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Pizza Day by Melissa Iwai

This picture book chronicles a day in the life of a father, son, and their dog as they prepare homemade pizza, including homemade dough and tomato sauce. To make the pizza, many of the ingredients are sourced from their own garden. The book opens with the line, “Today is pizza day.” We see the mother leave for work while the boy, father, and dog go out into their garden and pick tomatoes, basil, carrots, onions, and green peppers. They then go inside and make the dough. The boy has fun kneading the dough, which is then left in the bowl to allow it to rise. They then chop the vegetables and make the sauce. While they are waiting for the dough to be ready and the sauce is simmering, the three go outside and play. It is then time to make the pizza. The dough is rolled out, then topped with the sauce, vegetables, and cheese. As the pizza is baking, the mom comes home and prepares a fresh salad to go with the pizza and the family has a picnic in the backyard, eating the pizza and salad. A lovely ending to a happy day. The back of the book includes a recipe for the dough and sauce and creating the pizza step-by-step. Most kids love making homemade pizza and get excited about it. This book is a fine representation of a happy family spending a contented day together. It is also an ideal book to inspire growing your own vegetable garden and making scrumptious food like pizza from it. Cooking together is a wonderful bonding experience for families and also teaches children an important life skill. The illustrations are colorful and appealing, showing the family’s beautiful garden and the joy of playing outdoors and creating fresh, wholesome food.

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Road Trip by Gary Paulsen and Jim Paulsen

Ben, a 14-year-old boy, his border collie Atticus, and his impulsive father go on a road trip to adopt a border collie puppy. Along the way, they pick up an entertaining group of passengers, including Ben’s older friend Theo, who is a tough guy trying to straighten out his life, Gus, a mechanic who lends them his bus when their vehicle breaks down early into the trip, and a waitress named Mia, who walks out of the restaurant where she was working to join the group after putting up with harassment. Ben is worried about his parents and his dad uses the trip to explain that he has quit his job to start his own business flipping houses and that because money is tight, Ben may not be able to attend hockey camp. The book is narrated by Ben, with Atticus’ commentary added at the end of each chapter. Atticus’ perspective provides added humor and wisdom to this quirky and fun romp with happy endings all around. The book also has a heart, promoting the virtue of dogs and dog rescue and a touching relationship between father and son. This title is followed by a sequel, Field Trip, in which a third dog is added to the family. A great choice especially for boys who may not be big readers and dog lovers.

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The Second Life of Abigail Walker by Frances O’Roark Dowell

This is realistic fiction with a touch of fantasy that delivers a powerful message about being yourself, standing up to bullies, and not conforming to fit in with the popular crowd. Abby is in sixth grade and is neither popular nor unpopular. She sits at lunchtime with what she calls the “medium” girls – not the most popular, but not the least – but she is growing tired of their constant chatter about their looks and their comments about her weight. Abby is a bit chubby, but she is fine with herself. After one comment too many, Abby walks away from the medium girls at lunchtime, thereby earning their wrath and making her the target of their bullying. She meets a boy who invites her to sit with him at lunch and she makes friends with him and another boy who sits with them. Abby is much happier with these friends, who she can talk to and be herself. Abby’s parents are getting on her about her weight also, and she is getting frustrated and angry at people not accepting her for who she is, even her own family. One day, she spies a fox in the field across from her house. The fox bites her and the bite seems to lead Abby to a new beginning. She walks to a part of her neighborhood she has never been before, where she meets 8-year-old Anders, who lives with his grandmother, father, and dog across a creek. Ander’s father, Matt, is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from Iraq and so things are difficult for the home-schooled boy and his grandmother. Abby begins spending more time with Anders and his family, helping Matt with a writing project that soothes his PTSD. Helping with this project allows her to help someone else. It also takes her to the computer lab at school, where she makes another new friend, giving her yet more strength to stand up to her tormentors. Abby doesn’t fight back, but just moves on, finding friends who like and accept her, and eventually the mean girls ostracize themselves more and more from their group until they are the outsiders. The fox’s story is also followed in alternating chapters told from her point-of-view, which lends the fantasy to the book. We discover that the fox has a connection to Matt as she learns to find her way in difficult circumstances just as Abby and Matt do.

This is a book of depth, which realistically portrays the cruelty of pre-teen girls towards one another and how parents don’t always understand their pre-teens, even when they have good intentions. Abby is a wonderful character, brave and proud of who she is, finding her true self,  while maintaining her self-respect and making a happy existence for herself.

