Katherine Applegate opened readers’ eyes to animal rights in her Newbery-winning The One and Only Ivan by showing us the world through Ivan’s perspective. Applegate uses a similar technique in her newest middle grade novel, Wishtree, to explore difficult themes of inclusion and acceptance. Narrated by the oak tree Red, Wishtree weaves a story of friendship that dares to cross cultural boundaries.
Samar is new to the neighborhood. She is also Muslim. The neighbors are less than welcoming, and when a hate crime bluntly tells the new family to “Leave,” Samar is afraid her family will be forced to relocate again. Unwilling to stand idly by, Red breaks his own policy of staying out of human business. He orchestrates circumstances that in turn help next-door neighbor Stephen and Samar to become friends.
Wishtree is a lovely book that can initiate important conversations about how we interact with others. The reading level is appropriate for ages 8-12, though I believe the content is best for ages 10+. It’s a fast read, with many short chapters and beautiful illustrations (both also features of The One and Only Ivan), and with its important themes of acceptance and courage, Wishtree would also be a good choice for older readers with lower reading ability.
This gem by Adam Rex is not your typical rhyming picture book. Instead of the rhyming couplets we’ve come to expect in children’s books, Rex fills the pages with internal rhymes while cleverly highlighting all types of fruit and even including a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche. That’s right. You’ll have to read it to find out how.
The illustrations are a fun fusion of photography (of real fruit) and overlaying illustration to bring the fruit to life. The result is bright and colorful, perfect for the comical text.
And though this book is pure fun, it manages to have some educational purposes as well. On a surface level, many types of fruit are introduced, including some that stray from the typical lineup found in lunch boxes. On a deeper level, the underlying theme promotes friendship and personal worth.
I recommend Nothing Rhymes With Orange for ages 4 and up. This one really isn’t just for little kids – older kids, teens, and adults will get a laugh out of this book too.
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey is a beautiful book, and I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard about it before stumbling upon it in the library. Author Margaret Ruurs tackles a difficult and current topic by telling the story of a fictional refugee family’s journey from their endangered home to the hope of safe haven in a foreign land. Ruurs skillfully weaves a tale that is appropriate for young readers, yet it doesn’t minimize the danger the refugees face.
Nizar Ali Badr’s artwork is the true star of this book. He illustrates the story in stone-scapes, using only stones to create scenes. When I first read this book, I was stunned at how this stone artwork has so much life infused into it. It seems counterintuitive, but there is so much expression in the stone figures. Badr is himself Syrian, and he created his scenes with materials that were available to him there. In fact, Ruurs wrote the story after seeing Badr’s artwork, wanting desperately to bring his work to the attention of others.
Stepping Stones would be a wonderful book to introduce children to the plight of refugees. While the content is likely okay for children of all ages, I believe children ages 8 and up will benefit most from the meaningful conversations that may follow its reading.
Rhino in the House: The True Story of Saving Samia by Daniel Kirk tells the true account of conservationist Anna Merz and her efforts to provide sanctuary to Africa’s rhinos. Anna created an animal sanctuary to protect the wildlife from poachers. She rescued an abandoned rhino calf, which she named Samia and raised as a pet in her home.
Naturally, as the rhino grew bigger, it became more difficult for Anna to keep Samia at home. Children will entertained as they learn about some of the problems Samia caused, such as barging in while Anna was taking a bath! Anna reintroduced Samia to the wild, though the two continued to meet and share their special bond.
There are four pages at the end of the book that include photographs of Anna, Samia, and other African wildlife. An author’s note goes into further detail on Anna’s preservation efforts, and a bibliography guides students in further research. I recommend this book for ages 4 and up.
The Westing Game, for which author Ellen Raskin earned the Newbery Medal, has entertained young sleuths for nearly 40 years. Wealthy business tycoon Sam Westing has named the 16 tenants of Sunset Towers as heirs in his will. Furthermore, he placed the individuals into teams of two, gave them clues and $10,000, and charged them with figuring out the details of his death. The first team to solve the mystery will inherit his estate.
The Westing Game is full of puzzles, word games, and fun plot twists to keep readers on their toes. Once the solution is revealed, its cleverness almost begs the reader to start the book over again in order to re-read the book now having a full understanding of the events.
Fans of The Westing Game might also enjoy Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman. Emily and her family move to San Francisco. Emily is excited for the change because that brings her closer to Mr. Griswold, creator of the Book Scavenger game that she loves to play. Players hide books and post clues of the books’ whereabouts on the internet. Players earn points by being the first to find books, so the race is always on!
Emily and her new friend, James, find a mysterious book that is directly tied to Mr. Griswold, who has recently been attacked. Emily and James learn that their hunt may not only help them win the game, but may also solve the mystery of Griswold’s attack.
Book Scavenger contains ciphers, word puzzles, historical references, and other clues. Emily and James create some of the clues themselves, so the reader also gets a behind-the-scenes look at the logical process that goes into these puzzlers.
I recommend both The Westing Game and Book Scavenger for ages 10-14. Book Scavenger is a bit heavier on the coding and ciphers, which might make it better suited towards older children in that age bracket, but readers who don’t fully grasp the puzzles will still enjoy the fast-paced plot.
I may be biased towards liking this book, because I am a female mathematician. There had been a time when I had considered becoming an aerospace engineer. I wanted to work for NASA. After I discovered that engineering wasn’t quite the right path for me, I instead earned my Ph.D. in applied and interdisciplinary mathematics (what a mouthful!), specializing in mathematical biology. Still, I can’t deny that I still find the idea of space exploration rather captivating.
