Penny and Her Sled by Kevin Henkes

Published by Greenwillow Books

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Summary:  A new sled has Penny eagerly anticipating the first snowfall, but day after day the ground remains bare.  Her parents both assure that it will snow eventually, and Penny tries some snow-making tricks like wearing mittens to bed and sitting on the sled in the living room.  Nothing works. Trying to make the best of her situation, she uses the sled to make a house for her younger siblings and a bed for her doll Rose. As the days grow longer, it seems as though the winter will be snow-less, and her mother encourages Penny to look for a different type of snow–the snowdrops in the garden.  One exciting day, the flowers are blooming, and Penny runs into the house to tell her mother. They go out to look together–with Penny wearing her scarf and mittens and pulling Rose behind her on the sled. 56 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  It’s been six years since the last Penny book, but well worth the wait.  Kevin Henkes does his usual masterful combination of storytelling and illustration, perfectly capturing a child’s point of view and painlessly inserting a few lessons about resilience.  Pretty impressive that he has managed to produce one of my favorite easy readers and one of my favorite chapter books in the same year.

Cons:  I really thought it would snow eventually.

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Unseen World: Real-Life Microscopic Creatures Hiding All Around Us by Hélène Rajcak, illustrated by Damien Laverdunt

Published by What On Earth Books

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Summary:  Each two page spread describes microscopic creatures that live in different environments:  under the ocean, on the forest floor, in your bed, on your kitchen floor. A fold-out page gives an introduction; when it’s unfolded, more of the illustration is revealed and specific organisms are identified.  Ten environments are profiled in all. Includes additional information about and history of the microscope; information on classifying microorganisms; glossary; index; and selected sources. 32 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This French import is a real work of art.  Sure, we may not all be curious about the mites that feed on our skin at night, but for those who are, this is a beautiful way to go.  The illustrations are amazingly detailed, and the information is fascinating.

Cons:  The foldout pages and $18.00 price tag are a less-than-ideal combination for a school library.

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Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy

Published by Balzer + Bray

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Summary:  Patricia “Sweet Pea” DiMarco is adjusting to life with newly divorced parents.  Her mom is in their old house, and Dad is renting an identical house two doors down.  In between lives Miss Flora Mae, a reclusive, eccentric older woman who writes an advice column for the local paper.  Sweet Pea’s written a few letters to Miss Flora Mae herself, struggling with a best friend who’s turned mean girl and some body image issues.  When Miss Flora Mae goes away and asks Sweet Pea to collect her mail and send finished columns to the editor, Sweet Pea finds herself tempted to answer a letter or two herself, particularly when she recognizes the handwriting on one.  As her friendship issues spiral out of control, Sweet Pea uses the column to discover an important truth–she has all the answers she needs with the help of her family and friends. 288 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Lots of issues are dealt with here–divorce, having a gay parent, body image, and middle school friendships.  Julie Murphy (author of Dumplin’ and other young adult novels) handles it with a light touch and plenty of humor.  Sure to be a popular choice for older elementary and middle school readers.

Cons:  Maybe I have read too many girls-coming-of-age middle school novels this year (or in my life), but I felt like I had seen so much of this before: the loyal boy best friend, the former best friend turned mean girl, the divorced parents who are trying their best.  It’s a cute story, but I was hoping for something a bit less formulaic from such a best-selling author.  It got starred reviews in four different journals, though, so maybe I am just getting jaded.

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Hi, I’m Norman: The Story of American Illustrator Norman Rockwell by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor

Published by Simon and Schuster

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Summary:  Norman Rockwell tells his story in the first person, inviting readers into his studio, then taking them back to his early days when he used art to make up for his lack of athletic ability.  After a stint at art school, he took whatever jobs he could find, eventually landing the plum assignment of creating covers for the Saturday Evening Post.  When World War II arrived, his artwork took a more serious turn, and his The Four Freedoms set helped raise millions of dollars from war bonds.  After the war, he took on the civil rights movement, with The Problem We All Live With one of his most famous works to come out of that era.  His final published work shows him draping a “Happy Birthday” banner on the Liberty Bell to celebrate America’s bicentennial.  Includes additional information, author’s and illustrator’s notes, a timeline, reproductions of five or Rockwell’s paintings with additional information about them, a list of additional sources, and some quotes from Norman Rockwell.  48 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  The folksy, conversational style of the writing will draw kids in, and Wendell Berry’s illustrations capture Rockwell’s works perfectly.  The extensive back matter makes this an excellent resource for research.

