The Door of No Return by Kwame Alexander

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  11-year-old Kofi has a good life as part of his West African community.  He finds his English-speaking teacher pretentious but likes to learn and enjoys hanging out with friends at school, especially Ama, the girl he has a crush on.  His cousin is his rival, and Kofi is preparing for a swimming race between the two of them that may determine his future with Ama.  When his older brother Kwasi accidentally kills a prince in a wrestling match, life begins to take some dark turns.  The prince’s family kidnaps both Kwasi and Kofi; Kofi is eventually shackled and crowded onto a ship (the door of no return) with others to be taken away from their homes.  A plot twist in the end leaves the readers in suspense, preparing the way for the next book in this planned trilogy.  Includes a Twi glossary and guide to Adinkra symbols that appear in the book.  432 pages; grades 6-9.

Pros:  Kwame Alexander has produced another masterpiece novel in verse that is sure to win some awards.  The transition from Kofi’s life in Africa to his captivity is stark, violent, and may be disturbing to younger or more sensitive kids, but the whole story adds so many important dimensions to the narrative of slavery.

Cons:  The story takes place in 1860, which seemed late to me.  I thought the slave trade ended well before that.  I wish there had been more historical notes at the end to explain what was going on at that time.

Me and Muhammad Ali by Jabari Asim, Illustrated by AG Ford

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

Summary:  Langston is excited when he learns that Muhammad Ali is coming to his town. Langston admires Ali as much for his poetry as for his fighting, and his mom likes that the boxer is fighting to make the world a better place.  On the day of the big event, Langston gets his Afro shaped to look just like his hero’s, listening to the men in the barbershop talk about their own athletic exploits as well as their stories of Muhammad Ali.  Finally, Langston and his mom arrive at the high school, only to be stopped by a security guard who tells them the event is only for students.  No matter how much they plead with the guard, he refuses to let them inside.  “What’s the problem here?” asks a man, and when Langston looks up, Muhammad Ali is standing right in front of them.  Ali personally escorts them inside, and Langston’s dream comes true.  Includes an author’s note about the 1975 event that inspired this story.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  It’s great to see so many Black history books for younger kids this year.  This one includes some of Muhammad Ali’s poetry, as well as poems that Langston makes up.  The illustrations do a great job of capturing the 1975 vibe.

Cons:  No list of additional resources on Ali.

Farmhouse by Sophie Blackall 

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  The story of a farmhouse and the family of 14 that lived there is told in one long rhyming sentence.  Starting in the front hallway, the action seamlessly transitions to the parlor (the “serious room”), the attic bedroom where all 12 kids sleep and dream, the barn with its prize-winning cows, the fields, and then back to the kitchen and dining room.  Things wrap up back in the front hall where the youngest child, now an old woman, waits for her sister to pick her up to “drive to the sea, which they’d always wanted to see.”  The farmhouse, now abandoned, settles and is taken over by animals and weather until Sophie discovers it, finding objects that spark her imagination and lead her to the creation of this book.  Includes an author’s note about her discovery of the farmhouse and creation of the illustrations. 48 pages; ages 4-104.

Pros:  There’s been a fair amount of buzz around this book, and I am here to tell you that it’s all true.  I got kind of emotional at the end, appreciating the circle of life that took place in this old farmhouse, and the way it inspired the creation of a beautiful work of art.  The note at the end made me go back and marvel at the details and layers of each illustration. To not consider this for a Caldecott would be a crime against the literary establishment.

Cons:  If you’re trying to teach kids not to write in run-on sentences, you may need to look elsewhere for a mentor text.

