School Is Wherever I Am by Ellie Peterson

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  A boy introduces his school as a building where he goes to a classroom that has desks, a teacher, and his classmates.  But then he wonders if school can be in other places too.  He thinks about field trips to museums or a pumpkin patch, as well as experiences he’s had with his family like cooking and woodworking.  Sometimes school is on a computer screen.  School can even look like making a mistake, figuring out how to fix it, and apologizing.  Inside or outside, the boy decides that school is wherever he is.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A great back-to-school book that encourages curiosity, both in the traditional school setting and outside of it.  Kids can brainstorm their ideas about school before reading this.  I love the endpapers that show different sets of collections associated with places mentioned in the book.

Cons:  Flashbacks to remote learning with the teacher on the computer screen.

Hope Is an Arrow: The Story of Lebanese-American Poet Kahlil Gibran by Cory McCarthy, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  Gibran Khalil Gibran was a shy boy growing up in Lebanon.  He loved his country, but there was unrest there, and he often escaped into nature, hiking in the woods or swimming in the ocean.  After his father was jailed, he and his mother and three siblings left for America.  They settled in Boston’s South End, where a teacher changed his name to Kahlil Gibran, and where he often saw his mother treated disrespectfully despite her hard work as a shopkeeper.  Kahlil often felt divided between his American self and his Lebanese self and began expressing himself through his poetry and art.  Studying in Beirut and losing his mother, sister, and brother in a short period of time deepened and intensified his art, and in 1923, he published his most famous work, The Prophet.  Includes source notes and additional stories from Kahlil Gibran’s life.  40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  The lyrical text and beautiful illustrations capture Kahlil Gibran’s spirit.  Many of his quotes are included (including my favorite, “Work is love made visible”) which are helpful in introducing his writing.  As usual, Ekua Holmes’s art is worthy of award consideration.

Cons:  I wasn’t crazy about the format of the source notes and additional stories, which did not seem particularly kid friendly.

The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill

Published by Algonquin Young Readers

Summary:  Stone-in-the-Glen used to be a happy town where people helped each other and loved to read and discuss books.  But when a new Mayor takes over and the library burns down, the town falls on hard times and neighbors begin to distrust one another.  An ogress moves to the edge of town and begins observing the residents.  She grows to love them all, particularly the group of kids living in an orphanage, and begins to make secret nightly deliveries of food and cards to their homes .  After she rescues one of the children one night, the town turns on her, accusing her of kidnapping.  The children get to know and love the ogress and come up with a plan that not only redeems her reputation but unites the town back into a loving community and reveals the Mayor for who he truly is.  400 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Another complex and interesting fantasy from Newbery Award winner Kelly Barnhill.  The Mayor bears a resemblance to Trump, and the reaction of the townspeople provides a timely message. With four starred reviews and a current number 3 spot on the Goodreads Mock Newbery list, this is sure to get plenty of consideration at awards time.

Cons:  On both Amazon and Goodreads, there’s a small number of reviewers who felt that the message of this book overwhelmed the story.  Unfortunately, that was my takeaway as well.

Abuelita and I Make Flan by Adrian Hernández Bergstrom

Published by Charlesbridge

Summary:  Anita is excited to be learning how to make flan with Abuelito as they prepare the treat for Abuelo’s birthday.  But before they can even get started, Anita accidentally drops the beloved glass flan plate.  She sweeps up the pieces, hoping no one will notice.  She and Abuelita have a great time working their way through the flan-making process, but at last the moment comes when it’s time to get out the plate.  Anita tearfully confesses what happened, to which Abuelita replies, “A plate is a plate, but YOU are irreplaceable.”  Turns out that Abuelo broke the first flan plate years ago, and the one Anita dropped was a replacement.  They end up using a plate Anita made for grandparents’ day, and the birthday celebration goes off without a hitch.  Includes a recipe for cheese flan and English translations of the Spanish words used in the story.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A heartwarming intergenerational story about a shared love of food and cooking.  The illustrations are appealing with their cartoon bubbles and labeling of items around the kitchen, activities Abuelita needs help with due to arthritis, etc.

Cons:  Making flan looks pretty complicated

Noodle and the No Bones Day by Jonathan Graziano, illustrated by Dan Tavis

Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books

Summary:  Apparently Jonathan and Noodle the Pug are a TikTok sensation (don’t worry, I had no idea either), and a No Bones Day is one in which Noodle acts as though he has no bones.  He stays in his bed, not interested in playing or walking.  He does enjoy it when Jonathan rubs his belly and eats when Jonathan brings him his dish.  At first, Jonathan is concerned that he’s sick, but eventually he realizes that Noodle just needs a day of rest, snuggling in bed and eating snacks.  Inspired, Jonathan plants himself on the couch with a bowl of popcorn for a No Bones Day of his own.  Includes a brief author’s note.  32 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  Pugs are always a big hit at my school, and I’m sure kids will love this story that uses cuteness and gentle humor to deliver a message about self-care.

Cons:  I was forced to go on TikTok to check out Noodle and Jonathan (@jongratz).

