Summary: It’s the first day of school for Rashin, who has recently moved to the U.S. from Iran. She tells readers about her morning, with an emphasis on shapes: the bear-shaped bottle of honey on the table, the round wheels on the cars, the unfamiliar shapes of letters in the classroom. The teacher asks her new students to tell her where they’re from and starts off the discussion by sharing that she’s from Benin, a country that is shaped like a flashlight. Other kids are from Japan, shaped like a seahorse; Italy, shaped like a boot; and India, shaped like a Hindu goddess. When it’s Rashin’s turn, she compares Iran to a cat–a Persian cat–and amuses her classmates with her cat pose. They decide the United States looks like a whale, and an illustration shows them all riding on its back. “By the end of the day,” says Rashin, “my classroom is shaped like home.” 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: A perfect combination of a first-day-of-school book and a celebration of the diversity that immigrants bring to a group. The countries are shown as the kids mention them, but you’ll want to have a world map handy to locate each one.
Cons: Come to think of it, a world map would have been a nice addition at the end of the book.
Summary: In this sequel to Ben Bee and the Teacher Griefer, Ben Y takes center stage as they deal with a brother’s death, uncertainty about gender, and a nasty vice principal who insists on enforcing a draconian dress code. Ben’s refuge is the library where the group that became friends in book 1 gets together for the official purpose of creating a student newspaper but really to play Sandbox, a Minecraft-style game invented by Ben’s brother. Ben frequently looks back on archived chats between them and their brother, and one day, their brother responds. Is it a ghost, or has someone hacked into the account? The answer proves difficult and brings up a lot of emotions, but Ben is fortunate to be surrounded by friends and family members who can offer much-needed support. 432 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: I feel like K. A. Holt should be better-known, as I have had a fair amount of success book-talking her books to middle school kids. Her novel-in-verse format, combined here with chats and the occasional drawing makes for a quick read, and many readers will sympathize with the struggles of the middle school characters.
Cons: As some interesting revelations were made about Mr. Mann, the evil assistant principal, I was hoping to see him have more of a change of heart.
Published by Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Summary: Carla is excited to be going to her grandparents’ house for Christmas with her sister and mother. The anticipation builds as the family enjoys Christmas Eve dinner, including Granny’s delicious cornbread. Carla and her sister get ready for bed, deciding to do a puzzle before they go to sleep. As her sister lays out the puzzle pieces, Carla takes a big bite of a sugar cookie she sees out on the table. Too late, she realizes the cookie was meant for Santa, and worries that she will now be on the naughty list. Granny saves the day, assuring Carla that Santa still loves her and probably gets tired of so many cookies; she helps Carla make a small skillet of cornbread to leave instead. In the morning, the skillet is empty except for a single slice left behind for the baker. Includes recipes for cornbread and cinnamon butter. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Another heartwarming Christmas story featuring a Black Santa, this one by celebrity chef Carla Hall. The illustrations place the story in the early 1970’s, but the family holiday story has a timeless feel to it.
Cons: When you realize that the interior design fashions of your childhood have really not stood the test of time.
Summary: Deja’s excited about Christmas, but not all of her friends share her belief in Santa. But all their reasons why the jolly old elf can’t possibly exist are countered by her mom, who offers one explanation after another throughout the season. At a family Christmas Eve celebration, other relatives back up Mom’s logic. Finally, Deja, like so many children before her, decides to wait up for Santa, but ultimately falls asleep. When she wakes up Christmas morning, she finds a pile of presents…and a photo of a smiling Santa. 32 pages; ages 3-8.
Pros: A heartwarming Christmas story that makes Santa accessible to children of color and those who live in city apartments. The brightly-colored digital illustrations bring the warm family holiday scenes to life.
Cons: It wasn’t clear to me how the photo of Santa was created. Christmas magic, I guess.
Summary: Audrey is struggling a bit with second grade, since her former best friend Diego has found himself some new friends. Audrey feels like she’s kind of average, and wishes she could be the best at something. When her teacher announces that there’s going to be a new girl in the class, Audrey’s not sure how she feels, especially after learning that the new girl’s name is also Audrey, and the original Audrey will now be known as Audrey L. Audrey L. is chosen to be the Welcome Ambassador for Audrey W. She bakes the new girl a cake (baking being something that she is actually good at), but then drops it on the floor. Audrey W. is nice about it, though, and before long it seems like the two Audreys might become friends. But second grade is not always easy, and the new friendship proves to be something of a roller coaster ride. Things are cemented in the final chapters, and the ending offers promise that a book 2 could be in store. 184 pages; grades 1-4.
Pros: A winning early chapter book that really captures the emotions of early elementary school. Both Audreys suffer some insecurities, but are basically kind, and you will be rooting for their best friendship to emerge after a series of false starts. The illustrations by Jennifer Mann add excellent visuals to the story.
Cons: I did not know that it was bad for hermit crabs to paint their shells (although it makes sense), so the horror the girls felt in that part of the story was kind of lost on me.
