Summary: Five important things about the narrator (from Chapter 0): 1. Her name is Wednesday August Wilson. 2. She has two moms and is mixed race. 3. She has a little brother named Mister. 4. Her best friend is Charlie Lopez. 5. She is going to be an entrepreneur. When Wednesday tells two of her mean girl classmates that her new invention is called the Secret Keeper, she has to come up with an actual product. With the help of Charlie, Mister, and a new friend named Amina, her invention sweeps the third grade. The downside is that she destroys some library books in the process and winds up with half the field trip money in her desk. But Wednesday is clearly a girl who doesn’t give up easily, and the final page indicates there will be more big business ideas (and books about them) in the future. 144 pages; grades 2-4.
Pros: A promising early chapter book series opener with an interesting heroine, a diverse cast of characters, and an introduction to the world of entrepreneurship (words like overhead and negotiation are marked with an asterisk and defined at the bottom of the page). Lots of illustrations and a fast-paced story make this a great chapter book for those just venturing into the genre.
Summary: Twig is starting to settle into tiny house living with her family, and to enjoy school with her new friend Angela. But when Angela’s former best friend Effie moves back to town, Twig starts to feel like she’s losing Angela. Fortunately, Grandma, who is babysitting while Mom and Dad are out of town, has some wise advice, and Twig finds the courage to speak up to both Angela and Effie. As the title suggests, the last few pages assure readers that the girls expand their friendship to include all three. 112 pages; grades 2-4.
Pros: I missed this series when book 1 came out last year. Book 4 is charming, though, and I may have to go back and read the first three. The family has recently moved to a tiny house, which I found fascinating, and the friend and family problems, happily resolved in a way that felt realistic, make this a great early chapter book.
Cons: Although the series title is Twig and Turtle, most of the stories seem to be focused on older sister Twig. As a younger sister myself, I’d like to see some more Turtle action.
Summary: Marisol’s active imagination helps her to enjoy silent movies, name inanimate objects (like Buster Keaton, the refrigerator), and make up stories about her collection of stuffed cats. But it also means she can imagine falling out of Peppina, the huge magnolia tree in the backyard that she longs to climb like her best friend Jada does. Marisol has other fears, like mean girl Evie Smythe and Daggers, the dog she has to pass on her bike ride. But at one point Marisol was too afraid to even ride a bike, and her dad stayed with her until she learned. By the end of the story, with plenty of parental and best friend support, Marisol has made it to the top of Peppina. 160 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: This is one of those rare gems, like Billy Miller or Stella Diaz: an illustrated chapter book, clearly written for elementary kids, that beautifully portrays the challenges ordinary kids face to get through the day. Marisol is an introspective, imaginative girl, and many readers will relate to her fears, and how she slowly but steadily works to overcome them. I’m always rooting for books like this, geared to younger readers, to get some Newbery love.
Cons: Kids raised on a diet of Dog Man and Scholastic Branches books may need a little help getting into a less frenetic book like this one.
Summary: Jo Jo Makoons has plenty to worry about in first grade: her at-home best friend Mimi needs to get vaccinated (and a kid in school told Jo Jo cats deflate like a balloon when they get shots), and her at-school best friend Fern seems like she doesn’t want to be best friends anymore. Jo Jo’s struggling a bit in school, too, and her somewhat clueless teacher doesn’t always pick up on what’s going on around him in the classroom. Jo Jo has her own way of handling her problems, but in the end she figures out what to do with both of her best friends and gets some of the recognition she craves at school. Includes a glossary of Ojibwe and Michif words, an author’s note with additional information about the Ojibwe people, and a note from author Cynthia Leitich Smith introducing the series. 80 pages; grades 1-4.
Pros: Although it’s still too rare a phenomenon, it is nice to see a few books this year with Indigenous characters in everyday settings and humorous situations (shout-out to HarperCollins’ Heartdrum imprint and Cynthia Leitich Smith for being a driving force behind this). Readers not quite ready for Smith’s Ancestor Approved will enjoy meeting spunky Jo Jo and learning about her life on the Ojibwe reservation.
Cons: Fern seemed like a great friend, and I didn’t really get why Jo Jo was worried about losing her.
Summary: Ryan Hart is back in a story that mostly takes place during the summer between fourth and fifth grades. Her mom is pregnant and money is tight, so the family has a low-key summer highlighted by visits to the library, a day at the amusement park, and a three-day church camp for Ryan and her older brother Ray. Ryan enjoys hanging out with her best friends KiKi and Amanda, but isn’t as happy when Amanda’s new friend Red joins them. When she asks her grandmother what to do, Grandma tells her that she’s like a rose who sometimes has to use her thornier nature to protect herself. This advice serves Ryan well when she and her friends get into trouble for a camp prank that backfires and Red refuses to take responsibility. By the end of the book, Ryan is enjoying (for the most part) fifth grade and gets to welcome her new baby sister…Rose. 192 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: This sequel is every bit as good as the first. While Watson doesn’t shy away from some of the difficulties the Harts are facing, the perspective is all Ryan’s and focuses on her warm, loving family and the fun she has with her friends. I would love to see some Newbery recognition for a book like this that is geared toward younger kids.
