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.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

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.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

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.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Elvis Is King! by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Red Nose Studio

Published by Schwartz and Wade

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Summary:  “Elvis Is Born!” proclaims the first page, and each page thereafter has a headline that tells what happened to Elvis Presley for the first couple decades of his life.  He grew up in Mississippi in poverty–his father spent 14 months in jail for forgery–and moved to Memphis when he was 13. His mother bought him his first guitar for his 11th birthday, and music proved to be his ticket to a new world.  As a teenager, he dyed his hair black, started sporting some pretty funky clothing, and left his shyness behind every time he got on stage. After making a record for his mom at Sun Records, he was recruited to make a real record and became an overnight star.  The book ends with the release of “Heartbreak Hotel” that became a number one hit, and the simultaneous arrival of the hordes of screaming teenage girls. An author’s note gives more information and includes three photos of Elvis in 1937, 1956, and 1957. 40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Elvis may have been dead for over 40 years, but the legend lives on, and kids still enjoy reading about him.  The southern twang of the text and the outrageous three dimensional Red Nose Studio illustrations are a perfect combination to tell Presley’s story.

Cons:  A list of resources would have made a nice addition to the author’s note.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.


Regrets, I’ve had a few: five books I wish I had read in 2018

You may think that if a person reads and reviews a book every day for a year, that person would feel like there was nothing left to read by the end of the year.  This is sadly untrue, and as year-end lists appear, I find myself wishing I had had the time and inclination to read a few more books.  This will be my final 2018 wrap-up before I take a few weeks of vacation.

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M. T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

Published by Candlewick

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Look at that shiny new National Book Award Finalist sticker on the cover.  Candlewick even sent me a free copy, but every time I opened it and saw all those detailed black-and-white illustrations, I thought, “I just can’t”.  Not my cup of tea, but many others loved it.


Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier

Published by Harry N. Abrams

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I have to force myself to read fantasy, and usually leave it for vacation weeks.  This came out the end of September, so I never got to it.  It had multiple starred reviews, and I loved Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener, so I’m sorry I missed this one.


The Serpent’s Secret (Kiranmala and the Kingdom book 1) by Sayantani Dasgupta

Published by Scholastic

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I never saw this until it appeared on School Library Journal‘s best books list.  It like good fun for fans of Rick Riordan or Aru Shah and the End of Time, which also features Indian mythology.  Book 2 will be out at the end of February.


Apple in the Middle by Dawn Quigley

Published by North Dakota State University Press

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I actually checked this out of the library a few weeks ago, but it was close to the end of the year, and it looked a little YA for my blog.  Still, a middle grade novel with a contemporary Native American protagonist is a rarity, and I wish I had gotten around to it.


Hope in the Holler by Lisa Lewis Tyre

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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As someone who imagines purgatory as a place where I would be forced to spend eternity reading Faulkner novels and The Secret Life of Bees, I tend to shy away from books with quirky Southern settings.  But I enjoy a good coming-of-age novel as much as anyone (maybe more than most), so I should probably have pushed past my prejudices to give this a try.

Five middle grade favorites

This didn’t make my list of Newbery contenders, but here are five middle grade novels I enjoyed this year:

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons

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Everyone loves a good scary story, and this one has plenty of creepy details, plus three interesting main characters who have to fight off the evil forces.  Prepare to never look at scarecrows the same way again.


Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

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I thought this might be a Newbery contender, but I haven’t seen it on anybody else’s list.  Although this seems like a “coming out” story (and it is…Ivy is attracted to a girl in her class), it’s also a story for everyone who has struggled to be themselves.


Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood

Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

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This World War II novel in verse will appeal to fans of I Survived as well as history buffs.  Based on a true story, with obvious attention to detail and research.


Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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Amal’s story is powerful, and a good one to share with American kids who may not be aware of the dangers she and other kids like her face in Pakistan.


The Nebula Secret (Explorer Academy) by Trudi Trueit

Published by National Geographic

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This series has gotten off to a promising start with this action-packed adventure that introduces some interesting characters, a mysterious murder to investigate, and an evil librarian.

Five favorite nonfiction books

It’s hard to narrow the list down to five; I love nonfiction, and there were a lot of good books to choose from in 2018.

They Lost Their Heads: What Happened to Washington’s Teeth, Einstein’s Brain, and Other Famous Body Parts by Carlyn Beccia

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I think it was the story of Elvis’s wart that really won me over.  I’ll say this: it’s an easy book to book talk.


Saving Fiona: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Baby Hippo by Thane Maynard

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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The story is engaging, the photos are adorable, and readers can research hippos while learning about real scientists working in the field…what’s not to like?


Proud: Living My American Dream by Ibtihaj Muhammad

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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I loved this memoir by Ibtihaj Muhammad, who became the first Muslim American woman to compete in the Olympics wearing hijab, and who continues to pursue her dreams on her own terms.


The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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This gorgeously illustrated biography shines a light on Maria Merian, a 17th-century German woman who defied the expectations of her time and became a scientist and artist.  It’s not the easiest book to sell to kids, but I loved the story and the artwork.


Every Month Is a New Year by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Susan L. Roth

Published by Lee and Low Books

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Designed like a calendar, this book can be used for poetry, geography, or teaching about different cultures, and the collage illustrations add plenty of color and texture.