Julius Zebra: Rumble with the Romans!

Written and illustrated by Gary Northfield

A fun and exciting way to explore the Roman Empire, this story about an unlikely hero will have kids wanting to be gladiators. Julius, a rebellious zebra, gets caught all alone at the local watering hole. When he is captured by Roman soldiers, he finds himself insulted, boxed, and transported a long way across land and onto a boat. He talks to and befriends other animals. Even the humans understand what Julius and the other animals are saying. Through a series of silliness, Julius is trained as a gladiator and is due to appear at the birthday celebration for Emperor Hadrian. There are a lot of details and terms that relate directly to the gladiator world, if you can weed out the obvious absurdities. The cartoonish illustrations add to the excitement and actually make this almost a graphic novel. Children younger than third graders would have fun reading this with a parent or teacher to learn more about Rome. An enjoyable read all around.

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  • Julius ZebraTitle: Julius Zebra: Rumble with the Romans
  • Author/Illustrator: Gary Northfield
  • Published: Candlewick Press, 2016
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 288 pages
  • Grade Level: 2 to 5
  • Genre: Creative, fantastical historical novel, humor
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-7853-1
  • Extras: Primer on Roman numerals, extensive glossary

Cody and the Mysteries of the Universe

Written by Tricia Springtubb
Illustrated by Eliza Wheeler

Loveable characters and a relatable plot make this, the second Cody book, a lot of fun to read. Add to that beautifully understated illustrations and you have a winner.

Cody is trying to get a handle on the ways of the world, and that includes learning patience and acceptance. Her best summer friend, Spencer, is moving in permanently with his grandmother, GG. Cody finds that Spencer doesn’t always agree with her nor does he want to spend all his time with her. He spends a good deal of time with a third friend, Pearl, who has agreed to accompany his violin with her piano. Even when they’re together, Cody and Spencer must deal with the evil Meen neighbors, who seem very angry about something. Then there’s the Spindle, or Mrs. Spindle, Spencer’s new teacher who Cody dislikes and Spencer adores.

A good feature of this story is that it’s subtly diverse in a variety of ways, but the characters mesh well. Spencer is black, loves classical music, and plays a violin. Cody is white, relates to pop music, and has a truck driver father. Pearl does origami. The neighbors love tattoos and spiked hair.

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  • Cody and the Mysteries of the UniverseTitle: Cody and the Mysteries of the Universe
  • Author: Tricia Springtubb
  • Illustrator: Eliza Wheeler
  • Published: Candlewick Press, 2016
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 144 pages
  • Grade Level: 2 to 5
  • Genre: Chapter book, Friendship, Family
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-5858-8

 

Otters Love to Play

Written by Jonathan London
Illustrated by Meilo So

This new book is a well-researched tale about a litter of river otter pups as they grow and learn in their first year of life. It begins in early spring in the abandoned den of a beaver. After five weeks, the pups’ eyes open and the play begins. Their wrestling, chasing, and tug-of-war help the pups develop the speed and agility they need for hunting. The mother teaches them to swim so they can catch fish and eat other water-based delicacies. As they become more aware of their surroundings, they guard their territory. Throughout the winter, they continue to hunt and keep each other warm in the den. Then they play some more.

Extensive sidebars appear on every two-page spread so third graders can learn more about this lovable animal. Illustrations capture the playful nature and tenacity of the otters. As otters are part of the weasel family, this book would be valuable in the study of woodland creatures and in developing literacy skills.

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  • Otters Love to PlayTitle: Otters Love to Play
  • Author: Jonathan London
  • Illustrator: Meilo So
  • Published: Candlewick Press, 2016
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 32 pages
  • Grade Level: K to 3
  • Genre: Nonfiction, Nature, Animals, Science
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-6913-3
  • Extras: Index, About Otters

Platypus

Written by Sue Whiting
Illustrated by Mark Jackson

This is a great opportunity to learn about the creature that fascinates observers and puzzles scientists. Kids will love the platypus and want to know more.

The author starts out by following a male platypus as he goes about his daily foraging. His burrow is warm and cozy and nestled on the bank of a creek. His body and fur help him to move around his semiaquatic world. His flexible bill allows him to find and capture worms, insect larvae, crawfish, and beetles. He dives repeatedly to the creek bed until he fills the pouches in his cheeks for the coming meal. He has to hide quickly from predators. Meanwhile, the female tends to the eggs and nurses the babies.

The beautiful illustrations give a real feel to the environment of the platypus, the other animals, and even the plant life.

Third graders will get a chance to practice literacy skills while learning about life in Tasmania and Australia. This would be a good read aloud for discussion of what a monotreme is and how it differs from a mammal.

