Selena: Queen of Tejano Music by Silvia López, illustrated by Paola Escobar

Published by little bee books Selena, reina de la música tejana (9781499811438): López, Silvia,  Escobar, Paola: Books Queen of Tejano Music: Selena (9781499809770): López, Silvia,  Escobar, Paola: Books

Summary:  Growing up in Texas, Selena Quintanilla was surrounded by music from an early age.  Her father taught her older siblings to play guitar and drums, and Selena soon proved herself to be a natural performer, singing and dancing to their music.  By the time she was nine years old, they were performing regularly in her father’s restaurant.  A few years later, the restaurant went out of business and the family fell on hard times.  Touring and making music seemed like the only way to make a living.  There was a demand for Tejano music, so Selena learned Spanish to perform the popular songs.  By the time she was in her late teens, Selena was an award-winning star, loved in both Mexico and the U.S.  She also was a popular celebrity, treating both her fans and co-workers with kindness and respect.  The final page memorializes Selena as a trailblazer and role model.  Includes several pages of additional information about Selena and her music, ending with a few paragraphs about her murder at the age of 23. A Spanish-language version of this book, Selena: Reina de la Música Tejana is also available. 48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Here’s another book I’ve been anticipating for several months, as my music-loving daughter has gotten me interested in learning more about Selena.  As I imagine is true for many others, I only knew about her death, so I’m glad this book has been written to celebrate her life and legacy.  There’s a lot of text, but the story is so engaging it doesn’t feel like a lot to plow through, and the illustrations really capture Selena’s spirit.  I was even inspired to watch the official video of “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom”, which is an incredibly catchy tune.  Sadly, as the book concludes, quoting Selena biographer Joe Nick Patoski: “The debate will never cease as to what could have been.”

Cons:  This book seems to be getting recommended for the 6-9 age group, but I think older kids will appreciate it more, due to both the text-heavy story and the tragic ending.

Mr. Brown’s Bad Day by Lou Peacock, illustrated by Alison Friend

Published by Nosy Crow Mr. Brown's Bad Day (9781536214369): Peacock, Lou, Friend,  Alison: Books
MR. BROWN'S BAD DAY - My Booktopia

Summary: Mr. Brown is a Very Important Businessman who works in a Very Important Office and carries a Very Important Briefcase.  But one day, his briefcase gets taken away, and Mr. Brown has to put his very important plans on hold to chase after it.  One madcap escapade follows the next, until a bedraggled Mr. Brown finally gets his briefcase back.  What could possibly be important enough to make him go to all that trouble?  The answer may surprise you!  32 pages; ages 3-7.

Pros:  I found this book unexpectedly charming, and look forward to reading it aloud to kindergarteners or first graders.  The animals that populate Mr. Brown’s world (he himself is a tiger) are adorable, and the illustrations are bright and engaging.  The ending is both surprising and satisfying.

Cons:  Get over yourself, Mr. Brown.  No one is THAT important.

The Smartest Kid in the Universe by Chris Grabenstein

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

The Smartest Kid in the Universe: Grabenstein, Chris: 9780525647782:  Books

Summary:  Jake is your typical video-game-playing middle school slacker until he accidentally eats a jar of jelly beans…at least he thinks they’re jelly beans, but in reality they’re ingestible knowledge pills.  Suddenly, Jake knows all kinds of things that help him in every area of his life: school, basketball, and impressing his crush Grace Garcia.  Grace, Jake, and Jake’s best friend Kojo discover a plot to destroy their school as well as some buried treasure that may or may not be underneath the school building.  When they realize that evil vice principal Ms. Malvolio is after the same treasure, Jake has to use every bit of his brain power to try to beat her to the riches and save his school.  Includes several pages of brainteasers.  304 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  The author, the premise, the short chapters, the fast pace, the humor, and the eye-catching cover are all sure to appeal to reluctant and avid readers alike.  Book 2, Genius Camp, is due out in 2021.

Cons:  Nothing particularly original here, including the slacker white dude protagonist and his black sidekick (who even identifies himself as “the sidekick”).

