Kapaemahu by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu Dean Hamer, and Joe Wilson, illustrated by Daniel Sousa

Published by Kokila

Summary:  This Hawaiian legend tells the story of four healers, or mahu, who traveled from Tahiti.  They were neither male nor female, but “a mixture of both in mind, heart, and spirit.”  Each one had their own healing power: spiritual, all-seeing, healing from afar, and laying on of hands.  After bequeathing their powers on the people of the island, the Hawaiians wanted to build a monument to show their gratitude.  They moved four huge boulders onto the beach at Waikiki.  Even after the mahu left, the stones remained for many centuries until more and more people arrived in Hawaii and the area was built up.  The stones have been recovered, but the true nature of the mahu has often been written out of the story.  This book (and the film on which it is based) seeks to correct that.  Includes authors’ notes, a history of the healer stones, additional information about the Olelo Niihau language, and a glossary.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Written in both English and the indigenous Hawaiian Olelo Niihau language, this beautiful legend inspired both this book and a short film, released in 2021.  The author’s note reveals that the nature of the mahu was removed from the story for many years, due to their possession of both male and female spirits.  An excellent addition to collections of both folklore and bilingual books.

Cons:  A Google search revealed to me that the stones are popularly known as the Wizard Stones, which feels like kind of a trivialization of the true story. 

Fibbed by Elizabeth Agyemang

Published by Razorbill

Summary:  Nana’s in trouble again for lying, even though she swears her story about how her teacher’s toupee disappeared is true.  Her parents have had enough, however, and they decide to send her to stay with family in Ghana for the summer.  There she meets relatives and learns about the trickster spider Ananse who exchanges favors and magic for stories.  When Nana, her cousin, and a classmate discover men who are destroying a local forest by stripping it of magic, they end up working with Ananse to defeat the villains and save the forest.  As a reward, Nana gets a wish granted and is happy that her stories are finally believed by family members in both Ghana and the U.S.  Includes four pages of additional information about Ananse.  256 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This graphic novel cleverly weaves together a realistic family story and folklore. The artwork is gorgeous, particularly the wordless pages that show the Ghanian countryside.

Cons:  There’s a lot going on in the story, and I was a little confused about some of the details.

Endlessly Ever After: Pick Your Path to Countless Fairy Tale Endings by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Dan Santat

Published by Chronicle Books

Summary:  Your mama wakes you up with the news that your granny is ill and you need to take her a basket of food.  Do you put on your faux fur cape (turn to page 20) or your favorite red cape (page 6)?  Each choice leads to a new twist in the story, some intersecting with other fairy tales like Snow White and Jack and the Beanstalk, until an end is reached, either happy or tragic.  One path leads to the last few pages, where Red (a.k.a. you) decides to go on more adventures and is told “But whether you adventure far or sit alone or snooze, the thing you must remember is that every day…you choose.”  92 pages; grades K-3.  

Pros:  I was excited about this book when I read reviews, and it did not disappoint.  I’m looking forward to sharing it with some classes, where I’ll have the kids vote on which path to take.  The rhyming text is fun to read, and Dan Santat’s illustrations add delightful touches to all the stories.

Cons:  I got eaten by the wolf pretty early on.

The Legend of Gravity: A Tall Basketball Tale by Charly Palmer

Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

The Legend of Gravity: A Tall Basketball Tale: Palmer, Charly, Palmer,  Charly: 9780374313289: Amazon.com: Books
The Legend of Gravity

Summary:  A girl tells the story of Gravity, a mysterious kid who shows up at the local playground basketball court and soon becomes a legend.  His real name is never told, but the other kids give him the nickname Gravity since he seems to defy it.  Soon Gravity has turned the team into champions, and they’re excited to go to the Best of the Best, Milwaukee’s pickup basketball tournament.  They easily defeat one team after the other until they face perennial champions the Flyers.  Gravity does his best, but by halftime, he’s exhausted.  He tells the rest of the team how they can work together to win, and each one uses their unique talents to defeat the Flyers by 17 points.  Gravity insists that they share the trophy, and “twenty-five years later, we still do.”  Includes an author’s note celebrating championship basketball players who never made it into the NBA.  40 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  If stories about Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill are feeling a little tired, here’s a new tall tale that kids will love, with colorful illustrations and plenty of basketball action.

Cons:  The somewhat abstract paintings made it occasionally difficult to distinguish one player from another.

