways to dance. Finally, in 1951, the ballet master at the Metropolitan Opera House saw Janet dance, and hired her to be the first African-American prima ballerina there. An author’s note gives more biographical information, including two photos; sources and websites are also included.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The story is told in simple rhyming text, each verse starting with “This is” (“This is the girl/who danced in the breeze/to the swoosh, swoosh, swoosh/of towering trees”).  Young readers will enjoy the illustrations depicting Janet in various dance costumes, and will be inspired by her perseverance that eventually led to success.

Cons:  The text is so brief that many details are omitted, and some of the people are just referred to as “the teacher” or “the man”; some of those characters are identified in the author’s note, but more information sources would be needed for any kind of research report.

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Max and the Midknights by Lincoln Peirce

Published by Crown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Max serves as Uncle Budrick’s apprentice, learning to be a troubadour, but really wants to be a knight instead. When the two arrive at the city of Byjovia, Uncle Budrick tells of his idyllic childhood there, under the rule of kindly King Conrad.  But when the two arrive, they discover that Conrad is missing, presumed dead, and that his evil brother Gastley has taken over. Most of the townspeople are under a spell that makes them nasty, but kids are immune.  Max and Uncle Budrick meet up with Kevyn, Simon, and Millie; Max reveals that she’s really a girl, and the five of them begin their adventures as the Midknights. They meet up with a wizard, zombies, dragons, and an evil sorceress who’s the real brains behind Gastley.  Eventually, they discover and rescue Conrad, and help him defeat his brother to take his rightful place on the throne once again. Having witnessed Max’s courage and fighting skills as well as Millie’s magic, Conrad decrees that boys AND girls are free to become whatever they want.  Kevyn aspires to be a writer; Millie will train as a magician; and Simon and Max head off to knight school, as all involved prepare for a happily-ever-after ending. 288 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  This combination chapter book/graphic novel by the author of the popular Big Nate series is sure to be a huge hit across a wide spectrum of elementary readers.  

Cons:  Everything wraps up neatly at the end, and there’s no mention of a sequel in the book or on Amazon.

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Click by Kayla Miller

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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Summary:  Even though Olive has plenty of friends, she doesn’t have a best friend, and when the fifth grade variety show comes around, she finds herself without a group to perform with.  She’s pretty bummed, so her cool Aunt Molly invites her for a sleepover, then rounds up a bunch of DVD’s of old 1960’s variety shows to inspire her. Olive is captivated by the show’s host, and decides that’s the role she wants for the school program.  It’s a perfect fit–she’s something of a ham, and she knows kids from all different groups. When a few of her friends finally invite her to join their group, she’s torn, but decides to stay true to what she really wants. The final page shows her the night of the show, standing in front of the microphone, with the spotlight shining on her, ready to go.  The last page invites readers to look for Olive’s next adventures at camp, which looks like it will be coming out in April. 192 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Fans of Raina Telgemeier, Victoria Jamieson, and Shannon Hale will enjoy the addition of another realistic graphic novel with a girl main character.  Olive seems like a kid everyone likes, yet even she struggles with friend problems. This would make a good intro to the genre, as it’s a little shorter and simpler than some of the others.

Cons:  There’s not the rich character and plot development of the authors mentioned above.  Fifth and sixth graders may find this a little too short and simple for their taste.

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