Captain America: The Ghost Army by Alan Gratz, illustrated by Brent Schoonover

Published by Graphix

Summary:  Captain America and his sidekick, 15-year-old Bucky, take on an army of ghosts during World War II.  The ghosts are attacking villages, and Captain America and Bucky are tasked with figuring out how they are being created, then destroying the machinery.  The evil goes even deeper than they first suspect, and they need the help of others that they meet: British fighter “Dum Dum” Dugan; Japanese American soldier Jim Morita who’s a master at creating illusions to trick the Germans; and local resistance fighter Andrei and his granddaughter Sofia, who has a bit of a clean-cut romance with Bucky.  At the end of the day, the good guys squeak out a victory, but the villain escapes, setting up the possibility of a sequel.  176 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  A superhero graphic novel is going to be wildly popular no matter what I say about it, and Alan Gratz has already proven himself a master of suspenseful historical fiction.  Readers will appreciate the excellent artwork and the non-stop action.

Cons:  The plot seemed kind of ridiculously far-fetched to me, but I am the first to admit this is not my favorite genre.

The In-Between: A Memoir in Verse by Katie Van Heidrich

Published by Aladdin

Summary:  In this debut memoir in verse, Katie Van Heidrich writes about a six-week period when she lived with her mother and two younger siblings in a motel room.  It’s an “in-between” time when her mom is between jobs and unable to keep their apartment.  As Katie tries to adjust to her circumstances while pretending everything is normal to her seventh-grade classmates and teachers, she reflects on the past and her relationship with the members of her family.  Her Black mother and white father have always worked to be in her life, even after they divorced, and she recognizes how her dad has provided structure while her mom has allowed her to dream.  The kids spend weekends with their dad, who’s recently remarried and living in the suburbs, but Katie slowly learns the reasons why they can’t live there all the time.  By the time a tenuous happy ending arrives, Katie’s learned that she can’t always please her parents and that her voice is an important part of the family.  Includes seven pages of photos.  304 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Katie Van Heidrich has a masterful debut with verse that is both expressive and concise and beautiful pacing that slowly reveals each family member’s personality and how the past has brought them to the present moment.

Cons:  While there’s nothing in this book that makes it inappropriate for upper elementary, the emotions are so pitch-perfect for middle schoolers that it might be better appreciated by older readers.

In Every Life by Marla Frazee

Published by Beach Lane Books

Summary:  Based on a call-and-response version of a baby-naming blessing Marla Frazee heard at a church service, this book seeks to honor aspects of life that we all experience.  “In every birth, blessed is the wonder,” the book begins, showing two pages of newborn babies with their families.  The next wordless page depicts a family enjoying the wonder of a sunset, the sky filled with pink clouds.  That format continues with sentences that begin “In every…” and show a blessing, followed by a wordless page depicting the blessing.  Smiles, hope, sadness, comfort, mystery, tears, love, and life are all parts of life and parts of this book.  32 pages; ages 3+

Pros:  This beautiful book should be considered for a Caldecott and would make a lovely gift for a new baby, graduate, or anyone going through a life transition. Despite the serious topics, the illustrations add a light touch with plenty of humor.

Cons:  The author’s note at the beginning is in a gold font so light that I missed it the first time I read the book.

Just Like Grandma by Kim Rogers, illustrated by Julie Flett

Published by Heartdrum

Summary:  Becca loves watching her grandma bead and paint and dance.  “More than anything, Becca wants to be just like Grandma.”  She asks Grandma to let her try, and together they bead and paint and dance. After each activity, Grandpa calls them in to eat the foods that he’s prepared.  As Becca gets older, she tries basketball, and Grandma starts to learn from her.  “And Grandma knows that she is just like Becca.”  Includes a glossary, additional information about beadwork, and notes from the author and Cynthia Leitich Smith of Heartdrum.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Heartdrum continues their excellent work with this lovely picture book celebrating intergenerational bonds and grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.  The repeating text helps readers focus on the details of Becca’s life which includes many Native traditions and arts.

Cons:  I wish the back matter had included more information on Grandma’s dancing.

Finding Papa by Angela Pham Krans, illustrated by Thi Bui

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  Mai loves to play with her father, whose favorite game is to make his hands into a chomping crocodile, but one day he says goodbye to her and her mother and leaves.  They start getting letters from him, and after a long wait, Mai’s mother tells her they are going to find Papa.  Their journey takes them to a small boat, where they face the dangers of stormy seas and little food and water until they’re rescued by a large ship.  In a refugee camp, Papa’s letters help the workers know where to send Mai and her mother, and they eventually make their way in America.  Mai doesn’t recognize the strange man who greets them there until he makes his chomping crocodile, and she and her parents have a joyful reunion.  Includes notes from the illustrator and the author, who wrote this story about her own family’s journey from Vietnam in 1983.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A beautiful story told through the eyes of the child narrator showing the courage needed to start a new life.  The mom is particularly heroic as she carries, comforts, and encourages her daughter, and the final reunion is perfect.

