A Wolf Called Wander by Rosanne Parry, illustrated by Mónica Armiño

Published by Greenwillow Books

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Summary:  Swift may not be the biggest member of his pack, but he is the fastest, and determined to some day beat out his larger brother Sharp.  When another pack of wolves attacks, though, Swift finds himself alone.  He travels through miles of wilderness,  searching for members of his pack, or any wolves that will be his companions.  Along the way, he encounters with a variety of animals, including humans, and barely survives some narrow escapes. He finally meets a female wolf, and after renaming himself Wander, they work together to create a new pack of their own.  Includes several pages of information and photos of the real wolf that was the inspiration for the book; additional facts about wolves; a map of Swift/Wander’s journey; and a list of resources for more information. 256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  An exciting nature story that will be especially appreciated by animal lovers.  Lots of adventure and plenty of illustrations make this a good choice for reluctant readers.  

Cons:  The illustrations added a lot to the text, and Mónica Armiño’s name doesn’t appear on the cover, nor is there any information about her on the back flap.

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A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée

Published by Balzer + Bray

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Summary:  Shayla’s palms start to sweat whenever she thinks she’s about to get in trouble.  As she starts seventh grade, she tries to blend in and avoid trouble whenever possible.  She feels good that her two best friends always have her back–Puerto Rican Isabella, Japanese American Julie, and African American Shayla call themselves the United Nations.  But junior high brings lots of changes–Julie starts hanging around with the “Asian kids” and sometimes ditching Isabella and Shayla; Shayla discovers a love of running and joins the track team; boys enter the picture in a variety of ways; and Shayla’s older sister encourages her to become part of Black Lives Matter when a trial for a police shooting brings about a wave of protests.  Shayla ends her first year of junior high with her friendships changed but intact, a new sense of confidence, and the knowledge that sometimes it’s worth getting into trouble to stand up for what you believe. 368 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This is a great late-elementary and middle school alternative to Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give.  Shayla is a character many kids will relate to. First-time author Raméée doesn’t back down from the racial issues, but she also makes it clear there are no easy answers.  The three girls are open about the issues they face because of their race/heritage, but don’t let them stand in the way of their friendship.

Cons:  A heads-up to elementary school librarians to be aware this contains a certain amount of puberty discussion.

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Operatic by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler

Published by Groundwood Books

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Summary:  Charlie is finishing up eighth grade; Mr. K., her favorite teacher, assigns everyone in the class to perform a favorite song for the end of the year.  As Charlie tries to figure out what her song will be, she reflects on changes that have taken place during the year. Specifically, she can’t forget a boy named Luka who refused to conform to middle school expectations, and was bullied until he left school.  Both Luka and Charlie have had crushes on the same boy, Emile. As the weeks go by, Mr. K. introduces the class to different types of music. Nothing resonates with Charlie until they get to opera. She finds herself drawn to Maria Callas, and connects with some of the details of her early life and singing career.  Maria’s ability to always go her own way inspires Charlie to reach out to Luka, and she is able to help him find his way back to school. Charlie, Luka, Emile, and another friend find the courage to perform a band called Freaks of Feeling; at the end the band gives Charlie tickets to the opera as a birthday gift. 160 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This book really captures adolescence, and the tension between conforming and being yourself.  Music fans will enjoy Charlie’s insights about how kids find connections based on the kind of music they enjoy.

Cons:  I didn’t entirely understand the whole Charlie-Emile-Luka dynamic.

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The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu

Published by Walden Pond Press

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Summary:  Identical twins Iris and Lark look the same, but they are very different people.  Lark is artistic and dreamy, always spinning fantastic stories from everyday items and happenings.  Iris sees herself as Lark’s protector, fiercely taking on anyone who tries to make fun of her. When their parents decide to put them into two different fifth grade classes, both girls are sure they’re in for a disaster.  As time goes on, it seems to Iris that they are right, as Lark has to deal with a teacher she calls “the ogre” who makes her do oral presentations and stressful math drills. Iris starts looking for answers at a mysterious new store in town called Treasure Hunters, whose strange proprietor seems to know more about her and Lark than he should.  An occasional first-person narrator also appears to have some unusual insights into the two girls, and slowly the reader sees that there is magic at play…and some of it is pretty dark. When Iris gets in over her head, it’s up to Lark and some awesome new friends to step in and save the day. 368 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  An enchanting mix of realism and fantasy, with a pretty blurry line between the two.  The themes of love and hate are explored in a unique and engaging way. This may make it on to some Newbery lists.

