Lights, Camera, Alice! The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Simona Ciraolo

Published by Chronicle Books

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Summary:  Alice always loved stories, but when her father died and the family business went under, she was forced to become practical and find a job.  She was hired by a camera company and learned about a new kind of camera–one that made moving pictures.  To help sell the camera, Alice decided to capture some of her stories on film.  She created props and costumes, found actors and actresses, and experimented with different film techniques.  She even learned to add sound and color to her motion pictures.  She eventually moved to America, where she opened a studio and eventually made over 700 movies.  But when the film industry became big business, Hollywood put Alice’s little studio out of business, and she moved back to France with her children.  Much of her work was lost, but in 1955, her role in movie making was rediscovered, and she was awarded the Legion of Honor.  She also wrote her memoirs, which were finally published in America in 1986.  Includes additional information and a list of sources, including two of Alice’s films that can be seen on YouTube.  60 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  This quirky book tells the unbelievable story of Alice Guy-Blache, who contributed a huge amount to early film, yet was almost completely unrecognized for her achievements.  The story is told in the style of a silent movie, and the illustrations have a good time playing with that genre.

Cons:  All recommendations I saw were for grades K-3 or K-4, but most kindergarteners and first graders wouldn’t have enough background knowledge to understand or appreciate this.

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It Wasn’t Me by Dana Alison Levy

Published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  When Theo’s photos are vandalized while on display in the middle school art gallery, five suspects are gathered to spend their vacation week in a justice circle, a sort of restorative justice program designed to uncover the truth.  The group has counterparts in the 1985 movie The Breakfast Club: the quiet, geeky kid; the jock, the weird girl; the smart, popular girl; and the jokester troublemaker boy.  Reluctantly at first, they begin to discover the stories behind the facades of each kid, and slowly the truth comes out, not only about who drew on the photos, but about who each of them really is.  Told by Theo, the story spans the vacation week from Monday to Friday; each day begins with every kid writing answers to the same questions; the responses change as the week goes on. Ms. Davis, the school principal, is the villain who opposes the program and its leader, school counselor Ms. Lewiston.  In the end, though, Ms. Lewiston’s method proves successful, and the six kids get to have the last word with their principal. 336 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This will have wide appeal with middle schoolers, many of whom will recognize something of themselves in one or more of the characters.  The whodunit suspense builds nicely, although the final answer isn’t a huge surprise. All the characters’ voices are honest and believable, and there is plenty of humor despite the tense setting.

Cons:  This is the second book I’ve read this year where kids are left unsupervised in a public school for hours at a time.  Authors, that just doesn’t happen in schools, at least not in any I’ve worked in.

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Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything by Martin W. Sandler

Published by Candlewick

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Summary:  Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission, this book starts with a look at the history that led up to the first manned flight to the moon.  The first chapter explores the space race, John F. Kennedy’s vow to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, the early Soviet successes, and the tragic deaths of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in a fire.  The rest of the book is about Apollo 8 and its crew, commander Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, who risked their lives to reach the moon. They succeeded in entering into orbit around the moon, becoming the first humans to view its dark side, then left lunar orbit and returned to Earth.  Their TV broadcast from space was watched by millions of people, and and helped generate excitement about the space program.  Bill Anders’ iconic photograph of the Earth rising is one of the most famous ever taken. The success of the Apollo 8 mission laid the groundwork for Apollo 11 six months later, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first to walk on the moon. Includes a bibliography and index.  176 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Packed with exciting details and photos about the space program in general and Apollo 8 in particular, this large glossy book will appeal to aspiring astronauts in late elementary, middle, and high school.  The cover design is one of my favorites of the year.

Cons:  Every several pages, there were 2-3 pages on a related topic inserted into the text.  While these sidebar-type entries were interesting, they interrupted the main narrative in a way that was somewhat jarring.

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Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams by Lesa Cline-Ransom, illustrated by James E. Ransome and Sisters and Champions: The True Story of Venus and Serena Williams

Game Changers published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

Sisters and Champions published by Philomel Books

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Summary:  When I went to write a review about Game Changers, I discovered Sisters and Champions, another 2018 book about Venus and Serena Williams.  Both are picture book biographies that emphasize the girls’ unlikely background, growing up in Compton, a rough Los Angeles neighborhood.  Richard Williams, their father, is introduced in both books as their coach who never wavered from his belief that they could become professional tennis stars.  Venus’s rise to success and fame, followed shortly by Serena’s is documented in the books, as well as the fact that the sisters often played each other for the championship at many professional matches.  Cline-Ransome’s book talks a bit more about the racism the two of them encountered as they moved up the ranks in what had traditionally been an almost all-white sport. Her story ends with Venus taking pictures of Serena after Serena had beat her for the first time at the French Open.  Bryant’s goes a bit further, touching on illness and injuries that both women have had to overcome. Game Changers includes an afterword, source notes, a selected bibliography, and a list for further reading; no back matter in Sisters and Champions.  48 pages (Game Changers) and 32 pages (Sisters & Champions); grades 1-4 for both.

