Best Babysitters Ever by Caroline Cala

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  When Malia stumbles across an old copy of the first Babysitters Club book (Kristy’s Great Idea), she’s inspired to start her own club with her two best friends Dot and Bree.  The three girls want to have an amazing joint 13th birthday party, and they figure the club will get them the money to fund it.  Things don’t turn out quite the way they did in the Ann M. Martin books: the girls have no experience with kids, the children can be bratty, and worst of all, Malia’s overachieving older sister Chelsea decides to start her own child care service, putting the younger girls out of business.  Malia, Dot, and Bree, however, are a force to be reckoned with, and when they combine their talents, they figure out a way to turn the tables on Chelsea. By the end of the story, they’re ready to expand, a topic that will undoubtedly be covered in book 2 of the series. 272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Fans of Dork Diaries will enjoy this somewhat snarky send-up of the original Babysitters Club.  Malia, Bree, and Dot have their struggles, but grow and change enough over the course of the story that readers will be rooting for them by the end.

Cons:  As a diehard fan of the original BSC, I almost gave up on this book about halfway through because of my initial dislike of the three main characters.  I’m glad I stuck it out, though, as they really redeemed themselves by the end. 

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New Kid by Jerry Craft

Published by HarperCollins

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Summary:  Jordan Banks’ true love is art, and he’d love to be starting seventh grade at an art school, but his parents have a different idea.  They’ve enrolled him in Riverdale Academy Day School, an exclusive, mostly white private school where Jordan is one of the few students of color.  The story follows him from his first day to his last, as he tries to strike a balance between his new friends at Riverdale and old friends from his Washington Heights neighborhood.  Jordan is a smart and observant kid, and the story reflects his observations about the assumptions made about him and other African American and Latinx kids. He also has some of his own beliefs challenged about some of his white classmates.  By the end of the year, he’s feeling more comfortable at school, has kept his connections back home, and is ready for another year at Riverdale, the story of which we can hope will be told in a sequel. 256 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Jerry Craft tackles racism head-on, but with a light enough touch to make an entertaining and engaging story with a likable protagonist. I feel confident in predicting that this will fly off whatever library shelves it is placed on.  Put it in the hands of fans of realistic graphic novel authors like Raina Telgemeier, Victoria Jamieson, and Jennifer Holm.

Cons:  There were a lot of characters to keep track of, which somehow is always more difficult for me in a graphic novel.  

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Straw Into Gold: Fairy Tales Re-Spun by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Sarah Gibb

Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books

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Summary:  Hilary McKay has created new stories based on ten well-known fairy tales, including Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, and more.  Each story has at least one twist; for instance, Rapunzel’s tale is told from the point of view of her twin son and daughter and Hansel and Gretel tell what happened to them in essays for their new teacher on “What I Did In the Holidays”.  Some of the mysteries readers may have wondered about are solved, like what is up with Rumpelstiltskin and that strange king who demands that his bride be able to spin straw into gold–then never asks her to do it again after they’re married (I personally have wondered a lot about Rumpelstiltskin over the years).  The stories are not connected to each other, and can be read on their own or as a collection. Includes an author’s introduction and a brief bibliography. 304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  These humorous and interesting tales would work well with folktale units, and might inspire kids to try their own.

Cons:  Full disclosure: I only read about half the stories in the collection.

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The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA by Brenda Woods

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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Summary:  Excited by his new birthday bicycle, Gabriel doesn’t pay attention to a red light until he’s directly in the path of an oncoming car.  Fortunately, Meriwether Hunter sees it and pushes Gabriel to safety, then manages to repair the mangled bike. Gabriel introduces Mr. Hunter to his grateful parents, and his dad offers the man a job at his car repair shop.  Hiring a black man is an unusual move for a white man in 1950’s South Carolina, and Lucas, the other mechanic and reputedly a member of the local KKK, doesn’t like it. Gabriel’s eyes are opened to the reality of his hometown as he watches the dynamics between the two men play out.  Meriwether tells Gabriel a secret: he served in World War II but must hide the fact because of the dangerous racism toward black servicemen. A near-tragic act of violence against Meriwether’s young daughter forges the friendship between the two families, but ultimately drives the Hunter family out of town to move north.  208 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Readers will share Gabriel’s discoveries of some ugly truths that lurk in the town his mother calls “a peaceful, pretty place”.  The treatment of African American veterans after World War II is an aspect of racism that many may not be aware of; the author’s note states that it was one of the driving forces of the civil rights movement.

