Five (okay, six) more favorite chapter books

I struggled to get this list down to five–the random magic number I have chosen for each of these lists. I couldn’t bear to remove any of them, though, so here are the six.

The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman

Published by Viking Books for Young Readers

The Blackbird Girls: Blankman, Anne: 9781984837356: Books

There’s a lot to this book, and it’s probably not for every reader, but those who love historical fiction and strong girl characters will take Valentina and Oksana to heart as they form an unlikely friendship in the aftermath of Chernobyl.

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

The Only Black Girls in Town: Colbert, Brandy: 9780316456388:  Books

Another outstanding friendship story featuring Alberta and Edie who are navigating mean girls, seventh grade, and a mystery that reveals the racism in their town’s history that has persisted to the present day.

96 Miles by J. L. Esplin

Published by Starscape

96 Miles: Esplin, J. L.: 9781250192288: Books

I do not typically use the expression “holy cow” in a book review, but I did indeed do that when reviewing this gripping survival story that I read practically in one sitting.

The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung

Published by Levine Querido

The Boys in the Back Row: Jung, Mike: 9781646140114: Books

This book struck just the right balance between funny middle school story and touching friendship story and made me realize how rare it is to find a middle-grade novel that celebrates boys’ friendships. As the cherry on top, it’s a love letter to marching band geeks like myself.

The Mystwick School of Musicraft by Jessica Khoury

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

The Mystwick School of Musicraft: Khoury, Jessica: 9781328625632:  Books

I always feel a bit guilty that I don’t review more fantasy books; I’ll admit it’s not my favorite genre. Once in awhile, though, I find a great one. I spent a few pleasant weeks this spring listening to Amelia Jones’s adventures at Mystwick on Audible and doing jigsaw puzzles. Despite 2020’s reputation, it has not been without its happy moments.

Brother’s Keeper by Julie Lee

Published by Holiday House

Brother's Keeper: Lee, Julie: 9780823444946: Books

I would not have predicted that a survival story featuring a brother and sister escaping from 1950 North Korea would have made it on to my list of favorite 2020 books, but look, here it is.

12 books of Christmas

Starting the day after Christmas, I’ll be posting my year-end lists of Caldecott and Newbery predictions and my favorite books in different categories. I found myself with an higher-than-usual number of books at the end of the year that I had wanted to review, but didn’t get to before time ran out. That number turned out to be twelve, so as a little Christmas gift, here is a list of my final dozen books for 2020.

Tani’s New Home: A Refugee Finds Hope and Kindness in America by Tanitoluwa Adewumi, illustrated by Courtney Dawson

Published by Thomas Nelson

Tani's New Home: A Refugee Finds Hope and Kindness in America: Adewumi,  Tanitoluwa, Dawson, Courtney: 9781400218288: Books

The true story of Tani Adewumi, who moved to New York City as a Nigerian refugee at the age of 6. He discovered chess, and practiced it for hours in a homeless shelter. In less than a year, he was the New York State Chess Champion. I haven’t had a chance to see this book. The publisher, Thomas Nelson, is a Christian publisher, so I’m not sure if there is any religious content to the story. 32 pages; grades K-3.

Dear Earth…From Your Friends in Room 5 by Erin Dealey, illustrated by Louisa Uribe

Published by HarperCollins

Dear Earth…From Your Friends in Room 5: Dealey, Erin, Uribe, Luisa:  9780062915320: Books

The kids in room 5 begin a correspondence with Earth, learning different ways to help the planet like recycling and energy conservation. Rhyming text, letter writing, and environmental tips make this an appealing choice for Earth Day or any time of year. 32 pages; grades K-3.

Saving Stella: A Dog’s Dramatic Escape from War by Bassel Abou Fakher and Deborah Blumenthal, illustrated by Nadine Kaadan

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Saving Stella: A Dog's Dramatic Escape from War: Fakher, Bassel Abou,  Blumenthal, Deborah, Kaadan, Nadine: 9781547601332: Books

When Bassel was forced to flee Syria, he had to leave his beloved dog Stella behind. After settling in a new home in Belgium, he worked with friends back in Syria to create a daring plan to rescue Stella. 40 pages; grades K-5.

Rabbit, Raven, Deer by Sue Farrell Holler, illustrated by Jennifer Faria

Published by Pajama Press

Raven, Rabbit, Deer: Farrell Holler, Sue, Faria, Jennifer: 9781772781366: Books

There’s a copy of this book traveling to my library right now, but I haven’t gotten a chance to see it. A boy and his grandfather enjoy a winter’s day together, finding animal tracks and identifying the animals in both English and Ojibwemowin. Sounds like a cozy winter choice. 32 pages; ages 4-8.

