The Anti-Book by Raphael Simon

Published by Dial Books

The Anti-Book: Simon, Raphael: 9780525552413: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Mickey’s pretty miserable with his life since his parents divorced and each found a new partner, and his sister’s dating a bully who makes Mickey’s life miserable.  So when he sees an ad inside a pack of his favorite bubble gum for an “anti-book” he decides he has nothing to lose by ordering it.  The book comes with some pretty simple instructions: “To erase it, write it.”  Mickey starts writing the things he wants to erase: his parents, his sister, her boyfriend, just about everything about school…he wears down a pencil filling the Anti-Book.  When he wakes up the next morning, though, he discovers he has, in fact, erased his world.  Can he bring it all back?  Trying to erase what he wrote creates further havoc, and Mickey has to travel through his new alternate world with some unusual companions to figure out how he can save everyone…including himself.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This book reminded me a little of The Phantom Tollbooth, with a character traveling into a new world to learn some important lessons about himself.  The world building is fun and clever, and Mickey makes some discoveries that will resonate with a lot of kids his age.  A conversation with his sister in the final few pages about his uncertainty about his sexuality will undoubtedly resonate with some readers as well.

Cons:  I’m not a big fan of The Phantom Tollbooth, so while I can appreciate this book it’s not going to become a personal favorite .

Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston

Published by Balzer + Bray

Amari and the Night Brothers (Supernatural Investigations, 1): Alston, B.  B.: 9780062975164: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Amari’s had a tough year after her beloved older brother has gone missing and she’s had to put up with constant bullying from being the only poor Black girl at her elite private school.  So when she receives a mysterious invitation to a summer camp at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she thinks she may have found a way to solve her school problems and, more importantly, find her brother.  Things take an unexpected turn when Amari learns she possesses a powerful magic that’s looked upon with suspicion by almost everyone at the Bureau.  Fortunately, she finds a few friends and allies who help her to channel her powers and help her uncover what’s happened to her brother.  Some unexpected twists toward the end leave things hanging enough for readers to be breathlessly anticipating book 2.  408 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Harry Potter and Rick Riordan fans will love this new series opener about another unlikely outsider who discovers her stronger-than-average magical powers at a school specializing in the supernatural.  

Cons:  Fantasy’s always kind of a slog for me, so I’m probably not be the best person to promote this book. Judging from the starred reviews in professional journals and on Amazon, though, I would say this series is a hit with fans of the genre.

Little Claws (Animal Rescue Agency, book 1) by Eliot Schrefer, illustrated by Daniel Duncan

Published by Katherine Tegen Books

Case File: Little Claws by Eliot Schrefer

Summary:  When a polar bear cub gets stranded on an ice floe, his anguished mother contacts the Animal Rescue Agency: the unlikely duo of Esquire Fox and her rooster partner Mr. Pepper.  The two head up to the Arctic, where they are pursued by a villainous man in a white hat and barely survive a series of narrow escapes.  With the help of various polar animals, they manage to outwit this man, rescuing the cub and reuniting him with his mother.  Back home in Colorado, Esquire posts the man’s picture on the wall of villains, surrounded by question marks that seem to indicate there will be other villains…and other books in the series.  Includes information about climate change and its threat to polar bears and a recipe for the mushroom jerky Esquire eats to curb her appetite for chickens.  176 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Like Eliot Schrefer’s books for older readers, this one mixes humor, adventure, and information about animals and the threats humans pose to them.  With plenty of illustrations, animal characters, and bantering dialog, this is sure to be a popular series with elementary readers.

Cons:  Obviously, it’s for a different audience, but I missed the awesome world building of Schrefer’s The Lost Rainforest series.

Five (okay, six) more favorite chapter books

I struggled to get this list down to five–the random magic number I have chosen for each of these lists. I couldn’t bear to remove any of them, though, so here are the six.

The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman

Published by Viking Books for Young Readers

The Blackbird Girls: Blankman, Anne: 9781984837356: Amazon.com: Books

There’s a lot to this book, and it’s probably not for every reader, but those who love historical fiction and strong girl characters will take Valentina and Oksana to heart as they form an unlikely friendship in the aftermath of Chernobyl.

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

The Only Black Girls in Town: Colbert, Brandy: 9780316456388: Amazon.com:  Books

Another outstanding friendship story featuring Alberta and Edie who are navigating mean girls, seventh grade, and a mystery that reveals the racism in their town’s history that has persisted to the present day.

96 Miles by J. L. Esplin

Published by Starscape

96 Miles: Esplin, J. L.: 9781250192288: Amazon.com: Books

I do not typically use the expression “holy cow” in a book review, but I did indeed do that when reviewing this gripping survival story that I read practically in one sitting.