The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor

Published by Kokila

The Legend of Auntie Po: Khor, Shing Yin: 9780525554882: Amazon.com: Books
The Legend of Auntie Po: Khor, Shing Yin: 9780525554882: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  It’s 1885, and 13-year-old Mei is working as an assistant cook, helping her father in a logging camp in the Sierra Nevadas.  The stories she makes up about Auntie Po, a larger-than-life character inspired by Paul Bunyan, entertain the other kids and help her to celebrate her Chinese heritage.  Prejudice against her father and other Chinese workers leads to their dismissal and Mei’s anger at her helplessness.  When the White workers strike to protest their bad food, the boss is forced to hire back Mei’s father.  The two men are friends, as are the boss’s daughter and Mei (who sometimes dreams of something more than a friendship), but Mei and her father frequently have to remind the White man and his daughter of the privileges they have that the Chinese don’t.  A tragedy forces Mei to question her belief in Auntie Po, but eventually brings about a chain of events that give her and her father hope for a brighter future.  Includes an author’s note and bibliography.  304 pages; grades 5-9.

Pros:  It’s not often that I’m actually reading a book when it’s announced as a National Book Award finalist (okay, that has never happened to me before and probably never will again).  There’s so much here: historical fiction, folklore, explorations of racism and privilege, coming of age, LGBTQ issues…plus a great story with outstanding artwork.  I’m guessing this will be considered for a Newbery or maybe a Printz award.  It would definitely have appeal for either age group.

Cons:  There are a lot of characters and storylines to keep track of, and I felt like I missed some of the subtleties in my first reading.

Another list of six: favorite nonfiction books

Your Place in the Universe by Jason Chin

Published by Neal Porter Books

Your Place in the Universe: Chin, Jason: 9780823446230: Amazon.com: Books

I notice that Jason Chin has made it onto three of my last five favorite nonfiction book lists, so guess I’m a bit of a fan. His illustrations are awe-inspiring, and I loved the comparisons in this book that made enormous numbers and sizes a little more understandable.

Grow: Secrets of Our DNA by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton

Published by Candlewick

Grow: Secrets of Our DNA: Davies, Nicola, Sutton, Emily: 9781536212723:  Amazon.com: Books

Explaining DNA and genetics in a way that’s accessible to readers as young as kindergarten is no easy feat, but Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton pulled it off. Watson and Crick would be proud.

We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World by Todd Hasak-Lowy

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers

We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World: Hasak-Lowy, Todd:  9781419741111: Amazon.com: Books

I thought I knew a fair amount about nonviolent activism–I’m a Quaker, for Pete’s sake–but I learned so much from reading this book. 2020 had its share of activism and books about activism, but this was the one I found most inspiring.

The Fabled Life of Aesop by Ian Lendler, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

The Fabled Life of Aesop: The extraordinary journey and collected tales of  the world's greatest storyteller: Lendler, Ian, Zagarenski, Pamela:  9781328585523: Amazon.com: Books

I’m sure Aesop never imagined he’d be part of the Common Core, but there he is. As a school librarian, I am grateful for this comprehensive introduction to his life and fables, and I also appreciated the sly observations on what it means to have power. Pamela Zagarenski has a couple of Caldecott honors to her name, so don’t count her out this year.

Facts vs. Opinions vs. Robots by Michael Rex

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

Amazon.com: Facts vs. Opinions vs. Robots (9781984816269): Rex, Michael,  Rex, Michael: Books

Who knew that when I was playing Kick the Can with Michael Rex and the rest of our neighbors in 1970’s suburban New Jersey that in 2020 I’d be reviewing his book? Well done, Michael, I loved your take on facts vs. opinions. Librarians everywhere should thank you for this book.

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat

Published by Candlewick Press

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team -  Kindle edition by Soontornvat, Christina. Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon .com.

I guess none of us should be surprised that this drama we watched unfold a couple of years ago would be made into a gripping nonfiction tale. Christina Soontornvat added so much context with her sidebars on Thailand, caves, and Buddhism, as well as her personal connection to the story that readers get much more than just a survival story.

