What Isabella Wanted: Isabella Stewart Gardner Builds a Museum by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Matthew Cordell

Published by Neal Porter Books

Summary:  The story begins and ends with the empty picture frames hanging in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum following the 1990 robbery of thirteen works of art worth $500 million.  In between, the reader learns of the eccentric Isabella who knew exactly what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to do what she needed to do to get it–even if it meant breaking some laws to obtain European and Asian artworks.  She built the museum herself, living on the top floor and displaying the art on the other three.  When it was done, she opened it to the public twenty days a year for more than twenty years.  Today, the museum is still a highlight to visit in Boston.  Includes an extensive author’s note with more information about Isabella (including her unethical collection practices) and a bibliography.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The lively free verse text and illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Matthew Cordell bring Isabella and her museum to life and pose intriguing questions about the art theft.

Cons:  This is another New England Book Award finalist (the winner was Keepunumuk by Danielle Greendeer in case you’re interested) and may not be of as much interest to those living outside of New England.

Two-Headed Chicken by Tom Angleberger

Published by Walker Books

Summary:  This is a graphic novel about a two-headed chicken being chased through the multiverse by a fried chicken-loving moose.  Each time it/they is/are about to be eaten, the chicken(s) use its/their Astrohat to escape to another universe.  Along the way, there are quizzes, the world’s longest knock-knock joke, and a fish who wants to talk to you about your feelings.  Just when you feel like you can’t handle another universe, you are suddenly in the book, telling the chicken(s) to hurry up and defeat the moose already.  Which they do.  Using the world’s longest knock-knock joke.  208 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  It’s funny, it’s ridiculous, it’s annoying in a good way, and kids will love it.

Cons:  Sadly, I didn’t have jury duty, so I couldn’t run the experiment I tried with Tom Angleberger’s The Rat With the Human Face.

Big Truck Little Island by Chris Van Dusen

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  A truck carrying a 20-ton load arrives by barge to a small island with narrow roads.  Before long, it has skidded off the road and into the mud, backing up traffic on either side.  The kids inside the cars are impatient to get where they’re going.  While their parents stew in the car, the kids get out and problem-solve.  They all know each other, so the two going in one direction agree to temporarily trade cars with the two going the other way.  They’re able to turn around and keep going to their destinations.  Meanwhile the truck gets helped back onto the road and is able to make its delivery: a huge Ferris wheel which is soon set up at the carnival.  Includes a note about the event in Vinalhaven, Maine that inspired this story.  32 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  The rhyming text tells a good story about cooperation and sharing, but it’s the illustrations that really steal the show.  Anyone who is at all mechanically inclined will enjoy the large, colorful pictures of the barge, the truck, and the Ferris wheel. This book was a finalist for the New England Book Award, which I only recently learned about.

Cons:  I lived in Rockport, Maine for a year and never made it to Vinalhaven.

I Am Ruby Bridges by Ruby Bridges, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith

Published by Orchard Books

Summary:  Ruby Bridges tells her story of integrating William Frantz Elementary School in 1960 at the age of six.  While she has heard of Brown v. Board of Education, she is more interested in making friends and who her teacher will be.  She is surprised to be driven to school by four white men, to have a white principal, and most of all, to discover that she is the only student in her classroom.  Seeing that empty classroom makes her finally realize what is going on: she is the first Black child to attend the school, and that will allow other Black students to go there too.  “And that’s a good thing, for Black kids.  For white kids, too…for all the kids, once they finally get here!”  Includes a glossary and notes from the author and illustrator.  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  An inspiring autobiography with bold illustrations that capture young Ruby’s humor and courage.  If you’re looking for a Black history read-aloud for primary grades, this is a perfect choice that shows kids the powerful difference one six-year-old made in a way that they will relate to.

Cons:  You will probably want to supplement this with additional material to explain to kids exactly what it was Ruby did.

Ride On by Faith Erin Hicks

Published by First Second

Summary:  Best friends Norrie, Hazel, and Sam are mystified by the new rider at Edgewood Stables.  Hazel recognizes her as Victoria, a girl she saw compete in a show at the more elite Waverly Stables.  Impetuous Norrie is certain that she’s a spy, sent over to check out the competition, but as the three get to know her, they learn the truth.  Victoria loves to ride but is not as a hardcore a competitor as her former best friend Taylor.  When Taylor refused to let Victoria ride her new horse, they had a falling out, and Victoria left Waverly.  The new group at Edgewood bonds over horses, of course, but also their favorite cheesy sci-fi TV show Beyond the Galaxy.  Between preparing for an upcoming competition and planning a stunt to celebrate the revival of BTG after a 20-year hiatus, the four friends have a busy time of it and come to appreciate the power of their friendship.  Includes an author’s note about her experiences growing up around horses.  224 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Graphic novel fans are going to love this story of Victoria and her new friends at Edgewood.  The story line is engaging and moves easily between the past and present to slowly reveal what brought Victoria to the new stable, and the artwork is gorgeous, especially the portrayals of horses.

Cons:  I hope the author won’t wait as long as the Beyond the Galaxy producers to create a sequel.

Finding My Dance by Ria Thundercloud, illustrated by Kalila J. Fuller

Published by Penguin Workshop

Summary:  The author introduces herself on the first page as Wakaja haja piiwiga, meaning “Beautiful Thunder Woman” from the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin and the Sandia Pueblo in New Mexico.  She loved dance from the time she received her first jingle dress and began dancing in the powwow at the age of 4.  At 13, she started learning other forms of dance–modern, tap, jazz, ballet–and became a professional dancer after graduating from high school.  Sometimes the restraints of classical dance felt wrong to her, though, and she felt like an outsider.  She has returned to her roots, dancing the eagle dance with a set of eagle wings and now has a daughter of her own.  Remembering how people used to say her name wrong, she corrects those who mispronounce her daughter’s: “Every time someone says our names, they are speaking a language that still exists, and a culture that we still honor, despite many attempts to wipe it out forever.”  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  This beautiful story will resonate with anyone who is trying to find their place in the world.  It celebrates both dance and indigenous cultures, with lovely illustrations filled with gorgeous colors that play with light, shadows, and patterns.

