Summary: Young Owl has always dreamed of becoming a knight, and when knights start disappearing from the castle, his dream comes true. He’s accepted to Knight School where he struggles to overcome his small stature. But he works hard and graduates “with honor, as all knights do.” Owl gets assigned to Night Knight Duty, which he excels at thanks to his ability to stay awake all night. When a dragon attacks the castle, though, it looks like Owl might become a midnight snack until some quick thinking and preparation turn things around. Before long, Owl is hosting late-night (knight) parties for the dragon and other new friends. 48 pages; ages 3-8.
Pros: Kids will love this adorable story and illustrations that celebrate the power of hard work, courage, friendship, and pizza.
Summary: “I was born hungry, not a cook,” Julia Child said of her early days. Her family employed a cook, so young Julia never had to learn to prepare food. With a hunger for adventure, Julia volunteered for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, where she was sent to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and met her future husband, Paul Child. Paul had lived in France and introduced Julia to fine food and wine. After getting married, the couple moved to Paris, where Paul worked at the US embassy and Julia threw herself into learning French cooking. She signed up for classes at Le Cordon Bleu and read French cookbooks at night. The book ends with her opening L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes (The School of the Three Hearty Eaters) with two French friends and a picture of Julia on TV. Includes a two-page author’s note with photos that gives more information about Julia’s television career, an extensive list of resources, and a recipe for scrambled eggs (Oeufs Brouillés) . 40 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: Alex Prud’homme’s grandfather was Paul Child’s brother, and he worked with Julia Child on her memoirs. His intimate knowledge of her life makes for an engaging picture book, with mouth-watering descriptions of food that are enhanced by the illustrations (often accompanied by the word “Yum!”).
Cons: I was sorry that the story ended just as Julia’s career as the French Chef was beginning.
Summary: Every Friday there’s an assembly in the cafeteria: announcements, sometimes a guest, and then one student performs. It’s called “Sharing Gifts.” On this particular Friday, John is signed up to dance. He’s quiet at breakfast, and everyone knows why: he’s nervous. John changes into his ballet clothes during announcements. The music begins, the kids quiet down, and John starts dancing, tentatively at first but then with more confidence. He spins, leaps, and finishes with a bow. There’s a moment of silence, and then the whole school applauds wildly. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: This simple story really captures John’s courage and the joy he feels when his performance is done. It’s a perfect little slice-of-life tale of school, and the illustrations beautifully portray John’s dance moves.
Summary: Marisol has a happy childhood in Cuba, where she is a cherished only child. When Castro comes to power, though, life suddenly becomes dangerous for her family. Her parents decide to send her to New York where she is placed with foster parents. The illustrations abruptly change from brilliant colors to monochromatic grays as Marisol struggles to adjust to living with strangers, bullying at school, enduring cold weather, and not speaking English. Bits of color return as she begins to connect with her foster parents and discovers the school library with its books about botany, a subject she loved in Cuba. As winter turns into spring, summer, and fall, Marisol’s world slowly becomes fully in color once again. A series of pictures at the end show Marisol’s later life: a reunion with her parents when they immigrate from Cuba, a career as a teacher, and marriage and children with both sets of parents supporting her. Includes a recipe for arroz con pollo a la Chorrera; additional information about Operation Peter Pan; an author’s note about how her family’s story inspired this book; and a list of resources. 192 pages; grades 5-8.
Pros: This nearly wordless graphic novel beautifully relates an immigrant girl’s story using color to show her emotions and the connections between her old home and the new one. The author’s note makes some interesting comparisons about how Cuban children were treated by the U.S. versus children immigrating from Latin American countries today.
Cons: Readers who don’t have much background knowledge on Cuba in the 1950’s and 1960’s may want to start with the back matter to better understand the story.
Summary: “Today, I am at my gramma’s house, high on the hill, amongst the blueberry bushes. And also…I am remembering camping with Mama.” The author tells and shows how she, her mother, and her grandmother are all remembering past days even while they are enjoying the present one. The past is shown with purple hues, while the illustrations of the present have a more colorful palette. The narrator concludes with a picture of her as an adult writing at her desk, while she remembers her childhood days. These illustrations have swaths of color going through the purple pictures of the past. Includes a recipe for blueberry ink. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: This meditation on the past and present would make a nice prompt for writing about a memory. The illustrations help distinguish the past from the present and the variation in the colors show how alive people and places can be in our memories.
Cons: The switch between past and present may be confusing to some kids.