The Little Mermaid by Jerry Pinkney

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Amazon.com: The Little Mermaid (9780316440318): Pinkney, Jerry: Books
Watery Fairy Tales - The New York Times

Summary:  Melody, the youngest daughter of the Sea King, has a beautiful singing voice and loves to go exploring.  One day she discovers the world above the sea and sees a girl named Zion.  When Melody starts to sing, Zion sees her, and the mermaid knows the two of them are meant to be friends.  Desperate to find a way to be with her new friend, Melody goes to the Sea Witch, who gives her legs in exchange for her voice.  Melody and Zion meet, but Zion is dismayed when she discovers her new friend can’t speak.  Melody draws pictures in the sand to tell her what happened, and Zion says she should never have given up her voice.  A disturbance in the sea alerts Melody to danger for her family, and she returns to the undersea kingdom in time to help defend it against the witch.  When she sees the shell with her voice in it around the witch’s neck, she manages to get it back and to use her voice to defeat her enemy.  Melody’s father realizes his daughter should be allowed to have adventures, so, even as a mermaid, she can visit with her new friend Zion.  48 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  Usually, the story of The Little Mermaid kind of bums me out, but I love this retelling with a friendship instead of a romance, and a celebration of being adventurous and using your voice.  Add this to the cannon of beautiful fairy retellings at the hands of Jerry Pinkney.

Cons:  This story is a longer than some of Pinkney’s other folktales, and may be a bit of a stretch for reading aloud to preschoolers.

Sugar In Milk by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Khoa Le

Published by Running Press Kids

Sugar in Milk: Umrigar, Thrity, Le, Khoa: 9780762495191: Amazon.com: Books
Sugar in Milk: Umrigar, Thrity, Le, Khoa: 9780762495191: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Sent to America to live with her aunt and uncle, the narrator is struggling to adjust to her new life, missing her family and friends back home.  One day her aunt takes her on a walk and tells a story from ancient Persia about a group of people forced to leave their home.  They arrive by boat in India, ragged and exhausted, only to be told by the king that they can’t stay.  His land is too crowded, and there is no room for these strangers who don’t speak his language.  He fills a cup to the brim with milk to demonstrate this.  One of the refugees takes some sugar from his pack and adds it to the milk.  The milk has become sweeter without causing the cup to overflow; the king understands the message that in the same way the Persians will bring happiness to his country, and he welcomes them.  The girl learns from her aunt’s story, and begins to see the beauty in her new country, carrying a packet of sugar to remind her to bring sweetness wherever she goes.  48 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  With spare prose and gorgeous illustrations, this book delivers its message about immigration without preaching.  It’s also a great example of the timelessness of folklore and how ancient stories can still be relevant today.

Cons:  I would have liked some additional information about the history of the folktale.

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

Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns: A Mesoamerican Creation Myth by Duncan Tonatiuh

Published by Harry N. Abrams

Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns: A Mesoamerican Creation Myth - Kindle  edition by Tonatiuh, Duncan. Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Summary: Before the present time, there were four tonatiuhs or suns.  During each one, the gods created humans, but something always went wrong.  First, the humans were too big, so they were turned into mountains.  Then they were too small, so they became fish.  Finally, after the fourth tonatiuh, the gods gave up, and handed off the sacred bones to the lord of the underworld.  But one of the gods, Quetzalcóatl, or Feathered Serpent, didn’t want to give up.  He decided to travel to the underworld in search of the bones.  His journey was long and dangerous, but his cleverness and strength helped him to overcome all the obstacles, and to recover the bones once again.  He and the other gods created humans that are still alive today, the time of the fifth tonatiuh.  Includes an author’s note, glossary, and bibliography.  40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Award winner Duncan Tonatiuh uses his distinctive style of illustration to bring to life this Mesoamerican tale filled with interesting mythological creatures and plenty of adventure.  The author’s note gives more details about the story, making this an excellent resource for older readers.

Cons:  You will definitely want to do a practice run-through before trying to read this aloud and encountering words like Itzcuintlán and Mictlantecuhtli.

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

The Fabled Life of Aesop by Ian Lendler, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

The Fabled Life of Aesop: The extraordinary journey and collected ...

Summary:  Aesop was born a slave in ancient Greece over 2000 years ago.  He learned that speaking out could be dangerous in his position, so he learned to talk in code, telling stories about the powerless and the powerful through his fables.  Following an introduction to Aesop’s life, the book presents ten fables.  Each telling is only a few paragraphs, with an illustration or two, and the moral in gold type at the end.  The final few pages recount how Aesop was freed, and how his fables were told for many years before they were finally published in book form.  Includes an afterword that explains more about what we do and don’t know about Aesop and which parts of his story in this book are true; also, a bibliography.  64 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  An excellent introduction to Aesop’s fables, giving some context  about how they are not only lessons about morality, but give advice on “how to survive in a world in which some have power and some do not.”  Caldecott honoree Pamela Zagarenski will surely get some additional consideration for her beautiful illustrations here.

Cons:  I would have preferred that the afterword were a foreword, so readers would be aware of the uncertainties around Aesop’s history before reading the pages about his life.

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