Cons:  I wish I could have read the illustrator’s note, but since it was printed on the back cover, the taped-down flap of the book jacket prevented me from doing so.

Evergreen by Matthew Cordell

Published by Feiwel and Friends

Summary:  Evergreen is a squirrel who is afraid of just about everything–everything except soup, that is.  So when her mother, whose specialty is making magic soup, asks her to take some soup to Granny Oak, Evergreen is scared.  And as it turns out, she has reason to be.  In the four sections of her journey, she encounters a soup-stealing rabbit, a hungry hawk, a toad with a mission, and a big, big bear.  As Evergreen figures out how to handle each situation, she grows more confident and courageous.  Back home, her mother greets her with some more soup that needs to be delivered, and Evergreen is more than ready to head back out again.  48 pages; grades K-2.

Pros:  Caldecott Medalist Matthew Cordell has created a real page-turner complete with scary sound effects that will have kids rooting for Evergreen and her brave deeds.  I thought this might be kind of long to read aloud, but it’s so engaging that I look forward to giving it a try.

Cons:  I prefer a brighter color palette.

That Flag by Tameka Fryer Brown illustrated by Nikkolas Smith

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  Although Kiera considers Bianca her best friend, she’s not allowed to go over to Bianca’s because of the Confederate flag that flies outside their house.  While Kiera’s parents tell her that the flag is a symbol of violence and oppression, Bianca’s family describes it as a celebration of courage and pride.  Kiera is confused until a class trip to the Legacy Museum where she learns a history of racism that she didn’t know about. That night her family shares stories about their own experiences of racism that Kiera has never heard about before.  The stories leave her feeling scared and angry, and she finds that she no longer wants to be friends with Bianca, who seems unaffected by the museum trip.  A few days later, both girls see news reports of two Black people shot by three white men wielding a Confederate flag.  When Kiera and her parents go to a candlelight vigil, she’s surprised to see Bianca there with her family, and even more surprised on the drive home when she sees that they’ve taken down their flag.  The next day, Bianca passes Kiera a note saying, “You were right,” and Kiera wonders if they might be able to be friends after all.  Includes additional information about the Confederate flag, a list of sources, and notes from the author and illustrator.  40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  This story addresses some difficult topics in a way that elementary students will understand, offering hope for friendship between the two girls while explaining why this is difficult for Kiera.  The additional information adds context to the story.  An excellent choice for teaching Black history and how it continues to affect us today.

Cons:  Be sure to block out plenty of time to share this book…there’s a lot to unpack.

Jump In! by Shadra Strickland

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Summary:  The golden light of a summer morning beckons kids to the playground where the invitation, “Jump in!” is answered by young and old alike.  Kids line up for a turn at Double Dutch, a boy shows off his moves on the basketball court, a skateboarder returns from school, and even adults join in the fun:  a grandmother surprises everyone with her funky dancing and a hip young pastor jumps in, too.  As the light changes to purple, streetlights flicker on, and moms begin to call kids home.  The last spread shows abandoned jump ropes on the dark playground with the words, “Jump Out.”  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The bouncy rhythmic text and high-energy illustrations will have kids up on their feet celebrating the world of play and community on a hot summer’s day.

Cons:  While kids always enjoy gatefold spreads like the ones scattered through this book, I find they don’t hold up well in the library.

The Carrefour Curse by Dianne K. Salerni

Published by Holiday House

Summary:  Garnet has always loved her mother’s stories about growing up with her large extended family at the Crossroad House, but her mom fled the house long ago, and Garnet has never seen it.  It takes an episode of vomiting frogs to get the two of them back there, where they find the house in disrepair and the family dealing with the family patriarch, Jasper, who is staying alive by sucking the life energy from anyone he can.  As Garnet learns more about her magical family and their history, she discovers powers of her own beyond the magic she has always practiced.  When a crisis threatens her and her cousins, she must use those powers to save herself and to put her family on a new and more promising path.  224 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Buckle yourself in for a magical mystery tour of an ancient house and family that holds more than its share of dark secrets.  Anyone who enjoys a good mystery with a generous dose of spookiness is in for a treat. Dianne Salerni does an amazing job of creating a richly detailed magical family history in just over 200 pages.

Cons:  I struggled to keep all the members of the family straight.  I wish the family tree, which I had to refer to frequently, had been at the beginning of the book instead of on pages 10 and 11.

The Gentle Genius of Trees by Philip Bunting

Published by Crown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  This friendly introduction to trees starts out with the ways humans benefit from them (wood, paper, food, shade), then moves on to the many amazing things trees can do.  Their roots sink deep into the earth, allowing trees to connect with and even communicate with each other.  The genius of trees extends to their growth, allowing them to optimize the location of branches and leaves for making food through photosynthesis.  The book ends with some lessons humans can learn from trees: be flexible, branch out (but look for the things that give you the most energy), look out for those around you, and grow slow to grow strong.  32 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  There’s a surprising amount of information about trees here, all presented with clear explanations, gentle humor, and cute yet informative illustrations. 

Cons:  No back matter.