Cons:  The villain’s demise seemed a little unrealistically convenient.

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Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary Schmidt

Published by Clarion Books

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Summary:  When the doorbell rings on the first day of school, the last person Carter Jones expects to see is a butler wearing a suit and a bowler hat.  But Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, a “gentleman’s gentleman” has come to look after the Jones family. And it turns out, they need some looking after.  Carter, a sixth grader, is the oldest of four, and as the story unfolds, the reader learns that number used to be five. Carter’s younger brother died not too long ago; their father was deployed overseas and didn’t make it home before Currier died.  Carter can’t forgive his father for that, or for another transgression that the reader slowly learns about. It’s pretty heavy stuff, but Mr. B-F helps Carter deal with it through the game of cricket. He takes Carter and his friend Billy to the middle school field one morning after dressing them in cricket whites, and practically hypnotizes the eighth grade cross-country team into joining them.  Before long, cricket fever has swept the school. A final showdown between Team Britannia and Team India provides a satisfying conclusion to the book and a chance for Carter to see the important role he has to play in his family. 224 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  In the first book of the year that may get some Newbery consideration, Gary Schmidt adroitly weaves a complicated, funny story that’s told by a reluctant narrator who only slowly reveals his past.  There are several layers to the story, and readers may need some help to appreciate them all, but it would make a perfect sixth-grade book club selection or read aloud.

Cons:  There was an awful lot about cricket in the story.

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Trapped in Room 217 by Thomas Kingsley Troupe

Published by Jolly Fish Press

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Summary:  When Jayla and Dion’s father gets a last-minute request to come do some work in Rocky Mountain National Park, the family goes on a week-long trip to Estes Park in Colorado.  They stay in Room 217 of the Stanley Hotel, which they soon learn is allegedly the most haunted room of a hotel rumored to be full of ghosts. On the first night, both kids see the ghost of a maid who seems to be looking for something in their room.  Further investigations and interviews with staff lead them to other ghostly encounters, including a creepy incident where they are trapped in a dark basement. Jayla’s wrong guess about what Room 217’s guest is looking for almost results in disaster, but with the help of some friendly hotel staff, peace is restored.  Includes a note from the author with more information about the Stanley Hotel. 136 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  Goosebumps fans will love this new series, which features real-life haunted places across the U.S. (Stephen King got the idea for The Shining when he stayed in room 217 of the Stanley).  The books are pretty short, with quite a few illustrations, making them a good choice for younger students and reluctant readers.

Cons:  The writing is a bit stiff, and there are some unexplained plot holes.

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One-Third Nerd by Gennifer Choldenko, illustrated by Églantine Ceulemans

Published by Wendy Lamb Books

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Summary:  Fifth-grader Liam has a lot on his plate, what with divorced parents, a third-grade sister, Dakota, who loves science but lacks people skills, a second-grade sister, Izzy, who has Down syndrome and is a champion hugger, and a dog. Cupcake, who has started peeing on the carpet.  The last issue results in their landlord threatening eviction if they don’t get rid of Cupcake. The vet has told them that they need to see a $3,000 specialist, and the kids are determined to raise the money. Dakota tries by entering a science fair and by selling the family’s possessions on eBay (without their permission), but it’s Izzy who comes up with the idea that saves the day.  The ending is happy, if not necessarily happily-ever-after. 224 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Readers will quickly warm up to Liam, who is frustrated by his family members, but ultimately a loyal and protective big brother.  The story is both funny and heartwarming; the illustrations (which channel Hilary Knight) make it a good choice for younger middle-grade readers.

Cons:  Sorry, Cupcake, if I were the mom, you would have probably ended up moving to a farm in the country.

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