Dragons In a Bag by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Geneva B.

Published by Random House

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Summary:  Jaxon’s not happy when Mama has to go to court to fight their eviction and drops him off with a strange and somewhat unfriendly older woman.  He can’t help but feel curious, though, when she receives a mysterious package from Madagascar that seems to contain something alive. Before long, he learns that the woman, Ma, is a witch with a long-term connection to his mother that Jax never knew about.  He gets drawn into a fascinating world of magic, meeting an unusual cast of characters that includes his long-lost grandfather, and finds out that Ma’s mysterious package contains three tiny dragons. When he and Ma travel back in time, though, things start to go wrong, and Jaxon fears he may have ruined everything.  By the time Mama returns, he’s found a way to begin to fix his mistakes and has agreed to become Ma’s apprentice. His mother isn’t thrilled with this turn of events, but an invitation from Ma to move in with her sets the stage for an interesting sequel. 160 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  This would make a good first fantasy book–the magic is fairly straightforward and the book is fairly short with quite a few illustrations.  Kids will relate to Jaxon as he tries to figure out the strange circumstances he is thrust into, and will be curious to find out what happens to him and his new dragon friends.

Cons:  It felt like the story was just getting going toward the end; here’s hoping the sequel will be out soon.

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The Cat Who Ate Christmas by Lil Chase, illustrated by Thomas Docherty

Published by Running Press Kids

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Summary:  When Lily, Rose, Alex, and their parents go downstairs on Christmas morning, they discover that their cat, Jingles, has torn all the wrappings off their presents and is hiding on top of the tree.  Dad tries to get her, but Jingles leaps off, bringing the whole tree down with her.  The family rallies, enjoys their gifts, and goes off to pick up Grandma, leaving the holiday turkey sitting on the counter.  Jingles can’t resist, and when the family returns, their dinner is in ruins.  Jingles goes into hiding, and is still missing on December 26th.  Wanting to lure her back home, the family goes shopping, where they run into Grandma.  The reader will have to look carefully at the illustrations to see where Jingles has been hiding, but he finally reappears, and there’s a happy ending for everyone.  96 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  A fun holiday tale that would make a good quick read-aloud or independent reading book for a chapter book beginner.

Cons:  Not sure I would have been quite as forgiving of Jingles as this family is.

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Edison: The Mystery of the Missing Mouse Treasure by Torben Kuhlmann

Published by NorthSouth Books

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Summary:  The Professor teaches at the University of Mice, located behind the shelves of a bookstore.  One day, a new student named Pete approaches him with a request for help in finding out more about an ancestor who supposedly lost a treasure at sea.  It’s unclear whether or not the ancestor went down as well. The Professor is reluctant to help much at first, but when he discovers Pete experimenting with a submarine, he gets caught up in the adventure.  After many trials and occasional missteps, the two of them manage to create a sub and two diving suits. Hitching a ride on a cargo ship, they travel to the spot where the sunken boat lies. They’re able to launch their submarine and go aboard the ship, where they discover the treasure–Pete’s ancestor’s journal.  They learn that he created the light bulb, then managed to get to America where he was able to share his plans with Thomas Alva Edison. And the rest is history–for both mice and humans. Includes historical facts about the history of the light bulb and Edison. 112 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  I’ve somehow missed Kuhlmann’s other books on famous mice (Lindbergh and Armstrong), but was enchanted with this book, particularly the illustrations.  The details of the mouse world and their creations are amazing, and the hard work and serendipity required to come up with a successful invention are well documented.  This would be a great read-aloud, allowing plenty of time to take in all the artwork.

Cons:  The story and writing aren’t as strong as the illustrations.

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Stealing the Sword (Time Jumpers) by Wendy Mass, illustrated by Oriol Vidal

Published by Scholastic

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Summary:  Chase and Ava are at a flea market with their parents when they discover a mysterious suitcase.  The woman who sells it to them acts kind of odd, and when they buy it, a man chases after them to try to get it back for himself.  Inside are several artifacts, including what they think is a dragon doorknob. It leads them back through time to Camelot, where they meet up with Merlin and discover that Arthur is in danger.  Turns out the dragon is no ordinary doorknob, but actually the hilt of Excalibur. The two children prove instrumental in reuniting the sword and its hilt just in time to save the king. The man from the flea market shows up again, still after his suitcase, but the kids manage to elude him and return to the present.  The other artifacts in the suitcase, as well as the pictures on the back cover, assure readers that there will be at least three more books in this series. 96 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  There’s plenty of action in this latest entry from the Scholastic Branches imprint.  Fans of The Magic Tree House may find this a fun series to try for a change of pace; it’s right around the same reading level.  The Branches books always find a ready audience in my libraries.

