YA – We Unleash the Merciless Storm

Mejia, Tehlor Kay. We Unleash the Merciless Storm. Katherine Tegen Books, 2020. 978-0-062-69134-7. $17.99. 388 p. Grades 9 and up.

This sequel to last year’s We Set the Dark on Fire switches gears from Daniela’s point of view and instead follows Carmen as she returns to La Voz’s rebel base outside of Medio’s walls and has to re-establish her loyalty to the found family she has been removed from since being placed in the Medio School for Girls as a spy years ago. Her fellow La Voz members question her loyalty because Daniela, Mateo’s other wife and Carmen’s true love, still lives with him in the capital, and though Dani also pledged allegiance to La Voz’s rebellion, the other members aren’t as convinced of her loyalty as Carmen, especially Ari, a new La Voz member who rose to the ranks quickly while Carmen was on her mission outside the rebellion. Carmen wants to extract Dani; Ari and La Voz’s leader, El Buitre, worry her feelings are getting in the way and see Dani as a liability that should be eliminated. As Mateo prepares to take over the presidency – and squash La Voz’s rebellion once and for all – Carmen must decide whether to trust her fellow rebels, the only family she’s ever known, or follow her heart and save the woman she loves… all while trying to keep the rebellion alive and not let tyrannical Mateo win.

THOUGHTS: We Set the Dark on Fire was my personal favorite read of 2019, but this sequel starts out a little slow, which may just be due to an adjustment to the change in point of view and setting. However, once Carmen makes a certain critical decision, the book becomes unputdownable. The latter two-thirds are fast-paced, action-packed, full of unexpected twists and turns, and satisfying for fans of these characters. Mejia has crafted a refreshing and timely fantasy duology full of strong female characters. Highly recommended for fans of the genre.

Fantasy          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

MG – The Magic Fish

Nguyen, Trung Le. The Magic Fish. Random House Graphic, 2020. 978-0-593-12529-8. 256 p. $23.99. Grades 7-9.

In The Magic Fish, author/illustrator Trung Le Nguyen braids together a family’s immigration story, a son’s desire to reveal a part of his identity to his parents, and retellings of classic fairy tales such as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Eighth-grader Tien reads these fairy tales to his mother, whose first language is Vietnamese, to help her improve her English. Mother and son (and father, when he isn’t at work) are close as can be, but still Tien struggles with how to share his secret with them: he is attracted to boys. The problem is part language barrier, part apprehension for how they will react. Tien’s mother, meanwhile, is struggling with the declining health of her own mother in Vietnam, and memories of fleeing her home country many years ago. Nguyen’s truly exquisite artwork is color-coded to orient the reader both in time and within the story; the present is ruby red, the past is mustard yellow, and the fairy tales are various jewel tones. It sounds complicated, but it works beautifully. The fairy tales foreground themes of new beginnings, identity, isolation, and connection, while also casting light on the experiences of our main characters. The gentle twist at the end satisfyingly reminds Tien (and readers!) that true happy endings are the ones we write for ourselves.

THOUGHTS: Readers of The Magic Fish will find themselves equally captivated by each storyline within this many-layered tale.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Elem. – Cubs in the Tub: The True Story of the Bronx Zoo’s First Woman Zookeeper

Candace Fleming. Cubs in the Tub: The True Story of the Bronx Zoo’s First Woman Zookeeper. Neal Porter Books. 2020. 978-0-823-44318-5. 47 p. $18.99. Grades K-2.

In the early 1940s, Helen and Fred Martini longed for a baby to fill their home with love, laughter, and cuddles. A baby arrived, but not the one that Helen expected; Fred brought home a lion cub from the Bronx Zoo where he worked. Helen hand-fed and nurtured her charge into a healthy young lion, when he was relocated to a new home at a different zoo. Sorely missing their companion, the Martinis soon welcomed three tiger cubs who relied on Helen for around-the-clock care. Raniganj, Dacca, and Rajpur quickly outgrew their home, but instead of saying goodbye, Helen set up a nursery right on the zoo property! In the process, Helen Martini became the Bronx Zoo’s first female zookeeper (and foster mom to many of its orphaned babies). This delightful picture book biography will hold young readers spellbound with its heartwarming story and adorable pencil and watercolor illustrations, which perfectly match the time period. And whose heart doesn’t melt at the sight of playful tiger cubs splashing in a bathtub?

THOUGHTS: A brief essay about Helen Martini entitled “A Quieter Kind of Hero” rounds out this outstanding title, which rewards repeated readings with special details and the big cats’ equally big personalities.

Picture Book Biography          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Elem. – Smithsonian Little Explorer Series NF

Smithsonian Little Explorer. Pebble, 2020. $21.49 ea. $214.90 set of 10. 32 p. Grades 1-3. 

