Odder by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by Charles Santoso

Published by Feiwel and Friends

Summary:  Odder is a sea otter who loves to play in the ocean, frolicking with her friend Kairi off the coast of California.  She’s a lot more daring than Kairi, and one day her adventurousness leads them right into the path of a hungry shark.  Both are attacked, but Odder sustains the worst injuries, landing herself at an aquarium under the care of humans. It turns out she’s been there before, and the second part of the book goes back to her early days when she was separated from her mother, rehabilitated by the aquarium staff, and released back into the wild.  Her second time there ends differently, and both she and Kairi end up as permanent residents, becoming surrogate mothers to rescued pups.  Includes an author’s note about the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the real-life otters who were the inspiration for Odder and Kairi; also a bibliography and a list of additional resources.  288 pages; grades 3-7.  

Pros:  Katherine Applegate’s legion of fans will be pleased to see a new heartwarming animal book on the shelves.  The verse format makes for a quick read, with interesting additional information for budding marine biologists and cute illustrations.

Cons:  I wish there had been even more cute illustrations.

The Door of No Return by Kwame Alexander

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  11-year-old Kofi has a good life as part of his West African community.  He finds his English-speaking teacher pretentious but likes to learn and enjoys hanging out with friends at school, especially Ama, the girl he has a crush on.  His cousin is his rival, and Kofi is preparing for a swimming race between the two of them that may determine his future with Ama.  When his older brother Kwasi accidentally kills a prince in a wrestling match, life begins to take some dark turns.  The prince’s family kidnaps both Kwasi and Kofi; Kofi is eventually shackled and crowded onto a ship (the door of no return) with others to be taken away from their homes.  A plot twist in the end leaves the readers in suspense, preparing the way for the next book in this planned trilogy.  Includes a Twi glossary and guide to Adinkra symbols that appear in the book.  432 pages; grades 6-9.

Pros:  Kwame Alexander has produced another masterpiece novel in verse that is sure to win some awards.  The transition from Kofi’s life in Africa to his captivity is stark, violent, and may be disturbing to younger or more sensitive kids, but the whole story adds so many important dimensions to the narrative of slavery.

Cons:  The story takes place in 1860, which seemed late to me.  I thought the slave trade ended well before that.  I wish there had been more historical notes at the end to explain what was going on at that time.

Flipping Forward Twisting Backward by Alma Fullerton

Published by Peachtree

Summary:  Claire can master any gymnastic skill she puts her mind to, but school is another matter.  Reading and writing are just about impossible for her, no matter how hard she tries, and she often acts out due to her frustration.  During one of her frequent trips to the vice-principal’s office, she makes a chance remark that leads him to believe that she may have a learning disability.  Her mother refuses to believe that anything’s wrong, fearing that a label will limit Claire’s chances for success in school, and it takes a near-crisis to convince her to let Claire get tested.  The last few pages see Claire flying through her gymnastics routine with a newfound optimism that things will improve in her academic life as well.  135 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  This novel in verse is a quick read that sympathetically portrays a character with dyslexia.  It’s written in a font designed for children learning to read.  The short length and relatable characters and storyline would make it a great choice for an elementary book club. I’ve added it to my newly-updated list of book club suggestions for grades 2-4.

Cons:  The ending felt a bit rushed.

Ben Y and the Ghost in the Machine by K. A. Holt

Published by Chronicle Books

Ben Y and the Ghost in the Machine: The Kids Under the Stairs: Holt, K.A.:  9781452183213: Amazon.com: Books
Ben Y and the Ghost in the Machine: The Kids Under the Stairs: Holt, K.A.:  9781452183213: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  In this sequel to Ben Bee and the Teacher Griefer, Ben Y takes center stage as they deal with a brother’s death, uncertainty about gender, and a nasty vice principal who insists on enforcing a draconian dress code.  Ben’s refuge is the library where the group that became friends in book 1 gets together for the official purpose of creating a student newspaper but really to play Sandbox, a Minecraft-style game invented by Ben’s brother.  Ben frequently looks back on archived chats between them and their brother, and one day, their brother responds.  Is it a ghost, or has someone hacked into the account?  The answer proves difficult and brings up a lot of emotions, but Ben is fortunate to be surrounded by friends and family members who can offer much-needed support.  432 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  I feel like K. A. Holt should be better-known, as I have had a fair amount of success book-talking her books to middle school kids.  Her novel-in-verse format, combined here with chats and the occasional drawing makes for a quick read, and many readers will sympathize with the struggles of the middle school characters.

