Between Us and Abuela: A Family Story from the Border by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Sara Palacios

Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Image result for between us and abuela

Image result for between us and abuela

Summary:  A little girl tells the story of her family’s trip to the border to visit her abuela who lives in Mexico.  It’s a special day near Christmas called La Posada Sin Fronteras when the people of San Diego and Tijuana work to gather people from both sides of the wall that separates the two countries.  It’s exciting to visit abuela, whom they haven’t seen in five years.  The girl has brought a scarf she made, but the guards won’t let her pass it through the fence.  Her little brother has drawn a large picture of Mary and Joseph, but the fence’s holes are too small for him to give it to abuela.  When he starts to cry, his sister has an idea.  Using knitting needles and yarn, she turns the picture into a kite that flies over the wall to the cheers of spectators on both sides.  Abuela picks up the picture, and then starts the trip back to her home while the girl and her family head back to theirs.  Includes an author’s note with additional information about La Posada Sin Fronteras. 40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A heartwarming story that would make a unique Christmas read-aloud and could lead to some interesting conversations.

Cons:  The whole event looks like a fun party, and the sadness that the family can’t be together isn’t really touched upon.

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

Free Lunch by Rex Ogle

Published by Norton Young Readers

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Summary:  Rex Ogle’s memoir recounts the first half of his sixth grade year.  The problems of the average middle schooler–mean teachers, lockers, changing friendships–are dwarfed by his problems at home.  Both his mother and stepfather are out of work, debts are mounting, and they tend to take out their frustrations on Rex and his two-year-old brother.  The greatest burden falls on Rex, who tries to help out by cooking, babysitting, and balancing the family checkbook, but somehow it’s never enough for his parents, who regularly beat and verbally abuse him.  Rex is afraid of his own anger, but tries to see the good in those around him. A caring grandmother and a new friend help him, but ultimately he has to find his own way. He often feels alone, surrounded by kids who appear to be better off than he is, and ashamed when he has to tell the lunch lady each day that he’s on the free lunch program.  By the time the holidays roll around, both parents have found work, and Rex is feeling optimistic about the second half of sixth grade–even though the reader suspects he still has a lot of difficult years ahead. Includes an author’s note encouraging kids in similar situations to be strong and not feel ashamed of their circumstances. 208 pages; grades 6-9.

Pros:  This is a powerful and disturbing memoir that will open many eyes to what kids may be going through when they come to school each day.  Kudos to Rex Ogle for so honestly sharing what couldn’t have been an easy story to write. Many kids will benefit from reading this, including those who may be going through experiences similar to Rex’s.

Cons:  The scenes of abuse make this more of a middle school book, although I’m sure there are elementary kids who would benefit from reading it.

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Here and Now by Julia Denos, illustrated by E. B. Goodale

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Readers are invited to notice where they are as they are reading the book.  While they focus on their bodies (“You are sitting, or you are standing, or you are wrapped up in a bed. Under your bum, under your feet, is a seat, a floor…”), there are countless activities going on around them.  Underground there are earthworms and fossils. Earth is spinning through space, and so are you. People and animals are all around, working, playing, eating, healing, and having ideas. And all the while, “right here, right now, YOU are becoming.  Isn’t it wonderful?” Includes an author’s note about meditation and how she came to write this book. 40 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  A great read for any kind of mindfulness activities, or to help a restless group of kids center and calm down.  The illustrations feature a recurring, multicultural cast of characters doing things that most kids will recognize from their everyday lives.  There could be all kinds of follow-up activities as kids notice themselves and the world around them.

Cons:  Some additional resources on mindfulness and/or meditation for kids would have been helpful.

