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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The Epic Origin of Super Potato (Super Potato book 1) by Artur Laperla

Published by Graphic Universe

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Summary:  When Super Max is called on to stop Doctor Malevolent from stealing a priceless statue from the museum, it seems like business as usual for this slightly narcissistic superhero.  But the evil Malevolent has a new weapon, and before Max can say “Tater Tots”, he has been transformed into a potato with the villain’s ray gun. Fortunately, his superpowers remain intact, so he becomes a flying, extra-strong potato.  Much of the story is about his attempts to turn back into a human (or at least get some decent hair), but in the end, his quest is futile, and it appears that he will be fighting crime as a potato in future installments. 54 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  Captain Underpants and Dog Man may have to make some space for this new superhero who will appeal (wildly) to their fan base.

Cons:  Max’s/Super Potato’s hair (and his obsession with it) reminded me a bit of a shocking head of orange hair that is frequently in the news.

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Life According to Og the Frog by Betty G. Birney

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons

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Summary:  Room 26 has a new pet: Og the Frog.  Og started his career as a classroom pet in Room 27, but George the bullfrog was something of a bully, so Og got moved next door.  He enjoys watching the kids (whom he calls “big tads”), thinks Mrs. Brisbane is a pretty great teacher, and is intrigued by his excitable hamster neighbor, but Og sometimes wishes he was back in the swamp.  He was “frognapped” by a fisherman, then given to the man’s grandson who is a student in room 27.  A herpetologist from a nearby nature center visits the classroom to tell the kids more about Og, and she informs them that Og can’t be released back into the wild (he may have picked up human germs that he would spread to other frogs).  The kids–and Og–have to decide if it’s best for him to stay in the classroom or if he should move to the nature center.  Of course, Og ends up staying in school, and readers can hope to hear more from the new frog in the future. 160 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Fans of the Humphrey series will be clamoring for a new book about a frog who is every bit as endearing as Room 26’s hamster is.  Og is a poet, and kids may be inspired to try to match some of his rhymes; they’ll also learn a bit about frogs and conservation.

Cons:  I was hoping Og and Humphrey would find a way to communicate, but all Og hears from Humphrey is a bunch of squeaking.

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Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant

Published by Beach Lane Books

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Summary:  Flora’s fourth grade year gets off to a rough start; her parents have recently separated, her dog died not too long ago, and the kids in her class seem a lot smarter and more confident than they did in third grade.  Flora is quiet and sensitive, and loves spending hours reading at Wing and a Chair Used Books, where her mother works three days a week.  As the year goes on, Flora makes a new friend, Yuri; gets a new cat, Serenity; and discovers her talent for writing.  When spring comes, her family changes once again, this time in an exciting new direction, and Flora is grateful for everything that has happened to her in the previous year.  160 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  A quiet, introspective book about a quiet, introspective girl growing up in 1972 in the small town of Rosewood, Indiana.  The characters are memorable, especially Flora, Yuri, and Miss Meriwether, the book store owner.

Cons:  Readers seeking a lot of humor/action/adventure may be disappointed.

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The Creature of the Pines (The Unicorn Rescue Society, book 1) by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly

Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  From the team that brought you The Inquisitor’s Tale comes this new series for the early chapter book crowd.  Elliot Eisner is bummed to be starting school three weeks into the school year.  That ends up being the least of his concerns after he meets a girl named Uchenna.  The two of them get paired up on what turns out to be the weirdest field trip he has ever been on.  Their class travels to New Jersey’s Pine Barrens with their chronically flustered teacher Miss Vole and the strange and perpetually grumpy Professor Fauna.  They wind up rescuing a small dragon-like creature that turns out to be a Jersey Devil.  After they return to school, the creature gets loose and ends up in the home of the evil billionaire Schmoke brothers.  Elliott and Uchenna are forced to seek out Professor Fauna for help.  The rescue complete, he invites them to join the top secret Unicorn Rescue Society, setting the stage for more escapades with mythical creatures in the next books of the series.  192 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  A unique and promising start to a new series, with plenty of deadpan humor, one-of-a-kind characters, and magic action.  Short chapters, a fast pace, and plenty of illustrations will appeal to reluctant readers.

Cons:  As a New Jersey native, I would have appreciated some back matter about the Jersey Devil.

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