Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

Published by Disney Hyperion

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Summary:  Sal is new at his Miami middle school, and right away he seems to have attracted the attention of bully Yasmany.  So Sal decides to play a trick on Yasmany: he reaches into another universe, pulls out a dead chicken, and puts it in Yasmany’s locker.  This prank gets him sent to the principal’s office, where he meets Gabi Real: a straight-A student, editor of the paper, president of the student council, and self-appointed counsel to defend Yasmany.  Sal and Gabi are both dealing with difficulties at home: Sal’s mom died several years ago, and Gabi’s baby brother Iggy is fighting for his life in the NICU. They become fast friends, Gabi admiring Sal’s sleight-of-hand magic skills and eventually learning about his abilities to manipulate parallel universes, which include occasional attempts to bring back his dead mother.  Much to their surprise, it turns out Gabi possesses a similar ability, and she and Sal must decide how to channel their powers for good, particularly when it comes to saving Iggy. 400 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  If the above description seems like a lot, trust me when I say that it only skims the surface of all that is in this book.  Did I mention Sal has diabetes? That the Cuban-American culture plays a big role in the story? That Gabi has at least ten dads?  That the story takes place in the near future, replete with artificial intelligence? This is easily the most fun book I’ve read this year, and I’m considering using it as the first selection for my fifth grade book club to suck unsuspecting 10-year-olds into a year of reading enjoyment.

Cons:  Seeing that this is part of the “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint, kids may be expecting more gods and monsters–this is a different kind of story, but I think it will still appeal to fans of Percy Jackson and other demigods.

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The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James by Ashley Herring Blake

Published by Little, Brown and Company

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Summary:  When Sunny gets a heart transplant after many months of being sick, she resolves to start a new life: finding a new best friend and finding a boy to kiss.  The new best friend soon appears in the form of Quinn, a new girl who has traveled all over the world with her wildlife photographer mother, but is settling down on the island where Sunny has grown up.  The two girls embark on their mission to find boys, but it soon becomes clear that they are more interested in kissing each other. Both have had bad experiences around their attraction to girls, so are shy about revealing their feelings.  To further complicate Sunny’s summer, her mother has come back after giving Sunny up when she was four years old. There’s a lot going on in Sunny’s new life, and sometimes she wishes she could go back to the old one, but she gradually learns to trust her new heart and open up to the people around her.  384 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  As she did in Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, Ashley Herring Blake creates a cast of memorable characters and an engaging story that will find a place not only in LGBQT collections, but also with tweens and teens struggling with self-acceptance of all types.

Cons:  The first few chapters were a bit slow.

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Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis

Published by Walker Books

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Image result for queen of the sea dylan meconis

Summary:  Margaret has spent her whole life in an island convent, cut off from the rest of the world except for twice-a-year visits from a ship bringing supplies.  When she is six years old, a boy named William and his mother arrive with one of the shipments. They stay for several years, and the two children become good friends; when William’s mother dies, though, he decides to leave and seek his fortune in the larger world.  Soon he is replaced with a new visitor–the mysterious Eleanor, accompanied by the cruel nun Sister Mary Clemence. As Margaret grows older, she starts to learn the secrets of the island and its inhabitants, including her own shocking story that changes everything. Based on the early years of Queen Elizabeth I (fictionalized as Eleanor), this story ends on a cliffhanger as Eleanor and Margaret prepare to escape the island to an uncertain fate.  393 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  I’ve never predicted that two graphic novels would win the Newbery in a single year, but this and Jerry Craft’s The New Kid are two of the best books I’ve read this year.  There are so many details about the history of the early Elizabethan period and convent life here, all unobtrusively woven into the story so that readers won’t even notice that they’re being educated.  And the characters are all so memorable that I wasn’t as challenged to keep them all straight as I sometimes am with graphic novels. I am praying to Saint Elysia for a sequel.

Cons:  It’s a heavy book and seems like the kind of pages that will quickly begin to part with the binding.

