Sugar is a spunky 10-year-old living on the Wills’ River Road Plantation in Reconstruction Mississippi. She is named after the cane she toils in and despises. Her father was sold when she was a baby, and her mother died two years earlier after years of brutal labor finally took its toll. It is 1870, and while slavery has been abolished for five years, questions and economic concerns remain for these freed men, women and children. Coretta Scott King Honor Winner Jewell Parker Rhodes brings this tenuous time to life in Sugar.
The Beales, fellow sugar workers, have become her surrogate grandparents, and the other workers are protective of Sugar as the only child in their midst, yet barely tolerant of her rambunctious ways. As the community dwindles in number, Mr. Wills, the owner, needs more help and brings laborers in from China which initially concerns Sugar and her friends. But Sugar is quickly intrigued by these men and longs to make new friends from a foreign land outside of River Road.
As Sugar develops friendships with Billy Wills, the owner’s son, and the Chinese workers, she is exposed to worlds far different from her own. Billy lives a life of luxury, but is just a boy looking for adventures and a friend in Sugar. The Chinese men work hard but also share their traditional tales, food and toys. Rhodes deftly describes all of Sugar’s sensory experiences, while offering a realistic portrait of her hard realities and the unique cross-cultural community created for a time on this Mississippi plantation. Sugar is a most appealing and memorable heroine who manages to muster enough courage to step away from the only world she’s ever known in an effort to live her mother’s dying words of: Do. See. Feel.
Most people count sheep to fall asleep. Dani counts happy thoughts. My Happy Life by Rose Lagercrantz tells the tale of a little girl just starting school as she deals with first day of school jitters, making friends, losing friends, getting hurt, hurting others and all the other ups and downs in the life of a child.
Dani is a wonderfully realistic character who demonstrates resilience in the face of sadness. She is both excited and nervous about the first day of school, but she soldiers on and starts to have fun. Quickly making a best friend in Ella, Dani is happier than ever. Disaster strikes when Dani learns that Ella is moving away. Her sadness is heartbreaking. After a few rough days, and a few missteps, Dani slowly finds ways to be happy again.
Manageable chapters with limited text and plenty of delightful illustrations by award winning illustrator Eva Eriksson, make this book excellent for beginning readers. Through the combination of words and illustration, Lagercrantz and Eriksson perfectly capture the essence of a little girl’s life. My Happy Life is a very sweet, honest story suitable for both independent reading and reading aloud. This charming story is refreshingly free from “cuteness” and serves as a great example for children in how to handle hard knocks.
Could a simple mistake ruin the future of a 7th grade student? In Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills, it looks as if Sierra Shepard is going to pay a heavy price for picking up the wrong lunch bag on her way to school. Sierra has always been the model student: straight A’s, honors classes and a member of the Leadership Club. However, one day she hurriedly picks up her Mom’s lunch bag instead of her own and discovers a paring knife inside to cut up an apple. When Sierra sees the “weapon” in her bag at lunch time, she immediately alerts the cafeteria monitor of the mistake. Despite her good intentions, Sierra’s principal is bent on having her expelled for violating the school’s “zero tolerance” policy on weapons.
Her father, a high-powered attorney, is determined to keep her in school, even if it costs her principal his job. As the hearing to decide Sierra’s fate looms before her, she begins to discover that not everything in life is as black and white as she always believed it to be. Sierra must decide what is really important to her. Are the other “bad kids” serving in-school suspension as guilty as she always believed them to be? Are her friends on her side, or are they just enjoying her publicity? Does making a mistake mean that it’s okay to do something she knows is wrong to prove her innocence? These questions and others not only cause Sierra to re-evaluate her life, but they make good talking points to share with young people about some very touchy subjects.
Picture books are not just for children; in fact, many of the best examples of the format prove entertaining for all ages, while some feel decidedly more adult. Kitty & Dino, by Sara Richard, begins with a child’s discovery of an unusual egg. This nearly wordless story unfolds as the Siamese cat of the household checks out the egg as it’s in the process of hatching. Much to Kitty’s distress, the new arrival is an attention-seeking baby dinosaur. Rendered in illustrations heavily influenced by the Japanese style of ink painting known as sumi-e, the panels that make up the story radiate an energy that keeps this story flowing. The characters of Kitty and Dino are depicted in a naturalistic way, with their postures and behaviors bringing this captivating story to life. Kitty slowly warms up to her housemate, teaching him about mealtime, grooming and play. As the pages turn, Dino grows older (and much bigger) and the unlikely friends’ bond grows deeper. Charming, funny and superbly illustrated, Kitty & Dino is a book for everyone.
