Shine! By J.J. and Chris Grabenstein

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  When Piper’s dad gets a job at the exclusive Chumley Prep, he’s thrilled that Piper will be able to attend seventh grade at the school where her late mother was a star.  Piper’s not so sure about going to school with all the rich, smart students at Chumley; she’s always thought of herself as someone who blends into the background. But when the Excelsior award is offered for the student who best exemplifies excellence during the winter term, Piper can’t help getting caught up in the excitement.  Mean girl Ainsley is out to crush the competition, but Piper’s quirky but loyal new friends want to see someone from their group win for a change. Piper’s love for science seems like a path to set her apart, but life isn’t always fair at her new school. She finds herself having to choose between winning and doing the right thing for her new friends…and for herself.  224 pages; grades 3-6

Pros:  Chris Grabenstein has a talent for writing funny, engaging stories that even reluctant readers enjoy, and this new offering, written with his wife, is sure to be popular.  The message that kindness counts more than winning is one that teachers and parents will embrace as well.

Cons:  Once again, I find myself feeling jaded; after reading a plethora of positive reviews, I found this story pretty predictable with a cast of characters (rich, snobby mean girl; quirky best friends; eccentric but kind teachers) one that I have seen more than once before.

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The Disaster Days by Rebecca Behrens

Published by Sourcebooks Young Readers

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Summary:  13-year-old Hannah’s only babysat once before, so she’s a little nervous about looking after her neighbors Zoe and Oscar while their mom goes on an errand to mainland Washington.  During her absence, there’s a major earthquake, and Hannah must figure out how to survive and take care of her two charges. Their island neighborhood is cut off from help, and the broadcasts they get from their emergency radio make them think their parents might be hurt or worse.  For four days, Hannah has to cope with major injuries, diminishing food and water, a gas leak, a bear, and her own asthma as she tries to keep everyone alive and wait for help. Hannah has sometimes felt overshadowed by her more outgoing best friend, but in an emergency, she discovers reserves of strength and resourcefulness that she never knew she had.  Includes an author’s note with more information about earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest. 304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Anyone who enjoys a gripping survival story will find this hard to put down.  The situations and the kids’ responses to them are believable, and readers will pick up a few survival tips of their own.

Cons:  The title and cover didn’t really draw me in.

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Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy

Published by Balzer + Bray

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Summary:  Patricia “Sweet Pea” DiMarco is adjusting to life with newly divorced parents.  Her mom is in their old house, and Dad is renting an identical house two doors down.  In between lives Miss Flora Mae, a reclusive, eccentric older woman who writes an advice column for the local paper.  Sweet Pea’s written a few letters to Miss Flora Mae herself, struggling with a best friend who’s turned mean girl and some body image issues.  When Miss Flora Mae goes away and asks Sweet Pea to collect her mail and send finished columns to the editor, Sweet Pea finds herself tempted to answer a letter or two herself, particularly when she recognizes the handwriting on one.  As her friendship issues spiral out of control, Sweet Pea uses the column to discover an important truth–she has all the answers she needs with the help of her family and friends. 288 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Lots of issues are dealt with here–divorce, having a gay parent, body image, and middle school friendships.  Julie Murphy (author of Dumplin’ and other young adult novels) handles it with a light touch and plenty of humor.  Sure to be a popular choice for older elementary and middle school readers.

Cons:  Maybe I have read too many girls-coming-of-age middle school novels this year (or in my life), but I felt like I had seen so much of this before: the loyal boy best friend, the former best friend turned mean girl, the divorced parents who are trying their best.  It’s a cute story, but I was hoping for something a bit less formulaic from such a best-selling author.  It got starred reviews in four different journals, though, so maybe I am just getting jaded.

