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.

Adventuregame Comics: Leviathan by Jason Shiga

Published by Harry N. Abrams

Summary:  In this choose-your-own-adventure graphic novel, a giant sea creature called Leviathan is terrorizing the villagers.  It’s up to you to find a way to defeat it.  On almost every page, a choice is given with page numbers attached to comic panels or different parts of the illustration.  Turn to that page to continue your story.  Be sure to read the first page before starting, as it contains important information about how to navigate your way through the book.  144 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  According to the author’s introduction, this deceptively small book contains hundreds of adventures.  Kids raised on video games are going to love going back and forth to discover the different stories.  I can’t even imagine creating this!  It’s billed as book 1, so look for more to come.

Cons:  Personally, the format of this just about drove me mad.  Guess I am a linear reader.

The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill

Published by Algonquin Young Readers

Summary:  Stone-in-the-Glen used to be a happy town where people helped each other and loved to read and discuss books.  But when a new Mayor takes over and the library burns down, the town falls on hard times and neighbors begin to distrust one another.  An ogress moves to the edge of town and begins observing the residents.  She grows to love them all, particularly the group of kids living in an orphanage, and begins to make secret nightly deliveries of food and cards to their homes .  After she rescues one of the children one night, the town turns on her, accusing her of kidnapping.  The children get to know and love the ogress and come up with a plan that not only redeems her reputation but unites the town back into a loving community and reveals the Mayor for who he truly is.  400 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Another complex and interesting fantasy from Newbery Award winner Kelly Barnhill.  The Mayor bears a resemblance to Trump, and the reaction of the townspeople provides a timely message. With four starred reviews and a current number 3 spot on the Goodreads Mock Newbery list, this is sure to get plenty of consideration at awards time.

Cons:  On both Amazon and Goodreads, there’s a small number of reviewers who felt that the message of this book overwhelmed the story.  Unfortunately, that was my takeaway as well.

The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  Although Sai comes from an impoverished background, she’s managed to hide it and secure a coveted position as mapmaker Paiyoon’s assistant.  When Paiyoon is invited by the Queen to join an expedition that may lead to the discovery of the legendary Sunderlands, he invites Sai, who hopes to use the opportunity to improve her fortunes when she returns home.  On board, Sai meets a cast of fascinating characters including the mysterious Rian, whose rags-to-riches story Sai hopes to emulate, and a stowaway named Boo.  As they approach the part of the world rumored to hold both the Sunderlands and dragons, life on board starts to fall apart.  Storms, near-mutiny, and a close encounter with a dragon leave Sai and Boo stranded on a desert island.  But fortunes change, and a series of surprises lead Sai to some startling discoveries about both her past and her present and to the realization that she can be herself and still have the future she dreams of.  369 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This absorbing fantasy will have readers turning pages to find out what happens to the many fascinating and well-drawn characters who make the voyage along with Sai.  Christina Soontornvart picked up two Newbery honors in 2021, and with multiple starred reviews, this book is sure to be a contender.

Cons:  I read in the reviews that this story is based on Soontornvart’s Thai heritage.  I would have enjoyed an author’s note explaining that influence in greater detail.

Emily’s Big Discovery (The World of Emily Windsnap) by Liz Kessler, illustrated by Joanie Stone

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  Even though Emily and her mother live on a houseboat, young Emily isn’t allowed to go into the ocean.  Her mother warns her that the water is dangerous.  When Emily gets a chance to try swimming lessons at school, she’s excited and dives right into the pool.  She feels right at home until she gets a strange sensation in her legs, like they’re sticking together.  Her instructor tells her she got a cramp and has her rest by the side of the pool, but Emily can’t stop thinking about what it was like being in the water.  That night, she sneaks off the boat and goes into the ocean.  When she has the same sensation in her legs, she realizes they’ve turned into a tail, and she’s a mermaid!  She meets another mermaid, Shona, and the two become friends and explore the ocean.  Emily returns home in the morning with the feeling that her mermaid adventures have just begun.  56 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  Based on the middle grade books about Emily Windsnap, this early chapter book series starter is a real charmer, especially the illustrations. Demand for mermaid books always outpaces supply, so I look forward to adding this series to my library.  Book 2 will be out in September.

Cons: The story has plot holes big enough to sail a ship through. Has Emily never taken a bath?  How could she take swimming lessons at school without her mother’s permission?  Didn’t anyone notice that she became a mermaid in the pool? How does she look so chipper going off to school at the end after being up all night? 

Happily Ever After Rescue Team (Agents of H.E.A.R.T., book 1) by Sam Hay, illustrated by Genevieve Kote

Published by Feiwel and Friends

Summary:  Evie wants nothing more than to be allowed to help out in her parents’ new diner, especially on the day a judge for the Golden Coffee Cup Best Café Contest is supposed to stop by.  But despite her creativity with food (especially ice cream), Evie is accident prone, and after spilling two large blueberry smoothies, her stepmother sends her outside.  A girl Evie’s age has left an old book of fairy tales in the diner, and when she opens it, Agents C (Cinderella), R (Rapunzel), and B (Beauty) come to rescue her.  They have their own ideas about granting wishes, though, and Evie desperately needs some help controlling them.  That help comes in the form of Iris, the original owner of the book, and her cousin Zak.  The three have a series of madcap adventures as they try to undo the damage the fairy tale agents have done and get them to understand what it is Evie wants.  In the end, all of Evie’s wishes come true…except for one, which will undoubtedly be the premise for book number two.  226 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  This illustrated chapter book provides lots of laughs and adventures.  Woven into the story are recipes, crafts, and other activities that kids will enjoy.  Perfect for elementary kids who are ready to move on from early chapter books but still like plenty of illustrations.

