Summary: Real-life astronaut Mary Cleave narrates the story of how women clawed their way into the space program, beginning with a group of women called the Mercury 13 who tried to be part of the first group of astronauts. Although they were qualified, and their smaller size would have been a plus on early space missions, they were eventually passed over for the all-male Mercury 7. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel to space. It wasn’t until 1983 that Sally Ride broke the barriers at NASA, and many other women have succeeded there in the decades since. The final section of the book is a detailed narrative of Cleave’s own journey aboard the space shuttle in 1985. Includes photos of a diverse group of astronauts, an author’s note, and a lengthy bibliography. 176 pages; grades 5-8.
Pros: As I’m writing this review, my daughter is sitting at the dining room table taking an orbital mechanics final for her graduate program in astronautics at Stanford, so I can’t help but be grateful for how far women have come since Sally Ride burst on the scene during my own college days. This book gives a humorous but honest account of the hard work those early women had to do, and the ridiculous sexism that made it so difficult for them to become part of the space program. The artwork is appealing, and the detailed illustrations of life aboard the space shuttle are truly remarkable.
Cons: The beginning, with its whirlwind history of the early days of the space program in both the U.S. and USSR, is a bit confusing, with a big cast of characters, and a lot of switching back and forth between the two countries (the Russian scenes are cleverly shown with a font resembling Cyrillic script).
Summary: Manon Rhéaume grew up playing backyard hockey with her brothers in Quebec. When she was five, her dad recruited her to be goalie on the team he coached. She did well and continued to push herself to succeed, becoming the first girl to play in the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament at age 11. At the age of 20, she was invited to participate in a training camp for the new Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team. She worked hard enough and played well enough to get to play in a couple of preseason games in 1992 and 1993, and remains the only woman to have played in a game in any of the four major North American sports leagues. Includes an afterword by Manon Rhéaume, a timeline, and fun facts about Manon. 40 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: Here in New England, one can never have enough hockey books in the library, and hockey books about women are rare indeed. This one has a very complete story and large colorful illustrations that will appeal to kids in all elementary grades.
Cons: It wasn’t clear from the story or the afterword how much Manon had played in the NHL. I had to go to the timeline for my answer (two preseason games).
Summary: Emily Dickinson’s life story is told from beginning to end, with her poetry woven into almost every page. Her internal life is explored, how she loved books and sought answers when confronted with deaths of people near her. As she grew older, she withdrew more, focusing on her writing and only interacting with a few people who were close to her. Following her death in 1886, her sister Vinnie found hundreds of poems tucked away around her house, and the world began to discover the poet Emily Dickinson. Includes additional information about Emily’s poetry; how to discover the world of poetry; a few books by and about Emily; and notes from the author and illustrator. 52 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: This gorgeously illustrated biography is an excellent introduction to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and gives readers some glimpses into Dickinson’s life and why she chose to live the way she did. The back matter provides additional inspiration for aspiring poets.
Cons: As someone who has wished for a good elementary biography of Emily Dickinson (she’s a hot topic for third graders when they get to their unit on famous Massachusetts people), I was disappointed that this book didn’t include much of the factual biographical information (when she was born, where she lived, etc.) that kids are seeking for reports. A timeline would have been helpful and not taken away from the lyrical nature of the writing.
Summary: Growing up in a segregated neighborhood in Washington, D.C., Elgin Baylor didn’t have much opportunity to learn how to play basketball. So he taught himself. When he got to high school and college, coaches were amazed at his style of play, so different from what they were accustomed to. In 1958, Elgin was drafted by the Minnesota Lakers. His pro ball career coincided with events in the civil rights movement. Elgin himself took a stand after experiencing discrimination at hotels and restaurants when his team played in West Virginia. He refused to suit up with the team, disappointing fans who had come to see him play, but using his status to make a statement. A few weeks later, the NBA commissioner ruled that teams would no longer stay in hotels or eat in restaurants that practiced discrimination. The following year, in 1959, Elgin was chosen as NBA Rookie of the Year. Includes an author’s note describing how Elgin Baylor changed basketball and influenced players like Julius Irving, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James, as well as a list of additional resources, and a timeline of both Baylor’s life and events in the civil rights movement. 40 pages; grades 2-6.
Pros: Basketball fans will enjoy this look at a lesser-known player who changed the game and influenced some other players they may have heard of. Frank Morrison’s action-shot illustrations are amazing and should be looked at by the Coretta Scott King and/or Caldecott committees.
Cons: Some sources recommend this book for preschoolers or kindergarteners, but with the civil rights events woven in and extensive back matter, it’s a better book for older elementary kids.
Summary: Former astronaut Clayton Anderson drew on his experience living aboard the International Space Station to create these fictional letters about life in space. From Day 1 (“Dear Mom, I did it I made it into outer space! LAUNCH WAS SO COOL!”) to Day 152 (“Dear Mission Control: I’m home–safely back on Earth. And boy, am I glad about that!”), his letters brim with enthusiasm for sharing his experiences and scientific information about space. The science is very kid-friendly, describing why the crews’ heads look bigger when the first few days of a mission, animals who have traveled into space, and how astronauts take pictures. Living in a weightless environment, conducting experiments, and going for a space walk are all explained with an air of excitement, and a P.S. from the astronaut at the end gives a bit more information about each topic. 32 pages; grades K-3.
