The Echo Park Castaways

Written by M. G. Hennessey

Told in an enlightening yet gentle way, this is the story of four typical children who fall into the foster care system in Los Angeles County. Each child develops coping mechanisms unique to them, as is true in real life. The tale is told in the voices of three of the children, with rotating parts. Very effective for getting inside their heads and helping the reader understand motivations or their actions.

Vic is Latinx and strongly ADHD. He creates fantasies and is currently on a spy mission. Nevaeh (heaven backwards) is black and tries to be the little mother. She just wants to get through the system and become a doctor so she doesn’t have to depend on anyone else. Quentin has Asperger’s and is therefore ritualistic in his approach. He’s focused on finding his mother. The fourth child, Mara, barely speaks English and is definitely a follower.

Vic decides to make finding Quentin’s mother his next mission, so they set off across Los Angeles. Mara follows them, in her pajamas. Nevaeh chases them down. Three buses, a Metro ride, an ambulance ride, and a lot of walking later, they have learned a lot about each other and about the world.

Readers will learn a lot without being preached to. You can’t help but love each and every character, even the pit bull who threatens them.

  • Echo Park CastawaysTitle: The Echo Park Castaways
  • Author: M. G. Hennessey
  • Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, 2019
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 208 pages
  • Grade Level: 3 to 7
  • Genre: Foster care, Family
  • ISBN: 978-0-06-242769-4

Captain Rosalie

Written by Timothée de Fombelle
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Translated by Sam Gordon

Charming, sad, and compelling, this is the story of a five-year-old with the world on her shoulders. Wise beyond her years, she is much more capable than anyone suspects. She attends school every day while her mother works in a munitions factory. Father is off fighting in World War I and is terribly missed. Rosalie’s mother reads her all the letters from her father, as no one has time to teach Rosalie to read. When a letter in a blue envelope arrives, her father’s letters stop and no one tells Rosalie anything. She must now teach herself to read the blue letter. This is Captain Rosalie’s mission: to gather information for the war effort and to help her parents.

Amazing watercolor, pencil, and ink illustrations help to tell the story. The darkness of many pages show Rosalie’s efforts to penetrate shrouded information. The light begins as Rosalie learns the truth. The reader even gets to glimpse the letters from her father, with sketches of his view of the war.

Readers learn about the despair of war and the cost of knowledge. The wording is spare but powerful. Emotionally satisfying with a unique backdrop.

  • Captain RoaslieTitle: Captain Rosalie
  • Author: Timothée de Fombelle
  • Illustrator: Isabelle Arsenault
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2019
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 64 pages
  • Grade Level: 3 to 7
  • Genre: Independence, Literacy, War
  • ISBN: 978-1-5362-0520-6

Good Dog, McTavish

Written by Meg Rosoff
Illustrated by Grace Easton

The Peachy family is, shall we say, dysfunctional. In fact, each member is so wrapped up in themselves that it’s a wonder anything at all happens. What’s the answer? A dog, of course.

In this dryly humorous new book, the author finds the answer for the Peachys.

Ma Peachy is so fed up, she abandons all her motherly duties to take up yoga. When the household begins to fall apart, almost-nine Betty insists that the rest of the family find a dog at the local shelter. McTavish adopts the family and sets about straightening them out. He gets them to put away their clothing and shoes by gathering all stray items at his bed and chewing on all stray shoes. He gets them to eat better by refusing to eat anything but boiled chicken and rice with vegetables. He gets them to wake at a reasonable hour by making a fuss at a very early hour. After the family members learn to act like a family, Ma Peachy abandons her yoga.

Anyone who’s ever been trained by a dog knows how powerfully they can change a person. Beyond that, readers will see how a real family functions and what they can do to help that along. Plus, this is just a fun book.

  • Good Dog McTavishTitle: Good Dog, McTavish
  • Author: Meg Rosoff
  • Illustrator: Grace Easton
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2019
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 112 pages
  • Grade Level: 2 to 5
  • Genre: Chapter book, Humor, Family
  • ISBN: 978-1-5362-0058-4

Charlie Bumpers vs. The End of the Year

Written by Bill Harley
Illustrated by Adam Gustavson

Charlie has reached the end of fourth grade, and the author has reached the end of this series.

Not only must Charlie say goodbye to fourth grade, but he must say goodbye to Hector, one of his best friends. Hector’s family is moving back to Chile. Not wanting to let all that go, Charlie and his other best friend, Tommy, devise a scheme to ensure that Hector needs to stick around for fifth grade. They try to convince the teachers that Hector should be chosen as School Ambassador, a position of great responsibility. Charlie and Tommy discover that changing an adult’s mind about anything is not an easy task. They also find that making copies on Tommy’s dad’s copier can lead to disaster – or disastrophe, as they call it. Meanwhile, Hector is being bullied by the Jerzollies of Darkness – three fifth graders who are jerks, bozos, and bullies. Charlie has to figure out how to help Hector with them. Of course, he finds he has more support than he suspected.

