The Eyes and the Impossible by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Shawn Harris

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Johannes is a wild dog who lives in a park populated by other animal friends: a brave and loyal seagull, a group of bright raccoons who are proud of their opposable thumbs, a squirrel who sees more with one eye than most animals do with two, and three wise bison.  Johannes can run fast–he estimates that he sometimes surpasses the speed of sound, maybe the speed of light–and he becomes the Eyes of the park, keeping the bison informed about what is going on.  A couple of misadventures including a dognapping and the rescue of a human child bring Johannes to the attention of the park staff, and he begins to fear for his freedom.  To take his mind off of that worry, he begins to formulate a seemingly impossible plan: to free the bison, assisted by a herd of goats that has recently been transported to the island.  All the animals get in on the escape, and all goes off with a minimum of hitches until the crucial moment of boarding the escape boat, when the bison decide they don’t want to be free.  Johannes is invited to escape instead, forcing him to decide between his island family and the chance to start a new life of guaranteed freedom.  256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  I’m not a big animal fantasy reader, but this book has gotten three starred reviews, so I couldn’t ignore it. I forced myself to start reading and was immediately charmed and engaged by Johannes’s voice, which is simultaneously innocent, wise, and funny.  It would be a great choice for an elementary read-aloud or book club, and I certainly hope it will receive some Newbery consideration.  The writing is so, so good, and Shawn Harris’s paintings of Johannes perfectly capture his spirit and island home.

Cons:  I had my fingers crossed that the constantly maligned ducks would have a moment of redemption during the escape, but they remained the butt of all the other animals’ jokes.

Big Tree by Brian Selznick

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Melvin and Louise are two seeds nestled cozily in a seedpod, secure in the love and wisdom provided by their mother, a giant sycamore tree.  A natural disaster flings them into the world, where they travel over land and sea, meeting all kinds of wise and wonderful creatures.  While their mother sought to give them both roots and wings, imaginative Louise is filled with wonder and hope, while Melvin is bound by his worries and fears.  When the two are separated, Melvin finds himself trapped for many, many years, never forgetting his sister.  Eventually he learns the lessons of the universe that Louise already instinctively knew, and the two meet again in a wondrous reunion.  Includes an afterword that explains some of the scientific references, a bibliography, and an author’s note that tells how the story came to be.  528 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Brian Selznick has created a masterpiece of prose and art in the style of his previous books.  This book was inspired by a movie idea that Steven Spielberg had, looking at the history of the Earth from the perspective of nature itself.  It is a wildly creative and ambitious story that includes dinosaurs, volcanoes, meteors, dinosaurs, mushroom ambassadors, and so much more.  

Cons:  Readers might need some guidance to understand all that is going on during this long period of Earth’s history.  The back matter is a useful guide for this.

The Moth Keeper by K. O’Neill

Published by Random House Graphic

Summary:  Long ago, a community formed in the desert to live their lives at night and keep the Moon Spirit company.  In return, the Spirit gave them a special tree that made their lives easier.  The tree had to be pollinated once a year by Moon-Moths.  Now Anya has become an apprentice Moth Keeper, going out every night into the desert, sometimes with her guardian Yeolen and sometimes alone.  Anya had a tough childhood, seen in flashbacks, and she sometimes fears the dark and longs to spend her days in the daylight.  But when she causes a near-catastrophe with the moths, she realizes the importance of her community and her role in it.  Helped by them, she’s able to correct her mistake and finds new beauty and connection in her nightly work.  272 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  The gorgeous illustrations make this fantasy tale one that readers will want to revisit over and over again.  K. O’Neill has created a magical world filled with mystery, beauty, and a tight-knit, loving community.

Cons:  Be sure to spend plenty of time on the wordless pages of the book to fully understand the story. I found myself confused more than once.

Meesh the Bad Demon by Michelle Lam

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Meesh struggles with things that come easy for most demons her age, like breathing fire and puking acid, and is often picked on by a bully named Xavier.  She prefers befriending flowers and watching the Princess Nouna TV show with her grandmother.  When a mysterious substance starts turning demons into stone, Meesh realizes it’s up to her to save her community.  She goes off in search of Princess Nouna but is dismayed by the real-life princess when they finally meet.  The two unwittingly wind up going on a series of adventures together, during which Meesh discovers some new powers.  Eventually, they add a couple more kids to their group, including, much to Meesh’s surprise, Xavier.  Working together, the team manages to save the demons, and a surprising twist at the end will have readers eagerly awaiting a sequel.  304 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This manga-style comic is sure to be a big hit, with its gorgeous art, non-stop adventures, creative world-building, and loveable team of misfits that learn to accept each other and work together to do great things.

Cons:  I think this is a “me” problem, but I do struggle in fantasy graphic novels to keep track of the various characters and their worlds.

The Guardian Test (Legends of Lotus Island, book 1) by Christina Soontornvat, illustrated by Kevin Hong

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Plum has grown up on her grandparents’ small island farm, so when she unexpectedly gets an invitation to attend Guardian Academy, her life changes dramatically.  The Guardians are an elite group of shapeshifters who keep all the islands safe, and Plum joins the other kids who are trying to pass their first test–learning to transform.  With only a month to prepare, Plum is worried that she isn’t progressing as quickly as her classmates and is tempted when she learns that one of the other girls has found a shortcut to passing the test.  But her love of nature and abilities to communicate with animals and plants serve her well and she moves on with most of her classmates in an adventure to be continued when book 2 comes out in July.  160 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Kids not quite ready for Harry Potter will love this Thai-inspired fantasy about a magical school with some pretty intricate world-building.  The short chapters and illustrations keep things moving along, and readers will be eagerly anticipating Plum’s next adventure.

