Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary Schmidt

Published by Clarion Books

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Summary:  When the doorbell rings on the first day of school, the last person Carter Jones expects to see is a butler wearing a suit and a bowler hat.  But Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, a “gentleman’s gentleman” has come to look after the Jones family. And it turns out, they need some looking after.  Carter, a sixth grader, is the oldest of four, and as the story unfolds, the reader learns that number used to be five. Carter’s younger brother died not too long ago; their father was deployed overseas and didn’t make it home before Currier died.  Carter can’t forgive his father for that, or for another transgression that the reader slowly learns about. It’s pretty heavy stuff, but Mr. B-F helps Carter deal with it through the game of cricket. He takes Carter and his friend Billy to the middle school field one morning after dressing them in cricket whites, and practically hypnotizes the eighth grade cross-country team into joining them.  Before long, cricket fever has swept the school. A final showdown between Team Britannia and Team India provides a satisfying conclusion to the book and a chance for Carter to see the important role he has to play in his family. 224 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  In the first book of the year that may get some Newbery consideration, Gary Schmidt adroitly weaves a complicated, funny story that’s told by a reluctant narrator who only slowly reveals his past.  There are several layers to the story, and readers may need some help to appreciate them all, but it would make a perfect sixth-grade book club selection or read aloud.

Cons:  There was an awful lot about cricket in the story.

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Trapped in Room 217 by Thomas Kingsley Troupe

Published by Jolly Fish Press

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Summary:  When Jayla and Dion’s father gets a last-minute request to come do some work in Rocky Mountain National Park, the family goes on a week-long trip to Estes Park in Colorado.  They stay in Room 217 of the Stanley Hotel, which they soon learn is allegedly the most haunted room of a hotel rumored to be full of ghosts. On the first night, both kids see the ghost of a maid who seems to be looking for something in their room.  Further investigations and interviews with staff lead them to other ghostly encounters, including a creepy incident where they are trapped in a dark basement. Jayla’s wrong guess about what Room 217’s guest is looking for almost results in disaster, but with the help of some friendly hotel staff, peace is restored.  Includes a note from the author with more information about the Stanley Hotel. 136 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  Goosebumps fans will love this new series, which features real-life haunted places across the U.S. (Stephen King got the idea for The Shining when he stayed in room 217 of the Stanley).  The books are pretty short, with quite a few illustrations, making them a good choice for younger students and reluctant readers.

Cons:  The writing is a bit stiff, and there are some unexplained plot holes.

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Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Gittel and her mother are immigrating to America from Russia, but when Mama gets turned back due to an eye infection, 9-year-old Gittel is on her own.  She has a piece of paper with her cousin Mendel’s address in America to help get her where she is supposed to go. After a long and sometimes lonely journey, Gittel arrives at Ellis Island.  She produces the paper, but after so many weeks of her clutching it, the ink with the address has turned into a big blue blob. While Gittel is waiting for the immigration officers to decide what to do with her, someone takes her picture.  After a night in an Ellis Island dormitory, cousin Mendel shows up. It turns out Gittel’s photo was in a Jewish newspaper, and he recognized her. They go home together, and a few months later Mama is able to join them. Includes an author’s note with information on the two women who inspired Gittel’s story, as well as a glossary and bibliography.  48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Kids will find Gittel’s story engaging and learn something about early 20th-century immigration and Ellis Island.  The happy ending seems a bit unrealistic, but it’s actually based on a true story.

Cons:  It’s a little long for a read-aloud.

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One-Third Nerd by Gennifer Choldenko, illustrated by Églantine Ceulemans

Published by Wendy Lamb Books

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Summary:  Fifth-grader Liam has a lot on his plate, what with divorced parents, a third-grade sister, Dakota, who loves science but lacks people skills, a second-grade sister, Izzy, who has Down syndrome and is a champion hugger, and a dog. Cupcake, who has started peeing on the carpet.  The last issue results in their landlord threatening eviction if they don’t get rid of Cupcake. The vet has told them that they need to see a $3,000 specialist, and the kids are determined to raise the money. Dakota tries by entering a science fair and by selling the family’s possessions on eBay (without their permission), but it’s Izzy who comes up with the idea that saves the day.  The ending is happy, if not necessarily happily-ever-after. 224 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Readers will quickly warm up to Liam, who is frustrated by his family members, but ultimately a loyal and protective big brother.  The story is both funny and heartwarming; the illustrations (which channel Hilary Knight) make it a good choice for younger middle-grade readers.

