Published by Candlewick
Summary: In this wordless picture book, a girl and her grandparent run Lowell’s General Store. Over their shop is an apartment. When the grandparent puts an “Apartment for Rent” sign in the window, a number of prospective tenants take a look, but are put off by dirty walls, cracked tiles, broken cabinets, and old furniture. Finally, a friendly couple rents the place, immediately rolling up their sleeves to clean and fix it up. Not only that, but they help out with the store, becoming friends with the owner and the girl. The girl lures a stray cat up to the apartment to become a pet. By the end, there’s a new sign on the store: “Lowell & Friends General Store”, accompanied by a rainbow flag. 48 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: The author of Sidewalk Flowers has created another beautiful wordless story that celebrates community and friendship in the midst of an impoverished neighborhood. The dedication, “For trans activists of all ages”, the rainbow flag, and several possibly transgender or nonbinary characters make this an outstanding addition to LGBTQ+ collections as well.
Cons: A review I read mentioned a rainbow belt and hat in the illustrations as well, but I have yet to discover them. This isn’t a con, but the illustrations are so richly detailed that readers will want to go back over and over again to discover all the details.
Published by Enchanted Lion Books
Summary: Snoozie is a cat who likes to, well, snooze, and Sunny is her playful dog friend. On a walk one day, they discover So-So, a small black dog whose only friend has gone “to the other side of the world”. So-So is extremely timid, but the other two entice her to play with them and invite her to Snoozie’s birthday party the next day. So-So is apprehensive about going, but when Sunny comes to pick her up, she has no choice. The party turns out to be great fun, and So-So gives Snoozie a birthday poem she wrote to celebrate their new friendship. 40 pages; grades K-3.
Pros: Written by Israeli poet Dafna Ben-Zvi, this early chapter book is sure to enchant readers with both the story and the charming illustrations. Despite its brevity, the story doesn’t talk down to kids, and anyone who has experienced social anxiety or been grateful for a new friendship is sure to appreciate it.
Cons: After reading the book, I realized it was originally published in 2016, with the English language version released in December 2020. So it doesn’t meet my usually strict criteria of being published in the current year; I was so charmed by the story, though, that I am making an exception.
Published by Beach Lane Books
Summary: When Frieda Caplan started working at the Seventh Street Produce Market, she saw piles of bananas, potatoes, apples, and tomatoes. Hoping to introduce a bit more variety, she started selling mushrooms. It took some convincing, but before long people began to buy them. Frieda went on to start her own produce company, where she loved trying new fruits and vegetables. Kiwis, jicama, blood oranges…Frieda would get a funny feeling in her elbows when she tried something that she thought others would enjoy. Thanks in part to Frieda and the produce company her daughters and granddaughters now run, there are more than ten times as many varieties of fruits and vegetables in supermarkets than there were in the 1960’s. Includes an author’s note giving more information about Frieda and her company. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: The energetic writing and colorful illustrations of a great variety of fruits and vegetables capture Frieda’s enthusiasm for her work and may entice picky eaters to be a bit more adventurous.
Cons: I was hoping for a bit more information in the author’s note about the funny feeling in the elbows, but alas, there was no further explanation.
Published by Katherine Tegen Books
Summary: When a polar bear cub gets stranded on an ice floe, his anguished mother contacts the Animal Rescue Agency: the unlikely duo of Esquire Fox and her rooster partner Mr. Pepper. The two head up to the Arctic, where they are pursued by a villainous man in a white hat and barely survive a series of narrow escapes. With the help of various polar animals, they manage to outwit this man, rescuing the cub and reuniting him with his mother. Back home in Colorado, Esquire posts the man’s picture on the wall of villains, surrounded by question marks that seem to indicate there will be other villains…and other books in the series. Includes information about climate change and its threat to polar bears and a recipe for the mushroom jerky Esquire eats to curb her appetite for chickens. 176 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: Like Eliot Schrefer’s books for older readers, this one mixes humor, adventure, and information about animals and the threats humans pose to them. With plenty of illustrations, animal characters, and bantering dialog, this is sure to be a popular series with elementary readers.
Cons: Obviously, it’s for a different audience, but I missed the awesome world building of Schrefer’s The Lost Rainforest series.
Published by Viking Books for Young Readers
Summary: Squirrel is sure Trouble has arrived when a bear moves in next door. She imagines all kinds of terrible things about Trouble as she sees him working in the yard and hears noises through their shared wall. But when her beloved pet mouse Chamomile disappears, she assumes the worst, and, armed with a teapot, rushes to Trouble’s door. When she discovers them knitting and eating cookies, she realizes she has been wrong to think she’s known about Trouble. Moral: like tea and cookies, friends can be different and still bring out the best in each other. 40 pages; ages 3-7.
Pros: The illustrations do much of the storytelling here, and they are a lot of fun, delivering an important message for kids without hitting them over the head with it.
Cons: Not sure why the mouse meows.
