Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas

Published by HarperAlley

Summary:  Bree’s nervous about her big move with her dad from New York to Florida, but things seem to be going well until she finds out that her sixth-grade elective is Swim 101.  Surrounded by kids who have grown up around pools and the ocean, Bree is embarrassed that she doesn’t know how to swim.  All that changes one day when she accidentally falls into her apartment complex’s pool and is rescued by her neighbor, Miss Etta.  It turns out that Etta was a swimming champion, and she takes Bree under her wing and, step by step, teaches her how to swim.  To raise her Swim 101 grade, Bree agrees to try out for the swim team and to everyone’s surprise–including her own–she’s a natural.  The girls on the team have their ups and downs as they prepare for the big state championship.  When Etta sees their struggles, she decides to reunite with her old swim team, including one woman with whom she hasn’t spoken for decades.  The older women coach the girls to a nail-biting but ultimately entirely satisfying state championship win.  256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Fans of Raina Telgemeier and Jerry Craft will definitely want to dive into this graphic novel.  The excellent art (I especially love the swimming scenes) and compelling story will have them clamoring for a sequel.  The difficult history Black people in America have had with swimming and racism is seamlessly woven into the present-day narrative.

Cons:  Bree’s journey from non-swimmer to champion seemed a bit unrealistically short.

Those Kids from Fawn Creek by Erin Entrada Kelly

Published by Greenwillow Books

Summary:  The kids in the tiny town of Fawn Creek, Louisiana have known each other for most of their lives.  So it’s a big deal that Renni moved away last year, and an even bigger deal when new girl Orchid shows up in their sixth grade class.  Not only does Orchid have beautiful hair (rumor has it that she’s had it insured), but she tells enchanting stories about her life in New York City and Paris.  Everyone expects her to become part of Janie’s popular crowd, but instead she gravitates toward outcasts Grayson and Dorothy.  The story takes place in the days leading up to a much-anticipated dance in the neighboring town where Renni now lives, and many of the kids find themselves reevaluating their personalities and roles as a result of their interactions with Orchid.  This culminates the night of the dance, when Grayson finally shows his true self, and a bullying incident leads both Dorothy and Janie to see who they really are.  336 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Erin Entrada Kelly has created a memorable cast or characters who are all brought to life through a series of what seem to be small, everyday experiences.  With four starred reviews, this book is likely to be considered for another Newbery Medal or honor to put alongside the two Kelly already has.

Cons:  For the first half of the book, I struggled to keep all the characters straight and was grateful for the list of characters (grouped by clique) on the inside jacket flap.

I’m Not Small by Nina Crews

Published by Greenwillow Books

Summary:  Asa feels big when he’s allowed to go outside by himself.  He’s also big when he compares himself to his dog, his cat, his rabbit, the birds, a bee, and especially an ant.  He could crush the ant with his foot but decides he’d rather watch it carry a big crumb instead.  Asa loves being big, but when his mom comes out to tell him breakfast is ready, he is happy to go back to being small and let her carry him inside.  32 pages; ages 3-6. 

Pros:  Preschoolers will relate to Asa’s observations about size and the natural world.  The illustrations, described as “digitally drawn and collaged…incorporating photographs and textures created by the artist,” are unique and beautiful.

Cons:  A scary bee.

Gigi and Ojiji by Melissa Iwai

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  Gigi is excited that her grandfather, Ojiisan, is coming from Japan to live with her and her family.  She makes a picture to give him at the airport, but when they finally meet, Gigi is disappointed.  Ojiisan doesn’t hug her, he struggles with English, and when Roscoe has an accident, Ojiisan says that dogs belong outdoors.  Fortunately, Mom explains a few cultural differences, and before long Ojiisan has become Ojiji and he and Gigi are having a great time together.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  An engaging early reader.  Kids with families who come from other countries or who speak different languages will appreciate some of Gigi’s hesitancy and can learn from her how to overcome cultural obstacles.

Cons:  I’m hoping this is a series starter, but I can’t find any evidence of book 2.

A Day for Sandcastles by JoArno Lawson, illustrated by Qin Leng

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  The team behind Over the Shop is back with a wordless story about a summer day at the beach.  A bus is shown driving down the highway on the title page.  It pulls into a beach parking lot, and one by one members of a family emerge: a boy, his younger sister, the youngest brother, Mom and Dad.  The kids get to work building sandcastles and continue to persevere through many obstacles all day long.  The ocean washes one castle away, a lady’s hat blows onto another, a toddler plows through a third.  Each time the kids survey the damage, then get back to work.  As shadows fall, they put the final touches on their best one yet, then everyone heads back to the bus for the ride home.  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A perfect summer book that captures the small moments of a day at the beach.  There are so many details and interesting people to see you’ll want to take your time poring over the illustrations.

