The Prettiest by Brigit Young

Published by Roaring Brook Press

The Prettiest - Kindle edition by Brigit Young. Children Kindle ...

Summary:  A shock wave travels through the eighth grade when an anonymous list appears on social media ranking the top 50 prettiest girls in the class.  The story is told from alternating points of view of three characters:  Eve, a shy introvert who’s uncomfortable with her body’s sudden changes and is in the #1 spot; Eve’s best friend Nessa, a theater kid who doesn’t make the list and has been teased about her weight; and Sophie, a girl from the wrong side of town striving to be best at everything who is dismayed to be ranked #2.  Although Sophie’s never hung around with Eve and Nessa, the fallout from the list brings them together, and they plot to bring down the boy they think created the list.  Several plot twists reveal to the girls that appearances can be deceiving, especially in middle school, and that everyone, including the three of them, has something to hide.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This seems to be the year of the middle school sexual harassment book, and this has been one of my favorites.  Too often, stories that take place in middle school have the good kids versus the mean kids, but this showed that all kids are struggling with their identities as they enter adolescence.  The question of who created the list creates a page turner that will keep readers engaged to the very end.

Cons:  Trying not to make this a spoiler, but after learning so much about many of the characters, we never really get to know the one who actually created the list.

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All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat

Published by Candlewick Press (released October 30)

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer ...

Summary:  In the summer of 2018, the entire world watched as rescue teams struggled to save the twelve members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach who were stuck inside the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand.  This book tells the story from the beginning, when this close-knit group of boys ranging in age from 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach decided to take a trip to the cave one day after practice.  After the cave unexpectedly flooded, an international team of cavers and divers were called in to figure out the best rescue strategy: pump out the water, drill into the side of the cave, or dive and swim the team out.  In the end, the dive and swim strategy was used, and as the story unfolds, the reader finds out it was nothing short of a miracle that all thirteen were rescued (although a Thai Navy SEAL died delivering oxygen tanks a couple days before the rescue procedure began).  Sidebars give more information about Thailand, caves, and Buddhism (the coach spent much of his life in Buddhist monasteries, and his teachings on meditation helped everyone stay calm inside the cave).  Includes an author’s note that tells of her connection to the story (she was visiting family in Thailand during the rescue); extensive source notes, a bibliography, and an index.  288 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  I didn’t think anything could compel me to read a 288-page book on my phone, but once I started reading this story, I couldn’t stop.  The boys and especially their coach are likeable from page 1, and the rescuers endure hunger, sleep deprivation, and what sounded like a really disgusting foot fungus condition to accomplish something that seemed impossible from beginning to end.  The numerous photos draw the reader in, and the sidebars add to the content, and remind me that I’d really like to visit Thailand someday.

Cons:  This book appears to be retailing for almost $25.00.

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King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender

Published by Scholastic

King and the Dragonflies: Callender, Kacen: 9781338129335: Amazon ...

Summary:  King and his parents are barely able to function as they try to deal with the grief over the sudden death of King’s older brother Khalid.  King is also starting to recognize his feelings for Sandy, a boy he used to be friends with until they had a fight.  Sandy had confided in King that he is gay, and King told him he might be too.  Khalid overheard the conversation, and told King that he couldn’t be gay, that dealing with being Black was enough.  When Sandy runs away from his abusive father, King is the only one who knows where he is, and ends up lying to his friends and family to protect him.  As King slowly works through his anger, grief, and shame, he realizes that it’s time to speak the truth about Sandy, Khalid, and himself, even if it means risking losing the people he loves.  272 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  In the acknowledgements, Kacen Callender writes of a conversation they had with their editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney, about the fact that Pinkney had never seen a middle-grade novel about a gay Black boy.  Well, now she has, and it is beautifully written, with a dreamy quality appropriate for the Louisiana bayou in which it’s set.  This book just won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction, and I’m sure it will be a contender for other awards.

Cons:  That dreamy quality made the beginning kind of slow, and it took me awhile to get into the story.

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Cannonball by Sacha Cotter, illustrated by Josh Morgan

Published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky

Cannonball: Cotter, Sacha, Morgan, Josh: 9781728217567: Amazon.com ...

Cannonball: Cotter, Sacha, Morgan, Josh: 9781728217567: Amazon.com ...

