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.

If you’d like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold, illustrated by Charles Santoso

Published by Walden Pond Press

Summary:  Bixby Alexander Tam is known as Bat, not only because of his initials, but also because he loves animals, has a tendency to flap his hands like wings when he gets nervous, and is sensitive to sound, sometimes leading him to don his sister’s earmuffs at school.  When his veterinarian mother brings home an orphaned baby skunk, Bat is thrilled, and sets out to be the best baby skunk caretaker ever.  His teacher helps him send an email to a skunk expert, and Bat is excited to get an encouraging reply from him.  Although it’s never stated, it’s pretty clear Bat is somewhere on the autism spectrum, and he must find his own way to navigate the world, dealing with his divorced parents, occasionally annoying older sister, and a boy in his class who just might be a friend.  208 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  A thoughtful and humorous story told through the eyes of Bat, a sympathetic character with difficulties that many young readers will recognize.  I hope there will be more stories forthcoming about Bat and his family.

Cons:  The whole skunk-as-pet premise seems unsustainable.

Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence, pictures by Elizabet Vukovic

Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Summary:  As Jasmine’s family prepares for the new year, she is frustrated that her older sister Sophie gets to help the women in the kitchen preparing the mochi balls.  Not only that, but mean cousin Eddie is old enough to help pound mochi with the men in the backyard.  Unwilling to be relegated to babysitting her younger cousins, Jasmine decides to prove that she is strong enough to join the mochi pounders.  Her patient and understanding family helps her along, and she is able to contribute to the festivities in her own unique way.  Includes an author’s note about mochi, a mochi recipe, and a preview of the next book in the series.  128 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  Jasmine is a spunky, likable character who will appeal to fans of Ramona and Junie B. Jones.  Each of the first three books in the series focuses on some aspect of Japanese culture.

Cons:  The recipe for mochi didn’t look appealing enough to make all the preparations in the book seem worthwhile.

This Little Piggy: An Owner’s Manual by Cyndi Marko

Published by Aladdin

Summary:  What’s the perfect pet?  A dog?  A hamster?  A turtle?  No, a pig, of course!  Well, you may know that, but it’ll take some work to convince other family members.  The girl narrator offers some wild and crazy tips, first getting her brother on board, then beginning a long, laborious process for showing her mother what a wonderful pet her new pig Snowflake will be.  There are six chapters in all, but most pages only have a couple of sentences, accompanied by illustrations with cartoon bubble dialog.  And don’t worry, pig fans, one of the final bubbles is Mom’s, containing the words “Our family could use a pig like that.”  64 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Another crowd-pleaser from the author-illustrator of the Kung Pow Chicken series, this is sure to be a hit with the newly-independent reading crowd.  This could also be used as a mentor text for procedural writing.

Cons:  There isn’t much of a story–it’s more of a how-to manual.

Pig & Goose and the First Day of Spring by Rebecca Bond

Published by Charlesbridge

Summary:  Pig is excited to be heading out for a picnic on the first day of spring, when she’s surprised by a goose who lands at her feet.  She admires his flying, and he tries (unsuccessfully) to teach her to fly.  She invites him to join her on her picnic; they enjoy it so much that she extends the invitation to a first-day-of-spring party at her house that night.  During the day, Pig has wished for Goose’s abilities to fly and to swim, but at the party, Goose gets to see Pig’s talents as she keeps her guests entertained, well-fed, and happy.  They part ways with the promise of a picnic the next day, and the hope that there will be a sequel featuring these two friends.  48 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Fans of Poppleton and Frog and Toad will enjoy this new three-chapter book for emergent readers.  The watercolor illustrations are cute and cheery, and the friendship and humor will keep kids reading.

Cons:  The humor is more of a smile than Frog-and-Toad laugh-out-loud.