Pros: Anderson’s enthusiasm is infectious, and is sure to lead some readers to consider a career in space. The letters format is engaging, and could serve as a writing prompt. Batori’s humorous cartoon-inspired illustrations add to the fun.
Cons: I wished the letters had clarified who each recipient was. Some (Mom, Brother, Mission Control) are obvious, while others (Cole, Sofia, Ana) are more ambiguous.
Summary: Animals struggle to survive in a world overrun by humans, but there are people who build structures to make life a little easier for them. They’ve created overpasses, underpasses, bridges, and tunnels to help different creatures move from one place to another safely. From overpasses across the Trans-Canada Highway to rope bridges over Australia’s Hume Highway to tiny passageways built for spotted salamanders in Massachusetts, engineers have come up with some creative solutions to help animals threatened by traffic and other human activities. Includes two pages with additional information about each structure and a bibliography. 48 pages; ages 4-9.
Pros: Kids will enjoy learning about both the animals and the structures, but the real appeal of this book is the large, colorful illustrations of all the critters. I hope we’ll be seeing more from illustrator Mike Orodán.
Cons: I hope I never stumble upon those millions of crabs crossing their special crab bridge on Christmas Island.
Summary: “Sometimes ants march. Sometimes bands march. Sometimes people march.” People march to stand up for freedom or against injustice, to support people they love, or when they notice the need for change. They might resist by speaking out, writing a song or letter, standing up, or taking a knee. Just like ants are stronger together and bands are louder together, people march to amplify and strengthen their voices. Includes two pages entitled “Movements, Marches & Key Figures in the Art” that tell the historical events that correspond to the illustrations. 32 pages; ages 4-9
Pros: Although the text is spare, it conveys a lot of information about marching, which is complemented by the charming illustrations of diverse individuals and crowds standing up and speaking up for what they believe. The real-life connections listed in the back make this a good starting place for additional research.
Cons: I was surprised there weren’t any anti-war protests depicted, particularly Vietnam.
Summary: Based on her 2018 YA/adult book How to Be a Good Creature, Sy Montgomery shares with readers the lessons she has learned from animals. Her earliest teacher was her childhood dog Molly, who helped her discover how to observe animals. She used those skills to study emus, gorillas, tigers, sharks, and more all over the world. Animals taught her to be patient, to forgive, and to not be afraid. A pig named Christopher Hogwood helped Sy and her husband create a unique kind of family. Even animals that aren’t always loved–hyenas, a tarantula, and a weasel–helped her to become more open-minded and understanding. The last lesson, “Trust tomorrow” tells how a border collie puppy who was blind in one eye reminded her that, even when things seem like they’re ending, there’s promise in a new day. Includes a brief thank-you note to the animals from the author with photos of her with a few of the animals from the book. 40 pages; grades K-4.
Pros: Animal lovers will enjoy reading these brief but intimate stories about Montgomery’s many animal adventures. Social-emotional or spiritual teachers could use any of these stories to introduce a lesson.
Cons: The photos at the end left me wanting to see more.
Summary: Fourteen poems by different writers and using different poetic forms tell the stories of ordinary children and teens who have made a difference in their communities. Through writing, music, fundraising, speaking, and more these kids have tackled issues from climate change to diseases to civil rights. Each poem includes a portrait and a short paragraph about the subject. The kids’ stories are bookended by two poems called “Amplify” and “Make Some Noise” about the importance of standing up and speaking out. Includes definitions of the different poetry forms and photos with additional information about all the poets. 40 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: It would be hard not to be inspired by the kids in this book, and their stories are told in an accessible way, through poetry, prose, and art. Teachers and students will find this book useful for getting ideas for making a difference as well as learning different forms of poetry.
Cons: The taped-down library jacket flaps covered up some of the kids’ inspiring quotes on the endpapers.
Summary: Reverend F. D. Reese, a science teacher at R. B. Hudson High School in Selma, Alabama, was determined to vote. He decided to organize his fellow teachers, who were considered leaders in the community, and invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to visit town to encourage the group. On the appointed day, teachers walked from school to the courthouse, carrying the toothbrushes and sandwiches they would need in jail. Although the sheriff threatened them with arrest, ultimately they were allowed to complete the march and return to school. Their action inspired their students and members of other professions to organize their own protests, and Selma became one of the most important cities in the civil rights movement. Includes authors’ and illustrator’s notes, photos, a timeline, and a bibliography. 44 pages; grades 2-6.
Pros: A fascinating history of a little-known but important part of the civil rights movement, told from the perspectives of Reese and Joyce Parrish, the 15-year-old daughter of another teacher. The back matter makes it an excellent research resource.
Cons: It’s quite long and a bit wordy for a picture book.