Author/illustrator Dan Krall comes to picture books by way of a rich career in both TV and film animation. His beyond unusual story, The Great Lollipop Caper, has a quirky grownup sensibility. Leaning heavily on pun, the titular caper is both a character and the crime he commits. Yes, the protagonist is a tiny pickled caper berry who wants children to appreciate his “complex flavor.” Would caper-flavored lollipops help to expand his fan base to the very young? Wide-eyed cartoony character illustrations and speech bubbles lend to the offbeat humor that may be best appreciated by a hipster adult reader.
Loosely based on the Cthulhu mythos of legendary author H. P. Lovecraft, Charles Gilman’s new “Tales from Lovecraft Middle School” series begins with the story of Professor Gargoyle. Readers follow 12-year-old Robert Arthur’s first days in the new state-of-the-art Lovecraft Middle School. Sleek, environmentally friendly and boasting a library the size of a gymnasium, Lovecraft Middle is exactly where every student would want to be. Except Robert, that is.
Recently redistricted, Robert isn’t looking forward to being the new kid on the block at Lovecraft. It doesn’t help that the only other kid transferred from his old school is class bully, Glenn Torkells. From his first day, it’s obvious to Robert that something decidedly weird is going on. Dozens of rats leap out of the brand new lockers. His science teacher, Professor Goyle, is beyond bizarre. And apart from a mysterious girl named Karina, the closest friend he’s made at the new school is a polycephalus rat.
Even stranger events are on the horizon, though, and when gateways to another frightening dimension begin to open, Robert must ally with Glenn to unmask the true nature of Professor Goyle and save his new friends and classmates.
The series plot introduced in the first volume segues seamlessly from Professor Gargoyle’s tale to the second tale in the series, The Slither Sisters. After the mysterious disappearance – and sudden reappearance – of twins Sylvia and Sarah Price, Robert, Glenn and Karina begin to suspect that the monstrous forces of the Great Old Ones may be at work. When Sarah announces her candidacy for president of the student council, it’s up to the friends and some trusted teachers to thwart them.
Fans of creepy-yet-funny stories set in middle school, such as the Scary School and “My Teacher Is an Alien” series, will be drawn to Gilman’s “Tales from Lovecraft Middle School” and may find they eagerly await the next monstrous adventure. Each of the first two volumes provide a tantalizing glimpse into the tale to follow. Recommended for middle grade readers, this absorbing, fast-paced series with finely detailed illustrations may hold particular appeal for boys. Readers already familiar with Lovecraft lore may also chuckle at some of the references to the realm that inspired Gilman.
Protesting crayons? What do they have to complain about? Duncan finds out in The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. Duncan reaches for his crayons one day and gets a pack of protest letters instead (except from Green… Green’s pretty happy – just wants Orange and Yellow to stop fighting). Like most protestors, the colors are upset by their treatment – overuse, neglect (Where is Peach’s wrapper?), abuse and misuse. Each color details the unfairness of its life in a personal letter to Duncan. Blue doesn’t want to be the favorite, Grey is always used for the big animals, Red never gets a break and Orange and Yellow aren’t speaking!
Young readers will giggle at the silliness and enjoy learning colors. Older readers will recognize some common toddler traits in the behavior of the crayons. Readers of all ages will laugh out loud with this wonderful book about colors, creativity and compromise. Delightful, childlike illustrations by Oliver Jeffers enhance the story. How will Duncan get the crayons back to work? (And what color SHOULD the Sun be?) Find out in The Day the Crayons Quit.
Three friends find an abandoned sofa at their bus stop one day that not only changes their lives, but saves the lives of everyone they know. In fact, the title What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World by Henry Clark pretty much gives away the plot. Middle school students River, Freak and Fiona live in Hellsboro, Pennsylvania, a fictitious town full of secrets and problems. Hellsboro, so named because of its bleak, Hell-like landscape, has a ‘coal seam fire’ that has been burning under the town for years. When the trio discovers the old sofa, they begin to find unusual items hidden in its cushions, including a very rare and valuable crayon. On a hunch, these tech savvy kids put the crayon on an online auction and are amazed when a bidding war starts. However, crayon collectors aren’t the only ones interested in their findings. Can the three friends outwit a devious billionaire out to control the universe, an eccentric old inventor, an axe-wielding ghost and some bizarre flash mobs in time to save the world?
