Snow Horses: A First Night Story by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Micha Archer

Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books

Summary:  A young woman named Jenny guides her two horses, Tom and Tim, out into a snowy night for a New Year’s Eve celebration.  First, they pull a sleigh full of children around town before dropping them off at their houses to snuggle into bed.  They next go to the manor to pick up the older people, who enjoy reminiscing about their childhood days on their sleigh ride.  Finally, the two horses are led back into the barn where they are bedded down for the night.  Everyone falls asleep as New Year’s Eve turns into New Year’s Day.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The lyrical text and gorgeous collages capture a snowy night filled with celebration.  The colors and textures make for some amazing illustrations by Caldecott honoree Micha Archer.  A perfect addition to winter holiday collections.

Cons:  It’s a bit more slow-moving and contemplative than some other holiday stories.

How to Send a Hug by Hayley Rocco, illustrated by John Rocco

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  A girl tells readers that she is known for being good at giving hugs, but she can’t hug her grandmother, who lives far away.  Talking on the phone or via computer isn’t quite good enough, so the girl explains how she sends a hug through the mail.  After writing a letter with her favorite marker, she puts it in a special jacket (envelope), addresses it, and sticks the ticket for its trip (stamp) on the front.  The Hug Delivery Specialist (mail carrier) takes it to the post office, and the wait begins.  While she’s waiting for Grandma’s answer, she thinks of others around the world receiving hugs, whether they’re delivered by donkey, jeep, bicycle, or boat.  Finally, she gets a hug back from her grandmother, complete with fragrant rose petals from her garden. Includes an author’s note about her own experiences with mail as a child.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Considering the somewhat imperiled state of the USPS, there certainly seem to be plenty of picture books serving as love letters to it.  This would make a great companion to The Lost Package, Letters from Space, or Sincerely, Emerson.  It’s also a good mentor text for procedural writing.  I always love John Rocco’s illustrations, and his wife’s debut picture book is excellent as well.

Cons:  Parts of Grandma’s letter are obscured by the illustration.

Red Scare by Liam Francis Walsh

Published by Graphix

Summary:  Peggy’s got a lot going on: she’s recovering from polio and has to use crutches, her twin brother Skip has started being mean to her, and her father has returned from the Korean War with serious physical and psychological injuries, forcing her mother to work as a hotel maid.  One night, Peggy goes to work with her mom and winds up being a witness to a murder and unknowingly coming into possession of a mysterious substance.  When she realizes that she has this potion and that it enables her to fly, she and her new neighbor Jess begin having adventures all over town.  The FBI catches up with them eventually, intent on recovering the potion no matter who gets in their way.  When a suspenseful showdown atop a fire tower puts Peggy, Jess, and Skip in danger, Peggy finds out that she is braver than she thinks.  Includes additional information about polio, the red scare, and the atomic age. 240 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Great snakes!  Tintin fans will love the Hergé-inspired artwork and nonstop adventures of this historical graphic novel that features the red scare of the 1950’s, polio, UFO’s, the Korean War, and a stirring speech about freedom and respecting others’ beliefs delivered by Peggy’s father to the mob going after Jess’s Communist dad.  

Cons:  There was a lot going on in 240 pages, both the rapid-fire plot and the characters’ development and growth, making some resolutions feel a bit too speedy.

A Sweet New Year for Ren by Michelle Sterling, illustrated by Dung Ho

Published by Simon and Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books

Summary:  Ren is excited to be getting ready for the Lunar New Year.  There’s plenty of food to prepare, but every time Ren asks to help, she’s told that she is too little (even though she has recently grown two inches!).  Finally, her big brother Charlie comes home, and he has the patience to gently guide Ren through making pineapple cakes.  She is happy when the family sits down to the holiday dinner that she has made something to contribute.  After dinner, everyone gathers outside to watch the fireworks.  Includes an author’s note at the beginning about her connection to Lunar New Year and a recipe for pineapple cakes at the end.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A happy introduction to Lunar New Year, narrated by an enthusiastic young girl who loves the holiday and her family.  The cheerful illustrations will help readers visualize the different foods and decorations.

Cons:  I thought there would be more of a plot resolution around Ren being repeatedly told that she was too little.

Only the Best: The Exceptional Life and Fashion of Ann Lowe by Kate Messner and Margaret E. Powell, illustrated by Erin K. Robinson

Published by Chronicle Books

Summary:  Ann Lowe learned her first lessons about sewing and design from her grandmother, who had been an enslaved seamstress, and her mother, who owned a dress shop.  Ann’s work ethic showed itself early; when her mother died, young Ann put aside her grief and finished the dresses that had been ordered for New Year’s Eve.  A year later, she got a job in Tampa, Florida, sewing for a wealthy family.  Her ambitions took her to New York City, where she found success despite the racism she encountered there.  Jacqueline Bouvier hired Ann and her assistants to design and sew her gown and bridesmaid’s dresses for her wedding to Senator John F. Kennedy.  When a leaky ceiling flooded Ann’s workroom and destroyed all the dresses ten days before the wedding, she and her seamstresses recreated every one.  Ann capped her career by opening her own store with her own label on Madison Avenue.  Includes an author’s note with two photos, quotations, and a bibliography.  56 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  I loved Fancy Party Gowns by Deborah Blumenthal (2017), but I love this book at least as much.  There’s a bit more detail about Ann’s career, the writing style is engaging, and the illustrations are stunning.

Cons:  At 56 pages, it’s a bit long for a picture book.

