Popcorn Country: The Story of America’s Favorite Snack by Cris Peterson, Photographs by David R. Lundquist

Published by Boyds Mills Press

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Summary:  Who can resist a bowl of buttery, salty popcorn?  It’s one of the top snacks in the U.S., this book tells us, with an annual consumption of four and a half billion gallons.  If you’ve ever wondered how the popcorn gets to your movie theater, you’ll find some answers here, beginning in the Corn Belt, where over ninety million acres of corn are grown each year.  You’ll learn about the different types of corn, how popcorn is processed, and what causes the hard kernels to explode into the light, fluffy snack. There’s a brief history of popcorn at the end, along with a list of books and websites for further research.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The straightforward writing with kid-friendly explanations (“plants that stretch so tall that they could tickle the chin of a young giraffe”) and lots of photos showing a diverse group of kids make this a great nonfiction choice for preschool and early elementary ages.

Cons:  I guess it’s unknowable, but I’ve always wondered how the first consumers of popcorn figured out that those hard kernels could pop.  This book doesn’t offer any speculation on that.

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Groundbreaking Guys: 40 Men Who Became Great By Doing Good by Stephanie True Peters, illustrated by Shamel Washington

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  From John Stuart Mill to Kendrick Lamar, these 40 men have become great by being good people.  As the author states in her introduction, “These men served their communities. They treated people with respect.  They lifted up others. They chose to listen and to care, even when doing so meant giving up control or feeling nervous or standing out.”  The men are from a variety of countries, mostly the United States and Great Britain, but also others like Japan, China, and Bangladesh. They contributed in all sorts of areas, including politics, literature, art, and music.  Some names will undoubtedly be familiar to readers, while others will be new, but all will inspire and possibly lead to further research. Includes source notes for each subject. 96 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  There have been a lot of collective biographies of women lately, so it’s nice to see this collection of interesting men, particularly with the theme of men who contributed positively to the world.  Each profile has a head shot of the subject. The interesting profiles and endnotes would make this a great resource to begin a biography research project.

Cons:  A timeline would have been a nice addition.

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The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Sarah Jacoby

Published by Balzer + Bray

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Summary:  “The important thing about Margaret Wise Brown is that she wrote books.”  And some of the important things about this book about Margaret Wise Brown are that it’s 42 pages because she lived 42 years.  That it celebrates the quirkiness of both Brown and her books. That the illustrations pay homage to many of Brown’s works. That critics of her works are humorously but firmly put in their place (Anne Carroll Moore, New York City’s children’s librarian, does not fare well here).  That you may not learn everything there is to know about Margaret Wise Brown, but you will learn interestingly odd facts like that every copy of the first edition of Little Fur Family were covered in fur.  That “sometimes you find a book that feels as strange as life does…Margaret Wise Brown wrote books like this, and she wrote them for children, because she believed children deserve important books.”  42 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  Mac Barnett is not afraid to go way outside the box in this picture book that pays tribute to Margaret Wise Brown, her art, and her books.  It is full of the kinds of details that kids will love, like the fact that, as a child, Brown skinned one of her pet rabbits after it died and wore the pelt around her neck.  Or that she bought every flower on a flower cart after selling her first book, then had a big party in her flower-filled house. Any readers who aren’t familiar with Brown’s books will want to go looking for them after reading this one.

Cons:  Some will definitely find this book odd.  On the other hand, isn’t that kind of the point?

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Enemy Child: The Story of Norman Mineta, a boy imprisoned in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II by Andrea Warren

Published by Margaret Ferguson Books

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Summary:  Norman Mineta spent his first decade living a happy middle class life with his family in San Jose.  His father sold insurance and his mother was a housewife. Both his parents were born in Japan, but second-generation Norm felt very much an American.  After World War II started, though, all Japanese Americans were seen as suspect, and in May of 1942, the Mineta family was forced to leave behind their home and business for the Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming.  They were more fortunate than most: Norm’s father eventually got a job in Chicago, and after a little over a year in the camp, the family was able to relocate there. They rented their San Jose house, and moved back at the end of the war.  During his time at the camp, Norm met a local boy named Alan Simpson at a Boy Scout gathering; the two became friends, and later reunited when both served in Congress as adults. Extensive back matter tells more about the Japanese American experience during World War II and lists many resources for further research.  224 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  The story of Norm’s journey from a seemingly all-American childhood to being held prisoner by his own country is an eye-opening one that is told in terms many young readers will relate to.  The Mineta family’s unwavering optimism and courage is inspiring.  Andrea Warren should receive some Sibert award consideration.