The story is fun, engaging, and relevant. The illustrations are great additions to the story and beautifully done. Like Charlie, we’re sad to see fourth grade end.

  • Bumpers End of the YearTitle: Charlie Bumpers vs The End of the Year
  • Author: Bill Harley
  • Illustrator: Adam Gustavson
  • Publisher: Peachtree Publishers, 2019
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 208 pages
  • Grade Level: 3 to 7
  • Genre: Chapter book, Humor, Coming of Age, Bullying
  • ISBN: 978-1-68263-042-6

Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry)

Written by Gary Golio
Illustrated by Ed Young

“Smile though your heart is aching … just smile” – “Smile” by Charles Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin had an unbelievably hard childhood in London. This is a fascinating look at the Chaplin people may not know. His father, an actor and singer, left the family when Charlie was a baby. His mother, also a singer, made a meager living with her singing, but her voice left her when Charlie was only five. That was the exact age Charlie was when he discovered he could make people laugh and cry with his antics. The family wound up in the poor house, with his mother being ill. His older brother was off hanging around with and working with boys his own age, leaving Charlie all alone. But Charlie continued to entertain. He reached the heart of a promoter, who sent him on a tour of America. Eventually, he entered silent films, doing nearly every job related to that industry.

The collage and ink illustrations create silhouettes more than appropriate for a star who, though he was very famous, broke into movies without a voice.

Readers will not only learn about one of the most famous stars of all time, but they will find out how a person can rise from the most squalid of circumstances to the highest heights. Since Chaplin often made people both laugh and cry at the same time, readers can also explore the relationships of many emotions.

  • SmileTitle: Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry)
  • Author: Gary Golio
  • Illustrator: Ed Young
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press, March 26, 2019
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 48 pages
  • Grade Level: 3 to 7
  • Genre: Biography, Entertainment
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-9761-7

A Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Park

Written and Illustrated by Ashley Benham Yazdani

In 1858, as New York City grew, so also did the distance citizens had to go to find open spaces. Central Manhattan had few trees and a lot of muddy, rocky places. Calvert Vaux convinced the city fathers to set aside an area for all New Yorkers to enjoy. He partnered with Frederick Law Olmsted to design the area that became Central Park. This fascinating story of the development of that area is entertaining an eye opener for the reader. To show the enormity of the project to develop the park, she talks about many of the people who had a role. Even the original plan included time for visitors to color in grass and trees.

The author uses her art background to highlight some of the more picturesque aspects of the park, including the thirty-four distinctive arches and bridges within the park. She adds to the reader’s interest by including things to look for, such as the squirrels that needed to be introduced to the park.

This would be a great addition to a classroom unit on conservation, history, or the importance of green spaces. It’s fun also as independent reading, especially given the fame of the area everyone knows as Central Par.

  • Green Place to BeTitle: A Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Park
  • Author/Illustrator: Ashley Benham Yazdani
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2019
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska                                                                                                                                     
  • Format: Hardcover, 40 pages
  • Grade Level: 2 to 5
  • Genre: History, Gardening
  • ISBN: 978-1-7636-9695-5
  • Extras: Additional background, Author’s Note, Bibliography


Cats vs. Robots: This Is War

Written by Margaret Stohl & Lewis Peterson
Illustrated by Kay Peterson

Completely outrageous yet entirely believable, this series launch is well worth a look by both girls and boys, both computer geeks and animal lovers. Everyone will fall in love with all the characters, be they robot, software, four-legger, or human.

A planet of robots and a planet of cats have been at war for as long as anyone remembers. The problem is, no one remembers why. Meanwhile, both the cats and the robots discount the contributions of humans (aka two-leggers) to the universe. When two human scientists develop a Singularity Chip, which supposedly prolongs a cat’s life indefinitely, the hunt is on to win the war by way of the chip. Twin siblings Max, a game-playing boy, and Min, a robot-building girl, are caught in the middle. Throw into the mix an evil House, confused but soft-hearted drone, a dying alien cat, a non-binary uncle, and two kittens and you have the whole story.

Math, coding, and everything kitten figure greatly in this book, making it wonderful for encouraging such pursuits. And kids will love it until the very end. Of course, the robot general will not let the war go, setting up for the sequel.  