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Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur

This is a realistic fiction chapter book about 11-year-old Elise. It explores the difficulty of the pre-teen years, when children can struggle with their identity as they begin the change from a child to a young adult, and the hardships of middle school, where kids can be so cruel to one another. Elise’s best friend has always been Franklin, but now that they are in middle school, Elise questions her friendship with him when he seems too much like a little kid, which causes teasing at school. She is not a good friend to Franklin and damages their friendship. While struggling with this situation, she discovers that her father, who died of cancer when she was three years old after losing her mother at birth, has left her a series of messages in the rooms of the barn at her aunt and uncle’s house, who have raised her. As she explores each room of the barn, she learns more about herself and who and where she came from. This experience helps her to grow and mature, so she can mend her relationship with Franklin, stand up to bullying, and also make a new friend. Elise has a wonderful, loving family who support her – her aunt and uncle, as well as her aunt’s sister and her baby who have recently come to live with them. These secondary characters really added to the story for me as they helped Elise find her way and realize the importance of family and friends and being proud of who you are instead of changing yourself to try to fit in with the so-called cool kids.

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I’ll Love You Forever by Owen Hart and illustrated by Sean Julian

This is a gentle picture book celebrating the love between a parent and child with the parent telling the child that he will love him always. These types of picture books are numerous, including Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney, No Matter What by Debi Gliori, Love You Forever by Robert Munsch, I Love You As Much by Laura Krauss Melmed, I Love You, Little One by Nancy Tafuri, Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joosse, and endless others in the same vein.

The artwork, setting, and poetic verses make this book stand out from the crowd. A polar bear parent and cub travel through the Arctic over the course of a year. Neither the parent or cub are identified as male or female, but I thought of the adult as the mother. The double-page spreads show the bear and cub during the changing seasons of the year, accompanied by four lines of rhyming verse. The book opens in the winter showing the bears on snow and ice with whales, seals, and seabirds in the background and in the forest with beautiful snowflakes falling around them, then the scene changes as spring starts to slowly arrive, with buds peeking through the snow, followed by a flower-filled meadow in the summer, then onto fall with the splendid colors of the leaves of the forest, and finally onto another winter. With each season, the parent assures the cub of her love and that she will always be there. The soft, warm illustrations glow with beauty and the poetry is lovely and flows smoothly.

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Gildaen: The Heroic Adventures of a Most Unusual Rabbit by Emilie Buchwald and illustrated by Barbara Flynn

This is an imaginative, enchanting fantasy chapter book published in the 1970s that will appeal to fans of The Hobbit. Gildaen is a rabbit who longs for adventure, unlike other rabbits who are content to stay home. When Gildaen comes upon an owl, he fears he will become the owl’s meal, but the creature turns out to be under an enchantment – he can’t remember who he is, but he has the power to transform into any creature. He transforms into a prince called Evon and Gildaen accompanies him on his quest to discover who he really is. Along the way, they meet Hickory, a servant of the young king, who has been ostracized from the castle. The king is under the sway of an evil sorcerer called Grimald, who is bent on taking over the kingdom. Evon and Gildaen team up with Hickory to save the kingdom and expose Grimald. In the process, Evon gifts Gildaen with the ability to communicate with other animals and transforms him into other creatures, including a cat, hawk, and snake. The group’s adventures are exciting and the ending is satisfying, with happy endings for all the characters and no overt violence, making it appropriate for reading aloud to younger children or independent reading for older children.

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The Little Reindeer by Nicola Killen

This is a sweet and simple Christmas story, reminiscent of The Polar Express. A little girl named Ollie who has a fascination with reindeer (we can tell by her reindeer pajamas, stuffed animal, wallpaper, bookends, drawings, etc.) awakens to the sound of bells on Christmas Eve. She goes outside with her sled to explore, where she finds a collar of silver bells in the forest, stuck on a branch. Then out of the trees steps a beautiful reindeer, who allows Ollie to place the collar around his neck. He then gives her a magical ride through the sky, bringing her back to her house. The next morning, among her presents is a snow globe with a reindeer inside, which makes for a lovely ending to an enchanting story. The illustrations are muted, except for touches of red and silver throughout, and the book also includes die-cut windows that show you a glimpse of the illustration on the next page.