The Civil War of Amos Abernathy by Michael Leali

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  Amos Abernathy loves history, and it’s a good thing because his mother runs the Chickaree County (Illinois) Living History Project.  Amos enjoys his work there as an interpreter, working with his best friend Chloe.  When a boy named Ben starts volunteering, Amos develops a crush, but Ben is ambivalent about whether or not he’s gay.  The three kids discover an interest in people written out of history, like those who were LGBTQ+, or Black like Chloe.  The narrative goes back and forth between Amos’s first-person narration of the present and letters he wrote the previous year to a (deceased) Civil War trans man named Albert D. J. Cashier.  In the letters, Amos describes his relationship with Ben, how it ends, and how Ben refuses to speak to him.  He also reveals a secret project that has to do with the kids presenting untold history to the public.  This presentation is the culmination of the story, where the past catches up with the present, and Amos, Ben, and Chloe get to express who they really are through their passion for history.  304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  There’s lots going on in this story which would make an interesting book club choice with plenty to discuss about who has been written out of history.  The alternating chapters of letters describing the past and Amos narrating the present make for an engaging structure.

Cons:  Michael Leali makes a few rookie mistakes in this debut novel, like occasionally crossing the line between good story with a message and a story with an agenda. There also aren’t a lot of shades of gray in portraying characters who are either a little too good to be true or completely misguided/evil.

Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  In the author’s note, we learn that during slavery, enslaved people sometimes escaped into the swamps and lived there for years.  This story imagines such a community called Freewater, populated by those who escaped slavery and their children who have only known freedom.  Homer and Ada accidentally stumble upon Freewater while trying to escape north.  They’re taken in and soon get to know the different people there and the ways they’ve developed to survive and avoid capture.  But Homer is harboring a secret: he feels like it’s his fault that his mama was caught and sent back to the plantation the night of their escape.  Through his first-person narration and the third-person stories of many other characters from both the plantation and Freewater, the reader slowly learns of a plan to return and free Mama.  Each person has a part to play in the fiery and satisfying climax of the story, and the last page suggests a happy ending for all of them.  Includes an author’s note.  416 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  I’m always wowed when an author hits a home run with a debut novel. Amina Luqman-Dawson had done that here with a complex historical fiction story that will stay with readers long after the last page.  A definite contender for either Newbery or Coretta Scott King awards.

Cons:  Some reviewers recommend this for as young as third grade.  With the many characters, the shift between first-person and third-person narration, the unfamiliar setting, and the 400-page length, it requires a pretty sophisticated reader.

Cookies & Milk by Shawn Amos

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Ellis’s hopes for a fun and relaxing summer are dashed when his newly divorced dad informs him that they’re going to spend the next six weeks getting ready for the grand opening of Sunset Cookies.  As Ellis reluctantly begins to help clean up the filthy building and perfect the chocolate chip cookie recipe (with more than a few mishaps), he also starts to connect with people in the community.  Handing out free bags of cookies goes a long way toward making friends, and before long everyone is pitching in to get the store up and running in time.  When Ellis discovers that one of his new friends is his father’s estranged brother, he’s determined to help the two men put their differences aside and reunite the family.  New friends, family reunions, and plenty of chocolate chip cookies help make the summer of 1976 a memorable one for Ellis.  Includes a cookie recipe.  320 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Written by the son of cookie entrepreneur Famous Amos, this is a funny, light-hearted story that doesn’t shy away from heavier topics like divorce and racism.  It’s a fast-paced read that a wide range of elementary school kids are sure to enjoy.

Cons:  Don’t even think about opening this book without a plate of warm cookies and a tall glass of milk by your side.

My Own Lightning by Lauren Wolk

Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers

Summary:  In this sequel to Wolf Hollow, Annabelle is still trying to recover from the events of that story when she experiences another life-changing event: she is struck by lightning.  In the aftermath, she makes two discoveries: her senses are heightened, including an ability to understand animals, particularly dogs; and the bruises on her chest show that someone brought her back to life before she was discovered by her father.  Her empathic connection to animals proves useful when dogs in the neighborhood start to go missing.  Dogs seem easier to understand than some of the humans around her, including new neighbors Mr. Edelman and his daughter Nora, and Andy, the boy who was partly responsible for the tragic events of Wolf Hollow.  As Annabelle’s new powers start to fade, she realizes that they’ve led her to discover some abilities to understand people that she’s had all along.  311 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Like all of Lauren Wolk’s other books, this story is a luminous look at human nature with beautiful poetic writing and interesting, well-developed characters.  Also, the descriptions of every single meal were mouth-watering.

