The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman

Published by Viking Books for Young Readers

The Blackbird Girls: Blankman, Anne: 9781984837356: Books

Summary:  Valentina and Oksana are enemies at school, partly because Oksana has been taught to hate Jews like Valentina and her family.  When they wake up one April morning, it’s obvious that there’s been an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant where both their fathers work, but the residents of the town of Pripyat are unfazed by it.  In the next few days, though, the full horror begins to be revealed, and a series of unexpected events results in both girls being sent to live with Valentina’s grandmother, whom Valentina has never met.  The story is told in the alternating voices of the two girls, interspersed with a 1941 account of a girl named Rifka fleeing Kiev ahead of the Nazis.  As Oksana and Valentina become good friends and share their secrets, Babulya is recalling the friendship she formed with a girl named Feruza who rescued her back in 1941.  When Valentina and Babulya learn of Oksana’s troubled home life, they hatch a daring plan that tests the girls’ friendship, as well as that of Rifka and Feruza, still close after so many years.  Includes an author’s note with additional historical information, resources for those facing abuse, and a list for additional reading.  356 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This has been on my to-be-read list since March, and I’m so glad that I finally got around to it.  Featuring a cast of brave and resourceful young girls, this story makes the history come alive.  It’s definitely on my top ten list for 2020 middle grade novels, and I hope it will win some awards.

Cons:  Between all the historical events, the three different points of view, and the movement back and forth between 1941 and 1986, it’s a pretty complex story that younger readers might struggle with.

The Challenger Disaster: Tragedy in the Skies by Pranas T. Naujokaitis

Published by First Second History Comics: The Challenger Disaster: Tragedy in the Skies  (9781250174307): Naujokaitis, Pranas T.: Books
History Comics: The Challenger Disaster | Pranas T. Naujokaitis | Macmillan

Summary:  A group of kids going to school on board a 24th century spacecraft has an assignment to research the Challenger disaster.  Each presents one aspect of the event, including the history of the space shuttle, the crew, the launch, and the investigation of what went wrong.  The kids are all certain that Carmen, the slacker among them, hasn’t done her research, and when it comes time for her to present, it turns out they’re right.  But she’s been so moved by what she’s learned that she makes an emotional case for continuing to explore the universe, even though tragedies sometimes happen as part of those explorations.  The day ends with A plus grades for everyone, and the teacher musing to herself that she believes the future is in good hands.  Includes an author’s afterword and a list of additional Challenger facts.  128 pages; grades 4-6.

Pros:  A moving look at many different aspects of the Challenger explosion that includes holographic images of each crew member giving an introduction to his or her life and career.  This is part of a new series called History Comics that will undoubtedly have wide appeal, particularly for fans of books like Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales.

Cons:  The detailed descriptions of the space shuttle in the first third of the book may lose a few readers.

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Bunheads by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Setor Fiadzigbey

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons

Bunheads: Copeland, Misty, Fiadzigbey, Setor: 9780399547645:  Books
Bunheads: Copeland, Misty, Fiadzigbey, Setor: 9780399547645:  Books

Summary:  Misty is excited to hear in her first ballet class that they will be performing Coppélia.  She listens carefully to her teacher’s retelling of the story, and decides she wants the role of Swanilda.  She’s concerned that another girl named Cat might be a rival, but Cat decides to audition for Coppélia.  When the cast is announced, both Misty and Cat get the parts they wanted.  They work hard to prepare, inspiring each other, and by the time the big night arrives, both are ready to deliver a flawless performance.  Both girls are front and center for the final curtain call, smiling happily and wondering what their next ballet will be.  32 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Aspiring dancers will enjoy this story featuring a young Misty Copeland, and will learn the basics of the story of Coppélia.  The illustrations enhance the story and demonstrate some of the ballet steps mentioned.

Cons:  Readers may be disappointed when they’re not selected for a starring role in their first year of ballet like Misty is.  And speaking of Misty, I would have enjoyed some back matter connecting this story to the real Misty Copeland.