Cons: I can’t find any word on book 3, but surely we’ll get to hear more about fifth grade?
Summary: Aven Green from Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus tells how she got her start as a detective back in third grade. In this first installment, she’s working on two mysteries: who is stealing food at her elementary school and what has happened to her grandmother’s beloved dog? Aven is confident in her problem-solving ability (“all of the cells that were supposed to make my arms went into making my brain instead”), and has some good friends who are happy to help. Both cases are cracked by the last page, and there’s a preview of book two, due out in August. Includes a glossary of Aven’s sleuthing words. 128 pages; grades 1-4.
Pros: It’s great to meet Aven as a third-grader and learn how she got her start solving mysteries. She is matter-of-fact in her explanation of how she was born with no arms, and both the text and the illustrations show her doing everything for herself with her feet. Her voice is funny and confident, making this a surefire hit with the early chapter book crowd.
Cons: I’m not sure if that crowd will understand the hemorrhoid joke in the “Robot Chickens” chapter.
Summary: Dominguita Melendez would rather read than do just about anything else. Her abuela shares her love of reading, but she’s recently moved away and Dominguita misses her. She decides to become a knight, inspired by her love of Abuela’s Don Quijote stories. When the class bully tells her girls can’t be knights, Dom enlists her big brother to document her heroic deeds and prove him wrong. Before long, she’s collected some armor, a lance, two faithful sidekicks, and a steed. Tilting at a windmill almost results in disaster, but unexpectedly winds up inspiring some heroic deeds. Like Don Quijote, Dom recognizes her weaknesses and vows to do better the next time around. Includes an author’s note with further information about Don Quijote and two chapters from the next book in the series, inspired by Treasure Island. 144 pages; grades 2-4.
Pros: A fun start to a new illustrated chapter book series featuring an imaginative girl who values reading over friends (but eventually comes to appreciate those as well), and who finds adventure on her own city streets.
Cons: I thought that Dom’s bunny rescue was pretty darn heroic, but even her own family seemed to dismiss it as kind of lame.
Summary: Every night, Cat asks Doggo how his day was, and he responds, “Same old, same old. Could have been worse.” His comfortable routine is interrupted one day when Pupper arrives. Pupper is full of mischief and has millions of questions. When the humans decide to send Pupper to charm school, Doggo is relieved. But school changes Pupper, and one night Doggo finds himself missing the old Pupper. A sleepy human hands over the car keys, and the two dogs head off on a memorable road trip. The final page lists Doggo’s guide to puppies, which includes “Puppies need lots of play.” 96 pages; ages 3-7.
Pros: Beginning readers will have fun with this first chapter book that features funny illustration (that cover is irresistible!) and only a brief sentence or two of text on each page. It’s called book 1, so we can hope there will be more Doggo and Pupper adventures ahead.
Cons: Cat seems like a fun character who deserves a bit more time onstage.
Summary: Friends Pizza and Taco, bored with nothing to do, decide to throw a party at the water park. Unfortunately, they forget a few details like finding out if the water park is open and checking the spelling on the sign advertising their “farty”. One by one, the guests (Ice Cream, Cake, Hamburger, Hot Dog, Cheeseburger, and the Chicken Tender Twins) get fed up (pun intended) with the party’s lameness and go home. Pizza and Taco conclude with a party-planning list for next time based on what they’ve learned. 72 pages; grades K-3.
Pros: Somehow I missed this fast food duo’s 2020 debut, but it seems like a sure-fire hit: comic book format, friendly banter, humorous word play (“Loud noises make Ice Cream Melt Down”) and a third book on the way. There’s a list of Random House’s other “Awesome Comics for Awesome Kids” at the end that look to be in a similar vein.
Cons: I was hoping for some redemption for grumpy Cheeseburger, but instead he ended up on the party-planning list of don’ts: “Don’t invite Cheeseburger”.
Summary: J.D. endures a tough first day of school when he starts third grade with the haircut his mom gave him. When he decides to take matters (and clippers) into his own hands and fix things up, the results are surprisingly good. Before long, friends are asking him for haircuts, and he’s started his own barber business in his room. But Henry Hart, the town barber, doesn’t like the fact that J.D. is taking away his business and threatens to shut him down. J.D. proposes a solution: have a contest where each barber cuts the hair on three heads and let an impartial judge decide who’s the better barber. If Henry wins, J.D. shuts his business, but if J.D. wins he can stay open. The results are a bit of a surprise, and the ending makes it clear that there will be a sequel to J.D.’s story. 128 pages; grades 1-4.
Pros: Early elementary kids will enjoy J.D.’s humorous voice; the short chapters and plentiful cartoon-style illustrations are sure to attract lots of fans.
Cons: It seemed a bit of a stretch that a third grader would become so proficient a barber in such a short time.