Published by Neal Porter Books
Summary: The narrator is angry when her parents stop the car to gather watercress by the side of the road. It’s wet and muddy, and she’s afraid someone she knows will see her. Back home, she refuses to eat the watercress at dinnertime. Her mom goes to her room and gets a photo of her family in China: her as a young girl with her parents and younger brother. “During the Great Famine, we ate anything we could find, but it was still not enough.” The facing page shows the family again, only this time the younger brother is gone. The girl tries the watercress, and discovers it is “delicate and slightly bitter. Like Mom’s memories of home.” Notes from the author and illustrator explain the challenges of growing up as the child of immigrants, and how sometimes a parent’s difficult memories can make it hard for children to understand them. 32 pages; grades K-4.
Pros: Andrea Wang captures many layers of memories with her spare text, illuminated by Jason Chin’s beautiful watercolors (his illustrator’s note provides an even greater appreciation for his art). This would be an excellent mentor text for teaching narrative fiction.
Cons: Readers will have to make some inferences about what happened to the mom’s younger brother, which could be a bit challenging for younger kids.
Published by Random House Books for Young Readers
Summary: Bell, age 11, is the youngest kid in the American settlement on Mars. He enjoys his life underground, hanging out with the teenagers, working on the algae farm, and taking care of his cat, Leo. There aren’t many rules, but the few that are in place are strictly enforced. One of these is about not interacting with other countries’ settlements, even though it seems as though there were international friendships in the past. When a shipment from Earth unleashes a serious illness among the adults, it falls on the kids to try to get help from Finland, France, or one of the other countries. What they discover there surprises everyone–and leads to a healing of misunderstandings of the past. Includes a lengthy author’s note about her interest in Mars and space exploration and how she came to write this book. 272 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Jennifer Holm adds another masterpiece to her unusually diverse list of works, this one a fun science fiction story that imagines a pretty plausible settlement on Mars with a cast of loveable characters, and a few interesting plot twists. This would make a great book club selection that would appeal to a wide range of readers.
Cons: It seemed sad that anyone who settled on Mars was unable to ever return to Earth.
Published by Candlewick
Summary: “Once, out in the country, someone knew right where to build a house. Inside it smelled of sunshine and new lumber. Outside smelled of meadow grass and sky.” As the years pass, one family after another lives there, and the house learns about babies and bedtimes and birthday parties. But one day, a family leaves, and no new family moves in. The years pass, the house becomes resigned to its fate, but it still can’t help wishing. Occasionally, a family comes along to look, but decides that the house is too small or too far from the city. The house has pretty much given up hope when a new family looks at it and seems to like it. But they go away again…only to return a few days later! They “fix what needs fixing and paint what needs painting”. They appreciate the house’s history. And they start to make new memories for the house. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: This would be perfect to pair with Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House. The illustrations really capture the essence of this beautiful little house, and I was honestly on the edge of my seat wondering if a new family would ever move in.
Cons: “They fix what needs fixing and paint what needs painting.” Makes it sound so easy.
Published by Lee and Low Books
Summary: The isolation of the islands that make up Hawai’i means that they are home to plant and animal species that exist nowhere else on Earth. One of these is the Kamehameha butterfly, named for the king who united all of the islands. In 2009, a group of fifth grade students led a successful campaign to make this butterfly the state insect, hoping to bring attention to the endangered butterfly. Soon scientists from the state and the University of Hawai’i started working together to help save the Kamehameha. Citizen scientists helped collect data and photos. Since then, thousands of butterflies have been raised in captivity and released all around Hawai’i. Includes an afterword with a map and many photos; an illustrator’s note; and a list of sources. 48 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: Another excellent nonfiction book by the Sibert Medal winning team of Susan Roth and Cindy Trumbore. Kids will be inspired by the way elementary students made a real difference in helping with an environmental issue. The collage illustrations enhance the text, which includes information on the formation of the Hawaiian islands, the butterfly’s life cycle, King Kamehameha, and how the scientists carried out their project.
Cons: Even with the pronunciation guides, I struggle with how to say some of the Hawaiian words.
Published by Random House Books for Young Readers
Summary: When Pearl Harbor was “suddenly and deliberately attacked” by Japan on December 7, 1941, it seemed as though it had come with no warning. But Kate Messner shows that there were those who predicted an attack as far back as the 1920’s. The declaration of war brought out the best and worst of America, as people came together to win, but also showed cruel racism against Japanese Americans and in the segregated military. The narrative goes through Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all the way up to the 2016 visits of President Barack Obama to Hiroshima and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Pearl Harbor. Includes a timeline; author’s note; bibliography; index; and lists of books, websites, and museums to visit. 224 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: Somehow I missed this series’ debut in 2020, but I’m glad I caught up with this latest volume. The premise is to show some of the history that hasn’t always been taught, presumably because it doesn’t portray the U.S. in the best way. Filled with personal narratives, photos, and pages of comic panels in every chapter, the fast pace and human interest focus are sure to entice both history buffs and reluctant readers. Perfect for fans of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales.
Cons: The focus is mostly on the war with Japan, so the European side of World War II gets a bit of a short shrift, with the Holocaust receiving a mere four sentences.