Super Pancake by Megan Wagner Lloyd, illustrated by Abhi Alwar

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Summary:  The struggle is real for Peggy Pancake, whose family who wishes she could be more like her brother Patrick, and who is struggling to find a friend at school.  When she sees the new croissant, Luc, being bullied by three strips of bacon, she’s hesitant to defend him.  A bacon prank gone awry causes Peggy to get some superpowers, and before long she and sidekick Luc have teamed up to fight the bullies and to defeat evil in their town.  Peggy defeats the villains, but chooses to keep her powers from her family, although it looks as though Patrick may get in on the act in book 2.  176 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  With an emphasis on goofy fun, this graphic novel is sure to be popular with those just starting to venture into chapter books.  Although I can’t find any information on book 2, the last page assures us that the story is “to be continued.”

Cons:  While I enjoyed this little romp, I’d rather see Megan Wagner Lloyd work on book 2 of Squished.

The Art of Getting Noticed (Bigfoot and Nessie book 1) by Chelsea M. Campbell, illustrated by Laura Knetzger

Published by Penguin Workshop

Summary:  Bigfoot Littletoe can’t get noticed no matter how hard he tries.  While others in his family end up on the news, something always happens that leaves him out of the photo.  When he makes a mysterious new friend, though, his life starts to change.  His friend helps him do things just for fun, instead of trying to get noticed, and Bigfoot develops a passion for hedge sculptures.  Before long, he’s discovered as an artist, and the identity of his friend–Nessie the Loch Ness monster–is also revealed.  Celebrity culture isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, though, and the two ultimately decide to go undercover again so that they can do all the things they like to do and enjoy their friendship.  64 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster are generally irresistible to kids, and this story puts a new spin on the friendship graphic novel with a great message about doing what you love instead of what gets you noticed.  Looks like a sequel is due out in August.

Cons:  Nessie’s undercover disguise seemed a bit thin.

Beaky Barnes: Egg on the Loose by David Ezra Stein

Published by Penguin Workshop

Summary:  When uptight Town Inspector Cobb loses the egg out of his sandwich, he goes off on what seems like a simple search for a replacement.  The quest starts at a restaurant with a chef who has a secret to hide, a fish in search of something more to life than being eaten, and two customers–a woman and a chicken–who set off a chaotic chase through town.  By the end of the story, Inspector Cobb is wearing a barrel and a lovestruck rooster is wearing his uniform.  The whole story is presented as a movie, with several commercial breaks advertising products that turn out to be useful for the characters.  The final few pages fast forward six months, wrapping everyone’s story up with a happy ending.  128 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  David Ezra Stein of Interrupting Chicken fame has created his first graphic novel that is sure to be a hit with the Dog Man crowd with plenty of slapstick humor and a fun, offbeat cast of characters.

Cons:  I would have liked to have seen the “which came first” chicken and egg issue more fully addressed.

Awesome Orange Birthday (Party Diaries, book 1) by Mitali Banerjee Ruths, illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  After Priya posts pictures of the party she organized for her little brother, Layla Aunty asks her to take charge of her upcoming birthday party.  She offers to pay Priya, but Priya asks for a donation to help quokkas instead (you’ll learn more about this endangered Australian animal if you read the book).  Priya gets to work, starting a party journal to help her stay organized.  Layla Aunty’s favorite color is orange, so that becomes the party’s theme.  Priya enlists the help of her best friend and Layla Aunty’s friends (including Prya’s mom) to make decorations, food, invitations, and a special present.  It’s a busy time, but everything goes off without a hitch, and Layla Aunty declares it her favorite birthday, making a generous donation to the quokkas.  After pictures are posted, Layla gets her second job, which is undoubtedly the subject of book 2, Starry Henna Night, due out in May.  80 pages; grades 1-3.  

Pros:  This is a typical Scholastic Branches series (and you know I mean that as a compliment) with a strong female entrepreneur as the main character and an appealing diary format filled with colored illustrations and cartoon bubbles.

Cons:  I kept waiting for something to go wrong–you know, conflict–but everything went perfectly, making this feel a bit more like a party-planning manual than a novel.

5 favorite early chapter books

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

Published by Kind World Publishing

Two independent sisters work, play, fight, and make up without adults around to mess things up.

Cornbread and Poppy by Matthew Cordell

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Cornbread’s careful planning and Poppy’s spur-of-the-moment adventurousness prove to be a good mix for a successful friendship.

The Puppy Problem by Laura James, illustrated by Charlie Alder

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Gizmo helps his friend solve her puppy problem in this series opener about a dog-run newspaper called The Daily Bark.

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

Published by Salaam Reads

Zayd Saeem’s sister Zara gets her own series with a book inspired by Beverly Cleary’s stories about neighborhood kids.

Sir Ladybug by Cory Tabor

Published by Balzer + Bray

Sir Ladybug is a modest knight who likes to hang out with his friends, Pell, a roly poly bug who serves as his herald, and Sterling, his trusty squire, who’s a snail with a shell that’s bigger on the inside than the outside. 