Cons:  The cover gave me a graphic novel vibe; kids might be surprised to discover that this is a chapter book.

Batcat by Meggie Ramm

Published by Harry N. Abrams

Summary:  Batcat is part bat, part cat, and fully annoyed by the ghost that has moved into their treehouse.  They consult a witch about how to get rid of the ghostly invader and get sent on a quest to gather the three ingredients needed for the proper spell.  Along the way, Batcat meets up with some bats and some cats who assure them that they are lacking some of the bat and cat qualities to be either animal.  Batcat gets increasingly despondent about their deficiencies until they meet up with a couple of griffins who assure them that one does not have to be one thing or the other.  After embracing their one-of-a-kind identity, Batcat returns to the witch where they slowly realize that maybe the ghost isn’t so bad after all.  The witch works her magic, and Batcat and the ghost become friends and roomies.  96 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  This cute and clever graphic novel has humor, spookiness, and a subtle lesson in self-acceptance that works well with both Batcat’s dual-animal identity and their nonbinary pronouns.  I’m happy to see that this is book 1 and look forward to a sequel soon.

Cons:  I could have enjoyed some how-to-draw-Batcat pages at the end.

Fae and the Moon by Franco Aureliani, illustrated by Catherine Satrun and Sarah Satrun

Published by Yellow Jacket

Summary:  Fae has been alone since her mother mysteriously disappeared, supported only by a bunny friend and a couple of mice.  She dreams about her mom every night and is sure she is still alive somewhere.  Her mother had a strong connection to the moon, and one night Fae decides to remove it to the sky, hoping her mom will notice and return home.  The disappearance of the moon triggers some pretty unsavory animal behavior, and in a series of adventures, Fae learns that not only are a swarm of rats trying to steal the moon from her, but the “bunny” is really a power-hungry monster.  Fae discovers that she has powers of her own and manages to bring about a happy ending for herself and her mother.  Includes four pages showing the creation of the story and illustrations.  144 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  Don’t be deceived by the short length of this graphic novel; it’s a pretty elaborate fantasy story that will appeal to a wide range of elementary students.  Readers will be happy with the pretty strong hint at the end that there will be a book 2.

Cons:  No page numbers.

Princess of the Wild Sea by Megan Frazer Blakemore

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Summary:  Princess Harbor has a happy, if somewhat isolated, life on a small island surrounded by her mother, her magical aunts, and a slew of island residents who are training her in skills that may come in handy when she returns to the mainland.  When she was born, one of the aunts (who has disappeared) put a curse on her that at age 13 she would prick her finger, fall into a deep sleep, and bring danger to all her people.  Another aunt tried to temper the curse by saying a hero would come from another world to save them.  The story opens on Harbor’s twelfth birthday, and within a short time period, the events start to unfold.  Harbor pricks her finger, falls asleep for a few hours, and six-year-old Peter shows up from a strange place called Kansas.  Could he really be the hero?  And is danger imminent?  As Harbor learns more about her birth and family, she becomes increasingly confused, but also more certain about what she must do to save her people…and what being a hero really means.  256 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This well-written fantasy does an admirable job of world-building and turns the story of Sleeping Beauty on its head, allowing both Harbor and Peter to get a taste of heroics and to realize that they don’t need magic to save the kingdom.  Could be a Newbery contender.

Cons:  I found the storyline and the large cast of characters a bit hard to keep track of.

The Carrefour Curse by Dianne K. Salerni

Published by Holiday House

Summary:  Garnet has always loved her mother’s stories about growing up with her large extended family at the Crossroad House, but her mom fled the house long ago, and Garnet has never seen it.  It takes an episode of vomiting frogs to get the two of them back there, where they find the house in disrepair and the family dealing with the family patriarch, Jasper, who is staying alive by sucking the life energy from anyone he can.  As Garnet learns more about her magical family and their history, she discovers powers of her own beyond the magic she has always practiced.  When a crisis threatens her and her cousins, she must use those powers to save herself and to put her family on a new and more promising path.  224 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Buckle yourself in for a magical mystery tour of an ancient house and family that holds more than its share of dark secrets.  Anyone who enjoys a good mystery with a generous dose of spookiness is in for a treat. Dianne Salerni does an amazing job of creating a richly detailed magical family history in just over 200 pages.

Cons:  I struggled to keep all the members of the family straight.  I wish the family tree, which I had to refer to frequently, had been at the beginning of the book instead of on pages 10 and 11.

Your Pal Fred by Michael Rex

Published by Viking Books for Young Readers

Summary:  “Welcome to the future!”  “The future stinks” read two signs on the opening page.  The evidence is there in chapter one when brothers Pug and Plug are traveling through a post-apocalyptic world, each one only looking out for himself.  When they accidentally awaken an AI boy named Fred, they get a few lessons in friendship and sharing.  When Fred learns about the world war going on, he decides to take his lessons to the two warlords to try to negotiate a peaceful settlement.  Fred befriends everyone he meets in his travels, a gift that later is returned when he’s rescued from the warlords’ attempts to destroy him.  A surprising revelation unexpectedly brings peace, and Fred decides to wander the world, helping anyone who may need him.  Includes Fred’s six-step guide to making friends.  272 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  A graphic novel with equal parts fun and heart, as Fred’s unstoppable kindness saves the day in a grim future populated by all sorts of unusual creatures.  As I have mentioned, Mike Rex grew up down the street from me, and I appreciated his dedication, “To my father, who was, above all, kind.”

Cons:  Kindness does not always feel like its own reward here.