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.

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

The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illustrated by Oge Mora

Published by Schwartz and Wade

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Image result for oldest student how mary walker

Summary:  Mary Walker was born into slavery in 1848.  As a child, she learned to work hard, but she never learned to read and write.  She continued to work throughout her life, marrying twice and raising three sons.  She received a Bible as a young woman, but didn’t know how to read it, and needed someone else to record the births of her children inside of it.  Finally, 114 years old and the last surviving member of her family, Mary heard about a literacy class and decided to enroll. Over the next year, she learned to read, write, add, and subtract, and was eventually certified as the oldest student in the United States.  She continued to enjoy reading until her death on December 1, 1969 at age 121. Includes an author’s note and several photos on the endpapers. 40 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  An inspiring story that ends with a picture of Mary telling readers, “You’re never too old to learn,” a sentiment that may mean more to readers like myself than its intended audience.  Oge Mora’s illustrations make the story come alive. I particularly liked how the scribbles Mary sees everywhere have transformed into letters and words by the end.

Cons:  I was a little disappointed to read in the author’s note that little is known of Mary’s life before she learned to read well past 100, and that much of the story was Hubbard’s imagining of what her life was like.

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

Notorious by Gordon Korman

Published by Balzer + Bray

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Summary:  Keenan’s recovering at his dad’s house on Centerlight Island after contracting TB while living with his mom and stepfather in Shanghai.  There are some pretty unique features to Centerlight: the U.S.-Canadian border that runs through the middle of it; the crumbling lighthouse; the gangsters who are rumored to have hidden treasure there; and Zarabeth, a.k.a. ZeeBee, the neighbor girl who befriends Keenan.  As the only Canadian girl her age on the island, ZeeBee doesn’t have any friends, but she does have a wild imagination. She’s sure Tommy-Gun Ferguson, the gangster who once lived in her house, buried gold somewhere on the island and she’s equally sure that her beloved dog, Barney, was murdered.  As Keenan learns more about his new home, he discovers that almost every resident had reason to want ferocious, destructive Barney dead. After a rocky start to their friendship, Keenan and ZeeBee agree to join forces and end up discovering more about Centerlight than they originally bargained for.  320 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  It would hardly be a new year without a new offering from perennial favorite Gordon Korman.  Told in his trademark alternate points of view–mostly Keenan and ZeeBee, with a few other Centerlight residents occasionally chiming in–there’s enough humor, friendship, and mystery to keep Korman’s many fans happy for another year.  Whoops, make that six months–there’s another Gordon Korman book due out in July.

Cons:  It was a bit difficult to fathom ZeeBee’s love for and her family’s patience with Barney.

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

Wrapping up 2019

You might think I’d welcome a few weeks off from this blog.  I did, but, in a strange way, I missed it, too.  It’s become such a daily part of my life to read and review books that it felt a little empty to not be posting each day.

But before you start feeling too sorry for me, let me add that I found a few more books from 2019 to read, and am sharing them below.  And we’ll return to our regularly scheduled reviews of the first books of 2020 tomorrow.

 

Dog Driven by Terry Lynn Johnson

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Full disclosure: I only read the first chapter of this book, but I believe Terry Lynn Johnson should be better known.  I loved her Ice Dogs and the Survivor Diaries series.  This one is about a girl with a degenerative vision disorder who goes on a sled dog race for her sister who has a more advanced case of the same disorder.  Looks like lots of adventure!  (240 pages; grades 4-7)

 

More to the Story by Hena Khan

Published by Salaam Reads/Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

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With Little Women in the news once again, this modern-day interpretation should be relatively easy to book talk.  Maryam, Jameela, Bisma, and Aleeza are four Pakistani-American girls who must deal with their father’s job overseas, a new boy in their lives, and Bisma’s life-threatening illness. (272 pages; grades 4-7)

 

M Is for Movement: A.K.A. Humans Can’t Eat Golf Balls by Innosanto Nagara

Published by Triangle Square

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This unique book is called a “fictionalized memoir”, but much of it seems true to Nagara’s life.  The narrator tells of his childhood growing up in Indonesia, where he witnessed small protests being carried out by friends and family against an unjust government.  As an adult, he was part of the movement that eventually ousted that government.  With the 2020 election just around the corner, this may inspire you to strap on your activist shoes and get to work. (96 pages; grades 3-7)

 

Diary of an Ice Princess: Snow Place Like Home by Christina Soontornvat

Published by Scholastic (but then, you probably guessed that already)

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Yes, folks, this is what I read on my time off.  The diary format, the hot pink illustrations, a cool princess with a hidden superpower…Scholastic certainly does have its finger firmly on the pulse of today’s Disney-saturated youth.  Yet despite my cynicism, I found the story well-done, and honestly, kind of a page-turner. (128 pages; grades 1-4)

Five Favorite Nonfiction Books

I may have saved the best for last, since I love a good nonfiction book.  This is my final wrap-up of 2019 books.  Now I’ll take a “break” for a few weeks, but don’t worry: I already have ten 2020 books on hold at the library.