Summary:  A young boy dreams of doing a cannonball off the diving board, but his attempts find him clinging fearfully to the diving board or entering the water with barely a splash.  He gets lots of advice from friends and family (“More weight.  More height.  More hair.  Bigger shorts”), but nothing seems to work.  Finally, everyone gives up on him except for his Nan, who knows he can do the perfect cannonball if he listens to his own heart and mind.  Encouraged, the boy finds his own way to do his clothing, hair, and makeup before climbing onto the diving board once again.  Not surprisingly, this time he meets with success and a gigantic splash.  Includes a glossary with four diving terms and two Maori words.  40 pages; ages 3-7.

Pros:  A fun summertime read with a message about being yourself and listening to your own inner voice.  The illustrations are bright and colorful.  Nan is a superstar.

Cons:  Other than the glossary and a tiny note on the verso page that this was originally published in New Zealand, there was no reference to the Maori culture.  I had to read reviews to learn that the characters in the story are Maori.  Since this is a culture likely to be unfamiliar to American readers, it would have been nice to have an introductory note, somewhere.

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I’m Trying to Love Rocks by Bethany Barton

Published by Viking Books for Young Readers

I'm Trying to Love Rocks: Barton, Bethany: 9780451480958: Amazon ...

I'm Trying to Love Rocks by Barton, Bethany - Amazon.ae

Summary:  The author of three other I’m Trying to Love… books makes seemingly dull, boring rocks come alive with a spirited girl narrator who corrects the off-the-page speaker by showing how rocks tell interesting stories.  She identifies the three types of rocks, explaining how each kind is formed, and goes on to show examples of work geologists do that kids will relate to.  She makes a brief plug for scientists in general, “Science isn’t about having the answers–it’s about asking questions.”  A careful examination of the end papers indicates that her mission has been accomplished: the front papers show a bunch of rocks, each one labeled “rock”, while the end ones have each rock correctly labeled.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Another lively, informative entry in this series, with plenty of humor, bright cartoon-style illustrations and comic bubble dialogue. This would make a perfect introduction to a unit on rocks for preschool and primary grades.

Cons:  No back matter. 

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Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean’s Biggest Secret by Jess Keating, illustrated by Katie Hickey

Published by Tundra Books (Released June 30)

Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean's Biggest Secret ...

Ocean Speaks: Marie Tharp and the Map That Moved the Earth by Jess ...

Summary:  Growing up in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Marie Tharp wasn’t encouraged to pursue her interests in science.  During World War II, however, she was able to study geology and got a job in a lab in New York.  When the men came back from war, they were the ones who went out on research ships to study the ocean, while Marie stayed back in the lab.  She began using the data collected from this research to create a map of the ocean.  Her map revealed a rift valley and mountain ranges under the ocean.  When her work was called into question, she did it over again, coming up with the same results.  Eventually, her mapping was accepted by the scientific world, changing the way scientists think about the geology of the earth.  Includes an author’s note, photo, list of questions and answers, and resources for further reading.  34 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  An excellent introduction to the life of a little-known woman scientist that could be used alongside Robert Burleigh’s Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea (2016).  The illustrations complement the text nicely; I particularly like the ones that show Marie sailing on an ocean of ink in a paper boat as she pursues her explorations of the ocean back in the lab.

Cons:  This doesn’t offer as much of the science of continental drift that Tharp helped discover as Burleigh’s book does.

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Jasmine Green Rescues: A Collie Named Sky by Helen Peters, illustrated by Ellie Snowdon

Published by Candlewick (released September 1)

Jasmine Green Rescues: A Collie Called Sky by Helen Peters ...

Jasmine Green Rescues: A Piglet Called Truffle by Helen Peters ...

Summary:  Jasmine loves animals and seems to have a penchant for rescuing them (the pig and duck that she rescued in books 1 and 2 are introduced in the first chapter).  When she finds a half-starved puppy in a hedge, she immediately goes into action to save him, calling her mother at her veterinary office to order an IV and special dog food.  Mom predictably warns Jasmine not to get too attached, but we all know how that goes, and Jasmine proves herself to be an excellent vet’s assistant and dog trainer.  She names the puppy Sky and teaches him all sorts of commands, including how to find her and her friend Tom.  This proves critical when Jasmine gets hurt far from home, and must depend on Sky to get her help.  When the previous owner is found, it looks like Jasmine will have to give Sky back, but don’t worry, there’s a happy ending for all.  My advance copy had a note reading, “Final book will contain bonus material”; I’m hoping that means some pet care tips at the end. 160 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  Originally published in the UK, this series will appeal to animal lovers who are ready to move to slightly longer, but still illustrated, chapter books.  As per usual these days, I couldn’t get book 1 (which is already available; the pages shown above are from that book), so I had to start with book 3, but I found it an engaging read, with Jasmine a strong and likeable heroine.  There are also plenty of tips woven into the story on what it takes to be a good owner, and some subtle warnings to not take on the responsibility of dog ownership unless you’re ready for a 15-year commitment.

