Stella Diaz Has Something to Say! By Angela Dominguez

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  Stella Diaz has something to say, but she often has trouble saying it.  She’s shy, and sometimes she stumbles over English words.  Her family moved from Mexico to Chicago when she was a baby, making her feel somewhat disconnected from the extended family that sometimes visits.  Her father has moved to Colorado and only occasionally gets in touch, but her mom and older brother Nick more than make up for his absence.  As Stella moves through third grade, she experiences successes that helps her confidence to slowly build.  She makes new friends, speaks up for herself to the mean girl, and participates in a spelling bee in front of the whole class.  By the end of the story, she’s even made friends with a boy, and he and her other friends have helped her to put together an amazing presentation about her favorite topic, undersea animals.  The end of the year sees Stella excited about spending the summer with family and friends and more than ready to move on to fourth grade.  208 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  Fans of Junie B. and Clementine, especially more introverted ones, will enjoy Stella’s story and will cheer her on as she finds the courage to try new experiences.  Readers who are bilingual or new to the United States will connect with Stella’s struggles to fit in.

Cons:  Nick occasionally seems too good to be true for a 14-year-old older brother.

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Five favorite early chapter books

There was plenty in 2017 for those just moving into the world of chapter books.  Here are my favorites:

A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold. Published by Walden Pond Press.

There were a number of books this year with main characters on the autism spectrum.  Bat was one of the most endearing, and his love for animals, especially his pet skunk, shone through.  Look for the sequel coming out in April, 2018.  Link to Amazon.


The Ember Stone (The Last Firehawk, book 1) by Katarina Charman.  Published by Scholastic.

Scholastic’s Branches imprint has another winning series, this one a fantasy that will surely be loved by readers not quite ready for Warriors.  Book 2 is here, with 3 and 4 on their way next year.  Link to Amazon.


Barkus by Patricia MacLachlan.  Published by Chronicle Books.

Easy reader or early chapter book?  However you characterize it, the humorous story line and bright, colorful illustrations are a winning combination.  Book #2?  Due out in June.  Link to Amazon.


Princess Cora and the Crocodile by Laura Amy Schlitz.  Published by Candlewick.

Newbery medalist Schlitz teamed up with Caldecott medalist Brian Floca to create this fabulous story of an oversubscribed princess who wishes for a dog…and gets a crocodile with a ton of personality.  I could see this winning some awards in February.  Link to Amazon.


Wedgie and Gizmo by Suzanne Selfors.  Published by Katherine Tegen Books.

More likely to win a “Kids Choice” type award, Wedgie the corgi and Gizmo the guinea pig made me laugh from cover to cover.  And, you guessed it, a sequel is due out in April.  It’s going to be another great year!  Link to Amazon.


Wedgie & Gizmo by Suzanne Selfors, illustrated by Barbara Fisinger

Published by Katherine Tegen Books

Summary:  Gizmo is a self-identified Evil Genius guinea pig.  Wedgie is a self-identified superhero (“Super Wedgie) Corgi.  In alternating chapters, the two tell the story of the early days of a blended family: Gizmo belongs to Elliott, whose father recently married the mother of Jasmine, Jackson, and Wedgie.  Gizmo is constantly suspecting evil plots, most notably keeping an eye on Abuela, a native of Peru, where he hears guinea pigs are considered fine cuisine.  Wedgie just wants to herd everyone in his pack together and keep them happy.  Human dialogue is inserted into the animals’ narrative, making readers more aware of what’s going on in the family when Wedgie and Gizmo are too self-absorbed to accurately report it.  By the end of the story, Wedgie, Gizmo, and their humans are well on their way to becoming a family, setting the scene for two sequels due out next year.  179 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Each animal has his own distinctive voice and point of view, which will have readers laughing and nodding with recognition if they are pet owners.  The illustrations add to the fun, and the human dynamics give the story a little more depth.

Cons:  As a former guinea pig owner, I’m pretty sure the exercise wheel Gizmo uses is actually dangerous for guinea pigs.