Cons:  There were no dates or places in the text–readers will have to go to the timeline for that information.

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I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins

Published by Lee and Low Books

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Summary:  Fourteen poets have written childhood remembrances, with an emphasis on their cultural heritage and how it shaped them.  Each poem is illustrated by a different artist, and every artist and poet has written a sentence or two about their art or writing.  Some (“Grandpa” by Douglas Florian; “Amazing Auntie Anne” by Cynthia Leitich Smith) celebrate a person; others (“Route 66” by Marilyn Nelson; “Tepechapa River” by Jorge Tetl Argueta), a particular place; and still others (“Speak Up” by Janet S. Wong; “Pick One” by Nick Bruel) speak to the experience of growing up as an immigrant in America.  Includes brief biographical information and photos of all the writers and illustrators. 56 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This beautiful and accessible collection of poetry and artwork shows readers the variety of experiences in America and may inspire them to find a way to express their own story through writing or art.

Cons:  The cover and title didn’t really grab me (sorry, Sean Qualls, I generally love your work); I was pleasantly surprised once I dove in.  

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Each Tiny Spark by Pablo Cartaya

Published by Kokila

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Summary:  Seventh-grader Emilia has a lot going on in her life.  Her mom leaves for a business trip the same day that her father returns from his latest overseas deployment.  Emilia depends on her mom for help managing her ADHD, and finds school challenging on her own. Her dad doesn’t seem to want to talk about why he never answered the 30 videos she sent him when he was away, and the only way they seem able to connect is working at her grandmother’s auto repair shop.  Abuela is well-meaning, but overbearing, and she and Emilia don’t often see eye-to-eye.  On top of this, there’s the usual middle school stuff, with shifting friendships and challenging teachers.  Emilia gets caught up in a social studies project that opens her eyes to racism and immigration issues in her town, and sometimes puts her at odds with her classmates.  Ultimately, Emilia finds that most of the changes are positive, as she learns to advocate for herself and get what she needs, both at home and at school. 336 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  I’ve been procrastinating reading this book for awhile now, and am so glad I finally got around to it.  Emila is an awesome narrator, and the author deftly handles a number of important issues that many readers will connect with.  He narrated the audiobook I listened to, which seemed strange at first, since the narrator is a girl, but he did a remarkably good job with the many different voices.

Cons:  Although I’ve been reviewing my high-school Spanish with Duolingo lessons lately, I still couldn’t catch all of Abuela’s conversation, and it wasn’t always 100% translated.

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The Gift of Ramadan by Rabiah York Lumbard, illustrated by Laura K. Horton

Published by Albert Whitman and Co.

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Summary:  When Sophie’s grandmother tells her that the heart of a person who fasts during Ramadan is “pretty and sparkly” like Sophie’s new ring, Sophie decides she wants to fast.  Waking up before sunrise is tough, though, and Sophie falls asleep at breakfast, and again during morning prayers. By lunchtime, she is famished, and her little brother is tempting her with his delicious cookie.  Grandma finds her eating cookies, and reassures her that her sparkles are growing, and that there are other ways to celebrate the holiday. She and Grandma spend the afternoon preparing a pizza dinner, which the whole family enjoys after sunset.  Includes an author’s note about Ramadan. 32 pages; ages 4-9.

Pros:  Children of all faiths will connect with this story, and those who don’t know about Ramadan will learn about it through the eyes of another child who is a lot like them.  

Cons:  The reasons for fasting during Ramadan aren’t explained in either the story or the author’s note.

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