Cons:  Sorry, Cupcake, if I were the mom, you would have probably ended up moving to a farm in the country.

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A Story About Cancer (With a Happy Ending) by India Desjardins, illustrated by Marianne Ferrer, translated by Solange Ouellet

Published by Lincoln Children’s Books

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Summary:  A 15-year-old girl and her parents are walking through a hospital on their way to a doctor’s visit to learn if she is cancer-free or not.  As they go, she remembers everything that has happened in the five years since she was diagnosed with leukemia. Her friend and hospital roommate Maxine died.  She has met and fallen in love with a boy named Victor. She talks about her relationships with family members–how frustrated she has gotten when her mother calls her strong when she feels weak, and how she feels bad that she has gotten more attention than her younger sister.  Finally, they get to the doctor’s office. The reader doesn’t hear what the doctor says, only the family members’ reactions–the girl and her mother cry, while her father pats her on the shoulder, unable to express his emotions. It’s only when she gets outside and sees Victor waiting that she tells him and the rest of us the good news: “I’m cured!”  Includes an author’s note about the girl who inspired this story. 96 pages; grades 6-9.

Pros:  This illustrated/graphic book is a quick but powerful read.  Despite the spoiler title, you’ll still feel the anxiety of the family as they await the doctor.  Cancer patients and their friends and families will benefit from hearing the perspective of a girl who has been through treatment and encouraged by her happy ending.

Cons:  I wasn’t a big fan of the somewhat surreal illustration style.

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Hats Off to Mr. Pockles! By Sally Lloyd-Jones, illustrated by David Litchfield

Published by Schwartz and Wade

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Summary:  Mr. Pockles doesn’t have any friends, but he sure has a lot of hats.  “For Mr. Pockles, going without a hat was as unthinkable as going around without any pants on.”  When Hat Day at the PandaPolitan Club rolls around, Mr. Pockles is depressed not to be able to go because he’s not a panda.  Donning his Jaunty Hat With a Friendly Feather, he heads for the Treat House to try to cheer himself up. Unfortunately, panda extraordinaire Lady Coco Fitz-Tulip shows up, wearing a spectacular fruit-laden hat and bragging about her upcoming day at the Club  When a couple of baby bunnies get into the fruit, Mr. Pockles comes to the rescue, bringing not only Lady Coco, but the whole Treat House gang back to his house for some hats. The panda declares them all friends and invites them to join her for the hat soiree at her PandaPolitan. 40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  It’s a fun story, from that first sentence (quoted above) to Lady Coco’s final cheer of “Hats off to Mr. Pockles!”  The illustrations are sensational, with brilliant colors and a staggering variety of hats.

Cons:  Even with her change of heart, Lady Coco seems pretty obnoxious, and the PandaPolitan club, cruelly exclusive (“And pandas, as everyone knows, are very Black-and-White.  Either you are a panda, or you are not.”).

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Fearless Mary: Mary Fields, American Stagecoach Driver by Tami Charles, illustrated by Claire Almon

Published by Albert Whitman and Company

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Summary:  When Mary Fields heard about a job opening for a stagecoach driver to make deliveries to a school over the mountains, she was determined to get hired.  She lined up with forty cowboys to apply for the job, but the manager wasn’t interested in considering a black woman. Mary wouldn’t go away, though, and finally she got a chance what she could do.  The manager was so impressed by her skills with horses and driving that he hired her, and she became the first black female stagecoach driver in Cascade, Montana. Traveling with her trained eagle, she fought off thieves and wolves, and never lost a horse or package.  Mary held the job for eight years, into her seventies, and paved the way for other women to become mail deliverers. Includes an author’s note with additional information about Mary. 32 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  A little-known story of a fearless and determined woman, told in a way that will be understandable and interesting to primary-grade kids.

Cons:  So little is known about Mary’s life that the author says some of the scenes and dialogue are made up, making this a cross between biography and historical fiction.

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