Only the Best: The Exceptional Life and Fashion of Ann Lowe by Kate Messner and Margaret E. Powell, illustrated by Erin K. Robinson

Published by Chronicle Books

Summary:  Ann Lowe learned her first lessons about sewing and design from her grandmother, who had been an enslaved seamstress, and her mother, who owned a dress shop.  Ann’s work ethic showed itself early; when her mother died, young Ann put aside her grief and finished the dresses that had been ordered for New Year’s Eve.  A year later, she got a job in Tampa, Florida, sewing for a wealthy family.  Her ambitions took her to New York City, where she found success despite the racism she encountered there.  Jacqueline Bouvier hired Ann and her assistants to design and sew her gown and bridesmaid’s dresses for her wedding to Senator John F. Kennedy.  When a leaky ceiling flooded Ann’s workroom and destroyed all the dresses ten days before the wedding, she and her seamstresses recreated every one.  Ann capped her career by opening her own store with her own label on Madison Avenue.  Includes an author’s note with two photos, quotations, and a bibliography.  56 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  I loved Fancy Party Gowns by Deborah Blumenthal (2017), but I love this book at least as much.  There’s a bit more detail about Ann’s career, the writing style is engaging, and the illustrations are stunning.

Cons:  At 56 pages, it’s a bit long for a picture book.

Strong by Rob Kearney and Eric Rosswood, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Rob Kearney was a strong kid who excelled at football and cheerleading, but his favorite sport was weightlifting.  It made him feel like a superhero.  At the age of 17, Rob learned about the Strongman competition and decided to become a weightlifting champion.  Competition events involved lifting heavy logs, stones, and tires, so Rob got to work, running, swimming, and lifting the heaviest weights he could.  Rob loved wearing bright, colorful clothing, but other competitors wore plain, dark colors, so Rob did, too.  When he came in last at his first competition, he felt as dark and gloomy as his clothes.  Falling in love with Joey, a fellow weightlifter, encouraged Rob to be himself, and before long he was dressing exactly the way he wanted to.  Joey’s support and encouragement helped Rob in other ways, and he eventually won the North American Strongman championship.  Includes a letter to readers from Rob, additional resources, and descriptions of all the Strongman events.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The empowering be-yourself message will especially speak to LGBQT+ readers, as Rob defies stereotypes with his rainbow mohawk and unconventional clothing in a sport that is often associated with more traditional masculinity.  The colorful illustrations bring the weightlifting events to life.

Cons:  Although Joey offers to wear the same colorful clothes as Rob, he’s shown on the last page in blue pants and a plain white t-shirt.

Yuck, You Suck! Poems About Animals That Sip, Slurp Suck by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, illustrated by Eugenia Nobati

Published by Millbrook Press

Summary:  Thirteen animals are profiled in this poetry collection, from the tiny mosquito to the elephant.  Some animals, like the vampire bat, have a reputation for sucking but actually lap up blood from the animals they bite (is that better?).  The first poem introduces the concept of sucking, and the final one connects the animals to humans, who start their lives sucking milk.  Includes additional information about animals that suck, a list of additional resources, anatomical terms for body parts that suck, a glossary, and a bit more information on each animal.  32 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  From the team that brought you Eek, You Reek! (about stinky animals) comes a book that is sure to catch the eye of many elementary students.  Most of the poems have catchy rhymes (although there’s a haiku thrown in, for the honeybee), and kids will get a kick out of the bug-eyed creatures in the illustrations.

Cons:  There’s a certain bloody gross-out factor inherent in the subject matter. You may not want to read this book before sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner and perhaps not too soon after either.

A Journey Under the Sea by Craig Foster and Ross Frylinck

Published by Clarion Books

Summary:  The narrator takes readers on a dive into the ocean at the tip of South Africa.  Underwater, they observe all kinds of animals including a seal, an octopus, a cuttlefish, and a couple of different sharks.  On the way back, they see tiny snail eggs and a whale, which likes to snack on the sea snails, an example of how ocean animals are all connected.  Includes a note from the authors and additional information about each photo in the book.  56 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  A gorgeous picture book from the creators of The Octopus Teacher, now streaming on Netflix. Their joy and enthusiasm for diving and exploring the ocean really shines through in both the photos and the text.  From the eye-catching cover to the farewell from the dolphins, kids will be captivated by this journey.

Cons:  There’s just a little bit of information about each animal, so some additional resources would have been nice.

If You Were a Princess: True Stories of Brave Leaders from Around the World by Hillary Homzie, illustrated by Udayana Lugo

Published by Aladdin

Summary:  If you were a princess, what would you do?  These real-life princesses are smart and brave, standing up for human and animal rights, competing in sports, and earning advanced degrees in various arts and sciences.  Since ancient times, princesses have studied the stars, led others into battle, and made important discoveries and inventions.  You may not be a princess, but you can be inspired by royalty to stand up for yourself and others and to dazzle the world. Includes a paragraph of additional information about each princess and a list of works cited.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Cinderella, step aside to make way for these amazing real-life princesses from all over the world.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had requests for princess books, and I can’t wait to have this one on hand to teach kids some unexpected princess facts.

Cons:  Forced me to rethink my anti-royalist tendencies.