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  • PlatypusTitle: Platypus
  • Author: Sue Whiting
  • Illustrator: Mark Jackson
  • Published: Candlewick Press, March 8, 2016
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 32 pages
  • Grade Level: K to 4
  • Genre: Science, Nature, Geography
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-8098-5
  • Extras: Numerous sidebars, Index, author’s note “The Puzzling Platypus”

George

Written by Alex Gino

There’s no denying the issues surrounding transgender individuals, aka born in the wrong body, are both topical and complex. Children may not understand all the nuances or possibly even the physical implications, but they will easily identify with the feeling of being different. In this celebrated and widely read story of a fourth grader born in a boy’s body, Alex Gino gently presents George’s many struggles and feelings. Even though George has heard all the news stories, she still feels isolated, as if she is the only person in the world who is called a boy and knows she’s a girl. Eventually, she finds the courage to share the fact that she is a girl. She is lucky to have many people around her who understand, once they recover from their initial shock. All of this is set in the realistic backdrop of an elementary school presentation of a play based on Charlotte’s Web. George wants to play Charlotte, but can’t because she’s a boy.

Third graders can handle the language and independent reading, but there are many reasons to read this with parents or well-informed teacher. Adults will want to discuss with kids what gender identity means and whether it is static. At any rate, George gives everyone a lot to talk about.

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  • GeorgeTitle: George
  • Author: Alex Gino
  • Published: Scholastic Press, 2015
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 240 pages
  • Grade Level: 3 to 7
  • Genre: Fiction, transgender issues
  • ISBN: 978-0545812542

Firefly Hollow

Written by Alison McGhee
Illustrated by Christopher Denise

Kindred spirits are hard to find. Friends who truly believe in you and your dreams are just the kind we need.

In, Firefly Hollow, there is a whole nation of fireflies, but only one that wants to fly to the moon. There is a whole nation of crickets, but only one that wants to catch baseballs. Good thing they find each other. Even better, they find a miniature giant who really, really needs friends.

This beautiful book reminds readers of, The Wind in the Willows, with its exquisite illustrations done on glossy papers and with no text on the backside of the page. In some ways, it will also remind children of the Ice Age stories as these friends: firefly, cricket, and miniature giant form a nation of themselves just as the characters in Ice Age create a new kind of herd. What is most important is how each of them understands, supports and fulfills the needs of the others.

Peter, the miniature giant, has lost his best friend and doesn’t know how to cope. Readers will understand these feelings whether they have experience the death of a friend or had a close friend move away. The animals understand Peter much better than his parents do. The readers will pick up on the connection between the river vole and the father as a particular secret they hope will be revealed.

Middle grade readers will enjoy this as an independent read, a read-aloud or a book club discussion title. Literacy core curriculum standards will be fulfilled in several areas using this book, and it is definite the art teacher will want to do a unit revolving around these marvelous paintings.  Writing standards can be met as students branch off after this reading to write their own stories about kindred spirits, actual friends, or unspoken dreams.

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  • Firefly HollowTitle: Firefly Hollow
  • Author: Alison McGhee
  • Illustrator: Christopher Denise
  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-4424-2336-7
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Grade level: 3 to 7

Lucky Strike

Written by Bobbie Pyron

Ever been an outsider?  Remember what that feels like deep in your soul?

Nate and Genesis are both outsiders. They stick together because, “weirdos and losers stick together” and that’s their motto.  Nate is just downright unlucky. All the time, everywhere unlucky.

Genesis is a brainy girl who doesn’t believe in luck. She believes in science and probability and such. Even when Nate doesn’t call the right coin in fifty-four tries!

In a fun and opposing way, Nate is the complete opposite of Harry Potter. He does get struck by lightning and becomes the luckiest guy in touch. Townspeople even start saying he has the Midas touch. Everything is fantastic, the cool guys want him to play baseball with them, all the fishermen want him to ride on their boat. Until Nate realizes they don’t want him, just his luck.

This is a great story about being outsiders, what real luck actually is, and loyalty to the end.

Grade four, grade five and grade six readers will enjoy this story on every page. The realistic use of dialogue and short sections makes it easy to read quickly. Some students may enjoy reading parts aloud as they act out certain sections.

Teachers and librarians can use it as an excellent example of: voice, character development and plot. They will fulfill the core curriculum standards in literacy and English.

It is recommended for all elementary and middle school and public libraries.