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

When You Trap a Tiger: Keller, Tae: 9781524715717: Books

When Lily and her family move in with her sick grandmother, Lily meets a tiger straight out of the Korean folklore she’s grown up on. This book won a Boston Globe/Horn Book honor and received five starred reviews. Personally, I couldn’t really get into it and only read about the first third back in the beginning of the year. Everyone else loved it, though, and it could definitely be a contender for more awards. 304 pages; grades 4-7.

Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi, illustrations by Ashley Lukashevsky

Published by Kokila

Antiracist Baby Board Book: Kendi, Ibram X., Lukashevsky, Ashley:  9780593110416: Books

Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist is #15 on Amazon’s list of 2020’s bestsellers. Here he offers nine tips for being (or raising) an antiracist baby, with a note to parents and teachers at the end. Available as both a board book and a regular picture book. 32 pages; ages 0-4.

Woodpecker Girl by Chingyen Liu and I-Tsun Chiang, illustrated by Heidi Doll

Published by Reycraft Books

Woodpecker Girl: Chiang, I-Tsun, Liu, Chingyen: 9781478869559:  Books

A girl with cerebral palsy tells how she learned to paint with a brush strapped to her forehead. An amazing gallery of her work is included. Told in the first person, the story doesn’t shy away from the challenges she faces and the discouragement she feels, but also expresses her joy at sharing with others through her art. 40 pages; grades K-4.

Everything Comes Next: Collected and New Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye

Published by Greenwillow Books

Everything Comes Next: Collected and New Poems: Nye, Naomi Shihab:  9780063013452: Books

I just got this book on December 23, so haven’t had a chance to read it. These 100 poems by Young People’s Poet Laureate Nye start with a section of poems on childhood, both her own and others. She also explores her Palestinian heritage and the need for peace, as well as an appreciation for the diversity of people in the world. 256 pages; grades 3-7.

Unstoppable by Adam Rex, illustrated by Laura Park

Published by Chronicle Books

Unstoppable: (Family Read-Aloud book, Silly Book About Cooperation) -  Kindle edition by Rex, Adam, Park, Laura. Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon .com.

A crow being pursued by a hungry cat and a crab who dreams of flying work together to help one another. When they add a turtle and a bear, they become UNSTOPPABLE! At least until they see a bulldozer digging up the lakefront to build a mall. Then it’s off to see the President of the United States…and Congress…and things really get zany as only Adam Rex can imagine them. 56 pages; ages 4-8.

Chance: Escape from the Holocaust by Uri Shulevitz

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Chance: Escape from the Holocaust: Memories of a Refugee Childhood  (9780374313715): Shulevitz, Uri: Books -

Caldecott Medalist Uri Shulevitz’s memoir covers his childhood from his days in Warsaw at the start of World War II to his family’s harrowing experiences in the Soviet Union during the war and their postwar years in Paris before emigrating to Paris when he was 14. Although it’s a thick book, the print is large and filled with Shulevitz’s illustrations, making it a quick and engaging read. 336 pages; grades 4-8.

A Gift for Amma: Market Day in India by Meera Sriram, illustrated by Mariona Cabassa

Published by Barefoot Books

A Gift for Amma: Market Day in India: Sriram, Meera, Cabassa, Mariona:  9781646860616: Books

Another one I haven’t gotten to see, but I love the brilliant colors of the cover (and pictures I’ve seen of the illustrations). A girl shops in an Indian market to find the perfect gift for her mother. 32 pages; ages 4-7.

Desert Diary: Japanese American Kids Behind Barbed Wire by Michael O. Tunnell

Published by Charlesbridge

Desert Diary: Japanese American Kids Behind Barbed Wire: Tunnell, Michael  O.: 9781580897891: Books

When Mae Yanagi was eight years old, she and her family were forced to move to Topaz Camp in Utah for the duration of World War II. She and her third-grade classmates created a diary of their daily lives in camp, filled with mundane details about school and family life, as well as descriptions of the difficulties of camp life. Michael Tunnell tells their story with plenty of photographs and excerpts from the diary. 144 pages; grades 4-7.

The Smartest Kid in the Universe by Chris Grabenstein

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

The Smartest Kid in the Universe: Grabenstein, Chris: 9780525647782:  Books

Summary:  Jake is your typical video-game-playing middle school slacker until he accidentally eats a jar of jelly beans…at least he thinks they’re jelly beans, but in reality they’re ingestible knowledge pills.  Suddenly, Jake knows all kinds of things that help him in every area of his life: school, basketball, and impressing his crush Grace Garcia.  Grace, Jake, and Jake’s best friend Kojo discover a plot to destroy their school as well as some buried treasure that may or may not be underneath the school building.  When they realize that evil vice principal Ms. Malvolio is after the same treasure, Jake has to use every bit of his brain power to try to beat her to the riches and save his school.  Includes several pages of brainteasers.  304 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  The author, the premise, the short chapters, the fast pace, the humor, and the eye-catching cover are all sure to appeal to reluctant and avid readers alike.  Book 2, Genius Camp, is due out in 2021.

