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.

The Sheep, the Rooster, and the Duck by Matt Phelan

Published by Greenwillow Books

Summary:  Bernadette the sheep, Pierre the rooster, and Jean-Luc the duck are based on the real animals that piloted the first hot-air balloon in 1783.  Among those in attendance were King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Benjamin Franklin.  This story takes place after that flight, when Emile, a young boy who works as a servant for Franklin, discovers the sheep, the rooster, and the duck and a girl named Sophie.  The four of them have become balloon experts, and their knowledge comes in handy when Franklin is kidnapped by Count Cagliostro.  They thwart Cagliostro’s plot to launch a war between England and France and take over the government of the newly-formed United States.  Includes an author’s note with historical information.  221 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This engaging historical fiction story is told with both text and several sections of comic-style illustrations.  Kids will love the brilliant animals and cheer on Sophie and Emile as they work together to foil the evil schemers of 18th century France.  

Cons:  Readers may find the large number of characters and historical events at the beginning of the book confusing.

Isla to Island by Alexis Castellanos

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Marisol has a happy childhood in Cuba, where she is a cherished only child.  When Castro comes to power, though, life suddenly becomes dangerous for her family.  Her parents decide to send her to New York where she is placed with foster parents.  The illustrations abruptly change from brilliant colors to monochromatic grays as Marisol struggles to adjust to living with strangers, bullying at school, enduring cold weather, and not speaking English.  Bits of color return as she begins to connect with her foster parents and discovers the school library with its books about botany, a subject she loved in Cuba.  As winter turns into spring, summer, and fall, Marisol’s world slowly becomes fully in color once again.  A series of pictures at the end show Marisol’s later life: a reunion with her parents when they immigrate from Cuba, a career as a teacher, and marriage and children with both sets of parents supporting her.  Includes a recipe for arroz con pollo a la Chorrera; additional information about Operation Peter Pan; an author’s note about how her family’s story inspired this book; and a list of resources.  192 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This nearly wordless graphic novel beautifully relates an immigrant girl’s story using color to show her emotions and the connections between her old home and the new one. The author’s note makes some interesting comparisons about how Cuban children were treated by the U.S. versus children immigrating from Latin American countries today.

Cons:  Readers who don’t have much background knowledge on Cuba in the 1950’s and 1960’s may want to start with the back matter to better understand the story.

Raquela’s Seder by Joel Edward Stein, illustrated by Sara Ugolotti

Published by Kar-Ben Publishing

Summary:  Raquela and her family live in Spain during a time when it’s forbidden for them to practice their Jewish faith.  They celebrate Shabbat each week in their wine cellar, but Raquela has only heard about Passover.  One year she asks her parents if they can have a seder.  Her mother says it’s too dangerous, but her father, a great fisherman, gets a thoughtful look in his eyes.  The night before Passover begins, Raquela’s parents pack a basket, and the next night they sneak onto her dad’s fishing boat.  Papá takes them to his favorite secret fishing spot, where they drop anchor and proceed to have a seder dinner.  An old fisherman sees them when they return, saying that it must have been a special night for Papá to take his family out fishing with him.  Raquela says to her father, “It was a night different from all other nights.”  Includes additional information about Passover and the Spanish Inquisition and its consequences for Spanish Jews.  32 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  An excellent book for celebrating Passover that weaves the original Passover story into the Spanish one and focuses on the hope and endurance of both groups of Jews.

Cons:  I wouldn’t have objected to a bit more historical back matter.

Mardi Gras Almost Didn’t Come This Year by Kathy Z. Price, illustrated by Carl Joe Williams

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Life has been pretty grim since Laia and her family survived Hurricane Katrina.  They’re living in temporary housing, facing a long wait for their home to be rebuilt.  Her dad hasn’t picked up his trumpet since the storm, and her mom no longer sings or dances.  Mardi Gras has always been the joyful centerpiece of the family’s year, but this year it feels wrong to celebrate.  As the festival approaches, though, Laia decides she’s going to make Mardi Gras happen for her younger brother.  She gets out his drum and is ready to play when her father walks in with some calla lilies for the family, as well as seeds to plant when their house is ready.  Then Babyboy starts tooting on his dad’s trumpet, which he’s secretly taught himself to play, and before long the family is out in the street, ready to celebrate.  The story ends on a hopeful note, with the whole family dreaming about the day their house will be rebuilt.  Includes additional information about Katrina and Mardi Gras after the hurricane and during Covid-19.  Also includes a glossary.  48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  The poetic text and gorgeous mixed media illustrations really capture the spirit of New Orleans and the resilience of surviving a devastating natural disaster.  The author’s note at the end provides excellent information for understanding better the importance of Mardi Gras to the people of New Orleans.

Cons:  Readers who aren’t familiar with New Orleans, the Mardi Gras, and Katrina will need a lot of background information to fully understand the story.

Cuba in My Pocket by Adrianna Cuevas

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Cuba in My Pocket: Cuevas, Adrianna: 9780374314675: Books

Summary:  12-year-old Cumba has lived all his life in Cuba, but when the Bay of Pigs invasion fails, he and his family are in danger.  Cumba is being recruited to join the Young Rebels and possibly be sent to the Soviet Union for military training.  His parents manage to smuggle him out of Cuba to live with a cousin in Miami.  There he deals with homesickness, an unfamiliar culture, and the struggle to learn English, but he also meets some new friends who help him to find his way.  His 7-year-old brother Pepito keeps him apprised of the harrowing events back home in Cuba through letters.  Seven months after Cumba’s arrival, he is thrilled to learn that his family has found a way to join him, and in the final chapter he gathers with his new friends at the airport to welcome his family to the United States.  Includes an author’s note about her father, whose early life inspired this book.  288 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Belpré honoree Adrianna Cuevas may be in line for another award with this engaging story that weaves in a lot of 20th-century Cuban history.  

Cons:  Pepito’s letters seemed like they were written by someone a few years older than seven.

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus

Published by Margaret Ferguson Books

A Place to Hang the Moon: Albus, Kate: 9780823447053: Books

Summary:  We first meet William, Edmund, and Anna at the funeral of their grandmother, a cold woman no one really misses, except for the fact that she was their last living relative.  The three orphans are determined to stay together, and decide to take the advice of their solicitor and evacuate London with a group of children from a local school, hoping to find a permanent family.  Their first foster parents seem okay, but have twin sons who are nasty bullies.  When Edmund puts a dead snake in one of their beds, the boy takes revenge in a way that gets all three kids kicked out of the house.  They next land at the home of an impoverished woman with four small children whose husband is at war, and whose hard circumstances make her unloving at best and downright cruel at worst.  Their one refuge is the library and the kind librarian, Mrs. Műller, who’s shunned by the village because her missing husband is suspected to have Nazi sympathies.  When disaster strikes at the second foster home, the children naturally gravitate to Mrs. Műller, hoping to finally find a family with her.  Includes a list of the many books mentioned in the story.  320 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Please do not even attempt to read this book until you have access to a cozy fire, warm slippers, and a nice cup of tea.  Then settle in and prepare yourself for this year’s most enjoyable comfort read.  If The War That Saved My Life was a little heavy for you, this will be absolutely perfect.  I’m not sure that it’s quite Newbery caliber, but it is #8 on the Goodreads list right now.

Cons:  The ending was a little predictable…although totally satisfying.

Root Magic by Eden Royce

Published by Walden Pond Press

Root Magic: Royce, Eden: 9780062899590: 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.