Summary: Many of us have heard that Isaac Newton developed the theory of gravitation after watching an apple fall off of a tree. Newton is the star of that story, but what about the tree? Believe it or not, it still stands outside of Woolsthorpe Manor, Isaac’s home in Lincolnshire England, and has been visited by such scientific superstars as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. A sliver of it traveled aboard the International Space Station and was released into space. A piece was used on a carriage handcrafted for Queen Elizabeth II. And offspring from its seeds have been planted around the world. It all started with one apple seed, and, the book concludes, you too contain the potential to change the world. Includes additional information about the gravity tree, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking; a timeline of Newton’s life; and a bibliography. 40 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: 2021 does seem to be the year of the tree: counting trees, wise trees, historical trees, and now a tree that has inspired famous scientists. It’s a fun and fresh way to introduce kids to the works of Newton, Einstein, and Hawking, while using the metaphor of a seed to inspire them to think about their own potential. The back matter makes it a great book for older elementary kids.
Cons: Turns out the apple didn’t hit Newton on the head which takes away a bit of the drama from the story.
Summary: Jo is facing a lonely summer with her father working away from home much of the time and not a lot of friends. One dull morning, she sees a dog walk by with a basket in his mouth, she follows him and discovers he’s been trained to shop, going to different stores with a list and cash in his basket. Some kids taking an art class at a bookstore see Jo and assume the dog belongs to her. They all fall in love with him and want to paint him. Jo, enjoying the company of other kids, plays along, and promises to bring “her” dog back the following Saturday. The lie seems harmless enough, but when a curmudgeonly old man goes after the dog (now called Pawcasso) for breaking the leash law, the whole town becomes divided into two camps: the Picassos and the Duchamps. Jo wants to tell the truth, but will her honesty cause her to lose Pawcasso and all of her new friends? Includes a recipe for ice cream that can be enjoyed by both dogs and humans. 240 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: I try not to indiscriminately toss around the word “adorable”, but that is the only word for Pawcasso and his friends. Elementary kids are going to love this graphic novel, which not only features an amazing and loveable dog, but also includes some well-delivered messages about families and forgiveness.
Cons: Jo’s twin baby brothers had disturbingly huge eyes.
Summary: Cora and Quinn used to be best friends. On November 11, almost a year ago, Quinn’s brother Parker went to school with a gun and killed four people, including Cora’s older sister Mabel and himself. The two girls haven’t spoken since, but as the new school year begins, Quinn needs to talk to Cora. She’s been researching time travel, and has some ideas for finding a wormhole that can take them back in time to save their siblings. Cora has the scientific curiosity and perseverance Quinn needs to make her idea a reality, so she reaches out with an unusual gift for Cora’s twelfth birthday. Cora is intrigued, but both girls are so weighted down with grief, anger, guilt, and regrets that it’s difficult for them to reconnect. Slowly, as the days count down to the anniversary of the shooting, they start to put pieces together and to believe that, just maybe, they can change the past and create a different present. Includes an author’s note about how her fear and frustration around gun violence led to this book. 288 pages; grades 5-8.
Pros: This beautifully written, heartbreaking book told in the alternating voices of Cora and Quinn, may get more Newbery recognition for Jasmine Warga. Cora’s dad’s explanation near the end of the book of how he applies Newton’s laws of motion to grief was one of the best lessons about loss I have ever read.
Cons: The subject matter definitely makes this a difficult story to read.
Summary: “The night wished it was quieter. The bag wished it was deeper. The light wished it was brighter.” The story of a family’s escape from their home in an open sailboat is told with spare text and illustrations, showing them saying goodbye to loved ones, walking a long road with three small children, and traveling by boat on a stormy sea until they are finally picked up by a larger ship and see their destination ahead. “I didn’t have to wish anymore,” concludes the story, switching into the first-person voice of the young girl narrator. Includes notes from the artist and the author, telling of her family’s escape from Vietnam in the 1980’s and tying it into the story of present-day refugees. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: It’s amazing how much of a story can be told in just a few brief sentences, accompanied by the lush, detailed illustrations, which should not escape the attention of the Caldecott committee. The back matter fills in details and invites readers to think more deeply about how they can help new refugees.
Cons: It’s hard to know what age to recommend this book for. It looks like a 4-8 picture book, but I think older kids would benefit from it and understand it on a deeper level.
Summary: Lili is thrilled when Nai Nai (her grandmother) invites her to help with baos, dumplings made with dough, filled with a spicy pork filling, and steamed in a basket lined with cabbage leaves. When they go to steam them, though, Nai Nai discovers she’s out of cabbage. She sends Lili to Babcia’s fifth floor apartment to borrow some. Babcia has a head of cabbage, but needs potatoes for her pierogies, and sends her to Granma’s on the second floor. And so it goes, as grandmothers throughout the apartment building need different ingredients to make their versions of dumplings. Finally, Lili is able to return to Nai Nai’s, where they finish their bao. They join all the others in the courtyard for a dumpling feast, which turns into a welcome-home party for Lili’s new baby brother…another dumpling treasure. Includes a recipe for baos and pictures of all the other dumplings on the endpapers. 48 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: This mouth-watering picture book may inspire young cooks to try bao and some of the other yummy foods mentioned in the story. The party and new baby brother make a perfect ending.
