Catalina Incognito (book 1) by Jennifer Torres, illustrated by Gladys Jose

Published by Aladdin

Summary:  Catalina’s a bit disappointed to receive a sewing kit from her Tía Abuela for her birthday.  Usually Tía, a former telenovela star who is also named Catalina, gives more exciting gifts.  For their first sewing lesson, Tía shows Cat how to fix her torn cat sweatshirt.  Later, Cat realizes the sweatshirt can temporarily transform her into a cat.  It turns out the sewing kit has magic in it that can change ordinary clothing into disguises.  Becoming a cat comes in handy when a ruby goes missing from one of Tía’s most famous gowns on display at the local library.  Cat and her frenemy Pablo combine forces to solve the mystery.  This is the first of a four-part series, simultaneously released with book 2 (there’s a preview at the end of this book).  Books 3 and 4 will be out later this year.  114 pages; grades 1-3. 

Pros:  There’s a lot going on in this early chapter book: magic, a mystery, and a few lessons about perseverance.  The illustrations and larger font make it an appealing choice for younger kids.

Cons:  The mystery didn’t start until about halfway through the book and wrapped up pretty quickly. I hope Pablo gets a bigger role in book 2.

Maddie and Mabel by Kari Allen, illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss

Published by Kind World Publishing

Summary:  Maddie and Mabel are two sisters who (usually) love to play together.  Their story is told in five chapters, each of which could stand alone, but which also tie together.  In one of the chapters, Mabel gets tired of Maddie’s bossiness and the two have a fight.  Maddie shows readers how to apologize and before long the sisters are happily back together.  A few pages at the end offer suggestions for discussion.  Book 2 is due out in October.  80 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  This beginning chapter book reminds me of Laurel Snyder’s Charlie and Mouse series.  There are no adults around, so the two girls have to work things out on their own.  Each page has just a few sentences, but the stories are emotionally satisfying despite their brevity.

Cons:  Those older siblings sure can be bossy. And those younger ones can be a pain in the neck.

Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun by Hena Khan, illustrated by Wastana Haikal

Published by Salaam Reads

Summary:  Zara lives on a street with several other kids, including her brother Zayd who will grow up to star in his own series.  Before her neighbor Mr. Chapman moved away, he called Zara “Queen of the Neighborhood” and said she ruled with grace and fairness.  A new family moves into Mr. Chapman’s house, and the two kids become part of the neighborhood. Naomi, who is Zara’s age, has enough good ideas for Zara to feel threatened in her role as queen.  Inspired by her uncle’s Guinness Book of World Records, Zara decides to try to set a world record in an attempt to shine the spotlight on herself once again.  As a solo effort, the plan is a failure, but when she starts including her friends, both old and new, it’s a runaway success.  Book 2 will be out in October. 133 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  The author cites Beverly Cleary’s Ramona stories as an inspiration, and this book does have that feel to it, with a strong-willed protagonist and a close-knit family and neighborhood.  Unlike Klickitat Street, there’s some diversity in the neighborhood, including Zara’s Pakistani American family.  The plentiful illustrations will appeal to early chapter book readers.

Cons:  As much as I love books like these, I struggle to sell them to kids, who seem to almost always opt for graphic novels instead.

Emily’s Big Discovery (The World of Emily Windsnap) by Liz Kessler, illustrated by Joanie Stone

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  Even though Emily and her mother live on a houseboat, young Emily isn’t allowed to go into the ocean.  Her mother warns her that the water is dangerous.  When Emily gets a chance to try swimming lessons at school, she’s excited and dives right into the pool.  She feels right at home until she gets a strange sensation in her legs, like they’re sticking together.  Her instructor tells her she got a cramp and has her rest by the side of the pool, but Emily can’t stop thinking about what it was like being in the water.  That night, she sneaks off the boat and goes into the ocean.  When she has the same sensation in her legs, she realizes they’ve turned into a tail, and she’s a mermaid!  She meets another mermaid, Shona, and the two become friends and explore the ocean.  Emily returns home in the morning with the feeling that her mermaid adventures have just begun.  56 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  Based on the middle grade books about Emily Windsnap, this early chapter book series starter is a real charmer, especially the illustrations. Demand for mermaid books always outpaces supply, so I look forward to adding this series to my library.  Book 2 will be out in September.

