Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Published by Arthur A. Levine Books

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Summary:  When Mia’s parents left China for the United States, they were full of dreams for a better life.  A year later, they’re working difficult, low-paying jobs, and are a step away from being homeless.  When her mom sees an want-ad for a family to run a hotel near Anaheim, Mia and her family think all their dreams are about to come true.  Unfortunately, the hotel owner is Mr. Yao, a cruel and racist man who makes unreasonable demands on his workers and pays them a pittance; his son is in Mia’s class and makes her life miserable.  The hotel is robbed and Mia’s mom is beaten up; her father endures sleepless nights when customers wake him up at all hours; and Mia has a scare when she is threatened by a drunken customer.  Nevertheless, she is determined to help her family get ahead, and her excellent customer service at the front desk, combined with her parents’ hard work, begins to pay dividends.  When Mr. Yao announces he is selling the motel, the connections Mia and her family have made to their neighbors and to other immigrants pay off, leading them to a happy ending and the promise of a brighter future.  304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Based on the author’s experiences in the early 1990’s, this story will give readers who aren’t recent immigrants greater understanding and empathy for those who are.  Sympathetic characters and a fast-paced plot will keep kids turning the pages.

Cons:  Some of Mia’s victories, especially the big one at the end, were a little unbelievable.

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Avalanche! (Survivor Diaries series) by Terry Lynn Johnson

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Twins Ryan and Ashley are expert skiers, but they’re no match for an avalanche that thunders down on them when they’ve skied ahead of their parents.  Both get buried, but Ashley manages to dig her way out.  She sees one of Ryan’s ski poles sticking up, and frees him just in time.  A blow to his head has caused temporary amnesia, and it’s up to Ashley to find them shelter for the night and get them to safety the next day.  Ashley’s persistent determination (“grit”) is emphasized as she fights through a knee injury, a threat from a grizzly bear, and deadly cold to save herself and her brother.  Includes tips for surviving an avalanche, websites with additional information, and an excerpt from Lost, the next book in the series due out in July.  112 pages (story is 86 pages); grades 2-5.

Pros:  Fans of the I Survived series will clamor for these action-packed stories of kids surviving natural disasters.  Plenty of illustrations and non-stop adventure make these a great choice for reluctant readers.

Cons:  Each story starts with the survivor(s) telling their story to a nameless reporter, which seems a bit contrived.

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The Creativity Project: An Awesometastic Story Collection edited by Colby Sharp

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Colby Sharp, co-founder of The Nerdy Book Club, embarked on a creativity project with 44 children’s book authors and illustrators, who were each invited to create two prompts.  Mr. Sharp then sent them two prompts from other artists and asked them to create something based on one of them.  This book is the result: a collection of poems, stories, artwork, and comics. Each one shows the prompt that was given (and who made it up), followed by the creative work it inspired.  The names will be familiar to any fan of children’s literature: Lemony Snicket, Jennifer Holm, Dan Santat, Victoria Jamieson, and many, many more. The final section, entitled “Prompts for You” includes intriguing text and pictures to inspire readers.  Includes brief biographies of all the contributors and an index. 288 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This unusual book is fun to read (especially for us nerdy children’s book fans) and an inspiring look at the creative process.  There were some fun surprises (a deliciously creepy tale by Dav Pilkey comes to mind) and enough different genres to keep things interesting.  The prompts at the end will make you want to cast everything else in your life aside and start writing.

Cons:  It takes some persistence to plow through the whole book, and a few of the entries seemed like the writers kind of phoned it in.

