Just South of Home by Karen Strong

Published by Simon and Schuster Books

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Summary:  Neither Sarah nor Janie is happy when Janie’s mom leaves her with Sarah’s family while Mom goes off to do a Hollywood screen test.  Janie thinks she’s stuck with a bunch of hicks in Warrenville, Georgia, while Sarah doesn’t appreciate Janie’s condescending attitude.  In a desperate attempt to keep her cousin entertained, Sarah takes her to the old Creek Church, a town landmark with a troubled history of racial violence.  Rumors of “haints” prove to be true when the girls are confronted by a mysterious young boy. With the help of Sarah’s brother Ellis and his friend Jasper, the kids have to figure out who the boy is and try to save him from the evil ghostly forces that are threatening to engulf him.  It turns out that it’s not just the church that’s haunted, and as the four uncover family and town secrets, they learn that the past must be confronted to move ahead into the future. 320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  An engaging family and friendship story with a touch of historical fiction and a good ghostly mystery.  The historical part could spark some interesting discussions.

Cons:  This book didn’t strike me as nearly as scary as I was led to believe from the reviews.  I was hoping to shelve it in the “Scary” section of the library, but I think “Mystery” may be more appropriate.

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Vroom! by Barbara McClintock

Published by Farrar Straus Giroux

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Summary:  Annie is a race car driver.  One evening she puts on her helmet and gloves, climbs into her car, and goes shooting out her bedroom window.  She explores all kinds of environments from the mountains to the desert to the forest to the city, where she encounters a traffic jam.  Speeding up, she finds herself on a race track, where she wins a race before heading home. Annie’s kind of tired from all her driving, and after roaring through her living room, she settles down for a bedtime story with her dad and little brother.  32 pages; ages 3-7.

Pros:  A celebration of imagination with a strong heroine, beautifully rendered illustrations of a wide variety of settings, and a satisfying ending just right for bedtime.

Cons:  It’s not that easy to leave the traffic behind.

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I’m Trying to Love Math by Bethany Barton

Published by Viking Books for Children

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Image result for im trying to love math amazon

Summary:  When an unnamed narrator declares their dislike of math, a purple three-eyed alien tries to show how interesting and useful it is.  “I know I’m not alone here. 4 in 10 Americans hate math,” claims the narrator. Alien: “Did you just use math to explain how much you don’t like it?”  It then goes on to show how math is used for things the narrator finds enjoyable, like baking cookies or making music. Math is a universal language and gives us a set of rules for measuring, traveling, and using money.  When the kid realizes they already love math, the alien’s job is done, and he returns home…to Planet Homework. 40 pages; grades 1-3

Pros:  A fun way to introduce the different ways math is used in everyday life.  It could serve as a springboard to get kids thinking about other areas where they use math.

Cons:  Those who truly struggle with math are not likely to be convinced by the arguments put forth here.

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This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews

Published by First Second

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Summary:  At the annual Autumn Equinox Festival, Nathaniel and his pals have agreed to follow the lanterns set afloat down the river.  Lots of kids ride along the river for awhile, but their group is going to find out once and for all where the lights end up. As they travel, though, the other kids turn back one by one until there are only two left: Nathaniel and Ben, the kid nobody likes who has been tagging along, unsuccessfully trying to join the group. Nathaniel begrudgingly agrees to travel with him, though, and the two end up on a madcap adventure where they meet a friendly bear on a quest, a tiny witch and her oversized dog, and some mysterious enlightened beings.  The two slowly bond over their shared experiences and narrow escapes, and by the end they’re still traveling, intent upon circumnavigating the world on their bicycles. 336 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  A graphic novel that would appeal to fans of Amulet, with its episodic plot involving ordinary mortals thrust into a magical world.  The dark-blue-and-black illustrations perfectly capture the feeling of a nighttime adventure.  We can hope for more of Nathaniel’s and Ben’s escapades on the road.

Cons:  The plot was pretty meandering.

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Look Again: Secrets of Animal Camouflage by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Steve Jenkins and Robin Page take a tour of different habitats–coral reefs, trees, the Arctic, etc.–and show how animals blend in to hide themselves in each one.  There are two cut-paper illustrations for each animal, one against a white background and one in which the animal is camouflaged. Each page has a couple sentences of introductory text; the rest is brief captions for the illustrations.  Additional information about each of the 36 animals is given at the end, along with thumbnail illustrations. Also includes books and websites for additional research. 40 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  As you may already know, I’m a big fan of Steve Jenkins books (I’ve only reviewed nine), and this one includes many of his beautiful trademark collage illustrations.  As usual, the information is fun and accessible for primary grade readers.

Cons:  This lacked the wow factor of some of my favorite Jenkins books like Biggest, Strongest, Fastest and  Animals By the Numbers

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The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! By Mo Willems and The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

This book is published by Hyperion Books for Children

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Image result for pigeon has to go to school mo willems


And this book is published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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Image result for king of kindergarten amazon

Summary:  Well, teachers, we’re halfway through July, and it’s not too early to be thinking about your first-day-of-school reading choices, is it?  Mo Willems has created a new pigeon book that has the pigeon resisting the first day of school: he already knows everything, he’s not really a morning guy, and most of all he’s afraid of the unknown.  But when he learns that going to school involves riding on a bus, he’s all in. The King of Kindergarten relates what his first day of school will be like, riding in a big yellow carriage to the doors of the fortress, sitting at the round table, and displaying courage by asking a classmate to play at recess.  A report of a nice teacher, new friends, and a fun recess ends the day, with anticipation of another fun day for His Royal Highness up ahead. 40 pages (Pigeon) and 32 page (King); ages 4-8.

