Wordplay by Ivan Brunetti

Published by TOON Books

Summary:  What’s a compound word?  When a class of kids gets assigned the task of making a list of compound words for homework (hey, there’s one), imaginations start going wild.  Annemarie (whose name is a compound word!) pictures a couple of houses doing construction work when she hears the word “homework”.  “Mailman” conjures up a picture of a letter delivering the mail, and “football” is accompanied by an image of a boy tossing a foot.  The fun continues when Annemarie goes home and asks her parents for more suggestions.  Finally, it’s bedtime (!), but the next morning she’s still going strong, and can barely tear herself away from the list to turn it in to her teacher.  Then, it’s time for one more compound word…goodbye!  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  An appealing cartoon introduction to compound words that will have kids creating lists of their own.  The compound words are half red and half black to make them easy to identify.

Cons:  I was hoping there were more language arts books by TOON, but this seems to be the only one.

Martina and Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports by Phil Bildner, illustrated by Brett Helquist

Published by Candlewick Press

Summary:  During the 1970’s and 1980’s, women’s tennis was dominated by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.  Although they were staunch competitors and from countries that were engaged in a cold war (the U.S. and Soviet Union-controlled Czechoslovakia), the two were friends off the court and remain so to this day.  In the early years, Chrissie won the most; then Martina got more serious, and was ultimately victorious more times over the course of their careers.  But the important takeaway from their rivalry isn’t winning or losing, but how each one pushed and encouraged the other to be a better player and a better person.  Includes a three-page annotated timeline, a paragraph about both women’s lives after tennis, and a page of sources.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  The fast-paced, chatty writing will engage readers who may have never heard of these two tennis superstars from a generation ago.  Lessons on hard work and good sportsmanship can effortlessly be extracted from their story.  And don’t worry, Series of Unfortunate Events illustrator Helquist has rendered both players more Violet Baudelaire than Count Olaf.

Cons:  “The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports” is arguably a bit of an overstatement.

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.

If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  Sharks can seem scary, but a world without sharks is even scarier.  Because they’re at the top of the food chain, they keep the populations of their prey in balance.  By feeding on weaker animals, they allow the stronger ones to reproduce and survive.  Williams makes the case that removing sharks from the ecosystem could ultimately destroy the oceans and all the animals that depend on it for life–including humans.  The final two pages include additional information on why sharks are in trouble and what kids can do to help save them.  Also includes a glossary and bibliography; labeled drawings of a variety of shark species are included on the endpapers.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A simple yet scientific explanation of the interconnectedness of all species.  The focus on sharks will make this a popular choice for kids.

Cons:  The destruction of all life on earth is kind of a downer.

Apex Predators by Steve Jenkins

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Summary:  After a one-page explanation of what an apex predator is (animals at the top of their food chain), Jenkins launches into his trademark cut-paper illustrations with facts about various apex predators, past and present.  He starts with several modern-day animals, then works his way backward through time, from the giant short-faced bear (extinct 11,000 years ago) to the Anomalacaris (strange shrimp) that’s been extinct for 500 million years.  On the last two pages, he shows a couple imagined face-offs between living and extinct animals.  Who would win–the Siberian tiger or the Utahraptor?  The great white shark or the Dunkleasteus?  There’s also a sidebar about the deadliest predator of all times; bet you can guess what that is.  Includes a brief bibliography and a list of websites.  32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Jenkins has produced another collection of amazing illustrations and kid-friendly facts.  Readers will wish for more of the “Who would win?” scenarios…maybe they could learn about some of the apex predators and create their own.

Cons:  After reading many Steve Jenkins books, some of his facts sound familiar.

Restart by Gordon Korman

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  When Chase Ambrose falls of the roof of his house, the blow to his head causes complete amnesia.  After getting reacquainted with his family, he starts back to school, where he discovers he has been a superstar athlete and the biggest bully in the eighth grade.  The kids in the video club that he now wants as friends were once his biggest victims.  His old friends Aaron and Bear can’t understand why he’s turned into such a goody-two-shoes.  The three of them are doing community service at a retirement home as punishment for one of their worst misdeeds, and Chase befriends a crotchety war veteran there who may hold a clue to more of Chase’s former life.  As his memory begins to return in brief flashbacks, Chase has to make a choice between who he used to be and who he wants to become.  256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Told in the usual Gordon Korman style of short chapters from many different points of view, this funny and thought-provoking look at the middle school social hierarchy will definitely be a popular choice for many readers.

Cons:  Chase’s complete transformation was occasionally difficult to believe.

Up, Up, Up, Skyscraper! by Anastasia Suen, illustrated by Ryan O’Rourke

Published by Charlesbridge

Summary:  What’s going on behind that fence?  A group of kids gets to put on hard hats and take a look at every step of the construction of a skyscraper. Each two-page spread has four lines of rhyming text, supplemented with a few sentences explaining the process.  The illustrations have labels to identify machines used, as well as different parts of the structure.  A small inset picture gives a macro view of what the building looks like at each step.  The last page unfolds upward to show the finished skyscraper.  32 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  A fun and accessible introduction to building a skyscraper.  Construction enthusiasts will love studying the pictures, while those less familiar with the process will learn a lot.

Cons:  The fold-out page seemed a little ill-fitting and was already starting to rip a bit when I unfolded it.