Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Published by Arthur A. Levine Books

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Summary:  When Mia’s parents left China for the United States, they were full of dreams for a better life.  A year later, they’re working difficult, low-paying jobs, and are a step away from being homeless.  When her mom sees an want-ad for a family to run a hotel near Anaheim, Mia and her family think all their dreams are about to come true.  Unfortunately, the hotel owner is Mr. Yao, a cruel and racist man who makes unreasonable demands on his workers and pays them a pittance; his son is in Mia’s class and makes her life miserable.  The hotel is robbed and Mia’s mom is beaten up; her father endures sleepless nights when customers wake him up at all hours; and Mia has a scare when she is threatened by a drunken customer.  Nevertheless, she is determined to help her family get ahead, and her excellent customer service at the front desk, combined with her parents’ hard work, begins to pay dividends.  When Mr. Yao announces he is selling the motel, the connections Mia and her family have made to their neighbors and to other immigrants pay off, leading them to a happy ending and the promise of a brighter future.  304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Based on the author’s experiences in the early 1990’s, this story will give readers who aren’t recent immigrants greater understanding and empathy for those who are.  Sympathetic characters and a fast-paced plot will keep kids turning the pages.

Cons:  Some of Mia’s victories, especially the big one at the end, were a little unbelievable.

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Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Steven Salerno

thoPublished by Random House Books for Young Readers

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Summary: In the 1970’s, when Harvey Milk was advocating for gay rights, he decided the movement needed a symbol that promoted hope and equality.  He asked artist Gilbert Blake for help. Blake designed a rainbow flag, and volunteers helped create it in time for a march on June 25, 1978.  Five months later, Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone were assassinated. His dream lived on, though, and continued to grow. The rainbow flag spread across the country, and eventually around the world.  On June 26, 2015, the White House was lit up like the colors of the rainbow flag, celebrating the legalization of gay marriage across the U.S. Harvey Milk’s dream of equality and love had truly been realized.  Includes biographical notes on Harvey Milk and Gilbert Blake, timelines for Milk and the rainbow flag, and a list of resources. 48 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  A good introduction to the gay rights movement, as well as the history of the flag that came to symbolize that movement.

Cons:  The biographical information on Harvey Milk was somewhat sketchy.  

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Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

Published by Candlewick

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Summary:  On his way home from swim lessons with his abuela, Julian sees some women dressed as mermaids.  He is enchanted and imagines himself growing fins and swimming underwater.  When they get home, abuela takes a bath, and Julian sets about transforming himself into a mermaid.  He creates a flowered headdress, applies some makeup, and makes himself a tail from a lace curtain.  When abuela emerges from the bath, she gives Julian a good looking over, and he thinks, “Uh-oh”.  But she simply gives him a couple necklaces, takes his hand, and leads him to the beach, where the two of them join in a joyful mermaid parade.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A celebration of self-expression, as wise abuela not only allows her grandson to dream of being a mermaid, but takes him to a place where he can display his beautiful costume and join others who are similarly dressed.  Even the real-life illustrations have a somewhat dreamy nature to them.  A first-time illustrator who may get some Caldecott consideration.

Cons:  I read somewhere that the parade in this story is based on the Coney Island mermaid parade.  It would have been fun to read a little about that and/or see some photos.

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A Frog’s Life by Irene Kelly, illustrated by Margherita Borin

Published by Holiday House

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Summary:  A thorough look at frogs and toads (according to this book, a toad is a kind of frog; personally, I can never remember the distinctions) that includes anatomy, habitat, reproduction, and prey and predators.  Each page includes labeled watercolor illustrations of a great variety of frogs. The last couple pages discuss the different reasons why frogs are endangered, and the back matter includes ways kids can help them, as well as an index.  40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  Whether a reader is interested in research or simply learning more about frogs, this book would make an excellent starting place.  The information is engagingly presented, and the large colorful illustrations will appeal to amphibian aficionados.

Cons:  A list of additional resources would have been a nice addition to the back matter.

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Avalanche! (Survivor Diaries series) by Terry Lynn Johnson

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Twins Ryan and Ashley are expert skiers, but they’re no match for an avalanche that thunders down on them when they’ve skied ahead of their parents.  Both get buried, but Ashley manages to dig her way out.  She sees one of Ryan’s ski poles sticking up, and frees him just in time.  A blow to his head has caused temporary amnesia, and it’s up to Ashley to find them shelter for the night and get them to safety the next day.  Ashley’s persistent determination (“grit”) is emphasized as she fights through a knee injury, a threat from a grizzly bear, and deadly cold to save herself and her brother.  Includes tips for surviving an avalanche, websites with additional information, and an excerpt from Lost, the next book in the series due out in July.  112 pages (story is 86 pages); grades 2-5.

Pros:  Fans of the I Survived series will clamor for these action-packed stories of kids surviving natural disasters.  Plenty of illustrations and non-stop adventure make these a great choice for reluctant readers.

Cons:  Each story starts with the survivor(s) telling their story to a nameless reporter, which seems a bit contrived.

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Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  A neighborhood group of kids plays some pretty complex imaginary games in this graphic novel, aided by their extensive use of cardboard to make costumes and other accessories.  Each chapter is written by Chad Sell and another writer, and focuses on a different kid in the group.  There’s some gender bending, with the sorceress being played by a boy in a long gown and heels, and a girl in a mustache taking the role of mad scientist.  While parents occasionally question these choices, the other kids never do, and there is a satisfying aura of acceptance around the games all summer long.  Even the bully is shown to have a difficult home life and is eventually drawn into the fun.  At home, kids are dealing with divorce and absent parents, but the camaraderie and joy of play help them to put aside those issues when they don their costumes.  288 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A celebration of imagination, adventure, and being true to yourself, told in graphic format with a diverse cast of characters and plenty of colorful costumes.

Cons:  There are a lot of characters to keep track of.

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The Creativity Project: An Awesometastic Story Collection edited by Colby Sharp

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Colby Sharp, co-founder of The Nerdy Book Club, embarked on a creativity project with 44 children’s book authors and illustrators, who were each invited to create two prompts.  Mr. Sharp then sent them two prompts from other artists and asked them to create something based on one of them.  This book is the result: a collection of poems, stories, artwork, and comics. Each one shows the prompt that was given (and who made it up), followed by the creative work it inspired.  The names will be familiar to any fan of children’s literature: Lemony Snicket, Jennifer Holm, Dan Santat, Victoria Jamieson, and many, many more. The final section, entitled “Prompts for You” includes intriguing text and pictures to inspire readers.  Includes brief biographies of all the contributors and an index. 288 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This unusual book is fun to read (especially for us nerdy children’s book fans) and an inspiring look at the creative process.  There were some fun surprises (a deliciously creepy tale by Dav Pilkey comes to mind) and enough different genres to keep things interesting.  The prompts at the end will make you want to cast everything else in your life aside and start writing.

Cons:  It takes some persistence to plow through the whole book, and a few of the entries seemed like the writers kind of phoned it in.

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