Summary: When the food supply dwindles at Molly’s house, her mother tells her they’re going to the food pantry on Saturday. “Everybody needs help sometimes,” says Mom, lifting her chin a little higher. Waiting in line, Molly says hi to Caitlin, a girl from her class, but Caitlin turns away. When Molly walks over to her, Caitlin says she doesn’t want anyone to know she and her grandmother are there. Molly convinces Caitlin to draw pictures with her while they wait in line, and they cheer people up with their creations. Inside, Molly and Mom fill their cart, and they walk out with Caitlin and her grandmother, who turn out to be neighbors. They decide to eat lunch together, the adults sharing stories of job loss and illness, and the two girls remembering how their drawings made people happy. Includes a note about food insecurity from Kate Maher, CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: A realistic look at what it’s like to shop at the food pantry with important messages addressing the stigma that kids might pick up on from adults.
Cons: There are too few books that address issues faced by low-income families.
Summary: The author based this story on her life, portraying herself as a young girl named Chang who commits to becoming a wildlife conservationist after witnessing people extracting bear bile on a bear farm. As she grows up, she’s given little encouragement due to her gender and age, but she persists in her goal, and eventually is accepted as a volunteer for an organization called Free the Bears. There she meets a sun bear cub named Sorya and takes on the task of reintroducing her to the wild. This proves to be a long process, since Sorya is shy and becomes attached to Chang. Again, Chang’s persistence pays off, and after many months, Sorya gradually goes back to the wild. Chang misses her friend, but is happy that Sorya is where she belongs. 128 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: This unusual graphic story features gorgeous artwork showing the forests of Vietnam and an inspiring story about a determined young woman who is able to make a difference with her conservation work.
Cons: The scene at the bear farm is a bit disturbing.
Summary: Nine shapes of different colors are introduced on the front endpapers; nine animals created from those shapes appear on the back ones. These 18 objects are used to demonstrate prepositions and the concepts they denote. The yellow circle is under the red berry on one page; the berry is under a green square on the next. Sometimes an object is referred to by its shape, sometimes by its color, and sometimes by its animal name. The concepts of right and left, here and there, and up and down are all introduced as well. The last pages circle back to the first with the circle under the berry and the berry over the square. 52 pages; ages 3-6.
Pros: A concept book featuring collage art on the white backgrounds brings to mind Eric Carle, and this book will surely appeal to a similar audience. It has board book covers with paper pages, making it a good early book for young children. Kids will love the animals and identifying shapes and colors.
Cons: 52 pages felt a little long for preschoolers.
Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Summary: When a marble falls from the sky, the insects are amazed. They spend the day speculating on what this marvelous object might be. The next morning, they discover that the thing is caught in Spider’s web. Spider claims it now belongs to him, and no one can remember whether or not the web was there before. Soon, Spider has created WonderVille, a place to come see the amazing object that fell from the sky. Spider gets wealthier, but also greedier, and eventually animals stop coming. Then the worst happens: a hand reaches down from space and grabs the marble. But Spider has a plan: after building another web, he patiently waits for other objects to fall into it. His persistence pays off, and soon WonderVille is launched again, this time freely available to all. 56 pages; ages 4-9.
Pros: The Fan Brothers have done it again, creating amazing illustrations that seem to pop off the page. Their use of color helps tell the story: most of it is in black, gray, and white, with only the marble and the leaves Spider collects in color. The last few pages, when everyone can enjoy Spider’s wonders, are in full color.
Cons: Most of the insects were male; Luna Moth was the only one referred to as “she”, Her reaction to the marble was to try to keep it warm and hatch it, which seemed a little stereotypical.
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Summary: A poem starts things off, beginning, “Dear weird toes/crooked nose/stressed out, left out/freaked out,” and concluding, “This party’s for you.” If you’re thinking middle school, you’re on the right track, as all the stories take place at Bridger Middle School. There’s the one about Katya, who’s dealing with a destructive Voice in her head. A choose-your-own adventure story that give readers a chance to try out alternative endings. Cora’s revenge against the mean girls that ends up backfiring. And it’s not just stories; there are “ads” for Happy Heads and Happy Friends, personality quizzes, and a letter from the Department of Insecurity. The final poem bids the reader farewell, with thanks for coming to the party, and encouragement to “go on out there and be the/totally awkward/anxious/odd/normal/lovable/singular/human that you are.” 224 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Kathleen Lane has her finger firmly on the pulse of middle school with this quirky collection. These stories are funny in a weird way that middle school kids will love, and also captures the insecurity that we all remember so well. The kooky format will engage readers, too. I’ve seen this mentioned as a Newbery contender; it’s currently at #16 on the Goodreads list.
