Poetree by Shauna LaVoy Reynolds, illustrated by Shahrzad Maydani

Published by Dial Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  When Sylvia celebrates spring by writing a poem, she decides to share it with a birch tree in the park, tying it around the trunk.  The next day, there’s a new poem tied to the tree, and Sylvia can’t believe it–the tree has written back! She thinks about the tree during school, which helps distract her from Walt, the most annoying boy in her class.  The class studies haiku, and Sylvia shares her creation with the tree on the way home. Once again, her efforts are reciprocated the next day. A few days later, on a visit to the tree, who should appear but Walt, who actually starts acting nice.  It turns out it is Walt, not the tree, who is writing the poems. He writes one on the spot to commemorate the beginning of their friendship: “If you want to share a poem with me/Give it to the tall birch tree/Or if you need a friend for writing/Playing with, or sit beside-ing/I’ll be here for you joyfully/Right beneath the Poetree.”  32 pages; ages 4-9.

Pros:  This lovely story of a new friendship would also make a perfect introduction to a poetry unit.

Cons:  Walt seems like a good guy…so why is he so mean at school?

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Gloria Takes a Stand: How Gloria Steinem Listened, Wrote, and Changed the World by Jessica M. Rinker, illustrated by Daria Peoples-Riley

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

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Summary:  From the time she was a young girl, Gloria Steinem enjoyed learning more about the world around her.  After graduating from Smith College, she became a journalist, but grew frustrated when she was assigned articles about celebrities and scandals.  In 1971, she and Dorothy Pitman Hughes started Ms. magazine, the first magazine owned and written by women, that allowed her to write the kinds of articles she wanted.  She also became known as a speaker during a time that women were advocating for equal rights. Although girls today grow up in a much different world from the one Gloria experienced, she continues to work for equal rights for all.  Includes author’s and illustrator’s notes, a timeline of U.S. women’s history, and a bibliography. 48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  An interesting look at a woman who has worked for equal rights for more than half a century.  The Ms. magazine covers on the endpapers are a fun way to see some of the other women who have been influential in this area.

Cons:  The text was somewhat rambling; I think the story could have been told in 32-40 pages.

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Focused by Alyson Gerber

Published by Scholastic Press

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Summary:  Clea’s managed to do okay in school until she hits seventh grade.  This year she’s more aware than ever of how her racing thoughts, distractibility, and tendency to blurt out whatever she’s thinking are affecting her at school, both academically and socially.  Her parents and teachers have noticed, too, and after a few failed assignments, they decide to get her tested for ADHD. Her diagnosis both scares and relieves Clea. As she begins to better understand how her brain works, she learns to ask for help when she needs it and use new strategies to help her succeed.  Clea’s passion is chess, and staying on the team motivates her to do well in school. With support from her friends, family, and counselors, Clea seems well on her way to success going forward. 304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Readers who have been diagnosed with ADHD, or know someone who has, will find this book enlightening and comforting.  Learning to ask for help and being kind to yourself are themes that will resonate with everyone.

Cons:  The seventh grade kids seemed preternaturally adept at dealing with their emotions and conflicts with one another.

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What Is Inside THIS Box? By Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Olivier Tallec

Published by Orchard Books

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Summary:  Monkey claims to have a cat inside his box, but the cat will disappear as soon as the box is opened.  Cake is skeptical, until Monkey tells him he can use his own imagination to decide what the box’s contents are. Cake decides there’s a disappearing dinosaur inside.  The two friends conclude that they will never know the answer for sure, and go off for a piece of pie. The penultimate page shows a cat peeking out of the box, and on the last page, he’s riding off on the back of a big green dinosaur.  Includes some questions on the final endpaper like “Do you believe in things you can’t see?” and concludes, “Read. Laugh. Think.” 48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Another early reader series derivative of Elephant and Piggie, with two friends conversing in different colored cartoon bubbles.  The storyline, which includes a nod to Schrodinger’s cat, could provoke some interesting discussions.

Cons:  Should a slice of cake be eating a piece of pie?  

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Bark in the Park: Poems for Dog Lovers by Avery Corman, illustrated by Hyewon Yum

Published by Orchard Books

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Summary:  A girl and her father walk through the city, meeting dogs of many different breeds, such as the Afghan hound: “Although he’s noble and aloof/He’s still a dog, so he still says ‘Woof!’” and the basset hound: “For things she can smell/She’s a comer and goer/She’s much like a Beagle/But longer and lower.”  38 dog breeds are covered in all, with each one getting a two- or four-line rhyme. The book concludes, “So here’s to dogs both big and little/And the others in the middle/And here’s to all the mixed breeds, too/Being friends with a dog is a dream come true.” 48 pages; ages 3-7.

Pros:  Dog lovers are almost sure to find at least one of their favorites in these pages.  The poems are short and sweet (written by the author of Kramer vs. Kramer and Oh, God!, oddly enough), and the unstintingly adorable illustrations make a perfect pairing.

Cons:  Some lines had an extra syllable or two that made them a little less than flowing.

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Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (And Cry) by Gary Golio, illustrated by Ed Young

Published by Candlewick

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Summary: Charlie Chaplin’s life is chronicled from his impoverished childhood in London up to his creation of his iconic Little Tramp character in the early days of his movie career.  In spare text, Golio tells how the young Charlie enjoyed his mother’s stories and sometimes earned a few pennies singing and dancing in the city streets. An illness forced his mother and her two young sons into the poorhouse.  When they got out, Charlie was able to help his family when he joined a theater troupe at the age of nine. His stage career continued into adulthood, when he was spotted by Hollywood filmmaker Mack Sennett. Charlie made a movie with Sennett…it was funny, but the director wanted something even funnier.  Rummaging through the prop room, the actor found baggy pants, a small topcoat, and a bowler hat, and the Little Tramp was born. Includes an afterword, additional facts about Chaplin, and resources for further information. 48 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  Caldecott Medalist Ed Young has created intriguing collage illustrations that complement the brief, poetic narrative of Charlie Chaplin’s life.  Readers will enjoy the flip animation of the Little Tramp that appears in the lower right corners of the pages.

Cons:  Kids may not know who Charlie Chaplin is.

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A Piglet Named Mercy by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen

Published by Candlewick

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Summary:  Mercy Watson gets a backstory, as readers discover how she came to live with Mr. and Mrs. Watson when she was just a piglet.  Turns out she fell off a truck that was rumbling down Deckawoo Drive, landing not far from the Watsons’ house. It was love at first sight when the Watsons found her on their front porch.  Of course, Eugenia Lincoln gets in her two cents’ worth, while her younger sister Baby brings the piglet a bottle of milk. Mercy downs the bottle, but her fondness for buttered toast soon emerges, earning her the title of “porcine wonder” from Mr. Watson.  The last page shows Mercy in her high chair at the Watsons’ kitchen table, with everyone well on their way to happily-ever-after. 32 pages; ages 3-7.

Pros:  Mercy Watson readers will enjoy learning Mercy’s early story, while their younger siblings will get to meet all the characters that they’ll see again in the chapter books.

Cons:  I wish Kate DiCamillo would write more of the Mercy Watson early chapter books.

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