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.

The Inflatables in Bad Air Day by Beth Garrod and Jess Hitchman, illustrated by Chris Danger

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  A group of inflatable toy friends (flamingo, donut, cactus, watermelon, and raft) live in a water park and help each other out in all kinds of situations, like when they hear there’s a new wave pool opening on the other side of the park.  Seems like inflatables wouldn’t be able to travel, but where there’s a will there’s a way for this crowd.  When they get to the pool, though, Flamingo discovers that his worst nightmare is living there, and they all have to quickly find a way back home again (spoiler alert: this involves a helium tank).  There’s a happy ending for all, and I’m not full of hot air when I tell you book 2 is available now, and book 3 will arrive in October.  128 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Summer may be coming to an end, but you can pretend you’re still at a pool party with this funny group of inflatable friends.  This is sure to be a hit with fans of Dog Man and other graphic novels.

Cons:  This has the look of a Branches book, but it’s more of a graphic novel than those are.  I think a larger format with color would have worked better.

Flipping Forward Twisting Backward by Alma Fullerton

Published by Peachtree

Summary:  Claire can master any gymnastic skill she puts her mind to, but school is another matter.  Reading and writing are just about impossible for her, no matter how hard she tries, and she often acts out due to her frustration.  During one of her frequent trips to the vice-principal’s office, she makes a chance remark that leads him to believe that she may have a learning disability.  Her mother refuses to believe that anything’s wrong, fearing that a label will limit Claire’s chances for success in school, and it takes a near-crisis to convince her to let Claire get tested.  The last few pages see Claire flying through her gymnastics routine with a newfound optimism that things will improve in her academic life as well.  135 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  This novel in verse is a quick read that sympathetically portrays a character with dyslexia.  It’s written in a font designed for children learning to read.  The short length and relatable characters and storyline would make it a great choice for an elementary book club. I’ve added it to my newly-updated list of book club suggestions for grades 2-4.

Cons:  The ending felt a bit rushed.

Leave It to Plum! By Matt Phelan

Published by Greenwillow Books

Summary:  Plum is a cheerful peacock who loves his job at the Athensville Zoo, where he and the other peacocks are the official greeters.  Itch is a ningbing (the world’s smallest marsupial) who makes up in evil genius what he lacks in size.  Jeremy is a white cat who tries to do the right thing, but who gets an inferiority complex when he hangs around the big cats.  Lizzie is a kind but lonely young zookeeper in a new town with a new job.  All of these creatures’ stories come together as Itch tries to carry out his dastardly plans, and Plum manages to foil them in his own bumbling fashion.  115 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Matt Phelan has created a pretty complex story with lots of interesting characters that he manages to carry out in just over 100 hilarious pages with plenty of illustrations.  The humor and the fast-paced plot will appeal to many different types of elementary readers.

Cons:  The map of the zoo is a little bare-bones.

Catalina Incognito (book 1) by Jennifer Torres, illustrated by Gladys Jose

Published by Aladdin

Summary:  Catalina’s a bit disappointed to receive a sewing kit from her Tía Abuela for her birthday.  Usually Tía, a former telenovela star who is also named Catalina, gives more exciting gifts.  For their first sewing lesson, Tía shows Cat how to fix her torn cat sweatshirt.  Later, Cat realizes the sweatshirt can temporarily transform her into a cat.  It turns out the sewing kit has magic in it that can change ordinary clothing into disguises.  Becoming a cat comes in handy when a ruby goes missing from one of Tía’s most famous gowns on display at the local library.  Cat and her frenemy Pablo combine forces to solve the mystery.  This is the first of a four-part series, simultaneously released with book 2 (there’s a preview at the end of this book).  Books 3 and 4 will be out later this year.  114 pages; grades 1-3. 

Pros:  There’s a lot going on in this early chapter book: magic, a mystery, and a few lessons about perseverance.  The illustrations and larger font make it an appealing choice for younger kids.

Cons:  The mystery didn’t start until about halfway through the book and wrapped up pretty quickly. I hope Pablo gets a bigger role in book 2.

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

Published by Kind World Publishing

Summary:  Maddie and Mabel are two sisters who (usually) love to play together.  Their story is told in five chapters, each of which could stand alone, but which also tie together.  In one of the chapters, Mabel gets tired of Maddie’s bossiness and the two have a fight.  Maddie shows readers how to apologize and before long the sisters are happily back together.  A few pages at the end offer suggestions for discussion.  Book 2 is due out in October.  80 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  This beginning chapter book reminds me of Laurel Snyder’s Charlie and Mouse series.  There are no adults around, so the two girls have to work things out on their own.  Each page has just a few sentences, but the stories are emotionally satisfying despite their brevity.

Cons:  Those older siblings sure can be bossy. And those younger ones can be a pain in the neck.