Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

Published by Clarion Books

Prairie Lotus: Park, Linda Sue: 9781328781505: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Hanna and her widowed father are hoping to find a home in Dakota Territory; it’s 1880, and they have been having trouble finding a town that will accept half-Chinese Hanna.  They decide on the town of LaForge, where Hanna’s father knows the local constable, Mr. Harris.  Hanna’s late mother encouraged her to go to school, but when Hanna enrolls, many of the locals keep their children at home rather than have them study side-by-side with a Chinese girl. Pretty soon, the only students left are Mr. Harris’s two daughters.  Bess Harris and Hanna end up taking their graduation exams together and become friends. Hanna invites Bess to help her with the sewing at her father’s new dry goods store, and the two work together to help Hanna realize her dream of becoming a dressmaker.  Overcoming fear and prejudice, Hanna ultimately finds a way to become part of her new community. Includes an author’s note in which Linda Sue Park explains how she wrote this book to find a place for herself in her beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder books. 272 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Allow me to introduce my first definite Newbery contender for 2021.  Linda Sue Park does an amazing job of creating a highly readable story that pays homage to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books while at the same time highlighting the racism and prejudices of the time, not only with Hanna’s Chinese-American experience, but also in a subplot about the local Indians.  This would make a great unit paired with a Little House book and The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich.

Cons:  There are a lot of complex and important issues; this feels like a book that would be best read with some adult guidance.

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The Popper Penguin Rescue by Eliot Schrefer

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Thanks to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for providing me with a free digital review copy of this book.  This book is scheduled for release October 13, 2020.

The Popper Penguin Rescue by Eliot Schrefer

Summary:  Many years have passed since Mr. Popper and his family raised their penguins in Stillwater, and the town still celebrates his feats.  In the neighboring town of Hilltop, these celebrations have taken on a tackier, more commercial look. Distant relatives Joel and Nina Popper, along with their mother, move into the town’s abandoned petting zoo and discover two penguin eggs hidden in the basement.  When the eggs hatch, the family decides to take the chicks to the Arctic island where the descendants of the original Popper penguins live. They discover that penguins don’t belong in the Arctic, and decide an expedition to Antarctica–with all the Popper penguins–is in order.  Life with penguins has its share of surprises, and Nina and Joel prove themselves to be worthy successors to their penguin-loving ancestor. 176 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  Fans of the original Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater will get a kick out of finding out what’s happened to the penguins over the years.  With plenty of illustrations (not seen by me), this would make a good read-aloud or first “real” chapter book. Schrefer introduces some environmental concepts (climate change, invasive species) in a subtle way that is mixed in with plenty of penguin fun.

Cons:  Readers will appreciate this book a lot more if they read the original first.

Mr. Popper's Penguins: Atwater, Richard, Atwater, Florence ...

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The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Thanks to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for giving me a free digital copy of this book to review.

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

Summary:  Alberta has long been the only black girl in her seventh grade class.  It’s as much a part of who she is as having two dads and loving surfing.  So when Edie and her mom buy the bed and breakfast across the street, Alberta is surprised to learn that they are black…and that Edie is just her age.  The two become friends, causing a rift between Alberta and her best friend Laramie, who starts hanging out with the cool eighth graders. When Edie discovers some old journals in the attic of the B&B, she and Alberta get drawn into a mystery involving the identity of a young woman who moved to California in the 1950’s.  What they discover about her ends up revealing the racism that has persisted in their town to the present day. Seventh grade is never easy, but Albert comes through the first half of it with a greater appreciation for her friends, family, and community. 369 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This was one of the most enjoyable middle grade novels I’ve read this year.  The characters, middle school angst, and dialogue were spot on, and the mystery was a fun way to explore the past and how it influences the present.  

Cons:  I like it when there’s a little depth to the mean girl, but in this case, she seemed to just be a horrible person.