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Out of Left Field by Ellen Klage

Published by Viking

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Summary:  Katy Gordon is the star pitcher of her 1957 neighborhood baseball team.  One afternoon, wearing a jersey and cap and being called “Gordon” by the boys, she’s invited by a Little League scout to a tryout.  She makes the team, but when one of the other boys tells the coach that she’s a girl, she’s promptly kicked off.  Supported by her chemistry professor mother, she writes to Little League headquarters, but receives a disappointing response that includes the sentence, “Since the beginning of baseball as an organized sport, it has always been the sole province of male athletes.”  When Katy is assigned a research project at school, she decides to research women in baseball and is shocked to learn how many women have played since the beginning of the game.  Her project gets her some local attention, a story in the paper, and the chance to strike out Willie Mays, but even that isn’t enough to get her back into Little League.  In the end, she’s back to the neighborhood team; the final scene shows her reaching out to a younger girl who wants to play as well.  Includes information about the women Katy researches; an author’s note; a glossary; and additional resources.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Katy is a spunky narrator who will have boys and girls rooting for her in her campaign against the unfair Little League rules.  There are plenty of other interesting historical details, from Katy’s mother’s fight against McCarthyism at her university job to Katy receiving one of the new Frisbees for her birthday.

Cons:  On page 245, Katy’s friend Jules dismisses the Nancy Drew mysteries in this way: “They’re all about the same. Nancy has adventures, her chums get into trouble, Ned rescues them all (emphasis mine), and the mystery gets solved along the way.”  Having read more than 40 Nancy Drew books in my childhood, I feel safe in saying Nancy rescued Ned at least as often as the other way around.

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Power Forward (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream) by Hena Khan, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

Published by Salaam Reads/Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Fourth grader Zayd dreams of making the gold team in basketball, but he feels like he’s got a long way to go.  For one thing, he’s the shortest kid in his class and weighs less than 60 pounds.  For another, his mother is thrilled he’s been asked to join advanced orchestra and is certain his future lies with playing the violin.  When Zayd discovers his friends are coming to school early for extra basketball practice, he makes up a story to skip early-morning orchestra and plays with them instead.  His mom catches him eventually, and Zayd is grounded for two weeks…with basketball tryouts just nine days away.  Zayd is sure he’s doomed to play another season on the D team until his uncle gives him some useful advice about how to follow his dream.  144 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  An exciting, true-to-life sports story with interesting glimpses into Zayd’s Pakistani-American family and their culture.  Matt Christopher fans not quite ready for Mike Lupica will enjoy getting to know Zayd and can look forward to at least two more books in this series.

Cons:  Readers may wish for a little more actual sports action.  It looks like this may be coming in book 2.

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Ebb and Flow by Heather Smith

Published by Kids Can Press

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Summary:  Jett makes it clear from the beginning of this novel in verse that he’s had a “rotten bad year”.  After his father was imprisoned for killing a family while driving drunk, Jett’s life began to spiral downward.  He became friends with the class bully, and eventually learned that his friend has his own sad reasons for his bad behavior.  Jett’s spending the summer with his grandmother, who loves him unconditionally and uses her tough love to help him come to terms with some of the bad choices he’s made.  He and Grandma tell each other stories from their lives that help Jett to see he’s not the only one who’s made mistakes. Set on the northeast coast of Canada, Jett allows the beautiful beaches and sea help him to heal and move forward into what he hopes will be a better year for him.  232 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A beautiful collection of poems about learning to forgive and let go of the past.  Despite Jett’s troubled past, he is a likeable narrator, and his story moves back and forth in time, allowing the reader to get to know him while slowly learning of his difficult year.

Cons:  Although the ending is ultimately hopeful, there’s a lot of sadness in the story.

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Class Action by Steven B. Frank

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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Summary:  When sixth-grader Sam Warren gets assigned a practice standardized test to take over Columbus Day weekend, he’s had enough.  Standing on his desk a la Dead Poets’ Society, he declares he is done with homework.  After losing the coveted piano solo in the school concert and being suspended from school, he seeks legal counsel from his elderly retired lawyer neighbor.  Before long, Sam’s friends and sister are involved, too; when they lose in the lower courts, they find themselves appealing to the Supreme Court, cheered on by millions of schoolchildren across America.  Will the highest court in the land rule in favor of saving their childhood?  Includes a glossary of legal terms and a list of the twenty cases referenced in the book.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Kids will root for Sam as he takes a stand against homework, not even realizing they’re getting a civics lesson on how the American judicial system works.  The fictional Supreme Court justices are thinly-disguised copies of the real ones, which adds to the humor for those in the know.

Cons:  The contrast between Sam’s case and others mentioned in the book like Brown v. Board of Education makes his problems seem pretty first-world.

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