Dickmann, Nancy. Benjamin Franklin: The Man Behind the Lightning Rod.
978-1-977-11410-5.
—. Lewis Latimer: The Man Behind a Better Lightbulb. 978-1-977-11411-2.
—. Marie Curie: The Woman Behind Radioactivity. 978-1-977-10976-7.
—. Ralph Baer: The Man Behind Video Games. 978-1-977-10972-9.
Lee, Sally. Alexander Graham Bell: The Man Behind the Telephone. 978-1-977-10975-1.
—. Madam C.J. Walker: The Woman Behind Hair Care Products for African
Americans. 978-1-977-10971-2.
Loewen, Nancy. Grace Hopper: The Woman Behind Computer Programming.
978-1-977-10970-5.
Raatma, Lucia. Jerome Lemelson: The Man Behind Industrial Robots. 978-1-977-11412-9.
—. Lonnie Johnson: NASA Scientist and Inventor of the Super Soaker.
978-1-977-11413-6.
—. Thomas Edison: The Man Behind the Light Bulb. 978-1-977-10974-3.

In the 5th book of this series, Lewis Latimer: The Man Behind a Better Light Bulb, readers meet an inventor they may not have heard of before. Lewis Latimer, the son of escaped slaves, became a draftsman by reading books and teaching himself how to use drafting tools. He was so talented that many famous inventors of the time sought out his help when drawing and fixing their designs. Because of Latimer, Alexander Graham Bell was able to turn in the paperwork for the telephone patent just hours before another inventor. Perhaps his most famous invention is a better light bulb. He created a filament that lasted much longer and was more cost effective. Thomas Edison, inventor of one of the first practical light bulbs, was so impressed with Latimer that he hired him as an engineer for his company. Latimer was the only black person on Edison’s team, a huge achievement.

THOUGHTS: This book belongs in every elementary library biography collection as many of them most likely contain many books about white male inventors. This biography shows a refreshingly different view of who an inventor can be and where they can come from. Latimer, like many black inventors of his time, has been overlooked. Latimer’s lifetime is not just filled with educational achievements. The obstacles he overcame during his life are just as inspirational: his family escaped slavery, he fought in the Civil War against the South, and he studied law in his later years at a time when not many black people were able to do so. Latimer’s legacy is one of hard work and risk-taking, and it should be shared with young students who hope to be like him one day.

921 LAT          Danielle Corrao, Ephrata Area SD

Elem. – I’m Sticking With You

Prasadam-Halls, Smriti. I’m Sticking With You. Henry Holt, 2020. 978-1-250-61923-5. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades PreK-2.

Told in rhyming text, this is the story of two friends, Bear and Squirrel, who spend their day together, exploring, sharing a meal and playing. The story begins in Bear’s voice, as he explains how the pair is always together, even if one of them is grumpy or silly or things go wrong. Next Squirrel presents his point of view and after Bear breaks his favorite teacup, explains that sometimes he just wants to be alone. After Bear leaves disappointed, Squirrel quickly realizes that life is not as enjoyable without his friend. They reconcile and enjoy tea with the now mended teacup. The illustrations by Steve Small are done in pencil and watercolor. Both animals are anthropomorphized and are seen doing a variety of activities like riding a seesaw and taking a ride in a cab. The illustrator adds details which enhance the story, like the tea cup which has a heart painted on its side. When it breaks, the crack can be seen down the middle of the heart and when repaired, it is nearly invisible. When Bear speaks, the text is done in bold, while Squirrel’s words are in a light font.

THOUGHTS: This is an engaging story of friendship and how it sometimes has its ups and downs. This book is a good choice for reading aloud, especially when there are requests for stories in two voices. A solid choice for elementary collections.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem. – Leaving Lymon

Cline-Ransome, Lesa. Leaving Lymon. Holiday House, 2020. 978-0-823-44442-7. 199 p. $17.99. Grades 4-6.

In this companion novel to Finding Langston, Cline-Ransome creates a story about ten year old Lymon, an African-American boy who lives in Vicksburg, Mississippi with his grandparents during the 1940s Jim Crow era. Lymon’s mother abandoned him when he was an infant, and his father is in prison. Despite this, he is happy enough with his life, especially when playing the guitar with his grandfather. Life changes for Lymon after his grandfather dies, and he and his grandmother move to Milwaukee. Lymon has difficulty adjusting to life in the North and struggles in school. When his grandmother becomes ill, he is sent to live with his mother in Chicago. Even though this is what he always wanted, he faces challenges in his new life with his abusive stepfather and emotionally distant mother. After a bad decision, Lymon must come to terms with yet another life adjustment, one which has the potential to change his life forever.

THOUGHTS: Told in first person, this novel allows the reader to understand the difficulties and emotions that Lymon experiences. The author has created a likeable character and readers will be rooting for him and hope for a sequel to learn what happens next. This is a strong purchase for all middle grade libraries.