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Village of Scoundrels by Margi Preus

Published by Amulet Books

Village of Scoundrels: Margi Preus: 9781419708978: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Inspired by real people, places, and events, this book tells the story of a group of teenagers who helped save Jews in their French village by forging documents, passing secret messages, and leading groups to safety in Switzerland.  Young police officer Perdant has been sent to keep an eye on this “village of scoundrels” for the Nazis, but as he gets to know some of the kids, he begins to question whether or not he is on the side of right. The characters, including Perdant, all come together in a finale at a ruined chalet where the teens are hiding some of their friends, hoping to help them escape before the Gestapo raids begin.  Readers will be kept guessing until the end as to what the final outcome will be. Includes a 24-page epilogue with stories and photos of the real people on whom the story is based; a timeline covering events from 1934 until 1945; and a bibliography. 320 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  One can never have too much WWII historical fiction, and middle schoolers will be inspired by the courage of these kids who risked their lives to save others.

Cons:  There were a lot of characters to keep track of, and their stories were only loosely connected.

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Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom by Louis Sachar, illustrated by Tim Heitz

Published by HarperCollins

Image result for wayside school beneath the cloud of doom

Summary:  After a 25-year hiatus, Louis Sachar has produced another installment in the Wayside School series, this one dealing with a large cloud that’s rolled in over the school, bringing with it a sense of doom.  Of course, the plot is secondary to all the weird goings-on at the school. Familiar characters like Mrs. Jewls, Maurecia, Calvin, and yard teacher Louis are all here, with the same mix of silly supernatural happenings and ordinary school events.  Each of the thirty short chapters starts with an illustration and tells a complete story, making this a natural choice for a read-aloud. 186 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  Louis Sachar’s still got it, as I found myself chuckling aloud at some of the stories.  It looks like the other Wayside School books are being reissued with covers similar to this one, so we can look forward to introducing a new generation to the fun on the thirtieth story.

Cons:  Mrs. Gorf was nowhere to be found, even in ghostly form, although Miss Zarves finally made an appearance.

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Itch by Polly Farquhar

Published by Holiday House

Image result for itch polly farquhar

Summary:  Isaac “Itch” Fitch is dealing with the usual sixth grade issues of fitting in and escaping the bullies.  But he and his best friend Sydney have some chronic health issues to deal with as well. Isaac has idiopathic angioedema which means he sometimes breaks out in itchy hives for no apparent reason, earning him his nickname; Sydney has life-threatening food allergies.  With his mom away on an extended business trip to China, Isaac tries to deal with his issues on his own. When Sydney collapses after a lunch-trading issue and is taken to the hospital, Isaac blames himself. It takes a few missteps, some caring adults, and a bit of soul-searching for Isaac to finally get himself straightened out and to realize who his true friends really are.  256 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A realistic look at kids with chronic health conditions, how they affect their everyday life, and how they find the strength to cope with them.  Isaac and his friends’ experiences ring true and readers will find plenty to relate to.

Cons:  The Ohio State football craziness seemed a little over the top.  

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Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker

Published by Balzer + Bray

Image result for here in the real world pennypacker

Summary:  Wade is crushed when his grandmother’s fall means he has to spend his summer at the rec center.  His hard-working parents are taking double shifts to try to buy their own house, and they need easy, affordable care for their son.  Wade is an introvert who hates spending the day running around with the other kids. One day, he wanders next door to an abandoned church that immediately sparks his imagination.  When he discovers a girl, Jolene, who’s trying to grow papaya plants there, the two must figure out a way to share the lot. They slowly get to know each other and eventually form a tentative friendship while trying to figure out how to keep their secret kingdom away from developers.  When Wade’s artist uncle gives him a movie camera, Wade discovers a hidden talent that may also be the key to saving the church. While he wishes at the beginning of the summer to be “normal”, by the end, he has come to appreciate his own unique gifts that he uses to help himself and his new friend.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Introverts and sensitive artist types will make a connection with Wade as he slowly comes to appreciate his empathy, artistic tendencies, and enjoyment of his own company.  The various parts of the story all came together in a very satisfying conclusion.

Cons:  I didn’t really start enjoying this book until I was about halfway through it.  Kids may not have the persistence to get through the somewhat slow beginning.

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