Winnie’s Great War by Lindsay Mattick and Josh Greenhut, art by Sophie Blackall

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Expanding on Mattick and Blackall’s 2015 Caldecott-winning Finding Winnie, this book uses a similar format of a mother telling her son about his stuffed bear.  The Bear in question, of course, turns out to be Winnie-the-Pooh, a real bear at the London Zoo discovered by Christopher Robin Milne and immortalized by his father, A. A. Milne.  Before Winnie (full name, Winnipeg) moved to the zoo, she spent a fair amount of time with Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian with the Canadian army, who bought her from a trapper.  The first few chapters tell how Winnie came to be with the trapper (including a Bambi-like scene in which the trapper catches Winnie’s mother and shoots her). Harry and Winnie traveled together as long as they could, but eventually Harry was in the thick of the war in England and had to leave Winnie at the zoo.  There’s an interesting blend of historical fact and fantasy, as Winnie experiences the war through the eyes of a bear cub and is able to talk to various animals she meets. Harry Colebourn was Lindsay Mattick’s great-grandfather, and photos and diary entries on the last several pages fill in some more historical details.  256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This would make a great read-aloud for almost any elementary grade (although there are a few difficult passages to read about Winnie’s mother and the war).  The Pooh connection and Winnie’s wide-eyed view of the world make it accessible to younger kids, while the parts about war could lead to interesting discussions for older ones.

Cons:  I wish there were more of Sophia Blackall’s illustrations.

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Fake Blood by Whitney Gardner

Published by Simon and Schuster

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Summary:  A.J. is hoping that sixth grade will be different, but on the first day, things seem depressingly familiar.  His two best friends, Ivy and Hunter, continue to bicker, leaving him out of their ridiculous bets with each other.  Plus, they each had amazing summer adventures while A.J. stayed home and read.  His crush, Nia, is back, as dazzling as ever, but apparently unaware that A.J. exists.  Their new teacher, Mr. Niles, has a cool British accent, but seems pretty strict.  As the year goes on, A.J. tries to become cooler, pretending to be a vampire to impress Nia, who is obsessed with them.  This almost proves disastrous (she wants to be a vampire slayer), but in a weird way brings them together.  When Hunter goes missing and unsettling truths start to emerge about Mr. Niles, A.J. and his friends and sister have to band together to save themselves.  336 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  An entertaining graphic novel with sympathetic tween characters, a fun vampire theme, and good messages about friendship and being yourself.

Cons:  I kept putting off reading this because it seemed long, but once I started it, the pages flew by and I finished it in a day.

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Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood

Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  As the London Blitz begins, 13-year-old Ken Sparks is sent on the SS City of Benares as part of a group of 90 children evacuating to Canada.  He is glad to go, both to get away from the bombing and because he feels unwanted by his stepmother.  The ship is luxurious, and when the crew assures them they’ve passed the danger zone for torpedoes, the kids relax and enjoy themselves.  During the first night of “safety”, there’s an explosion, and all passengers are hurried to the lifeboats. The Benares has been hit by the Germans and is sinking fast.  Ken is assigned to Lifeboat 8, but forgets his coat, and after running back to get it, ends up on Lifeboat 12.  When the sun rises, they are alone at sea: six boys, one of their chaperones (the only woman), a Catholic priest, and a few dozen crewmen.  They drift for many days, enduring hunger, thirst, trench foot, and the unknown of whether they will live or die. There are many examples of heroism, and Ken plays a part in their rescue with his knowledge of different aircraft.  There’s a happy ending for Lifeboat 12, although many others were not so lucky, including all those assigned to Lifeboat 8. Ken gets a huge welcome home, assuring him that he is loved and cherished by his father, stepmother, and 3-year-old sister.  Includes many pages of additional information, resources, and photographs, including a reassuringly healthy one of Ken Sparks in 2015 at age 88. 336 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  This extensively-researched novel in verse will attract all kinds of readers with its edge-of-your-seat suspense and historical detail.  Fans of the I Survived series will enjoy this real-life World War II adventure featuring kids much like themselves.

Cons:  It was not particularly relaxing reading all the details of the many days at sea.  I do hope I never suffer from trench foot.

