YA – Playing with Fire

Henry, April. Playing with Fire. Henry Holt & Co., 2021. 978-1-250-23406-3. 225 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

A gorgeous day in Portland. An idyllic waterfall. A boy who is interested in you – what could possibly go wrong? Natalia and coworker Wyatt are just wrapping up an afternoon hike at Basin Falls when a loud pop shatters the peace. Shortly after a man goes running by, and the smell of smoke drifts in the air. In the blink of an eye Natalia’s worst fear is coming true, again. A fire is raging in the forest and now Natalia, Wyatt, and a dozen other people are trapped. Using Wyatt’s map and skills and Natalia’s medical training, the pair help navigate the motley crew through the forest as the fire chases them. As the night progresses, Natalia will face her fears while helping a burn victim, someone having a panic attack, and someone with a dislocated knee. But when a bridge prevents the troop from escape, will Natalia have the courage to overcome her demons and make up for past mistakes?

THOUGHTS: A fast paced read, Henry does not disappoint with this novel! The characters are well developed and the story follows a clear timeline. Readers get a glimpse into Natalia’s past and how her fear of fire plays such a critical role in helping others. Students who enjoy adventure stories like Hatchet will love Playing with Fire!

Adventure Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Grades 6-12.

Seventeen year old Natalia lives in Portland near beautiful hiking trails, but she’s never been hiking. She was sick – sedated in a hospital – the week of Outdoor School, where most fifth graders stay in cabins in the woods. Her Dairy Barn co-worker Wyatt is determined to right this wrong, and he takes Natalia on a hike up to see a beautiful waterfall overlook. At 6:24 pm they’re on the way down when they hear a loud pop, probably someone firing a rifle in the Gorge, Wyatt explains. Natalia notices the smell of smoke which Wyatt connects to the local Cougar Creek fire as he explains the dangers of the tinder dry woods. Thirty minutes later they approach the bottom of the trail where to their horror the very woods they need to pass through are engulfed in flames. Natalia has avoided even the smallest birthday candle for the past six years. With no cell service and few other options, Natalia and Wyatt begin to hike back up the trail to find a new exit. Warning people to return to the falls on their way back up, Natalia is reminded of her little brother. When a helicopter drops a rock with a note that says, “Fire spreading….Extreme danger.” the group needs to come together to survive. With a variety of personalities and skills and few supplies, will they make it to Sky Bridge before they’re rescued, or will the fire reach them first?

THOUGHTS: Taking a slightly different approach to her typical “missing girl” stories, Henry strikes gold with this fast-paced thriller. A must purchase for middle and high school libraries, especially where Henry books are popular, adventure/thriller fans will zip through and request another.

Adventure Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem. – Fatima’s Great Outdoors

Tariq, Ambreen. Fatima’s Great Outdoors. Penguin Random House, 2021. 978-1-984-81695-5. 40 p. $17.99. Grades Pre-K-3. 

Fatima Khazi is having a tough week. Her math quiz was challenging, her peers teased her about her accent, her friends wrinkled their noses at her lunch, and a boy pulled her long braid in the hallway. Her mood, however, is lifted while she eagerly awaits with her sister for her parents after school. She is beyond excited about a weekend camping trip to a state park with her family. Ambreen Tariq’s picture book Fatima’s Great Outdoors celebrates an immigrant family’s connection and affection for nature and the outdoors. Fatima, who speaks Urdu and English, slowly builds confidence as she helps her family set up the camping tent, start a campfire, and adventure in a state park. Readers gain insight into Fatima’s family, who has immigrated from India, and will also learn of the family members that still live in India through memories and storytelling. Each memory teaches Fatima a little more about her strength and confidence. At the end of the weekend, Fatima is sad to leave her outdoor space, but her sister reminds her that sharing her experience at school may help keep the memories in her heart until the next adventure.

THOUGHTS: Author Ambreen Tariq is the founder of BrownPeopleCamping, which she launched in August of 2016 to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial. This storytelling initiative, found on Instagram, utilizes personal narratives and digital storytelling to promote diversity in public lands and outdoor communities. Her debut picture book Fatima’s Great Outdoors reads like a love letter to state and national parks that encourage all ethnicities and races to explore and enjoy what nature has to offer.

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

Elem. – Outside, Inside

Pham, LeUyen. Outside, Inside. Roaring Books Press, 2021. 978-1-250-79835-0. 48 p. $18.99. Grades Pre-K-2. 

