Summary: Ellis Earl lives in grinding poverty in 1967 Mississippi, sharing his three-room shack with his mother, eight siblings, and 3-year-old niece. He dreams of being a lawyer or teacher one day and is fortunate to have a supportive teacher, Mr. Foster, who does what he can to keep his students fed and in school. When Mr. Foster gives him a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ellis Earl is delighted to meet a character even worse off than he is who succeeds in turning things around for himself and his family. Mr. Foster also introduces Ellis Earl to the larger world, first by taking him to his church on Easter and then by inviting some of the class to Jackson to greet Senator Robert Kennedy, who is coming to the Mississippi delta to see firsthand the poverty there. That trip shows Ellis Earl and his classmates life beyond their small town, but also provides a sobering introduction to hatred and racism. Through luck and determination Ellis Earl finds his own “golden ticket” that begins to change his and his family’s fortunes. Includes an author’s note about how her own experiences growing up in Mississippi influenced this book. 310 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: I loved Ellis Earl and his family, who are all portrayed as flawed but loveable characters, there for each other through some pretty terrible times. The historical information is deftly woven into the story, as are the parallels between Ellis Earl’s story and Charlie Bucket’s.
Cons: While I do love a happy ending and was delighted with this one, it had a couple of unlikely events occurring in the same month to turn things around for the family.
Summary: As the sun goes down in the desert, the armadillo emerges. “Armadillo, armadillo, armadillo, run. Romp and play till the night is done.” As the night goes on the armadillo, leaps, digs, eats, and finally returns to its burrow where it settles down to sleep as a new day begins. Includes a page of armadillo facts. 32 pages; ages 2-6.
Pros: Michael Sampson collaborated with the late Bill Martin, Jr. on many picture books including Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. The beautiful illustrations of this one are reminiscent of Eric Carle and Lois Ehlert, who illustrated some of Martin’s best-loved books.
Cons: In general, I find that books published posthumously aren’t quite the caliber of the ones published when the author was alive.
Summary: Wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas teams with Dr. Rebecca Cliffe (a.k.a. Dr. Sloth or Becky) to introduce kids to sloths, including different sloth species, their habitats, diets, behavior, and babies. Readers learn about dangers to sloth, which mostly come from their interactions with the human world. Becky’s work is described, from her childhood interest in nature and biology to the groundbreaking techniques she has used to observe sloths, becoming one of the first scientists to study these animals in-depth. The organization she founded, Sloth Conservation Foundation, focuses on saving sloths in the wild, and readers get some tips on how they can help. Includes a glossary and additional resources. 40 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: I’m a big Suzi Eszterhas fan because her books are so appealing to young readers. Her wildlife photography is amazing, and she tends to write about animals with a lot of kid appeal. This book is no exception, and I look forward to adding it to my library.
Cons: Can’t wait for the first kid to learn the fascinating facts about sloths’ elimination: they only pee and poop once a week and lose about 30 percent of their body weight when they do.
Summary: Zara lives on a street with several other kids, including her brother Zayd who will grow up to star in his own series. Before her neighbor Mr. Chapman moved away, he called Zara “Queen of the Neighborhood” and said she ruled with grace and fairness. A new family moves into Mr. Chapman’s house, and the two kids become part of the neighborhood. Naomi, who is Zara’s age, has enough good ideas for Zara to feel threatened in her role as queen. Inspired by her uncle’s Guinness Book of World Records, Zara decides to try to set a world record in an attempt to shine the spotlight on herself once again. As a solo effort, the plan is a failure, but when she starts including her friends, both old and new, it’s a runaway success. Book 2 will be out in October. 133 pages; grades 2-4.
Pros: The author cites Beverly Cleary’s Ramona stories as an inspiration, and this book does have that feel to it, with a strong-willed protagonist and a close-knit family and neighborhood. Unlike Klickitat Street, there’s some diversity in the neighborhood, including Zara’s Pakistani American family. The plentiful illustrations will appeal to early chapter book readers.
Cons: As much as I love books like these, I struggle to sell them to kids, who seem to almost always opt for graphic novels instead.
Summary: While a group of parents attends ESL classes, their children stay in the playroom next door. Since they speak different languages, the kids end up playing alone a lot. But Luli has an idea. Today she’s brought a thermos, a teapot, and a stack of cups. She sets up a table, then calls “Chá!’ the Chinese word for tea. The word is similar in many other languages (and other languages have a word that is similar to the English “tea”). Each child is shown saying the word for tea in their own language, and soon, they’re gathered around the table. Lili pulls out another box and practices a new English word, “Cookie?” The playroom is no longer quiet. Includes an author’s note about tea, and several pages about immigrants from each continent that include maps and information about how tea is served in different countries. 40 pages; ages 3-7.
