The Quest for Z: The True Story of Percy Fawcett and a Lost City in the Amazon by Greg Pizzoli

Published by Viking

Summary:  British explorer Percy Fawcett was fascinated by stories of a mythical city that had thrived in the Amazon rain forest, then mysteriously disappeared.  He called the city “Z”, and he was determined to find it.  For many years, he worked as a member of the Royal Geographic Society, surveying areas in Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru. He had many dangerous adventures on these expeditions, including a close encounter with a huge anaconda and the discovery of a missing member of his party with 42 arrows in his body (he was dead).  He heard more stories from the locals about the lost city of Z, and became obsessed with finding it.  The Royal Geographic Society wouldn’t support such a wild goose chase, so Fawcett organized a trip himself, taking only his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh.  They set off for unknown territory in the Brazilian jungles, and (spoiler alert) were never seen again.  To this day, other explorers have tried to find out what happened to them, but their fate remains a mystery, and the city of Z has never been discovered.  Includes an author’s note, a page of “Fawcett hunters” describing other explorers who have tried to find out what happened to Percy Fawcett, a glossary, and a page of sources.  48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  A perfect addition to a unit on explorers.  Fawcett’s story is compelling, but ultimately tragic, not unlike some of the better-known European explorers.  The cartoon-inspired illustrations add some fun, and sidebars provide context to the explorer’s life.

Cons:  Fawcett definitely seems to be a product of his time, with his stiff upper lip British Empire approach to exploration.

Blue Sky White Stars by Sarvinder Naberhaus, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Published by Dial Books

Summary:  A few words of text on each page celebrate the American flag and the people of the United States.  On the left-hand side of each spread is a picture depicting an American landscape or icon; the facing page has to do with the flag, or has a flag as part of a picture.  For instance, “white rows” shows a line of covered wagons traveling west on the left, and the white stripes on the flag on the right.  Some of the phrases are homophones, such as Betsy Ross sewing the flag, described as “Sew together/won nation”, accompanied by “So together/one nation” showing a diverse group of Americans.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator.  40 pages; for all ages on the Fourth of July.

Pros:  A beautiful and patriotic tribute to patriotism, with gorgeous, multicultural illustrations by award-winning Kadir Nelson.

Cons:  Even this lovely book couldn’t quite pry the CNN-wrestling tweet out of my head.

My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo

Published by Pajama Press

Summary:  Sami knows he is safe in the refugee camp with his family, but he can’t help missing his home in Syria and the pigeons he cared for there.  His memories of his village being destroyed by bombs scare him, and he has trouble joining the groups of children playing and going to school.  Slowly, he learns ways to manage his fears, and he is helped by the arrival of four birds that he adopts as pets.  Taking care of them helps him to focus on the positive things around him, and soon he is happier in his new home.  When he spots a new girl with tears in her eyes, he is able to reach out to her and offer his friendship.  An author’s note tells more about refugee camps where millions of Syrians have been forced to settle.  32 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  A personal story about a contemporary crisis that gives readers a child narrator they can relate to.  The illustrations, created from polymer clay, are unique and eye-catching.  This would make a great introduction to a discussion of Syria and refugees.

Cons:  Life in the refugee camp appears to be more pleasant than it most likely is.

Rolling Thunder by Kate Messner

Published by Scholastic Press

Summary:  In brief, rhyming text, a boy tells of his journey to Washington, D.C. to ride with his grandfather in the Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom, a parade of motorcyclists held on Memorial Day every year to honor America’s veterans.  The focus is the Vietnam War, where Grandpa fought and lost friends.  The motorcyclists camp the night before, then get up at dawn to join the parade.  It winds past the Lincoln Memorial and ends at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where there are speeches and tears.  Finally, the boy and his grandfather sit in a field at the end of the day, watching a shooting star in the night sky.  A brief author’s note tells about the Thunder Ride.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Readers with interests in the military, history, or motorcycles will enjoy this; it would also make a great Memorial Day read-aloud (sorry I’m a little late…maybe Veterans’ Day?).

Cons:  The illustrations don’t reflect the diversity of those who served in Vietnam.

This Is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from Around the World by Matt Lamothe

Published by Chronicle Books

Summary:  Seven children, ages 7-11, from seven different countries (Japan, Peru, Iran, Russia, India, Italy, and Uganda) explain what they do throughout their day. Readers learn what they eat, who is in their family, how they get to school, what they learn there, and what they do after school.  The last page says, “This is my night sky,” indicating that children all over the world sleep under the same sky.  The last two pages show photos of the real families that the kids come from, and an author’s note explains how those families were chosen and that, while they represent their countries, not everyone in their country has the same tastes, interests, and experiences as those described in the book.  Includes a glossary and endpapers with a map of the world showing where each child lives.  52 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  The large, colorful pages are an engaging way for kids to learn about the lives of others their age around the world.  The focus on everyday activities will allow readers to make many connections with their own lives.

Cons:  The text was kind of stilted.

A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech by Shana Corey, Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

Published by NorthSouth Books

Summary:  Young John F. Kennedy didn’t always do well in school, and he was often sick.  But as he grew up and studied history, he became interested in the meaning of courage and how he could help others in the world. When his older brother Joe died in World War II, Jack became the focus of his family’s political ambitions.  When he was elected President, he quickly took action in a number of areas, like establishing the Peace Corps and starting the space race.  But he was less decisive on civil rights.  African-American leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jackie Robinson pressured him to act more forcefully, but it wasn’t until he saw young people around the country marching and going to jail that he found the courage to speak up.  The “big speech” of the title is his civil rights address, given June 11, 1963, that ultimately led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Readers are encouraged at the end of the book to take action like those who inspired JFK to make this famous speech.  An author’s note gives more background; there are also thumbnail profiles of other famous people in the book and additional resources.  56 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  An inspirational story of the many accomplishments of John F. Kennedy, as well as a look at an area he where he was slow to act, and how others’ deeds finally led him to do the right thing.  The bold paintings complement the bold actions of the narrative.

Cons:  For a picture book, there’s a lot of content for readers to understand.

Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees by Mary Beth Leatherdale, illustrated by Eleanor Shakespeare

Published by Annick Press

Summary:  Sixty five million people worldwide have been forced to leave their homes due to war, persecution, or natural disaster. Many of them, including a large number of children, are seeking refuge in countries in Europe and North America.  This book profiles five refugee kids from Germany, Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan, and Ivory Coast over the last 60 years.  They have undertaken dangerous journeys by boat, been attacked by pirates, been turned back from their original destinations, and have often arrived in an unknown place with little more than the clothes on their backs.  Yet each one has worked hard and become a productive citizen of his or her new country.  Each profile includes the narrative of the subject, much of it in his or her own words, a timeline of the journey, and a “What happened to?” section that tells the happy ending to each story.  Includes timelines and a list of resources.  64 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Readers will empathize with the refugees’ stories, and by extension, the plight of refugees everywhere.  Fans of the “I Survived” series will find these suspenseful real-life survival tales riveting reading.  The collage illustrations add interest.

Cons:  There are some disturbing, like the 14-year-old girls from Vietnam who are taken off the boat by marauding pirates.