Cons:  As much as I love Wendy Mass and want to praise everything she does, this is a little too close to The Magic Tree House.  A bookish brother and his slightly younger adventurous sister travel back in time.  Seems like Scholastic could have tried a bit harder for originality.

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Saving Winslow by Sharon Creech

Published by Joanna Cotler Books

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Summary:  When Louie’s dad brings home a sickly newborn donkey whose mother has died, no one has much confidence that it will pull through.  No one, that is, except Louie, who doesn’t let his past bad luck with keeping other animals alive stand in the way of devoting himself to his new pet.  Naming the donkey Winslow, he moves into the basement to sleep next to the baby, teaching him to drink from a bottle and getting up for midnight feedings. There’s a new girl in the neighborhood, the quirky but endearing Nora, who takes an interest in Winslow and tentatively begins to help out.  Both Louie and Nora are dealing with loss–Louie’s older brother has recently left home to join the army and Nora lost her premature baby brother–and sometimes their struggles get in the way of their friendship. But Winslow manages to bring them together. When he gets big enough to move back to the farm where he was born, it’s clear that a lasting bond has been forged between the two kids and their donkey.  176 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Sharon Creech packs a pretty big emotional punch in 176 pages.  The short chapters and small pages keep the book moving along quickly, and would make it a great choice for a read-aloud or a first “real” chapter book.

Cons:  The fire scene toward the end seemed a little bit contrived to me.

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Mac Undercover (Mac B. Kid Spy book 1)

Published by Orchard Books

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Summary:  Mac may just be a kid, but when he gets a call from the Queen of England requesting a favor, he feels he has no choice but to leave his home in Castro Valley, California, and fly to London.  When he gets there, he learns that the Queen’s Coronation Spoon has been stolen, most likely by the King of France. Mac then travels to France on a spy mission to try to get it back.  After a botched robbery of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre (he’s hoping to do a trade), Mac is taken to see the king, who is able to prove his innocence and point Mac in the direction of a suspicious KGB agent.  Mac is finally successful in tracking down not only the spoon, but his missing Game Boy. It turns out this KGB agent has been targeting Mac all along, wanting something that Mac has that is very valuable in the Soviet Union.  A trade takes place, and Mac is able to return home, but on the last page he is shown receiving another call from the Queen, setting up the sequel that’s due out in December. 160 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Lots of laughs in this liberally-illustrated story that takes place during Mac Barnett’s childhood in the 1980’s.  Interspersed with the goofiness are facts about the different places he travels to. A perfect choice for those new to chapter books as well as older reluctant readers.

Cons:  Abraham Lincoln is pictured on the cover of a book about the U.S. Founding Fathers, which doesn’t seem historically accurate.

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Meet Yasmin! by Saadia Faruqi, art by Hatem Aly

Published by Picture Window Books

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Summary:  Yasmin is a Pakistani-American girl who lives with her extended family.  In the four stories that are part of this book, she explores the city with her mom and makes a map that helps her when she gets lost; wins an art contest despite feeling like she has no talent; helps her class design and build a miniature city; and puts on a fashion show with her grandmother.  Each story is also sold as a separate book, and the stories straddle the line between easy reader and early chapter book (with three chapters per story). Includes four discussion questions (one for each story); an Urdu glossary that includes words from the text; a recipe for a yogurt drink called Mango Lassi; and instructions for making a flower motif bookmark.  89 pages; grades K-2.

Pros:  Yasmin is a likeable character who will resonate with Pakistani-Americans and teach a few things about her culture to readers who are not.  The artwork by Hatem Aly (The Inquisitor’s Tale) makes a cheerful complement to the text and will help kids understand the meaning of possibly unfamiliar words like hijab and kameez.

Cons:  Yasmin spends a whole recess in her classroom with no adult supervision, and her teacher seems just fine when she comes in and discovers Yasmin there.

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