Pros: A perfect book to share for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May. The kids are super cute, and it’s interesting to see how both the words and the customs for tea transcend different languages and cultures.
Cons: Ten young children sharing tea in small cups (and even transferring some from one cup to another) without spilling a drop? Seems a tiny bit unrealistic.
Summary: Mushrooms can suddenly pop up anywhere, especially after a rain. With a wide variety of colors and scents, the mushrooms are often used as food, including by humans. The mushrooms may seem to disappear, but they continue to grow underground, the largest stretching for miles after growing for thousands of years. Mushrooms reproduce by spores, which can even seed clouds and produce the rain that encourages the growth of new mushrooms. Includes four pages of information about mushrooms, including a craft and additional resources. 32 pages; grades K-3.
Pros: A fascinating look at something many of us may take for granted, with gorgeous close-up illustrations of a wide variety of mushrooms.
Cons: Is it just me, or are mushrooms just a little bit creepy?
Summary: Mallory considers herself lucky to have a best friend like Reagan, someone who understands her fears and helps her move up the ladder of middle school popularity. So, when Jennifer Chan moves in across the street, Mallory is wary. Jennifer is fascinated by aliens and hopes to find life in space. Mallory actually finds this interesting, too, but knows it is potential bully bait at school, which indeed proves to be the case once seventh grade begins. When Jennifer goes missing, Mallory starts to believe that she’s made contact with the aliens and enlists the help of two smart but less popular girls. The narrative moves between the past and the present, with Mallory uncomfortably recalling The Incident, which she finally reveals in a climactic moment. As she comes to terms with the fact that she has been a bully–or at least a bystander–she starts to re-evaluate what she wants in a friend and to see that she holds the key to finding Jennifer Chan. Includes an author’s note describing her own experience with being bullied. 288 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: This powerful novel shows that everyone has a story to tell, whether that person is a bully, a target, or a bystander. I liked how it didn’t just have a mean girl, but really showed each girl’s motivations for doing what she did. Tae Keller has already won one Newbery, and I’m sure this book will be considered for another.
Cons: Tess was the exception to my statement above and wasn’t as three-dimensional as the other characters.
Summary: A penguin egg narrates what it hears as its mother goes for food and its father keeps it warm and safe, tucked between his feet. Finally, the egg hatches, and the baby is able to see its dad. When the mother penguins all return, the baby listens for its mother’s distinctive sounds. Finally, it recognizes her, and the family is reunited. Includes additional information about emperor penguins. 40 pages; ages 2-6.
Pros: Beautiful illustrations depict penguin scenes both close-up and zoomed out, backed by gorgeous Antarctic sky. Does double duty as a perfect read for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
Cons: Cons for a book about animal parents on Mother’s Day? Not on my watch.
Summary: The narrator is excited to wear her homemade rabbit costume for dress-up day at school. But when the big day arrives, she’s home sick in bed. She’s feeling better the next day, so her mom suggests she wear her costume. She’s excited to get to school but feels self-conscious when she sees the other kids in their regular clothes. Turns out that Hugo was out sick the day before, too, and a few minutes later, he shows up at school in his costume…a carrot! “Be sad no more, little rabbit–your carrot is here!” Before long, everyone is hopping around the playground, and Hugo is her new best friend. The next day, the other kids come to school in costume, ready to play more imaginary games. 40 pages; ages 3-6
Pros: Well, right off the bat, I love Hugo. Any kid who dresses up like a carrot, then says the line above is someone I’d like to hang out with. Overall, this is a cute story that will resonate with preschoolers and show them that it’s okay to do their own thing.
Summary: Each book in this new graphic novel series tells a true story of survival from an animal’s perspective. Star and her mother and aunt seek a new home due to deforestation. They swim to an island where they’re captured by humans and sent to an elephant sanctuary. Rainbow survives a wildfire in the Australian bush country and is taken to a koala hospital before being released back into the wild. Both books include several pages at the end that tell more about the animals, their story, and what kids can do to help the environment. 108 pages; grades 1-4.
Pros: A perfect trifecta of cute and funny animals, graphic novel format, and important environmental information. Book 3, Sunny the Shark, will be available in August.
Cons: The ways to take action feel like such tiny drops in the whole climate change bucket.