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.
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?
Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
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.
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.
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.
Thanks to Disney Hyperion for providing me with a copy of this book to review
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.
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.
Summary: Chess, Emma, and Finn Greystone, ages 12, 10, and 8, live with their mom in Ohio. One day they hear on the news that three kids in Arizona have been kidnapped. As the story unfolds, they learn that these three children have exactly the same names as them. And exactly the same birthdays. Their mom seems especially disturbed by this bizarre coincidence, and the next day she abruptly announces that she is going on a business trip and isn’t sure when she’ll return. She arranges them to stay with a woman named Mrs. Morales and her daughter, Natalie, people who are pretty much strangers to the three children. When the kids discover their mom left her computer and phone at home, and that the phone has been programmed to send texts to Mrs. Morales about the trip, they begin to suspect that their mother has disappeared and may never return. As they delve further into the mystery, they discover some horrifying secrets about their family that could put all of them–as well as Natalie and her mom–in serious danger. A cliffhanger ending paves the way for book #2. 405 pages; grades 5-8.
Pros: Like the best books by Margaret Peterson Haddix, this one is a total page-turner, keeping the reader guessing as one bizarre clue after another is revealed. Kids not quite ready for The Hunger Games may enjoy the glimpses of a dystopian world toward the end of the book.
Cons: Developing realistic characters doesn’t seem to be Haddix’s greatest strength. I found preciously cute Finn especially annoying.
Summary: Sal is new at his Miami middle school, and right away he seems to have attracted the attention of bully Yasmany. So Sal decides to play a trick on Yasmany: he reaches into another universe, pulls out a dead chicken, and puts it in Yasmany’s locker. This prank gets him sent to the principal’s office, where he meets Gabi Real: a straight-A student, editor of the paper, president of the student council, and self-appointed counsel to defend Yasmany. Sal and Gabi are both dealing with difficulties at home: Sal’s mom died several years ago, and Gabi’s baby brother Iggy is fighting for his life in the NICU. They become fast friends, Gabi admiring Sal’s sleight-of-hand magic skills and eventually learning about his abilities to manipulate parallel universes, which include occasional attempts to bring back his dead mother. Much to their surprise, it turns out Gabi possesses a similar ability, and she and Sal must decide how to channel their powers for good, particularly when it comes to saving Iggy. 400 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: If the above description seems like a lot, trust me when I say that it only skims the surface of all that is in this book. Did I mention Sal has diabetes? That the Cuban-American culture plays a big role in the story? That Gabi has at least ten dads? That the story takes place in the near future, replete with artificial intelligence? This is easily the most fun book I’ve read this year, and I’m considering using it as the first selection for my fifth grade book club to suck unsuspecting 10-year-olds into a year of reading enjoyment.
Cons: Seeing that this is part of the “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint, kids may be expecting more gods and monsters–this is a different kind of story, but I think it will still appeal to fans of Percy Jackson and other demigods.
Remember the book A Wonderful Year by Nick Bruel? Me neither. It was the first book I reviewed on this blog on February 20, 2015, and I don’t think I’ve looked at it since.
Three days later I posted a review for The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, a book I still book talk many times a year and count among my favorite books of all times.
That’s the way it goes with reading. Some books are just more memorable than others.
So when I realized that I’ve published almost 1,400 reviews, I decided it was time to do some weeding. In a week or so, I’m going to take down the reviews from 2015 and 2016. In preparation for this, I’ve gone through all the books I’ve written about and picked out the ones I feel have stood the test of time.
I’ve compiled them into a book called Hit the Books: The Best of Kids Book A Day, 2015-2018. There are about 150 books included; each entry has the summary I wrote on my blog and why it was included on the list. They’re divided into eight sections: picture books, early readers, early chapter books, middle grade fiction, graphic novels, poetry, biography, and nonfiction.
I also put together ten lists of “Read-Alikes” from the books I’ve reviewed on the blog. So if you have a fan of Diary of A Wimpy Kid or Raina Telgemeier, you can get some ideas for other books they might want to try.
Let me know if you find this book helpful. Who knows, I may put together a second edition in another year or two!