Cons:  No back matter.

Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement by Angela Joy, illustrated by Janelle Washington

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  Beginning with Mamie Till’s decision to bring her son Emmett’s body home to Illinois after his horrific murder in Mississippi, the story goes back to trace Mamie’s life to that point.  A smart, hardworking girl who graduated at the top of her high school class, Mamie married an abusive man, escaping the marriage with her son.  Emmett was visiting family in Mississippi when he was murdered by white men who believed he had violated Jim Crow laws when interacting with the wife of one of the men at a store.  The sheriff planned to quietly bury Emmett’s body, but Mamie insisted on bringing him home and having an open casket funeral.  Photos were widely published, giving impetus to the civil rights movement.  After Emmett’s death, Mamie remarried, went to college, became a teacher, and continued to work for civil rights until her death in 2003 at the age of 81.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator, a playlist, a glossary, a timeline, and a list of sources.  64 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This is a powerful book, both the free verse text and the cut paper illustrations.  The tone is appropriately somber, but also inspiring, showing Mamie’s love for her son, her grief, and her incredible resilience.  A Coretta Scott King Award contender for sure. 

Cons:  The narrative may be somewhat confusing to readers who aren’t familiar with Emmett Till’s story.  They might want to start with the back matter.

Action! How Movies Began by Meghan McCarthy

Published by Simon and Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books

Summary:  This whirlwind tour of the movie industry faithfully reproduces scenes from a huge variety of films, including Saturday Night Fever, The Gold Rush, Nosferatu, Star Wars, and many, many more.  There’s a quick history of various film technologies that led to silent movies and then talkies.  The influence of one film upon others is shown through the illustrations, most fascinatingly with Metropolis.  Racism is briefly touched upon, showing how it affected Josephine Baker’s career, and comparing this with a scene from Black Panther, a blockbuster with an all-Black cast.  “Movies will continue to inspire us for generations to come,” McCarthy concludes, “and we have all the inventors, actors, writers, and directors to thank.”  Includes additional information about the MGM lion, female film editors, the beginnings of Hollywood, the disappearance of Louis Le Prince (which could be a whole book itself), makeup in the silent era; also a bibliography of books, websites, and other sources.  48 pages; grades 2-7.

Pros:  I know this probably sounds like a random mishmash of information, but somehow Meghan McCarthy makes it work as a fascinating read, and the illustrations are phenomenal.  All the characters have her trademark bug-eyed expressions, but they are amazing renditions of so many famous scenes from film history.  If I were on the Caldecott committee, I’d give this a close look.  

Cons:  If you’re a Thomas Edison fan, prepare to be disillusioned.

Invisible by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, illustrated by Gabriela Epstein

Published by Graphix

Summary:  The story opens with five middle school students gathered in the principal’s office, clearly in some kind of trouble and being asked to tell what happened.  Jorge, or George, begins.  When he’s assigned a community service stint in the cafeteria, he’s told he’ll be with “kids like him”.  He assumes that means other gifted students, but it turns out it’s a group of Latinx kids, many of whom, unlike George, speak Spanish as their first language.  While they’re often lumped together, each student is from a different country and has a distinctive personality: George is Puerto Rican, Dayara is from Cuba; Miguel is Dominican; Nico, Venezuelan, and Sara, Mexican.  Although each one has a typical middle school label (smart, tough, jock, snob, loner), as they take turns recounting their story, a very different picture emerges that shows each of them struggling with both family and school issues.  By the end, the principal has heard a story of compassion, helping a little girl and her mother who have been living in a van near the school.  The mean cafeteria lady is reprimanded and sent on her way, while the five kids celebrate their accomplishment and the beginning of a new friendship.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator.  208 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  There’s a lot packed into this graphic novel, with five unique and well-drawn (in both senses of the term) characters who help dispel the notion that Latinx kids all have similar backgrounds.  Most of the students speak Spanish throughout the story, with the English translation added with a dashed-line cartoon bubble.  Sure to be a big hit with all the fans of graphic novels set in middle school.

Cons:  I was hoping for a little redemption for the mean cafeteria lady.

Sal Boat: A Boat by Sal by Thyra Heder

Published by Harry N. Abrams

Summary:  Sal loves the water and dreams of having a boat of his own.  Being a kid, though, he can’t buy a boat, so he decides to build one.  He scavenges materials from wherever he can find them: the garage, a builder’s castoffs, the marina’s dumpster.  Word soon gets around, and everyone has questions to ask and advice to offer.  But Sal is an independent kid, and he knows what he wants.  He finds a secluded spot and starts to build.  Before long, though, one thing becomes apparent: Sal’s boat looks like a house.  But Sal stubbornly clings to the notion that it’s a boat.  Disaster strikes when it’s time to launch the boat.  Try as he might, Sal can’t get it into the water.  He’s just about to destroy the whole thing when he hears, “Wait!”  His family, neighbors, and friends have shown up, ready to get to work.  At last, Sal’s boat is afloat, and he can enjoy a solitary sail…surrounded by the canoes, kayaks, and rowboats filled with all the people who helped him.  48 pages; ages 4-8.  

Pros:  This winning story with enchanting illustrations shows the power of determination and independence…and also accepting help when you need it.  The final picture is a lovely celebration of community.

Cons:  This would be a great read for Talk Like a Pirate Day, but unfortunately, you’ll have to wait another 364 days for it to come around again.