Summary: Jo uses her blog to chronicle her life during eighth grade, as well as the lives of her sisters Amy, Beth, and Meg. Amy’s excited about fifth-grade art; Beth’s recovering from leukemia and pursuing her musical interests through piano and band; and Meg is tutoring two neighbor children and crushing on a boy named Jon. Marmee keeps them all in line while their father is overseas. New neighbor Laurie has a crush on Jo, but Jo is more interested in Freddie, the girl editor of the school newspaper they both work on. Everyone gets a chance to let their talents shine at the middle school’s end-of-year showcase, and happy endings abound for all. 272 pages; grades 4-8.
Pros: Seems like the world will always embrace one more version of Little Women, and this one is as warm and life-affirming as a hug from Marmee. Fans of Raina Telgemeier, as well as last year’s Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amywill love this graphic novel adaptation.
Cons: I wonder how Bronson Alcott would feel about having his counterpart involved in a secret overseas military mission.
Summary: Maddie Polansky’s pretty sure seventh grade will suck, with art class offering the only bright spot on an otherwise dismal daily schedule. So when she hears that unopposed mayoral candidate Lucinda Burghart is planning to cut the school’s arts funding, she feels desperate enough to try to do something about it. After learning that the only qualification to run is to be a registered voter, she starts asking around. To her surprise, Janet, her 23-year-old babysitter, agrees. Janet is struggling to find work and figures she has nothing to lose. There’s one obstacle after another, though, beginning with the required 350 signatures to get on the ballot. Although Maddie considers herself the most unpopular kid in the class, she realizes she needs allies and finds ways to convince other kids who are passionate about the arts to join Janet’s campaign. They all have plenty to learn as they make their way through the fall, and, as we all know, there can be some interesting surprises on Election Day. Includes a six-page author’s note with ideas and websites for getting involved in community activism and politics. 304 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: Woven into this fun, slightly snarky middle school tale is a wealth of information about civics and elections, and a pretty heartwarming message encouraging kids to become activists. The illustrations on almost every page keep things moving along at a good clip, and it’s nice to see some of the stereotypical middle school mean girls turn into human beings as the story progresses.
Cons: Maddie’s parents, clueless almost to the point of negligence, never move beyond ridiculous one-dimensional characters.
Summary: Badger is satisfied living by himself in his aunt’s brownstone: doing Important Rock Work, eating cold cereal, and ignoring Aunt Lula’s letters. So he’s surprised one day when Skunk shows up on his doorstep, informing him that he’s been sent by Aunt Lula to be Badger’s roommate. Skunk disrupts Badger’s routine in ways that are both good (cooking breakfast, making Badger laugh), and not so good (taking over Badger’s box room, bringing dozens of chickens to the house). At first Badger is desperate to get back to his solitary lifestyle, but slowly the good begins to outweigh the bad. When Badger goes too far and alienates Skunk and his chickens, he realizes he’s made a big mistake and has to learn how to apologize and repair their burgeoning friendship. 136 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: An endearing friendship story for those who cut their reading teeth on Frog and Toad books. The Jon Klassen illustrations are a great addition–that cover picture perfectly captures both animals’ personalities..
Cons: I had high hopes for this book with its multiple starred reviews and the Klassen illustrations, but it never really took off for me. It’s quirky to the point that I wonder if it will have wide kid appeal.
Summary: Lou’s mom hopes to capitalize on Lou’s beautiful singing voice; Lou loves to sing but her aversion to loud noises and touch make it difficult for her to be on stage or even to function in settings like school. She hasn’t had to worry about school for awhile, though, as she and her mom are living in their truck, traveling from one campsite to the next in search of their big break. When Lou crashes the truck, police take her away from her mom and send her to live with a wealthy aunt of whom she has only dim memories. Her aunt and uncle send Lou to the private school where her uncle teaches, and she finds herself enjoying school and friends for the first time. An astute counselor diagnoses her with sensory processing disorder, but Lou refuses treatment, preferring to see herself as the fighter her mother always told her she was. Lou feels herself increasingly torn between the desire to be reunited with her mother and the happiness she feels in her new life. A crisis at school finally convinces her to accept help from friends and family and to begin to create a life that might be able to include all the people she loves. 288 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Lou is a likeable character who has been dealt a pretty tough hand, and she is indeed a fighter who does remarkably well despite that. It’s nice to see some supportive, savvy social workers and school counselors in a children’s book (for a change), as well as some quirky kids who aren’t total outcasts.
Cons: Lou’s immediate and unwavering acceptance by the theater crowd seemed a little unrealistic for middle school.
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Summary: Nora and her dad are going for a hike on her birthday. It’s the first time they’ve gone hiking since her mother was killed by a gunman exactly a year ago when the family was celebrating Nora’s birthday at a restaurant. Her father was also injured, but the greater trauma to both of them was psychological. Nora’s ready to return to school, but her dad’s afraid to let her out of his sight. The two of them argue about it as they start their hike; seconds later, there’s a rumbling sound, and a flash flood sweeps into the canyon, washing her father away. Nora’s left on her own to survive two nights in the desert, battling snakes, scorpions, heat, thirst, and her own demons. Determined to find and rescue her dad, Nora draws on inner resources and discovers she is stronger than she’s believed for the past year. 320 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Warning: once you pick up this novel in verse, it’s hard to put down. It’s equal parts survival tale and a story of healing from a horrific trauma, told in flashbacks as Nora grapples with nightmares and other reminders of her mother’s murder. Although it may not sound so from this description, this is a book appropriate for upper elementary kids, who will undoubtedly find it as difficult to put down as I did.
Cons: If you’re seeking a little light reading, you should probably look elsewhere.
