Summary: Four children tell of their experiences surviving a tornado, blizzard, wildfire, and hurricane. While the danger is present, they either hunker down at home or are evacuated to a safe place where they enjoy time with their families: playing cards in the basement until the tornado passes, cooking over the fireplace through the blizzard, camping while the wildfire burns, and staying with cousins during a hurricane. Afterward, they help clean up and get back to their lives. “Nature is strong and powerful. But, I am strong and powerful, too…And when the storm passes, as it always does, I am the calm, too.” Includes additional information about the four types of events. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: A reassuring book for kids who have faced or are about to face a natural disaster, focusing on resilience and offering child-friendly information about each event.
Cons: Makes surviving a catastrophic event look fun and cozy, and only portrays families with nice houses and cars who have the financial means to be this resilient.
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: “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.
Summary: It’s 2012, and world leaders have gathered in Brazil for the Rio+20 Summit to discuss climate change and the environmental crisis. “One after another, they gave speeches, but no one says anything new.” Then José Mujica, president of Uruguay, steps to the podium. Described as “the world’s poorest president” for donating 90% of his salary to charity and choosing to live on his farm instead of in the presidential palace, Mujica questions the whole system of capitalism, asking the participants if they were really committed to living in harmony with nature, as they said, or driven by production and consumption. “Shared human happiness is the greatest treasure of all,” he concludes. “If we appreciate the beauty of nature and life itself and care for our world, we will be able to continue to live well as humans on this planet.” 40 pages; grades 3+
Pros: Mujica’s speech is as timely today as it was eight years ago, and will resonate with older readers (middle school and up) at least as much as with the picture book crowd.
Cons: The title makes Mujica sound like an object of pity when really he seems to have figured out a lot more about life and happiness than most other world leaders.
Summary: Thao Lam and her family escaped from Vietnam in 1980 when she was two years old. This wordless book shows her family’s journey, starting with a dinner in their Vietnam home where they’re planning their escape. The author’s note explains how, as a child, her mother used to rescue ants from the sugar water left in the house to trap them. When her mother was lost in the tall grass during her escape, a trail of ants led the family to the river and their escape boat. The illustrations show a parallel journey of ants escaping in a paper boat as the family is traveling in a larger ship. One of those ants crawls into a meal that turns out to be Thao Lam’s family dinner in their new apartment in Canada. Includes an author’s note giving more information about her family’s experience and her mother’s story about the ants. 40 pages; grades 2-7.
Pros: The cut paper illustrations do an amazing job of telling this refugee family’s story, cleverly bookending the tale with two family dinners, and weaving the story of the ants in seamlessly.
Cons: Reviews I read recommended this book for kids as young as 5, but I think the nature of the story and the way it’s told make it more of an upper elementary and middle school book. I wish the author’s note had been at the beginning to help me understand the story before I began.
Published by Simon and Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books
Summary: The story begins with an empty lot filled with trash, across the street from a school, P.S. 175. A man named Mr. Tony came to their school. When he saw the lot across the street, he had an idea. He and the kids cleared the lot, then filled it with clean soil and started to plant. They grew vegetables, fruit, and herbs. When some plants died, they planted new ones. Mr. Tony built raised beds. They watered and weeded, and finally had tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, berries, and more to take home and enjoy. Includes a note from the author, who is Mr. Tony, about how this single lot has grown to twelve sites around Harlem with 22 full time staff; a photo of him standing outside one of the gardens; instructions on how to start a garden; and additional resources. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: An inspiring true-life story of how one man moved from a difficult situation (he started volunteering at P.S. 175 when he had to close his business in 2010) to create something that benefits many people in his community.
Summary: A child and adult are seen in silhouette at the beach as the sun rises. They’re there to visit a sea garden, a reef created by indigenous people for thousands of years by lining up boulders at the lowest tide line. This creates a habitat for a variety of sea creatures, and the two see clams, whelks, sea stars, hermit crabs, and a wide variety of other creatures. They join others digging for clams, planning to steam some and smoke others to eat later. Before they leave, they do their part to tend to the sea garden, fixing a wall and clearing away driftwood and seaweed. As the sun sets, they row away, heading back home. Includes a page of information about sea gardens, including three photos. 32 pages; grades K-4.
Pros: An interesting lesson on a method of sustainably harvesting seafood that has been done on the Pacific Northwest coast for over 3,000 years. The illustrations are magnificent, with different vivid background colors showing the times of day throughout the story. There were interesting faces and designs in the pictures that I wish were explained somewhere.
Cons: I had trouble picturing what a sea garden looked like, and the photos at the end were so small that they still didn’t really clear it up for me.