Home Away from Home by Cynthia Lord

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Mia’s excited about her visit to Stone Harbor, Maine, not only because she loves spending time with Grandma, but because it will get her away from the stress of moving to a new house with her mother and new stepfather.  But things are different in Maine than in years past, the most notable change being a new boy named Cayman who hangs around Grandma’s house a lot.  Cayman can be bossy, but Mia finds herself enjoying having another kid around.  When Mia and Cayman discover a mysterious white bird at the Point, Mia’s sure it’s a sign of better things to come.  But the bird ultimately leads to some big mistakes on Mia’s part and a fight that threatens to end her new friendship with Cayman.  As Mia tries to repair the damage, she learns that it’s important to trust the people who care about her and that maybe she is braver than she believes.  224 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  A delightful summer read with relatable kid protagonists, compelling animal stories (there’s a subplot about a stray cat as well as the bird story), and a setting that will make you want to seek out a quaint Maine town for a long July weekend.

Cons:  I struggled with the pronunciation of “gyrfalcon”.

Big Tree by Brian Selznick

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Melvin and Louise are two seeds nestled cozily in a seedpod, secure in the love and wisdom provided by their mother, a giant sycamore tree.  A natural disaster flings them into the world, where they travel over land and sea, meeting all kinds of wise and wonderful creatures.  While their mother sought to give them both roots and wings, imaginative Louise is filled with wonder and hope, while Melvin is bound by his worries and fears.  When the two are separated, Melvin finds himself trapped for many, many years, never forgetting his sister.  Eventually he learns the lessons of the universe that Louise already instinctively knew, and the two meet again in a wondrous reunion.  Includes an afterword that explains some of the scientific references, a bibliography, and an author’s note that tells how the story came to be.  528 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Brian Selznick has created a masterpiece of prose and art in the style of his previous books.  This book was inspired by a movie idea that Steven Spielberg had, looking at the history of the Earth from the perspective of nature itself.  It is a wildly creative and ambitious story that includes dinosaurs, volcanoes, meteors, dinosaurs, mushroom ambassadors, and so much more.  

Cons:  Readers might need some guidance to understand all that is going on during this long period of Earth’s history.  The back matter is a useful guide for this.

The Moth Keeper by K. O’Neill

Published by Random House Graphic

Summary:  Long ago, a community formed in the desert to live their lives at night and keep the Moon Spirit company.  In return, the Spirit gave them a special tree that made their lives easier.  The tree had to be pollinated once a year by Moon-Moths.  Now Anya has become an apprentice Moth Keeper, going out every night into the desert, sometimes with her guardian Yeolen and sometimes alone.  Anya had a tough childhood, seen in flashbacks, and she sometimes fears the dark and longs to spend her days in the daylight.  But when she causes a near-catastrophe with the moths, she realizes the importance of her community and her role in it.  Helped by them, she’s able to correct her mistake and finds new beauty and connection in her nightly work.  272 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  The gorgeous illustrations make this fantasy tale one that readers will want to revisit over and over again.  K. O’Neill has created a magical world filled with mystery, beauty, and a tight-knit, loving community.

Cons:  Be sure to spend plenty of time on the wordless pages of the book to fully understand the story. I found myself confused more than once.

Simon Sort of Says by Erin Bow

Published by Disney Hyperion

Summary:  Simon and his parents have moved to Grin and Bear It, Nebraska, a small town in the National Quiet Zone, a place where there’s no internet to help astronomers better listen for sounds of life in outer space.  While most seventh graders would rebel about this, Simon is happy to hide away two years after he was the sole survivor of a school shooting.  It’s hard to blend in, though, when his mom’s the unconventional town undertaker and his dad is a sackbut-playing Catholic deacon dealing with what comes to be known as the Jesus squirrel, and before long Simon has two interesting new friends, Kevin and Agate.  Agate has a plan to give the scientists the extraterrestrial contact they’ve been looking for.  When Simon’s identity is discovered by his new town, he hopes that helping Agate will result in some even bigger news that will draw the attention away from him and his family.  Their plan kind of works, but all kinds of complications result in a satisfactory, if unexpected, ending.  320 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  I would not have thought it possible to write about the aftermath of a horrific school shooting with a light touch and one-of-a-kind characters, but Erin Bow pulls it off magnificently in an unforgettable novel that should be considered for all kinds of awards.

Cons:  I wish this book did not feel so timely.

Meesh the Bad Demon by Michelle Lam

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Meesh struggles with things that come easy for most demons her age, like breathing fire and puking acid, and is often picked on by a bully named Xavier.  She prefers befriending flowers and watching the Princess Nouna TV show with her grandmother.  When a mysterious substance starts turning demons into stone, Meesh realizes it’s up to her to save her community.  She goes off in search of Princess Nouna but is dismayed by the real-life princess when they finally meet.  The two unwittingly wind up going on a series of adventures together, during which Meesh discovers some new powers.  Eventually, they add a couple more kids to their group, including, much to Meesh’s surprise, Xavier.  Working together, the team manages to save the demons, and a surprising twist at the end will have readers eagerly awaiting a sequel.  304 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This manga-style comic is sure to be a big hit, with its gorgeous art, non-stop adventures, creative world-building, and loveable team of misfits that learn to accept each other and work together to do great things.

Cons:  I think this is a “me” problem, but I do struggle in fantasy graphic novels to keep track of the various characters and their worlds.