Cons:  It seemed a shame that none of the family members went for a swim in the ocean.

Pretty Perfect Kitty-corn by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Published by Harry N. Abrams

Summary:  “Unicorn is perfect.  Everybody thinks so.’’ His best friend Kitty-Corn agrees and decides to paint his picture.  Unicorn stands like a statue, “the way everyone thinks he should,” but Kitty-Corn feels like something is missing.  Unicorn tries a variety of poses, but nothing is quite right until finally, “That’s it! It’s perfect!” exclaims Kitty-Corn.  When Unicorn takes a look, he’s horrified to see that he has apparently sat in some paint and has been painted with paint bum.  Worried that Kitty-Corn won’t want to be his friend if he’s not perfect, Unicorn sits in a corner feeling like a big, ugly goof.  Kitty-Corn assures Unicorn that she likes him the way he is, then proceeds to sit in some paint herself, and the two friends enjoy a messy romp together.  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  With its purple, pink, and glitter cover portraying a unicorn and kitty, this book will sell itself, AND it has an excellent message about friendship and self-acceptance.

Cons:  I felt like the title should have been Pretty Perfect Unicorn.

Grow Up, Tahlia Wilkins! by Karina Evans

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Tahlia has an eventful 48 hours when she gets her period on the last day of seventh grade and has to be ready for Noah’s big pool party the next day.  Her mom’s out of town so it’s up to her best friend Lily to help Tahlia navigate the stormy waters of puberty.  Together the two plot ways to get their hands on some tampons, then try to figure out how they work.  When they end up at dinner with Noah’s family the night before the party, Lily saves Tahlia from an embarrassing stain issue by “accidentally” spilling a virgin strawberry margarita all over her.  The pool party goes surprisingly well…until Lily divulges a devastating secret of her own that makes Tahlia see how selfishly wrapped up in her own problems she’s been.  The last chapter fast forwards to the first day of eighth grade when a more mature Tahlia reaches out to a new girl on her first day of school.  293 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This felt very true-to-life in a Judy Blume-esque way.  Tahlia’s total focus on herself and the enormity of her problems was spot on for a middle school kid, and the friendship and puberty issues rang true and were very funny as well.

Cons:  After all the build-up to the party that “will make or break my entire summer”, the summer sounded pretty ho-hum.

Marshmallow Clouds: Two Poets at Play Among Figures of Speech by Ted Kooser and Connie Wanek illustrated by Richard Jones

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  This poetry collection kicks off with “A Disappointment” in which the speaker sees a tree clowning on one leg and spinning a pie until a friend informs them that it’s just an old squirrel’s nest.  From there, the 27 poems are divided into four sections: Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, and imagination is allowed to reign freely.  The poems are written in free verse, many just a single verse, and are illustrated with beautiful somewhat abstract paintings of nature.  Includes an afterword with messages from both poets inviting readers to let their imaginations run wild.  72 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  These poems written by former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and acclaimed poet Connie Wanek are simple but beautiful in their use of imagery and metaphors that kids will relate to.  They’re short enough for elementary kids to be able to read and analyze them, yet rich enough to be used in classrooms into high school.  This book has gotten six starred reviews and was included on Betsy Bird’s spring Newbery predictions list, so look for it to get some awards consideration.

Cons:  I wish there had been some information about how the two poets worked together.

Uncle John’s City Garden by Bernette G. Ford, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Published by Holiday House

Summary:  The narrator describes how she and her two older siblings spent a summer helping Uncle John in his garden, a plot of dirt in the middle of the city’s projects.  Each one chose their own vegetables to plant: okra for the narrator, tomatoes and onions for her sister, and corn and lima beans for her brother.  Their mother told them they were growing succotash, which they loved.  As the summer went on, the garden grew, and even a big thunderstorm couldn’t stop it from flourishing.  Right before school started again, Uncle John had a big barbecue, with the best succotash ever to go along with the ribs and burgers.  Each family member got to take home a bag of vegetables, and Uncle John and the kids looked forward to working in the garden again next summer.  Includes an author’s note telling about her childhood inspiration for the story and a recipe for succotash.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A simple story that shows how a garden–or a person–can thrive in even the most unlikely setting.  As always, Frank Morrison’s illustrations are delightful and should be considered for some sort of award.

Cons:  I was sorry to learn in the author’s note that she never actually got to spend the whole summer helping her Uncle John.