Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey by Magdalena and Nathaniel Newman

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  When Nathaniel Newman was born with the craniofacial condition called Treacher Collins, his parents were overwhelmed.  Magda tells how she and her husband struggled to keep Nathaniel alive in his early days when he had to to breathe through a tracheostomy tube and be fed through another tube in his stomach.  She and her husband Russel struggled to give Nathaniel and his younger brother Jacob as normal a childhood as possible. Their lives were affected by the publication of R. J. Palacio’s book Wonder, about a boy much like Nathaniel.  Not only did they get to meet Palacio (who had been influenced in her creation of Auggie by photos of Nathaniel), but they found a greater acceptance from people after the publication of the book.  Despite over 60 surgeries for Nathaniel and two cancer diagnoses for Magda, their family has emerged stronger and with a new definition of the word “normal”. 336 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Those who have read Wonder or seen the movie (which Nathaniel auditioned for) will gain a much greater appreciation for all that Augie and his family had to go through before the opening scene of the story.  Nathaniel’s upbeat, matter-of-fact tone about his life is pretty impressive, and Magda’s honesty about her emotions throughout Nathaniel’s childhood make her a mom many will connect with.  The black-and-white cartoon-style illustrations make a fun addition to the story.

Cons:  The structure of the narrative is a bit disjointed; for instance, Magda alludes to her cancer about halfway through the book, but the story of it (which happened when Nathaniel was 2) doesn’t come until almost the end.

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The Amazing Life of Azaleah Lane by Nikki Shannon Smith, illustrated by Mari Lobo

Published by Picture Window Books (Capstone)

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Summary:  After a trip to the National Zoo, Azaleah is excited to start working on her extra-credit animal habitat diorama.  But when she gets home, she discovers that her little sister has lost her stuffed frog Greenie. At first Azaleah’s excited to work with Tiana to solve a mystery, but when Tiana’s demands start getting in the way of work on the diorama, Azaleah gets frustrated.  Older sister Nia has just gotten a big part in the school play and is acting like a bit of a diva. As family tensions start to mount, Azaleah realizes it’s up to her to get things back on track. Includes a glossary, discussion questions, writing prompts, and instructions for making a diorama.  112 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  This early chapter book had an engaging mystery–I was genuinely curious as to what had happened to Greenie–as well as a likeable protagonist with realistic family issues.  The full-color illustrations add to the appeal. This is billed as book 1, so we can hope for more adventures of Azaleah.

Cons:  Dad sending everyone to bed at 6 o’clock–including middle schooler Nia–seemed a bit draconian.

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Bear Goes Sugaring by Maxwell Eaton III

Published by Neal Porter Books

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Summary:  As late-winter temperatures start to slowly rise, Bear begins her plans to make maple syrup.  Her sidekicks, Dog and Squirrel, are only interested for the pancakes they hope to eat. The process of making syrup is shown step by step, as Bear drills holes in her sugar maples, then sets the containers to collect the sap.  Readers learn pertinent information, such as how to identify a sugar maple (versus a red or silver maple) and how the sap forms inside the tree. After the sap starts to flow, Bear builds an evaporator to boil it down to syrup, all the while accompanied by the wisecracking Dog and Squirrel.  It’s a long process, but finally the syrup is bottled and ready to go. Dog and Squirrel enjoy maple syrup splendor as Bear flips pancakes on the stove. Includes a brief author’s note and three additional resources. 32 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  My love of maple syrup is well-known amongst my family and friends, so I’m delighted to have found two new picture books on the topic before the end of January.  This one is fun for the whole family, with surprisingly detailed information on the whole process and lots of humor from the goofy sidekicks.  

Cons:  No pancake recipe.

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Almost Time by Gary D. Schmidt and Elizabeth Stickney, illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Published by Clarion

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Summary:  When Ethan’s dad serves him his pancakes with applesauce, Ethan knows they’ve run out of maple syrup.  Dad tells him that they’ll have to wait for the days to get warmer and longer before they can make more.  In the meantime, Ethan discovers a loose tooth, and waiting for the tooth to fall out and sugaring season to begin get tied together in a mood of anticipation.  One day, at long last, the tooth falls out, and when Ethan gets off the school bus to show his dad, he realizes that the buckets are on the maple trees as well. For the next week, father and son work to collect and boil sap, and on Sunday morning, Ethan enjoys his reward–pancakes with maple syrup.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A perfect late winter book to start conversations about making maple syrup and the difficulty of waiting for exciting events.  The charming illustrations and warm father-son relationship make this a perfect book for sharing.

Cons:  Seems like dad could have sprung for a bottle of maple syrup to tide them over until sugaring season.  No one in this day and age should have to eat pancakes without maple syrup.

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From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

Published by Katherine Tegen Books

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Summary:  When Zoe gets a letter from her father on her 12th birthday, she is stunned.  Marcus has been in prison all her life, and she has never had any contact with him.  She begins to secretly correspond with him, and learns that he has written her many letters that she’s never received.  When he tells her he didn’t commit the crime he’s imprisoned for, Zoe wonders if she can find the alibi witness from so many years ago who might be able to verify Marcus’s story.  With the help of her friend Trevor and her grandmother, Zoe sets out to discover the truth about her family and learns that even a 12-year-old can make a difference in the world. 304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Readers will be happy to get to know Zoe, an aspiring baker who hopes to win a spot on a Food Network show for kids.  The messages about racism in the justice system come through but are woven into a story full of love and friendship that would be perfect for starting some interesting discussions.