Capturing community, perseverance, and hope, Outside, Inside by Caldecott Honor winner LeUyen Pham is a moving testimony that depicts the global Covid-19 pandemic. With encouraging words, poetic language, and gorgeous illustrations, this picture book will help young children make sense of the virus that altered their daily lives. The story begins on an unremarkable day just before the season changes. All races and ethnicities are bustling around outside when suddenly everything changes, and everyone goes inside. The outside is quieter, different, even wilder, and the inside holds laughter, tears, and growth. While the world changed outside, the people on the inside become resilient and hopeful. As the story moves forward, the author does not shy away from heartbreaking loss or skip over the unexpected good. Instead, she gently explains that we moved from the outside to the inside to protect the ones we love. Pham never downplays the seriousness of the pandemic and illustrates vivid scenes that represent upended routines, hospital stays, job loss, and even death. Yet, she also lovingly depicts loved ones on the outside protecting those that are inside. Finally, the picture book ends with a season change as hope and love blooms in the air.

THOUGHTS: Outside, Inside’s dedication is to all essential workers, first responders, and communities across the globe. It is true that author LeUyen Pham masterfully captures how all of us felt on the outside and inside as we navigated Covid-19. I believe her author’s note at the end of the picture book is just as important as the story itself. Nearly every face painted in the book is inspired by a REAL person- people who survived or succumbed to the awful virus. She also shares that the most challenging spread to illustrate was the one that explained why we sacrificed what we did because each character shown on the page gave her “both joy and pain.” In her final words, Pham notes that Outside, Inside is “a time capsule of our moment in history when the world came together as one to do the right thing.”

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

MG – War and Millie McGonigle

Cushman, Karen. War and Millie McGonigle. Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 210 p. 978-1-984-85010-2. $16.99.  Grades 4-6.

Mollie McGonigle is a twelve year old girl who lives with her family in San Diego. It is the autumn of 1941 and with war raging in Europe, Millie worries that the conflict will come to California. The young girl is grieving for her grandmother, who died on Millie’s birthday. Her grandmother’s gift was a diary, and she suggested that Millie “use [it] to remember the good things in this world…things that seem lost or dead-keep them alive and safe in your book.” Millie interprets this to mean that she should keep a list of dead things and explores the beach and neighborhood to find or hear about something to write down. When not looking after her younger asthmatic sister and energetic brother or doing chores, Millie finds time to be with her friend Rosie from Chicago, who is temporarily living with relatives. Then, Pearl Harbor is attacked, and Millie becomes even more alarmed about a possible invasion, as do others in the town. With Rosie’s help, Millie comes to terms with her anxiety about the world and the loss of her grandmother, realizing that “whatever is lost stays alive when we remember it.”

THOUGHTS: This novel explores the effects of grief and anxiety about a world turned upside down. The story is not all doom and gloom, as Cushman has included some comic relief in characters like Aunt Edna and MeToo. Millie is a likeable character and readers who enjoy books about sensitive issues and friendship will like this one.

Historical Fiction          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

MG – Lion of Mars

Holmes, Jennifer L. Lion of Mars. Random House, 2021. 978-0-593-12181-8. 259 p. $16.99. Grades 4-6.

Bell has only known life on Mars – the fake sunlight, the painted on windows, the algae. But Bell wants to know more about the other colonies on Mars and why they don’t talk anymore. When an unidentified object lands on the Martian surface, Bell and his “siblings” decide to take a rover to explore. Things go terribly wrong, and Bell discovers that the clash between countries on Earth has apparently followed them to Mars. After being rescued, Bell and the others are banned from traveling to other colonies. Feeling more isolated than ever, the American colony discovers they have a mouse living among them after the last supply drop. Bell names the mouse Muffin, and they keep it as a pet. But when adults start to get sick and the eldest of the colony dies, the kids realize the mouse must have brought a virus and they need help. Using the train system that used to connect colonies, Bell and his brother journey to the French colony for help. The French colony sends medicine and support to the adults in the American colony while hosting the American children in their home. Realizing that they are more alike than different, Bell fights to maintain contact between the two colonies after unearthing an old photo of the American commanding officer.

