Elem. – The Shark Report (Benny McGee and the Shark Book 1)

Anderson, Derek. The Shark Report (Benny McGee and the Shark Book 1). Penguin Workshop, 2020. 978-0-593-09338-2. 64 p. $15.99. Grades 1-3.

Benny McGee is scared of swimming in the ocean because of sharks. He knows a lot about sharks because he is learning about them for a school report. When a shark appears at his house, Benny doesn’t know what to do. His father suggests Benny invite the shark in, so he does, thus beginning his friendship with the shark. When Benny’s shark report is due and he realizes he never wrote it, he decides to take Mr. Chompers with him to school as his report. But, Benny forgot today is also the day the deep-sea fisherman is scheduled to visit his class.  When the deep-sea fisherman sees Mr. Chompers, Benny must decide which is more important: his report or his new friend.

THOUGHTS: This early chapter book is a fun, fact-filled read.  Anderson includes lots of accurate information about sharks while keeping the narrative light-hearted. Emerging readers will enjoy Mr. Chomper’s shenanigans while also connecting with Benny’s fears and how he overcomes them. Book 2 of Benny McGee and the Shark, We are Famous, is also available now.

Early Chapter Book          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

Elem. – Tiny T. Rex and the Very Dark Dark

Stutzman, Jonathan. Tiny T. Rex and the Very Dark Dark. Ill. Jay Fleck. Chronicle Books, 2020. 978-1-4521-7034-3. Unpaged. $15.99. Gr. PreK-1.

Tiny T. Rex and his best friend, Pointy, are ready for their first campout.  There’s just one problem; both are afraid of the dark. Inside the dark isn’t quite so dark, but outside the dark is DARK! Together, Rex and Pointy devise a plan to keep them safe from the Grumbles, Nom-bies, and Crawly-creeps that lurk in the dark. But, when their plan doesn’t go quite right, Rex and Pointy learn to open their eyes and see the light in their fear of the dark.

THOUGHTS: This second installment in the Tiny T. Rex series shares a common fear amongst children: fear of the dark. Through make-believe creatures, Rex and Pointy confront their fear and learn to be brave in the face of fear. The illustrations represent the dark well through dark backgrounds and bright characters, pjs (Pointy’s are specially made to cover his spikes), and various items when the friends are outside, and bright, light images when they are indoors devising their plan. The theme of working together to confront fear is prominent but not overshadowing of the actual fear children face in the dark. This is a great story to help children face their fears.

*Jonathan Stutzman is a PA author who lives in Palymra.

Picture Book        Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

Elem. – Hotel Flamingo

Milway, Alex. Hotel Flamingo. Kane Miller, 2020. 978-1-684-64126-0. 192 p. $5.99. Grades 1-3. 

Anna has her work cut out for her when she inherits the Hotel Flamingo from her great-aunt Mathilde. The once successful hotel is now a former shell of itself, run-down with only a few employees. Anna is determined to bring the hotel back to life and make it the best hotel on Animal Boulevard. Though Anna is a young girl, the rest of the characters populating this charming book are animals! Anna soon has a complete staff helping her to get the hotel up and running including T. Bear the doorman, Madame Le Pig (chef), Stella Giraffe (handywoman) and Squeak the mouse (bellboy), among others. Their goal–to make Hotel Flamingo the sunniest and most welcoming hotel in the area. Soon, a variety of guests arrive, including a family of cockroaches, a tortoise, and even flamingoes. Anna soon realizes that running a successful hotel catering to a menagerie of guests will require staff teamwork, creative thinking and a can-do spirit. Will Hotel Flamingo succeed?

THOUGHTS: This charming story is perfect for beginning chapter book readers who will no doubt appreciate both the heart and humor present throughout the plot. As the hotel staff work to restore Hotel Flamingo, characteristics such as teamwork, cooperation, and ingenuity are woven into the storyline. What really elevates this title is the inclusion of illustrations (drawn by the author) that help to bring the animals and their unique characteristics to life. Hotel Flamingo is the first volume in a four volume series–I can’t wait to read more about these characters!

Fantasy (Animal)            Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg SD

Elem. – Perfect Pigeons

Battersby, Katherine. Perfect Pigeons. Simon & Schuster, 2020. 978-1-534-45781-2. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-2. 

Look up! A flock of brightly colored pigeons is in the sky! According to members of the flock, they are perfect pigeons, because they are all “perfectly the same.” While the pigeons might certainly all look the same, it is quickly apparent to readers that one pigeon is different from the rest. He sports round red glasses and doesn’t like to participate in the same activities as the rest of the flock. For example, when the flock sleeps on a lamppost, he sleeps in a hammock. While the flock eats birdseed, he can be found enjoying popcorn. The flock soon grows frustrated with their fellow pigeon, challenging his go against the grain attitude and habits. But rather than give into peer pressure, the pigeon encourages the flock to pursue their own individual interests and hobbies (which they do). By the end of the story, the flock still feels that they are perfect pigeons, but they now feel that way because they are “are all perfectly unique!”

