Summary: Turtle’s gotten her nickname from being hard-shelled, but a new friend guesses that she also has a soft underbelly. This proves to be the case when her mother sends her to live with her aunt in Depression-era Key West, Florida. Her overworked aunt wasn’t expecting her, and Turtle finds herself spending her days with her boy cousins and their friends, a group that calls themselves the Diaper Gang because of their abilities to calm babies and cure diaper rash. An unusual friendship with Turtle’s newly-discovered grandmother leads Turtle to a discovery that results in near-tragedy, but ultimately triumph (and treasure!). Just when Turtle thinks she’s on her way to a home and family with her mother, another unexpected twist destroys their plans. But in the final few pages, Turtle and her mother learn the value of their Key West family, and it looks like they have found a home after all. 256 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: Based on the 2010 Newbery honor book by Jennifer Holm, this graphic novel is told in vignettes which I assume are similar to the original (which I haven’t read). The story and artwork are engaging, providing a look at the impoverished Key West before it became a tourist destination. Fans of Raina Telgemier, Victoria Jamieson, and Holm’s other graphic novels are sure to want to read this one.
Cons: Like I said, I haven’t read the original, but I did read the prequel Full of Beans, and I felt like some of the interesting historical details were lost in the transition to a graphic format.
Summary: When Shahi’s music-obsessed dad goes missing, she and her cousin Naz wind up at Earl’s music store where her father spent a lot of time. They find an unusual old jukebox that plays LP records, then accidentally discover that it transports them back to the time the album was released. While they get some interesting glimpses of history, they don’t find Shahi’s dad. It takes a lot of trial-and-error and some detective work to finally figure out what’s going on and to have a reunion that not only brings Dad back to the present but mends some of the more difficult parts of Shahi’s relationship with him. Includes a playlist of songs referenced in the story; an author’s note explaining her inspirations for the book; and several pages showing the evolution of some of her artwork. 224 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: The premise of this graphic novel is very cool, and serves as a great introduction to a lot of music and some of the historical events that both inspired that music and were influenced by it. Although there’s a bit of an age gap between the two girls (Naz is Shahi’s babysitter), they are loyal friends who help and protect each other.
Cons: The story felt a bit too ambitious with not only the musical and historical aspects, but a variety of relationship issues and subplots about Naz’s ear surgery and worries about coming out as bisexual. The pictures at the beginning of the time travel sections included some jotted notes about the artist and/or album, which looked really interesting, but were hard to read.
Summary: Jo is facing a lonely summer with her father working away from home much of the time and not a lot of friends. One dull morning, she sees a dog walk by with a basket in his mouth, she follows him and discovers he’s been trained to shop, going to different stores with a list and cash in his basket. Some kids taking an art class at a bookstore see Jo and assume the dog belongs to her. They all fall in love with him and want to paint him. Jo, enjoying the company of other kids, plays along, and promises to bring “her” dog back the following Saturday. The lie seems harmless enough, but when a curmudgeonly old man goes after the dog (now called Pawcasso) for breaking the leash law, the whole town becomes divided into two camps: the Picassos and the Duchamps. Jo wants to tell the truth, but will her honesty cause her to lose Pawcasso and all of her new friends? Includes a recipe for ice cream that can be enjoyed by both dogs and humans. 240 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: I try not to indiscriminately toss around the word “adorable”, but that is the only word for Pawcasso and his friends. Elementary kids are going to love this graphic novel, which not only features an amazing and loveable dog, but also includes some well-delivered messages about families and forgiveness.
Cons: Jo’s twin baby brothers had disturbingly huge eyes.
Summary: Lori’s just starting out in basketball, but she’s determined to become better. Although her play is mostly limited to the exhibition “Fifth Quarter”, she has a pretty good shot and is interested in improving all her skills. Extra lessons and a summer camp program pay off when she gets chosen for the fifth grade travel team. She learns some valuable personal lessons through ups and downs with teammates and friends. A subplot about her mom’s run for town council teaches her about determination and a willingness to keep going in the face of loss. The story ends in the middle of a game and will be continued in The Fifth Quarter: Hard Court, release date not yet announced. 240 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: One can hardly go wrong with the sports/graphic novel combination, and this is sure to find a big following. I’m always happy to find a book with a fourth grade protagonist, as they are vastly outnumbered in the middle-grade universe by fifth, sixth, and seventh graders. And Lori is very much a fourth-grader who doesn’t always understand the consequences of her actions (and that it’s not always all about her), but who tries hard to learn from her mistakes.
Cons: I was fine with Lori’s thick black eyebrows, but her dad’s looked like he had two pieces of black duct tape stuck to his forehead.
Summary: The life cycle of the honey bee is given a whole new twist in this graphic novel that follows the life of a Nyuki (Swahili for bee) from her early days as a pupa until her death at the base of a flower. She is mentored by her older sister Dvorah, who tries to hold back Nyuki’s early urges to explore. A premature sojourn from the hive results in some close calls with a praying mantis and a spider, and Nyuki returns home vowing to never leave again. Now Dvorah has to find a way to lure her out, and her success is bittersweet. As Nyuki grows older, she becomes a beloved member of the hive and ends up in the role of mentor herself, helping out a younger bee named Melissa. Nearing the end of her life, Nyuki goes for one last flight and finds an unusual way to ensure that she will return to the hive after her death. Includes labeled diagrams of the honeybee; ten pages of chapter-by-chapter annotations; and a list of references. 160 pages; grades 4-8.
