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.

Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun by Hena Khan, illustrated by Wastana Haikal

Published by Salaam Reads

Summary:  Zara lives on a street with several other kids, including her brother Zayd who will grow up to star in his own series.  Before her neighbor Mr. Chapman moved away, he called Zara “Queen of the Neighborhood” and said she ruled with grace and fairness.  A new family moves into Mr. Chapman’s house, and the two kids become part of the neighborhood. Naomi, who is Zara’s age, has enough good ideas for Zara to feel threatened in her role as queen.  Inspired by her uncle’s Guinness Book of World Records, Zara decides to try to set a world record in an attempt to shine the spotlight on herself once again.  As a solo effort, the plan is a failure, but when she starts including her friends, both old and new, it’s a runaway success.  Book 2 will be out in October. 133 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  The author cites Beverly Cleary’s Ramona stories as an inspiration, and this book does have that feel to it, with a strong-willed protagonist and a close-knit family and neighborhood.  Unlike Klickitat Street, there’s some diversity in the neighborhood, including Zara’s Pakistani American family.  The plentiful illustrations will appeal to early chapter book readers.

Cons:  As much as I love books like these, I struggle to sell them to kids, who seem to almost always opt for graphic novels instead.

Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone by by Tae Keller

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Mallory considers herself lucky to have a best friend like Reagan, someone who understands her fears and helps her move up the ladder of middle school popularity. So, when Jennifer Chan moves in across the street, Mallory is wary.  Jennifer is fascinated by aliens and hopes to find life in space.  Mallory actually finds this interesting, too, but knows it is potential bully bait at school, which indeed proves to be the case once seventh grade begins.  When Jennifer goes missing, Mallory starts to believe that she’s made contact with the aliens and enlists the help of two smart but less popular girls.  The narrative moves between the past and the present, with Mallory uncomfortably recalling The Incident, which she finally reveals in a climactic moment.  As she comes to terms with the fact that she has been a bully–or at least a bystander–she starts to re-evaluate what she wants in a friend and to see that she holds the key to finding Jennifer Chan.  Includes an author’s note describing her own experience with being bullied.  288 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This powerful novel shows that everyone has a story to tell, whether that person is a bully, a target, or a bystander.  I liked how it didn’t just have a mean girl, but really showed each girl’s motivations for doing what she did.  Tae Keller has already won one Newbery, and I’m sure this book will be considered for another.

Cons:  Tess was the exception to my statement above and wasn’t as three-dimensional as the other characters.

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.

A Song Called Home by Sara Zarr

Published by Balzer + Bray

Summary:  Lou’s unhappy about her mother’s remarriage to Steve, which means a move out of San Francisco to the suburbs, leaving her old school and best friend, and dealing with her 15-year-old sister’s rebellion about all the changes.  She misses her dad, but also feels relieved not to have to deal with his drinking.  When a guitar mysteriously appears outside her door on her birthday, she assumes it’s a gift from her dad and decides to learn how to play it for the school talent show, hoping that her performance will help reconnect her with her father.  A new friend becomes part of her act, and kind neighbors help her with her guitar and provide a haven for both Lou and Casey.  Slowly, the whole family starts to adjust to their new situation, and by the time the talent show arrives, Lou has learned some important lessons about the people she cares about and who care about her.  356 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  I was fortunate enough to bring this book with me while flying to Washington, DC, and it sustained me at the airport, on the flight, and into the next morning when I finished it.  The family portrayals are so well done, with each character having both good traits and flaws.  I don’t know if it’s Newbery material, but I am definitely putting it on my own short list.

Cons:  I couldn’t put it down and then was sad when I was done with it so quickly.