Cons: I would have liked more information for the other dumplings, especially their countries/cultures of origin.
Summary: Using two fictional ad campaigns, one for a new bubble gum and one for a recycling service, the author takes readers through the steps of how products and services are marketed and advertised (which, I learned, are not the same thing). From traditional ads to social media, kids will learn the various insidious methods companies use to get their loyalty…and their dollars. There’s a chapter about digital footprints, tracking, and privacy, which at this point seems like kind of a lost cause, but is still good to be aware of. Includes a glossary, bibliography, and index. 64 pages; grades 4-8.
Pros: This would be a great text to use for a media literacy class. The writing and cartoon-style illustrations are engaging, with plenty fascinating facts and information that kids will recognize from their everyday lives.
Cons: While the fiction advertising campaigns worked well to teach about different aspects of marketing, it would have been nice to have some real-world examples as well.
Summary: Marisol’s active imagination helps her to enjoy silent movies, name inanimate objects (like Buster Keaton, the refrigerator), and make up stories about her collection of stuffed cats. But it also means she can imagine falling out of Peppina, the huge magnolia tree in the backyard that she longs to climb like her best friend Jada does. Marisol has other fears, like mean girl Evie Smythe and Daggers, the dog she has to pass on her bike ride. But at one point Marisol was too afraid to even ride a bike, and her dad stayed with her until she learned. By the end of the story, with plenty of parental and best friend support, Marisol has made it to the top of Peppina. 160 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: This is one of those rare gems, like Billy Miller or Stella Diaz: an illustrated chapter book, clearly written for elementary kids, that beautifully portrays the challenges ordinary kids face to get through the day. Marisol is an introspective, imaginative girl, and many readers will relate to her fears, and how she slowly but steadily works to overcome them. I’m always rooting for books like this, geared to younger readers, to get some Newbery love.
Cons: Kids raised on a diet of Dog Man and Scholastic Branches books may need a little help getting into a less frenetic book like this one.
Summary: When Nurah’s father announces he has taken a new job and is moving the family from Karachi, Pakistan to Peachtree City, Georgia, Nurah is heartbroken to leave her best friend and her grandparents. At her new school in Georgia, all she wants to do is blend in, but eating lunch by herself under a stairwell is lonely. Joining the swim team leads to a new friendship that changes Nurah’s feelings about school, and she’s motivated to work hard to become a champion swimmer like her older brother, Owais. When Owais is the target of a bullying incident at the pool that turns violent, and her father is questioned by the FBI following a terrorist incident, Nurah learns some difficult truths about being Muslim in America. But she also learns to help her brother overcome his trauma to get back in the pool and to be true to herself and her heritage. Includes an author’s note tying her personal experiences to the story; a glossary, and a recipe for aloo kabab. 352 pages grades 3-7.
Pros: A beautiful novel in verse that delves into many different issues, not only with Nurah and her family, but with her new friend Stahr, who has an abusive father. While not every reader has had Nurah’s experience of moving to an unfamiliar new country, many will relate to her wish to blend in while at the same time learning to appreciate her unique qualities.
Cons: I appreciate the brevity and economy of words of a novel in verse, but it’s also a format that makes it difficult to explore in depth the many topics (immigration, bullying, racial profiling, miscarriage, domestic abuse, etc.) that were included in this story.
Summary: The text of this book consists of questions to America: “Do you love me when I raise my hand? My head? My voice? When I whisper? When I SHOUT? Do you love my black? Do you love my brown?” Spanish and Creole words are interspersed throughout the text. Includes an author’s note, describing her childhood growing up as one of the few Black kids in her class and with a Louisiana Creole background that sometimes made her feel on the outside of things. There’s also information on Louisiana Creole and Spanish, and photos of the author with her two grandmothers who spoke both languages; the Pledge of Allegiance is written on both endpapers. 40 pages; ages 4 and up.
Pros: A thought-provoking read as we move toward the flag-waving patriotism of Independence Day, asking questions about what the American experience is like for all of its inhabitants.
Cons: The affectionate title felt a little dissonant from the rest of the book.
Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Summary: When Sonali’s parents announce that they are separating, Sonali acts like everything is fine. Years ago, she tried to find a way to help her parents stop fighting, and the message she got was to never share problems or feelings outside of the immediate family. The morning after her parents’ announcement, Sonali wakes up to find that her life has taken on some aspects of a Bollywood movie. Huge posters of her are hanging in her bedroom and a soundtrack plays wherever she goes. When she unexpectedly–and uncontrollably–breaks into a song and dance at a field trip, Sonali knows she has to fix the problem–fast. Clearly there is magic at work, but try as she might, Sonali can’t figure out how to break the spell. Everything in her life seems to be falling apart, and slowly, Sonali realizes that the answer lies in showing her true feelings–if she can find the courage to do so. 352 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: The story takes the serious themes of dealing with divorce and the importance of expressing your emotions and adds a fun twist of Bollywood magic. Having never seen a Bollywood film, I had to take a break partway through the book to head over to YouTube and see what the singing and dancing was all about. Other aspects of Indian culture will surely resonate with Indian-American readers, and there’s a bit of Indian and Pakistani history worked into the story as well.
Cons: It seemed like it took Sonali a painfully long time to realize that she needed to express her feelings in order to get the magic to end.