Pros:  Two upbeat books that address kids’ concern with humor and compassion.  Either one would be a good choice for the first day of preschool or kindergarten, and the pigeon would fly in first or second grade as well.

Cons:  Parents might want to exercise caution on calling their child the king or queen of kindergarten…there’s enough entitlement out there already.

If you’d like to buy The Pigeon Has to Go to School on Amazon, click here.

If you’d like to buy The King of Kindergarten, click here.

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

Published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books

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Summary:  After Genesis’s family gets evicted from their Detroit apartment–again–her father mysteriously finds them a rental in swanky, mostly white Farmington Hills.  Genesis loves the fancy new house, but is apprehensive about going to school, where even the few kids of color are lighter skinned than she is. She is extremely self-conscious about her skin color, due to her father’s negative, often drunken, comments about her taking after him,, and this leads her to try everything from steel wool to bleach to lighten it.  Slowly, though, Genesis begins to make friends and to discover her talent and passion for music. When her family is threatened with eviction yet again, Genesis is afraid she’ll lose the opportunity to perform in her school’s talent show. But ultimately, it’s the talent show performance that finally wakes her father up to the damage he’s doing to his family and the reasons he is doing it.  While the ending isn’t neat or completely happy, it is hopeful for both Genesis and her parents. 384 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  A powerful debut novel.  As in New Kid, a sympathetic narrator shows readers what it’s like to be a person of color in a wealthy, predominantly white environment.  Any middle school reader will identify with Genesis’s struggles between wanting to fit in and being true to herself. I sailed through this in about two days, leaving a Kleenex-strewn couch in my wake.  A contender for some awards, for sure.

Cons:  The family’s sudden move from impoverished Detroit neighborhoods to upscale Farmington Hills seemed unrealistic.

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When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita and It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity by Theresa Thorn, illustrated by Noah Grigni

Published by Lee and Low Books

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Image result for when aidan became a brother



Published by Henry Holt and Co.

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Summary:  Aidan is concerned about the new baby that’s coming to his house.  Suppose his parents don’t recognize the new baby’s correct gender? That’s what happened to Aidan.  His parents thought he was a girl, and it took a few years to convince them that he was really a boy.  Finally, his mom reassures him: “We made some mistakes, but you helped us fix them. And you taught us how important it is to love someone for exactly who they are.  This baby is so lucky to have you, and so are we.” The gender of the baby is never revealed, but they are fortunate to have such a loving and accepting family. Families who may be struggling with acceptance could benefit from It Feels Good to Be Yourself, which defines the terms transgender, cisgender, and non-binary, giving examples of kids who describe themselves in each of these ways.  The conclusion here: “Your feelings about your gender are real. Listen to your heart. No matter what your gender identity is, you are okay exactly the way you are.”  32 pages (Aidan) and 40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Love and acceptance is good for everyone, and these two books help create more of it for kids and families who may be working through issues of gender identity.  

Cons:  There’s a certain free-to-be-you-and-me earnestness, particularly with It Feels Good to Be Yourself, which may feel dated when different gender identities become more a part of the culture.

If you would like to buy When Aidan Became a Brother, click here.

If you would like to buy It Feels Good to Be Yourself, click here.


How to Read a Book by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Published by HarperCollins

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Summary:  You start with a book.  And a comfortable place to read.  “Once you’re comfy, peel its gentle skin like you would a clementine.”  Kwame Alexander’s poem encourages readers to celebrate each book, savoring every morsel they get from it, while Melissa Sweet’s collage illustrations provide a neon-colored background with children reading, all sorts of fonts, and shapes cut from an actual book (Bambi, to be exact).  The final pages: “Now sleep. Dream. Hope. (You never reach…The End).”  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A lovely introduction to the joys of reading in Kwame Alexander’s poetic voice, eye-poppingly illustrated by Melissa Sweet with beautiful collages that reminded me why I’m still bitter that she didn’t win a Caldecott for 2016’s Some Writer

Cons:  Although this has gotten multiple starred reviews, and I can appreciate the artistry of both the text and the illustrations, I can’t help wondering if it will be appreciated by the preschool crowd.  Given the choice, I would probably read Kate Messner’s How to Read A Story as a similar introduction for this age.

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Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution. by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Jamey Christoph

Published by Random House

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Image result for stonewall christoph amazon

Summary:  Narrated by the building that became Stonewall, this story begins in the 1840’s when the original structure was created to stable horses.  There’s a brief history of the building’s other incarnations and the evolution of Greenwich Village before reaching the 1960’s when the Stonewall Inn became a club for gay men and women, as well as for “teenagers, transgender people, drag queens, veterans, businesspeople, students, people of different colors, religions, and cultures”.  The club was raided regularly, and each time some of its clientele would be arrested, while the rest would quietly go home. But on the night of June 28, 1969, the angry crowd confronted the police, who were driven inside Stonewall until they could call in reinforcements. In the 50 years since that night, people have celebrated June 28 as the beginning of the movement for LGBQT+ rights.  Includes additional history and photos of the Stonewall Inn; an interview with activist and Stonewall Uprising participant Martin Boyce; a glossary; and a list for further reading. 40 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  An excellent introduction to the Stonewall Uprising that emphasizes the importance of inclusivity through the story as well as with the gorgeous illustrations.  Using the building as a narrator is a perfect way to relate the entire history of the place, placing the night of June 28, 1969 in context.

Cons:  A few reviews I saw felt there was not enough inclusion of trans people in this telling; since I’m not familiar with the history, I can’t say if this is true or not.

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