Pokko and the Drum by Matthew Forsythe

Published by Simon and Schuster

Image result for pokko and the drum

Image result for pokko and the drum

Summary:  “The biggest mistake Pokko’s parents ever made was giving her a drum.”  Pokko’s playing is so loud they can’t hear each other talking.  One day, her dad suggests she take it outside, reminding her, “We’re just a little frog family that lives in a mushroom, and we don’t like drawing attention to ourselves.”  As Pokko bangs her drum through the forest, a raccoon is seen lurking. A banjo-playing raccoon, that is, who joins in. Next comes a rabbit with a trumpet, and a wolf who just enjoys the music. When the wolf eats the rabbit, Pokko sternly informs him that is not allowed, opening the way for all members of the food chain to join the band.  At the end of the day, the group sweeps into Pokko’s house and carries her parents along. “I think that’s Pokko down in front!” exclaims her father. “And you know what? I think she’s pretty good!” 64 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  I found this book pretty hilarious, and the message of literally marching to the beat of your own drum is deftly delivered.  The watercolor illustrations give the story a slightly surreal, slightly retro feel.

Cons:  The wolf eating the rabbit felt like an unnecessarily disturbing detail.

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The Cool Bean by Jory John, illustrated by Pete Oswald

Published by HarperCollins

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Image result for cool bean pete oswald

Summary:  There are some cool beans at the school…but our narrator is not one of them.  He used to hang out with those cool guys, but things changed, and now he feels pretty uncool most of the time.  His clothes don’t seem to fit right, he walks into things, and sometimes he snorts when he laughs. One day, though, some amazing things happen.  When he drops his lunch, one of the cool beans helps him clean up. When he falls down on the playground, another cool bean helps him up. And the third cool bean helps him out of an embarrassing situation in class.  These kind gestures turn his whole day around, and pretty soon he’s feeling confident enough to hang out with the cool guys again. He’s learned that kindness is cooler than any outside appearance, and he tries to spread that kindness to the other beans around him.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The team that brought you The Bad Seed and The Good Egg have produced another winning book that will help kids see that kindness is more important than being cool.  

Cons:  If only it really were that easy to get in with the cool kids. 

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Penny and Her Sled by Kevin Henkes

Published by Greenwillow Books

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Summary:  A new sled has Penny eagerly anticipating the first snowfall, but day after day the ground remains bare.  Her parents both assure that it will snow eventually, and Penny tries some snow-making tricks like wearing mittens to bed and sitting on the sled in the living room.  Nothing works. Trying to make the best of her situation, she uses the sled to make a house for her younger siblings and a bed for her doll Rose. As the days grow longer, it seems as though the winter will be snow-less, and her mother encourages Penny to look for a different type of snow–the snowdrops in the garden.  One exciting day, the flowers are blooming, and Penny runs into the house to tell her mother. They go out to look together–with Penny wearing her scarf and mittens and pulling Rose behind her on the sled. 56 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  It’s been six years since the last Penny book, but well worth the wait.  Kevin Henkes does his usual masterful combination of storytelling and illustration, perfectly capturing a child’s point of view and painlessly inserting a few lessons about resilience.  Pretty impressive that he has managed to produce one of my favorite easy readers and one of my favorite chapter books in the same year.

Cons:  I really thought it would snow eventually.

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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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The Gift of Ramadan by Rabiah York Lumbard, illustrated by Laura K. Horton

Published by Albert Whitman and Co.

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Image result for gift of ramadan rabiah york

Summary:  When Sophie’s grandmother tells her that the heart of a person who fasts during Ramadan is “pretty and sparkly” like Sophie’s new ring, Sophie decides she wants to fast.  Waking up before sunrise is tough, though, and Sophie falls asleep at breakfast, and again during morning prayers. By lunchtime, she is famished, and her little brother is tempting her with his delicious cookie.  Grandma finds her eating cookies, and reassures her that her sparkles are growing, and that there are other ways to celebrate the holiday. She and Grandma spend the afternoon preparing a pizza dinner, which the whole family enjoys after sunset.  Includes an author’s note about Ramadan. 32 pages; ages 4-9.

Pros:  Children of all faiths will connect with this story, and those who don’t know about Ramadan will learn about it through the eyes of another child who is a lot like them.  

Cons:  The reasons for fasting during Ramadan aren’t explained in either the story or the author’s note.

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River by Elisha Cooper

Published by Orchard Books

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Image result for river elisha cooper

Summary:  The illustration facing the title page shows a woman tracing a route on a map with her finger while her two children look on.  Outside the window, her husband is loading a canoe on the top of her car. We never learn the woman’s name, but we follow her journey as she travels the length of the Hudson River in a canoe.  We learn what she eats, how she camps, and what animals she sees along the way. We watch as she struggles through rapids, narrowly avoids a tugboat collision, and capsizes in a storm before finally reaching her destination: New York City.  After paddling the length of the city, she dreams of other adventures, but knows that right now she belongs back with the family who is greeting her on the shore. Includes an author’s note (that begins “I did not canoe down the Hudson River.”), a note on the Hudson River, and a list of additional resources.  48 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  Here’s one more for the pile of Caldecott contenders I’m gathering up to share with my students.  Readers will be inspired to try an adventure of their own after reading the details of this one and seeing the gorgeous landscapes.  

Cons:  There’s a fair amount of text, written in a quiet style with plenty of details; while this is certainly not a bad thing, it may not grab readers right away.

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Birdsong by Julie Flett

Published by Greystone Kids

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Image result for birdsong julie flett

Summary:  A girl narrator tells of her move from the city to the country.  At first, she’s sad and misses all the people and things she’s left behind.  Her mother encourages her to visit their neighbor Agnes, and soon a friendship forms between the older woman and younger girl.  Both of them are artists–the girl loves drawing and Agnes makes things out of clay. As the seasons of the first year go by, Agnes gets sick and can’t get outside any more.  In the spring, a year after the move, the girl creates dozens of pictures of birds and hangs them in Agnes’s room to help her feel like she is outside. Walking home and, later, in bed, the girl thinks about her friend and how grateful she is for their friendship.  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A quiet story celebrating intergenerational friendships and the passing of time in the natural world.  I don’t think Agnes dies at the end, but it’s not clear; either way, the story celebrates life and friendship. Julie Flett is Cree-Mêtis and deftly inserts some Cree words and imagery into the text.

Cons:  One review I read said there was a glossary of Cree words at the end of the book, but this was not the case with the book I saw.

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