Cons:  I was surprised at how little World War II figured into the story in this book set in 1944.

The Little House of Hope by Terry Catasús Jennings, illustrated by Raúl Colón

Published by Neal Porter Books

Summary:  Esperanza, Manolo, Mami, and Papi look hard to find a new home when they arrive in the U.S. from Cuba.  The house they find is small and needs some work, but everyone pitches in to fix it up.  It’s not easy to find the time because all four members of the family are working hard to earn money and learn English.  Eventually things get easier, and they’re able to share their home with two other families who have recently immigrated from Cuba and Mexico.  Over the years, more families come and go, and Esperanza always creates special artwork for them to take for their new homes.  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A positive look at the experience of immigrating to the United States, showing families who are able to get ahead through hard work and sharing.  Raúl Colón’s beautifully colored illustrations add just the right touch.  Thanks to Terry Catasús Jennings, who sent me a signed copy of this book (which unfortunately got a bit mangled by the U.S. postal service).

Cons:  Immigrant kids today may find their experiences are not as rosy as the ones pictured here. The back flap mentions that this story is based on the author’s experiences moving to the U.S. in 1961.  I wish she had included a note with more information about that and how times have changed since then.

The Lucky Ones by Linda Williams Jackson

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  Ellis Earl lives in grinding poverty in 1967 Mississippi, sharing his three-room shack with his mother, eight siblings, and 3-year-old niece.  He dreams of being a lawyer or teacher one day and is fortunate to have a supportive teacher, Mr. Foster, who does what he can to keep his students fed and in school.  When Mr. Foster gives him a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ellis Earl is delighted to meet a character even worse off than he is who succeeds in turning things around for himself and his family.  Mr. Foster also introduces Ellis Earl to the larger world, first by taking him to his church on Easter and then by inviting some of the class to Jackson to greet Senator Robert Kennedy, who is coming to the Mississippi delta to see firsthand the poverty there.  That trip shows Ellis Earl and his classmates life beyond their small town, but also provides a sobering introduction to hatred and racism.  Through luck and determination Ellis Earl finds his own “golden ticket” that begins to change his and his family’s fortunes.  Includes an author’s note about how her own experiences growing up in Mississippi influenced this book.  310 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  I loved Ellis Earl and his family, who are all portrayed as flawed but loveable characters, there for each other through some pretty terrible times.  The historical information is deftly woven into the story, as are the parallels between Ellis Earl’s story and Charlie Bucket’s.

Cons:  While I do love a happy ending and was delighted with this one, it had a couple of unlikely events occurring in the same month to turn things around for the family.

Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves by L. M. Elliott

Published by Katherine Tegen Books

Summary:  Louisa June is the youngest of five children who live with their tugboat captain father and a mother who often suffers from “melancholy”.  World War II has begun, and there are rumors of German submarines attacking ships in the waters off of their Tidewater Virginia community.  One day Louisa’s brother Butler, a gifted writer who’s gotten a full scholarship to William and Mary, goes on a job with his father.  On the way home, their tugboat is torpedoed.  Their father survives, but Butler does not.  Mama goes into a deep depression, unable to get out of bed and blaming her husband for Butler’s death.  Louisa June increasingly leans on Cousin Belle, an elderly woman with an adventurous past, and a force of nature who can take charge when the situation demands.  As Louisa looks for ways to help defeat the Germans, she finds herself in dangerous situations and has to learn to lean on those around her, including her mother, who turns out to be stronger than any of them realize.  Includes a 17-page author’s note with additional historical information that includes facts about Mama’s depression and anxiety.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  With many starred reviews, this excellent historical fiction novel is likely to be on some Newbery lists this year.  The memorable characters and well-researched history make it a great choice for fans of The War That Saved My Life and A Place to Hang the Moon.

Cons:  I had high hopes for this book, but it never really grabbed me the way the aforementioned two WWII novels did.  It sometimes felt like the author was trying a little too hard to tell the history at the expense of the story, particularly with Cousin Belle who seemed to have met an unlikely number of famous people during her WWI adventures. It’s gotten five starred reviews, though, so definitely check it out for yourself.