THOUGHTS: This charming story celebrates the importance of valuing the uniqueness of others. Readers will enjoy the humorous illustrations featuring large, colorful pigeons created in pencil, watercolor and digital media by author-illustrator Katherine Battersby. A worthwhile addition to libraries serving primary age readers.

Picture Book                Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg SD

Elem. – One Time

Creech, Sharon. One Time. HarperCollins Children’s, 2020. 978-0-062-57074-1. 248 p. $16.99. Grades 3-6.

Who are you? Who could you be? When Gina Flomena’s new teacher poses these questions on the board, along with several images and quotes and vocabulary words, her imagination and personality slowly develops. Her classmates also have unique reactions to the ongoing writing assignments connected to these essential questions. Gina’s new neighbor, Antonio, brings another interesting personality to the mix with unexpected results. In all, Sharon Creech has once again found the voice of introspective and creative children by bringing this story to light. The dynamics at home and in school are at turns humorous and heartfelt, but overall capture the art of storytelling, education, and friendship. Readers will be emboldened to write their own One Time stories to tackle their own life questions.

THOUGHTS: The writing prompts and activities in this story are definitely fit for a classroom lesson or two, and the discipline and empathy involved also should carry over. I particularly like and have used the “power of the first line” as a lesson before. The character relationship between Gina and Antonio will leave plenty to discuss for readers, including briefly questioning his real or imaginary existence! Highly Recommended.

Realistic Fiction          Dustin Brackbill    State College Area SD

YA – The Black Kids

Reed, Christina Hammonds. The Black Kids. Simon & Schuster, 2020. 978-1-534-46272-4. 362. p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Los Angeles is in flames after the police officers who beat Rodney King senseless are acquitted. These events of the early 90s have an intense, life-changing effect on native Angelinos and upper middle-class African Americans, Ashley Bennett and her older sister Jo. As Christina Hammonds Reed’s relatable narrator, the popular, thoughtful Ashley, nears graduation, she starts to view her childhood (white) friends differently, a situation exacerbated by the local disruptions. Her teenage stresses about college acceptances, parental conflicts, and illicit flirting, pale once the riots start and her rebellious sister Jo drops out of school, marries, and protests the verdicts. Ashley has lived a privileged life pampered by the family’s Guatemalan housekeeper, Lucia, and indulged in every material way. Now, her father’s family-owned business–run all these years by his brother– is in ruin, bringing her uncle and her cousin to the Bennetts’ doorstep. When Ashley connects with the kind, charming basketball star, LaShawn Johnson who attends the elite prep school on scholarship, and the off-beat Lana Haskins who is possibly a victim of physical abuse, she questions her friend choices and wonders why she has no Black friends. When Ashley inadvertently starts a rumor at her school that gets LaShawn suspended, she finds it difficult to rectify the situation; but it makes her reflect on the inequity in the lives of people of color. Her sister’s mounting militancy finally gets her arrested and sentenced, though she was just one of the crowd of protestors when someone threw a Molotov cocktail setting a fire. Ashley becomes accepted by the Black kids at school and discovers she can widen her circle of friends. More importantly, the Bennett family grows better at communicating with each other and, in doing that, they realize they care deeply about each other. Christina Hammonds Reed takes a coming-of-age story set in the early nineties against the backdrop of the Rodney King beatings to a new level. The relationships, tension, and plot development as well as the cultural references and dialogue draw in the reader. In particular, Reed’s writing style is fresh and exact, giving a unique take on the typical high school tropes—mothers vs. daughters, siblings, popularity, the future, romance, self-discovery –thus making The Black Kids a compelling read.

THOUGHTS: Recommend this title to high school students who liked Karen English’s middle grade novel, It All Comes Down to This that told of the Watts riots, and lead them to Ana Deavere Smith’s one-woman show featuring the players in the Rodney King beating and its aftermath, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Activism and passivity are shown in the two sisters and students can discuss these divergent characters. The difficulty separating from childhood friends or the desire to be seen in a different light as one matures is a strong theme in this book. Though the elements of the story are not uncommon, Reed’s gifted writing style pulls you into to the book.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem./MG – Logan Likes Mary Anne! (The Baby-Sitters Club)

Galligan, Gale. Logan Likes Mary Anne! (The Baby-Sitters Club). Graphix, 2020. 978-1-338-30455-8. $24.99. 164 p. Grades 3-6. 

It’s time to start eighth grade, and Mary Anne is excited but nervous. The BSC is busier than ever, Mary Anne just might get up the nerve to ask her father for a kitten, and school is going well…enter Logan Bruno, the movie star look-alike new kid from Louisville. He’s fun, cute, and loves kids! When the BSC sends Logan and Mary Anne on a baby-sitting job together, they hit it off and Mary Anne and Logan start hanging out more often, including going to a big dance together. After some embarrassing moments and misunderstandings, Mary Anne and Logan’s relationship blossoms. Other highlights: Jessi Ramsey makes her first appearance in Stoneybrook, Mary Anne adopts kitten Tigger with her father’s blessing, and Jessi and Logan become BSC members. While I favor Raina Telgemeier’s illustration style over Gale Galligan’s, Galligan adapted Ann M. Martin’s chapter book well and gave the story and characters some great updating. Also, while the original Logan was blonde and blue-eyed, Galligan’s Logan is Black, adding a welcome and realistic diversity to the BSC.

