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

Martin Luther King: Peaceful Warrior

Written by Ed Clayton
Illustrated by Donald Bermudez

On the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s death, this short biography has been resurrected and re-worked. Originally published in 1964, the book was written by people who knew and worked with the Kings. Chapters were added about what happened after the March on Washington. Vivid illustrations, many of them based on photographs, help to tell the story.

With many anecdotes, the author ably demonstrates how Dr. King developed his ideas and attitudes and the great importance he played in the history of our country. This is a valuable resource for anyone seeking to learn about the civil rights movement, the 1960s, nonviolence, or what it means to be in the minority.

Dr. King was the grandson of a sharecropper, a man who refused to give in to the rules of the landowners. Dr. King’s father had a sharp mind and helped his father fight the system. Young Martin was always curious about the world, which sometimes caused him to learn painful lessons. Such as the white stranger who called him a n—– and slapped him for stepping on her foot. But, more often, his curiosity led him to learn about Thoreau and Gandhi. Unjust laws were made to be broken. As pastor at the Montgomery, Alabama Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he helped lead the bus boycott that made Rosa Parks a household name. It was in support of the striking garbage workers in Memphis that he was shot and killed at his hotel.

Dr. King accomplished much, and his legacy lives on.

  • MLKTitle: Martin Luther King: Peaceful Warrior
  • Author: Ed Clayton
  • New Forward by: Xernona Clayton
  • Illustrator: Donald Bermudez
  • Published: Candlewick Press, 2017
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 128 pages
  • Grade Level: 3 to 7
  • Genre: Narrative Nonfiction, History, Biography
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-7471-7
  • Extras: Afterword, “We Shall Overcome,” A Short Bibliography of Books on Black People and the Civil Rights Movement

The Rizzlerunk Club: Best Buds under Frogs

Written and Illustrated by Leslie Patricelli

Good news! The queen of board books, Leslie Patricelli (Toot is my favorite), has branch out into middle grade fiction. In her first novel, she introduces the reader to adorable fourth graders Lily and Darby. Lily is painfully shy, which is compounded by her attendance. Darby is afraid of nothing. Her rather large family lives at the other end of a small lake in a ”haunted house.” Lily and Darby immediately hang out together, finding small frogs and talking about ghosts. The two could not be so different and yet so similar at the same time. They form a club named after a ghostly pirate. Their club pledge is based on the Pledge of Allegiance, with best best buds under frogs. When Jill, an old, bossy friend of Darby’s, returns to their school, the three of them find more creative ways of getting into trouble. It’s all about learning to say no to Jill.

The author has stuck with the delightful illustrations and raucous humor that make her board books so great. But she’s added a lot of dimension with the concerns of fourth graders and also of the new kid in school. This would be a great beginning novel for a reluctant reader.

  • Best BudsTitle: The Rizzlerunk Club: Best Buds under Frogs
  • Author/Illustrator: Leslie Patricelli
  • Published: Candlewick, 2018
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 288 pages
  • Grade Level: 3 to 5
  • Genre: Coming of Age, Friendship, Humor
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-5104-6

Leaf Litter Critters

Written by Leslie Bulion
Illustrated by Robert Meganck

Who knew there was so much going on in the pile of leaves in your yard? Apparently, scientists knew. Each two-page spread in this very informative book highlights a different creature possibly lurking in the typical pile of leaves (duff). The author cleverly weaves a lot of information into various poetry forms, explained later, and followed up by science notes about that creature. The illustrations, though at times cartoonish, give a good feel for what the creatures are up to. From the relatively large ecosystem engineers, earthworms, to predatory mites to the ever tiny bacteria, each creature has a job to do. “A Few Favorite Brown Food Web Kings” to the tune of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” sort of wraps it all up. Especially fun for kids are the relative sizes and the suggested at-home experiments. How many tardigrades can you fit on the head of a pin? This is a wonderful place to start a biology unit or even a poetry unit. Or just to think about what you’re really jumping on in that pile of leaves.  

  • Leaf Litter CrittersTitle: Leaf Litter Critters        
  • Author: Leslie Bulion
  • Illustrator: Robert Meganck
  • Published: Peachtree Publishers, 2018
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 48 pages
  • Grade Level: 3 to 7
  • Genre: Creative Nonfiction, Biology, Poetry
  • ISBN: 978-1-56145-950-6
  • Extras: Table of Contents, Glossary, Poetry Notes, Litter Critter Investigations, Resources for Further Investigation, Critter Comparisons: Relative Sizes

Frazzled: Ordinary Mishaps and Inevitable Catastrophes

Written and Illustrated by Booki Vivat

Abbie Wu returns with her endearing and annoying penchant toward expecting the worst in every situation. Middle school is progressing as smoothly as a subscriber to Murphy’s Law can expect. Abbie briefly considers running for sixth grade class president but backs off when a truly popular kid runs. She is looking forward to the independence she will gain from having her own locker – only to discover she will have a locker mate. To make matters worse, her locker mate, Jess, a new girl in school, will also be her science project partner. How is she expected to deal with someone she doesn’t even know? But the two of them work very hard to develop the answer to feeding ferocious house cats. Of course, eventually the girls become friends, though Abbie never does exactly figure out what makes Jess tick. But they do earn the respect of their science teacher, who gives them an A for effort.

Abbie learns that, often, a seeming disaster can be a blessing in disguise and that friends can be found in the most unexpected places. With a lot of humor, the author shows that things may not be as dark as they appear – a concept middle graders may have trouble with.            

  • Frazzled2Title:  Frazzled: Ordinary Mishaps and Inevitable Catastrophes
  • Author/Illustrator:  Booki Vivat
  • Publisher:  HarperCollins
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format:  Hardcover/224 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-06-239881-9
  • Genre: Humor, coming of age

Giant Pumpkin Suite

Written by Melanie Heuiser Hill

With an amazing amount of skill, especially for a premier novel, the author weaves together many seemingly unrelated themes. She also weaves together an incredibly diverse neighborhood.

Twelve-year-old Rose is a cello prodigy preparing for a fellowship competition. She lives and breathes the precision of Bach. Her twin, Thomas, is her opposite in many ways. When their elderly neighbor, Otis Pickering, hurts himself attempting to care for a rare pumpkin seed, Rose and Thomas are drawn into helping grow the most amazing pumpkin. Through the growing, Rose resists getting dirty and just wants to play her cello. An accident makes that dream all but impossible. Rose destroys her hand and must go through excruciating rehab. Meanwhile, the pumpkin, Ole Bessie, grows to award-winning proportions. Meanwhile, Rose and her neighbor, Jane, have an adversarial relationship over a particular library copy of Charlotte’s Web.

In overcoming adversity, Rose learns to find joy in other things and to forgive herself for not being perfect. Thomas, although he’s not the main character, learns to be a little more thoughtful and to express his love and concern for his sister. The reader also learns about deception and about how much help neighbors and friends can be.

None of the characters in this story is one-sided. Jane seems thoughtless and frivolous, but she proves to be a good friend. The maestro seems heartless, but he really has problems of his own and is trying to be open. The mailman is a musician who also suffered an injury. Their quiet Japanese neighbor is a war bride who is mostly lonely.

  • Giant Pumpkin SuiteTitle: Giant Pumpkin Suite
  • Author: Melanie Heuiser Hill
  • Published: Candlewick Press, 2017
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 448 pages
  • Grade Level: 4 to 7
  • Genre: Fiction, Family, Music, Horticulture
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-9155-4
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