Historical Fiction          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem. – The Worrysaurus

Bright, Rachel, and Chris Chatterson. The Worrysaurus. Orchard Books, 2020. 978-1-338-63408-2. 32 p. $17.99. Grades K – 2.

A beautiful day leads a small dinosaur to begin planning a wonderful picnic, because “Worrysaurus liked it when he knew what lay ahead.” But then the thoughts of worry and doubt creep in as he over-thinks his plans and begins to fret about hunger, thirst, storms, and other fears. Nothing has actually gone wrong, but the darkness is closing in, and the butterflies in his stomach are overtaking Worrysaurus. But then he remembers some coping skills from his mommy, including chasing away the butterflies, holding onto some happy things, and calming his busy mind. The illustrations from Chris Chatterson perfectly capture the anxiety of the dinosaur, and the gentle rhyming cadence to Rachel Bright’s words will help those who need to hear it. Letting those butterflies be free and enjoying the moment might just be the message that young readers need right now!

THOUGHTS: While not a perfect recipe for troubled young minds, this story certainly works as a discussion piece to aid families or classrooms to identify and cope with fears in their world. My advanced reader copy did not contain other resources or coping tools, but perhaps teachers or parents will have those readily available when sharing. A worthwhile purchase for emotional support collections.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill    State College Area SD

Elem. – Share Your Rainbow: 18 Artists Draw Their Hope for the Future

Various Artists. Share Your Rainbow: 18 Artists Draw Their Hope for the Future. Penguin Random House, 2020. 978-0-593-37521-1. 32 pages. $7.99. Grades K – 3.

As R.J. Palacio states in the forward, “rainbows are messages of love and hope and peace.” During the Covid-19 pandemic, symbols of rainbows have appeared in windows, sidewalks, and anywhere that children needed to share some joy. This unique picture book aims to make a story of looking for hope in the everyday world and looking ahead to a better future. Each page turn brings a new artist to share their rainbow in creative and delightful ways. For example, children use this time to redesign a rainbow rocketship, imagine riding a rainbow roller coaster, playing with a beach ball, and reuniting with family and friends. Students will naturally seek the rainbows on each page, and then want to #sharemyrainbow afterwards.

THOUGHTS: Come for the hopeful message, but stay to enjoy exploring how artistic styles of many illustrators come together. Some of the featured creators are: Vasti Harrison, Adam Rex, Oge Mora, Dan Santat, Bob Shea, and Lane Smith. All proceeds of the book sales go to World Central Kitchen, which could lead to a further discussion of how to share hope with those in need. Recommended read-aloud and lesson for K – 3.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill    State College Area SD

Elem. – You Matter

Robinson, Christian. You Matter. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-5344-2169-1. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K – 2.

Christian Robinson’s newest picture book has a straightforward message, even while delivering it through a roundabout story: You Matter! In fact, we are all matter, connected from the formation of the earth to the smallest living creatures. The flow of the story goes from a girl looking into a microscope and then off to several prehistoric creatures, before taking a galactic turn from a space station parent to a cityscape child. However, the message all along is meant to apply to all of us – despite hardships or worries or feelings of loneliness – you matter! The illustrations and their progression are delightful to connect and discuss, while the text hopefully hits home for those young readers who need those two reassuring words in a time of uncertainty.

THOUGHTS: The natural connection with this book would be for students to list things that matter to them, or ways that they matter to the world, and then share it with others. This would make for a great opportunity for building friendships and class identity at the start of a school year. Recommended for grades K – 2.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill    State College Area SD

Elem. – The Very Last Leaf

Wade, Stef. The Very Last Leaf. Capstone Editions, 2020. 978-1-684-46104-2. 32 p. $17.99. Grades K-3. 

Lance the cottonwood leaf is used to being at the top of his class. From the time school began in the spring, he was the first to blossom, the best at learning wind resistance, and he excelled at photosynthesizing. But when autumn arrives, he’s hesitant about the final test: the one that will take him off his branch and onto the ground. Lance is afraid to fall. Lance wishes he could be like his friend Doug Fir who doesn’t have to fall and can instead stay on his branch all winter long. As the time to fall draws closer, Lance makes up excuses. But soon, he’s the last leaf on his tree. His mind races with everything that could happen to him when he falls. He might land in a gutter. Or, he could get stuck to a windshield. His teacher reassures him he’ll be okay, and he feels a little better after talking to someone. And, as he looks down from his tree, he starts to notice all the other things that can happen to leaves on the ground. He sees children playing in them and collecting them for craft projects. After seeing that his friends are safe and happy, Lance decides to make the fall. With his teacher and friends cheering him on, he finally lets go.

THOUGHTS: This gentle text highlights social-emotional themes such as anxiety, perfectionism, and facing your fears in a lighthearted way. This is a perfect choice for fall morning meetings and should also be shared with guidance counselors. A final page includes nonfiction facts about deciduous leaves.

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD