Confessions from the Principal’s Kid by Robin Mellom

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

Summary:  What would it be like if the principal was…your mom?  Allie give an insider’s view, sharing her stories of staying after school with a small group of kids (the Afters) whose parents all work at school.  It’s fun to have behind-the-scenes access to school, but a drag to have to stay after every day.  Plus, Allie’s best friend Chloe hasn’t spoken to her since an incident in fourth grade where Chloe thought Allie ratted her out to her mom.  Allie’s got some other problems, too–her overworked mom isn’t as much fun as she was when she was a teacher, and Graham–another old friend and fellow After–is acting weird.  Author Robin Mellon draws on her own experiences as a principal’s kid to explain the ups and downs of that role.  272 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Fans of Dork Diaries and other realistic school stories will enjoy Allie’s authentic voice as she shows readers what it’s like to have the insider track at school.  Short chapters keep the action moving quickly.

Cons:  Allie occasionally sounds a little wise beyond her years.

A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold, illustrated by Charles Santoso

Published by Walden Pond Press

Summary:  Bixby Alexander Tam is known as Bat, not only because of his initials, but also because he loves animals, has a tendency to flap his hands like wings when he gets nervous, and is sensitive to sound, sometimes leading him to don his sister’s earmuffs at school.  When his veterinarian mother brings home an orphaned baby skunk, Bat is thrilled, and sets out to be the best baby skunk caretaker ever.  His teacher helps him send an email to a skunk expert, and Bat is excited to get an encouraging reply from him.  Although it’s never stated, it’s pretty clear Bat is somewhere on the autism spectrum, and he must find his own way to navigate the world, dealing with his divorced parents, occasionally annoying older sister, and a boy in his class who just might be a friend.  208 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  A thoughtful and humorous story told through the eyes of Bat, a sympathetic character with difficulties that many young readers will recognize.  I hope there will be more stories forthcoming about Bat and his family.

Cons:  The whole skunk-as-pet premise seems unsustainable.

The Shadow Cipher (York: Book 1) by Laura Ruby

Published by Walden Pond Press

Summary:  In an alternate New York City, three seventh graders rush to solve a century-old puzzle that they hope will save their home.  When the unique building they live in is bought by an uncaring billionaire, twins Theo and Tess and their friend Jaime decide to try to solve the Cipher.  Created by the Morningstarr twins in the nineteenth century, the Cipher has baffled people for years, including the twins’ grandfather, now suffering from dementia.  When the kids discover a letter sent to their grandfather that appears to be from one of the Morningstarrs, they think they have stumbled upon a new version of the Cipher that may lead to its solution and the treasure that awaits the solver.  Rushing from one adventure to the next, the reader learns about some of the steampunk-inspired inventions of the Morningstarrs that are part of daily life in this version of NYC.  Although the kids discover important clues, the case of the Cipher is still not cracked by the end, and a cliffhanger will leave readers anxiously awaiting book 2.  496 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Fans of Rick Riordan will eagerly consume this tale featuring three gifted, quirky protagonists, an intriguing mystery, and plenty of adventure.

Cons:  The kids seemed to solve the extremely difficult puzzles with remarkable ease…although at least some of that may be part of the mystery.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling

Published by Sterling Children’s Books

Summary:  Aven has always believed she can do whatever she wants, and being born without arms hasn’t stopped her from playing guitar, excelling at soccer, and making plenty of friends at her Kansas middle school.  But when her parents suddenly decide to take over Stagecoach Pass, a has-been theme park in Arizona, Arlen has to start eighth grade in a new school.  Unable to face the stares of her new classmates, she takes to eating her lunch in the library, where she meets Connor, a boy with Tourette’s syndrome and Zion, a boy struggling with weight and self-esteem issues.  The three become friends, and uncover a mystery at Stagecoach Pass involving tarantulas, a locked desk, and a mysterious girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to Arlen.  In the process of solving the mystery, the kids also have to acknowledge their own limitations and learn to reach out and help each other reach their full potential.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Arlen is a confident, hilarious narrator whose fun and supportive parents have taught her to face life head-on and learn to do as much as she can for herself.  The story ends on a realistically uplifting note for all the characters.

Cons:  Zion seemed like a bit of an afterthought.  I would have liked to have known more about him and seen a little growth and change for him.

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

Published by Walden Pond Press

Summary:  When the bell rings on the island inhabited by nine children, a green boat appears out of the mist, carrying a new orphan ashore.  Then the oldest child gets in the boat and leaves for places unknown.  When Deen leaves, Jinny becomes the Elder.  She is in charge of Ess, the little girl who has just arrived in the boat, and must teach her the ways of the island so that Ess will be independent by the time Jinny leaves.  A year goes by, the bell rings again, and the boat returns, this time with a little boy named Loo.  But Jinny can’t bear the thought of leaving.  She pulls the boat onto the shore and announces that she’s staying.  Slowly, things begin to change on the island; the safe routines are disrupted and the idyllic environment is threatened.  When disaster finally strikes, Jinny realizes she has one chance to try to make things right again, even if it means giving up what she wants most of all.  288 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  A beautifully written tale about a kids’ fantasy world that could be a metaphor for growing up or even life and death.  I’ve seen this book on a Newbery list or two.

Cons:  The question of why the children are on the island is never answered, and some readers will undoubtedly find the ambiguous ending unsatisfying, particularly if there isn’t a sequel.  Also, be aware there is a scene where Jinny gets her first period that may be confusing to those who haven’t yet had the “puberty talk”.

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Josef is a Jewish refugee from Germany headed to Cuba in 1939.  Isabel is leaving Cuba for Miami in 1994.  Mahmoud is fleeing Syria and heading for Germany in 2015.  All three of these children face enormous obstacles as they travel with their families across sea and land to try to find new homes where they will have peace and security.  Their stories are told in alternating chapters, with a cliffhanger at the end of each one.  All three stories tie together at the end.  Maps of each of the journeys are shown at the end, and a lengthy author’s note tells about the historical facts behind each tale.  There’s also a “What You Can Do” section, encouraging kids to donate money to UNICEF or Save the Children.  352 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Fans of the I Survived series will find this book irresistible, with the exciting storylines and courageous kids finding their way in an unimaginably frightening world.

Cons:  Occasional language and a graphic concentration camp description may make this better suited for middle school than elementary.

Lights, Camera, Cook! (Next Best Junior Chef) by Charise Mericle Harper, illustrated by Aurelie Blard-Quintard

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Summary:  Rae, Tate, Caroline, and Oliver all want to be the Next Best Junior Chef, but only one can win the title.  They’ll have to survive three big competitions in which one chef will be eliminated.  Along the way are field trips and mini contests that allow them to choose kitchen gadgets or get private cooking lessons that may help them in their quests to be the best.  They’re surrounded by professional chefs and strict rules about TV behavior.  Friendships are formed and rivalries develop as the four kids try to do their best under the pressure of trying to be the best.  Includes tips for how to use a chef’s knife and a preview of book two.  192 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  A series based on a reality cooking show in which one contestant is eliminated at the end of each book…how has no one thought of this before?  Kids will love this quick and easy read, with plenty of illustrations and illustrations of each character talking to the reader in cartoon bubbles every few pages.

Cons:  Who will be next?  Readers have to wait until mid-February to find out!