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The Scarecrow by Beth Ferry, illustrated by the Fan Brothers

Published by HarperCollins

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Summary:  Scarecrow is good at his job, which means none of the animals come near. He has no friends until one spring when a baby crow falls nearby.  Scarecrow picks up the crow and makes a nest for him in the bib of his overalls. The two become friends until the bird grows up and flies away.  Scarecrow’s heart is broken as he stands in the field through the long fall and winter. But the next spring, an adult crow is back, this time with a mate.  Before long there’s a new nest of babies inside Scarecrow’s overalls. The last wordless page shows Scarecrow surrounded by not only crows, but some of the other animals as well.  40 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  The rhyming text tells a poignant story about opening up your heart to others; the illustrations are Fan Brothers perfection and should be considered for a Caldecott.

Cons:  I still am not clear on whether the Fan Brothers can win a Caldecott.  They appear to have grown up in the U.S., but live in Canada now, with dual U.S./Canadian citizenship.  And the Caldecott criteria is that the award goes to a citizen or resident of the U.S.  It seems like splitting hairs to say they’re ineligible, but I think I’ve read that that’s the case. 

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

An early collaboration by the Fan Brothers.

16 Words: William Carlos Williams and “The Red Wheelbarrow” by Lisa Rogers, illustrated by Chuck Groenink

Published by Schwartz and Wade

Image result for 16 words william carlos williams and the red wheelbarrow

Image result for 16 words william carlos williams and the red wheelbarrow

Summary:  “Look out the window. What do you see?” After this invitation to the reader, the author tells the story of Dr. William Carlos Williams, a physician who enjoyed scribbling poems on his prescription pad or as notes to his wife.  When he looked out the window of his New Jersey office, he saw his neighbor, Thaddeus Marshall, working in his garden or carrying his vegetables to market in a red wheelbarrow. Williams wrote about what he saw in the poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”.  “Those sixteen words do not describe Mr. Marshall’s chicken coop, or the train rattling nearby. They do not describe Mr. Marshall hefting that wheelbarrow, or the aches and pains he suffers from stooping to care for his plants. They do not describe Mr. Marshall’s life of work or caring or love.  But somehow they say just that.” Includes an author’s note, bibliography, and a list of six other poems by Williams. 40 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  I wasn’t super excited at the prospect of reading a picture book about William Carlos Williams, but this tells a gentle, beautiful (and beautifully illustrated) story that also shows how an ordinary man fit poetry into his everyday life.  It makes his poetry accessible to even early elementary students. This would be a perfect read-aloud in conjunction with Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, which includes “The Red Wheelbarrow” as one of the poems the class studies.

Cons:  No photos of either Williams or Marshall. 

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

Image result for red wheelbarrow william carlos williams

Alfred’s Book of Monsters by Sam Streed

Published by Charlesbridge

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Image result for alfred's book of monsters sam streed

Summary:  Alfred loves looking at the terrible creatures in his monster book, like the Nixie and the Black Shuck.  What he doesn’t love are the delightful tea times his aunty provides every day. Finally, Alfred hits upon a solution.  He writes a letter, puts it in an envelope, and leaves it at the entrance of the town cemetery. The next day, there are a few additional guests for tea, “And they all had a terrible time.”  The last page shows a dazed and disheveled aunty and a smiling Alfred, still reading his book. 32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Hand this to those kindergarteners who ask for a scary book.  The illustrations have a gothic feel to them, and Alfred is a worthy successor to Where the Wild Things Are’s Max.  

Cons:  I would have enjoyed seeing more than three monsters from Alfred’s book.

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Boy-Crazy Stacey (The Baby-Sitters Club series) by Gale Galligan, based on the novel by Ann M. Martin

Published by Graphix

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Summary:  When Stacey and Mary Ann are invited to go to Sea City with the Pike family as mother’s helpers, they can’t for a two-week vacation at the Jersey shore.  But when Stacey develops a massive crush on Scott the lifeguard, Mary Ann gets stuck with all the work. Not surprisingly, Scott breaks Stacey’s heart, and further tween-age drama ensues.  Mary Ann and Stacey eventually patch up their friendship, and the two of them meet a boy babysitter and his cousin, who are closer in age than the lifeguard. A fun double date (complete with first kiss in the Tunnel of Love) leaves Stacey feeling good about her trip. 176 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  Long-time blog readers know that I find the Baby-Sitters Club books as irresistible as the Jersey shore on a hot July day.  The non-graphic version of this book has always been one of my favorites (I’m not too proud to admit it was first published shortly before my 25th birthday…), and I was excited to see it was next up on the Graphix reissues.  It’s a good retelling of the original, with artwork that perfectly captures the Jersey shore.  