Cons:  As some interesting revelations were made about Mr. Mann, the evil assistant principal, I was hoping to see him have more of a change of heart.

Red, White, and Whole by Rajani Larocca

Published by Quill Tree Books

Amazon.com: Red, White, and Whole: 9780063047426: LaRocca, Rajani: Books

Summary:  Reha feels pulled in two directions, spending her weekdays with her mostly white friends at school and her weekends with her family’s Indian community.  Like many 13-year-olds, she feels like her parents–particularly her mother–don’t understand what she’s going through.  Then her mom is diagnosed with leukemia, and Reha suddenly feels like she would give just about anything to go back to life the way it was before.  As she and her father try to navigate hospital visits and caring for Amma while still dealing with work and school, Reha sometimes feels pushed to the breaking point.  Friends, family, the Indian community, and the boy she’s had a crush on help get her through.  When the unthinkable happens, Reha isn’t sure she will make it, but Amma has found a way to communicate and to let her daughter know that she has understood what she’s going through, and will somehow always be a part of her life.  224 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Keep the Kleenexes handy as you make your way through this amazing novel in verse.  It’s so much more than just a sad story, though: it’s a story of the immigrant experience of feeling caught between two worlds as well as a realistic middle school story with lots of fun 1983 details (especially the music!).  I’m a little skeptical of Goodreads’ mock Newbery list, but this book is currently at #2.

Cons:  This book came out in February, and I pretty much decided not to read it because it sounded like too much of a downer.  I’m so glad it got enough Newbery buzz to make me change my mind, as I found it ultimately a hopeful and uplifting book.

Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz, illustrated by Fahmida Azim

Published by Kokila

Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz: 9781984816191 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Summary:  Samira and her family are Rohingya refugees from Burma, living outside a camp in Bangladesh because they are not allowed to officially register as refugees.  She spends her days selling hard-boiled eggs on the beach, and the friendships she forms with other girls selling there enrich her life.  Some of the girls surf, as does Samira’s brother Khalad, and Samira starts to get interested in trying it herself.  When a surfing contest is announced with a substantial cash prize, she daydreams about what a win could mean for her family.  She has to learn to surf in secret, though; her parents disapprove of swimming for girls, and fear the water after her mother’s parents drowned during their escape from Burma.  On the eve of the contest, it seems as though Samira’s surfing dreams have come to a crashing end, but her courage and the connections she has formed with friends and family ultimately save the day.  Includes an author’s note with additional information about the Rohingya, and a list of websites for learning more and getting involved.  416 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This novel in verse brings to light a group of people that most of us probably know very little about.  Samira’s narration doesn’t shy away from her fears and worries, but also shows her courage and determination to create a new life for herself and her family.

Cons:  Looking at recent news, it appears that the Rohingya situation in both Burma Bangladesh hasn’t changed much since 2012, when this book takes place.

Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Julia Iredale

Published by Candlewick

Amazon.com: Amber and Clay (9781536201222): Schlitz, Laura Amy, Iredale,  Julia: Books
Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, Julia Iredale, Hardcover | Barnes &  Noble®

Summary:  Rhaskos is a slave in ancient Greece, separated from his mother at an early age.  His mother is taken away to live in a household that includes Melisto, a girl whose wealthy father loves her, but whose mother despises her.  When Melisto joins a group of young girls serving the goddess Artemis, her life takes an unexpected turn and becomes entwined with Rhaskos’s.  Rhaskos’s mother finds a way for Melisto to obtain Rhaskos’s freedom…but it will take years and many strange turns that involve gods, goddesses, and the great philosopher Sokrates.  Includes exhibits of ancient Greek artifacts with museum-type descriptions interspersed throughout the book; each of these plays a role in the story.  Also, an author’s note with additional information about Greek words, verse, and history; and an extensive bibliography.  545 pages; grades 5-8.  ó

Pros and Cons:  I honestly don’t know where to begin with this book.  It truly is a masterpiece, written mostly in verse, but with some sections in prose, and an incredible attention to historical detail.  I can’t even fathom the research that must have gone into writing it, and I can’t imagine any other publisher besides Candlewick producing this.