Summary: Those of us who grew up reading Scholastic’s books like If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 or If Your Name Was Changed At Ellis Island will recognize the question-and-answer format of this book that traces the history and culture of the Wampanoag people, the Europeans who sailed on the Mayflower, and what happened when their paths crossed. This story does not end with the 1621 harvest feast that these groups shared, but continues on to what happened in the years afterward as Europeans increasingly moved onto indigenous lands and killed many of the people with wars and disease. It also tells how Thanksgiving came to be a national holiday, more than 200 years after the event it purports to celebrate, and concludes with a discussion of American holidays (or the lack of them) that recognize indigenous people. Includes a glossary. 96 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: I enjoyed these books as a kid, and this one provides a much-needed correction to the traditional Thanksgiving story, with a greater emphasis on the Wampanoag history and culture, and a look at some of the history after 1621. Definitely a resource that should be added to elementary school classrooms and libraries where Thanksgiving is part of the curriculum.
Cons: Given the many, many questions around the traditional telling of the history of Thanksgiving, I was disappointed that this book didn’t include source notes, additional reading lists, or any information about the author.
Summary: When Life and Death decide to play a game of Lotería, they choose Clara as the human whose life will hang in the balance. The two discuss fate versus free will as they deal cards with symbols that start to affect Clara’s life. When a seemingly random series of events leads to tragedy for Clara’s younger cousin Esteban, she vows that she will take care of him no matter what. This promise ends up leading them both into the mythical land of Asrean where the struggle for both of their lives and souls continues. Although Lotería has an ultimate winner, Clara’s life takes a most unexpected turn that blurs the line between life and death. Includes additional information about magic realism, the Aztec folklore in the story, and the game of Lotería. 320 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: By now you may be onto the fact that I am trying to read as many award contenders as I can before the end of the year, and this one will undoubtedly be considered for both Newbery and Belpré. The philosophical questions raised make it a great choice for a book discussion, and the folklore and Mexican culture are beautifully woven into the story.
Cons: If you like an unambiguously happy ending, you may want to look elsewhere.
Summary: We first meet William, Edmund, and Anna at the funeral of their grandmother, a cold woman no one really misses, except for the fact that she was their last living relative. The three orphans are determined to stay together, and decide to take the advice of their solicitor and evacuate London with a group of children from a local school, hoping to find a permanent family. Their first foster parents seem okay, but have twin sons who are nasty bullies. When Edmund puts a dead snake in one of their beds, the boy takes revenge in a way that gets all three kids kicked out of the house. They next land at the home of an impoverished woman with four small children whose husband is at war, and whose hard circumstances make her unloving at best and downright cruel at worst. Their one refuge is the library and the kind librarian, Mrs. Műller, who’s shunned by the village because her missing husband is suspected to have Nazi sympathies. When disaster strikes at the second foster home, the children naturally gravitate to Mrs. Műller, hoping to finally find a family with her. Includes a list of the many books mentioned in the story. 320 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: Please do not even attempt to read this book until you have access to a cozy fire, warm slippers, and a nice cup of tea. Then settle in and prepare yourself for this year’s most enjoyable comfort read. If The War That Saved My Life was a little heavy for you, this will be absolutely perfect. I’m not sure that it’s quite Newbery caliber, but it is #8 on the Goodreads list right now.
Cons: The ending was a little predictable…although totally satisfying.
Summary: With Halley’s Comet hurtling towards Earth, Petra and her family are among a small group chosen to travel to the planet Sagan, a journey that will take over 300 years. They’re put into a deep sleep, with people on board who will look after them and keep creating a new population of caretakers. Alas, not only does a group called the Collective take over the ship, but something goes wrong with Petra’s sleep. When she wakes up, she learns that she is the only one left who remembers life on Earth. Petra is determined to help the other kids in her group remember, and she begins telling them the cuentos (stories) that she learned from her Mexican-American grandmother. Although she does her best to blend in, members of the Collective soon become suspicious of Petra, and she realizes it’s up to her to lead an escape plan and try to find the group of Earthlings who were scheduled to arrive first. It’s not clear whether or not Petra and the other kids make contact, but the book ends on a hopeful note. 336 pages; grades 5-8.
Pros: This beautifully written book explores what it means to be human and the important contributions different cultures and stories make to that humanity. It’s a rare year that a science fiction books wins the Newbery, but this could definitely be a contender for that award, as well as for the Pura Belpré.
Cons: Would people in 2061 really name a planet after Carl Sagan?
Are you doing a mock Caldecott in your classroom or library this year? It’s something I’ve done for the last few years. In my previous job, I would book talk about 20 books and leave them in the classroom for the kids to read over the course of a week, voting on their top three choices. This year, I’m reading some of the contenders each week to second and third graders, then having a vote at the end.
To prepare for my own event, I put together a PowerPoint slideshow that I’m selling for $5.00 on Teachers Pay Teachers. It includes a simple introduction to the Caldecott Medal and 22 books with a picture of each book’s cover, information about the authors (including some links to interviews), and what to look for in the illustrations. The slides are editable so you can take out ones you don’t want to use, add others, or change the information.
Click on the picture at the top to head over to Teachers Pay Teachers and take a look.
I hope to have one for the Newbery available in the next week or so. Enjoy, and please feel free to put any feedback in the comments.