Cons: While I’m sure there are elementary kids who would enjoy this book, I think it will be appreciated more by those who are living through puberty.
Summary: 11-year-old twins Jezebel and Jay have recently lost their grandmother, a woman well-known in their South Carolina island community for her rootwork, the use of potions and herbs for healing and magic. It’s 1963, and the civil rights movement is just starting to reach the island, personified by a concerned new sheriff, but other law officers, particularly Deputy Collins, still terrorize the Black population. Jay’s not much of a student, but has plenty of friends, while Jezebel has skipped the fifth grade and is struggling with a pack of mean girls in the sixth. A new girl named Susie is a fellow outsider, and, although she seems a little odd, Jez welcomes her friendship. When the twins’ uncle Doc starts teaching them rootwork, Jez discovers magical powers that no one in her family has suspected she possessed. The family needs every bit of knowledge and magic they can muster as threats start to come at them from both the material and the spiritual worlds. 352 pages; grade 4-7.
Pros: Is it horror, historical fiction, realistic fiction, or fantasy? This powerful novel encompasses all those genres and will surely be considered for both Newbery and Coretta Scott King recognition. As mentioned below, it’s taken me awhile to get around to reading this, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it, as it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in 2021.
Cons: The dark cover didn’t really grab me, and although this book came out in January, it’s taken until now (and it’s place on several Newbery prediction lists) to get me to read it.
Summary: Violet fondly remembers the table where her family used to gather to cook and eat meals. Lately, though, her mom, dad, and brother are busy–usually with screens–and the table often stands empty. One day, Violet is shocked to see that the table has become smaller; the next day it has shrunk even more. By the end of the week, the table is small enough for Violet to hold in the palm of her hand, and in the blink of an eye it disappears altogether. But Violet is a resourceful girl, and she comes up with an idea. Pretty soon she’s recruited the family to build a new table. Those screens come in handy for doing the research, and before long everyone is working together. Finally, the family comes together for dinner at “a table stronger, more beautiful than ever.” 48 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: A great reminder of the joy of sitting around a table with loved ones–perfect for the holidays. The illustrations go from monochromatic purple when Violet is feeling alone to a bright palette of colors when the family is together.
Cons: The shrinking/disappearing table was a bit disturbing.
Summary: Everybody in the red brick building is asleep until…a baby wakes up with a loud “WaaaAAH!” That wakes up Rahan who gets out of bed to check on his parrot. The parrot makes a “Rraak!” sound, which gets three boys out of their sleeping bags and up for a game of flashlight tag. And so it goes until the apartment building is a cacophony of all different sounds. Then one by one, the sounds die down, lights turn out, people (and animals) get back into bed until…everybody in the red brick building is asleep. 32 pages; ages 3-8.
Pros: Caldecott honoree Oge Mora brings her distinctive collage illustrations to this cumulative, circular tale that would make a perfect bedtime story and that could put her in the running for another Caldecott.
Cons: That parrot wouldn’t last five minutes in my house.
Summary: Michael Emberley traces the journey of a text message from one phone to another, starting with the formation of the message in the brain, then traveling through the fingers to the phone’s glass. Next, the signal travels to a cell tower, then on through underground cables that travel deep into the ocean. Eventually (I’m skipping over a few steps here) the message arrives at the recipient’s phone and is received by her eyes and brain. Although emotions can’t travel via text, the message can trigger an emotion, in this case love as a mother and child exchange messages when the mom is away on a trip. Includes additional information and resources (which are printed on the back endpapers…grrr!). 48 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: Kudos to Michael Embereley for taking an incredibly complex process that most of us take for granted and making it interesting and understandable. Both kids and adults will learn a lot from this introduction and the back matter adds much more.
Cons: I definitely didn’t follow the whole process. My mind is still blown, though.
Summary: Cranky Chicken is constantly…well, cranky. Then along comes Speedy, a worm with a perennially upbeat attitude, and things begin to change. In five chapters the two slowly become good friends, and Speedy is occasionally successful in changing Cranky’s outlook on life. The final chapter sees Cranky overcome a fear of heights to help Speedy realize his dream of flying, and even Cranky has to admit that it was pretty great. 116 pages; grades 1-4.
Pros: Fans of Narwhal and Jellyfish will happily embrace this new pair of friends and their comic-style adventures. There’s plenty of humor, friendship, and good simple watercolor art in mostly pastels with a few bright highlights (like Cranky’s expressive unibrow). I hope there will be some sequels!
Cons: The font looks like hand-lettered printing, which may take some getting used to for early readers.