Summary: Cici is anxious about her family’s move from Taiwan to Seattle, particularly when she learns that her grandmother, A-má, is staying in Taiwan. The move goes smoothly, with Cici making two new friends almost immediately and getting the A’s in school that her parents expect. But she misses A-má and wants to figure out a way for her grandmother to celebrate her 70th birthday with the family. When Cici learns of a kids’ cooking contest with a grand prize of $1,000, she thinks she’s found the solution. A-má has taught Cici a lot about Taiwanese cooking and Cici is sure she can win. On the first day, she’s paired up with Miranda, an expert chef whose family owns a restaurant, but whose aspirations lie elsewhere. While Cici’s dad thinks cooking is just a hobby and academic achievement is the most important thing, Miranda’s dad believes her cooking should take precedence over everything else. Both girls have plenty to learn about the culinary arts, each other, and themselves as they make their way through the rounds of the contest to find out who will be the top chef. 208 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: Part immigrant story, part friendship story, part cooking reality show, this graphic novel is sure to please a wide variety of readers.
Cons: Cici’s transition to American life seemed a bit unrealistically easy.
Summary: Inspired by her international travels, Sophie Blackall set out to create a book that she could share with kids around the globe. It’s written as a letter to an alien: “Dear Visitor from Outer Space, If you come to Earth, here’s what you need to know.” The writer then launches into descriptions of many different aspects of Earth and its inhabitants: the land, the sea, countries and cities, animals, and people: what they wear, what they eat, jobs they do, the differences between kids and adults. He concludes: “There are lots of things we don’t know. We don’t know where we were before we were born or where we go when we die. But right this minute, we are here together on this beautiful planet. If you come to Earth, you can stay in my room. Love, Quinn.” Includes an author’s note, telling about the inspiration for the book and the real-life kids who are pictured in it, including Quinn. 80 pages; ages 4-9.
Pros: Can Sophie Blackall win a third Caldecott medal in five years? I loved everything about this book, and think kids will enjoy poring over the pages looking at all the details on each spread.
Cons: At 80 pages, and with the aforementioned detailed pages begging for extra time, this could be tough to do as a read-aloud.
Summary: Efrén calls his mom Soperwoman, both because of the delicious sopes she makes for him and his 5-year-old twin brother and sister, and because of all the ways she makes his family’s life work. Amá and Apá both work long hours to afford the one-room apartment the family shares, but Efrén and his siblings always go to school with neatly pressed clothing and homemade lunches. But one day Amá doesn’t come home from work, and the family learns she has been deported to Mexico. Suddenly 12-year-old Efrén must take care of everything at home while Apá works round the clock to try to bring Amá home. Since Apá is also undocumented, it falls to Efrén to cross the border into Tijuana to give Amá the money she needs. His trip there reveals both the desperate conditions of the people living there and the near-impossiblity of Amá making it back to the U.S. There’s not a fairy-tale ending for Efrén and his family, but he discovers he has some of his parents’ strength and becomes determined to speak out about their situation. 272 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: I love the cover of this book, yet I still hope that future editions will have part of it obscured by a number of medal stickers, including the Newbery and Pura Belpré. Efrén’s voice is honest, his family’s resilience is inspiring, and many readers will learn about a desperate situation all too familiar to a large number of American kids.
Cons: A quick review of the contemporary middle grade novels I’ve reviewed this year reveals kids dealing with the following issues: homelessness (2); bullying (2 because of homophobia, 2 because of racism, and 1 due to health issues); child abuse (2); sexual harassment (4); and parents in jail, murdered by a random shooter, and now, getting deported. Welcome to 2020 America.
Summary: Maestro Mouse is your guide through this musical romp starring the animal kingdom. Each page includes a poem or two about the featured animal, concluding with a sign held by Maestro Mouse offering a lesson that can be derived from the poem. Sharp-eyed readers will also spot letters in each picture that, when put together, spell out a word. The animals and words come together in the final gatefold page that shows all the animals playing music in an orchestra. Includes an author’s note from Dan Brown (yes, that Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code and many other books for adults) and endpapers showing and identifying the different musical instruments. Also includes an app that can be downloaded to listen to musical accompaniment throughout the story. 44 pages; ages 4-9.
Pros: A fun introduction to both animals and musical instruments. I did not download the app, but it sounds like an enjoyable way to experience the music introduced in the book. The hidden letters and coded words will please those who like puzzles.
Cons: Poems, a series of (didactic) lessons, musical instruments, hidden letters, word scrambles, and an app that plays music…felt like a bit too much to unpack for one picture book.
Summary: Sent to America to live with her aunt and uncle, the narrator is struggling to adjust to her new life, missing her family and friends back home. One day her aunt takes her on a walk and tells a story from ancient Persia about a group of people forced to leave their home. They arrive by boat in India, ragged and exhausted, only to be told by the king that they can’t stay. His land is too crowded, and there is no room for these strangers who don’t speak his language. He fills a cup to the brim with milk to demonstrate this. One of the refugees takes some sugar from his pack and adds it to the milk. The milk has become sweeter without causing the cup to overflow; the king understands the message that in the same way the Persians will bring happiness to his country, and he welcomes them. The girl learns from her aunt’s story, and begins to see the beauty in her new country, carrying a packet of sugar to remind her to bring sweetness wherever she goes. 48 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: With spare prose and gorgeous illustrations, this book delivers its message about immigration without preaching. It’s also a great example of the timelessness of folklore and how ancient stories can still be relevant today.