Summary: Abby’s off to a rough start in fourth grade when her cousin and best friend Zoe moves away and stops answering Abby’s letters. Not only that, but her dad’s lost his job, her mom’s gone back to work, and Abby’s stuck in an after-school running program that she’s sure she’s going to hate. When she starts noticing some changes going on with her body, she misses Zoe more than ever, and has to steel herself for some awkward conversations with her mom and doctor. Abby’s awareness of the larger world grows, too, as she learns about homelessness in her community and finds a surprising way to make a difference. Standing up for herself and communicating about what she needs lead Abby to learn to survive and even flourish with all that’s changing in her life. 208 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: A fun series starter that will be perfect for kids in the second half of elementary school. Megan E. Bryant has a light touch and writes about puberty with a Judy Blume-esque flair. As I’ve said before, there aren’t enough middle grade books that feature fourth graders, and this one is sure to appeal to a wide range of readers.
Cons: Given the intended audience for this book, I was surprised there weren’t illustrations.
Summary: Tama and George have been at Minidoka, a prison camp for Japanese Americans, for a year. Tama works in the library, and George visits every day to check out a stack of books. The camp is dusty and hot in the summer, brutally cold in the winter, with monotonous days and no privacy for anyone. Tama tries not to think about her previous life, when she would have graduated from college, instead immersing herself in the world of books at the library. When she sighs over a book, George asks her what’s wrong. Tama tries to put into words all that she’s feeling, and George assures her that she’s human to feel that way. Tama realizes that George isn’t coming to the library just to check out a stack of books. The two of them get married and have their first child in camp, and Tama sums up her experiences in her journal: “The miracle is in us. As long as we believe in change, in beauty, in hope.” Includes an author’s note about her grandparents, George and Tama (with a photo), and with additional information about the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II. 40 pages; grades 2-6.
Pros: This moving story does not hesitate from looking at the bleak conditions of Minidoka nor the racism that brought George, Tama, and so many others to live there, but also focuses on the hope and beauty of their story.
Cons: Early elementary kids may not relate to the romance of this story.
Summary: Clara Barton’s role in the battle of Antietam is documented in her own words, poems written by the author, and realistic illustrations of battlefront scenes. She nurses men (including one who is shot as she is giving him water), helps doctors, and cooks gruel from Indian meal she unexpectedly finds used as packing material. At the end of the ordeal, she’s put on a makeshift bed in the back of a wagon and driven 80 miles back to Washington, where she collapses from exhaustion and typhoid fever. Includes several pages of additional biographical information about Clara Barton, a bibliography, and a list of places to visit. 40 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: The narrative and illustrations combine to portray the horrors of war, as well as the tirelessness that Clara Barton brought to the battlefield. The extensive back matter will help researchers understand more about Barton’s life.
Cons: Kids will need some prior knowledge of the Civil War and Clara Barton’s life to understand what is going on.
Summary: Growing up in Hawaii, Patsy Takemoto learned about her family’s Japanese heritage, including the expression “fall down seven times, stand up eight” that meant persisting in the face of adversity. Patsy faced adversity over and over again, being rejected from medical schools despite excellent grades, struggling to get a job as a lawyer after graduating from the University of Chicago law school, and being defeated in a bid for Congress. On her second try, though, she won, and in 1965, Patsy Takemoto Mink became the first woman of color in the U.S. Congress. Her personal experiences of discrimination, as well as letters she got from women all over the country, led her to fight for civil rights. She cosponsored Title IX, a bill requiring schools to treat men and women equally. It passed, but another bill was introduced that would have made sports exempt from the ruling. After a fierce fight, that bill was defeated, and Title IX became the law. Includes an author’s note, timeline, and bibliography. 48 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: This excellent biography tells the story of a woman who may not be known to many but who helped bring about changes that have had a positive impact on girls and women all over the country.
Summary: As a child in Georgia, Alma Thomas loved observing the bright colors around her and making things with her hands. She and her three younger sisters weren’t allowed to go to the white school or library, so their parents filled their house with books and teachers. When Alma was 15, her family moved to Washington, D.C. to give their daughters more opportunities, and Alma graduated from high school and college, where she studied art. She taught for many years before retiring at age 69 and pursuing her own art. Using the bright colors she had loved as a child, she created paintings inspired by nature and by space travel. Alma was the first Black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York. Years after her death in 1978, Barack and Michelle Obama chose one of Alma Thomas’s paintings to hang in the White House, the first artwork there by a Black woman. Includes notes from the author and illustrator, photos, a timeline of events in Alma’s life and the United States during her lifetime, and a list of sources. 40 pages; grades K-4.
Pros: I had never heard of Alma Thomas, but I loved her story and the illustrations inspired by her art. While the intended audience may not appreciate the fact that Alma’s art career took off after she turned 70, I found that inspiring.
Cons: It seemed at odds with the theme of the book that the photo of Alma was in black and white.