Cons:  Nothing particularly original here, including the slacker white dude protagonist and his black sidekick (who even identifies himself as “the sidekick”).

Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse

Published by Random House Graphic

Witches of Brooklyn: Escabasse, Sophie: 9780593119273: Books
Witches of Brooklyn: Escabasse, Sophie: 9780593119273: Books

Summary:  When Effie is dropped off at her Aunt Selimene’s home in the middle of the night, neither one is happy about it.  But Effie has nowhere else to go, and Aunt Selimene is her only living relative.  Selimene’s partner Carlota makes Effie feel welcome, and within a few days everyone is feeling better about the situation.  Selimene and Carlota claim to be herbalists and acupuncturists, but Effie soon discovers they are actually witches.  Before long, her own magical powers emerge, although she has difficulty controlling them.  When celebrity singer Tily Shoo shows up needing the witches’ help, her #1 fan Effie gets in on the case as well.  It’s Effie who makes a key discovery that will help Tily Shoo reverse the curse that has been placed on her.  Things wrap up with a happy ending, but there’s a preview of book 2 at the end, and the author’s biography says she’s working on a trilogy.  240 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  A fun graphic novel for anyone who likes school and family stories with a touch of magic thrown in.  There’s a lot of action and many characters, but the pace is good and the characters are well-distinguished in the illustrations, making it easy to follow what’s going on.

Cons:  There’s not much told about Effie’s previous life or what happened to her mother.

Friend Me by Sheila M. Averbuch

Published by Scholastic Press

Friend Me: Averbuch, Sheila M.: 9781338618082: Books

Summary:  Roisin is struggling to adjust to seventh grade after moving to Massachusetts from Ireland.  A bully named Zara is making her life miserable, so when she discovers a new friend online, she is thrilled.  Haley has dealt with mean girls as well, and always seems to have time to listen to Roisin’s problems and offer sympathetic advice.  But when Zara has a potentially fatal accident and Haley seems unmoved, Roisin begins to have some questions.  Attempts to track Haley down in person prove unsuccessful, and Roisin finds herself in an increasingly dangerous situation.  She realizes she will have to risk reaching out to the people around her to find out who Haley is…and to survive their friendship.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Kids who are looking for a fast-paced adventure will enjoy this social media-based thriller, and will get some positive messages about bullying as well.

Cons:  Roisin’s final showdown with Haley requires a little suspension of disbelief…but it did make for an exciting last few chapters.

The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman

Published by Viking Books for Young Readers

The Blackbird Girls: Blankman, Anne: 9781984837356: Books

Summary:  Valentina and Oksana are enemies at school, partly because Oksana has been taught to hate Jews like Valentina and her family.  When they wake up one April morning, it’s obvious that there’s been an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant where both their fathers work, but the residents of the town of Pripyat are unfazed by it.  In the next few days, though, the full horror begins to be revealed, and a series of unexpected events results in both girls being sent to live with Valentina’s grandmother, whom Valentina has never met.  The story is told in the alternating voices of the two girls, interspersed with a 1941 account of a girl named Rifka fleeing Kiev ahead of the Nazis.  As Oksana and Valentina become good friends and share their secrets, Babulya is recalling the friendship she formed with a girl named Feruza who rescued her back in 1941.  When Valentina and Babulya learn of Oksana’s troubled home life, they hatch a daring plan that tests the girls’ friendship, as well as that of Rifka and Feruza, still close after so many years.  Includes an author’s note with additional historical information, resources for those facing abuse, and a list for additional reading.  356 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This has been on my to-be-read list since March, and I’m so glad that I finally got around to it.  Featuring a cast of brave and resourceful young girls, this story makes the history come alive.  It’s definitely on my top ten list for 2020 middle grade novels, and I hope it will win some awards.

Cons:  Between all the historical events, the three different points of view, and the movement back and forth between 1941 and 1986, it’s a pretty complex story that younger readers might struggle with.

Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte, illustrated by Ann Xu

Published by HarperAlley

Measuring Up: LaMotte, Lily, Xu, Ann: 9780062973863: Books

Summary:  Cici is anxious about her family’s move from Taiwan to Seattle, particularly when she learns that her grandmother, A-má, is staying in Taiwan.  The move goes smoothly, with Cici making two new friends almost immediately and getting the A’s in school that her parents expect.  But she misses A-má and wants to figure out a way for her grandmother to celebrate her 70th birthday with the family.  When Cici learns of a kids’ cooking contest with a grand prize of $1,000, she thinks she’s found the solution.  A-má has taught Cici a lot about Taiwanese cooking and Cici is sure she can win.  On the first day, she’s paired up with Miranda, an expert chef whose family owns a restaurant, but whose aspirations lie elsewhere.  While Cici’s dad thinks cooking is just a hobby and academic achievement is the most important thing, Miranda’s dad believes her cooking should take precedence over everything else.  Both girls have plenty to learn about the culinary arts, each other, and themselves as they make their way through the rounds of the contest to find out who will be the top chef.  208 pages; grades 3-6. 

Pros:  Part immigrant story, part friendship story, part cooking reality show, this graphic novel is sure to please a wide variety of readers.

Cons:  Cici’s transition to American life seemed a bit unrealistically easy.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros

Published by Quill Tree Books

Efrén Divided: Cisneros, Ernesto: 9780062881687: Books

Summary:  Efrén calls his mom Soperwoman, both because of the delicious sopes she makes for him and his 5-year-old twin brother and sister, and because of all the ways she makes his family’s life work.  Amá and Apá both work long hours to afford the one-room apartment the family shares, but Efrén and his siblings always go to school with neatly pressed clothing and homemade lunches.  But one day Amá doesn’t come home from work, and the family learns she has been deported to Mexico.  Suddenly 12-year-old Efrén must take care of everything at home while Apá works round the clock to try to bring Amá home.  Since Apá is also undocumented, it falls to Efrén to cross the border into Tijuana to give Amá the money she needs.  His trip there reveals both the desperate conditions of the people living there and the near-impossiblity of Amá making it back to the U.S.  There’s not a fairy-tale ending for Efrén and his family, but he discovers he has some of his parents’ strength and becomes determined to speak out about their situation.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  I love the cover of this book, yet I still hope that future editions will have part of it obscured by a number of medal stickers, including the Newbery and Pura Belpré.  Efrén’s voice is honest, his family’s resilience is inspiring, and many readers will learn about a desperate situation all too familiar to a large number of American kids.    

Cons:  A quick review of the contemporary middle grade novels I’ve reviewed this year reveals kids dealing with the following issues: homelessness (2); bullying (2 because of homophobia, 2 because of racism, and 1 due to health issues); child abuse (2); sexual harassment (4); and parents in jail, murdered by a random shooter, and now, getting deported.  Welcome to 2020 America.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Atty at Law by Tim Lockette

Published by Triangle Square

Atty at Law: Lockette, Tim: 9781644210123: Books

Summary:  Atticus “Atty” Peale knows what it’s like to be different. Her white father and black stepmother and brother make the family stand out in their small Alabama town.  She’s learned to speak up for herself, and being the daughter of a public defender makes her want to speak up for others.  When she and her younger brother Martinez get to know Easy, a shelter dog accused of biting a man, Atty becomes the dog’s advocate, going to court to try to save him from being put down.  Meanwhile, her father is spending long hours at the jail, working to save his own client, a neighbor and friend accused of murder.  Could the two cases be connected?  Atty, Martinez, and an interesting new seventh grade friend named Reagan need to keep their wits about them to solve the mysteries.  240 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A fun girl detective with a mind and voice of her own make this debut novel a good choice for mystery fans.  There’s lots more there than just cracking the case: the perils of seventh grade, many well-developed quirky characters, and the impoverished but close-knit Alabama small town setting.

Cons:  The plot seemed to meander quite a bit, and a subplot about an alligator didn’t seem essential to the rest of the story.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Millionaires for the Month by Stacy McAnulty

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

Millionaires for the Month: McAnulty, Stacy: 9780593175255:  Books

Summary:  When Felix and Benji find a wallet belonging to billionaire Laura Friendly, they return it–after first “borrowing” $20.00 to buy themselves hot dogs and ice cream.  As a reward/punishment, Ms. Friendly offers the boys $10 million.  But there’s a catch: first they have to spend $5,368,709.12 in a month (the amount you’d have by starting with a penny and doubling it every day for 30 days).  There are some rules: no real estate, no vehicles, no charities, and no gifts.  At first, the boys are thrilled to buy whatever they want, but they soon learn the ancient lesson that money can’t buy happiness.  The “no gift” rule makes them look selfish, and spending millions just on themselves proves increasingly difficult.  When tragedy strikes, the boys realize that many of the best things in life have no price.  The end finds them wiser, but no richer…well maybe just a little bit richer.  336 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This improbable but fun tale taps into our love/hate relationship with money, and could lead to some interesting discussions.  Sure to appeal to upper elementary and middle school kids.

Cons:  I was expecting some sweeping revelation about Laura Friendly, but there was nothing spectacular.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.