Summary: Sofía has always taken being part of a ballet family somewhat for granted. Her parents were both members of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba before immigrating to New York, and both her older sister and younger brother are at the tops of their classes. By fifth grade, though, Sofía is starting to realize that her talents lie more with costume design than with dance, and she worries that she’s not living up to her family’s expectations. She’s also starting to notice some anti-immigration sentiment as a variety of issues unfold around her: new affordable housing in the neighborhood, her teacher from Ireland who’s just become a US citizen, and a young friend who’s considering defecting from Cuba to dance with the American Ballet Theater. As the days count down to the big Nutcracker performance, her teacher’s surprise party, and her Cuban friend’s decision, Sofía has to decide how and when to speak up for what’s important to her. 288 pages; grades 4-6.
Pros: Readers will enjoy the chance to become part of Sofía’s warm Cuban-American family that always has room (and good snacks) for any friends or family who want to visit. Sofía is realistically portrayed, worried about her friends and her place in her family as she gradually becomes more aware of the larger world around her.
Cons: I was sorry that Sofía never had a talk with her aunt who wasn’t into ballet and who sometimes, like Sofía, seemed to feel overshadowed by her talented older sister.
Published by Simon and Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books
Summary: Mina usually keeps her nose buried in a book when her father brings home one of his “surprises”. But when one surprise turns out to be a cat (“It’s a squirrel! Squirrels are bigger than mice and have long, bushy tails!”), Mina starts to worry. Despite her concerns, the cat becomes part of the family, even sporting a sweater that Mina knits for it. When the cat stops eating, though, Dad’s solution is to bring home two more cats, who also refuse to eat. The doctor is called, who diagnoses the problem correctly: “These squirrels are definitely cats,” at which point the cats chase the three mice. All seems hopeless until a surprise twist–the direct result of Mina’s ingenuity–saves them all. 68 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Any child who has secretly wondered if they are smarter than the adults around them will love this quirky story. Pay careful attention to the clever illustrations which often reveal more than the words.
Cons: We all know someone like Mina’s father, who seems like he would have a “dad joke” for every occasion.
Summary: Loujain dreams of flying to a beautiful field of sunflowers with her baba. But in her community, only boys and men are allowed to fly. All Loujain can do is put on a set of wings and run around the garden, pretending. Baba tells her that she will fly “someday”. Finally, Loujain confronts him and tells him that it’s not fair that boys can fly and she can’t. She wants to learn to fly now. Her wise mama tells him, “If you don’t support her, who will? You have to believe things will change. Otherwise they never will.” Soon Loujain and Baba are getting up before sunrise for flying lessons. One day he wakes her up extra early, telling her that they have a long flight to make. It’s the field of sunflowers! The next day, Loujain is in the news for defying the flying law. Her parents are proud of her, and a young girl in the market sees her and immediately asks her baba to teach her to fly. Includes a note about the real Loujain: Loujain AlHathloul, the author’s sister, who has been jailed for protesting the law prohibiting Saudi women from learning to drive. 40 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: This inspiring book would make an excellent discussion starter with older elementary students. The information about Loujain AlHathloul gives a real-world example about protesting unjust laws.
Cons: The message of the book sometimes seemed to take priority over the story.
Summary: While Neil Armstrong was dreaming of flight from his boyhood home in Ohio, a rock was hanging out on the moon, where it had lived for the last four billion years. Young Neil learned how the moon had been formed when a small planet crashed into Earth, and how rocks were created at the end of the turbulent early time of the moon’s history. As the years went by, different creatures came and went from the Earth, and eventually humans appeared. The ancient rock slept through most of human history, but when Neil Armstrong finally traveled to the moon, he picked up the rock and brought it back to Earth. Neil named the rock Bok, and it now rests in the Cincinnati Museum Center. Includes additional information about the moon, the Earth, and Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon. 48 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Kids interested in space exploration, geology, and/or paleontology will get a taste of all of these in this whirlwind tour of the moon and Earth. Armstrong’s personal connection with the moon and Bok makes the scientific facts even more interesting.
Cons: Covering five billion years in a picture book means a pretty sketchy history and there are no resources given for additional research.
Summary: A tiny egg sinks deep into the ocean. As the days pass it changes shape, growing spines, eyes, and a mouth. In four weeks, the organism travels almost two miles from the depths of the sea to the surface. Finally, it is a full-grown krill, with 26 legs and spots that can light up. There are millions and millions of other krill, and it’s a good thing because they provide food for all kinds of animals like seabirds, penguins, and the gigantic blue whale. Includes additional facts about krill and a list of resources: books, websites, and a National Geographic game called Krill Smackdown. 36 pages; grades 1-4.
Pros: It seems like it would take considerable creative energy to write an engaging story about an animal whose main purpose in life is to be eaten, and to illustrate it with a cute and endearing krill, but this team has pulled it off. The additional material at the end makes it a good research resource and emphasizes the important role krill plays in food chains around the world.
