Summary: Bug’s house has always shown signs of being haunted, and when Uncle Roderick passes away, it seems as though there is one more ghost, this one with a message for Bug. Bug is also struggling with the idea of starting middle school with an identity that never feels quite right. Moira, Bug’s best friend, is suddenly interested in clothes, makeup, and new friends, but none of that feels right to Bug. Possibly guided by the spirit of Uncle Roderick, Bug makes a surprising discovery–he is a transgender boy. It seems as though Uncle Roderick suspected that this might be the case and has guided Bug to learn his true identity so he can start middle school as himself, taking on Uncle Roderick’s middle name, Thomas, for his own. 192 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: I reviewed Alex Gino’s George (now called Melissa’s Story) back in 2015, and I believe that’s the last time I’ve read a middle grade novel with a transgender main character. So it’s an understatement to say the need is there, and Kyle Luyken has done a beautiful job with this story that will be embraced by any kid struggling with identity. It’s also a bit of a spooky ghost story, which is always fun, and which adds an interesting dimension to Bug’s slow realization of who he is. Currently #16 on the Goodreads Newbery list.
Cons: I was hoping for at least one middle school girl character who wasn’t interested in clothes, makeup, and hairstyles.
Summary: A couple tells their child the many different meanings of saying Black Lives Matter. It can be whispered, screamed, sung, or sobbed to celebrate the lives of Black people, to remember what was done to them in the past, and to protest wrongs still being done to them. The rhyming text highlights words with different fonts and shapes. The illustrations show the baby growing up until the last page, “We see you, Black-child-magic, your radiant Black shine/We hear your Black Lives Matter, and we know we’ll be all right,” shows him in a cap and gown holding a diploma triumphantly in the air. 32 pages; grades 1-4.
Pros: The many different facets of the Black Lives Matter movement are addressed here with beautiful watercolor pencil and collage illustrations filled with colors and shapes. The rhyming text flows smoothly and is well-integrated into the illustrations.
Cons: I’d love to see this considered for the Coretta Scott King Award, but the author is Australian, so I don’t think that it qualifies.
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Summary: Bob is a lazy–but hungry–alligator who hopes that birds will fly into his mouth when he calls to them. When that plan fails, he notices how much birds like birdseed, and decides to open a seed restaurant on his nose. Chez Bob attracts its first customer the very next day. The bird promises to tell all its friends, so Bob decides not to eat it. Pretty soon, Chez Bob is super popular, and Bob finds himself enjoying the community with a book club, a basketball team (he’s the coach), and a sunset cruise. When a storm comes up, Bob invites his new friends to take shelter in his mouth. He can hear them laughing, playing, and cleaning his teeth. It’s official: these birds have gone from “the birds he was going to eat” to “the birds he was absolutely, without a doubt, definitely not going to eat.” 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Bob Shea (who, according to the back flap, insists that the book’s title has nothing to do with his first and last names) has created another goofy book which, like Who Wet My Pants? is also an unexpectedly sweet friendship story. The cover is sure to catch the eye of young readers and they won’t be the least disappointed by what’s inside.
Cons: It’s not clear what Bob will be eating once he befriends the birds.
Summary: This short chapter book is part of the series inspired by Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted books. Persistence is definitely a theme, as the story follows Florence from her childhood, growing up in a large family to college, to her struggles to pay her way through college, to her determination to become the world’s fastest woman. Despite challenges and setbacks, she finally emerged victorious in the 1988 Summer Olympics, where she won three gold medals and one silver. She was also well-known for her distinctive fashion designs that she wore on the track. Sadly, the book ends with Flo-Jo’s death in 1998 at the age of 38 from an epileptic seizure in her sleep. Includes a list of 8 ways you can persist and references. 80 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: Normally, I’m not a fan of celebrity-authored children’s literature, so I’ve pretty much steered clear of Chelsea Clinton’s books. But when I saw the award-winning authors writing these biographies, I finally broke down and read one. It’s very well done, with plenty of information for both research and inspiration. The length and illustrations make it an accessible choice for younger elementary kids, and I plan to add many of these books to my library.
Cons: I’m not sure I knew about Florence Griffith Joyner’s death, but if I did I had forgotten and was shocked when I got to that part of the book.
Summary: It’s 1885, and 13-year-old Mei is working as an assistant cook, helping her father in a logging camp in the Sierra Nevadas. The stories she makes up about Auntie Po, a larger-than-life character inspired by Paul Bunyan, entertain the other kids and help her to celebrate her Chinese heritage. Prejudice against her father and other Chinese workers leads to their dismissal and Mei’s anger at her helplessness. When the White workers strike to protest their bad food, the boss is forced to hire back Mei’s father. The two men are friends, as are the boss’s daughter and Mei (who sometimes dreams of something more than a friendship), but Mei and her father frequently have to remind the White man and his daughter of the privileges they have that the Chinese don’t. A tragedy forces Mei to question her belief in Auntie Po, but eventually brings about a chain of events that give her and her father hope for a brighter future. Includes an author’s note and bibliography. 304 pages; grades 5-9.
Pros: It’s not often that I’m actually reading a book when it’s announced as a National Book Award finalist (okay, that has never happened to me before and probably never will again). There’s so much here: historical fiction, folklore, explorations of racism and privilege, coming of age, LGBTQ issues…plus a great story with outstanding artwork. I’m guessing this will be considered for a Newbery or maybe a Printz award. It would definitely have appeal for either age group.