Having said that, I feel like this is a book with very, very limited appeal.  Looking back over my 21 years of being a school librarian, I can think of two middle school girls who might have been interested in this book.  I had to really push myself to read it (it’s over 500 pages!), although it was pretty absorbing once I started.

Will this book receive Newbery consideration?  Absolutely, and there is no question that the writing and research of that caliber.  Do I hope it wins?  To be honest, no. Call me a simpleton, but I would rather see a book win that is going to appeal to a much greater audience of young readers.

Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac

Published by Dial Books

Rez Dogs: Bruchac, Joseph: 9780593326213: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Malian has been visiting her grandparents on a Wabanaki reservation when Covid hits, and she can’t go back home to Boston.  She loves her grandparents and the reservation, but sometimes gets bored, lonely, and frustrated by the spotty Wi-Fi.  When a rez dog appears one morning, Malian names him Malsum (meaning wolf), and welcomes his company.  Malsum never comes into the house, but his presence brings joy to Malian and her grandparents as they go about their daily lives.  In between school, gardening, cooking, and Star Trek episodes, Malian and her grandparents share stories: folklore, and tales of her grandfather’s time at an Indian boarding school, and how her mother was taken away from her parents and put into foster care as a child.  By the time summer comes and Malian can return to Boston, she has learned how much her Wabanaki heritage is a part of her.  While she’s sad to say goodbye to Malsum, she knows she’ll be back.  “Just like us, you’re a rez dog, too,” her grandmother tells her.  192 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This timely novel-in-verse introduces readers to contemporary life on a reservation while beautifully weaving in folktales and indigenous history.  

Cons:  I am curious about the Wabanaki reservation; I am guessing it’s in Maine (or somewhere in New England), and I would have liked to have learned more about it, maybe in an author’s note.

Unsettled by Reem Faruqi

Published by HarperCollins

Amazon.com: Unsettled (9780063044708): Faruqi, Reem: Books

Summary:  When Nurah’s father announces he has taken a new job and is moving the family from Karachi, Pakistan to Peachtree City, Georgia, Nurah is heartbroken to leave her best friend and her grandparents.  At her new school in Georgia, all she wants to do is blend in, but eating lunch by herself under a stairwell is lonely.  Joining the swim team leads to a new friendship that changes Nurah’s feelings about school, and she’s motivated to work hard to become a champion swimmer like her older brother, Owais.  When Owais is the target of a bullying incident at the pool that turns violent, and her father is questioned by the FBI following a terrorist incident, Nurah learns some difficult truths about being Muslim in America.  But she also learns to help her brother overcome his trauma to get back in the pool and to be true to herself and her heritage. Includes an author’s note tying her personal experiences to the story; a glossary, and a recipe for aloo kabab. 352 pages grades 3-7.

Pros:  A beautiful novel in verse that delves into many different issues, not only with Nurah and her family, but with her new friend Stahr, who has an abusive father.  While not every reader has had Nurah’s experience of moving to an unfamiliar new country, many will relate to her wish to blend in while at the same time learning to appreciate her unique qualities.

Cons:  I appreciate the brevity and economy of words of a novel in verse, but it’s also a format that makes it difficult to explore in depth the many topics (immigration, bullying, racial profiling, miscarriage, domestic abuse, etc.) that were included in this story.

Starfish by Lisa Fipps

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

Amazon.com: Starfish (9781984814500): Fipps, Lisa: Books

Summary:  Eleven-year-old Ellie has been bullied about her size for many years–by her classmates, her brother, and her mother, who is pushing her to have bariatric surgery.  Things get worse when her best friend moves away the summer before sixth grade, and Ellie has to face middle school alone.  Fortunately, a new girl next door becomes a friend, and Ellie’s sympathetic dad takes her to a therapist who helps her explore her emotions and learn to stand up for herself.  It’s clear there’s still a lot of work to do for Ellie’s family, but by the end she is feeling empowered to confront some of the bullies and to stop hiding who she really is.  Includes a brief author’s note explaining how she based Ellie’s bullying on her own experiences.  256 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  I inhaled this novel in verse in a single sitting and can’t wait to share it with students at my school.  I commend Nancy Paulsen (mentioned in the author’s acknowledgements) for seeing this as a middle grade book instead of YA.  I think it will be a story that many fifth, sixth and seventh graders will take to heart and that will be invaluable to them as they navigate middle school and body image issues.

Cons: As much as I loved the verse format, I think its brevity made some of the work done in therapy seem a little quick and easy.