The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung

Published by Levine Querido

The Boys in the Back Row: Jung, Mike: 9781646140114: Amazon.com: Books

This book struck just the right balance between funny middle school story and touching friendship story and made me realize how rare it is to find a middle-grade novel that celebrates boys’ friendships. As the cherry on top, it’s a love letter to marching band geeks like myself.

The Mystwick School of Musicraft by Jessica Khoury

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

The Mystwick School of Musicraft: Khoury, Jessica: 9781328625632: Amazon.com:  Books

I always feel a bit guilty that I don’t review more fantasy books; I’ll admit it’s not my favorite genre. Once in awhile, though, I find a great one. I spent a few pleasant weeks this spring listening to Amelia Jones’s adventures at Mystwick on Audible and doing jigsaw puzzles. Despite 2020’s reputation, it has not been without its happy moments.

Brother’s Keeper by Julie Lee

Published by Holiday House

Brother's Keeper: Lee, Julie: 9780823444946: Amazon.com: Books

I would not have predicted that a survival story featuring a brother and sister escaping from 1950 North Korea would have made it on to my list of favorite 2020 books, but look, here it is.

Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse

Published by Random House Graphic

Witches of Brooklyn: Escabasse, Sophie: 9780593119273: Amazon.com: Books
Witches of Brooklyn: Escabasse, Sophie: 9780593119273: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  When Effie is dropped off at her Aunt Selimene’s home in the middle of the night, neither one is happy about it.  But Effie has nowhere else to go, and Aunt Selimene is her only living relative.  Selimene’s partner Carlota makes Effie feel welcome, and within a few days everyone is feeling better about the situation.  Selimene and Carlota claim to be herbalists and acupuncturists, but Effie soon discovers they are actually witches.  Before long, her own magical powers emerge, although she has difficulty controlling them.  When celebrity singer Tily Shoo shows up needing the witches’ help, her #1 fan Effie gets in on the case as well.  It’s Effie who makes a key discovery that will help Tily Shoo reverse the curse that has been placed on her.  Things wrap up with a happy ending, but there’s a preview of book 2 at the end, and the author’s biography says she’s working on a trilogy.  240 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  A fun graphic novel for anyone who likes school and family stories with a touch of magic thrown in.  There’s a lot of action and many characters, but the pace is good and the characters are well-distinguished in the illustrations, making it easy to follow what’s going on.

Cons:  There’s not much told about Effie’s previous life or what happened to her mother.

The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman, illustrated by Tracy Nishimura Bishop

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

The Silver Arrow - Kindle edition by Grossman, Lev. Children Kindle eBooks  @ Amazon.com.

Summary:  Kate’s life is basically satisfactory, but she sometimes feels like she’d like something more.  When her mysterious Uncle Herbert appears on the morning of her eleventh birthday with a full-size steam engine named The Silver Arrow, she begins to understand that what has been missing is adventure and a sense of purpose.  She and her younger brother Tom are sent on a journey around the world, picking up animals and transporting them to their natural habitats.  As they get to know the animals and learn about the trouble they’re in, Kate and Tom realize their job to protect their new friends will extend long beyond their train trip.  The journey proves difficult, and the two kids almost give up on it before it’s over, but in the end their persistence pays off.  They’re happy to get home safely, but Uncle Herbert assures them their adventures have just begun…potentially paving the way for a sequel.  272 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  This illustrated story hits the sweet spot for third and fourth graders, who will love the two kids, their adventures, and all the animals–and the train, which can communicate and becomes an important character as well.  The environmental message is nicely embedded into the story and could lead to some interesting discussions. This would make a great read-aloud or book club selection.

Cons:  Tracy Nishimura Bishop’s illustrations add a lot to the story, but she’s not credited on either the cover or the back flap.

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

A Game of Fox & Squirrels by Jenn Reese

Published by Henry Holt & Co.

A Game of Fox & Squirrels: Reese, Jenn: 9781250243010: Amazon.com ...

Summary:  Samantha and her older sister Caitlin have recently been moved from their parents’ home to live with their Aunt Vicky and her wife Hannah.  Although the reason is unclear at first, it has to do with Caitlin’s broken arm.  Caitlin seems happy to be there, but Sam misses her parents and her best friend and wants to go home.  When Aunt Vicky gives Sam her favorite card game, A Game of Fox & Squirrels, the characters begin to come to life for her.  Ashander the fox is charming and handsome, and promises her he’ll get her home if she can successfully complete a series of challenges before the next full moon.  Maple, Birch, and Cedar are three squirrels who help and encourage her.  Sam is eager to do what Ashander asks, but as the challenges continue, his rules start to change, and he begins to show a more frightening side.  Before long, Sam is in over her head, and isn’t sure where she belongs.  Aunt Vicky and Hannah are kind, and between bouts of homesickness, she starts to recall more troubling aspects of her life at home.  Ashander still holds out the promise of home, but is Sam willing to pay the price he is demanding?  224 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This seems to be the year for books that examine child abuse, and this one does it in a way that blends fantasy with reality.  Sam starts to see her father’s traits in Ashander, with just the right amount of tension bordering on horror.  I hope this will be considered for some awards.