When I found out there was a Young Readers’ edition of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, I knew I wanted to check it out. This book highlights the lives and achievements of a handful of African American women who made substantial contributions to aviation and our nation’s space program. The fact that they were female mathematicians at a time when few women earned college degrees made this story worth telling. Add to that the extra obstacle of being treated as less-than-equals to their caucasian peers, and one can’t help but feel admiration and respect for these intelligent women and all that they accomplished.
Hidden Figures will appeal most to children ages 10-12, and maybe even ages 8-10 for very strong readers. Of course, older readers may also appreciate learning about this fascinating slice of history – I know I did. This book will encourage all readers to rise above adversity and work hard to realize one’s dreams.
Duncan Tonatiuh’s books are well received, winning various awards. A Mexican-American author and artist, his illustrations have a unique style that celebrates his heritage. The content of his books draws from Mexican-American history and culture, from biographies to legends.
In Separate is Never Equal, Tonatiuh presents the story of the Mendez family, focusing on daughter Sylvia. After moving to Westminster, California, the Mendez children attended public school, only to be told that they needed to go to the Mexican school instead. The Mendez family was infuriated, and rightfully so. Sylvia’s father, Gonzalo, was from Mexico, but had become a U. S. citizen. Her mother, Felícitas, was from the U. S. territory, Puerto Rico. The children were U. S. citizens and spoke perfect English.
The Mendez family filed a lawsuit against the Westminster schools. The court ruled in favor of the Mendez family, which led to the desegregation of schools in California, seven years before the famous Brown v. Board of Education case desegregated schools in the entire country.
I found this story riveting. I was somewhat embarrassed that I knew absolutely nothing about the Mendez case before reading this book. The case paved the way for similar lawsuits and led to awareness for racial equality, so why do we not teach our students about it?
I highly recommend this picture book for ages 6-10, though I think even younger children may be captivated by the illustrations, and older students will be interested in reading a little known piece of history. Separate is Never Equal would be a wonderful addition for any study on U. S. History or in discussion of current events and the fight for racial equality. The biographical matter, family photographs, bibliography, and glossary at the back of the book make it easy for students to dig a little deeper to learn more about the Mendez family.
If you are looking for a fun read aloud book for the whole family, try Fenway and Hattie by Victoria J. Coe. Winner of the 2017 Global Read Aloud award in the early reader category, this book will be a favorite for dog lovers as the story is told from the perspective of a dog!
Fenway is a feisty Jack Russell terrier who loves his owner, Hattie. When Fenway and Hattie (and big humans Food Lady and Fetch Man) leave their city apartment for a home in the suburbs, Fenway has a myriad of new challenges to overcome. Evil squirrels, a dog-less dog park, and the Wicked Floor. But none of these problems is as big as the possibility that Hattie may be drifting away. Fenway will have to think of a big plan to win back the affections of his favorite short human.
Fenway and Hattie can be read aloud to kids of all ages, but it will probably be most enjoyed by those ages 5-10. For independent reading, I recommend it for ages 7 (strong readers) to 10.
If you are seeking a good laugh, then look no further. President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett and Chris Van Dusen is a humorous interpretation of the speculative story that President Taft did indeed get stuck in his bath. Barnett’s prose is witty and comically irreverent. Van Dusen’s illustrations add another layer of hilarity to create picture book perfection.
Candlewick Press recommends this book for ages 4-8, but I believe all audiences will find great enjoyment in it. Young children will laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation and the illustrations that play out Taft’s indelicate dilemma. Older children and adults will appreciate the incorporated wordplay as government officials are brought in to help Taft out of the bath.
There is some uncertainty as to whether Taft was ever stuck in his bath, but there are two pages in the back that recount some of the theories. In addition, there is a funny historical account of Taft’s factual interactions with bathtubs. As such, President Taft is Stuck in the Bath would be an entertaining supplement when studying this president in American history.
I’ve already mentioned several books illustrated by Caldecott Winner Melissa Sweet, but I didn’t want to leave this one out. In what was clearly a labor of love, Sweet wrote and illustrated Some Writer!, which is long enough to be a middle grade novel, but also has the feel of one of Sweet’s picture books.
Many will recognize E. B. White as the iconic writer of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Trumpet of the Swan, but I doubt many know much about his life. Even though Charlotte’s Web is one of my favorite books, I admit I did not know what E. B. stood for. (Elwyn Brooks, for those interested.)
Sweet covers White’s life from beginning to end, enriching the narrative by incorporating writing from White’s letters, essays, and books. We read of White’s summers in Maine as a boy, and readers of Trumpet of the Swan will see how much nature inspired White, even at an early age. We learn about the connection to Professor William Strunk, Jr. that would later lead to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. We are introduced to White’s adventurous days in which he roamed from one end of the country, supporting himself by odd jobs and various writing gigs. We gain a deeper connection to White’s personal life in learning more about his wife, son, and stepchildren. White’s granddaughter, Martha, even provided an afterword and granted Sweet access to some of White’s personal items and letters.
There are chapters that discuss the background and making of each of White’s books. Young readers may be surprised to learn about White’s ongoing employment with the elite literary magazine, The New Yorker. Through captions and editorial comments, we witness White’s sense of humor and his love for playing with words.
Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White is a great nonfiction read for those who love his work, and it is inspiring to future writers. The book is appropriate for ages eight and up, though I suspect older readers will catch more of the details that make the book so interesting.