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  • Lucky StrikeTitle: Lucky Strike
  • Author:  Bobbie Pyron
  • Publisher:  Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format:  Hardcover, 263 pages
  • ISBN:  978-0-545-59217-8
  • Genre: Realistic Fiction
  • Grade level: 3 to 6

Lilliput

Written by Sam Gayton
Illustrated by Alice Ratterree

Would you set a faerie free? How about a trapped orphan boy? Open the pages of this adventure book based on Gulliver’s Travels, and go along with three inch high, Lily, and the captured boy, Finn, as they rescue each other.

Supposedly, on Gulliver’s first return from his travels, Londoners called him a liar and lunatic for talking about lands with tiny people. So, on his second trip, he captured a tiny faerie to bring back to London as evidence. This is her story.

Short chapters, plenty of dialogue and good humor help the story to move along at a comfortable pace. Young independent readers will delight in the story. Teachers, librarians and parents will enjoy the literary quality of the work, as well.  London in the 1800’s is well represented in details of sight and smell. Friendship in all its trials and glories is explored as Finn and Lily struggle to free each other. Their adventure is one of twists and turns, failures and successes.

Realistic pen and ink drawings bring the characters, as well as the surroundings of the city of London to life before the readers’ eyes. Art teachers and librarians can use these drawings to begin discussions about illustrating a story.

Teachers and librarians can introduce this story with or without comparisons to the original, Gulliver’s Travels. Maybe it will piggy back with, The Borrowers, Stuart Little, or other such stories about the unseen little people of literature. Perhaps this will be the introduction for some students into the world of fantasy.  Standards in the core curriculum for middle school literacy will be satisfied. Grade four, grade five or grade six readers will enjoy this immensely. This book is recommended for all school libraries and it would be a wonderful present for fluent as well as reluctant readers.

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  • LilliputTitle:  Lilliput
  • Author:  Sam Gayton
  • Illustrator:  Alice Ratterree
  • Publisher:  Peachtree, October, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format:  Hardcover, 246 pages
  • ISBN:  978-1-56145-806-6
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Grade level: 3 to 6
  • Extras: Afterward by Author

Stay! A Top Dog Story

Written and Illustrated by Alex Latimer

“Ben thought Buster was the best dog in the world,” but his parents weren’t so sure. Ben’s parents want to go on vacation, but they’re not so sure they want Buster to come along. So Buster is to be left with Ben’s grandfather. In order to make sure Buster is safe, Ben writes instructions for his grandfather. The problem is, Ben keeps thinking of more instructions and has to keep sending postcards and notes. Another problem is that Buster is not always a good dog, so the grandfather takes it upon himself to make Buster behave. Naturally, he ends up making notes for Ben. Buster even learns not to attack mailmen. Buster gets to go on the vacation the next time, but he still can’t behave all the time. Not all the time, anyway.

The humorous illustrations are often dominated by the notes, cards, and maps about Buster’s world. Who knew a dog could cross its legs when it needs to go outside?

Third graders will learn a lot about pets and about family while practicing their literacy skills. This would also be a good read aloud with younger children for practicing those skills and laughing about Buster’s antics.

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  • StayTitle: Stay! A Top Dog Story
  • Author/Illustrator: Alex Latimer
  • Published: Peachtree Publishers, 2015
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 32 pages
  • Grade Level: PreK to 3
  • Genre: Animals, Family, Humor
  • ISBN: 978-156145-884-4

 

The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, Poet

Written and Illustrated by Don Tate

Who would have thought a man who taught himself to read could come up with such beautiful poetry? While selling his master’s fruit at a university, George’s use of language caught the attention of college students. The students commissioned him to write love poetry for them, helped him learn to write, and to learn about literature and history. George paid his master to let him write full time and eventually published a volume of poetry, The Hope of Freedom. His master refused to let him buy his freedom outright, though. Eventually, the Emancipation Proclamation brought an end to his servitude and George moved west with the army.

Horton’s is an important story that should be covered in literature and in history. The Civil War was fought by human beings about human beings. Horton took great risks seeking his freedom. After he published his first volume of poetry, North Carolina outlawed speaking out against slavery and also outlawed teaching slaves to read and write. After that, Horton restricted himself to non-political poetry. He also published an autobiography, used by the author of this book. Tate’s illustrations help to bring the poet’s story to life. This could be read aloud in a classroom to stimulate discussion.

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  • George Moses HortonTitle: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, Poet
  • Author/Illustrator: Don Tate
  • Published: Peachtree Publishers, 2015
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 36 pages
  • Grade Level: PreK to 3
  • Genre: Biography, Poetry, History
  • ISBN: 978-156145-825-7
  • Extras: Extensive bibliography, Author’s Note
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