Summary: Shira gets pushed by her friend Cassie into auditioning for her middle school’s production of The Music Man, and she’s not sure she wants the role she gets: Jacey Squires, a member of the barbershop quartet. No one is surprised when eighth-grade diva Monica gets the part of Marian the Librarian, but it comes as a shock when Shira is asked to be her understudy. Cassie has been Shira’s only friend for the last couple of years, but as the play gets underway, her confidence slowly increases and she finds herself with some new friends…and a crush or two. There’s plenty of drama outside the play itself, and a surprise or two in the final production, all of which leads to a heartfelt and satisfying conclusion. 288 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Middle school musical fans get two excellent new books this year: The Chance to Fly and now Upstaged. This one has a much more low-key cast of characters who are all dealing with some insecurities that many middle school kids will relate to. There’s plenty of humor, too, and the middle school boys especially rang true for me.
Cons: It would have been nice to give Monica and Ms. Channing, the ditzy director, a little more substance.
Summary: Growing up in Victorian England, Marianne North was never encouraged in her passions for art and botany. Self-taught in both, she stayed home and cared for her “irritable, demanding” father until his death when she was 40. When an elderly widow invited her to be a traveling companion to North America, Marianne jumped at the chance. This trip led her to Jamaica and the tropics she had long dreamed of seeing. She eventually circumnavigated the world several times, seeking out exotic plant species that she could paint. When her paintings crowded her London flat, she arranged to have a gallery built for them as part of the Royal Botanic Gardens. The Marianne North Gallery opened in 1882 with 627 paintings on display. She spent the last few years of her life at home in the English countryside, gardening, painting, and writing her memoirs before her death in 1890 at the age of 59. Includes additional information on her legacy and writings, as well as sources and a who’s who of people Marianne encountered throughout her life. 44 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: This fascinating account of a woman who defied social expectations to lead an adventurous life makes for an inspiring read. Her single-minded passions, preference for being alone, and discomfort with social situations made me wonder if she was neurodivergent. The brilliant illustrations capture the spirit of North’s work, and make sure to check out the endpapers for reproductions of some of her paintings (identified in the back matter).
Summary: Levon Biss is a photographer whose work was mostly focused on celebrities and political leaders until the day his son Sebastian brought a beetle into the kitchen. When the two of them looked at it under a microscope, Levon was captivated by the beauty and complexity of the insect. Since then, he’s created amazing photos of all kinds of creatures, taking thousands of photos of each one, then piecing them together on his computer. This book includes 16 insects, with the photos as the main attraction, but also including some information about where each one lives, its size, a description, and a few facts. Includes a glossary. 40 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: Anyone with the slightest interest in insects will be amazed by these photos and enriched by the information; anyone without that interest may be surprised to find out how beautiful and complex insects can be.
Cons: The author has a note at the end that begins, “Normally an author wouldn’t send his or her readers to the Internet. Not when there are shelves and shelves stacked with wonderful printed books….” It’s okay, here in the 21st century, it is actually okay to unapologetically send readers to the Internet.
Summary: Eli misses his dad, who’s been working long days for the last week and a half. He wants to help, but his parents tell him school is the place for him. Now that the family is free, Eli’s parents want him to get all the education he can. Finally, on day 10, he’s allowed to go paint the fence surrounding the new cemetery where Union prisoners of war are buried. The next morning, everyone dresses in their best clothes, arms full of flowers, to march together in honor of those dead soldiers. The children lead the way to the cemetery, where everyone decorates the graves with the flowers. They spend the rest of the day listening to speeches, praying, and celebrating their hard-won freedom. Includes an author’s note, additional information on the origins of Decoration Day, a timeline, two photos; notes, and a bibliography. 48 pages; grades 2-6.
Pros: A fascinating look at an early (maybe the earliest; the history is unclear) celebration of Decoration Day, the holiday that eventually became Memorial Day. Coretta Scott King Award winner Floyd Cooper has captured the day magnificently, and the text, combined with the extensive back matter, will give kids a new perspective on the day.
Cons: There was a of information covered for a picture book. If you’re doing this as a Memorial Day read-aloud, plan on spending some time…I had to go back for a second read to get it all.
Summary: El Toro has a big match coming up, wrestling The Wall. His trainer, Kooky Dooky, has lots of ideas about how to get him ready, but first he must get El Toro out of bed. This proves challenging, as El Toro doesn’t want to eat breakfast, stretch, or go for a jog…he just wants to sleep. Finally, though, he is ready for action and, cheered on by his fans, he zips through every challenge Kooky Dooky puts before him. When it’s time for the big match, El Toro defeats The Wall with one big “Pow!”. 56 page; ages 4-8.
Pros: Raúl the Third brings the fun of his ¡Vamos! books to this new early reader series that is sure to be a hit. There are many Spanish translations of English words and phrases in the text, with the Spanish in a purple font to make it readily distinguishable. Book 2 (Tag Team) was published simultaneously. Let’s hope this is just the beginning.
