A Rover’s Story by Jasmine Warga

Published by Balzer + Bray

Summary:  Resilience comes to life in a NASA lab, a rover built to explore Mars.  At first, he thinks he is a back-up for another rover named Journey, but he eventually learns that he is the one being sent into space.  He is curious about humans, or hazmats as he calls them, and particularly takes a liking to engineers Rania and Xander.  Rania has a daughter named Sophie, who starts writing letters to Resilience.  Although the rover never sees them, the letters give readers some insights into Rania’s home and family life.  The book is divided into five parts that cover more than 20 years, as Resilience gets launched and explores Mars with his drone, and friend, Fly.  An accident puts the rover out of commission for many years, but in the end, he is able to realize his dream and Rania’s of returning him to Earth.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Jasmine Warga does an amazing job of realistically bringing Resilience to life with a personality and curiosity that still keeps him in the realm of machine yet shows readers human emotions.  The subplot about Raina told through Sophie’s letters is also extremely well done and very moving.  A great recommendation for fans of The Wild Robot, and a Newbery contender for sure.

Cons:  While I could very much appreciate this book, I never really got engrossed in it. I guess I just generally prefer reading about people.

Your Pal Fred by Michael Rex

Published by Viking Books for Young Readers

Summary:  “Welcome to the future!”  “The future stinks” read two signs on the opening page.  The evidence is there in chapter one when brothers Pug and Plug are traveling through a post-apocalyptic world, each one only looking out for himself.  When they accidentally awaken an AI boy named Fred, they get a few lessons in friendship and sharing.  When Fred learns about the world war going on, he decides to take his lessons to the two warlords to try to negotiate a peaceful settlement.  Fred befriends everyone he meets in his travels, a gift that later is returned when he’s rescued from the warlords’ attempts to destroy him.  A surprising revelation unexpectedly brings peace, and Fred decides to wander the world, helping anyone who may need him.  Includes Fred’s six-step guide to making friends.  272 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  A graphic novel with equal parts fun and heart, as Fred’s unstoppable kindness saves the day in a grim future populated by all sorts of unusual creatures.  As I have mentioned, Mike Rex grew up down the street from me, and I appreciated his dedication, “To my father, who was, above all, kind.”

Cons:  Kindness does not always feel like its own reward here.

You Only Live Once, David Bravo by Mark Oshiro

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  Middle school is off to a rough start for David. On one particularly bad day he messes up a presentation on his family heritage (he’s adopted), gets food poisoning before a big cross-country race, and causes an accident that injures his best friend, Antoine, ruining Antoine’s dreams of making the varsity cross-country team.  When he wishes for a do-over, he gets a visit from a wisecracking time-traveling dog.  Fea, as David nicknames her, is on a mission to help him straighten out his life. Reliving the most recent day doesn’t take care of it, so David has to travel deeper into his past. Fea also helps him acknowledge the romantic feelings he has for Antoine by sharing her regrets from her own life. It turns out she was once a human who loved a girl in high school but never had the courage to tell her.  The forays into the past start to reveal interesting clues about David’s birth and adoption, and everything comes together with a few surprising plot twists.  384 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Although this story addresses the serious topics of being yourself and living life without regrets, it is also a ton of fun with a narrator who has a great self-deprecating sense of humor and a plot that adeptly handles the intricacies of time travel.  Betsy Bird has this on the fall edition of her Newbery predictions list.  We shall see in just a few short months.

Cons:  The plot twists at the end required some suspension of disbelief.

Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler by Ibi Zoboi

Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers

Summary:  This biography of science fiction writer Octavia Butler is told through a collection of poetry, photographs, and quotations from Butler.  Starting with her early life as a solitary child growing up in 1950’s Pasadena, readers get to see how Octavia’s struggles in school, her introverted nature, and her love of books combined to lead to her a life as a writer.  She was fascinated by science fiction, although almost all of the writers and heroes of the stories were white men.  After years of rejection, she finally began selling her stories and eventually wrote books that earned her Nebula and Hugo awards as well as a MacArthur fellowship.  Includes a final chapter on Ibi Zoboi’s connection to Octavia Butler (they shared a birthday and met in person several times, including a science fiction writing workshop) and a list of Butler’s books.  128 pages; grades 7-12.

Pros:  This unique biography is a pretty quick read but gives an intimate look at Octavia Butler’s life and writing.  Readers who are not familiar with Butler’s work (like me) may be motivated to seek it out after getting this introduction.

Cons:  I saw some recommendations for this book starting in fifth grade, but I think it would be better appreciated by middle school and high school students, since Butler’s books are for young adults and adults.

The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera

Published by Levine Querido

Amazon.com: The Last Cuentista: 9781646140893: Higuera, Donna Barba: Books

Summary:  With Halley’s Comet hurtling towards Earth, Petra and her family are among a small group chosen to travel to the planet Sagan, a journey that will take over 300 years.  They’re put into a deep sleep, with people on board who will look after them and keep creating a new population of caretakers.  Alas, not only does a group called the Collective take over the ship, but something goes wrong with Petra’s sleep.  When she wakes up, she learns that she is the only one left who remembers life on Earth.  Petra is determined to help the other kids in her group remember, and she begins telling them the cuentos (stories) that she learned from her Mexican-American grandmother.  Although she does her best to blend in, members of the Collective soon become suspicious of Petra, and she realizes it’s up to her to lead an escape plan and try to find the group of Earthlings who were scheduled to arrive first.  It’s not clear whether or not Petra and the other kids make contact, but the book ends on a hopeful note.  336 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This beautifully written book explores what it means to be human and the important contributions different cultures and stories make to that humanity.  It’s a rare year that a science fiction books wins the Newbery, but this could definitely be a contender for that award, as well as for the Pura Belpré.

