Elem. – Ciao, Sandro!

Varni, Steven. Ciao, Sandro! Abrams, 2021. 978-1-419-74390-0. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-2. 

Sandro is a small dog who accompanies his owner, Nicola, a Venetian gondolier, on his daily tours around the city. Sandro even dresses like a gondolier himself, with a striped shirt, red kerchief, and straw hat. Instead of joining Nicola on his tours, today Sandro disembarks the gondola and heads into Venice. He visits a series of friends, each of whom greet him by saying “Ciao, Sandro!” None of the individuals seem surprised to see Sandro. In fact, they almost seem to have been expecting him. Francesca the fruit seller shows Sandro some fruit; Avise, a friend of Nicola’s, reassures Sandro he hasn’t forgotten; and Giorgio the glassblower presents Sandro with a goblet and asks for his approval. When Sandro re-joins Nicola and they head home at the end of the day, it turns out that all Sandro’s visits were in preparation for a surprise birthday party for Nicola! Backmatter includes a glossary of the Italian words that are included in the text. 

THOUGHTS: Not only will readers enjoy guessing why Sandro spent the day purposefully visiting his friends, they will also gain an appreciation for the Italian city of Venice. On his journey Sandro passes through many well known landmarks, which are depicted in Luciano Lozano’s watercolor pencil, ink, and digital illustrations. Say “Ciao, Sandro!” and consider adding this title to libraries serving younger elementary readers.

Picture Book          Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg SD

Elem. – The Midnight Club

Goth, Shane. The Midnight Club. Owlkids, 2021. 978-1-771-47394-1. Unpaged. $19.95. Grades PreK-1. 

Milly and her older sister Becca are members of the Midnight Club. When the clock strikes midnight, they quietly slip downstairs to explore their darkened home. As any good club does, the Midnight Club has rules. The siblings must tiptoe around the criss-crossed shadows of the upstairs window panes. Another rule of this magical time at night is that they can do whatever they want–whether it be sitting in their father’s chair and sampling his jelly beans or trying on their mother’s coat. They are joined in their adventures by a third member of the club–Oliver the cat. When their eyes grow heavy and they begin to yawn, it’s time to bring the club meeting to an end and return to their room before they are discovered. Young Ling Kang’s watercolor, pencil and digital illustrations bathe the darkened house in hues of blue and purple, with yellow street lights shining in through windows. This helps to create the shadows that the girls use to make shapes on the wall during their nighttime escapades. 

THOUGHTS: A sibling secret club will be quite relatable to many children, as will the idea of embarking upon home-exploring adventures. Kang’s illustrations lend the story a sense of nighttime stillness and atmosphere perfect for night adventures. Recommended. 

Picture Book            Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg SD

MG – Playing a Dangerous Game

Ochieng, Patrick. Playing a Dangerous Game. Norton Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-324-01913-8. $17.95 186 p. Grades 5-8.

A coming-of-age young adult novel by a skilled Kenyan author, this book offers a glimpse into the life of Kenyan boys in the 1970s.  Lumush and his family are doing quite well after his father gets a promotion at his job, but the teenager is understandably worried about changing schools and still being able to relate to his long-time neighborhood friends. As Lumush and his friends hang around after school each day, talking and playing small pranks and games, they eventually work up the nerve to explore a nearby abandoned house that many people think is haunted. What the group find during their explorations is more than they bargained for, and they are caught in the middle of a dangerous, and perhaps murderous, illegal smuggling operation. 

THOUGHTS: Mystery, adventure, friendship and personal growth are all major elements of this unique novel. Lumush’s life, including his family, his friends, and his school troubles, are described in rich detail. This book offers a fascinating peek into the lives of Kenyans during the 1970s; although politics and economics are mostly mentioned in passing by adults in Lumush’s life, students with an interest in Kenyan history could use this novel as a way to contextualize the facts found in traditional history books. 

Mystery           Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem. – Word Travelers and the Taj Mahal Mystery

Haldar, Raj. Word Travelers and the Taj Mahal Mystery. Sourcebooks, 2021. 978-1-728-22205-9. 128 p. $5.99. Grades 1-3. 