Cons: The story has plot holes big enough to sail a ship through. Has Emily never taken a bath?  How could she take swimming lessons at school without her mother’s permission?  Didn’t anyone notice that she became a mermaid in the pool? How does she look so chipper going off to school at the end after being up all night? 

Happily Ever After Rescue Team (Agents of H.E.A.R.T., book 1) by Sam Hay, illustrated by Genevieve Kote

Published by Feiwel and Friends

Summary:  Evie wants nothing more than to be allowed to help out in her parents’ new diner, especially on the day a judge for the Golden Coffee Cup Best Café Contest is supposed to stop by.  But despite her creativity with food (especially ice cream), Evie is accident prone, and after spilling two large blueberry smoothies, her stepmother sends her outside.  A girl Evie’s age has left an old book of fairy tales in the diner, and when she opens it, Agents C (Cinderella), R (Rapunzel), and B (Beauty) come to rescue her.  They have their own ideas about granting wishes, though, and Evie desperately needs some help controlling them.  That help comes in the form of Iris, the original owner of the book, and her cousin Zak.  The three have a series of madcap adventures as they try to undo the damage the fairy tale agents have done and get them to understand what it is Evie wants.  In the end, all of Evie’s wishes come true…except for one, which will undoubtedly be the premise for book number two.  226 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  This illustrated chapter book provides lots of laughs and adventures.  Woven into the story are recipes, crafts, and other activities that kids will enjoy.  Perfect for elementary kids who are ready to move on from early chapter books but still like plenty of illustrations.

Cons:  The princesses were pretty annoying.

Rolo’s Story (Dog’s Eye View, book 2) by Blake Morgan, illustrated by David Dean

Published by Tiger Tales

Summary:  Rolo starts life with a cruel owner, often tied up in the backyard with a rope and without enough food.  He finally runs away but finds life as a stray to be a precarious existence.  After his friend and mentor Scrap is taken away to the pound, Rolo takes shelter in a shed where he is discovered by a girl named Freya.  Freya lives with her single mother, who is stressed by her many responsibilities and isn’t sure about adding an untrained puppy to the household.  Freya and Rolo’s obvious love for each other finally wins her over, and after a series of mishaps, Rolo finally gets some training.  His presence brings some changes to the household, and Mom finds a career that makes all of them happier.  192 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  I always enjoy a good dog-narrated story, and this one is particularly heartwarming, especially for readers who, like Rolo, may not always succeed at carrying out their good intentions.  This is book 2 in a series whose subject matter and relatively low page count is sure to appeal to a wide range of elementary readers.

Cons:  I wish there had been more illustrations besides the same picture of Rolo at the head of each chapter.  Also, Mom’s overnight career switch from accountant to dogwalker seemed a bit fiscally risky.

The Puppy Problem (The Daily Bark, book 1) by Laura James, illustrated by Charlie Alder

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Summary:  When Gizmo the dachshund moves from the city to a small village called Puddle, he’s a little nervous about meeting new dogs.  Fortunately, his neighbor Jilly is a friendly Irish wolfhound with four adorable puppies.  Trouble is soon on the horizon, though, when Jilly learns that her humans are sending the puppies to new homes that are far away.  Jilly is desperate to find local places for her pups, and she and Gizmo set out to enlist the help of the other village dogs.  They hit one dead end after another until Gizmo has an idea inspired by his newspaper editor owner.  He writes up a notice for the other dogs to post, and in no time, new owners in Puddle have been found for all the puppies.  The dogs are so pleased with their success that they decide to start their own newspaper, The Daily Bark, which will undoubtedly be further explored in book 2 of this series. 128 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  Early chapter book readers will find it difficult to resist the four adorable puppies and the watchful dachshund on the cover of this charming book.  Filled with colorful illustrations and written in a large font, this would make a great first chapter book.

Cons:  If it takes Gizmo all night to write a 60-word notice, he’s going to have a heck of a time putting out a whole newspaper.