THOUGHTS: A solid addition to a very popular series.

Graphic Novel                Lindsey Long, Lower Dauphin SD

YA – Where We Are

McGhee, Alison. Where We Are. Atheneum/A Caitlyn Dlougy Book, 2020. 978-1-534-44612-0. $18.99. Grades 7-10.

Micah and Sesame had a plan. If Micah and his parents mysteriously disappeared from their home in present-day, downtown Minneapolis, Micah would text Sesame and she would find him. When Deacon comes to escort the Stone family to the South Compound, he confiscates their cell phones so Micah leaves a cryptic note on the wipe-off board on the refrigerator. The Stones have joined a cult that scorns all worldly things—even pencils—and cower and obey the harsh and unreasonable mandates of one man they call the Prophet. Not Micah. He resists and accumulates so many infractions for what the cold and domineering Prophet deems insubordination that the young man barely exists in solitary confinement. Though free, Sesame Gray lives a secret life. After her mother dies (she calls her grandmother because the woman was older when she adopted Sesame), she concocts stories so that neither her friends nor her solicitous neighbors suspect she is living alone in an abandoned garage. Throughout the book, Sesame reflects on both her grandmother’s goodness and also her habit of keeping them isolated and self-sufficient. That behavior serves Sesame well in her current situation, but her experience relying on others to help in the search for Micah brings a new realization that every person needs to depend on someone. High school seniors and sweethearts, Micah and Sesame narrate this curious story in alternating chapters: faithful Sesame on the outside, remains single-mindedly determined to find her lost boyfriend; resilient Micah, imprisoned in a basement laundry and wasting away, continues to leave clues, sure Sesame will find him. In the hands of a different writer, this book about cults and loss would be a toss off. Author Alison McGhee’s writing pulls the reader along this strange tale and makes us care about these two sensitive and insightful characters. Still, the subject manner is very particular and though there is the element of romance, their love is played out through devotion rather than a relationship, leaving the book with limited appeal. It is unclear what ethnicity the characters are (the cult and its members seem white); two neighbor couples are gay; it all is seamless.

THOUGHTS:  I have read other books by Ghee (Maybe a Fox), and admired her unique plot selections. A hide-and-seek love story centered around a cult but not really about the cult is unique, but not so interesting. The fact that present-day Minneapolis is the focal point of so much foment, violence, and pain, and Ghee picks that city to be the setting for a cult/kidnap/romance seems to me an odd-and avoidable-choice. The dust jacket states Ms. McGhee splits her residence between Minneapolis and another place, so perhaps the setting doesn’t matter. Though I couldn’t, I thought these factors promoted this book: subtle but solid theme, good writing, clever idea of creative Sesame to leave poems boxes around town, appealing characters. Like McGhee’s other books, this one fits only a narrow audience. 

Realistic Fiction Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – The Sea in Winter

Day, Christine. The Sea in Winter. Heartdrum, 2021. 978-0-062-87204-3. $16.99. Grades 3-7.

Seventh grader Maisie isn’t having a great day just before her school’s midwinter break. She’s tardy to homeroom, and she earned a 70 on her most recent math test. A break from school and a family trip back home will be good “heart medicine.” Maisie could use a distraction from eating lunch alone and getting text updates from her ballet friends who she no sees. Maisie isn’t sure how to respond, so she usually doesn’t. Things start to look up when her physical therapist suggests that Maisie’s recovery from a torn ACL and surgery might be moving faster than initially anticipated. This news gives Maisie hope; she’s missed ballet and her friends so much, and she might even be able to make a few spring auditions if she keeps progressing. With this news (and a green light for hiking) Maisie’s family heads to the Olympic Peninsula to explore some areas that are important to their Native family. Maisie’s stormy emotions seem to get the best of her at times, and she’s not sure why she says some of the things she does. When Maisie’s frustration reaches a peak, she’ll have to decide who she wants to be, even if that doesn’t include ballet.

THOUGHTS: Upper elementary and middle school students will adore Maisie and recognize the roller coaster of emotions she experiences. Maisie’s little brother provides comic relief to some of her emotional “funks,” and her parents are extremely supportive. #OwnVoices author Day addresses negative self talk and depression in an age appropriate way that will resonate with students. Highly recommended.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem. – In the City

Raschka, Chris. In the City. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-481-48627-9. 40 p. $17.99. Grades K-2.

In The City is a rhyming picture book that focuses on friendship using pigeons to illustrate that point. The book follows pigeons as they go through a city, landing on statues and flying overhead, and the narrator points out the different ways that pigeons form friendships and relates that to the people. The illustrations are beautiful in ink and watercolor which add to the story as readers follow the pigeons and people through making their friends.

THOUGHTS: This is a wonderful addition to any elementary school collection and highly recommended!

Picture Book          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy