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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Summary: Brother Edik discovers Beatryce in the barn, cradling the monastery’s ornery goat Answelica. Beatryce is sick and bloodied, and when she wakes up, the only thing she can remember is her name Soon Brother Edik has discovered a disturbing fact about Beatryce: she knows how to read and write, something unthinkable for a girl. He disguises her as a small monk and is determined to keep her safe, aided by Answelica and a local boy named Jack Dory. When the king’s men come looking for the girl, the four are forced on a dangerous journey, during which Beatryce’s memory gradually returns and she learns who she is and how she is part of a prophecy to “unseat the king and bring about a great change.” Through the powers of storytelling and love, this prophecy eventually comes true, and a happy ending is in store, at least for those characters the reader has come to care about the most. 256 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: This book has the feel of a medieval fairy tale, beautifully illuminated with illustrations by Caldecott illustrator Sophie Blackall. The characters are memorable, with a timeless feel to the story and the setting. Seems like a shoo-in for another Newbery medal or honor for Kate DiCamillo.
Cons: Why not color illustrations? I know they’re more expensive, but I’m sure this book is already a big seller.
Summary: The story of Peter Pan gets an update featuring stepsisters Lily, who is Muscogee Creek, and Wendy, a white girl originally from England. Lily’s mother is married to Wendy’s father, and they share a half-brother, 4-year-old Michael. Mr. Darling has taken a new job in New York, while Lily’s mother plans to stay in Tulsa, and divorce is threatening to tear the family apart. On the eve of Wendy’s departure, Peter Pan appears with a fairy named Belle, whisking Wendy and Michael away to Neverland. Lily follows, and winds up connecting with a group of Native kids who live in hiding to escape Peter and his Lost Boys. There are mermaids, more fairies (and lots of fairy dust), pirates (led by Pirate Queen Smee), and wild animals that Peter and his band are quickly hunting to extinction. Wendy and Lily have to put aside their differences to figure out how to rescue everyone, and even Peter winds up a somewhat reformed character as the book winds up with a happily-ever-after ending. Includes an author’s note that discusses the questions she had about the original story that led her to create this one. 320 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: The story manages to explore serious themes like colonialism, bullying, and the environment without losing any of the fairy tale fun. The truth about the “bad” characters from the original story, the Indians and the pirates, turns out to be far more interesting and shows how storytelling can be misleading and result in harmful prejudices.
Cons: I’ve never read the original book and it’s been years since I saw the Disney movie, so I felt I wasn’t always appreciating all the details of the story.
Summary: Nathan thinks he’s in for a boring summer vacation staying with his Nali (grandmother) on the Navajo reservation. Before long, though, he’s discovered his ability to see Holy Beings, creatures from Navajo lore that only children can see before going through puberty. One of these creatures, Pond, is a water monster who has been poisoned by radiation. Nathan is tasked with traveling to a different world to bring back medicine for his new friend, which will in turn save the reservation from a long drought. Meanwhile, back in the human realm, his uncle Jet is battling his own demons since coming back from military service in Afghanistan. Nali is trying to convince Jet to partake in a ceremony to begin his own healing, but Jet’s drinking and a demon that only Nathan can see make Jet resistant. Both Nathan and his uncle are eventually able to successfully make their journeys, and although neither one turns out quite as anticipated, it’s clear that, in both cases, healing has begun. Includes a Navajo glossary and an author’s note. 368 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Another compelling tale from Native imprint Heartdrum. Nathan, who loves video games, doesn’t like sports much, and has his share of family and friend problems, is a kid many readers will relate to, and cheer for as he becomes the hero of his story. It’s great to have another middle grade book with a contemporary Native setting, and fans of Rick Riordan’s books will enjoy the mix of realism and folklore.
Cons: I was kind of bummed about the outcome of Pond’s story.