Checked by Cynthia Kadohata

Published by Atheneum

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Summary:  Conor’s life is all about hockey, his dog, and his dad.  During the year he turns 12, he rises from a peewee AA team to AAA and learns what it’s like to go from being the best on the team to struggling to keep up.  In addition to team practices and games, he does intensive exercise routines and gets private coaching, all of which is a financial strain for his policeman father who made it to the NHL for three weeks and hopes for a professional career for his son.  When Conor’s beloved Doberman Sinbad is diagnosed with cancer, Conor is forced to decide between some of his hockey extras and Sinbad’s $7,000 treatment.  During the course of the year, Conor is also forced to deal with some of his feelings about his maternal grandparents, who moved away after his mom died but now want to be back in his life.  By the end of the book, Connor has developed a greater understanding and compassion for those around him and taken a big step forward in the process of growing up.  404 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Hockey fans and dog lovers will enjoy this slice-of-life story of approximately a year in Conor’s life.  He is a positive and resilient kids with a distinctive voice and caring heart.

Cons:  400+ pages is a lot for a story that tends to meander without any big climactic punch.

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Strongheart: Wonder Dog of the Silver Screen by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann

Published by Schwartz & Wade

Summary:  Move over Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford; Strongheart is center stage in this novelization about a real-life canine silent film star.  When 1920’s-era director Larry Trimble had the idea to make a movie about a dog, he traveled all the way to Europe in search of the perfect animal.  He discovered Etzel, a ferocious German shepherd police dog, and was able to see past the growling and snapping to an intelligent, loveable pet.  They teamed up with screenwriter Jane Murfin to produce six films, making Strongheart a celebrity.  He never lost his police dog instincts, though, and the end of the book has him standing in his own defense at a trial to determine if he killed a little girl or not.  Several of his youngest fans come to his aid, and not only Strongheart is declared innocent, he helps apprehend the real criminals.  (Don’t worry, there’s no real murder; it was all a money-making scam).  End matter includes the facts about Strongheart and his career, photos, a bibliography, and notes.  256 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Dog lovers will be enchanted with Strongheart, from his early days as a puppy forced to become a vicious police dog to his movie star career, and finally full circle to the father of his own puppies.  Illustrations on almost every page make this a good choice for reluctant readers.

Cons:  I was disappointed to learn that only one of Strongheart’s films, his last one, still survives.

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The Truth As Told By Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

Published by Katherine Tegen Books

Summary:  Mason Buttle feels dogged by bad luck: not only is he the biggest, sweatiest kid in the 7th grade, but his mother died in a car accident a few years back, and more recently, his best friend Benny died when he fell out of their tree fort one night in the Buttle apple orchard.  The orchard is falling into ruins, since Mason’s grandmother and uncle haven’t been able to work since his mom died.  And the local police lieutenant keeps coming around to ask Mason uncomfortable questions about where he was the night Benny died.  On the brighter side, there’s Calvin, the new kid in the neighborhood who becomes a friend and ally as the two try to dodge the local bullies after school.  They discover a root cellar under Mason’s house, and fix it up as their secret hideaway.  There’s also Moonie, the dog who belongs to one of the bullies, but who seems more attached to Mason. When Calvin goes missing, Mason finds himself under a cloud of suspicion; but not only does he find Calvin, he unwittingly uncovers the culprit responsible for Benny’s death.  That discovery begins a chain of events that leads to happier circumstances for Mason and those he loves. 336 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Mason is a one-of-a-kind character, and his voice rings true as he finds his way through a difficult season of his 7th grade year.  Not only does he manage to survive the hardships at school and at home, but he does so in a way that makes life better for those around him.

Cons:  The book gets off to a slow start; the detailed parts about Calvin and Mason fixing up the root cellar dragged a bit.  The reader will have to persevere to get to the second half where the action really picks up.

