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. 

The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Published by Candlewick

The Beatryce Prophecy: DiCamillo, Kate, Blackall, Sophie: 9781536213614:  Amazon.com: Books

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.

Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Published by Heartdrum

Sisters of the Neversea: Smith, Cynthia L: 9780062869975: Amazon.com: Books

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.

Healer of the Water Monster by Brian Young

Published by Heartdrum

Healer of the Water Monster: Young, Brian: 9780062990402: Amazon.com: Books

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.

Long Distance by Whitney Gardner

Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

Long Distance: Gardner, Whitney, Gardner, Whitney: 9781534455665:  Amazon.com: Books
Long Distance: Gardner, Whitney, Gardner, Whitney: 9781534455658:  Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  When one of Vega’s dads gets a new job, the whole family packs up and moves from Portland to Seattle.  Vega’s so unhappy about leaving her best friend behind that her parents decide to send her to Camp Very Best Friend, where even the most introspective kids are guaranteed to find friends.  Camp turns out to be a pretty strange place, from the odd bus ride there to the weirdly peppy counselors, but Vega does actually find herself making some friends.  Good thing, too, because when she and some of the others start to make some disturbing discoveries about camp, they need to band together to figure out how to escape and make it safely home again.  Although the lessons are unexpected, Vega learns plenty about friendship during her unusual summer, and winds up with a lot more friends than she started with.  320 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  From the graphic novelist who brought you Fake Blood comes this fun summer read that celebrates friendship in all different forms. There’s some good suspense as the kids try to figure out what’s going on at camp, and a happy ending for all life forms. 

Cons:  Your kids may never want to go to summer camp again.

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.