Cons:  I didn’t love this book as much as I felt like I should have.  Although I could appreciate the beautiful writing, it seemed slow to get going, and I could see kids abandoning it before the end.

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Rise of the Dragons by Angie Sage

Published by Scholastic

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Summary:  Sirin is dealing with the loss of her mother in a hardscrabble British city.  Joss and Allie are working off their 19-year indentured servitude after their parents were killed by Raptors (rogue dragons).  The cruel Lennix family is plotting a way to move to the Lost Lands where they can find more humans to keep their Raptors happy and well-fed.  When a baby silver dragon drops out of the sky, and Joss finds it, everything begins to change for all of the humans. Joss and the dragon, Lysander, bond with each other, neither one knowing that the rare silver dragons are the only ones who can travel to the Lost Lands.  The Lennix family learns of Lysander’s existence, and will stop at nothing to steal him away. All the stories converge at the end, which provides the perfect opening for the inevitable sequel in this new Scholastic series. Includes cards and directions for accessing an online game.  272 pages; grades 4-6.

Pros:  Before reading this dragon fantasy, I had read, um, zero dragon fantasies, so I’m no expert.  But after forcing myself to crack it open and read the first chapter, I found the story to be very engaging, with plenty of action and a big battle scene at the end.  The connection between our world and the dragons’ world is sure to intrigue readers.

Cons:  What’s next for me, binge-watching Game of Thrones?

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Spy Runner by Eugene Yelchin

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

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Summary:  Jake McCauley is a patriotic American at the height of the Cold War, wanting nothing so much as to have his father back with the family.  His dad was MIA in World War II, and all Jake has is a blurry photo of him holding Jake as a baby. When his mother unexpectedly rents out his dad’s old study to a Russian named Mr. Shubin, Jake is sure he’s a spy, and is determined to reveal his true identity using techniques from his favorite comic, Spy Runner.  The kids at school hear there’s a Russian in his house, though, and Jake gets labeled a Communist and is ostracized by his former friends.  A man with gold teeth lurking outside his house at night, a black Buick following him all over town, and Shubin’s odd behavior turn Jake’s life upside down, as he becomes increasingly determined to find his father, unmask Shubin, and prove he is a loyal American once and for all.  352 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Middle grade novel or Cold War film noir?  Eugene Yelchin has carved out a unique niche with this suspenseful story.  The narrator (Jake) seems clueless and unreliable at the beginning, ridiculously suspicious of everyone, but a dozen plot twists later, his paranoia starts to seem well-founded.  Yelchin’s blurry black and white photos of 1950’s suburbia add appropriately bizarre and sinster touches to this fast-paced thriller. A Newbery contender?

Cons:  It’s a pretty intense plot, with Jake almost getting murdered more than once by an potpourri of menacing characters.

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I wrote a book!

Remember the book A Wonderful Year by Nick Bruel?  Me neither.  It was the first book I reviewed on this blog on February 20, 2015, and I don’t think I’ve looked at it since.

Three days later I posted a review for The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, a book I still book talk many times a year and count among my favorite books of all times.

That’s the way it goes with reading.  Some books are just more memorable than others.

So when I realized that I’ve published almost 1,400 reviews, I decided it was time to do some weeding.  In a week or so, I’m going to take down the reviews from 2015 and 2016.  In preparation for this,  I’ve gone through all the books I’ve written about and picked out the ones I feel have stood the test of time.

I’ve compiled them into a book called Hit the Books: The Best of Kids Book A Day, 2015-2018.  There are about 150 books included; each entry has the summary I wrote on my blog and why it was included on the list.  They’re divided into eight sections: picture books, early readers, early chapter books, middle grade fiction, graphic novels, poetry, biography, and nonfiction.

I also put together ten lists of “Read-Alikes” from the books I’ve reviewed on the blog.  So if you have a fan of Diary of A Wimpy Kid or Raina Telgemeier, you can get some ideas for other books they might want to try.

Let me know if you find this book helpful.  Who knows, I may put together a second edition in another year or two!

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