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Stella Diaz Has Something to Say! By Angela Dominguez

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  Stella Diaz has something to say, but she often has trouble saying it.  She’s shy, and sometimes she stumbles over English words.  Her family moved from Mexico to Chicago when she was a baby, making her feel somewhat disconnected from the extended family that sometimes visits.  Her father has moved to Colorado and only occasionally gets in touch, but her mom and older brother Nick more than make up for his absence.  As Stella moves through third grade, she experiences successes that helps her confidence to slowly build.  She makes new friends, speaks up for herself to the mean girl, and participates in a spelling bee in front of the whole class.  By the end of the story, she’s even made friends with a boy, and he and her other friends have helped her to put together an amazing presentation about her favorite topic, undersea animals.  The end of the year sees Stella excited about spending the summer with family and friends and more than ready to move on to fourth grade.  208 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  Fans of Junie B. and Clementine, especially more introverted ones, will enjoy Stella’s story and will cheer her on as she finds the courage to try new experiences.  Readers who are bilingual or new to the United States will connect with Stella’s struggles to fit in.

Cons:  Nick occasionally seems too good to be true for a 14-year-old older brother.

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TBH, This Is SO Awkward: a novel in text by Lisa Greenwald

Published by Katherine Tegen Books

Summary:  Cecily, Prianka, and Gabrielle are BFF’s who love to text, and their messages to one another make up the bulk of this book.  A new girl, Victoria, is desperate to make friends; Cecily’s willing to give her a chance, but Prianka and Gabrielle find her annoying.  There are the requisite mean girls, and Cecily also finds herself bonding with one of them, particularly after a fight with Prianka and Gabrielle leaves her needing a new confidante.  The texts are occasionally supplemented with homework assignments and diary entries that give the reader a little more insight into the characters.  Bullying, boys, a dance, and parental monitoring of texts are all covered in this series opener.  224 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  It was inevitable…a book told in texts. The format is as addictive as an iPhone, and even reluctant readers will find this a quick and easy read.

Cons:  Emojis really don’t take the place of well-crafted prose.

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Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  Robinson wishes she could be more like her namesake Jackie Robinson, who could stay focused and get the job done even when people were cruel to him.  But Robbie has a short temper, and gets into trouble when she repeatedly fights with her nemesis, a boy named Alex.  To make matters worse, her beloved grandfather, her only family, is having memory problems.  He’s always refused to tell her about her parents, and she worries that he’ll forget and she’ll never learn about them.  When her class is assigned a family tree project, Robbie discovers she’s not the only one worried about loved ones.  She winds up with the guidance counselor, working with three other kids to address their family issues.  One of those kids is Alex, and Robbie begins to understand why he is such a bully.  Just as things at school begin to get better, Robbie has to face a crisis at home.  Slowly and at times reluctantly, she learns how to trust those around her to find solutions that will support both her and her grandfather moving into the future.  256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  First-time novelist Lindsey Stoddard hits a home run with this touching story of a rough-around-the-edges but loveable protagonist.  Fans of Fish In a Tree will enjoy getting to know Robbie.

Cons:  It seemed like Robbie’s teacher could have been a bit more sensitive to the meltdowns engendered by her family tree project.

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Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Renee Watson

Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Summary:  During the three years this book covers (1945-1948), Betty Sanders moves out of her abusive mother’s home and is adopted by a prominent Detroit couple who get her involved with community activism.  As junior members of the Housewives’ League, Betty and her friend Suesetta work to convince other African Americans not to patronize white businesses that have racist hiring practices.  The two girls lose a good friend because of their convictions.  Betty is also active in her church, Detroit’s Bethel AME Church, which hosted speakers like Thurgood Marshall and Paul Robeson.  Betty’s early life prepares her for her marriage to Malcolm X and her work as an educator and activist.  Her later years are described in a lengthy back matter section.  256 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Written by Renee Watson and Malcolm’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, this historical fiction book with its first-person narration, short chapters, and interesting cast of characters is an engaging and educational read.

Cons:  Readers not familiar with Malcolm X may not quite grasp the significance of Betty’s life.

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