Cons: After all that training, I wish the wrestling match had been longer than a single page.
Summary: The life cycle of the honey bee is given a whole new twist in this graphic novel that follows the life of a Nyuki (Swahili for bee) from her early days as a pupa until her death at the base of a flower. She is mentored by her older sister Dvorah, who tries to hold back Nyuki’s early urges to explore. A premature sojourn from the hive results in some close calls with a praying mantis and a spider, and Nyuki returns home vowing to never leave again. Now Dvorah has to find a way to lure her out, and her success is bittersweet. As Nyuki grows older, she becomes a beloved member of the hive and ends up in the role of mentor herself, helping out a younger bee named Melissa. Nearing the end of her life, Nyuki goes for one last flight and finds an unusual way to ensure that she will return to the hive after her death. Includes labeled diagrams of the honeybee; ten pages of chapter-by-chapter annotations; and a list of references. 160 pages; grades 4-8.
Pros: The graphic nonfiction just keeps on getting better and better. Written and illustrated by a biology professor, this one manages to tell a fascinating story, creating interesting insect and flower characters, and also to impart a wealth of information. With the extensive back matter, this could easily be used as a high school or even a college text, yet is engaging and understandable enough for older elementary kids.
Cons: This is actually a revised edition of the author’s earlier book Clan Apis, so it feels like a little bit of a stretch to call it a new book in 2021.
Summary: Toasty is a piece of bread who dreams of being a dog. He can see there are differences–he doesn’t have fur, he has two arms and two legs, and he sleeps in a toaster–but he’s sure he can overcome these. He can bark like a dog, so he confidently decides to head out to the dog park. When he tries to play with the other dogs, they see him as a tasty snack to chase, and Toasty is forced to hide in a sandwich. Just as a girl is about to eat him, he starts barking. The girl is delighted: she’s always wanted a dog, but is allergic. The two become fast friends, and the final page shows them snuggling down to sleep. 32 pages; ages 3-8.
Pros: Quirky? You bet, but strangely sweet as well. Kudos to Sarah Hwang for creating illustrations of a slice of bread that is as endearing as a puppy.
Summary: Lilla is known as the quiet one in her trio of her, Vivi, and Knox. But it’s getting harder for her to keep quiet about all the changes going on in her life: her parents’ divorce, their pressure for her to try for a magnet school that doesn’t feel like the right choice, and a possible crush on Knox. When she gets chosen for a position as a junior camp counselor instead of Vivi, life gets even more complicated. Then she’s involved in a sexual harassment issue with one of the senior counselors, and she realizes she can no longer keep quiet. Encouraged and supported by her friends, Lilla begins to find the courage to figure out what’s right for her and to speak up, even when she’s afraid of the consequences. 240 pages; grades 5-8/
Pros: I found this book hard to put down; I could so relate to Lilla’s struggles to speak up for herself…still working on that myself even though it’s been a long time since I was Lilla’s age. Her confusion around sexism and harassment felt very real as well, and this is undoubtedly a book many middle school girls will relate to and find helpful.
Cons: There were a lot of topics being tackled in 240 pages, and it felt a little rushed to get them all resolved before the end.
Summary: When everyone had to stay home, wondering what would happen next, they looked out their windows at the empty city. It wasn’t quite empty, though; there were still some people out in the streets keeping the city going. Delivery people, trash collectors, construction workers, medical personnel, transit workers: they all continued to show up for work even when the rest of us stayed home. The story ends with neighbors who gathered at their windows, balconies, and roofs to cheer, play instruments, and bang on pots and pans, acknowledging that they are still part of the city and saying thank you to those who are keeping it going. Includes an author’s note. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Another picture book inspired by the Covid pandemic, this one celebrates the essential workers who didn’t get to stay home when everyone else did. The bouncy almost-rhyming text makes a nice complement to award-winning Illustrator Brian Floca’s lifelike drawings of vehicles and the people who operate them.
Cons: Although I think it’s important to have books that commemorate the past year, I do wonder how they’re going to stand the test of time.
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Summary: Fred enjoys running around the house without any clothes on, but when he gets to his parents’ room, he decides to explore. He considers both dad’s and mom’s clothes, then decides that mom’s are more to his liking. He puts some on, then decides to check out her jewelry and makeup. He’s just had a little lipstick mishap when in walk Mom and Dad. A wordless page shows them all looking at each other; the next wordless page has them all smiling. Then the three of them (and the dog) get to work decorating themselves, and pose at the end for what looks like a photo with the caption “Now Fred is dressed.” The final page shows him running away, his dress revealing his backside and the one garment he has failed to put on. 48 pages; ages 3-8.
Pros: A fun celebration of individuality which makes its point about gender clothing choices without hitting the reader over the head with it. As soon as I saw the first page I thought of Peter Brown’s Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, and indeed, there were some parallels, with clothing representing the tension between doing what society expects and following your heart.
Cons: Those writing the one-star reviews on Amazon might want to go go back and reread Mr. Tiger Goes Wild.