Cons: I would have liked some additional information about the history of the folktale.
Summary: Real-life astronaut Mary Cleave narrates the story of how women clawed their way into the space program, beginning with a group of women called the Mercury 13 who tried to be part of the first group of astronauts. Although they were qualified, and their smaller size would have been a plus on early space missions, they were eventually passed over for the all-male Mercury 7. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel to space. It wasn’t until 1983 that Sally Ride broke the barriers at NASA, and many other women have succeeded there in the decades since. The final section of the book is a detailed narrative of Cleave’s own journey aboard the space shuttle in 1985. Includes photos of a diverse group of astronauts, an author’s note, and a lengthy bibliography. 176 pages; grades 5-8.
Pros: As I’m writing this review, my daughter is sitting at the dining room table taking an orbital mechanics final for her graduate program in astronautics at Stanford, so I can’t help but be grateful for how far women have come since Sally Ride burst on the scene during my own college days. This book gives a humorous but honest account of the hard work those early women had to do, and the ridiculous sexism that made it so difficult for them to become part of the space program. The artwork is appealing, and the detailed illustrations of life aboard the space shuttle are truly remarkable.
Cons: The beginning, with its whirlwind history of the early days of the space program in both the U.S. and USSR, is a bit confusing, with a big cast of characters, and a lot of switching back and forth between the two countries (the Russian scenes are cleverly shown with a font resembling Cyrillic script).
Summary: Alligators Mango and Brash find themselves investigating multiple cases: first up is the mysterious disappearance of Chef Gustavo. The two don fake mustaches, then head for the restaurant where Gustavo worked. When the oversized cake they bake there shows up after a huge explosion in a science lab, it seems as though an even more nefarious plot is afoot. It’s up to these two reptilian detectives to crack a series of cases, catch the villains, and get the good chef back to his bakery where he belongs. Includes instructions for drawing Mango, Brash, and C-ORB. First in a series, book 2, Take the Plunge is also available. 208 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: The whole time I was reading this, I kept envisioning 8-year-old kids coming up to me to share some goofball passage that would be totally cracking them up. I mustache you to consider this guaranteed crowd-pleaser for your own library.
Summary: Manon Rhéaume grew up playing backyard hockey with her brothers in Quebec. When she was five, her dad recruited her to be goalie on the team he coached. She did well and continued to push herself to succeed, becoming the first girl to play in the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament at age 11. At the age of 20, she was invited to participate in a training camp for the new Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team. She worked hard enough and played well enough to get to play in a couple of preseason games in 1992 and 1993, and remains the only woman to have played in a game in any of the four major North American sports leagues. Includes an afterword by Manon Rhéaume, a timeline, and fun facts about Manon. 40 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: Here in New England, one can never have enough hockey books in the library, and hockey books about women are rare indeed. This one has a very complete story and large colorful illustrations that will appeal to kids in all elementary grades.
Cons: It wasn’t clear from the story or the afterword how much Manon had played in the NHL. I had to go to the timeline for my answer (two preseason games).
Summary: Poet Irene Latham starts with a poem about a bird’s nest divided into four three-verse sections, one for each season. She then uses the words from this poem to create new short poems. The titles use different words, but all the words for each poem come from the original work; thus, the new poems are “nestlings” from the original “Nest”. The nestlings are divided into seven sections about time (two sections), colors, emotions, wordplay, and places. Most poems are 3-5 lines long with just a word or two in each line. Includes an introduction, tips on how to choose a nest poem and create nestlings of your own, and an index of poem titles. 112 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: I love this concept, a bit of a twist on found poetry, and would enjoy trying it with a group of kids. The poems are brief, but each one really speaks: “First Poem-Draft: ink squeaks/with hope”. “Playing the Trumpet: glittery trill/golden thrum–/splashsong!” Simple enough to be a good introduction to poetry in early grades, yet expressive enough to use with older kids, and plenty here to encourage active poetry writing.
Cons: I loved the illustrations, and wouldn’t have minded seeing one on every page.
Summary: Atticus “Atty” Peale knows what it’s like to be different. Her white father and black stepmother and brother make the family stand out in their small Alabama town. She’s learned to speak up for herself, and being the daughter of a public defender makes her want to speak up for others. When she and her younger brother Martinez get to know Easy, a shelter dog accused of biting a man, Atty becomes the dog’s advocate, going to court to try to save him from being put down. Meanwhile, her father is spending long hours at the jail, working to save his own client, a neighbor and friend accused of murder. Could the two cases be connected? Atty, Martinez, and an interesting new seventh grade friend named Reagan need to keep their wits about them to solve the mysteries. 240 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: A fun girl detective with a mind and voice of her own make this debut novel a good choice for mystery fans. There’s lots more there than just cracking the case: the perils of seventh grade, many well-developed quirky characters, and the impoverished but close-knit Alabama small town setting.
Cons: The plot seemed to meander quite a bit, and a subplot about an alligator didn’t seem essential to the rest of the story.