Pros:  I’m happy to see two excellent books on the Williams sisters by acclaimed authors and illustrators; Serena and Venus are a frequent topic of research in my third grade libraries.  Both books are well done, but if I had to pick one, it would be Game Changers.  I preferred the sharp, action-packed cut-paper illustrations to Cooper’s pastels, and the back matter makes it a better choice for research.

Cons:  There were some inconsistencies between the two. Cline-Ransome: “Venus won every single one of her sixty-three junior tournaments by age ten.”  Bryant: “Their father wouldn’t let his girls play junior tournaments even though everyone played juniors.”  Also, no photos in either book.

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Blended by Sharon M. Draper

Published by Atheneum

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Summary:  Sixth-grader Isabella has a lot on her plate: her parents are divorced, and both get engaged to be remarried in the span of a few weeks.  Her mom is white and her dad is black, and Isabella has friends of different races. But when one of her friends is the victim of racist bullying, Isabella begins to feel like she has to choose sides.  Throughout the story, Isabella, a talented piantist, is preparing for a big recital.  A horrifying racially-charged incident on the way to that event derails her performance but leads to a reconciliation of sorts between the two sides of her family.  There are no easy answers, but Isabella emerges from the difficulties with a greater confidence borne of a greater sense of who she is. 320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Readers will connect with Isabella as she explores questions of how she fits into her world and deals with family difficulties that will undoubtedly be familiar to many.  The short chapters (all entitled “Mom’s Week”, “Dad’s Week”, or “Exchange Day” and Isabella’s honest voice will draw kids in right away.

Cons:  Isabella’s older stepbrother Darren was just a little too perfect to be true.

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The Eye That Never Sleeps: How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln by Marissa Moss, illustrations by Jeremy Holmes

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  In a follow-up to last year’s Kate Warne: Pinkerton Detective, Marissa Moss traces the history of Allan Pinkerton, the man who founded the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  Born in poverty in Scotland, Pinkerton had a good memory, sharp eyes, and a thirst for justice that got him into trouble with the British government.  He and his bride fled to America on their wedding day to escape his arrest.  In Chicago, he started a business making barrels, until he almost accidentally solved a counterfeiting case while collecting wood on an island.  He worked with the Chicago police for awhile, then started his own private investigation firm. Much of the book is about his most famous case, outwitting secessionists who planned to assassinate Abraham Lincoln as he traveled by train from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C.  It was a complicated operation that required disguises, codes, and moving Lincoln’s railroad car through the streets of Chicago in the middle of the night. Lincoln rewarded Pinkerton by appointing him to run the newly-formed Secret Service, an organization that exists to this day, as does PInkerton’s detective agency.  Includes a timeline, author’s and illustrator’s notes, a bibliography, and a brief index. 48 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Who doesn’t love a good spy story?  Or a rags-to-riches tale? Allan Pinkerton’s life provides both; Marissa Moss’s narrative and Jeremy Holmes’ unique illustrations will have readers turning the pages to see how Abraham Lincoln got safely to the White House.

Cons:  While the illustrations are very cool (they’re done on digital scratchboard and include vintage typography–read the artist’s note for more details, because, honestly, I don’t really know what that means), some of them could be a little confusing to younger readers.

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All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

Published by Schwartz and Wade

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Summary:  Gertie, the youngest of the five daughters in the all-of-a-kind family, is eager to help get ready for Hanukkah.  Her mother and older sisters grate potatoes, chop onions, and fry the latkes, but Mama says Gertie is too young to handle sharp kitchen utensils and hot oil.  Gertie eventually has a meltdown and is sent to the bedroom, where she hides under the bed she shares with her sister Charlotte. When Papa comes home, he invites her to help him light the first Hanukkah candle.  Suddenly, everything feels right again, and after Gertie and Papa light the candle together, the whole family sits down for a Hanukkah feast. Includes a glossary, a note from the author with more information about the original All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor, and a note from the illustrator.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  I was delighted to see a new book telling about one of my favorite fictional families from my childhood: the all-of-a-kind girls growing up in a tenement in turn-of-the-century New York City.  Everything I needed to know about Jewish holidays I learned in a Sydney Taylor book, and this beautifully illustrated picture book continues that with a sweet introduction to Hanukkah.

Cons:  I have mixed feelings about the revival of this beloved series in the hands of a new author and in picture book format.  

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