Good Different by Meg Eden Kuyatt

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Selah works hard at being “normal”, making up rules to help her fit in at school and retreating to her room at the end of the day, exhausted from trying to hide her feelings.  When a friend tries to braid her hair in class one day, Selah explodes and hits the girl.  The incident puts her on probation at school and ostracizes her from most of her classmates.  As Selah tries to figure out what is going on with her, she begins to think that she, her mom, and grandfather may all have autism.  A sympathetic English teacher helps her to express herself through poetry, and Selah begins to share what she’s feeling, first to her family and later on to her school.  As she begins to feel more comfortable with who she is, Selah comes up with a new list of rules to help her be herself and to communicate with those around her.  Includes an author’s note about her own journey to an autism diagnosis and self-discovery as well as a list of resources.  288 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This novel in verse will be helpful to anyone with autism, or who knows someone with autism, or who sometimes feels like they don’t fit in very well.  I was inspired by Selah’s powerful poems, her journey, and the ways she learned to advocate for herself.

Cons:  It made me sad that no one at Selah’s seemingly caring private school had picked up on her autism in her eight years of attendance there.

Doodles from the Boogie Down by Stephanie Rodriguez

Published by Kokila

Summary:  Steph is in eighth grade at her Bronx Catholic school, which means she and her friends are applying to New York City high schools.  Her strict Dominican mother wants her to continue at a Catholic school near home, but Steph is drawn to an arts school in Manhattan.  Since the school of her dreams requires a portfolio, not an exam, Steph decides to secretly work with her art teacher and mentor, Ms. Santiago, on a portfolio and to purposely fail the high school entrance exam.  Naturally, this plan drastically backfires, and Steph finds herself in trouble with both her school and her mother.  Fortunately, her mother, helped by her own mother, sits down and talks to Steph, resulting in a better understanding on both sides, and ultimately, Steph’s admission to the Laguardia Arts High School.  Includes a note from the creator telling more about her own life and what was the same and different from the fictional Steph.  208 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Fans of graphic memoirs, especially artists, will love this new addition to the canon and will root for Steph in spite of a few less-than-great choices on her part.  

Cons:  I was bummed to learn that the real Stephanie didn’t get to go to LaGuardia High School.

Parachute Kids by Betty C. Tang

Published by Graphix

Summary:  10-year-old Feng-Li is excited to be visiting America for the first time on what she thinks is a vacation, but a week in, she discovers her father packing to leave.  Turns out, her parents have decided that she and her older siblings Jia-Xi and Ke-Gāng will settle in America, where they’ll have more opportunities, and their parents will return to Taiwan and earn money to support the kids.  At first, nearby family friends help out, but when the father of that family gets transferred, the kids are really on their own.  Jia-Xi is trying to prepare for the SAT’s while taking care of the house and kids; Ke-Gāng is struggling with the fact that he’s gay and that the trouble he got into back home caused his parents to want the kids out of Taiwan; and Feng-Li is just trying to learn enough English to make a friend and to keep her siblings from their constant bickering.  As one catastrophe follows another, the kids try to keep things going, and Feng-Li is forced to grow up fast to keep her family from falling apart.  Includes an author’s note about her own experiences as a parachute kid, and how she used those experiences and those of other immigrant friends to create this story.  288 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  A compelling graphic novel about a family faced with some unimaginably difficult times, and the three brave kids who are able to admit their mistakes and work hard to make things better.  As Betty Tang says in the author’s note, “We need more diverse books, so eventually, everyone can find a piece of themselves reflected and their voices heard.”  The Lins’ story adds another voice to that canon.  

Cons:  I was hoping Ke-Gāng would be able to come out to his family by the end of the story, but it didn’t happen.

The Guardian Test (Legends of Lotus Island, book 1) by Christina Soontornvat, illustrated by Kevin Hong

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Plum has grown up on her grandparents’ small island farm, so when she unexpectedly gets an invitation to attend Guardian Academy, her life changes dramatically.  The Guardians are an elite group of shapeshifters who keep all the islands safe, and Plum joins the other kids who are trying to pass their first test–learning to transform.  With only a month to prepare, Plum is worried that she isn’t progressing as quickly as her classmates and is tempted when she learns that one of the other girls has found a shortcut to passing the test.  But her love of nature and abilities to communicate with animals and plants serve her well and she moves on with most of her classmates in an adventure to be continued when book 2 comes out in July.  160 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Kids not quite ready for Harry Potter will love this Thai-inspired fantasy about a magical school with some pretty intricate world-building.  The short chapters and illustrations keep things moving along, and readers will be eagerly anticipating Plum’s next adventure.

Cons:  The cover gave me a graphic novel vibe; kids might be surprised to discover that this is a chapter book.

Four Eyes by Rex Ogle, illustrated by Dave Valeza

Published by Graphix

Summary:  Rex’s transition to middle school is a rough one, with his best friend Drew abandoning him for the popular kids and his blurry vision giving him daily headaches and making school work tough.  He finally admits to his mom what’s going on, and the diagnosis that he needs glasses is a blow to both of them.  Rex worries (correctly) that the bullying at school will get worse, while his mom and stepdad can’t afford new glasses and are forced to call Rex’s real dad, who’s something of a bully himself.  As the year goes on, though, Rex makes a new friend who teaches him how to stand up for himself.  Sixth grade ends on a positive note, with the promise of a seventh grade sequel.  224 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  The multitude of middle school graphic novel fans will enjoy this new entry that perfectly captures the angst of both family and friend relationships.  Nice to see a boy main character in this type of book.

Cons:  Having read Rex Ogle’s Free Lunch, I know that his family life was much more troubling than what is portrayed here.