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Bear Came Along by Richard T. Morris, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Published by Little, Brown and Company

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Summary:  The river flows night and day, not realizing it’s a river until Bear falls into it.  He doesn’t realize he’s on an adventure until Froggy hops on his head. As each animal is added to the group, they learn something new about themselves.  Finally, they all go over a waterfall and help one another to have a fun and furious ride. “So many different animals living heir separate lives, but they didn’t know they were in it together…until…the river came along.”  Includes notes from the author and illustrator on the genesis of the book. 40 pages; ages 3-7.

Pros:  The illustrations are gorgeous and fun (I’ve seen this book mentioned as a Caldecott contender); kids will enjoy all the animals and may even get the message about celebrating differences and working together.

Cons:  The author seemed to be trying a little too hard to push his message, even spelling it out in the author’s note.

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Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Published by Balzer + Bray

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Summary:  Jude worries about the changes going on in her Syrian town: the tourist business has almost completely stopped, and her college-age brother is increasingly involved in protests that could get him arrested or worse.  When her mother tells Jude that she’s expecting a baby, she also reveals that the two of them are moving to Jude’s uncle’s house in Cincinnati, Ohio. In America, Jude finds both good and bad. She likes her ELL classmates and bravely decides to try out for her middle school’s production of Beauty and the Beast.  But she also must deal with a cousin who’s not thrilled to have to share her home and with racism when she starts wearing hijab.  Concern for her brother and her best friend, both of whom go missing after she gets to the U.S., and for her father, whose fate in Syria is uncertain, color Jude’s days.  Seeing her mother’s courage and resilience inspires her, and new friends help her to move toward a hopeful future by the end of the book. Includes an author’s note with websites to visit for more information about Syria and Syrian refugees.  352 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  The poetic language of this novel in verse is both beautiful and accessible, and American readers will get a greater understanding of what life for immigrants and refugees is like.  I would certainly not be unhappy to see this on the Newbery or other award list next January.

Cons:  The future still seems pretty uncertain for Jude and her family.

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Sea Glass Summer by Michelle Houts, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

Published by Candlewick

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Summary: While vacationing with his grandmother at her cottage near the beach, Thomas becomes entranced with sea glass.  He uses his grandfather’s old magnifying glass to study his beach finds, and his grandmother tells him each piece tells a story.  Some of those stories come to life in Thomas’s dreams at night, shown in black and white, where he sees a woman christening a ship with a bottle, and a Mason jar being smashed in a shipwreck.  The summer finally comes to an end, and Thomas is heartbroken when he accidentally breaks the magnifying glass on the ferry ride home. Fast forward to another summer at the beach.  This time a girl named Annie is staying at the beach, and  she, too, is a collector.  When she finds a cloudy white piece of sea glass, she shows it to her Papaw Tom. It feels strangely familiar to him, and he tells her every piece of sea glass has a story. That night Annie dreams about a young boy named Thomas peering through a magnifying glass on the beach.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A perfect summer story; bring along your sea glass collection to share at story hour, and get the kids imagining where it all came from.  The illustrations of both the present and the past add plenty of realistic detail to the story.

Cons:  What grandfather would willingly go by the name of Papaw Tom?

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A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks by Alice Faye Duncan, illustrated by Xia Gordon

Published by Sterling Children’s Books

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Image result for song for gwendolyn brooks

Summary:  From an early age, Gwendolyn loved words and poetry.  Fortunately, her parents were supportive of her interests and allowed her to opt out of chores if they knew she was working on a poem  When a teacher accused her daughter of plagiarism, Gwendolyn’s mother marched to the school and had Gwendolyn write a poem on the spot to prove her talent.  As an adult living on the South Side of Chicago, Brooks didn’t let marriage and family stop her from writing, and in 1950 she won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection Annie Allen.  Includes an author’s note with additional information about Gwendolyn Brooks; a timeline; a list of some of her poetry books; and a bibliography.  48 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  Although this beautifully illustrated book is suggested for elementary ages, it would also make an excellent text to use in a middle school introduction to poetry.  Brooks’ poems are sprinkled throughout the story, and older kids might resonate with the poet’s more introverted nature.

Cons:  The fonts used for the main text and the poems were so similar, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the difference between the two.

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