Unseen World: Real-Life Microscopic Creatures Hiding All Around Us by Hélène Rajcak, illustrated by Damien Laverdunt

Published by What On Earth Books

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Summary:  Each two page spread describes microscopic creatures that live in different environments:  under the ocean, on the forest floor, in your bed, on your kitchen floor. A fold-out page gives an introduction; when it’s unfolded, more of the illustration is revealed and specific organisms are identified.  Ten environments are profiled in all. Includes additional information about and history of the microscope; information on classifying microorganisms; glossary; index; and selected sources. 32 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This French import is a real work of art.  Sure, we may not all be curious about the mites that feed on our skin at night, but for those who are, this is a beautiful way to go.  The illustrations are amazingly detailed, and the information is fascinating.

Cons:  The foldout pages and $18.00 price tag are a less-than-ideal combination for a school library.

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Hi, I’m Norman: The Story of American Illustrator Norman Rockwell by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor

Published by Simon and Schuster

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Image result for hi i'm norman wendell minor

Summary:  Norman Rockwell tells his story in the first person, inviting readers into his studio, then taking them back to his early days when he used art to make up for his lack of athletic ability.  After a stint at art school, he took whatever jobs he could find, eventually landing the plum assignment of creating covers for the Saturday Evening Post.  When World War II arrived, his artwork took a more serious turn, and his The Four Freedoms set helped raise millions of dollars from war bonds.  After the war, he took on the civil rights movement, with The Problem We All Live With one of his most famous works to come out of that era.  His final published work shows him draping a “Happy Birthday” banner on the Liberty Bell to celebrate America’s bicentennial.  Includes additional information, author’s and illustrator’s notes, a timeline, reproductions of five or Rockwell’s paintings with additional information about them, a list of additional sources, and some quotes from Norman Rockwell.  48 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  The folksy, conversational style of the writing will draw kids in, and Wendell Berry’s illustrations capture Rockwell’s works perfectly.  The extensive back matter makes this an excellent resource for research.

Cons:  There were no dates or places in the text–readers will have to go to the timeline for that information.

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Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace by Ashley Bryan

Published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books

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Image result for infinite hope ashley bryan

Summary:  Author and illustrator Ashley Bryan offers a very personal look at his years serving in World War II.  From basic training in Massachusetts to Scotland to the D-Day invasion to waiting to be sent home in France, Bryan shares letters home, particularly to a college friend named Eva; a narrative about his experiences; and many, many sketches.  He writes about the racism that was rampant in the U.S. military, and the surprising lack of it in Europe (that experience of being treated equally by white Europeans led many black military men and women to join the civil rights movement after the war). Mostly, he talks about how art saved him.  He kept paper and pencils in his gas mask, and his comrades would often take over his work to let him draw. He concludes with his return to civilian life, including many years when he didn’t talk about his military experiences. Encouraged by colleagues in the children’s literature world, he has finally opened up and shared this wealth of art and stories.  112 pages; grade 5-adult.

Pros:  This is a pretty amazing work of art written and compiled by the 96-year-old Ashley Bryan.  Plan on spending a long time reading and studying his artwork. The audience for this may be pretty specific, but if you get this in the hands of the right readers, they are sure to find it to be a meaningful and important book.  Definitely a contender for some awards in January

Cons:  I would have liked more information about Eva.  I was confused at the beginning and had to read the jacket flap to understand to whom Ashley was writing.

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The Complete Baking Book for Young Chefs by America’s Test Kitchen

Published by Sourcebooks Explore

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Image result for complete baking book for young chefs

Summary:  Over 100 recipes were tested by more than 4,000 kids, whose reviews are scattered throughout the text.  The first 20 pages offer a pretty thorough introduction to baking, including tools, ingredients, and basic processes like melting butter and chopping herbs.  The education continues throughout the next five chapters, which offer recipes for quick breads, yeast breads, pizza and other flatbreads, cookies, cakes, and fruit desserts.  Each recipe has symbols at the beginning to show the level (beginner, intermediate, or advanced) and the equipment needed. There are interesting sidebars with additional tips, like how to line a cake pan with parchment paper or how to roll dough.  Nutrition information for each recipe is given at the end, along with an index. 224 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  In the interest of giving a fair review, I tried a couple of recipes for oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and pumpkin bread with chocolate chips (I like chocolate chips, okay?).  Both were fairly straightforward and turned out well (although I’m not quite ready to give up my toll house cookie recipe). I learned a thing or two–who knew you should cook pumpkin before adding it to pumpkin bread?  There are enough tempting recipes offered to keep upper elementary and middle school chefs busy for a long time.