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The Third Mushroom by Jennifer Holm

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Picking up a short time after the ending of The Fourteenth Goldfish, Ellie continues the tale of her grandfather, Melvin, a scientist (with two Ph.D.’s!) who turned himself back into a teenager in the first book.  He returns from the bus trip he took at the end of book 1 and moves back in with Ellie, her mom, and her new stepdad. Ellie’s best friend Raj is the only kid at school who knows the truth about Melvin, who passes himself off as Ellie’s cousin.  Ellie and Melvin decide to enter the science fair when Melvin discovers an axolotl with extra legs entwined in a jellyfish specimen in his lab. Axolotls can regenerate body parts, and the two of them make a discovery that could have implications for human growth.  There’s plenty of information about science and scientists, but also interesting and emotional details about Ellie’s everyday life, like her attempt at a date with Raj, life with her new stepfather, and the poignant death of her beloved cat. Melvin’s experiments on himself make it doubtful that there will be another book in this series unless there is a different angle than the septuagenarian teenager one.  Includes an author’s note, additional information about the scientists mentioned in the story, and resources for further research on them. 240 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Ellie’s voice gives the story a light touch, even as it deals with pretty heavy subjects like life, death, and love.

Cons:  The science experiment, which seemed like it had some pretty interesting implications, just sort of fizzled out at the end of the book.

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Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo

Published by Candlewick

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Summary:  Louisiana Elefante, whom readers of Raymie Nightingale will remember, tells the story of breaking a life-long curse and finding a new home.  One night her Granny wakes her up at 3:00 a.m. for an unexpected trip from Florida to Georgia.  Granny is increasing pain from a dental infection, to the point where Louisiana has to take over driving duties and find a dentist.  The two of them end up in the Good Night, Sleep Tight motel, Granny trying to recover from the removal of all of her teeth. Louisiana busies herself getting to know some members of the local community and trying to earn enough money with her singing to pay their hotel bills.  When Granny vanishes, leaving a note revealing that much of what Louisiana believed to be true about herself is lies, Louisiana is forced to re-create herself and to find a new home. Fortunately, she’s met an unusually kind boy named Burke Allen, and he and some of her other new friends help her get settled while still managing to keep her connections to her friends back in Florida.  240 pages; grades 4-6.

Pros:  A beautiful story of finding your way and forgiving the past to move forward.  Louisiana is a memorable character, as are many of those she meets on her journey.  It’s a quick read, but there’s a lot to digest and discuss. With six starred reviews, there are sure to be some awards in store.

Cons:  Okay, I liked it better than Raymie Nightingale, but I still don’t quite see what all the fuss is about.

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This was another advanced reading copy I received from Candlewick.

Saving Winslow by Sharon Creech

Published by Joanna Cotler Books

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Summary:  When Louie’s dad brings home a sickly newborn donkey whose mother has died, no one has much confidence that it will pull through.  No one, that is, except Louie, who doesn’t let his past bad luck with keeping other animals alive stand in the way of devoting himself to his new pet.  Naming the donkey Winslow, he moves into the basement to sleep next to the baby, teaching him to drink from a bottle and getting up for midnight feedings. There’s a new girl in the neighborhood, the quirky but endearing Nora, who takes an interest in Winslow and tentatively begins to help out.  Both Louie and Nora are dealing with loss–Louie’s older brother has recently left home to join the army and Nora lost her premature baby brother–and sometimes their struggles get in the way of their friendship. But Winslow manages to bring them together. When he gets big enough to move back to the farm where he was born, it’s clear that a lasting bond has been forged between the two kids and their donkey.  176 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Sharon Creech packs a pretty big emotional punch in 176 pages.  The short chapters and small pages keep the book moving along quickly, and would make it a great choice for a read-aloud or a first “real” chapter book.

Cons:  The fire scene toward the end seemed a little bit contrived to me.

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The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle by Christina Uss

Published by Margaret Ferguson Books

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Summary:  When a three-year-old girl wearing a t-shirt with the word “Bicycle” on it appears at the Mostly Silent Monastary, retired nun Sister Wanda adopts her and names her Bicycle.  Bicycle is happy living quietly among the monks and nuns, but when she turns 12, Sister Wanda decides it’s time for her to learn how to make friends, and ships the girl and her bicycle, Clunk, to the Friendship Factory for summer camp.  Bicycle, who can’t imagine anything worse, decides to run away to San Francisco to take part in the Blessing of the Bicycles. The rest of the story is a wild and crazy road trip, in which Bicycle and Clunk (and later a new bike named Fortune after Clunk falls apart halfway through the trip) meet a quirky but endearing cast of characters.  By the time Sister Wanda catches up with her in Nevada, Bicycle realizes she has made quite a few friends along the way. She has to give the nun the slip one more time, but they reunite in San Francisco, where Fortune is blessed and Bicycle meets her hero, Polish bicycle racer Zbig. Sister Wanda realizes Bicycle has found her own way of making friends, and the end finds Zbig, Bicycle, Wanda, and a man in a rooster suit pointing their bicycles eastward for the journey home.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A lively and entertaining adventure with a likeable introvert and the fun and interesting characters she meets along the way.

Cons:  Christina Uss works at the town library where I get most of my books, so it’s probably not in my best interest to offer her anything but praise and congratulations on her first novel.

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