 

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

Published by Beach Lane Books

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This is kind of nonfiction lite.  Sure, you’ll learn a bit about the planets, but the information is well-disguised in this hilarious picture book about Pluto’s search for meaning after being downgraded from a planet.

 

Free Lunch by Rex Ogle

Published by Norton Young Readers

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Politicians everywhere should read Rex Ogle’s disturbing memoir of his first few months of middle school for a real-life taste of how poverty affects kids and families.

 

Nine Months: Before a Baby Is Born by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Jason Chin

Published by Neal Porter Books

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I love pretty much everything both Miranda Paul and Jason Chin do, so this was a perfect pairing to show kids of all ages what’s going on during those nine months before a baby is born.

 

Born to Fly: The First Women’s Air Race Across America by Steve Sheinkin

Published by Roaring Brook Press

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And speaking of authors who can do no wrong, Steve Sheinkin gave us another compelling nonfiction book to read this year, as hard to put down as any novel I can think of.

 

Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island by Jennifer Thermes

Published by Harry N. Abrams

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If maps are your thing, you’ll want to reserve a good chunk of time to see how the island of Manhattan has changed over time.  A celebration of all things New York.

Five Favorite Early Readers/Chapter Books

Writing a good book for newly independent readers seems deceptively difficult, and I always appreciate finding a good one.

Acorn Books by various authors

Published by Scholastic

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Image result for acorn books scholastic

Image result for acorn books scholastic

Scholastic’s been dominating the early chapter book market for the last few years with their Branches imprint.  This year they rolled out several new series under the Acorn label, targeting slightly younger readers.  Lots of humor and cartoon-style illustrations with speech bubbles are sure to be a hit.

 

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

Published by Candlewick

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What the heck?  Only Cece Bell would think to pair a chick and a brain, but somehow it works, with plenty of goofy humor in the writing and illustrations.

 

What Is Inside THIS Box? (Monkey and Cake book 1) by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Tallec

Published by Orchard Books

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Drew Daywalt simultaneously entertains and raises philosophical questions in this new Elephant-and-Piggie-inspired series.

 

Juana and Lucas: Big Problemas by Juana Medina

Published by Candlewick

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I enjoyed book two of Juana and Lucas every bit as much as book one.  For some reason, I’ve had trouble getting kids to read these books, but I will keep trying in 2020.

 

Frank and Bean by Jamie Michalak, illustrated by Bob Kolar

Published by Candlewick

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Candlewick gets the prize for oddball friendships this year, including this pairing of introverted hot dog Frank and his new jokester pal Bean.

Five Favorite Poetry Books

Lots of good poetry books to choose from this year.  Here are a few that I especially enjoyed.

 

The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper, illustrated by Carson Ellis

Published by Candlewick

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I didn’t find many new holiday books in 2019.  This beautifully illustrated version of Susan Cooper’s poem celebrating the winter solstice will be enjoyed for many Decembers to come.

 

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

Published by Lee & Low Books

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Neither the title nor the cover really drew me in, but I loved this book once I got past that.  Poems and illustrations by a variety of writers and artists celebrate childhoods from all around the world.

 

Poetree by Shauna LaVoy Reynolds, illustrated by Shahrzad Maydani

Published by Dial Books for Young Readers

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This picture book celebrates the power of words and would make a perfect introduction to poetry for early elementary students.

 

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

Published by Schwartz and Wade

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I didn’t know I wanted to read a picture book of William Carlos Williams until I found 16 Words.  Another good one to share with students during a poetry unit, and a nice accompaniment to Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, which includes the poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

 

The Day the Universe Exploded My Head by Allan Wolf, illustrated by Anna Raff

Published by Candlewick

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Now here’s a cover and title that draws you in immediately.  Proves, once again, that poetry can be fun and educational, too.