Cons:  Younger bakers may need some help.  For the pumpkin bread, rated intermediate, I had two bowls and a pan on the stove going at the same time, which made it the most complicated quick bread recipe I had ever used.  Granted, I may not always use the approved baking methods, and the bread was truly delicious.

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Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers 

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Image result for dancing hands how teresa carreño played the piano for president lincoln

Summary:  Teresa Carreño had a gift for piano from the time she was a little girl in Venezuela.  War drove her family from their home and to the United States, where another war was raging–the Civil War.  Teresa found that music offered her a refuge from the sadness and suffering, and by the time she was ten years old, she was known as Piano Girl, performing all over the country.  She was amazed to get an invitation from President Abraham LIncoln to play at the White House, and nervous about accepting it. When the big day arrived, she found that the White House piano was poorly tuned, and didn’t know if she’d be able to perform.  But Lincoln asked her to play his favorite song, “Listen to the Mockingbird”, and once again music provided magical healing powers. An author’s note gives a bit more information about Carreño and her later musical career. 40 pages; grades K-4.  

Pros:  Acclaimed poet Margarita Engle and illustrator Rafael Lopez team up once again to create a beautiful story about a little-known episode in musical history.  Kids will be inspired to learn of the hard work and fame of this 10-year-old girl.

Cons:  I was expecting something bigger from the final scene in the White House.

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Pluto Gets the Call by Adam Rex, illustrated by Laurie Keller

Published by Beach Lane Books 

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Image result for pluto gets the call

Summary:  On the title page, three scientists are seen arguing about who will call Pluto; we then travel to the outskirts of the solar system to meet Pluto, a friendly fellow, who introduces himself as the ninth planet.  While he’s giving a tour of his part of the universe, he gets the call. He is no longer a planet. Devastated, he seeks out advice from other planets, who turn out to have their own distinctive personalities.  Neptune is a bit slow on the uptake; Saturn is gushing with charm and just might have a crush on Pluto; Jupiter is a big bully. Finally, Pluto heads for the big guy–the Sun–who tells Pluto to enjoy being himself.  “You’re still a planet to everyone who was too short to ride the Ferris wheel…to all the people picked last for kickball.” Besides, scientists are still debating. At one point in history, they said there were 23 planets. Two pages of planetary facts round out this wacky tour of the solar system.  48 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  I laughed out loud more than once, enjoying the planets’ personalities (“People talk about Uranus for reasons I don’t really want to get into.”  “Aww, shucks, you must mean my charming personality.”) There’s plenty of information tucked into the text and illustrations; kids will be having so much fun, they won’t even notice that they’re getting educated.

Cons:  48 pages seemed a little long and rambling to me.

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The Women Who Caught the Babies:  A Story of African American Midwives by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Daniel Minter

Published by Alazar Press

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Image result for women who caught the babies minter

Summary:  Eloise Greenfield kicks things off with a five-page introduction giving a brief history of midwives, starting in Africa a few hundred years ago, traveling to slavery in America, and finishing up with midwives today.  This section is illustrated with black and white photographs. The rest of the book is her poetry, celebrating midwives of the past and present. There are seven poems altogether, from “Africa to America” to “After Emancipation, 1863” to “The Early 2000s”.  The final piece, “Miss Rovenia Mayo” is about the midwife who “caught” Eloise Greenfield on May 17, 1929. Includes a bibliography. 32 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  We should all hope to be producing works of art like this at the age of 90.  The poetry is lyrical and the illustrations are unique and fascinating. The Caldecott committee can add this to its list of works to consider, along with another Daniel Minter book, Going Down Home With Daddy.

Cons:  This doesn’t seem like a book most kids will pick up on their own. 

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