Digestion: The Musical by Adam Rex, illustrated by Laura Park

Published by Chronicle Books

Summary:  Digestion: The Musical unfolds in three acts, featuring Your Body, L’il Candy, Gum, and the Baby Carrot Singers.  Starting from the moment the brain gets the signal to open the mouth and let in L’il Candy, the story continues down the esophagus and into the stomach, where Candy meets up with Gum (has he really been stuck there for years? “Nah, that’s a myth.”).  She’s consistently dismissed as junk food by the heart, lungs, gallbladder, and even the seemingly useless appendix.  But Candy persists and is eventually shown to have a nutritional core that can be used by the body.  The final number [two], “Let’s Get This Potty Started”, will leave audiences with a smile on their faces.  Includes a glossary and a literal appendix, which it turns out, is actually useful for storing good bacteria. 76 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  I laughed, I cried, I gasped aloud at this fascinating and hilarious mix of fiction and nonfiction that’s presented in both horizontal and vertical spreads.  You’ll probably want to supplement this with other material, but the basic facts are here and likely to stick in kids’ heads due to the high entertainment factor of the presentation.

Cons:  It’s tough to let yourself get too attached to a protagonist that you know is about to be pulverized by the digestive system.

The First Notes: The Story of Do, Re, Mi by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton, illustrated by Chiara Fedele

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  It’s hard to imagine music without written notes, but that was the world Guido d’Arezzo lived in at the beginning of the eleventh century.  He loved the music of his monastery, but the monks had to laboriously practice long hours to master each piece.  One day, Guido realized that the songs were made up of just five tones.  He named them from the first two letters of each line of a favorite song: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la (ut became do and ti was added many years later).  The other monks were unimpressed, but Guido later found a more receptive audience at a cathedral where he led the choir, and eventually with Pope John XIX.  Do-re-mi spread, eventually leading to the famous song from The Sound of Music, an illustrated version of which is included at the end of the book.  Also includes a glossary and additional information about Guido d’Arezzo and the song “Do-Re-Mi”.  48 pages, ages 4-8.

Pros:  Aww, a book about do-re-mi by Julie Andrews and her daughter!  It’s a pretty fascinating and well-told tale about something that many of us take for granted.  The illustrations made me want to go live in a medieval Benedictine monastery, no easy feat.

Cons:  Look closely at the cover or you might think, as I did at first, that it’s Maria von Trapp, not Brother Guido, singing and dancing his way through the mountains.

A Life of Service: The Story of Senator Tammy Duckworth by Christina Soontornvat, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  Tammy Duckworth’s father worked for the UN, and she grew up all over southeast Asia.  She knew she was American, though, and dreamed of a life of service to her country.  After graduating from college, she joined the Illinois Army National Guard as a unit commander.  Her three-year commitment was up when the US declared war on Iraq.  Although Tammy opposed the war, she didn’t want to leave her unit, so she got permission to extend her service and went to Iraq.  While flying a helicopter there, she was hit by a grenade and lost both of her legs.  Her military career was over, but she wanted to continue to serve, particularly her fellow veterans.  In 2012, she was elected to the House of Representatives, and in 2016, to the Senate.  She became the first Thai American woman and the first female amputee in Congress, as well as the first Senator to give birth while in office.  And I’m happy to report that just a few days ago she became the first Illinois woman to be reelected to the Senate.  Includes a timeline, a list of projects Senator Duckworth has worked on, and additional resources.  48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  In her fourth book this year, Christina Soontornvat relates the story of fellow Thai American Tammy Duckworth’s inspiring life of service.  The appealing illustrations help tell the story, and the back matter makes this an excellent book for research.

Cons:  I wish I had read this just a day early to get it on the blog for Veteran’s Day.

A Book, Too, Can Be a Star: The Story of Madeleine L’Engle and the Making of A Wrinkle In Time by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Jennifer Adams, illustrated by Adelina Lirius

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Summary:  Madeleine L’Engle grew up with a writer father and musician mother who encouraged her sense of wonder.  There were often artists at their New York City home, where Madeleine wrote stories from a young age.  She was shy, though, and school was difficult until she used her powers of imagination to make friends.  After college, she worked in the theater, where she met her husband.  They moved to the country and had three children while Madeleine continued her writing, most of which was rejected by publishers.  On a cross-country camping trip, she found inspiration in the Painted Desert and began working on the manuscript that would eventually become A Wrinkle in Time.  As her fame grew, she received many letters from children and always answered, encouraging them to find ways to tell their own stories.  Includes several pages of back matter including a list of Madeleine’s books for young readers, further reading, and a timeline.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  I loved the somewhat whimsical illustrations of this picture book biography co-written by one of Madeleine L’Engle’s grandchildren. It’s a great introduction to Madeleine’s life and would be a perfect lead-in to reading A Wrinkle in Time.  

Cons:  I wasn’t crazy about the timeline being on the back cover, although it is printed so it’s not covered by the back flap.

Symphony for a Broken Orchestra by Amy Ignatow, illustrated by Gwen Millward

Published by Walker Books US

Summary:  Kids love to play music, but what happens if their instruments break and families can’t afford to fix them?  Unfortunately, they often get locked away, and the students have to put their music education on hold.  Robert Blackson, the artistic director of Philadelphia’s Temple Contemporary, discovered some of these broken instruments in a closed city school.  He had the idea to get musicians to see what kind of music they could create with them, and the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra was born, using the money raised from the performance to buy new instruments for kids.  Includes an author’s note with additional information and a link to hear the performance as well as a note from Robert Blackson.  40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  This true-life story provides plenty of inspiration and humor (the kids torturing those around them trying to play their broken instruments) with cute and colorful illustrations.  The performance is worth a listen. 

Cons:  Those not familiar with Philly’s Mummer’s Parade may not understand the reference made to the boy playing a broken drum.