Cons:  There’s a lot of inferencing required to understand what has happened to Sam and Caitlin; that along with the blurry line between reality and fantasy may be confusing for some readers.

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

Shuri: A Black Panther Novel by Nic Stone

Published by Scholastic

Shuri: A Black Panther Novel (Marvel) (1): Stone, Nic ...

Summary:  Princess Shuri, sister of T’Challa the Black Panther, is gifted in all things technological and wants to use her talents to help Wakanda.  She feels that her mother and brother don’t appreciate her and treat her like a child.  So when she discovers that the powerful heart-shaped herb is dying, then has a vision of an evil invading Wakanda, she feels compelled to act.  When her family doesn’t take her warnings seriously, Shuri takes matters into her own hands, escaping with her friend and protector K’Marah to travel to Kenya and London in search of assistance.  Their return to Wakanda coincides with the invasion, and Shuri is able to use some of her innovative technology to stop it and to show her family what she is capable of.  272 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  My experience with another middle grade Black Panther novel makes me pretty confident that this will be an easy sell.  It’s an action-packed ride with a strong, smart girl protagonist, and characters that may be familiar to readers from the movie or comic books.

Cons:  The queen seemed unnecessarily obnoxious to her daughter, not appreciating Shuri’s considerable gifts, and focusing too much on her clothes and social skills.

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

The Mystwick School of Musicraft by Jessica Khoury

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

The Mystwick School of Musicraft: Khoury, Jessica: 9781328625632 ...

Summary:  Amelia Jones has always dreamed of attending The Mystwick School of Musicraft where her late mother became a maestro.  Amelia is a flutist who has studied musicraft with some local teachers, but is ill-prepared for the big time and bungles her audition to the school.  She’s shocked a few weeks later when she gets an acceptance letter.  But when she arrives at Mystwick, she discovers the letter was an error–it was intended for a different Amelia Jones, a piano prodigy who died the previous summer under somewhat mysterious circumstances.  Our Amelia is about to be sent packing, when the teachers discover a nifty bit of magic she inadvertently performed on the school grounds.  They decide to give her two months to get her magic up to speed, at which time she’ll have to audition again to stay for good.  Amelia is determined to work hard, but when the ghost of the other Amelia Jones seems equally determined to see her fail, it becomes more and more difficult for her to believe that she really belongs at Mystwick.  368 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Harry Potter fans will enjoy this fun tale of a school where kids learn to use their musical talents to do magic.  There are plenty of plot twists and supernatural events to keep kids turning the pages, and the end seems to make a sequel inevitable.  I enjoyed listening to the Audible version of this which is free, along with quite a few other books: check out their site for details.

Cons:  Granted, Amelia had plenty of reasons to doubt her talents, but I got tired of her constant “maybe I just don’t belong here” refrain.

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

What We Found in the Corn Maze and How it Saved a Dragon by Henry Clark

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

What We Found in the Corn Maze and How It Saved a Dragon: Henry ...

Summary:  When Cal and his friend Drew see a bunch of coins walking toward a girl in their class named Modesty, they want to know more.  It seems as though Modesty is practicing magic, but when they get their hands on her book of spells, it’s not much.  They can make a few of the more mundane spells work for one minute at a time during five minutes of the day…or night, in a few cases.  What Cal wants most is to find a spell that will repair the expensive harvester he accidentally set on fire and to help save the family farm from the inventor who has found a way to create vegetables with a 3-D printer.  When a portal opens up into another world, the three kids find themselves in the midst of an effort to save that world from global cooling–with the help of a green-skinned kid librarian named Preface (Pre for short).  When Drew accidentally gets trapped in the other world, and Pre ends up back with Cal and Modesty, it’s up to the kids to save Drew, save the farm, and quite possibly save the world.  352 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Fun doesn’t begin to describe this madcap magic adventure with an intriguing parallel universe, clever wordplay, and a few zings about fake news, corrupt leaders, and climate change deniers.  The adventures and laughs never stop; this will be an easy book to promote for summer reading.

Cons:  I’d love to see more of Cal, Drew, Modesty, and Pre, but everything wrapped up so neatly, I fear there will be no sequel.

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