Best friends Eddie and Molly-Jean (MJ) enjoy spending their Saturdays together playing games, watching movies, and having sleepovers. One day, a discussion about the meaning of the word “pajamas’’ leads the pair to discover an old book on word origins compiled by Eddie’s great-grandfather, a famous etymologist. When they open the book (which they nickname the Awesome Enchanted Book) to the entry on “pajama” they are magically transported to India, the country where the word originated. There they meet Dev, who is searching for an ancient family treasure in order to rebuild the local school, which was destroyed in a recent typhoon. Eddie and MJ team up with Dev to find the treasure. But they have competition–Mr. Raffles, the villain of the story, is also on the hunt for the riches! Working together, they decipher clues (with the help of the Awesome Enchanted Book, of course), race across the city, explore hidden passageways, and try to outsmart Mr. Raffles–but will they locate the treasure? Readers will learn about Indian culture as well as many words originating in the country. Bold words in the text can be found in a words origins glossary. The first volume in a projected series, readers will look forward to Eddie and MJ’s next adventure.

THOUGHTS: While readers may be drawn in by the mystery/adventure elements of the plot, they also will enjoy learning about the field of etymology and the origins and history of many words we use in everyday life. This series would be an ideal suggestion for fans of The Magic Treehouse books. Recommended.

Mystery          Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg SD

Elem. – Stick and Stone Best Friends Forever

Ferry, Beth. Stick and Stone Best Friends Forever. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021. Ill. Tom Lichtenheld. 978-0-358-47302-2. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PreK-1.

We’ve always heard, “Sticks and stones may break my bones…”, but when Stick and Stone get together, they don’t break bones. They play on a slide; they read books; they hike and canoe; they are best friends. So, when Stick decides he wants to find his family tree, Stone goes with him on his quest. “They wander [and] explore”, but Stick can’t find his family. When pinecone shows up after a scary experience in the forest, Stick realizes he may never find his family tree, but that’s okay because he’ll always have Stone. 

THOUGHTS: This is a beautifully illustrated story of what it means to be a family. Stick doesn’t know what type of tree he is, but Stone says that’s okay because they have one another, and it doesn’t matter “if you’re oak or you’re pine […] you’ll always be mine.” This story shows children that all friends and families come in different shapes and sizes, and it’s love for one another that makes a family. This is a wonderful story of acceptance, and as always, Tom Lichtenheld’s illustrations are vibrant and beautiful.

Picture Book          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

Stick and Stone are best friends. When Stick decides he wants to find out where he came from, the duo head out in search of Stick’s family tree. Their journey takes them through forests, across valleys and creeks, and into the mountains. Before long, they become lost and frightened. Eventually, they run into Pinecone, who guides them safely home. Although Stick doesn’t find his family tree, he does learn something about what family means and realizes that he had one all along. The rhyming verse and cheerful illustrations will have children devouring this delightful story about friendship.

THOUGHTS: I could see this book resonating especially with students from unconventional or broken homes. It could help them understand and appreciate the value of “found family.” Fans of Mo Willems’s Elephant & Piggy books would also enjoy this amusing tale of friendship.

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

YA – Faith: Greater Heights

Murphy, Julie. Faith: Greater Heights. ‎ Balzer and Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-89968-2. 352 p. $18.99. Grades 8-12. 

Ever a fan of anything Julie Murphy writes, diving into a magical realism book gives pause to some readers. The authentic writing style is descriptive enough to make the reader feel like they’re flying. This  is part two of Faith’s story, and she is fully aware of her superpowers but still not super sure how to deal with her grandmother’s dementia or how to cope with exes. Murphy’s world building and origin story preparation make it pretty clear that we can expect more to come on Faith’s story, with action plugged into scenes when Faith isn’t just trying to figure out normal life.

THOUGHTS: For Julie Murphy fans in general, this book should make its way onto high school shelves as long as book one is already there. While you’re at it, you can make sure you have a few of her other series as well. Murphy has a knack for writing in an inclusive way that feels like how it should’ve always been (spoiler: it should’ve been). Her writing is trustworthy and representative. 

Fantasy           Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

Elem. – Cornbread & Poppy

Cordell, Matthew. Cornbread & Poppy. Little, Brown and Company, 2022. 978-0-759-55486-3. 80 p. $6.99. Grades K-2.

Two mice who are the very best of friends have a real adventure in this charming chapter book! Cornbread is a planner. He is ready for the first snowfall, and his well-stocked larder is full of delicious fruit preserves, grains, and cheeses. Poppy is more carefree. She loves to hike, ride bikes, and go on adventures. Despite Cornbread’s reminders, she has put off foraging until it is all but too late. Cornbread can’t let his best friend go hungry, so he agrees to accompany Poppy up Holler Mountain in search of food for the long winter. But Holler Mountain is a scary place, with steep hills, snow, and predatory owls! Matthew Cordell’s irresistible illustrations, in pen and ink with cool watercolors, bring humor and gentle thrills to the little friends’ big excursion.

THOUGHTS: Both a friendship tale and a mild adventure story, Cornbread & Poppy is a book to read over and over again for the sweet scenes and special details. 

Chapter Book          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Elem. – The Collectors

Feagan, Alice. The Collectors. Kids Can Press, 2021. 978-1-525-30204-6. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PreK-2.

Winslow and Rosie, two young, intrepid naturalists, are seeking the pièce de résistance to their impressive collection. They pledge to locate something they never have found before and set off into the forest. They find a spectacular gem, but it is too heavy; the T-Rex skeleton is too big; a rainbow too far. Each marvel they encounter is problematic, and the girls walk farther and farther. When they come to a cave, Winslow and Rosie are certain this is where they will find something unique and extraordinary, but something finds them first, and the girls flee the cave, running all the way back to their cozy treehouse. At first, they claim the day a failure, but slowly they identify all the new experiences they had. Finally, something new and wonderful appears right under their noses. This gorgeous book celebrates treasures wherever we find them, big or small. Feagan’s cut-paper collage illustrations are warm and delightful, imbuing each girl with character. Winslow is portrayed as white, while Rosie has dark skin.

THOUGHTS: Reminiscent of Mac Barnett’s Sam and Dave Dig a Hole (without the Twilight Zonetwist) The Collectors will make a perfect read-aloud, tie in with art class, or just plain fun. Perfect for all collections serving a primary clientele.

Picture Book          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem. – Rescue at Lake Wild

Johnson, Terry Lynn. Rescue at Lake Wild. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 978-0-358-33285-9. 181 p. $16.99. Grades 3-6. 

Madi, who idolizes Jane Goodall, loves rescuing injured wild animals. She learned how to rehabilitate animals from her beloved Nana, who died four years ago, and is determined to follow in her footsteps. Madi’s parents, however, have had enough of her exploits and forbid her to bring any more animals home. But when Madi and her two best friends, Jack and Aaron, find a pair of dead beavers that have been shot, they investigate the beaver dam and find two orphaned beaver pups. Madi vows to save the pups, parental restrictions notwithstanding, and Jack, a future game warden, sees a mystery to be solved. The three 12-year-olds proceed, despite all common sense, to try to hide the beaver pups from Madi’s mom, track down why the beavers are provoking animosity in the town, and discover who is killing them. Johnson (Ice Dogs and others) scores again with this book for younger readers. The mystery provides a plot, but the heart of the story is Madi’s love of animals. Her struggles to raise the pups with the skills necessary to return to the wild make for fascinating reading, and readers will learn much about beavers, and wildlife rehabilitation. Madi is creative, inventive, and determined to do the right thing, even though she ends up making a huge personal sacrifice. Madi and Aaron are white, Jack, on the book cover, appears to have darker skin.

THOUGHTS: A great choice for animal lovers.

Mystery          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem. – A Fun Day at the Fun Park

Schaefer, Lola M. A Fun Day at the Fun Park. Simon Spotlight, 2021. 978-1-6659-0329-5. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PreK-1. 

A Fun Day at the Fun Park is the first book in the Sprinkles and Swirls graphic novel series designed for early readers. The protagonists of the series, Sprinkles and Swirls, are two adventure loving cupcakes. In this first volume, they escape the bakery to enjoy a day at the amusement park! At the park they enjoy activities such as riding the bumper cars, a flight simulator, a zip line, and go-karts. At the conclusion of their excursion, they touch up their wind-blown hair (aka frosting/toppings) with some spare frosting and sprinkles that Sprinkles carries in her handy fanny pack, and they return to the bakery just prior to closing. They fall asleep with dreams of their next adventure swirling through their heads. 

THOUGHTS: This enjoyable read is a great way to introduce young readers to the concept of graphic novels. In fact, the book starts with a few panels in which Sprinkles and Swirls explain to readers how to read the graphic novel format. The panels and text are large and use simple text, ideal for young readers. A worthwhile purchase for schools serving younger elementary students. 

Graphic Novel            Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg SD