  • Cats vs, Robots This Is WarTitle: Cats vs. Robots: This Is War
  • Author: Margaret Stohl & Lewis Peterson
  • Illustrator: Kay Peterson
  • Published: Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins Children’s, 2018
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 320 pages
  • Grade Level: 3 to 7
  • Genre: Chapter Book, Science Fiction, Humor
  • ISBN: 978-0-06-266570-6

The Bookshop Girl

Written by Sylvia Bishop
Illustrated by Poly Bernatene

Delightfully quirky and whimsical, this fun new novel proves that each of us has talents that stand us in good stead.

Property Jones is an eleven-year-old abandoned waif, found in a bookstore and stashed briefly in a lost property cupboard at age five. Her adopted mum, Netty, is a bit scatterbrained and not a very good businesswoman, but she loves her bookstore, a restored pub named the White Hart. Neither Netty nor her son Michael realize that Property doesn’t know how to read. When the Jones family wins an opportunity to own the best bookstore in London, they immediately take off, only to find more adventure than they bargained for. Their new store, the Montgomery Book Emporium has nearly magical properties, with hundreds of rooms to choose from. Naturally, a villain wants to steal it away from the Joneses. With the help of a peculiar kitten referred to as the Gunther, right must win.

Property has many unusual talents that make her a valuable asset to the family. She is extremely observant and can therefore spot a fake, whether a man or a document. Her loyalty and ability to inspire others are unmatched. The reader must cheer for her and for the Joneses and hope that she does learn the joy of reading in the end.

The author sets a perfect pace for this escapade. The amusing illustrations give a view into Property’s world.

  • Bookshop GirlTitle: The Bookshop Girl
  • Author: Sylvia Bishop
  • Illustrator: Poly Bernatene
  • Published: Peachtree Publishers, October 1, 2018
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 135 pages
  • Grade Level: 4 to 6
  • Genre: Chapter Book, Books, Adventure, Family, Friendship
  • ISBN: 978-1-68263-045-7

Positively Izzy

Written and Illustrated by Terri Libenson

On the day of the middle school talent show, two very different eighth graders have different approaches to events. With two main characters, the author alternates their voices and their chapters. Brianna is also known as the Brain and has little interest in the show, despite her mother’s drama background. Izzy has been working on her one-woman act for months and has trouble focusing on subjects other than drama. Will either of them learn to embrace the rest of the world and do what needs to be done?

The author manages to capture both the fun and the angst of middle school in the plot, characters, and delightful illustrations. Brianna gets roped into the talent show as a last-minute replacement. All she wants is to do her homework and catch the eye of the cutest boy in school. She discovers there is more to life and that she is actually good at acting. It’s just not her thing. Izzy is so into acting she lets her other classes slide. Until Mom finds out.

A surprise ending helps give the reader something to think about. Recommended for anyone headed for middle school.

  • Positively IzzyTitle: Positively Izzy
  • Author/Illustrator: Terri Libenson
  • Published: Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins Publishers, 2018
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 224 pages
  • Grade Level: 2 to 7
  • Genre: Graphic Novel, Coming-of-Age
  • ISBN: 978-0-06-248497-0

The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art

Written by Barb Rosenstock
Illustrated by Claire A. Nivola

It’s not too surprising few people have heard of Nek Chand. After all, he kept his activities hidden even from the community he lived and created in for over fifteen years. It was only when the government sought to clear the surrounding brush that his artwork was discovered. The government wanted his creation gone. The community took issue with that notion and saved his hidden rock garden. Of course, it’s much more than a garden. And it’s his ingenuity and courage that are really the story.

The author paints a fascinating picture of the life that Nek lived. The reader is transported to a world unlike the one they live in.

Born in the Punjab region of Pakistan, his early life was an idyllic one, raised on a family farm. After the partition of India and Pakistan, his family was forced to move to the Hindu side, in India. Nek was no longer able to farm, so he became a government road inspector. But whenever he could he gathered oil drums, old sinks, half-dead plants, and other seeming trash. He recycled the materials into a twelve-acre hidden kingdom of walls, paths, statues, and waterfalls. Today, it stands as a memorial to the artist.

Beautiful and detailed illustrations show both the familiar and unfamiliar. The villagers dress differently from Westerners, but the trash they collect is trash the reader might see near home.

This is a fantastic way to introduce kids to Indian culture and also an amazing way to show how perseverance and the human spirit can win.

  • Secret KingdomTitle: The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art
  • Author: Barb Rosenstock
  • Illustrator: Claire A. Nivola
  • Published: Candlewick Press, 2018
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 48 pages
  • Grade Level: 2 to 5
  • Genre: Picture Book, Nonfiction, History, Art
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-7475-5
  • Extras: Author’s Note, Bibliography
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