THOUGHTS: A bit slow to start and focused on setting the futuristic idea of colonization on Mars, Holm picks up the pace when the rover crashes and Bell is hurt. A great story of trust and companionship that will be enjoyed by middle grade readers. This novel had cliff hangers and lots of moments where the reader was cheering for Bell. The out of this world setting makes it a fun read and leaves you wondering, “what if….”.

Science Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Elem. – Let’s Play Outside

Rumbaugh, Pat. Let’s Play Outside. Star Bright Books, 2021. Unpaged. 978-1-59572-919-4. $6.99. Grades K-2.

Let’s Play Outside is a fun fiction book that focuses on all the fun things that children can do when they are outside. The descriptions are paired with action photographs that show what is being described. The end of the book has information for caregivers and parents on different things they can do with their children outside. There are also tips for fitting in time to play as well as suggestions on where children can play.

THOUGHTS: This is an adorable fiction book about playing outside that students will enjoy looking through, and parents/caregivers can appreciate giving them ideas of new things to do outside. There is also a mention of the website Let’s Play America at the end, which is a great resource for information outside this book.

Picture Book          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – Witches Steeped in Gold

Smart, Ciannon. Witches Steeped in Gold. HarperTeen, 2021. 978-0-06-309245-7. $18.99. 533p. Grades 9 and up.

Witches Steeped in Gold follows main characters Iraya Adair and Jazmyne Cariot, who are both witches. However, they are on opposite sides of a conflict, and their upbringings could not have been more different. Iraya grew up the heir to a dynasty that is no longer in power and an exile of her home on top of that. Jazmyne has grown up the daughter of the doyenne with whatever she wanted; however, she knows that she is a threat to her mother. These two witches end up in a shaky alliance to help take down a common enemy, the Doyenne Cariot.

THOUGHTS: The setting of this book is unlike anything I have read before, and the touches of Jamacian folklore make this YA Fantasy stand out. The plot of this novel is extremely fast paced, and readers will need to pay attention otherwise they might get lost. Overall, highly recommended and a must have for any high school collection.

Fantasy          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Elem. – Eyes that Kiss in the Corners

Ho, Joanna. Eyes that Kiss in the Corners. Harper Collins for Children, 2021. 978-0-062-91562-7 40 p. $17.99. Grades K-3. 

This is a heartfelt and breathtaking portrait of a young Asian girl drawing strength from the women in her family. In the story, a girl notices that her eyes seem different from her friends’. Most of the friends have “big round eyes and long lashes”; where she has eyes that “kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea.” With pride and confidence, the girl shares with the reader that her eyes resemble her mother’s, her amah’s, and her little sister’s! With each turn of the page, the girl (and the reader) learn less about physical appearances and more about the legacy of family, relationships, history, and heritage. Eyes that Kiss in the Corners is a vibrant celebration of self-discovery and love! The brilliant illustrations and poetic words will resonate with readers of any age.

THOUGHTS: Eyes that Kiss in the Corners is a must-have picture book for home, classrooms, and school libraries! I appreciate that there is no bullying, teasing, or conflict with the characters in the story. Instead this title is written as a lyrical celebration with a tender message: to love oneself.

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

YA – Firekeeper’s Daughter

Boulley, Angeline. Firekeeper’s Daughter. Henry, Holt, and Co. 2021. 978-1-250-76656-4. $18.99. 496 p. Grades 9-12.

Daunis Fontaine, a recent high school graduate and former hockey star, lives in two different worlds. Set in Michigan’s upper peninsula, her Fontaine world includes her mother, grandmother, and recently deceased uncle, but she’s also half Anishinaabe. Her father was a part of the nearby Ojibwe tribe, and although she’s not an official member, the family and friends she has there mean just as much to her. After witnessing the murder of her best friend, Daunis decides to go undercover and help with a criminal investigation in order to save her tribe members from any further corruption. As the mysteries of the investigation unfold, she discovers some awful truths about the people she thought she knew and trusted, and it will take all of her strength to persevere without ruining her own life and relationships in the process.

THOUGHTS:  This debut novel gives readers a glimpse into modern, Native American culture along with traditions and beliefs unique to the Anishinaabe people, specifically an Ojibwe tribe located in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The author shines light on both the positive and negative aspects of life among the tribe, specifically a methamphetamine problem and the effect the drug is having on their community. Firekeeper’s Daughter is a thrilling and intense story that touches on sensitive issues including murder, addiction, grief, and sexual assault and a complex, main character who must find the strength to overcome the many obstacles in her life.

Realistic Fiction          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD