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.
Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn is the debut picture book of author/illustrator Kenard Pak. The book’s premise is summarized in its title: a girl observes the subtle changes in her surroundings as the season changes from summer into autumn. The girl greets natural elements such as plants, animals, and weather, and each returns her greeting with a description of how they are preparing for autumn. The result is lovely, lyrical prose beautifully framed with repetition and rhythm. (Example: “Hello, breezy wind.” “Hello! I love to whoosh drizzle and leaves through the misty streets.”)
Stunning artwork first draws the reader’s attention and makes re-readings a pure delight. The changing color palette as the book progresses further captures the essence of summer turning into autumn.
I have come across several books for children that focus on a particular season, or even the cycle of all the seasons, but not as many that survey the changing of one season into another. With the inclusion of trees and flowers, mammals, birds, insects, and weather, this book borders on creative non-fiction (though I’d still put it in the fiction section).
I recommend this book for ages 4-8, and it can be a great book to use at the start of the school year with its seasonal theme. Pak created a second book in the series, Goodbye Autumn, Hello Winter, which is beautifully done as well. I hope Mr. Pak will finish out the cycle with the remaining seasonal transitions.
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.
When I first read Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, all I could think was this sizzles. I had never encountered writing such as this. It is so full of energy and practically leaps off the page.
Josh is a basketball standout. He is rivaled only by his twin brother Jordan. Josh and Jordan have to learn to live with each other, both on and off the court. Josh has to deal with consequences for some bad decisions, but the value of family becomes most important as the book pushes to the final climax.
The Crossover earned Alexander a Newbery Medal. I highly recommend it for ages 12-14. The novel-in-verse format, with its open white spaces and lower word count will appeal especially to reluctant readers, while its literary merit makes it a solid book choice for any reader. The content will appeal to athletes, and I believe young men will be particularly interested in the story.
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.
Not many picture books tackle the difficult topic of homelessness, and fewer books feature a homeless child character. Still a Family, by Brenda Reeves Sturgis, illustrated by Jo-Shin Lee, affirms the family unit, even when the situation is less than ideal.
A young girl, her mother, and her father are split apart as they reside in separate homeless shelters. But they are still a family. They meet to play at the park , wait in lines for dinner, and look for work, and they are still a family. Weeks and months go by. They celebrate holidays and birthdays. They are still a family.
This book celebrates familial love and gives voice to all the children whose families do not have a place to call home. I recommend it for ages 4-8.
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.
Water is Water: A Book About the Water Cycle by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Jason Chin is a beautiful picture book, both in text and illustrations. In a gentle yet engaging manner, it introduces young readers to the water cycle. The rhyming text and cleverly placed page turns make this book a wonderful book to read aloud because there are many opportunities for interaction and participation between reader and listener.
The text is simple, but there are four pages at the end of the book that provide more detailed information about water. In these pages, scientific words (such as evaporation and condensation) are defined and there are some fun facts about the water content of familiar objects.
I highly recommend Water is Water for children ages 4-8. As a lyrical nonfiction science text, it would be a great addition to any classroom or home library.