Cons:  I wished Zoe’s Froot Loops cupcake recipe had been included somewhere.

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Lizzie Demands A Seat! Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights by Beth Anderson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis

Published by Calkins Creek

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Image result for lizzie demands a seat

Summary:  When Lizzie Jennings was denied admission onto a New York City “Whites Only” streetcar in 1854, she stood her ground, refusing to leave until she was forcibly thrown off by the driver and conductor.  Lizzie was a teacher whose parents were abolitionists. When she told the people of her church what had happened, they hired a lawyer and formed a committee to make sure she had plenty of support. Her case became Elizabeth Jennings v. The Third Avenue Railroad Company, and she was represented by Chester A. Arthur, who went on to become President of the United States.  Lizzie won her case, and the “Colored People Allowed on This Car” came off the Third Avenue streetcars.  Others were inspired by her courage, and continued the fight against segregated public transportation, including, a century later, Rosa Parks.  Includes a lengthy author’s note with additional information and photos; and an extensive bibliography. 32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  A fascinating and little-known story about an ordinary person whose courageous deeds led to real change.  Caldecott honoree E. B. Lewis’s colorful paintings complement the story perfectly.  

Cons:  It would have been nice to tie this to the more familiar story of Rosa Parks, either through the text or the illustrations.

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Bedtime for Sweet Creatures by Nikki Grimes, pictures by Elizabeth Zunon

Published by Sourcebooks Jaberwocky

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Image result for bedtime for sweet creatures grimes

Summary:  As a mother tries to corral her unwilling child into bed, she uses all kinds of animal comparisons to get him interested.  The child’s eyes are as wide as an owl’s; he coils under his blankets like a snake, then clings to his mother like a koala.  After the lights are out, he bounds out of bed like a wolf to get a glass of water, then lopes back like an antelope. Inevitably, the child appears at his parents’ bedside in the middle of the night, and they welcome the owl, snake, koala, etc.–and one small child–into bed with them.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A fun bedtime story–what little kid doesn’t love pretending to be an animal?–with large, eye-catching collage and acrylic illustrations.

Cons:  Dad seems to be a pretty passive parent, leaving all the bedtime struggles to Mom.

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A Voice Named Aretha by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Laura Freeman

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

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Summary:  From her early days singing in her father’s church, Aretha Franklin had a powerful voice and the ability to express her emotions through her singing.  At age 18, she moved to New York to try to make it in the music world. She recorded and performed throughout the 1960’s, always making certain that her performances were in venues open to all races.  She hit the big time with her gold album “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”; the song “Respect” from that album became her signature song, and she was crowned the Queen of Soul. Her voice continued to move and inspire people for many years, until it was finally silenced with her death in 2018.  Includes a lengthy note with additional information on Franklin; a list of her songs; a list of sources; and two photos. 40 pages; grades 1-5.  

Pros:  This gorgeously illustrated picture book biography will introduce a new generation to the amazing voice of Aretha Franklin.

Cons:  Although there’s a list of sources, there’s no kid-friendly listing of resources for additional research.

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Cub by Cynthia L. Copeland

Published by Algonquin Young Readers

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Summary:  On the first pages, Cindy is watching Wild Kingdom with her family and comparing the predators and prey she sees with her situation in seventh grade.  The predators are the mean girls, and she and her best friend Katie are they prey–at least until Katie starts sitting with the “predators” at lunch.  Cindy’s self-confidence needs a boost, and that’s just what she gets when a caring teacher notices her flair for writing and puts her in touch with a young woman reporter on the local paper.  Before long, Cindy is traveling around town, shadowing her hip young mentor, and occasionally writing her own articles. With Watergate and the Equal Rights Amendment shaking up institutions from the free press to her own family, Cindy can’t help feeling like she’s on a roller coaster as she navigates a seventh grade year that includes a new boyfriend and some pretty empowered new friends.  By the end of the year, she’s no longer skulking around the halls like a hunted animal, but has claimed her rightful place in middle school as she heads into eighth grade. Includes an author’s note and four pages of drawings showing the fun and games of the 1970’s. 240 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Readers of a certain age (me) will enjoy this fond look back to what now seems like the naively innocent age of the 1970’s.  Current kids will be treated to another fun and relatable graphic novel memoir that will inspire them to follow their own dreams.

Cons:  One of the mean seventh graders is introduced as having French kissed an eighth grade boy, which is enough to raise eyebrows with teachers and parents in my elementary school.  Believe me, I’d be the last person to champion censorship, but I kind of wish writers would leave out those casual references (that don’t further the plot line) that make me hesitate to buy their books.  I acknowledge I’m a bit conflict-averse, so feel free to add your own differing opinion in the comments.

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Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James Ransome

Published by Holiday House

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Summary: Ruth Ellen tells the story of traveling by train from North Carolina to New York City with her parents during the Great Migration.  They’ve left their lives as sharecroppers secretly, without telling the boss. After traveling to Baltimore, Maryland, the “Whites Only” sign is removed, and Ruth Ellen and her family can leave the colored car and explore the rest of the train.  They pass the time by playing cards, eating from a shoebox (they’re not allowed in the dining car until the sign comes down), and reading a book by Frederick Douglass. Finally, they arrive at Penn Station in New York, where the city lights and bright stars seem to offer promise for the future.  Includes an author’s note with additional information on the Overground Railroad. 48 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  This husband-and-wife team has produced a beautiful historical fiction picture book about a time not often written about in children’s literature.

Cons:  There were no dates given for Ruth Ellen’s journey or the Great Migration in general.

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