Mammoth Math: Everything You Need to Know About Numbers by David Macaulay

Published by DK Children

Summary:  A wooly mammoth and an elephant shrew take readers on a tour through all different mathematical concepts including counting, number know-how, patterns and sequences, geometry, maps, measurement, and using data.  David Macaulay still has his gift for using illustration to show a variety of concepts, with mammoths and shrews appearing on every page to add plenty of humor.  Includes a reference section with multiplication tables, illustrations showing fractions and percentages, geometrical shapes, units of measurement, and signs and symbols; also, an extensive glossary and an index.  160 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that I said there aren’t enough good math books in the world?  This one is amazing, with so many topics covered, great illustrations, and plenty of humor.  Math fans will have fun just browsing through it, and teachers will find it useful to engage those who aren’t yet fans.

Cons:  Somehow, I missed Mammoth Science, which came out in 2020.

Too Pig to Fail: A Batpig Book by Rob Harrell

Published by Dial Books

Summary:  In this second installment of the Batpig series, Gary uses his superpowers in two stories.  First, math class seems interminable for him and his friends, and eventually they discover it’s not just their imaginations.  Kindly janitor Mr. Guffen has turned into evil villain Time Guy and has complete control of the passage of time.  Batpig finds a way to rescue the hapless math students and turn Time Guy back to his old self based on the idea that time flies when you’re having fun.  The second story sees Gary/Batpig foiling an attack by evil aliens who unleash a shower of smelly gym socks and a half-bumblebee-half-kitten monster on the town.  248 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Another entry in the “for fans of Dog Man” genre that will have kids laughing and quickly turning the pages to see how Gary and his friends defeat the bad guys.  You might want to direct them to When Pigs Fly (book 1) before reading this one.

Cons:  It’s embarrassing how frequently I laughed out loud at the humor meant for 8-year-olds.

Kapaemahu by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu Dean Hamer, and Joe Wilson, illustrated by Daniel Sousa

Published by Kokila

Summary:  This Hawaiian legend tells the story of four healers, or mahu, who traveled from Tahiti.  They were neither male nor female, but “a mixture of both in mind, heart, and spirit.”  Each one had their own healing power: spiritual, all-seeing, healing from afar, and laying on of hands.  After bequeathing their powers on the people of the island, the Hawaiians wanted to build a monument to show their gratitude.  They moved four huge boulders onto the beach at Waikiki.  Even after the mahu left, the stones remained for many centuries until more and more people arrived in Hawaii and the area was built up.  The stones have been recovered, but the true nature of the mahu has often been written out of the story.  This book (and the film on which it is based) seeks to correct that.  Includes authors’ notes, a history of the healer stones, additional information about the Olelo Niihau language, and a glossary.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Written in both English and the indigenous Hawaiian Olelo Niihau language, this beautiful legend inspired both this book and a short film, released in 2021.  The author’s note reveals that the nature of the mahu was removed from the story for many years, due to their possession of both male and female spirits.  An excellent addition to collections of both folklore and bilingual books.

Cons:  A Google search revealed to me that the stones are popularly known as the Wizard Stones, which feels like kind of a trivialization of the true story. 

Emile and the Field by Kevin Young illustrated by Chioma Ebinama

Published by Make Me a World

Summary:  “There was a boy named Emile/who fell in love with a field.”  Emile loves the flowers and insects he finds in the field and how the colors change with the seasons.  He wonders if the field ever misses seeing things like the sea or skyscrapers or airplanes (up close).  What he doesn’t like is when snow covers the field and other kids come to play there.  His dad reminds him that the field doesn’t belong to him, and that if other people love it like Emile does, they’ll help him take care of it so that it can be there forever.  Includes a note from Make Me a World’s Christopher Myers.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The lyrical rhyming-ish text and dreamy watercolor illustrations will help readers appreciate nature and realize that the beautiful things in the world are made for us to share.  Definitely a book for Caldecott or Coretta Scott King consideration.

Cons:  While Christopher Myers’s note is addressed to readers, it seems more directed to adults.

Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  In the author’s note, we learn that during slavery, enslaved people sometimes escaped into the swamps and lived there for years.  This story imagines such a community called Freewater, populated by those who escaped slavery and their children who have only known freedom.  Homer and Ada accidentally stumble upon Freewater while trying to escape north.  They’re taken in and soon get to know the different people there and the ways they’ve developed to survive and avoid capture.  But Homer is harboring a secret: he feels like it’s his fault that his mama was caught and sent back to the plantation the night of their escape.  Through his first-person narration and the third-person stories of many other characters from both the plantation and Freewater, the reader slowly learns of a plan to return and free Mama.  Each person has a part to play in the fiery and satisfying climax of the story, and the last page suggests a happy ending for all of them.  Includes an author’s note.  416 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  I’m always wowed when an author hits a home run with a debut novel. Amina Luqman-Dawson had done that here with a complex historical fiction story that will stay with readers long after the last page.  A definite contender for either Newbery or Coretta Scott King awards.

Cons:  Some reviewers recommend this for as young as third grade.  With the many characters, the shift between first-person and third-person narration, the unfamiliar setting, and the 400-page length, it requires a pretty sophisticated reader.