Out of Left Field by Ellen Klage

Published by Viking

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Summary:  Katy Gordon is the star pitcher of her 1957 neighborhood baseball team.  One afternoon, wearing a jersey and cap and being called “Gordon” by the boys, she’s invited by a Little League scout to a tryout.  She makes the team, but when one of the other boys tells the coach that she’s a girl, she’s promptly kicked off.  Supported by her chemistry professor mother, she writes to Little League headquarters, but receives a disappointing response that includes the sentence, “Since the beginning of baseball as an organized sport, it has always been the sole province of male athletes.”  When Katy is assigned a research project at school, she decides to research women in baseball and is shocked to learn how many women have played since the beginning of the game.  Her project gets her some local attention, a story in the paper, and the chance to strike out Willie Mays, but even that isn’t enough to get her back into Little League.  In the end, she’s back to the neighborhood team; the final scene shows her reaching out to a younger girl who wants to play as well.  Includes information about the women Katy researches; an author’s note; a glossary; and additional resources.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Katy is a spunky narrator who will have boys and girls rooting for her in her campaign against the unfair Little League rules.  There are plenty of other interesting historical details, from Katy’s mother’s fight against McCarthyism at her university job to Katy receiving one of the new Frisbees for her birthday.

Cons:  On page 245, Katy’s friend Jules dismisses the Nancy Drew mysteries in this way: “They’re all about the same. Nancy has adventures, her chums get into trouble, Ned rescues them all (emphasis mine), and the mystery gets solved along the way.”  Having read more than 40 Nancy Drew books in my childhood, I feel safe in saying Nancy rescued Ned at least as often as the other way around.

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Night Out by Daniel Miyares

Published by Schwartz and Wade

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Summary:  A boy eats and sleeps alone in some kind of all-boy institution (a boarding school? An orphanage?).  One night he finds an invitation propped up against the bowl housing his pet turtle.  He sneaks out and rides his bike to the shore, where a large turtle ferries him across the water to a cave.  There’s a party going on, and the other animals welcome him with open arms (and wings).  After a night of tea and dancing, he returns to his room.  His turtle can be seen returning to his bowl just as the boy is climbing through the window. The last page shows the boy sharing the story with his new (human) friends. 40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This almost wordless book (38 words) is a celebration of the power of stories to connect with others.  The dedication says it all: “Dedicated to the dreamers. May you always feel invited.”  Daniel Miyares’ evocative illustrations perfectly capture the child’s loneliness and the power of his imagination to create a happy world for himself.

Cons:  Knowing that Daniel Miyares has created beautiful wordless picture books, I felt like the words in this one were unnecessary.

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Big Bunny by Rowboat Watkins

Published by Chronicle Books

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Summary:  A bedtime story about a bunny is told as a conversation between two narrators.  It’s a big bunny…a ginormously scary bunny?…no, just big, and he lives on…a ginormous FLOATING CARROT?…no, just a round planet.  And so on, with one narrator looking for a horror story while the other tries to rein her in.  The narratives are told with two fonts to help the reader differentiate.  The final pages reveal the parent and child who are doing the storytelling and when you find out what they are, their terror of bunnies all makes sense.  40 pages; ages 4-7.

Pros:  Kids will find this silly story with its goofy illustrations absolutely hilarious.

Cons:  That cute little bunny nibbling grass in my backyard seems suddenly ominous.

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Camp Panda: Helping Cubs Return to the Wild by Catherine Thimmesh

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Pandas almost disappeared from China after poaching and habitat destruction nearly wiped them out.  Yet over the last few decades, the number of pandas has slowly risen, thanks to intensive conservation efforts.  The author examines both the issues of what caused their decline and how scientists have slowly helped reintroduce pandas into the wild.  Early efforts didn’t always succeed, and these are documented as well. Interestingly, there are those who believe pandas should be allowed to die out as part of the natural order, and this point of view is also explored.  The final chapter summarizes successes, not only in the panda conservation movement, but in helping other endangered species. Includes glossary, sources, index, and a list of ways to help endangered species. 64 pages; grade 4-7.

Pros:  Sibert medalist Catherine Thimmesh (Team Moon) gives a complete, engaging picture of the state of the panda, an animal whose adorableness has led to it becoming the face of the World Wildlife Fund.  And speaking of adorable, readers of all ages will enjoy the many photos illustrating the text.

Cons:  I know they’re an important part of the conservation process, but it’s hard for me to take the guys in panda suits seriously.

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Power Forward (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream) by Hena Khan, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

Published by Salaam Reads/Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Fourth grader Zayd dreams of making the gold team in basketball, but he feels like he’s got a long way to go.  For one thing, he’s the shortest kid in his class and weighs less than 60 pounds.  For another, his mother is thrilled he’s been asked to join advanced orchestra and is certain his future lies with playing the violin.  When Zayd discovers his friends are coming to school early for extra basketball practice, he makes up a story to skip early-morning orchestra and plays with them instead.  His mom catches him eventually, and Zayd is grounded for two weeks…with basketball tryouts just nine days away.  Zayd is sure he’s doomed to play another season on the D team until his uncle gives him some useful advice about how to follow his dream.  144 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  An exciting, true-to-life sports story with interesting glimpses into Zayd’s Pakistani-American family and their culture.  Matt Christopher fans not quite ready for Mike Lupica will enjoy getting to know Zayd and can look forward to at least two more books in this series.

Cons:  Readers may wish for a little more actual sports action.  It looks like this may be coming in book 2.

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The Party and Other Stories by Sergio Ruzzier

Published by Chronicle Books

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Summary:  Friends Fox and Chick share three stories for early readers.  In the first, Chick asks to use Fox’s bathroom, then proceeds to have a party with her friends there.  Next, Chick can’t understand why Fox prefers vegetables to small animals, but when she realizes she herself is a small animal, is happy to share his vegetable soup.  Finally, Chick asks Fox to paint her portrait, but can’t sit still look enough for him to do it.  56 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Early readers will love the cartoon dialogue and friendship reminiscent of Elephant and Piggie or Frog and Toad.  With any luck, this will be the beginning of a new series.

Cons:  A friendship between a fox and a chick makes me a bit nervous.

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Ebb and Flow by Heather Smith

Published by Kids Can Press

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Summary:  Jett makes it clear from the beginning of this novel in verse that he’s had a “rotten bad year”.  After his father was imprisoned for killing a family while driving drunk, Jett’s life began to spiral downward.  He became friends with the class bully, and eventually learned that his friend has his own sad reasons for his bad behavior.  Jett’s spending the summer with his grandmother, who loves him unconditionally and uses her tough love to help him come to terms with some of the bad choices he’s made.  He and Grandma tell each other stories from their lives that help Jett to see he’s not the only one who’s made mistakes. Set on the northeast coast of Canada, Jett allows the beautiful beaches and sea help him to heal and move forward into what he hopes will be a better year for him.  232 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A beautiful collection of poems about learning to forgive and let go of the past.  Despite Jett’s troubled past, he is a likeable narrator, and his story moves back and forth in time, allowing the reader to get to know him while slowly learning of his difficult year.

Cons:  Although the ending is ultimately hopeful, there’s a lot of sadness in the story.

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