Cons:  I thought I was just being nitpicky with my irritation over the way Gale Galligan draws open mouths, but then I saw an Amazon review that mentioned the same thing.  When she doesn’t draw teeth, it looks like a brown blob on the character’s face.

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

Image result for gale galligan babysitters club

Smell My Foot! (Chick and Brain, book 1) by Cece Bell

Published by Candlewick

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Image result for smell my foot chick brain

Summary:  Chick is a polite chick who meets the more literal-minded Brain.  In a series of humorous episodes, Chick tries to teach Brain manners, pretty much to no avail. What Brain really wants is for everyone to smell his foot.  Turns out, it smells pretty great…at least one of them does. Even Spot the dog agrees. What Spot really wants, though, is to lure Chick to his house so he can have a nice chicken dinner.  Fortunately, Brain is there to save the day…and it turns out his other foot doesn’t smell quite as good. 72 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Non-stop goofiness, a graphic novel format, and a character in heart-covered boxer shorts with a big brain sitting atop his head: I predict this new series will be flying off the shelves.

Cons:  I still haven’t gotten invited to dinner with husband-and-wife-children’s-book-superstars Tom Angleberger and Cece Bell.

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

Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Pérez

Published by Kokila

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Summary:  When wealthy Lane DiSanti is facing a summer of family separation and boredom, she decides to form a club.  She reaches out to three other girls who are strangers to her: Ofelia, whose mother works for Lane’s grandmother; Aster, who is nervous about starting school after years of schooling with her grandfather; and Cat, whose passion for birds has gotten her kicked out of a girls’ club called the Floras.  The girls band together to help Cat in her quest to get rid of the hat made of real bird feathers that the Floras have used for years. The girls begin a campaign of civil disobedience, with each one facing consequences unique to her situation and influenced by her heritage (Cat and Ofelia are Cuban American and Aster is Bahamaian American).  Told in alternating third-person points of view, the story follows the girls through increasingly daring pranks and the end shows that even getting caught and being separated at summer’s end won’t be enough to slow them down. 384 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  In her follow-up to The First Rule of Punk, Celia Pérez has written a story full of girl power and interesting insights about racism and privilege that could possibly be in line for some awards.  The varying perspectives and quirky characters reminded me of Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo and Hello, Universe by Erin Estrada Kelly.

Cons:  Clearly I’m in the minority, but I wasn’t a huge fan of either of the aforementioned books (that is one bitter review I wrote of Raymie Nightingale), and I didn’t love this book as much as I thought I would based on The First Rule of Punk.  I liked and appreciated it, but it took me awhile to get into it, I had some trouble keeping the characters straight, and I felt like the ending could have been more satisfying.

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Fly! by Mark Teague

Published by Beach Lane Books

Image result for fly mark teague

Image result for fly mark teague

Summary:  A young bird and its parent engage in wordless dialogue in this story about getting up the courage to leave the nest.  After feeding its offspring endless worms, the parent is ready for the youngster to fly. But they have different ideas about this, especially when the little bird leaves the nest and tumbles straight to the ground.  Readers see their communication as pictures in cartoon bubbles; the older bird tries to convince with pictures of soaring eagles and flights to Florida, while the younger one imagines riding in an airplane, traveling in a hot-air balloon, and biking to Florida.  Finally, the real threat of becoming an owl’s dinner convinces the kid to try again, and both birds end up happily back in their nest as the moon rises over them.

Pros:  I learned about this book in a recent edition of one of my favorite Caldecott predictors, and while I’m not sure it’s quite medal-worthy, it is a lot of fun.  Sometimes wordless books can be confusing, but this is one that even the youngest readers will enjoy.

Cons:  The parent seemed overly indulgent of its slightly bratty child.

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