Pros: The graphic nonfiction just keeps on getting better and better. Written and illustrated by a biology professor, this one manages to tell a fascinating story, creating interesting insect and flower characters, and also to impart a wealth of information. With the extensive back matter, this could easily be used as a high school or even a college text, yet is engaging and understandable enough for older elementary kids.
Cons: This is actually a revised edition of the author’s earlier book Clan Apis, so it feels like a little bit of a stretch to call it a new book in 2021.
Summary: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu narrates this graphic history of vaccines from the early 18th century. After losing a brother to smallpox and becoming scarred by the disease herself, she was determined to protect her children from it. Living in the Ottoman Empire with her family, she heard of a procedure that involved introducing some matter from a pox sore into a cut on a person’s arm. She decided to have the procedure done on her son, and when she returned to England, on her daughter. Princess Caroline, future Queen of England, got wind of this, and began her own series of experiments which eventually popularized the procedure in Great Britain. From there, Lady Montagu continues the story of vaccines against various diseases: measles, mumps, polio, and, of course Covid. The narrative ends in November of 2020 as Covid vaccines are being developed and tested: “The world holds its breath…and hopes.” Includes a timeline; additional information on Mary Wortley Montagu; a lengthy bibliography; an author’s note; and an index. 144 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: I looked for an interview of Don Brown to see if he began work on this book before or after Covid, but couldn’t find one. Either way, this book could hardly be more timely. It does a great job of explaining the science in an understandable way, coming down firmly on the side of vaccination while acknowledging those who fear it with a certain degree of sympathy. (Although I did love page 67 showing 19th-century British anti-vaxers saying things like, “I heard the doctors are wrong!” and “I don’t like the government telling me what to do!”). The back matter makes this an excellent research tool.
Cons: This book is billed as #3 of 3 in the Big Ideas That Changed the World series. I do hope that doesn’t mean it’s the last one.
Summary: Divided into three sections–human body, animal kingdom, and earth and science–this book investigates life on earth through comic book-style stories about a day in the life of various things. From the profound (brain, blue whale, moon) to the profane (fart, pimple, dung beetle), these stories will educate and entertain many different types of kids. Includes a glossary. 128 pages; grades 2-6.
Pros: Both the format and the wide range of topics make this a very appealing book that is perfect for browsing.
Cons: There’s a little information on a lot of topics, so probably not the best for research.
Summary: On November 24, 1971, a man named Dan Cooper boarded a flight from Portland, Oregon to Seattle. Six hours later, that man parachuted out of the back of the plane with $200,000 strapped to him. No trace of him has ever been found, and only a small portion of the money has been recovered ($5,800 was discovered by a 10-year-old boy in 1980 when he was camping with his family in the woods of Washington). The details of what happened that day are retold here with brief text, illustrations, and primary documents such as Cooper’s boarding pass and the transcript from the plane alerting the authorities about the hijacking. Includes half a dozen photos and a list of sources. 104 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: It’s hard to imagine a kid unimaginative enough not to be intrigued by this mystery (and gobsmacked that in 1971 you could walk into an airport with a bomb, buy a ticket for $20, and saunter onto a plane unchecked). The graphic format is appealing, but it’s also well-written nonfiction, with theories put forth and then carefully debunked, primary documents, and an impressive list of sources. Look for book 2, Jailbreak at Alcatraz, coming in early September.
Cons: The font, designed to look like it was made with a typewriter that needs a new ribbon, feels authentic but is not necessarily the easiest for kids to read.
Summary: Maggie is beyond excited to be picking out a new puppy for her tenth birthday, but when she and her family get to the shelter, she has a severe allergic reaction. Not only will there be no puppy for her, but a round of testing rules out any pet with fur or feathers. There are other trials in her life: redistricting means she’s at a new school for fifth grade; the family is getting ready to welcome a fourth child; and a new best friend gets a puppy, meaning Maggie can’t go over to her house anymore. A year of allergy shots puts Maggie on the road to staying healthier around animals, and a new baby sister provides a welcome diversion from the pet issue. Most issues are resolved satisfactorily as Maggie wraps up her fifth grade year. 240 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: Once again, Graphix nails it with a realistic graphic novel that many readers will love. Maggie’s issues with allergies, family, friends, and school make her an easy protagonist with whom kids will connect.
Cons: It seemed unlikely that Maggie’s severe allergies to anything with fur or feathers wouldn’t have come to light before she reached her tenth birthday.
Summary: Friends Pizza and Taco, bored with nothing to do, decide to throw a party at the water park. Unfortunately, they forget a few details like finding out if the water park is open and checking the spelling on the sign advertising their “farty”. One by one, the guests (Ice Cream, Cake, Hamburger, Hot Dog, Cheeseburger, and the Chicken Tender Twins) get fed up (pun intended) with the party’s lameness and go home. Pizza and Taco conclude with a party-planning list for next time based on what they’ve learned. 72 pages; grades K-3.
Pros: Somehow I missed this fast food duo’s 2020 debut, but it seems like a sure-fire hit: comic book format, friendly banter, humorous word play (“Loud noises make Ice Cream Melt Down”) and a third book on the way. There’s a list of Random House’s other “Awesome Comics for Awesome Kids” at the end that look to be in a similar vein.
Cons: I was hoping for some redemption for grumpy Cheeseburger, but instead he ended up on the party-planning list of don’ts: “Don’t invite Cheeseburger”.