Clark’s debut novel is full of interesting and quirky characters, dialogue and situations similar to those found in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter or Edward Eager’s Half Magic series. While the friends try to save the world from impending doom, they also deal with issues that many young teens can relate to including peer pressure, not fitting in, dysfunctional family life and discovering who their real friends are. The story is told from River’s point of view, but all three of the main characters have unique voices and are well-drawn. While coal-seam fires are a real issue in parts of Pennsylvania, let's hope that none of them hide the secrets that River, Fiona and Freak uncover.
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is a delightful treat for readers of all ages. This fast-paced, quirky puzzler by Chris Grabenstein is nothing but fun. Kyle Keeley is a 12-year-old boy used to the challenge of competing with his two older brothers. Friendly and popular, if not the most studious of students, Kyle is discouraged to realize that the essay contest he blew off will be judged by his hero, billionaire game designer, Luigi Lemoncello. Mr. Lemoncello has funded the building of a brand new, state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line, newer-than-new library for the town, which has not had one for twelve years. The winners of the essay contest will be the first to get their new library cards and will win a lock-in (a sleepover in the library) as well as a $500 gift certificate to Mr. Lemoncello’s store. Using a little bit of creativity and initiative, Kyle submits an improved entry and is one of twelve lucky 12-year-olds to win the prize.
The action really starts when it is announced that those who wish to, may stay for another night and participate in a scavenger hunt to escape from the library. Using clues, holographic librarians, emergency help from the outside and all their wits, the young contestants work together, and against each other, to find the exit. Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library lightly touches on themes of responsibility, teamwork and bullying, without getting preachy. It also showcases the increasing popularity of libraries as more than just a book repository. Mr. Lemoncellos’s library has a board game room, a café and an Electronic Learning Center with 12 plasma televisions hooked into a catalog of educational video games. Fans of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Gollywhopper Games will love this book.
Best-known for her teen books, Cecil Castellucci teams up with noted graphic novelist Sara Varon to create Odd Duck, an amusing tale of belonging and acceptance. A sort of graphic novel without panels, it tells the story of Theodora, a very proper duck who has her daily routine down pat. It includes wingspan exercises, quacking in a perfect tone, and swimming across the pond in back of her immaculately clean home with a cup of rose hip tea on her head (in order to maintain perfect posture). Then one day her world is turned upside-down with the arrival of Chad, a very different kind of duck, who moves into the vacant house next door to Theodora. Chad is an artist, a musician, a layabout with dyed feathers! Will Theodora be able to endure a neighbor like Chad?
Varon's accessible, anthropomorphic pen-and-ink pastel illustrations of the ducks and their surroundings match the loose, casual style of the text. Fun vocabulary is introduced to young readers throughout the pages, which include a few speech balloons and a lot of side commentary (with arrows) by an omniscient narrator. Odd Duck is a wonderful introduction for kids who are bridging the picture book, beginning reader, and graphic novel formats. Readers will enjoy making their own determinations as to whether Theodora or Chad is the odd duck, and what differences between friends really matter .
It’s springtime in Boston, and it seems everyone has a little spring fever. In Clementine and the Spring Trip by Sara Pennypacker, Clementine’s best friend Margaret has taken to cleaning everything in sight, right down to the duckling statues in Boston Common. The apple seeds Clementine planted in the fall have sprouted. Even Clementine’s teachers are celebrating by sending their students on a field trip! Clementine isn’t looking forward to this trip though. This year, the third graders and the rule-inventing fourth graders are taking their field trip together to “ye olden times”, also known as Plimoth Plantation. According to Margaret, in the fourth grade, you have to eat silently, or else! No crunchy foods allowed! It seems like a silly rule to Clementine, but then she has other problems. Problems like learning the Olive-language that the new girl is teaching everyone, and - worst of all - the chance that she might end up riding on dreaded stinky Bus 7, “The Cloud.”
This field trip has more in store for Clementine than she could have imagined. An encounter with a Plymouth colonial and a chance meeting with a chicken may cause Clementine to take a stand, both against silly rules and for something in which she truly believes. Funny, sweet and individualistic, Pennypacker’s characters and the appealing illustrations by Marla Frazee will resonate with young readers. Recommended for elementary readers and in particular for fans of the Judy Moody series. Equally recommended for adults and children to read together.