Cons:  Would people in 2061 really name a planet after Carl Sagan?

Long Distance by Whitney Gardner

Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

Long Distance: Gardner, Whitney, Gardner, Whitney: 9781534455665:  Amazon.com: Books
Long Distance: Gardner, Whitney, Gardner, Whitney: 9781534455658:  Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  When one of Vega’s dads gets a new job, the whole family packs up and moves from Portland to Seattle.  Vega’s so unhappy about leaving her best friend behind that her parents decide to send her to Camp Very Best Friend, where even the most introspective kids are guaranteed to find friends.  Camp turns out to be a pretty strange place, from the odd bus ride there to the weirdly peppy counselors, but Vega does actually find herself making some friends.  Good thing, too, because when she and some of the others start to make some disturbing discoveries about camp, they need to band together to figure out how to escape and make it safely home again.  Although the lessons are unexpected, Vega learns plenty about friendship during her unusual summer, and winds up with a lot more friends than she started with.  320 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  From the graphic novelist who brought you Fake Blood comes this fun summer read that celebrates friendship in all different forms. There’s some good suspense as the kids try to figure out what’s going on at camp, and a happy ending for all life forms. 

Cons:  Your kids may never want to go to summer camp again.

The Lion of Mars by Jennifer Holm

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

Image result for lion of mars holm

Summary:  Bell, age 11, is the youngest kid in the American settlement on Mars.  He enjoys his life underground, hanging out with the teenagers, working on the algae farm, and taking care of his cat, Leo.  There aren’t many rules, but the few that are in place are strictly enforced. One of these is about not interacting with other countries’ settlements, even though it seems as though there were international friendships in the past.  When a shipment from Earth unleashes a serious illness among the adults, it falls on the kids to try to get help from Finland, France, or one of the other countries.  What they discover there surprises everyone–and leads to a healing of misunderstandings of the past.  Includes a lengthy author’s note about her interest in Mars and space exploration and how she came to write this book.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Jennifer Holm adds another masterpiece to her unusually diverse list of works, this one a fun science fiction story that imagines a pretty plausible settlement on Mars with a cast of loveable characters, and a few interesting plot twists.  This would make a great book club selection that would appeal to a wide range of readers.

Cons:  It seemed sad that anyone who settled on Mars was unable to ever return to Earth.

Newton and Curie: the Science Squirrels by Daniel Kirk

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers

Newton and Curie: The Science Squirrels - Kindle edition by Kirk, Daniel.  Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Summary:  A falling apple sparks Newton’s curiosity about how the world works.  This leads him to ask other questions about the kids he sees playing on a school playground.  Using lessons he learns about simple machines from listening in to the kids’ classroom, he builds a squirrel-size swing and seesaw that his younger sister Curie enjoys playing on.  Things take a more serious turn when a robin’s nest falls out of a tree.  The two squirrels use a lever and a pulley to solve the problem and get their friends’ nest and eggs back up to safety.  Includes an author’s note with additional information about Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, and physics; a glossary; and a list of websites with more scientific information for kids.  40 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  There aren’t many books that introduce simple machines and physical science to early elementary kids, and this one does it with two adorable squirrels and easy-to-understand explanations.  

Cons:  Newton’s curiosity drove the activities, and he did about 90% of the problem solving.  It would have been nice to see Curie more engaged with the science instead of blowing it off to eat or play tag.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Wild & Chance by Allen Zadoff

Published by Disney Hyperion

Thanks to Disney Hyperion for providing me with a copy of this book to review

Wild & Chance: Allen Zadoff: 9781368053198: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  She has no memory of her life before waking up on a sinking yacht.  Soon she meets a boy named Chance who names her Wild and vows to look after her, even though he’s in foster care and living in a group home.  It soon becomes obvious that Wild is an extraordinary dog.  She and Chance learn to communicate via electronics, and their conversations are picked up by Junebug, a girl hacker with a mysterious past…but some skills Chance and Wild need to survive.  As the three race from one place to the next, constantly pursued by the military organization bent on destroying Wild, they start to piece together the dog’s past and what it might mean for all of their futures.  In the end, Wild is on her own once again, but with hints that there may be more to come in her story.  256 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A dog narrator, non-stop action, and many, many narrow escapes…what’s not to like?  Kids will find themselves caught up in this exciting story from chapter one, and will keep the pages turning all the way to the end, which will no doubt have them hoping for book 2.

Cons:  There are some pretty dark secrets in Wild’s past, and (spoiler alert) she has been bred to kill.  I generally enjoy quite a bit of humor with a dog narrator, but no such luck here.

If you would like to order this book from the Odyssey Bookshop, click here.

Astro-Nuts Mission One: The Plant Planet by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Steven Weinberg

Published by Chronicle Books

Image result for astro-nuts scieszka

Image result for astro-nuts steven weinberg

Summary:  Planet Earth narrates this graphic adventure about four super-powered animals sent by NNASA (Not the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to find a new planet that will support human life.  Blasting out of Thomas Jefferson’s nostril on Mount Rushmore, the four discover the Plant Planet, which at first seems like an ideal environment. AstroWolf, SmartHawk, LaserShark, and StinkBug each use their special talents to analyze the atmosphere and life on the planet.  Although their initial reports to NNASA are promising, the planet ultimately ends up being hostile to animal life, and the four heroes barely escape. If the last few pages are any indications, it looks like the team will be sent to explore The Water Planet in mission #2.  Includes notes about the collage art used for the illustrations. 220 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Kids will love this wacky graphic novel with plenty of action, adventure, and bathroom humor, and will also learn a little about climate change and other science along the way.  

Cons:  The ultimate fate of the Plant Planet seemed a bit harsh.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.