A New Green Day by Antoinette Portis

Published by Neal Porter Books A New Green Day (9780823444885): Portis, Antoinette: Books
Antoinette Portis on A New Green Day | The TeachingBooks Blog

Summary:  “Morning lays me on your pillow,/an invitation, square and warm./Come out and play!” So begins the day for the girl shown in the book.  Turn the page and you’ll see this poem was said by the sunlight.  On the facing page is another poem.  Each spread has this format: the answer to the previous poem and another riddle.  The speakers are animals (a snail, a tadpole); things (a pebble, mud), and weather (clouds, thunder).  Day turns into night, and the final voice speaks: “I am the engine/of the summer dark./Sleep, while I thrum/in your tomorrow.”  It’s a cricket…and a green new day.  40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  This book has been on my radar for months now, and I am delighted to have finally seen it.  It’s deceptively small and simple, but, like many of Antoinette Portis’s books, makes you want to slow down and notice all the little miracles in nature.  Both the poems and the illustrations are beautifully crafted, and can be enjoyed by a wide range of ages.  Portis won a Sibert honor last year for Hey, Water!.  Maybe one of these years she will receive a well-deserved Caldecott.

Cons:  At first I thought this might be a fun book to have kids guess who was saying each poem, but I think some would be too tricky for younger kids (they were too tricky for me).

Some Dinosaurs Are Small by Charlotte Voake

Published by Candlewick

Some Dinosaurs Are Small: Voake, Charlotte, Voake, Charlotte:  9781536209365: Books

Summary:  Some dinosaurs are small and gather fruit and leaves.  Some dinosaurs are big and have sharp teeth and point claws.  They’re always thinking about their next meal and can run like the wind.  It seems like those big dinosaurs will always get the better of the small ones…but the little guy has a surprise in store at the very end.  32 pages; ages 3-6.

Pros:  Dinosaur fans will love the illustrations of different kinds of dinosaurs and small children everywhere will rejoice at the victory of the smallest dinosaur at the end.

Cons:  If you’re looking to burn up some time at story hour, this isn’t going to do it for you…it’s about a one-minute read.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

RESPECT: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul: Weatherford, Carole Boston,  Morrison, Frank: 9781534452282: Books
The Original Art 2020: The Exhibit - Society of Illustrators

Summary:  The story of Aretha Franklin’s life is told in rhyming couplets, each one titled with a word written like “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” in the title.  Starting with “B-L-E-S-S-E-D”, showing a young Aretha praying while her parents watch, the story traces her life and career from singing gospel at her church to performing at President Obama’s inauguration.  In addition to her musical career, Aretha’s civil rights work is touched upon.  The final two pages celebrate both her legacy and her humility, ending with her description of her voice as “the gift that God gave me”.  Includes an author’s note with additional information about Aretha Franklin’s life and a list of her biggest hits.  48 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  The large, colorful illustrations capture Aretha Franklin’s big personality and singing voice, starting with a gorgeous pink Cadillac on the title page. This is the third book I’ve reviewed this year illustrated by the prolific Frank Morrison, and I hope he gets some recognition at awards time.  This would make a good companion to A Voice Named Aretha.

Cons:  Those who don’t know much about Aretha Franklin’s life may struggle to make sense of the brief text unless they start with the author’s note at the end.

Once Upon a Winter Day by Liza Woodruff

Published by Margaret Ferguson Books

Once Upon a Winter Day by Liza Woodruff: 9780823440993 | Books

Summary:  Milo wants a story, but his mom is too busy.  “Why don’t you go play in the snow?” she suggests.  Grumpily, Milo heads out the door and stomps away from the house.  Under the birdfeeder, he notices tiny footprints that he deduces belong to a mouse.  Did the mouse have a story to tell? he wonders.  Turn the page for a two-page spread showing a mouse eating the bird feed that’s fallen in the snow.  Finding a feather in a tree has him imagining a flock of birds flying overhead.  Hemlock branches on the ground may have been caused by porcupines feeding in the tree.  Milo’s imagination takes off until he’s surprised to hear Mom calling him in for dinner.  When he gets inside, she offers to read him some stories after dinner, but he declines.  “This time,” he replies.  “I have stories for you.”  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A great winter story which will encourage kids to sharpen their observation skills.  Since Milo notices clues on one page, and imagines the story on the next, this would make a fun participatory read-aloud, inviting kids to guess what happened before turning the page.  The illustrations are beautiful, and the animals are pictured and identified on both sets of endpapers.