Cons:  The princesses were pretty annoying.

Knight Owl by Christopher Denise 

Published by Christy Ottaviano Books

Summary:  Young Owl has always dreamed of becoming a knight, and when knights start disappearing from the castle, his dream comes true.  He’s accepted to Knight School where he struggles to overcome his small stature.  But he works hard and graduates “with honor, as all knights do.”  Owl gets assigned to Night Knight Duty, which he excels at thanks to his ability to stay awake all night.  When a dragon attacks the castle, though, it looks like Owl might become a midnight snack until some quick thinking and preparation turn things around.  Before long, Owl is hosting late-night (knight) parties for the dragon and other new friends.  48 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  Kids will love this adorable story and illustrations that celebrate the power of hard work, courage, friendship, and pizza.

Cons:  I wish Owl had a more original name.

Lotería by Karla Arenas Valenti, illustrated by Dana SanMar

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Lotería: Valenti, Karla Arenas, SanMar, Dana: 9780593176962: Amazon.com:  Books

Summary:  When Life and Death decide to play a game of Lotería, they choose Clara as the human whose life will hang in the balance.  The two discuss fate versus free will as they deal cards with symbols that start to affect Clara’s life.  When a seemingly random series of events leads to tragedy for Clara’s younger cousin Esteban, she vows that she will take care of him no matter what.  This promise ends up leading them both into the mythical land of Asrean where the struggle for both of their lives and souls continues.  Although Lotería has an ultimate winner, Clara’s life takes a most unexpected turn that blurs the line between life and death.  Includes additional information about magic realism, the Aztec folklore in the story, and the game of Lotería.   320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  By now you may be onto the fact that I am trying to read as many award contenders as I can before the end of the year, and this one will undoubtedly be considered for both Newbery and Belpré.  The philosophical questions raised make it a great choice for a book discussion, and the folklore and Mexican culture are beautifully woven into the story.

Cons:  If you like an unambiguously happy ending, you may want to look elsewhere.

The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera

Published by Levine Querido

Amazon.com: The Last Cuentista: 9781646140893: Higuera, Donna Barba: Books

Summary:  With Halley’s Comet hurtling towards Earth, Petra and her family are among a small group chosen to travel to the planet Sagan, a journey that will take over 300 years.  They’re put into a deep sleep, with people on board who will look after them and keep creating a new population of caretakers.  Alas, not only does a group called the Collective take over the ship, but something goes wrong with Petra’s sleep.  When she wakes up, she learns that she is the only one left who remembers life on Earth.  Petra is determined to help the other kids in her group remember, and she begins telling them the cuentos (stories) that she learned from her Mexican-American grandmother.  Although she does her best to blend in, members of the Collective soon become suspicious of Petra, and she realizes it’s up to her to lead an escape plan and try to find the group of Earthlings who were scheduled to arrive first.  It’s not clear whether or not Petra and the other kids make contact, but the book ends on a hopeful note.  336 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This beautifully written book explores what it means to be human and the important contributions different cultures and stories make to that humanity.  It’s a rare year that a science fiction books wins the Newbery, but this could definitely be a contender for that award, as well as for the Pura Belpré.

Cons:  Would people in 2061 really name a planet after Carl Sagan?

Root Magic by Eden Royce

Published by Walden Pond Press

Root Magic: Royce, Eden: 9780062899590: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  11-year-old twins Jezebel and Jay have recently lost their grandmother, a woman well-known in their South Carolina island community for her rootwork, the use of potions and herbs for healing and magic.  It’s 1963, and the civil rights movement is just starting to reach the island, personified by a concerned new sheriff, but other law officers, particularly Deputy Collins, still terrorize the Black population.  Jay’s not much of a student, but has plenty of friends, while Jezebel has skipped the fifth grade and is struggling with a pack of mean girls in the sixth.  A new girl named Susie is a fellow outsider, and, although she seems a little odd, Jez welcomes her friendship.  When the twins’ uncle Doc starts teaching them rootwork, Jez discovers magical powers that no one in her family has suspected she possessed.  The family needs every bit of knowledge and magic they can muster as threats start to come at them from both the material and the spiritual worlds.  352 pages; grade 4-7.

Pros:  Is it horror, historical fiction, realistic fiction, or fantasy?  This powerful novel encompasses all those genres and will surely be considered for both Newbery and Coretta Scott King recognition.  As mentioned below, it’s taken me awhile to get around to reading this, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it, as it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in 2021.

Cons:  The dark cover didn’t really grab me, and although this book came out in January, it’s taken until now (and it’s place on several Newbery prediction lists) to get me to read it.