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Summary: Kate’s life is basically satisfactory, but she sometimes feels like she’d like something more. When her mysterious Uncle Herbert appears on the morning of her eleventh birthday with a full-size steam engine named The Silver Arrow, she begins to understand that what has been missing is adventure and a sense of purpose. She and her younger brother Tom are sent on a journey around the world, picking up animals and transporting them to their natural habitats. As they get to know the animals and learn about the trouble they’re in, Kate and Tom realize their job to protect their new friends will extend long beyond their train trip. The journey proves difficult, and the two kids almost give up on it before it’s over, but in the end their persistence pays off. They’re happy to get home safely, but Uncle Herbert assures them their adventures have just begun…potentially paving the way for a sequel. 272 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: This illustrated story hits the sweet spot for third and fourth graders, who will love the two kids, their adventures, and all the animals–and the train, which can communicate and becomes an important character as well. The environmental message is nicely embedded into the story and could lead to some interesting discussions. This would make a great read-aloud or book club selection.
Cons: Tracy Nishimura Bishop’s illustrations add a lot to the story, but she’s not credited on either the cover or the back flap.
Summary: Isaiah, his mother, and 4-year-old sister are living in what he has dubbed the Smoky Inn, a run-down motel that they’ve moved to after losing their apartment. Ever since Isaiah’s dad died suddenly from a heart attack, his mother has been spiraling: drinking more, not working, and often neglecting her children. Isaiah tries to help out by starting a candy-selling business with his friend Sneaky and getting a job at a barbershop. But when the family is evicted from the hotel and ends up sleeping in their car, Isaiah begins to realize he has a problem that’s too big for him to solve. Fortunately, he has some caring adults in his life, a talent for writing, and his dad’s notebooks full of stories about superhero Isaiah Dunn. His mom is smart enough to finally seek help, and the end sees the family reunited at a surprise event Isaiah has planned to honor his dad. 208 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: Based on an award-winning story that was included in Flying Lessons and Other Stories, this book would make an excellent choice for an elementary book club, due to its relatively short length and 10-year-old protagonist with a humorous take on his difficult circumstances. He really does turn out to be a hero and is instrumental in keeping his family together during a pretty dark time for all of them.
Cons: Isaiah’s frenemy Angel seems like she has an interesting story to tell, and I wanted to know more about her. Maybe a sequel?
Summary: The story begins on August 31 in a Long Island beach town during World War II. Julie Sweet and her younger sister Martha find a baby on the doorstep of the new library. Bruno is on a secret mission to New York City when he sees Julie, a former friend who has stopped speaking to him, and decides to follow her. The action then goes back to the beginning of the summer, and the three main characters tell the story in alternating voices. Bruno has a secret he’s guarding about his older brother Ben who’s away in the army. Julie is worried that her widowed father is about to get married again. Events unfold to bring all the characters back to August 31, when the reader finally learns where the baby came from. A famous woman makes a surprise appearance and helps Julie figure out what to do with the baby. The war isn’t over yet, and Ben’s fate is still uncertain, yet the three kids manage to find their way to a happy ending for the time being. 192 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: This brief story unfolds in short vignettes which prove surprisingly engaging and will draw the reader in quickly. This would make a good first historical fiction book for elementary students, as well as an excellent study of different points of view. The ending is heartwarming yet realistic for the middle of wartime.
Cons: Because this is such a short book, I would consider it a good choice for third or fourth grade. But the multiple perspectives and flashbacks could confuse some young readers who may need some help to understand what’s going on.
Summary: It’s December 1937, and Esther’s family in Poland has just gotten word from Papa that he’s saved enough money to bring one family member to Cuba. 12-year-old Esther manages to convince him that it should be her, not her younger brother, and she sets off on the long journey across the ocean to a tropical island she knows little about. Once there, she learns that her father is trying to make a living as a peddler, but is a terrible salesman. Esther looks for ways to make money, and discovers a talent for dressmaking. As she settles into her new home, she and her father make new friends including wealthy Cubans, a poor black family, and a father and son from China. Meanwhile, they hear of increasing atrocities against Jews in Poland, and work day and night to bring the rest of the family over. Esther tells her story through letters she writes to her younger sister Malka, and by the end of the book, she is able to share the letters with Malka in person. Includes an author’s note telling about her grandmother on whom this story is based and a list of resources. 242 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: I don’t always find the letter writing format particularly engaging, but this book drew me in almost immediately. Excellent historical fiction with compelling characters make this a great choice for a wide range of readers and a book likely to be considered for some awards.
Cons: Papa seemed a bit passive for someone whose family was depending on him for their survival.
Published by Scholastic Press (Released November 10)
Summary: When Hazel finds an abandoned pet tortoise, she discovers that the two of them are alike in some ways. Both want to hide when they are scared, and Hazel finds herself feeling anxious about almost every aspect of middle school. She’s shy and wants nothing more than to blend in, but her best friend Tori wants to perform in the talent show and make new friends. When Hazel finds a notebook belonging to Tori’s older brother Ben, she’s horrified to discover that it contains pages for many of the girls at school with other boys’ comments about their appearance. The notebook, combined with a dress code targeting girls and a new friend, Dion, who’s being bullied by other boys, finally forces Hazel to stick her neck out and speak up about the injustices and sexism she sees all around her. Hazel is amazed to learn what power her voice has; while her school still has problems, she and her friends are able to bring about real change with their activism. 256 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Another great addition to the growing list of 2020 books that address feminism, dress codes, and toxic masculinity. Many readers will recognize themselves in Hazel and her friends and may be inspired to speak up about issues they see in their own schools and communities.
Cons: While Hazel’s dad is pretty cool, it would have been nice to see some other men helping out the girls and women. The principal seemed like a real dud.