Small In the City by Sydney Smith

Published by Neal Porter Books

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Summary:  The first four pages are wordless illustrations, showing a child riding on a train, then pulling the string for a stop.  Emerging, the child declares, “I know what it’s like to be small in the city.” For a few pages, the narrator describes that experience–it’s loud, people don’t see you, it can be hard to know the right thing to do.  Then, “But I know you. You’ll be all right. If you want, I can give you some advice.” It sounds like the subject in question is homeless, as the advice is all about avoiding dark alleyways and resting under a warm dryer vent.  But then, “In the park I have a favorite bench. Sometimes my friend is there….You could sit on her lap and she will pet you.” The child posts a sign for a lost cat, and it all becomes clear. There’s a warm hug from Mom waiting at home, and the final page shows cat prints in the snow, opening up the possibility that the cat has returned.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Wow, this book really packs a punch with some pretty spare text.  I like that the ending is ambiguous but with a hint of optimism. The illustrations are perfect, with the blurry snowscapes that could be the result of teary eyes.

Cons:  This seemed a bit dark for several pages, which could worry some listeners.

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Just Because by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Published by Candlewick

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Summary:  A girl tries to stall bedtime by asking a series of difficult questions, but her father is always one step ahead of her.  “Why is the ocean blue?” “Every night, when you go to sleep, the fish take out guitars. They sing sad songs and cry blue tears.”  While none of the answers is accurate, they show a great deal of imagination. When the girl explodes with sixteen questions on a two-page spread, her father tells her it’s time to go to sleep.  Why? “Because there are some things we can only see with our eyes closed.” 40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  I love Mac Barnett–who doesn’t?–but my favorite part of this book is Isabelle Arsenault’s illustrations, brimming with imagination but with a muted palette perfect for nighttime.  Showing a jumble of shells, animals, planets, and a guitar in the girl’s bedroom hints at the inquisitive minds that are part of this family. A perfect bedtime story.

Cons:  All those marbles scattered on the floor seem like a nighttime hazard.

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Me and the Sky: Captain Beverley Bass, Pioneering Pilot by Beverley Bass with Cynthia Williams, pictures by Joanie Stone

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  From the time she was a kid, Beverley Bass was fascinated by flying.  She enjoyed throwing herself off the top of the washing machine and watching planes take off and land at the local airport.  She took her first flying lesson at 19, and decided aviation was going to be her career. She took jobs men didn’t want, like flying cargo and private business planes; by the time she was 24, she had been hired by American Airlines as a flight engineer.  From there, she worked her way up to co-pilot, and at 34 she was made the first woman captain of an American Airlines plane. She eventually became the first to captain an all-female flight crew at American Airlines and the first woman to teach other pilots. She finishes her memoir with this message: “No dream is too big.  Dream big and soar high!” Includes additional information about Beverley, her experiences on 9/11 (which became the basis for a musical called Come from Away), and her role in founding the International Society of Women Airline Pilots.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  An inspiring picture book about a little-known woman who broke many barriers for women in aviation.  The illustrations have a retro 1950’s look that is fun and appealing.

Cons:  Not really a con, but I’d like to know more of the 9/11 tale if there are any aspiring writers out there who would like to take on that picture book project.

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The Magic Mirror (Once Upon A Fairy Tale book 1) by Anna Staniszewski, illustrated by Macky Pamintuan

Published by Scholastic

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Summary:  There’s a heat wave hitting the kingdom, and when Kara and Zed intercept a message meant for the Ice Princess, they learn why: her magic mirror has been broken, and she can’t make winter happen without it.  The two kids go on a mission to help her, but when they get to the palace, they discover there’s more broken that just a mirror. Princess Aspen and her sister, Princess Sola, the Sun Princess, have had a falling-out, and it’s thrown the seasons out of whack.  It’s up to Kara and Zed to help them patch things up and get the climate back on track. Fortunately, like all good fairy tales, this one ends happily, although it looks like another adventure (The Stolen Slipper, due out in early December) awaits Kara and Zed.  96 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  The Scholastic Branches imprint has produced about two dozen different series, and they’re all popular with the early chapter book crowd (mostly grades 2-3 in my schools).  I have no doubt that this one will keep pace with the others, as the story was engaging almost from the start.

