River by Elisha Cooper

Published by Orchard Books

Image result for river elisha cooper

Summary:  The illustration facing the title page shows a woman tracing a route on a map with her finger while her two children look on.  Outside the window, her husband is loading a canoe on the top of her car. We never learn the woman’s name, but we follow her journey as she travels the length of the Hudson River in a canoe.  We learn what she eats, how she camps, and what animals she sees along the way. We watch as she struggles through rapids, narrowly avoids a tugboat collision, and capsizes in a storm before finally reaching her destination: New York City.  After paddling the length of the city, she dreams of other adventures, but knows that right now she belongs back with the family who is greeting her on the shore. Includes an author’s note (that begins “I did not canoe down the Hudson River.”), a note on the Hudson River, and a list of additional resources.  48 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  Here’s one more for the pile of Caldecott contenders I’m gathering up to share with my students.  Readers will be inspired to try an adventure of their own after reading the details of this one and seeing the gorgeous landscapes.  

Cons:  There’s a fair amount of text, written in a quiet style with plenty of details; while this is certainly not a bad thing, it may not grab readers right away.

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Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace by Ashley Bryan

Published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books

Image result for infinite hope ashley bryan

Image result for infinite hope ashley bryan

Summary:  Author and illustrator Ashley Bryan offers a very personal look at his years serving in World War II.  From basic training in Massachusetts to Scotland to the D-Day invasion to waiting to be sent home in France, Bryan shares letters home, particularly to a college friend named Eva; a narrative about his experiences; and many, many sketches.  He writes about the racism that was rampant in the U.S. military, and the surprising lack of it in Europe (that experience of being treated equally by white Europeans led many black military men and women to join the civil rights movement after the war). Mostly, he talks about how art saved him.  He kept paper and pencils in his gas mask, and his comrades would often take over his work to let him draw. He concludes with his return to civilian life, including many years when he didn’t talk about his military experiences. Encouraged by colleagues in the children’s literature world, he has finally opened up and shared this wealth of art and stories.  112 pages; grade 5-adult.

Pros:  This is a pretty amazing work of art written and compiled by the 96-year-old Ashley Bryan.  Plan on spending a long time reading and studying his artwork. The audience for this may be pretty specific, but if you get this in the hands of the right readers, they are sure to find it to be a meaningful and important book.  Definitely a contender for some awards in January

Cons:  I would have liked more information about Eva.  I was confused at the beginning and had to read the jacket flap to understand to whom Ashley was writing.

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Birdsong by Julie Flett

Published by Greystone Kids

Image result for birdsong julie flett

Image result for birdsong julie flett

Summary:  A girl narrator tells of her move from the city to the country.  At first, she’s sad and misses all the people and things she’s left behind.  Her mother encourages her to visit their neighbor Agnes, and soon a friendship forms between the older woman and younger girl.  Both of them are artists–the girl loves drawing and Agnes makes things out of clay. As the seasons of the first year go by, Agnes gets sick and can’t get outside any more.  In the spring, a year after the move, the girl creates dozens of pictures of birds and hangs them in Agnes’s room to help her feel like she is outside. Walking home and, later, in bed, the girl thinks about her friend and how grateful she is for their friendship.  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A quiet story celebrating intergenerational friendships and the passing of time in the natural world.  I don’t think Agnes dies at the end, but it’s not clear; either way, the story celebrates life and friendship. Julie Flett is Cree-Mêtis and deftly inserts some Cree words and imagery into the text.

Cons:  One review I read said there was a glossary of Cree words at the end of the book, but this was not the case with the book I saw.