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I Am the Storm by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, illustrated by Kristen and Kevin Howdeshell

Published by Rise x Penguin Workshop

I Am the Storm: Yolen, Jane, Stemple, Heidi E. Y., Howdeshell, Kristen,  Howdeshell, Kevin: 9780593222751: Books
I Am the Storm: Yolen, Jane, Stemple, Heidi E. Y., Howdeshell, Kristen,  Howdeshell, Kevin: 9780593222751: Books

Summary:  Four children tell of their experiences surviving a tornado, blizzard, wildfire, and hurricane.  While the danger is present, they either hunker down at home or are evacuated to a safe place where they enjoy time with their families: playing cards in the basement until the tornado passes, cooking over the fireplace through the blizzard, camping while the wildfire burns, and staying with cousins during a hurricane.  Afterward, they help clean up and get back to their lives.  “Nature is strong and powerful. But, I am strong and powerful, too…And when the storm passes, as it always does, I am the calm, too.”  Includes additional information about the four types of events. 32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A reassuring book for kids who have faced or are about to face a natural disaster, focusing on resilience and offering child-friendly information about each event.

Cons:  Makes surviving a catastrophic event look fun and cozy, and only portrays families with nice houses and cars who have the financial means to be this resilient.

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Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte, illustrated by Ann Xu

Published by HarperAlley

Measuring Up: LaMotte, Lily, Xu, Ann: 9780062973863: Books

Summary:  Cici is anxious about her family’s move from Taiwan to Seattle, particularly when she learns that her grandmother, A-má, is staying in Taiwan.  The move goes smoothly, with Cici making two new friends almost immediately and getting the A’s in school that her parents expect.  But she misses A-má and wants to figure out a way for her grandmother to celebrate her 70th birthday with the family.  When Cici learns of a kids’ cooking contest with a grand prize of $1,000, she thinks she’s found the solution.  A-má has taught Cici a lot about Taiwanese cooking and Cici is sure she can win.  On the first day, she’s paired up with Miranda, an expert chef whose family owns a restaurant, but whose aspirations lie elsewhere.  While Cici’s dad thinks cooking is just a hobby and academic achievement is the most important thing, Miranda’s dad believes her cooking should take precedence over everything else.  Both girls have plenty to learn about the culinary arts, each other, and themselves as they make their way through the rounds of the contest to find out who will be the top chef.  208 pages; grades 3-6. 

Pros:  Part immigrant story, part friendship story, part cooking reality show, this graphic novel is sure to please a wide variety of readers.

Cons:  Cici’s transition to American life seemed a bit unrealistically easy.

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If You Come to Earth by Sophie Blackall

Published by Chronicle Books

If You Come to Earth: Blackall, Sophie: 9781452137797: Books
If You Come to Earth: Blackall, Sophie: 9781452137797: Books

Summary:  Inspired by her international travels, Sophie Blackall set out to create a book that she could share with kids around the globe.  It’s written as a letter to an alien: “Dear Visitor from Outer Space, If you come to Earth, here’s what you need to know.”  The writer then launches into descriptions of many different aspects of Earth and its inhabitants: the land, the sea, countries and cities, animals, and people: what they wear, what they eat, jobs they do, the differences between kids and adults.  He concludes: “There are lots of things we don’t know. We don’t know where we were before we were born or where we go when we die. But right this minute, we are here together on this beautiful planet. If you come to Earth, you can stay in my room. Love, Quinn.”  Includes an author’s note, telling about the inspiration for the book and the real-life kids who are pictured in it, including Quinn. 80 pages; ages 4-9.

Pros:  Can Sophie Blackall win a third Caldecott medal in five years?  I loved everything about this book, and think kids will enjoy poring over the pages looking at all the details on each spread.

Cons:  At 80 pages, and with the aforementioned detailed pages begging for extra time, this could be tough to do as a read-aloud. 