Cons:  The discovery of an unbroken piece of glass on the bottom of the princess’s shoe seemed a bit unlikely, even for a fairy tale.

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Astro-Nuts Mission One: The Plant Planet by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Steven Weinberg

Published by Chronicle Books

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Summary:  Planet Earth narrates this graphic adventure about four super-powered animals sent by NNASA (Not the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to find a new planet that will support human life.  Blasting out of Thomas Jefferson’s nostril on Mount Rushmore, the four discover the Plant Planet, which at first seems like an ideal environment. AstroWolf, SmartHawk, LaserShark, and StinkBug each use their special talents to analyze the atmosphere and life on the planet.  Although their initial reports to NNASA are promising, the planet ultimately ends up being hostile to animal life, and the four heroes barely escape. If the last few pages are any indications, it looks like the team will be sent to explore The Water Planet in mission #2.  Includes notes about the collage art used for the illustrations. 220 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Kids will love this wacky graphic novel with plenty of action, adventure, and bathroom humor, and will also learn a little about climate change and other science along the way.  

Cons:  The ultimate fate of the Plant Planet seemed a bit harsh.

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The Bravest Man in the World: A Story Inspired by Wallace Hartley and the Titanic by Patricia Polacco

Published by Simon and Schuster

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Summary:  When young Jonathan complains about practicing piano, calling it a “sissy” pastime, his grandfather tells him a story of a musician he describes as “the bravest man in the world”.  It turns out that, as a child, his grandfather inadvertently became a stowaway on the Titanic.  There, he had a string of incredible luck, getting mentored by violinist Mr. Hartley and cook Mrs. Weeks.  After a few lessons from Mr. Hartley, the boy got a chance to play for John Jacob Astor, who invited him to study at the Institute of Musical Art.  He’d live with Mrs. Weeks in New York. Alas, everyone’s jubilation was short-lived; that night the ship sank, and the boy barely escaped, with the haunting notes of “Nearer My God to Thee” played by the ship’s orchestra, including Mr. Hartley, serving as the soundtrack to the disaster.  Includes an author’s note about Wallace Hartley and his violin, which survived the sinking. 56 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Titanic history  buffs will appreciate this tale of life on board the luxury ship, as well as an account of the sinking.  As usual, Patricia Polacco tells a story designed to tug at the heartstrings.

Cons:  I confess I’m not a huge Polacco fan, generally find her books verbose and mawkishly sentimental.  Check and check on this one. Also, it seemed pretty unrealistic that the boy’s fortunes could turn around so dramatically in the few days the Titanic was at sea.

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The World Ends in April by Stacy McAnulty

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Eleanor gets annoyed when her Grandpa Joe insists on drilling her and her two younger brothers on survivalist techniques to prepare them for impending doom.  But when she runs across a website with a Harvard scientist claiming an asteroid is heading for Earth, she begins to have doomsday predictions of her own. Enlisting the help of her friend Mack, she forms the Nature Club, using the innocuous-sounding name as a cover to hide her real intentions of preparing her classmates for the end of the world as they know it.  Getting ready to survive Armageddon distracts Eleanor from the fact that visually-impaired Mack is seriously considering going to a school for the blind, and before long she finds herself enjoying meetings of her new club. But as the doomsday clock keeps ticking, fewer people believe her predictions, and Eleanor finds herself taking desperate measures to ensure her loved ones are ready.  Includes an author’s note; information about asteroids; and tips for how to build a survival kit. 368 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  What better group to prepare for a dramatic end to the world than a bunch of middle schoolers?  Stacy McAnulty creates a funny, endearing group of misfits who all have their own reasons for wanting the distraction of the world ending to keep them from their everyday worries.  The fast-paced plot and interesting discussion potential would make this a good book club choice.

Cons:  I didn’t warm up to Eleanor as much as I did to Lucy in McAnulty’s The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, and I grew increasingly frustrated with her refusal to believe the mounting evidence that the scientist was a quack.

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