Oh, Sal by Kevin Henkes

Published by Greenwillow Books

Summary:  Sal Miller is four years old, the younger sister of Billy Miller, the protagonist of two previous Kevin Henkes books.  There’s a lot going on in Sal’s house right now, with a new baby sister who arrived on Christmas Eve, and a visit from Uncle Jake, who annoys Sal by calling her Salamander.  Sal’s favorite Christmas gift was a set of underpants, each one labeled with both a day of the week and a flower.  When she discovers that the Wednesday/Poppy pair has gone missing, she’s devastated.  Her mother promises that by the end of the day they’ll find the missing underwear and name the baby (who has been called “Baby” for a week).  This prediction comes true in a way that ties the two events together, and Sal decides that this bodes well for a happy new year.  240 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  As always, Kevin Henkes perfectly captures the small details of a child’s everyday life, creating realistic characters and situations.  I wish I had been as patient and kind with a new baby in the house as Mama and Papa are to Sal and Billy.

Cons:  While this has the look of a middle-grade novel, a book with a four-year-old protagonist may be a hard sell to elementary kids.

The Ghost Tree (Spooky Sleuths #1) by Natasha Deen, illustrated by Lissy Martin

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Asim is new in the island town of Lion’s Gate, Washington, where both of his parents work at the island’s somewhat mysterious lab.  On his first day of school, Asim discovers a mysterious tree in the cemetery that grows unusually fast and seems to be destroying other life around it.  He witnesses a construction worker touch the tree and undergo a complete personality change.  Later, he befriends Rokshar, a girl in his class who aspires to be a scientist and takes a more skeptical view of events that Asim interprets as supernatural.  When their teacher, Mx Hudson, is also negatively affected by the tree, Asim, Rokshar, and some of their friends have to figure out a way to destroy the tree–even if it puts them in danger.  Includes an author’s note about the Guyanese folklore that inspired the story and a sneak peek at book #2.  95 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  This illustrated chapter book will appeal to the many kids who like scary stories, but who may not be ready for horror.  It’s a promising series starter with interesting characters and just the right amount of spookiness mixed with scientific skepticism.

Cons:  It’s unclear how Rokshar’s brothers go from being bullies to allies so quickly.

Cornbread & Poppy by Matthew Cordell

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Cornbread is a mouse who likes to plan ahead, particularly when winter is coming.  His friend Poppy, on the other hand, prefers to live in the moment, having fun adventures, and not worrying about the future.  So when it starts to get cold, Cornbread is in good shape, but Poppy is not.  All the usual sources of food have already been foraged, so Poppy decides to go up Holler Mountain, a foreboding place rumored to have owls that hunt mice.  In fact, their friend Ms. Ruthie went up the mountain a few years back and was never seen again.  Cornbread is too good a friend to let Ruthie go alone, so the two head off on their adventure together.  Without spoiling the ending too much, there is an owl, Ms. Ruthie is okay, Poppy ends up with plenty of food for the winter, and the two discover skiing…which Cornbread loves so much, he decides to ski instead of shoveling his walkway.  80 pages; grades K-2.

Pros:  Caldecott medalist Matthew Cordell proves himself an excellent writer in this beginning chapter book that has an engaging plot, adorable illustrations, and some pretty cozy winter scenes.  Book 2 came out in June; let’s hope there will be more.

Cons:  Seems as though Cornbread is picking up some bad habits from his friend.

Two-Headed Chicken by Tom Angleberger

Published by Walker Books

Summary:  This is a graphic novel about a two-headed chicken being chased through the multiverse by a fried chicken-loving moose.  Each time it/they is/are about to be eaten, the chicken(s) use its/their Astrohat to escape to another universe.  Along the way, there are quizzes, the world’s longest knock-knock joke, and a fish who wants to talk to you about your feelings.  Just when you feel like you can’t handle another universe, you are suddenly in the book, telling the chicken(s) to hurry up and defeat the moose already.  Which they do.  Using the world’s longest knock-knock joke.  208 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  It’s funny, it’s ridiculous, it’s annoying in a good way, and kids will love it.

Cons:  Sadly, I didn’t have jury duty, so I couldn’t run the experiment I tried with Tom Angleberger’s The Rat With the Human Face.

Mimi and the Cutie Catastrophe by Shauna J. Grant

Published by Scholastic Graphix

Summary:  Mimi loves pink and purple, dressing up, and playing with her magical stuffie, Penelope.  An unfortunate consequence of this is that she often gets called “cute”.  To counter this, she tries on different personalities that Penelope is able to create for her: a superhero, a smart teacher, and a cool kid.  Each one fails for one reason or another, and by the end she’s decided to be herself and to speak up for what she wants.  To her happy surprise, those around her see her as strong, smart, and cool.  80 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Kids will relate to Mimi’s wish to be seen as more grown up, and the repeating structure of the story makes this a good choice for beginning readers.

Cons:   The girly-girl cuteness was a little thick, as per usual with Scholastic series marketed to girls.