Cons:  I’m not sure a fish skeleton belongs at the dinner table.

Wild Girl: How to Have Incredible Outdoor Adventures by Helen Skelton, illustrated by Liz Kay

Published by Candlewick

Wild Girl: How to Have Incredible Outdoor Adventures: Skelton, Helen, Kay,  Liz: 9781536212860: Books

Summary:  Helen Skelton is a British TV personality who also enjoys taking on incredibly difficult outdoor challenges, usually for charity, such as kayaking the length of the Amazon River,  bicycling to the South Pole, and running three back-to-back marathons in under 24 hours in the Namibian desert.  Each chapter covers a certain type of terrain: adventures in the snow, the sand, the water, the mountains, the countryside, and the city.  Much of the chapter is taken up with an account of her own adventure, including preparation, training, gear, and the actual experience with all of its highs and lows.  At the end of each chapter, she suggests wild adventures and extremely wild adventures, with places around the world to enjoy each.  There’s also a “Wild Girl Wall of Fame” which gives short profiles of other women’s adventures in that chapter’s terrain.  144 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Although most of us won’t attempt Helen’s feats, she’s an enthusiastic storyteller who may inspire girls (and boys) to step out of their comfort zones.  She’s also modest about her accomplishments, frequently citing mistakes she made and encouraging readers to tune out the types of naysayers she experienced.  The book, with its plentiful illustrations, photos, and sidebars, is engaging and will be an easy sell to middle schoolers.

Cons:  Some of the stories (the marathons in the desert comes to mind) were so harrowing they actually made me want to be less adventurous.

Every Little Letter by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Joy Hwang Ruiz

Published by Dial Books

Every Little Letter: Underwood, Deborah, Ruiz, Joy Hwang: 9780525554028: Books
Every Little Letter by Deborah Underwood

Summary:  The letters are pretty happy living in their walled city, even though they are all H’s.  One little h, though, is a bit more adventurous.  When she finds a hole in the wall, she discovers an i, and together they make a friendly “hi”.  A big H seals up the hole, so the small h starts sending letters on paper airplanes flown over the wall.  Soon other small letters start participating, and more and more words are formed (and tic-tac-toe games become more interesting).  When the big letters put an end to things again, the h uses the two letters she has left to come up with a plan.  Finally, even the big letters start to cautiously reach out to one another.  “How do you tear down walls? With words at first. Then brick by brick.” 40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  I thought this was going to be just another alphabet book, but there’s a deeper message, focusing on appreciating others’ differences and learning to live together.  Of course, the letter part is fun, too, seeing how the letters get together to form words.  Beginning readers will enjoy exercising their new skills and will come away with a positive message as well.

Cons:  Those are some cranky uppercase letters.

Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse

Published by Random House Graphic

Witches of Brooklyn: Escabasse, Sophie: 9780593119273: Books
Witches of Brooklyn: Escabasse, Sophie: 9780593119273: Books

Summary:  When Effie is dropped off at her Aunt Selimene’s home in the middle of the night, neither one is happy about it.  But Effie has nowhere else to go, and Aunt Selimene is her only living relative.  Selimene’s partner Carlota makes Effie feel welcome, and within a few days everyone is feeling better about the situation.  Selimene and Carlota claim to be herbalists and acupuncturists, but Effie soon discovers they are actually witches.  Before long, her own magical powers emerge, although she has difficulty controlling them.  When celebrity singer Tily Shoo shows up needing the witches’ help, her #1 fan Effie gets in on the case as well.  It’s Effie who makes a key discovery that will help Tily Shoo reverse the curse that has been placed on her.  Things wrap up with a happy ending, but there’s a preview of book 2 at the end, and the author’s biography says she’s working on a trilogy.  240 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  A fun graphic novel for anyone who likes school and family stories with a touch of magic thrown in.  There’s a lot of action and many characters, but the pace is good and the characters are well-distinguished in the illustrations, making it easy to follow what’s going on.

Cons:  There’s not much told about Effie’s previous life or what happened to her mother.