Summary: Harry is super nervous on his first day of first grade: he worries about his too-short haircut, having a guinea pig in the classroom, strict teachers, and making friends. As the story unfolds day by day, Harry learns to overcome all of these concerns. His teacher is strict, but kind, gently guiding Harry to do the right thing. His older sister introduces him to her class’s guinea pig, and he learns that they aren’t scary after all, but pretty adorable. He meets Mason, who becomes his best friend. And he learns to stand up to the class bully, who eventually turns out to be a friend as well. By day 100, Harry considers himself a first grade expert, with these words of wisdom: “Try to make new friends. Keep reading even when the words are hard. Speak up when something’s wrong. And help when someone’s sad.” 240 pages, grades K-3.
Pros: I zipped through the first half of this book in one evening, then held off on the rest so I could savor it later. It’s such a realistic look at what first grade is like, and Harry is an imperfectly perfect narrator (he gets in trouble for talking, pukes all over his desk, and isn’t always nice to the other kids at his table). There’s plenty of classroom diversity, and lessons about Columbus Day and Thanksgiving that are a bit different than what I remember from first grade but well-delivered by his compassionate teacher. Pete Oswald’s illustrations add plenty of humor. This would be a perfect first-grade read-aloud, and I hope it captures the attention of the Newbery committee.
Cons: I would have liked a little more background on Harry’s guinea pig phobia.
Summary: Kiki is tinkering with a bicycle near her home in Ghana when she gets the signal that the Secret Explorers have a mission. When they’re all gathered, they learn that they’ve been assigned to the Arctic, and Kiki and marine specialist Connor are the two chosen to go. When they get there, they find a ship stuck in the ice and learn that one of the scientists has gone missing. As they carry out their rescue mission, they learn a lot about the polar environment, and have a close encounter with a polar bear. Not only do they find the scientist, but Kiki’s engineering skills allow them to free the ship from the ice as well. Includes additional information on the Arctic, the people who live there, and polar bears; a quiz; and a glossary. 128 pages; grades 2-4.
Pros: Somehow I’ve missed this series until this book, #7, which got a starred review from School Library Journal. Kids who like science and reading nonfiction will enjoy learning all the facts that are woven into the story and given in the backmatter. There’s a diverse cast of characters that apparently answer the call from all around the globe when there’s a new mission. I was a little vague as to the group works, so definitely start with book 1.
Cons: Even though there are plenty of illustrations, there’s no credit given on the cover or title page. Unless SJ King is also the illustrator?
Summary: Every year, the residents of Wolver Hollow grow mustaches or wear fake ones on October 19. When Parker and Lucas get to fifth grade, they’re old enough to finally learn why. According to local legend, many years ago Wolver Hollow resident Bockius Beauregard was vaporized in an explosion, with only his mustache surviving. Every year the haunted mustache goes out looking for a hair-free lip to rest on. The two boys decide to investigate to find out if the tale is true, reluctantly including their classmate, ghost expert Samantha von Oppelstein. The three of them have a series of hair-raising adventures, but finally succeed in defeating the mustache. Or do they? 160 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: This first of a three-part series is just the right blend of funny and scary for new chapter book readers. The cliffhanger ending will have kids eagerly seeking out book 2. Book 3 comes out in February.
Cons: I hope the boys will eventually feel comfortable enough with Samantha von Oppelstein to drop the von Oppelstein and simply call her Samantha.
Summary: Reggie is spending his summer house sitting for relatives, living by himself after what seems to have been some unsettling events in his recent past. He seems torn between enjoying his solitude and feeling lonely. When gregarious Emily the rabbit shows up, he has a good time hanging out with her. Emily’s got her own troubles with four sisters, one of whom makes fun of her for her vivid imagination. As the summer progresses, Reggie starts to make more connections and to accept that he may not be as adventurous as the best friend he left behind. By the end of the summer, he and Emily are good friends and he has decided on a new life path for himself. 272 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: Younger graphic novel fans will love Reggie and his friends, all of them monsters with some surprising abilities. The illustrations are adorable and the “be true to yourself” message that Reggie learns is a good one.
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.