Cons:  Sky is referred to interchangeably as a collie and a border collie, and there seems to be a significant difference between the two breeds.  Based on context clues and the illustrations, I’m going to go with border collie.

To pre-order this book from Amazon, click here.  To order book 1, click here.

Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Black Brother, Black Brother: Rhodes, Jewell Parker: 9780316493802 ...

Summary:  Donte wishes he could be less visible, like his lighter-skinned older brother, Trey, but his dark skin makes him stand out at the elite Middlefield Prep in the suburbs of Boston.  After being unjustly accused by a teacher, Donte winds up being arrested and sent to jail before being suspended for a week.  It’s during this suspension that he finds out about a former Olympic fencer who works at a Boys and Girls Club in Boston.  Donte’s worst enemy at Middlefield is the star of the fencing team, so he decides to seek out the coach to train him.  To his surprise, he ends up excelling at fencing, and his love of the sport eventually eclipses his desire for revenge.  Trey, Donte, and a brother and sister from the club form a fencing team, and their participation in the Massachusetts regional championships bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.  240 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  While last year’s The New Kid brought to light microaggressions against kids of color at an elite mostly-white prep school, this book features much more blatant racism from students, teachers, and administrators.  Fans of Kwame Alexander and Jason Reynolds will enjoy this fast-paced sports story, and readers everywhere will learn the importance of seeing othersand being seen by others.

Cons:  As is so often the case in stories about school bullying, educators came across by and large as clueless chuckleheads.

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A Space for Me by Cathryn Falwell

Published by Lee & Low Books

A Space for Me by Cathryn Falwell | Lee & Low Books

Summary:  It’s not fair.  The narrator has to share a room with his younger brother Lucas, even though his older sister Emma gets her own room.  He tries the time-tested method of drawing a line down the middle  of the room, but Lucas isn’t too good about following the rules on that.  One day the younger boy knocks down a tower, spills the crayon box, breaks a favorite dragon, and tosses puzzle pieces into the air.  His older brother has had it, and goes in search of his own space.  He finds a place in the backyard, and Emma helps him set up a space.  For a while, all is well, but one day he sees Lucas watching him sadly through the window.  Turns out Lucas is lonely having the room all to himself.  His brother helps him set up his own space in the backyard, and they enjoy hanging out separately sometimes and playing together other times.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Anyone who has had a sibling or shared a room will understand the love/hate relationship perfectly portrayed in this simple story.  

Cons:  The separate-spaces-in-the-backyard solution seems pretty weather dependent.

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The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead

Published by Wendy Lamb Books

The List of Things That Will Not Change: Stead, Rebecca ...

Summary:  12-year-old Bea looks back over the last few years of her life, starting when she is 8 and her parents are getting a divorce.  They give her a notebook with the beginnings of “A List of Things That Will Not Change”, which starts with her parents’ love for her.  Two years later, her father and his boyfriend Jesse announce their engagement.  She’s thrilled, especially when she learns that Jesse’s daughter, Sonia, is also 10.  Bea will be getting the sister she’s always wanted, even if Sonia spends most of her time in California.  But the road to the wedding proves to be a bumpy one, as Bea has to deal with the fact that Sonia doesn’t seem quite as happy about being sisters; that Jesse has a brother who can’t accept him and has stopped speaking to him; and most of all, that she is carrying a terrible secret from the previous summer that she worries is about to come back to haunt her.  As the wedding day draws near, Bea must learn to trust her friends and family enough to tell them what is going on so that she can embrace the changes happening in her family.  224 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Rebecca Stead once again proves her mastery at writing an absorbing middle-grade novel.  The plot could be nothing special in the hands of another writer, but Stead’s characters and attention to detail are what really make the magic happen.  This is sure to get some Newbery consideration.

Cons:  I enjoyed this more than Liar & Spy (I wasn’t much of a fan), but not quite as engaging and emotionally complex as Goodbye, Stranger.  And will anything ever match When You Reach Me

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