The Popper Penguin Rescue by Eliot Schrefer

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Thanks to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for providing me with a free digital review copy of this book.  This book is scheduled for release October 13, 2020.

The Popper Penguin Rescue by Eliot Schrefer

Summary:  Many years have passed since Mr. Popper and his family raised their penguins in Stillwater, and the town still celebrates his feats.  In the neighboring town of Hilltop, these celebrations have taken on a tackier, more commercial look. Distant relatives Joel and Nina Popper, along with their mother, move into the town’s abandoned petting zoo and discover two penguin eggs hidden in the basement.  When the eggs hatch, the family decides to take the chicks to the Arctic island where the descendants of the original Popper penguins live. They discover that penguins don’t belong in the Arctic, and decide an expedition to Antarctica–with all the Popper penguins–is in order.  Life with penguins has its share of surprises, and Nina and Joel prove themselves to be worthy successors to their penguin-loving ancestor. 176 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  Fans of the original Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater will get a kick out of finding out what’s happened to the penguins over the years.  With plenty of illustrations (not seen by me), this would make a good read-aloud or first “real” chapter book. Schrefer introduces some environmental concepts (climate change, invasive species) in a subtle way that is mixed in with plenty of penguin fun.

Cons:  Readers will appreciate this book a lot more if they read the original first.

Mr. Popper's Penguins: Atwater, Richard, Atwater, Florence ...

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The Candy Caper (Trouble at Table 5 book 1) by Tom Watson

Published by HarperCollins

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Summary:  Narrator Molly is a third grader who sometimes “gets things stuck in her head”.  When she sees a jar of Skittles on the principal’s desk, she can’t rest until she knows how many are in the jar.  Fortunately, her friends Simon and Rosie understand her, and they offer to figure out a way to count the candies.  After a few false starts, the three of them hatch a plan to get Molly sent to the principal’s office, then to distract the principal while Molly replaces the original jar with one she’s brought from home.  The plan works, Molly gets her answer, and even her understanding parents don’t punish her for getting sent to the principal’s office. Includes three activities that connect to the story. 96 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  A fun school story for emergent readers, showing the progress made in reading the book at the end of each chapter.  Kids with anxiety or OCD may make some connections to Molly, who is portrayed sympathetically and surrounded by supportive friends and family (although I wish the principal had caught her so they could have had a conversation about Molly asking how many Skittles were in the jar instead of having to sneak them).

Cons:  This is part of a new HarperChapters imprint which seems to be Harper’s answer to the Scholastic Branches series.  Their website even compare one of the new series (13th Street) to Eerie Elementary and Notebook of Doom. Sure, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I think Harper would be better served by coming up with something a bit more original.

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Real Pigeons Fight Crime by Andrew McDonald, illustrated by Ben Wood

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Rock Pigeon lives on a farm, where he loves disguising himself as various plants and animals.  One day an old pigeon named Grandpouter comes for a visit. Turns out he’s starting a squad of crime-fighting pigeons and is looking for a master of disguise.  Rock’s not sure he wants to go live in the city, but Grandpouter convinces him to try it out for one case. In the city, Rock meets the rest of the squad, and they get to work solving the mystery of why all the breadcrumbs have disappeared from the local park.  Cracking that case convinces Rock that he belongs with the Real Pigeons, and the squad successfully solves two more mysteries by the end of the book. Includes a page of facts about real-life pigeons and a promotion for the next two books in the series. 202 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Fans of series like The Bad Guys, Inspector Flytrap, and, of course, Dog Man will enjoy this new graphic series that uses the same goofy sense of humor in both the story and the illustrations.  

Cons:  I had a bit of trouble keeping the different pigeons straight.  Guess I prefer the different species featured in The Bad Guys.

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

Bo’s Magical New Friend (Unicorn Diaries book 1) by Rebecca Elliott

Published by Scholastic 

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Summary:  Meet Rainbow Tinseltail (better known as Bo) of Sparklegrove Forest, a unicorn who sports a rainbow mane and sneezes glitter.  Bo’s a wishing unicorn, which means they (Bo’s gender is never revealed) can grant one wish a week. When new unicorn Sunny pops into existence (that’s how it is with unicorns), Bo’s hoping he’ll become a new best friend (Sunny seems to be a boy).  The unicorns get a challenge to use their special magical powers, but Sunny doesn’t know what his is. Bo wants Sunny to make a wish to learn his power, so that Bo can grant the wish and win Sunny’s friendship. But that’s against the rules, and before long Bo and Sunny have gotten into a fight.  Fear not, there’s a happy ending for all, and a second book coming out in early March. 80 pages; grades 2-3.