Cons:  It would have been interesting and informative to hear more details about some of the Japanese American families who didn’t fare so well at the end of the war.

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The Girl Who Named Pluto: The Story of Venetia Burney by Alice B. McGinty, illustrated by Elizabeth Haidle

Published by Schwartz + Wade

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Summary:  Growing up in Oxford, Venetia Burney loved learning.  Her grandfather, the former head librarian at Oxford University, encouraged her curiosity.  When Grandfather shared a news item with 11-year-old Venetia about the discovery of a new planet beyond Neptune, she thought of how frozen, dark, and lifeless it must be.  It reminded her of the underworld in Greek mythology, and so she suggested naming it Pluto. Her grandfather sent a letter with her suggestion in it to a friend at the Royal Astronomical Society; he liked it, and eventually the name was voted on by astronomers.  Fast forward more than 70 years later: on the day before her 89th birthday, Venetia, still active and curious, gets an invitation to the Observatory Science Centre, where she finally gets a chance to see the planet she named. Includes an author’s note with additional information about Venetia and Pluto–including the change in its designation from plant to dwarf planet–and a bibliography. 40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  A fun story for kids learning about space; they will be inspired to hear how a planet was named by a kid, albeit one with a wealthy, connected grandfather.

Cons:  I think we all still feel a little sad about the fate of former planet Pluto.

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Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Paneleakos

Published by Wendy Lamb Books

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Summary:  Nova and her older sister Bridget have been in the foster care system for years.  To Nova, Bridget has been like a mother: she’s five years older, and Nova is autistic with limited verbal abilities.  As the story opens, Nova is counting down the days until the 1986 launching of the space shuttle Challenger, not only because she and Bridget are huge NASA fans, but also because Bridget is missing and has promised to watch the launch with Nova.  Nova is with a new foster family who finally seem to understand and appreciate her, and she’s placed in a sixth grade classroom where she begins to thrive.  Her story is told in chapters that alternate between third-person narration and letters that Nova writes to Bridget–they appear mostly as scribbles to others but are meaningful to her.  When Nova sees the Challenger explode on TV, she finally understands what has happened to Bridget; it’s a sad day, but one that sets her on a path of hope for the future.  Includes an author’s note with more details on the Challenger and autism, which she herself has.  240 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Readers will gain some amazing insights into the mind of a nonverbal protagonist that may shift their assumptions about kids with autism.  There’s some depressing stuff about kids in foster care, particularly kids with special needs, but Nova’s final foster parents are nothing short of heroic.

Cons:  Another 2019 middle grade novel with themes of grief and loss.  Yay.

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Sweet Dreams, Sarah by Vivian Kirkfield, illustrated by Chris Ewald

Published by Creston Books

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Summary:  Born into slavery, Sarah dreamed of having a family and doing work that she loved.  After the Civil War, she moved to Chicago, where she married Archibald Goode and started her family.  The daughter of a carpenter, Sarah decided to open her own furniture store. When customers told her of the cramped spaces they lived in, she had the idea to build a cabinet that turned into a bed.  It took plenty of determination and perseverance to build it and to apply for a patent (her first application was rejected), but on July 14, 1885, Sarah Goode became one of the first black women to receive a patent.  Includes an author’s note, additional information on patents, a timeline of what is known of Sarah’s life, a timeline of black women patent holders, and a list of selected sources. 32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Although the timeline reveals some sad aspects to Sarah’s life (she eventually lost her business and died at age 49), both the text and illustrations are hopeful and uplifting, with a well-delivered message about following your dreams.

Cons:  There was no author or illustrator information anywhere in the book.

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