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The Complete Baking Book for Young Chefs by America’s Test Kitchen

Published by Sourcebooks Explore

Image result for complete baking book for young chefs

Image result for complete baking book for young chefs

Summary:  Over 100 recipes were tested by more than 4,000 kids, whose reviews are scattered throughout the text.  The first 20 pages offer a pretty thorough introduction to baking, including tools, ingredients, and basic processes like melting butter and chopping herbs.  The education continues throughout the next five chapters, which offer recipes for quick breads, yeast breads, pizza and other flatbreads, cookies, cakes, and fruit desserts.  Each recipe has symbols at the beginning to show the level (beginner, intermediate, or advanced) and the equipment needed. There are interesting sidebars with additional tips, like how to line a cake pan with parchment paper or how to roll dough.  Nutrition information for each recipe is given at the end, along with an index. 224 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  In the interest of giving a fair review, I tried a couple of recipes for oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and pumpkin bread with chocolate chips (I like chocolate chips, okay?).  Both were fairly straightforward and turned out well (although I’m not quite ready to give up my toll house cookie recipe). I learned a thing or two–who knew you should cook pumpkin before adding it to pumpkin bread?  There are enough tempting recipes offered to keep upper elementary and middle school chefs busy for a long time.

Cons:  Younger bakers may need some help.  For the pumpkin bread, rated intermediate, I had two bowls and a pan on the stove going at the same time, which made it the most complicated quick bread recipe I had ever used.  Granted, I may not always use the approved baking methods, and the bread was truly delicious.

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Meet the House Kittens (Kitten Construction Company book 1) by John Patrick Green

Published by First Second

Image result for meet the house kittens amazon

Image result for meet the house kittens john patrick green

Summary:  Marmalade has drawn up some pretty impressive blueprints for the new mayor’s mansion, but no one will take her seriously because she’s a kitten.  When she goes to drown her sorrows (“One saucer of milk! And keep ‘em coming!”), she meets a dishwashing cat who’s looking to ply his trade as an electrical engineer.  They decide to form a construction firm, and eventually hire a kitten plumber and kitten carpenter to join them. Since they’re never taken seriously (“How cute!” all the humans say, staring with adoring eyes), the kittens go to work in secret.  When the humans’ mansion collapses at the grand opening, the kittens are there to save the day with their own solid structure. The mayor still refuses to believe kittens built her house, but the city manager hires them on for a new job. 80 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  From the creator of Hippopotamister comes this delightful new series about some seriously talented kittens.  Children (and some adults) will relate to the feeling of not being taken seriously.  However, I have to add my voice to the chorus of “Awww!”s. These kittens are unquestionably skilled construction workers, but they are also super cute.

Cons:  Some of the humor (like the “saucer of milk” comment above) may be over some readers’ heads.

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Allies by Alan Gratz

Published by Scholastic

Image result for allies alan gratz

Summary:  16-year-old Dee Carpenter isn’t quite sure what he’s doing landing on Omaha Beach at the start of D-Day.  As the events of the day unfold, he has many narrow escapes and crosses paths with a wide variety of characters from Canada, France, Algeria, Germany, and, of course, the United States.  The reader gradually learns about Dee’s early life and the events that brought him to D-Day–events that could easily have led him to be fighting for the other side. Although Dee is the main character, others get a few chapters so that readers get to know quite a few characters in depth before they all meet up on the evening of June 6.  Includes a 14-page author’s note that gives additional information on many different aspects of D-Day and World War II that are touched upon in the story. 336 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This is sure to be popular with middle school readers, with non-stop action and narrow escapes starting almost immediately.  I liked the inclusion of some strong female characters.  The fact that Dee is 16 and the two main girls are 11 and 13 makes it relatable to kids.

Cons:  I was expecting a story like Refugee in which the three characters were given equal billing.  Instead, this was mostly Dee’s story, with a dizzying number of minor characters. I was interested in the French Resistance mother and daughter, but their story ended on page 72, and they didn’t reappear until the last chapter.

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Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers 

Image result for dancing hands how teresa carreño played the piano for president lincoln

Image result for dancing hands how teresa carreño played the piano for president lincoln

Summary:  Teresa Carreño had a gift for piano from the time she was a little girl in Venezuela.  War drove her family from their home and to the United States, where another war was raging–the Civil War.  Teresa found that music offered her a refuge from the sadness and suffering, and by the time she was ten years old, she was known as Piano Girl, performing all over the country.  She was amazed to get an invitation from President Abraham LIncoln to play at the White House, and nervous about accepting it. When the big day arrived, she found that the White House piano was poorly tuned, and didn’t know if she’d be able to perform.  But Lincoln asked her to play his favorite song, “Listen to the Mockingbird”, and once again music provided magical healing powers. An author’s note gives a bit more information about Carreño and her later musical career. 40 pages; grades K-4.  