Happily Ever After Rescue Team (Agents of H.E.A.R.T., book 1) by Sam Hay, illustrated by Genevieve Kote

Published by Feiwel and Friends

Summary:  Evie wants nothing more than to be allowed to help out in her parents’ new diner, especially on the day a judge for the Golden Coffee Cup Best Café Contest is supposed to stop by.  But despite her creativity with food (especially ice cream), Evie is accident prone, and after spilling two large blueberry smoothies, her stepmother sends her outside.  A girl Evie’s age has left an old book of fairy tales in the diner, and when she opens it, Agents C (Cinderella), R (Rapunzel), and B (Beauty) come to rescue her.  They have their own ideas about granting wishes, though, and Evie desperately needs some help controlling them.  That help comes in the form of Iris, the original owner of the book, and her cousin Zak.  The three have a series of madcap adventures as they try to undo the damage the fairy tale agents have done and get them to understand what it is Evie wants.  In the end, all of Evie’s wishes come true…except for one, which will undoubtedly be the premise for book number two.  226 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  This illustrated chapter book provides lots of laughs and adventures.  Woven into the story are recipes, crafts, and other activities that kids will enjoy.  Perfect for elementary kids who are ready to move on from early chapter books but still like plenty of illustrations.

Cons:  The princesses were pretty annoying.

Falling Short by Ernesto Cisneros

Published by Quill Tree Books

Summary:  Isaac and Marco are neighbors and best friends, but could hardly be more different: Isaac is a gifted basketball player who struggles with schoolwork, while Marco aces every test but is small and unathletic.  One thing they have in common is complicated relationships with their fathers.  Isaac’s mom has forced his dad to move out due to a drinking problem.  Marco constantly feels like he is a disappointment to his sports-crazy father, who is remarried with a stepson and hardly ever gets in touch.  The two tell the story of their early middle school days in alternating voices, as Marco becomes determined to make the basketball team, and Isaac focuses on becoming a better student.  The final showdown at a basketball tournament allows them to help each other and to come to terms with who their fathers really are.  292 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  While this follow-up to the Belpré Award-winning Efrén Divided is about Latino characters, the story is quite different, focusing more on issues that many kids will relate to: school, sports, friends, and family.  The alternating points of view allow readers to share the perspectives of both main characters, who are both trying to overcome shortcomings with hard work and a tremendous amount of heart.

Cons:  Both main characters were almost too good to be true for a couple of sixth graders.  It also seemed unrealistic that Marco would be able to master enough basketball skills in a week to make the team and that Isaac would ace Marco’s honors math homework through sheer hard work and determination to help his friend.

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.

Honestly Elliott by Gillian McDunn

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Summary:  Elliott loves to cook and is good at it, with an ability to focus in a way that he struggles with at school.  His ADHD makes schoolwork difficult and social interactions awkward at times.  After almost failing the first semester of sixth grade, Elliott has to endure lectures from his high-achieving, sports-loving dad who is expecting a new baby with his new wife Kate.  For a project at school, Elliott finds himself unexpectedly partnered with popular girl Maribel, whose revelations about her struggles with celiac disease make Elliott realize that her life isn’t as perfect as it seems.  By the end of the story, he’s realized that no one’s life or family is perfect and that he has more love and support around him than he realized.  Includes recipes for Desperation Pie and Elliott’s Crumb Crust that are the centerpiece of Elliott’s and Maribel’s project.  263 pages; grades 4-6.

Pros:  Elliott is an extremely likable character who has friend, family, and school problems that many readers will relate to.  He handles those problems with humor and a certain amount of grace and manages to connect with those around him without giving up on being himself. 

Cons:  There are way more accomplished kid chefs in children’s books than I actually seem to meet in real life.

Confessions of a Class Clown by Arianne Costner

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Jack has been a class clown since first grade and has a big following for the stunts he posts on MyTube, but finding real friends proves to be a lot harder.  He stops by an after-school speed friendshipping club, ostensibly for the free donuts, and gets to talk to three kids: Mario, Brielle, and Tasha.  After the club meeting, the three share their perspectives with readers, which prove to be quite different from Jack’s impressions of them.  Despite Jack’s apparent confidence, he actually has a lot of doubt about his ability to make friends and often assumes that other kids don’t like him.  The reader gets to see all four kids’ insecurities and misperceptions as they slowly move toward a better understanding of each other.  Although there’s no guarantee that they’ll remain friends in eighth grade, each one develops compassion and gets some tools that will come in hand in future friendships.  288 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Diary of a Wimpy Kid fans might be willing to take a chance on this book with its appealing cover and grayscale illustrations.  Jack experiences a bit more personal growth than Greg Heffley, but the author’s light touch and insightful portraits of each character provide plenty of fun along with some learning.

Cons:  The kids were quick to come to some pretty adult conclusions about social media which might not ring quite true with tweens.