Strong by Rob Kearney and Eric Rosswood, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Rob Kearney was a strong kid who excelled at football and cheerleading, but his favorite sport was weightlifting.  It made him feel like a superhero.  At the age of 17, Rob learned about the Strongman competition and decided to become a weightlifting champion.  Competition events involved lifting heavy logs, stones, and tires, so Rob got to work, running, swimming, and lifting the heaviest weights he could.  Rob loved wearing bright, colorful clothing, but other competitors wore plain, dark colors, so Rob did, too.  When he came in last at his first competition, he felt as dark and gloomy as his clothes.  Falling in love with Joey, a fellow weightlifter, encouraged Rob to be himself, and before long he was dressing exactly the way he wanted to.  Joey’s support and encouragement helped Rob in other ways, and he eventually won the North American Strongman championship.  Includes a letter to readers from Rob, additional resources, and descriptions of all the Strongman events.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The empowering be-yourself message will especially speak to LGBQT+ readers, as Rob defies stereotypes with his rainbow mohawk and unconventional clothing in a sport that is often associated with more traditional masculinity.  The colorful illustrations bring the weightlifting events to life.

Cons:  Although Joey offers to wear the same colorful clothes as Rob, he’s shown on the last page in blue pants and a plain white t-shirt.

Yuck, You Suck! Poems About Animals That Sip, Slurp Suck by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, illustrated by Eugenia Nobati

Published by Millbrook Press

Summary:  Thirteen animals are profiled in this poetry collection, from the tiny mosquito to the elephant.  Some animals, like the vampire bat, have a reputation for sucking but actually lap up blood from the animals they bite (is that better?).  The first poem introduces the concept of sucking, and the final one connects the animals to humans, who start their lives sucking milk.  Includes additional information about animals that suck, a list of additional resources, anatomical terms for body parts that suck, a glossary, and a bit more information on each animal.  32 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  From the team that brought you Eek, You Reek! (about stinky animals) comes a book that is sure to catch the eye of many elementary students.  Most of the poems have catchy rhymes (although there’s a haiku thrown in, for the honeybee), and kids will get a kick out of the bug-eyed creatures in the illustrations.

Cons:  There’s a certain bloody gross-out factor inherent in the subject matter. You may not want to read this book before sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner and perhaps not too soon after either.

Playing Through the Turnaround by Mylisa Larsen

Published by Clarion Books

Summary:  Nick, Lily, Jake, Cassie, and Mac all have problems at school and at home, but twice a week they get to forget about all that and just play music in their incredible Jazz Lab with Mr. Lewis.  But when Mr. Lewis is mysteriously absent just as the school board is amping up to make serious budget cuts, the five eighth-graders fear that they will lose their beloved group.  With the help of Quagmire, a troublemaker who isn’t afraid to speak truth to power, they embark on a series of increasingly outrageous actions to get the adults around them to listen–and not just about Jazz Lab.  A bittersweet plot twist near the end helps solidify them as a group and makes them even more confident about speaking up for what is important.  272 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  As you may know, I do love a good band story, and this one has an empowering message and a great cast of characters with issues that many middle schoolers will relate to.  The multiple points of view and short chapters make this a quick and engaging read that will appeal to reluctant and avid readers alike.  I found it hard to put down and zipped through it in just a couple of days.

Cons:  While I applaud the author for not neatly tying up all the loose ends in the final chapters, I was still wishing for a happy resolution for Cassie.

The Talk by Alicia D. Williams, illustrated by Briana Mukodiri Uchendu

Published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books

Summary:  A young boy tells of his happy life with his parents, grandparents, and three best friends.  He is clearly loved by all and enjoys being a kid while also dreaming of what he’ll do when he grows up.  As he gets older, his parents and grandparents start to tell him things like not to hang out in groups of four or more and to be quiet and keep his hands out of his pockets in the store.  One day, he’s heading out to meet his friends in his new college hoodie when his parents stop him.  It’s time to have The Talk. The book doesn’t share what they tell him, but two pages of illustrations show young Black men and women experiencing racism from white adults, including a police officer.  At the end, he’s embraced by his parents and grandparents, reminding him he’s done nothing wrong.  “This is me and my friends,” he concludes. “We want to hang and run, joke and laugh…race and soar, skate and flip, be chill and wild…and just be us.”  40 pages; all ages.

Pros:  This book amazed me in the way the text and illustrations worked together to capture the young boy’s joy, but to also show hints of what his parents and grandparents worry about and their bittersweet emotions watching him grow up.  The way the actual talk was presented was brilliant, with a realistically empowering finale.

Cons:  Obviously, that this book needs to even exist.

Hazel Hill Is Gonna Win This One by Maggie Horne

Published by Clarion Books

Summary:  Hazel has accepted her friendless state in seventh grade and is focusing on winning the speech contest to avenge last year’s loss to Ella Quinn.  She doesn’t pay much attention to popular boy Tyler, who insists on telling her about his many crushes.  But one morning, his gossip is a bit different: Ella, his former girlfriend, told him she didn’t want to get back together because she has a crush on Hazel.  Hazel is out as gay, and she’s not happy that Ella’s using her this way.  When she confronts Ella, though, she learns that Ella’s been receiving sexually harassing messages from someone who may or may not be Tyler.  Hazel discovers an important clue linking Tyler to the messages, but when the girls try to report what’s going on, they end up being the ones to get in trouble.  Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Hazel decides to use her public platform in the speech competition to bring attention to what is happening.  240 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Hazel’s funny and distinctive voice tells a story of middle school sexual harrassment that may, unfortunately, be all too familiar to many readers.  Hazel, Ella, and Ella’s best friend Riley courageously join forces to speak out for justice.  The unexpected friendship Hazel finds with Ella and Riley (with a possible romance with Riley) adds a sweet dimension to the story.

Cons:  I like to see villains have some redeeming traits or at least an explanation for their terrible behavior, but this was not the case for either the principal or Tyler’s mother.