Sincerely Sicily by Tamika Burgess

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  Sicily is dismayed to learn she’ll be starting sixth grade at the new middle school, leaving her three best friends behind.  School turns out okay, as Sicily reconnects with an old friend from kindergarten, whose cute seventh-grade cousin Michael is living with the family.  Things hit a snag, though, when Sicily’s class is assigned a project on their family’s heritage, and some of her classmates question how she can be both Black and Latinx (Panamanian).  Sicily begins to explore her culture through research, conversations with family members, and writing, something she has always felt passionate about.  She has a chance to write for a new school magazine, but the mean girl editor discourages her.  With inspiration from both her late grandfather’s journals and her new friend Michael, Sicily finally decides to persevere with her writing and produces something she can truly be proud of.  Includes a glossary and author’s note.  304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Sicily is a smart and sensitive narrator whose passion for writing and curiosity about her culture will educate and inspire readers.  Subplots about a fight with her grandmother over her hair and a ruined dress she tries to keep a secret from her mom add to the authenticity of the story.

Cons:  Sometimes the story felt a little too much like a vehicle for educating readers about Black Panamanian culture.

An American Story by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Dare Coulter

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  “How do you tell a story that starts in Africa and ends in horror?”  Kwame Alexander was moved to write this poem after he realized his daughter’s fourth-grade teacher wasn’t teaching students about slavery, because she was anxious and hadn’t been trained in how to teach that piece of the American story.  With distinctive illustrations that combine sculptures and paintings, the book portrays life in Africa, people being captured, the Middle Passage, and the horrors of slavery once they arrived in America.  The narrative is interspersed with pictures of a class learning from a teacher who is somewhat hesitant to teach the story, but who is encouraged by her students to tell them the truth.  How do you tell the story? “You do it/by being brave enough/to lift your voice,/by holding/history/in one hand/and clenching/hope/in the other.”  56 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  I have been sharing Kwame Alexander’s The Undefeated with fourth and fifth graders this week, and I think this book is even more powerful.  I know I can feel uncomfortable talking to elementary students about racism and slavery, but they are ready to hear about it, and this is an important book for making sure that happens.  The illustrations are equally powerful and mark my first Caldecott prediction for 2024.

Cons:  I saw recommendations in several places for ages 4-8, but I think it’s more appropriate for older elementary kids.

Chloe’s Lunar New Year by Lily LaMotte, illustrated by Michelle Lee

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  Chloe is excited to celebrate Lunar New Year, as she and her parents and younger brother Noah work all day getting ready for the evening’s reunion dinner with extended family.  There are all kinds of food to prepare, as well as a thorough cleaning of the house, sweeping out the old to make room for good luck in the new year.  Chloe mentions her grandmother, A-má, several times throughout the day, but when evening falls, only her aunt and uncle come for dinner.  Everyone enjoys all the foods they’ve prepared, and the final pages show the family lighting incense and putting food in front of a photograph of A-má, honoring their ancestor.  Includes an author’s note about Lunar New Year, with specific information about how it is celebrated in Taiwan, and a recipe for Fortune Cake.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Another good resource for Lunar New Year, with a simple story and cheerful illustrations showing a family preparing for and celebrating the holiday.  The bit about A-má is left open for interpretation but provides a good way to show the custom of honoring ancestors.

Cons:  Like A Sweet New Year for Ren, this was a little light on the plot.

The ones that got away: books that I wish had won a Newbery or Caldecott

Every year I predict the books that I think will win the Newbery and Caldecott. Sometimes I get a few right, and I always get quite a few wrong. There are some that I still feel regrets about not winning. Here are my top three for both awards. How about you? Share your favorites in the comments!

This is my last post before my annual break. I’ll resume with 2023 books in a few weeks.


Wishes by Muợn Thị Văn, illustrated by Victo Ngai

Published by Orchard Books, 2021

 “The night wished it was quieter.  The bag wished it was deeper.  The light wished it was brighter.” The simple text and beautiful illustrations tell a powerful story about refugees escaping with their wishes and hopes for a better life.

After the Fall by Dan Santat

Published by Roaring Brook Press, 2017

Even adults gasp at the final few pages where Humpty Dumpty overcomes his fears and learns to fly. The illustrations are both funny and inspiring.

Small in the City by Sydney Smith

Published by Neal Porter Books, 2019

This was one of my go-to books when I was reading to classes on Zoom. It’s such a great book for teaching inferencing, and Zoom allowed the kids to study the pictures and try to figure out who the child is looking for in the city.


The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2016

With all due respect to The Girl Who Drank the Moon (the 2017 Newbery winner), it has never come close to the kid appeal of this book and its 2018 sequel.

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

Published by Arthur A. Levine Books, 2018

Part mystery, part historical fiction, part family and friendship story, this book dealt with serious issues of racism, bullying, and homophobia without ever losing its light touch. Varlan Johnson got a Coretta Scott King Honor, but no Newbery.

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016

Jason Reynolds went on to write three more books exploring the challenges of members of this resilient middle school track team. This was a National Book Award Finalist but passed over by the Newbery committee.

5 favorite early chapter books

Maddie and Mabel by Kari Allen, illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss

Published by Kind World Publishing

Two independent sisters work, play, fight, and make up without adults around to mess things up.

Cornbread and Poppy by Matthew Cordell

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Cornbread’s careful planning and Poppy’s spur-of-the-moment adventurousness prove to be a good mix for a successful friendship.

The Puppy Problem by Laura James, illustrated by Charlie Alder

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Gizmo helps his friend solve her puppy problem in this series opener about a dog-run newspaper called The Daily Bark.

Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun by Hena Khan, illustrated by Wastana Haikal

Published by Salaam Reads

Zayd Saeem’s sister Zara gets her own series with a book inspired by Beverly Cleary’s stories about neighborhood kids.

Sir Ladybug by Cory Tabor

Published by Balzer + Bray

Sir Ladybug is a modest knight who likes to hang out with his friends, Pell, a roly poly bug who serves as his herald, and Sterling, his trusty squire, who’s a snail with a shell that’s bigger on the inside than the outside. 

5 favorite nonfiction books

Lots of great science books this year! I’d love to see any of these win a Robert F. Sibert award or honor for nonfiction.

Caves by Nell Cross Beckerman, illustrated by Kalen Chock

Published by Orchard Books

The author’s love of caves is evident from the poetic text and the illustrations may inspire readers to try spelunking.

The Universe in You: A Microscopic Journey by Jason Chin

Published by Neal Porter Books

In this follow-up to Your Place in the Universe, Jason Chin goes microscopic to explore the tiniest particles that make up everything in the universe and how they combine to make each one of us unique.

Surviving the Wild series by Remy Lai

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

Each book in this series tells a true story of survival from an animal’s perspective. A perfect trifecta of cute and funny animals, graphic novel format, and important environmental information.

A Seed Grows by Antoinette Portis

Published by Neal Porter Books

A perfect early science resource that I’m already excited to share with preschoolers when they learn about seeds and plants next spring.

If the World Were 100 Animals by Miranda Smith, illustrated by Aaron Cushley

Published by Crown Books for Young Readers

This companion to If the World Were 100 People makes a great interactive read-aloud to share facts about animals in a way that has a big wow factor and is easy to understand.