Out of a Jar by Deborah Marcero

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons

Summary:  Llewelyn the rabbit, who first rose to prominence as a collector in In A Jar, has taken to stuffing his feelings into jars and storing them in his basement.  Any time he feels an unpleasant emotion like fear or anger, he bottles it up and locks it into a closet, “and that was that”.  Even more enjoyable feelings get tucked away, like the excitement he feels at school when he’s supposed to be listening.  Finally, the closet is full, and Llewelyn isn’t feeling much of anything.  When he tries to force one more jar in, all the jars tumble out and crack open, overwhelming Llewelyn in a mix of all the emotions.  Amidst all of the feelings, he’s surprised that what he mostly feels is relieved.  From then on, whenever Llewelyn has a feeling, “he mustered up the courage to feel them.  To share them.  And when he was ready, to look each feeling in the eye, give it a hug, and let it go.  And that…was that.”  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This gorgeously illustrated book is an excellent tool for teaching kids how to deal with strong emotions.

Cons:  I couldn’t figure out why Llewelyn felt like he had to store away his feelings of joy.

Puppy Bus by Drew Brockington 

Published by Harry N. Abrams

Summary:  It’s the first day of school for a boy who’s just moved to a new town, and wouldn’t you know it, he ends up on the wrong bus.  This bus is heading to Leroy’s Puppy School, and is, naturally, filled with puppies.  The boy’s pretty unhappy at first: the subjects they learn are weird, lunch is terrible, and the bathroom is…unconventional.  But the puppies are friendly, there’s outdoor recess, and by the end of the day, the boy is ready to return.  He’s excited the next morning to board the bus…only to find out, it’s the Kitty Bus.  40 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  No need to look any further for a book to read on the first day of preschool, kindergarten, or first grade.  The humor and comic-style illustrations will have the whole class feeling right at home in no time.

Cons:  Is Old Yeller really the best choice for a class read-aloud at puppy school?

Happy Sloth Day! by April Pulley Sayre with Jeff Sayre

Published by Beach Lane Books

Summary:  Follow a sloth through its day in the rainforest as it eats, climbs, rests, and hides.  The photos mostly tell the story, along with a few short sentences.  Longer side bars on every other page add additional information.  The story ends with “the changing of the sloths” as the diurnal three-toed sloth falls asleep and the nocturnal two-toed sloth awakens.  Includes additional information about sloths and a list of four resources “for more leisurely chewing.”  48 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  April Pulley Sayre’s photos never disappoint, and these capture sloths doing all kinds of interesting things.  The short text and photos make this a good read-aloud for preschoolers, while the sidebars and back matter make it just as good a choice for older kids.

Cons:  A book about sloths is not a thrilling page-turner.

Tomatoes In My Lunchbox by Constantia Manoli, illustrated by Magdalena Mora

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  The narrator feels uncomfortable at school after moving from another country.  The teacher and other kids have trouble pronouncing her name, and the whole tomato in her lunchbox is different from what the other kids are eating.  She’s surrounded by girls with names like Emma, Olivia, and Chloe, but she can’t figure out how to make friends with them.  One day Chloe asks her where her name is from, and the girl tells her it was her grandmother’s name.  The next day, they learn that they both have the same favorite color, yellow.  When Chloe forgets her lunch, the narrator shares her tomato, and the friendship is sealed.  Includes an author’s note about her family’s move from Cyprus to England that was the inspiration for this story.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  An immigrant story that will help readers build empathy for kids who are new at school, and whose name, language, and food may be unfamiliar to others.  Emphasizes the importance of friendship and reaching out.

Cons:  Those tomato stains seem like a nuisance.

In the Beautiful Country by Jane Kuo

Published by Quill Tree Books

Summary:  Ai Shi (or Anna) is excited to finally be moving from Taiwan to “the beautiful country” of America, where her father has already been living for months.  He moved there with a plan to go into business with a friend who owned an electronics store, but when he arrived, the man backed out of the deal.  So Ba bought a restaurant in L.A. County, and Ai Shi and her mother go to work there immediately upon arrival.  The long hours at the restaurant and the dingy apartment are a far cry from what Anna dreamed about, but worst of all is the racist bully at school and the two teenagers who keep vandalizing the restaurant.  A grocery store cashier takes the family under her wing, and Anna and her parents learn the value of kindness and forgiveness–lessons they apply to other new immigrant families as they finally begin to see a profit from the restaurant.  By the end of the story, Anna’s parents are no longer considering moving back to Taiwan, and Anna has learned enough from her year in America to begin to dream about “the beautiful country” again.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This debut novel-in-verse doesn’t shy away from the hardships of immigrating to America, but also shows how caring people and hard work can ultimately lead to success.  Details about the 1980’s and the relationship between China and Taiwan are well integrated into the narrative. Fans of Kelly Yang or Reem Faruqi will enjoy this.

Cons:  The back flap says that the book is based on the author’s experiences growing up in California in the 1980’s and working in her family’s restaurant.  I wish she had written an author’s note to tell more about that.