Pros:  A new diary series about unicorns written and illustrated by the author of Owl Diaries? Better stock up on extra copies…this is sure to be a hit with the early-reading crowd.

Cons:  Keep a dose of insulin handy for this super-sweet dose of unicorn magic.

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The Best of Iggy by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sam Ricks

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  When you’re in fourth grade, there are three kinds of trouble to be had: 1. things we wish we hadn’t done, but actually just wish we hadn’t gotten in trouble for, 2. things we wish we hadn’t done quite as much as we did, and 3. things we really, completely wish we hadn’t done.  Readers get an illustration of each of these from Iggy.  Iggy’s not a bad kid; he just doesn’t always think about consequences, like that skateboarding off a shed onto a trampoline or racing desks toward the teacher when her back is turned might not be great ideas. The term “extenuating circumstances” is introduced, with some examples of when they do and don’t exist in each of Iggy’s escapades.  The final episode, which Iggy regrets deeply, teaches him a few lessons, but even he is wise enough to see that he will sometimes forget those lessons in the future. 144 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  With short chapters, lots of humor, and plenty of illustrations, this is sure to engage both reluctant and enthusiastic readers.  Some may feel Iggy should be a bit more contrite about his actions, but he seemed just right for a 9-year-old boy.

Cons:  It’s a pretty short book, and dividing it into three separate episodes didn’t allow for much character development.

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The Amazing Life of Azaleah Lane by Nikki Shannon Smith, illustrated by Mari Lobo

Published by Picture Window Books (Capstone)

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Summary:  After a trip to the National Zoo, Azaleah is excited to start working on her extra-credit animal habitat diorama.  But when she gets home, she discovers that her little sister has lost her stuffed frog Greenie. At first Azaleah’s excited to work with Tiana to solve a mystery, but when Tiana’s demands start getting in the way of work on the diorama, Azaleah gets frustrated.  Older sister Nia has just gotten a big part in the school play and is acting like a bit of a diva. As family tensions start to mount, Azaleah realizes it’s up to her to get things back on track. Includes a glossary, discussion questions, writing prompts, and instructions for making a diorama.  112 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  This early chapter book had an engaging mystery–I was genuinely curious as to what had happened to Greenie–as well as a likeable protagonist with realistic family issues.  The full-color illustrations add to the appeal. This is billed as book 1, so we can hope for more adventures of Azaleah.

Cons:  Dad sending everyone to bed at 6 o’clock–including middle schooler Nia–seemed a bit draconian.

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Five Favorite Early Readers/Chapter Books

Writing a good book for newly independent readers seems deceptively difficult, and I always appreciate finding a good one.

Acorn Books by various authors

Published by Scholastic

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Scholastic’s been dominating the early chapter book market for the last few years with their Branches imprint.  This year they rolled out several new series under the Acorn label, targeting slightly younger readers.  Lots of humor and cartoon-style illustrations with speech bubbles are sure to be a hit.


Smell My Foot! (Chick and Brain book 1) by Cece Bell

Published by Candlewick

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What the heck?  Only Cece Bell would think to pair a chick and a brain, but somehow it works, with plenty of goofy humor in the writing and illustrations.


What Is Inside THIS Box? (Monkey and Cake book 1) by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Tallec

Published by Orchard Books

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Drew Daywalt simultaneously entertains and raises philosophical questions in this new Elephant-and-Piggie-inspired series.


Juana and Lucas: Big Problemas by Juana Medina

Published by Candlewick

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I enjoyed book two of Juana and Lucas every bit as much as book one.  For some reason, I’ve had trouble getting kids to read these books, but I will keep trying in 2020.


Frank and Bean by Jamie Michalak, illustrated by Bob Kolar

Published by Candlewick

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Candlewick gets the prize for oddball friendships this year, including this pairing of introverted hot dog Frank and his new jokester pal Bean.