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Shai and Emmie Star in Break an Egg! By Quvenzhane Wallis, with Nancy Ohlin, illustrated by Sharee Miller

Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Best friends Shai and Emmie are third graders at Sweet Auburn School for the Performing Arts.  When snooty new girl Gabby gets the part Shai wanted in the school play, Shai is crushed.  Gabby struggles a bit with her role, and Shai is hopeful that she’ll be asked to step in; instead, her teacher asks her to coach Gabby to do a better job.  Shai learns what it means to take the high road, and she and Emmie find ways to both help Gabby and (sort of) become her friend.  Opening night goes off without a hitch, and Shai feels proud of both her performance and the way she has handled a difficult situation.  Book 2 in the series is due out in January.  128 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  Teen actress Quvenzhane Wallis brings her insider knowledge of the performing arts to this early chapter book series.  Readers will enjoy the drama both onstage and off as the class learns to works together to put on their big show.

Cons:  Pulling together a third-grade performance of Once On This Island in four weeks seemed ambitious even for a performing arts school.

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Hero Dog! (Hilde Cracks the Case, Book 1) by Hilde Lysiak with Matthew Lysiak

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Hilde is a young detective and reporter who has started her own online newspaper, The Orange Street News, about events in her neighborhood.  When she hears about a break-in, she jumps on her bicycle to find out more.  A trail of clues leads her to a series of people who have had a baked good stolen…and right on the morning of the big Bake-Off Bonanza!  Hilde’s reporter father has trained her to look for the who, what, where, when, how, and why, and she doesn’t give up until she’s found the answer to each one of those questions.  The mystery isn’t solved until she’s at the Bake-Off itself, and it’s a determined little black dog who finally leads her to the culprit.  Includes information about the real Hilde, who wrote this book with her father, and a preview of book #2.  96 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  Fans of Cam Jansen and the A to Z Mysteries will enjoy this new series, particularly when they find out it was written by someone their own age.  Hilde is smart and determined, and she and her older sister work well together with a refreshing lack of sibling rivalry.  Another successful early chapter book series from the Scholastic Branches imprint.

Cons:  All the teenagers in the book are portrayed as nasty and obnoxious (giving you a clue about the “who” in the mystery.)

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Ben Franklin’s In My Bathroom! By Candace Fleming, illustrated by Mark Fearing

Published by Schwartz & Wade

Summary:  When Nolan and his younger sister Olivia receive a package containing an antique crystal radio set, they’re unsure about how it works.  They try twisting dials and flipping switches, and before they know it, they have conjured up Benjamin Franklin from the year 1789.  Ben is quite taken with the 21st century, and insists on going on a tour to see how some of his creations, like the public library and fire station, are faring.  Along the way, he shares stories from his life, told in comic book style.  People are startled, but charmed, by the eccentric old man wandering around town with the two children, and Franklin thoroughly enjoys himself until he starts contemplating the possibility of never seeing his 18th-century friends and family again.  Nolan, who is dealing with an absent father, is sympathetic and finds a way to send his new friend back home.  Billed as Book 1 in the History Pals series, the illustration of the radio offers some hints about what other times in history are planned for the rest of the series. Includes a 10-page section at the end with more information about Franklin, including a bibliography and websites.  272 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Readers won’t realize they’re getting a dose of history education in this fast and funny tale.  A large font, plenty of illustrations, and frequent comic book page inserts make this a good choice for reluctant readers.

Cons:  The bathroom/toilet front cover may turn off some adults; there’s actually very little bathroom humor.

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The Ember Stone (The Last Firehawk book 1) by Katarina Charman, illustrated by Jeremy Norton

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Although Tag is small, he is determined to become one of the Owls of Valor, practicing fighting with a dagger and shield until he is exhausted.  When he and his friend Skyla the squirrel rescue a mysterious egg, they inadvertently get the chance to prove their courage.  The egg hatches with a fiery bang, and produces a baby firehawk, an animal thought to be extinct.  Firehawks were once the guardians of the Ember Stone, which protected the animals from the evil magic of Thorn, a vulture who controls the dark magic of the forest.  Tag, Skyla, and the firebird are sent by Grey, leader of the Owls of Valor, to try to find the missing stone.  They recover a piece of it, but their journey to find other pieces will continue in the next book.  89 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  Readers too young for animal fantasy series like Warriors will enjoy this latest entry in the Scholastic Branches imprint.  It’s a surprisingly interesting, somewhat complex tale, told in 89 illustrated pages, and written at a level appropriate for primary-level reader.

Cons:  A dagger and shield seem like inefficient weapons for an animal with talons, a beak, and wings.

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