Cons: Kids may need to be persuaded that they really want to read a book about krill.
Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Summary: Ben Ripley has always dreamed of being a spy, but he’s still pretty shocked when he suddenly gets recruited to a school that’s secretly training young CIA operatives. The school is similar to a regular middle school in some ways: bad food, boring classes, and pompous administrators, but the attempted assassinations and hidden bombs put a new spin on things. It appears that someone has brought Ben to the school for their own nefarious purposes but trying to figure out who that is and why proves to be both challenging and dangerous. Fortunately, Ben is aided by Erica, the smartest (and coolest) girl in the school. The enemy is foiled at last, but a letter at the end promises a sequel, and fans of the non-graphic Spy School series know that Ben’s adventures are just beginning. 296 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: There are already legions of Spy School fans, and the graphic novel will undoubtedly recruit many more. I haven’t read the original, so I don’t know how this compares, but there’s plenty of action and humor which is always a winning combination for upper elementary and middle school.
Cons: The artwork lacked much background detail and was a bit flat.
Summary: This musical alphabet book has a poem for every letter: from the A the oboe plays to warm up the orchestra to the Zzz’s the musicians and audience members catch after the performance. In between there are poems celebrating different instruments, the people involved in making music, and the music itself, both what’s written on paper and what is performed. 40 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: An A to Z poetry book of music didn’t really grab me, but once I started reading, I found every poem engaging and I zipped through the book in no time. Many different aspects of music were covered (and of course I appreciated the fact that the letter L celebrates music librarians), and the energetic illustrations help readers understand the topics of the poems.
Cons: Readers unfamiliar with music will need some additional context; it would have been nice to have some of that provided with either information on each page or with some back matter.
Summary: When Maizy’s grandfather gets sick, she and her mother return to her mom’s childhood home in Last Chance, Minnesota. Maizy’s not excited at the prospect of spending an entire summer with grandparents she barely knows, but Last Chance proves to be surprisingly interesting. Her grandfather, Opa, tells her stories about Lucky, their ancestor from China who unexpectedly wound up in Last Chance and owned the Golden Palace restaurant that Maizy’s grandparents still run. Lucky encountered hatred and racism in America, but also kindness, and Maizy has some similar experiences. When the restaurant is targeted in a racist incident, Maizy is determined to find the culprit. Her grandfather’s tales lead her to dig deeper into the story of the Paper Sons whose pictures hang on the walls of the Golden Palace, and she starts to connect with other Chinese American people around the country. The whole community comes together when Maizy and her family need them the most, and she learns that there is more to many of her neighbors than meets the eye. Includes a 10-page author’s note with lots of photos telling of her own Chinese American family’s story. 288 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: There’s a lot packed into this fast-paced story, and Lisa Yee does an excellent job of tying up many different threads in a heartwarming final scene. Opa’s stories about Lucky are well-integrated into the text, each one just a page or two long so that it doesn’t feel like an interruption to the main narrative.
Cons: The fact that I loved the short chapters (some just a page long) probably doesn’t speak well for my diminished attention span.
Summary: Waking up on powwow day is usually exciting, but this year River has been sick and has to watch from the sidelines. She dresses up and goes with her family, watching as her friend gets ready to dance. She tries to dance the Grand Entry but can’t feel the drumbeat and ends up getting led back to her seat by her older sister. Finally, it’s time for the jingle dance. As River watches the girls dance, she starts to feel stronger and is finally able to stand, filled with a sense of certainty that she will be dancing at next year’s powwow. Includes two pages of information about the powwow, a brief author’s note, and a list of sources. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Another beautiful book by Traci Sorrell who masterfully weaves details about the powwow into River’s story and includes lots more information at the end (the history of the jingle dress dance and its connection to healing was particularly interesting). The illustrations perfectly capture the colors and movement of the dancers.
Cons: I can always enjoy a photo or two in the back matter.
Summary: Britta loves Apple and Magnolia, two trees who grow side-by-side, and is sure that they are friends. Dad tells her kindly that he doesn’t think that’s possible, and big sister Bronwyn not-so-kindly agrees. But Nana says that unusual friendships can be the most powerful. When Magnolia starts to droop, Dad says she probably won’t make it through the winter, but Britta is sure that Apple can help Magnolia survive. She encourages their friendship by knitting a long scarf to connect them and stringing lights in their branches so they can always see each other. As winter turns to spring, Britta thinks that their branches are growing closer together, and Gran helps her create a chart to track this theory. Magnolia is late to flower, but when the beautiful blooms finally appear, Britta is ready to celebrate. Predictably, Dad and Bronwyn remain certain that Apple had nothing to do with Magnolia’s recovery, but Gran restates her position that unusual friendships are the most powerful of all. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: This beautiful story includes friendship, a wise grandmother, and a nice dose of science, starting with an author’s note stating that scientists are just beginning to understand how trees communicate with each other. Those wanting to learn more can read Lita Judge’s The Wisdom of Trees.
Cons: I was hoping for a little more of a change of heart from Dad.