Cons: There are a lot of characters and storylines to keep track of, and I felt like I missed some of the subtleties in my first reading.
Summary: A boy and his father take a Saturday morning trip over the border to Mexico, something that is obviously a familiar routine for them. As they approach the bridge, Dad reminds him that the land once belonged to the Coahuiltecans before it became two countries. They enjoy coffee and hot chocolate in a restaurant, then head out for their errands, visiting relatives and shopping for friends. When it’s time to go back home, they have one more stop to make part way across the bridge. It’s lined with people camping there, refugees from the Caribbean and Central America who can’t get into either Mexico or the U.S. The boy and his father distribute much of what they’ve bought that day to the people on the bridge: food, medicine, comics. “All the way home I imagine a wonderful day, when all my friends from the Other Side can go back and forth between my two border towns, just like me.” 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: An uplifting but realistic look at the life of an American boy who still has close ties to his Mexican heritage–and who is being taught empathy and compassion as he and his dad consider the plight of their friends waiting to gain admittance to one country or another.
Cons: A little back matter with additional information about the border and/or refugees would have been a nice addition.
Summary: In this follow-up to One Last Word, Nikki Grimes focuses on the women poets of the Harlem Renaissance. The book begins with an introduction to the history of the period and to the poetry form Grimes uses called The Golden Shovel, in which she uses the poems of others to inspire her own poetry. The poems are presented in three sections: “Heritage”, “Earth Mother”, and “Taking Notice”. They’re bookended with poems in the voice of a middle school girl, skeptical when her teacher hands her books on the women of the Harlem Renaissance, then empowered after she reads them. Includes biographical information about the poets and the illustrators, sources, and an index. 144 pages; grades 5-9.
Pros: Like One Last Word, this book is an amazing resource for learning about poets of the Harlem Renaissance, in this case women who have pretty much been forgotten. The Golden Shovel seems incredibly difficult, but Nikki Grimes proves herself a master of the form. The artwork by so many different illustrators perfectly illuminates the poems.
Cons: How did One Last Word not win any Coretta Scott King recognition? I’m rooting for this book to remedy that.
Summary: Sixth-grader Hugo is dismayed about his father’s decision to quit his corporate job and move the family to become a ski instructor. Hugo, small for his age, has finally found friends and doesn’t relish the idea of having to start all over again at a new school. Sure enough, a boy named Chance seems to delight in bullying Hugo about his size. Fortunately, Hugo’s cool cousin Vijay goes to his new school, and introduces Hugo to his surprisingly uncool but interesting friends. The group is working on a new school newspaper (or newsletter, since it’s only a single sheet of paper), and Hugo gets drawn into this activity. When he shows a talent for interpreting people’s trash to get insights into their personalities, he finds himself with a certain middle school celebrity status. But superpowers must be used for good, and when Hugo uses his to get back at Chance, he finds himself in big trouble with both his family and his new friends. 240 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: Familiar middle school concerns of bullying, family tensions, and starting a new school are all explored here with a cast of engaging characters. From the eye-catching cover to the satisfying conclusion, this book is sure to appeal to a wide range of readers.
Cons: Hugh’s trashy grand finale felt a little anticlimactic.
Summary: In this companion to Green and Blue, Laura Vaccaro Seeger creates the story of a lost fox told with the color red: “Dark red/light red/lost red/bright red” takes the fox from traveling through a forest to sleeping in a field to getting caught in the headlights of a blue pickup at a railroad crossing. Die-cut pages give a glimpse of the red on the next page, as the fox discovers more man-made barriers. Rusty nails cut its paws, a chain link fence and brick wall block its path, and finally a raw steak lures it into a trap. A neighbor girl finds the trap and frees the fox, who finds its way back to its family. “Just red” shows an adult fox and a kit happily nuzzling one another. Includes an author’s note. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Caldecott honoree Laura Seeger works her magic again, perfectly portraying a range of strong emotions through color, illustrations, and a few words. Be sure to read the author’s note which links the human characters in all three of her books, and places this book in the context of our political times. A Caldecott consideration for sure.
Summary: A subway train that is part of the Seoul network (one of the longest in the world) tells the story of its travels. At each stop, a new person gets on and tells a bit about their life. There’s a grandmother taking fish to cook for her daughter and granddaughter, a shoemaker who can tell about people’s lives from studying their shoes, an overwhelmed high school student, an unemployed 29-year-old man, and more. As each one boards, the narration switches to their voice, and a two-page spread gives us a bit of their story. The voice of the subway closes the book: ‘The unique lives of strangers you might never meet again are all around you, every time you take the train.” 52 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: At first glance, this might look like a book for someone who likes trains, and it is that, but it’s also an invitation to slow down and notice the people all around you and to contemplate what kind of life each one of them might be living. The watercolor portraits are beautiful renditions of the different people, and the poetic language could be used as a mentor text for narrative writing. I was kind of blown away by all that’s contained in this one picture book.
Cons: The narrative structure of this book is different from most, with six pages of text before the title page and so many different voices, that it might be difficult for younger kids to understand all that is going on without some extra help.