Pros:  Acclaimed poet Margarita Engle and illustrator Rafael Lopez team up once again to create a beautiful story about a little-known episode in musical history.  Kids will be inspired to learn of the hard work and fame of this 10-year-old girl.

Cons:  I was expecting something bigger from the final scene in the White House.

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Roar Like a Dandelion by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier

Published by HarperCollins

Image result for roar like a dandelion amazon

Image result for roar like a dandelion

Summary:  This action-filled ABC uses verbs in unusual settings: “Act like a sprinkler in summer/Butt like a billy goat/Crow like a rooster, make the sun come up.”  Each has an animal illustration to accompany it, as the text goes all the way through to “X out all the bad stuff/Yell, ‘Good morning, big fat world!’/Zip, zip, zip, zip, zip”.  48 pages; ages 3-6.

Pros:  Sergio Ruzzier’s cute animal illustrations enliven this text written by the late Ruth Krauss, the beloved author of A Hole Is To Dig and The Carrot Seed among others.  Kids will get a kick out of the falling elephants for “Fall like rain” (who appear a few pages later in “Jump like raindrops”), the mice walking along a winding snake for “Go like a road”, and other whimsical illustrations.

Cons:  As I’ve said before, sometimes there’s a reason those manuscripts discovered posthumously didn’t get published (looking at you, Dr. Seuss’s executors).  This book is cute, but I was kind of underwhelmed, and surprised that it got four starred reviews.

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Pluto Gets the Call by Adam Rex, illustrated by Laurie Keller

Published by Beach Lane Books 

Image result for pluto gets the call

Image result for pluto gets the call

Summary:  On the title page, three scientists are seen arguing about who will call Pluto; we then travel to the outskirts of the solar system to meet Pluto, a friendly fellow, who introduces himself as the ninth planet.  While he’s giving a tour of his part of the universe, he gets the call. He is no longer a planet. Devastated, he seeks out advice from other planets, who turn out to have their own distinctive personalities.  Neptune is a bit slow on the uptake; Saturn is gushing with charm and just might have a crush on Pluto; Jupiter is a big bully. Finally, Pluto heads for the big guy–the Sun–who tells Pluto to enjoy being himself.  “You’re still a planet to everyone who was too short to ride the Ferris wheel…to all the people picked last for kickball.” Besides, scientists are still debating. At one point in history, they said there were 23 planets. Two pages of planetary facts round out this wacky tour of the solar system.  48 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  I laughed out loud more than once, enjoying the planets’ personalities (“People talk about Uranus for reasons I don’t really want to get into.”  “Aww, shucks, you must mean my charming personality.”) There’s plenty of information tucked into the text and illustrations; kids will be having so much fun, they won’t even notice that they’re getting educated.

Cons:  48 pages seemed a little long and rambling to me.

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Bouncing Back by Scott Ostler

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Image result for bouncing back scott

Summary:  13-year-old Carlos Cooper is still adjusting to life in a wheelchair following a car accident that killed both his parents.  When his aunt and uncle encourage him to try wheelchair basketball, he’s pretty sure he’s not going to like it. A basketball star in his former life, he struggles with no longer being the best shooter on the team.  But the coach and the other kids on the team convince him that they need his talents, and gradually, basketball becomes a big part of his life again. When the old gym that houses their practices is condemned and scheduled to be torn down, the kids uncover a nefarious plot involving the mayor, the father of their school’s biggest bully, and the editor of the local paper.  The good guys come together for a last-minute reprieve on the gym, and the team finds its groove at the state championships, making for a feel-good happy ending. 304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Fans of Mike Lupica and Tim Green will enjoy this heartwarming sports story, which has a cast of dedicated athlete characters and plenty of basketball action.  And, yes, it was just Monday when I said there aren’t many kids’ books with a protagonist in a wheelchair.  It’s a funny world.

Cons:  The “bad guys” were all caricatures, particularly the mayor with his slicked-back hair, wraparound sunglasses, and bright red limo.

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