Just Harriet by Elana K. Arnold

Published by Walden Pond Press

Summary:  Harriet gets an upsetting surprise on her last day of third grade: her pregnant mother has been ordered to go on bed rest until the baby arrives, and Harriet will be spending two months at her grandmother’s bed and breakfast on Marble Island.  On the ferry trip, her father, who grew up on the island, makes a few cryptic comments about treasure and a gingerbread house that arouse Harriet’s curiosity.  After she gets to Nanu’s house and her dad leaves, though, Harriet is miserable for the next few days and expresses her misery by being surly and unpleasant to those around her.  Fortunately, Nanu is understanding, and as the days go by, Harriet begins to make some discoveries that help her to get to know her dad as a boy and that lead her to unlocking the mysteries of the treasure and the gingerbread house.  By the end of the book, Harriet has discovered her own strength and feels much more confident about her abilities to get through the summer on her own.  208 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  I love how upfront Harriet is about her shortcomings: on the first page she tells the reader that she lies, is plagued by nightmares, and sometimes wets the bed.  She covers up her homesickness with grumpiness and occasional fibs but grows in a way that’s realistic and that will resonate with many readers.  The mystery is a fun part of the story, but somewhat secondary to Harriet’s development. I’m always happy to see a “real” chapter book written for this age group.

Cons:  I liked the somewhat eccentric woman called the Captain and was hoping there would be more revealed about her character.

Sadiq and the Gamers by Siman Nuurali, illustrated by Christos Skaltsas

Published by Picture Window Books

Amazon.com: Sadiq and the Gamers: 9781663921918: Nuurali, Siman, Skaltsas,  Christos: Books
Amazon.com: Sadiq and the Gamers: 9781663909824: Nuurali, Siman, Skaltsas,  Christos: Books

Summary:  Sadiq is excited to be part of a new video game club, along with his friends Manny and Zaza.  They meet in the school library with librarian Mr. Kim, who reminds them that part of being in a club is finding a way to help others.  Sadiq often goes with his mother when she volunteers at the local assisted-living home, and he’s seen Mr. Soto, a new resident who seems lonely.  When Mr. Soto tells Sadiq he used to be a racecar driver and gives him some tips for getting to the next level of Screech Master 7000, Sadiq has the idea that the gamers’ club can visit the older people.  Before long the club is meeting weekly at Harmony House, and new friendships are growing.  The wisdom that the residents share helps the club win their first tournament.  Includes a glossary, discussion questions, extension activities, and Somalian facts and terms.  64 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  I just discovered this series when I visited a bookstore this weekend and was excited to see an early chapter book series with a Somali main character (there are a number of Somali students at my school).  It’s a straightforward story with an emphasis on family and friends helping each other and plenty of illustrations.  The first four books were published in 2020.

Cons:  I found it a little confusing to have the Somali terms defined at the beginning of the story and the glossary at the end.

Hide and Go Beak (The Great Mathemachicken, book 1) by Nancy Krulik, illustrated by Charlie Alder

Published by Pixel + Ink

Amazon.com: The Great Mathemachicken 1: Hide and Go Beak: 9781645950325:  Krulik, Nancy, Alder, Charlie: Books

Summary:  Chirpy is an adventurous chicken, who, unlike her siblings, wonders about life outside the coop.  One day, the kids who feed the chickens leave the gate open for a minute, and Chirpy sees her chance.  She escapes from the coop and ends up following the kids on to the school bus.  At school, she’s fascinated by lessons on simple machines and counting by twos.  Returning home, she discovers that her brother Clucky has followed her lead and escaped the coop.  A fox is rumored to be on the loose, and the chickens are anxious to help Clucky get safely home.  Chirpy uses her new STEM skills to lead a team of chickens in making a fox trap.  When Clucky comes running with the fox hot on his tail, the chickens spring into action and trap the fox under a basket.  Safely back at home, they congratulate Clucky and name her The Great Mathemachicken.  Includes instructions for making a wheel-and-axle whirly-swirly toy.  96 pages; grades 1-3.  

Pros:  With 11 chapters, this will make beginning readers feel like they’re reading a “real” chapter book, yet the large font and plentiful illustrations make it a manageable task.  Chirpy is a bold heroine who proves the value of learning about STEM topics.

Cons:  I struggled to spell “mathemachicken”.