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.
Summary: When Hallie and Jaye get assigned to be partners in a business class startup project, it doesn’t exactly seem like a match made in heaven. Hallie is outgoing and doesn’t care what anyone thinks about her outspokenness and unique fashion sense, while Jaye is shy and constantly trying to figure out how to fit in and avoid the spotlight. After sampling a cricket on a class trip, Hallie wants to start a bugs-as-food business, while Jaye prefers the idea of a social media app that would bring everyone in their school together. When a pair of boys steals Jaye’s idea, she’s forced to agree to go the insect route. As the two navigate the terrain of pitches and market testing, they discover traits in each other that they admire, and a friendship is born. Their business plan isn’t quite enough to snag the top prize at the startups competition, but their partnership is cemented, and the future looks bright for Chirps Chips. Includes an interview with Laura and Rose, founders of the real-life Chirps Chips. 224 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: Told in alternating voices, this breezy illustrated story introduces readers to some of what’s involved in starting a business, emphasizing the be-yourself message for both entrepreneurship and middle school.
Summary: Snoozie is a cat who likes to, well, snooze, and Sunny is her playful dog friend. On a walk one day, they discover So-So, a small black dog whose only friend has gone “to the other side of the world”. So-So is extremely timid, but the other two entice her to play with them and invite her to Snoozie’s birthday party the next day. So-So is apprehensive about going, but when Sunny comes to pick her up, she has no choice. The party turns out to be great fun, and So-So gives Snoozie a birthday poem she wrote to celebrate their new friendship. 40 pages; grades K-3.
Pros: Written by Israeli poet Dafna Ben-Zvi, this early chapter book is sure to enchant readers with both the story and the charming illustrations. Despite its brevity, the story doesn’t talk down to kids, and anyone who has experienced social anxiety or been grateful for a new friendship is sure to appreciate it.
Cons: After reading the book, I realized it was originally published in 2016, with the English language version released in December 2020. So it doesn’t meet my usually strict criteria of being published in the current year; I was so charmed by the story, though, that I am making an exception.
Summary: When a polar bear cub gets stranded on an ice floe, his anguished mother contacts the Animal Rescue Agency: the unlikely duo of Esquire Fox and her rooster partner Mr. Pepper. The two head up to the Arctic, where they are pursued by a villainous man in a white hat and barely survive a series of narrow escapes. With the help of various polar animals, they manage to outwit this man, rescuing the cub and reuniting him with his mother. Back home in Colorado, Esquire posts the man’s picture on the wall of villains, surrounded by question marks that seem to indicate there will be other villains…and other books in the series. Includes information about climate change and its threat to polar bears and a recipe for the mushroom jerky Esquire eats to curb her appetite for chickens. 176 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: Like Eliot Schrefer’s books for older readers, this one mixes humor, adventure, and information about animals and the threats humans pose to them. With plenty of illustrations, animal characters, and bantering dialog, this is sure to be a popular series with elementary readers.
Cons: Obviously, it’s for a different audience, but I missed the awesome world building of Schrefer’s The Lost Rainforest series.
Summary: Billy Miller’s wish, made while blowing out the eight candles on his birthday cake, is that something exciting will happen. Almost immediately, an ambulance rushes down his street, and he later learns that an elderly neighbor has passed away. Billy is filled with guilt, but Papa assures him that Mr. Tooley’s death was not his fault. The next day, Papa leaves for art camp, leaving Billy, his mom, and little sister Sal to cope with a few more exciting events including a bat in the basement, love letters falling into the wrong hands, and a chimney fire. When Papa returns, it seems like life has returned to normal…until Mama and Papa announce the most exciting news of all. 192 pages; grades 2-4.
Pros: Ever since I used to read Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse and other mouse picture books to my own kids, I have admired Kevin Henkes’ ability to tell a story that perfectly captures the ordinary moments and emotions of childhood without ever talking down to kids. He has pulled off this feat once again in this sequel to the Newbery honor book The Year of Billy Miller. This would be a perfect read-aloud for first, second, or third grade.
Cons: I hope Kevin Henkes will not wait another eight years to write book three in this series.
Summary: Simon the cat has heard that Baxter the dog is going to be marching in the pet parade with their boy, Andy. Simon has been in this parade with Andy in years past, and writes a letter to Baxter trying to convince him to back out. Baxter refuses, and Simon launches a spy mission to determine what their costumes are going to be, enlisting the help of a skunk, a snail, a crow, a squirrel, and the pet goldfish, Gradually, Simon comes to understand that he and Baxter have different roles in Andy’s life, and that Baxter might actually be the better choice for the parade. The parade concludes happily, and it looks like book 3 of this series is in the works. Includes a “Doggy Dictionary” to help decipher Baxter’s misspelled words. 96 pages; grades 1-3.
Pros: Butler has come up with a winning idea to tell an entire story through animals’ letters. Early chapter books readers will find the format appealing, the writing humorous, and the colorful cartoon-style illustrations helpful in figuring out what’s going on in the story.
Cons: Thank you to Holiday House for sending me this advance copy, but I wish I had read book 1 first, since I wasn’t completely able to figure out Andy’s, Simon’s, and Baxter’s situation from this book. This seems like a weakness since kids don’t always read books in order. Also, some may object to Baxter’s frequent misspellings which may cause some struggles for beginning readers.