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Each Tiny Spark by Pablo Cartaya

Published by Kokila

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Summary:  Seventh-grader Emilia has a lot going on in her life.  Her mom leaves for a business trip the same day that her father returns from his latest overseas deployment.  Emilia depends on her mom for help managing her ADHD, and finds school challenging on her own. Her dad doesn’t seem to want to talk about why he never answered the 30 videos she sent him when he was away, and the only way they seem able to connect is working at her grandmother’s auto repair shop.  Abuela is well-meaning, but overbearing, and she and Emilia don’t often see eye-to-eye.  On top of this, there’s the usual middle school stuff, with shifting friendships and challenging teachers.  Emilia gets caught up in a social studies project that opens her eyes to racism and immigration issues in her town, and sometimes puts her at odds with her classmates.  Ultimately, Emilia finds that most of the changes are positive, as she learns to advocate for herself and get what she needs, both at home and at school. 336 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  I’ve been procrastinating reading this book for awhile now, and am so glad I finally got around to it.  Emila is an awesome narrator, and the author deftly handles a number of important issues that many readers will connect with.  He narrated the audiobook I listened to, which seemed strange at first, since the narrator is a girl, but he did a remarkably good job with the many different voices.

Cons:  Although I’ve been reviewing my high-school Spanish with Duolingo lessons lately, I still couldn’t catch all of Abuela’s conversation, and it wasn’t always 100% translated.

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Allies by Alan Gratz

Published by Scholastic

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Summary:  16-year-old Dee Carpenter isn’t quite sure what he’s doing landing on Omaha Beach at the start of D-Day.  As the events of the day unfold, he has many narrow escapes and crosses paths with a wide variety of characters from Canada, France, Algeria, Germany, and, of course, the United States.  The reader gradually learns about Dee’s early life and the events that brought him to D-Day–events that could easily have led him to be fighting for the other side. Although Dee is the main character, others get a few chapters so that readers get to know quite a few characters in depth before they all meet up on the evening of June 6.  Includes a 14-page author’s note that gives additional information on many different aspects of D-Day and World War II that are touched upon in the story. 336 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This is sure to be popular with middle school readers, with non-stop action and narrow escapes starting almost immediately.  I liked the inclusion of some strong female characters.  The fact that Dee is 16 and the two main girls are 11 and 13 makes it relatable to kids.

Cons:  I was expecting a story like Refugee in which the three characters were given equal billing.  Instead, this was mostly Dee’s story, with a dizzying number of minor characters. I was interested in the French Resistance mother and daughter, but their story ended on page 72, and they didn’t reappear until the last chapter.

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Bouncing Back by Scott Ostler

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  13-year-old Carlos Cooper is still adjusting to life in a wheelchair following a car accident that killed both his parents.  When his aunt and uncle encourage him to try wheelchair basketball, he’s pretty sure he’s not going to like it. A basketball star in his former life, he struggles with no longer being the best shooter on the team.  But the coach and the other kids on the team convince him that they need his talents, and gradually, basketball becomes a big part of his life again. When the old gym that houses their practices is condemned and scheduled to be torn down, the kids uncover a nefarious plot involving the mayor, the father of their school’s biggest bully, and the editor of the local paper.  The good guys come together for a last-minute reprieve on the gym, and the team finds its groove at the state championships, making for a feel-good happy ending. 304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Fans of Mike Lupica and Tim Green will enjoy this heartwarming sports story, which has a cast of dedicated athlete characters and plenty of basketball action.  And, yes, it was just Monday when I said there aren’t many kids’ books with a protagonist in a wheelchair.  It’s a funny world.

Cons:  The “bad guys” were all caricatures, particularly the mayor with his slicked-back hair, wraparound sunglasses, and bright red limo.

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Roll With It by Jamie Sumner

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Ellie is in sixth grade, and having cerebral palsy makes middle school extra tough.  She has to have an aide who helps her at lunch and going to the bathroom, which, of course, is extremely embarrassing for a 12-year-old.  When her grandfather’s dementia starts getting worse, Ellie’s mom decides they’re going on an extended visit to help both the grandparents.  Ellie’s nervous about being the new kid, but is delighted to make two new friends–the first real friends her age she’s ever had. The big pie contest at her grandparents’ church helps her to focus on her love of baking, and many of the chapters begin with a letter she’s written to a different chef.  After several months at her grandparents’, Ellie decides she needs to find a way to convince her mother that they’ve found a new home…for keeps. 246 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A protagonist in a wheelchair isn’t common in children’s literature, and Ellie is refreshingly honest about the difficulties she faces.  She’s not a quitter, though, and throughout the book is exploring who she is and where her talents lie. Readers can use this book as both a mirror and a window, as they will undoubtedly connect to many aspects of Ellie’s life while learning what it’s like to live with cerebral palsy.

Cons:  The last chapter skipped ahead a couple months and wrapped things up a little too quickly.

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