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Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros

Published by Quill Tree Books

Efrén Divided: Cisneros, Ernesto: 9780062881687: Books

Summary:  Efrén calls his mom Soperwoman, both because of the delicious sopes she makes for him and his 5-year-old twin brother and sister, and because of all the ways she makes his family’s life work.  Amá and Apá both work long hours to afford the one-room apartment the family shares, but Efrén and his siblings always go to school with neatly pressed clothing and homemade lunches.  But one day Amá doesn’t come home from work, and the family learns she has been deported to Mexico.  Suddenly 12-year-old Efrén must take care of everything at home while Apá works round the clock to try to bring Amá home.  Since Apá is also undocumented, it falls to Efrén to cross the border into Tijuana to give Amá the money she needs.  His trip there reveals both the desperate conditions of the people living there and the near-impossiblity of Amá making it back to the U.S.  There’s not a fairy-tale ending for Efrén and his family, but he discovers he has some of his parents’ strength and becomes determined to speak out about their situation.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  I love the cover of this book, yet I still hope that future editions will have part of it obscured by a number of medal stickers, including the Newbery and Pura Belpré.  Efrén’s voice is honest, his family’s resilience is inspiring, and many readers will learn about a desperate situation all too familiar to a large number of American kids.    

Cons:  A quick review of the contemporary middle grade novels I’ve reviewed this year reveals kids dealing with the following issues: homelessness (2); bullying (2 because of homophobia, 2 because of racism, and 1 due to health issues); child abuse (2); sexual harassment (4); and parents in jail, murdered by a random shooter, and now, getting deported.  Welcome to 2020 America.

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Wild Symphony by Dan Brown, illustrated by Susan Batori

Published by Rodale Kids

Wild Symphony: Brown, Dan, Batori, Susan: 9780593123843: Books
Wild Symphony: Brown, Dan, Batori, Susan: 9780593123843: Books

Summary:  Maestro Mouse is your guide through this musical romp starring the animal kingdom.  Each page includes a poem or two about the featured animal, concluding with a sign held by Maestro Mouse offering a lesson that can be derived from the poem.  Sharp-eyed readers will also spot letters in each picture that, when put together, spell out a word.  The animals and words come together in the final gatefold page that shows all the animals playing music in an orchestra.  Includes an author’s note from Dan Brown (yes, that Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code and many other books for adults) and endpapers showing and identifying the different musical instruments.  Also includes an app that can be downloaded to listen to musical accompaniment throughout the story.  44 pages; ages 4-9.

Pros:  A fun introduction to both animals and musical instruments.  I did not download the app, but it sounds like an enjoyable way to experience the music introduced in the book.  The hidden letters and coded words will please those who like puzzles.

Cons:  Poems, a series of (didactic) lessons, musical instruments, hidden letters, word scrambles, and an app that plays music…felt like a bit too much to unpack for one picture book.

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Sugar In Milk by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Khoa Le

Published by Running Press Kids

Sugar in Milk: Umrigar, Thrity, Le, Khoa: 9780762495191: Books
Sugar in Milk: Umrigar, Thrity, Le, Khoa: 9780762495191: Books

Summary:  Sent to America to live with her aunt and uncle, the narrator is struggling to adjust to her new life, missing her family and friends back home.  One day her aunt takes her on a walk and tells a story from ancient Persia about a group of people forced to leave their home.  They arrive by boat in India, ragged and exhausted, only to be told by the king that they can’t stay.  His land is too crowded, and there is no room for these strangers who don’t speak his language.  He fills a cup to the brim with milk to demonstrate this.  One of the refugees takes some sugar from his pack and adds it to the milk.  The milk has become sweeter without causing the cup to overflow; the king understands the message that in the same way the Persians will bring happiness to his country, and he welcomes them.  The girl learns from her aunt’s story, and begins to see the beauty in her new country, carrying a packet of sugar to remind her to bring sweetness wherever she goes.  48 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  With spare prose and gorgeous illustrations, this book delivers its message about immigration without preaching.  It’s also a great example of the timelessness of folklore and how ancient stories can still be relevant today.

Cons:  I would have liked some additional information about the history of the folktale.

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