Pigeon & Cat by Edward Hemingway

Published by Christy Ottaviano

Summary:  Cat lives alone in a box in a vacant lot, only leaving home to scavenge for food.  If another cat tries to enter the lot, Cat hisses and shows his claws.  One day, he finds an egg, which, much to his surprise, hatches into a pigeon.  For the first time, Cat cares about another animal, feeding her and letting her sleep with him in his box.  Pigeon grows up and starts flying around the city.  Cat worries about her leaving the safety of the lot, but when Pigeon brings back bits of chalk, Cat passes the time by creating art on the walls around him.  One day, though, Pigeon doesn’t come back.  Cat is so heartbroken that he decides to venture out into the city to find her.  He’s so anxious to track down his friend that he starts to reach out to other animals for help.  He draws pictures around the city, hoping Pigeon will recognize them and find him.  One day, a flock of birds unexpectedly leads him back to his own lot where Pigeon is waiting for him.  Pigeon has opened up the lot to other strays, and it becomes a beautiful place that is welcoming to everyone.  40 pages; ages 4-8.  

Pros:  A heartwarming story about the transformative powers of love, friendship, art, and community.

Cons:  Too bad humans aren’t better at learning some of those lessons.

Cookies & Milk by Shawn Amos

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Ellis’s hopes for a fun and relaxing summer are dashed when his newly divorced dad informs him that they’re going to spend the next six weeks getting ready for the grand opening of Sunset Cookies.  As Ellis reluctantly begins to help clean up the filthy building and perfect the chocolate chip cookie recipe (with more than a few mishaps), he also starts to connect with people in the community.  Handing out free bags of cookies goes a long way toward making friends, and before long everyone is pitching in to get the store up and running in time.  When Ellis discovers that one of his new friends is his father’s estranged brother, he’s determined to help the two men put their differences aside and reunite the family.  New friends, family reunions, and plenty of chocolate chip cookies help make the summer of 1976 a memorable one for Ellis.  Includes a cookie recipe.  320 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Written by the son of cookie entrepreneur Famous Amos, this is a funny, light-hearted story that doesn’t shy away from heavier topics like divorce and racism.  It’s a fast-paced read that a wide range of elementary school kids are sure to enjoy.

Cons:  Don’t even think about opening this book without a plate of warm cookies and a tall glass of milk by your side.

I Forgive Alex: A Simple Story About Understanding by Kerascoët

Published by Random House Studio

Summary:  Recess begins with different groups of kids doing different things: running, stomping in puddles, and hanging out with friends.  One boy pulls out his artwork and displays it for his friends. Alex is bouncing a basketball around the playground, teasing other kids who are trying to get it away from him.  When he throws it, it bounces on the bench where the art is set up, sending the papers into a nearby puddle.  The artist is sad, and his friends take his side, ostracizing Alex.  This continues until the next recess, when Alex tentatively smiles and waves at the boy, who walks over to him.  The two of them talk, then shake hands, and everyone joins in a friendly game of basketball.  The next day, Alex greets his new friend and gives him a drawing of the boy dunking the basketball while Alex cheers him on.  Includes a page with tips for handling similar misunderstandings for kids who have hurt someone, kids who have been hurt, and adults who are helping them.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The creators of I Walk With Vanessa (look for Vanessa and her friend in the illustrations) have produced another wordless masterpiece perfect for SEL education.  Kids will enjoy figuring out what’s going on in the story, and the backmatter makes it a useful tool for parents and educators.

Cons:  The title is kind of didactic.

One Boy Watching by Grant Snider

Published by Chronicle Books

Summary:  At 7:00 a.m., one boy boards school bus number 4 to begin his 50-minute journey to school.  Along the way, he sees things out the window: one tree, three deer, four cars, seven sunflowers.  Gradually, the 28 seats in the bus fill up until there are 48 kids “packed like crayons in a crayon box.”  Finally, they arrive at school.  The day passes, and at 3:00 p.m. the boy stares out the classroom window, daydreaming about what he will see on his journey home.  60 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A quiet story of kids not often represented in picture books–those who live in rural communities.  There are lots of numbers in the story, which would make it a fun one to read to children who are just learning how to count.  The beautiful colors make for eye-catching illustrations from orthodontist-by-day-artist-by-night Grant Snider.

Cons:  100 minutes on a school bus every day.

If You’re a Kid Like Gavin: The True Story of a Young Trans Activist by Gavin Grimm and Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by J Yang

Published by Katherine Tegen Books

Summary:  There are some choices kids get to make and others they don’t.  Gavin Grimm didn’t choose to be a boy or a girl, but as a transgender kid, he chose to talk about it, to tell his family he was a boy, and to start high school as a boy with a new name.  At school, though, he didn’t have a choice about what bathroom to use; he had to use the bathroom in the nurse’s office.  As months went by, and no one seemed to care, Gavin started to use the boys’ room.  A teacher objected, and kids started bullying.  So Gavin decided to speak up.  When this didn’t work at his school, he went on the news and to the ACLU and has continued to fight for his rights and those of other trans kids.  And “since you’re a kid like Gavin Grimm, you can always decide to believe in yourself and fight for what you believe in.”  Includes notes from both authors and a link to the ACLU’s webpage for students about their rights.  40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Kids will relate to Gavin’s personal story which lays out his choices in terms that are understandable for an elementary audience.  An excellent resource for trans kids and those who work or go to school with them.

Cons:  A list of resources (besides the ACLU site) would have been useful.