MG – The Fort

Korman, Gordon. The Fort. Scholastic Press, 2022. 978-1-338-62914-9. 239 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

After a violent hurricane rips through their town, Evan and his friends decide to explore the destruction and see if their fort in the woods has survived. Unfortunately, the fort is destroyed, but the weather has unearthed something even better not too far away. The boys discover an underground bomb shelter, complete with canned goods, a record player, a TV – basically everything they need to make the ultimate clubhouse! The group decides to keep the fort a secret between the five of them. They hang out at the fort quite often, spending a lot of time with each other; however, each of them is hiding another secret besides the fort. Evan is worrying about his older brother and hoping he doesn’t succumb to drugs like their parents. Jason is trying hard not to reveal the fort to his girlfriend and her police officer father. Mitchell is trying to get his OCD under control. And CJ is sleeping at the fort every night to escape physical abuse from his stepdad. Ricky, who has not known these guys as long as they have known each other, knows something is amiss and begins to put the pieces together, determined to help them out. When some older boys get suspicious about where the friends are spending their time and an investigation begins, Ricky knows he has to work quickly to keep his friend group (and the fort) safe.

THOUGHTS: Gordon Korman’s 100th book does not disappoint. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character to get everyone’s perspectives. The friendship between the boys is heartwarming and supportive, especially in the face of the obstacles they all have in their lives. This book is a must-purchase for middle grade libraries.

Realistic Fiction            Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem./MG – Classic Graphic Remix (Series Fiction)

Classic Graphic Remix. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2019-2022. $45.62 (Set of 3), $12.25 (individual pbk. titles). 256 p. Grades 3-8.

Weir, Ivy Noelle. Anne of West Philly. A Modern Graphic Retelling of Anne of Green Gables. 2022. 978-0-316-45978-5.
Terciero, Rey. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: A Modern Graphic Retelling of Little Women. 2019. 978-0-316-52286-1.
Weir, Ivy Noelle. The Secret Garden on 81st Street: A Modern Graphic Retelling of The Secret Garden. 2021. 978-0-316-45970-9. 

Fans of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic girl coming of age novel, Anne of Green Gables, will appreciate this 21st century graphic novel spin off set in West Philadelphia. Anne Shirley has brown skin paired with the characteristic red hair. The basic plot follows the original with brother and sister, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, fostering teenage Anne. Like that book, Anne makes friends with Diana and Gilbert; Marilla accuses her of stealing her prized broach; Anne inadvertently gets Diana tipsy. Other parts of the story display the same unflagitable, optimistic Anne in modern times enthusiastically interested in science and robotics, experiencing a glimmer of first romance with another girl, and finding her place in the world. The mention of familiar places like Clark Park and the typical Victorian twins make this graphic retelling illustrated with appealing and colorful drawings a special treat for native Philadelphians in particular, but the urban setting is mostly generic. There is no in-depth story or involved character development here, but reluctant readers may grasp on to this oldie but goodie in its new packaging.

THOUGHTS: An attractive way to introduce students to the classic book, Anne of West Philly is a fun book that is part of a series of classic retellings in different American cities. One is Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy [Little Women] by Rey Terciero and The Secret Garden on 81st Street by Ivy Noelle Weir.

Graphic Novel          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
Realistic Fiction

Elem. – A Grandma’s Magic

Offsay, Charlotte. A Grandma’s Magic. Illustrated by Asa Gilland. Doubleday Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-0-593-37600-3. $17.99. Unpaged. Grades K-3.

This large picture book opens with the tender lines, “When a child is born. . .a grandma is born, too.” Bathed in shades of pinks, teals, and apricots, A Grandma’s Magic shows a diverse array of grandmothers and their grandbabies doing what stereotypical grandmas do: baking, gardening, playing, hugging, comforting in both urban and rural settings. Popping in vivid colors from the white background are intergenerational pairs engaging in activities that teach and enchant. With simple strokes, illustrator Asa Gilland conveys the characters’ surprise, delight, sadness, and warmth. These poignant drawings convince the reader of author Charlotte Offsay’s words that grandmothers do indeed conjure magical times that linger long after their visits are over. The book is ideal for a reading aloud on Grandparents’ Day or as a story starter to describe one’s grandmother. However, the story only reflects the families where grandmothers are living independently and can come to visit. Other situations where grandmothers are raising their grandchildren or where grandmothers live with the family are not considered. If reading or shelf-talking this pretty book, know your audience.

THOUGHTS: This feel-good book is so delightful to look at and emanates a real warmth in pictures and words. It lends itself to intergenerational units (perhaps coupled with Mem Fox’s Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge, if you can get your hands on it–it is not out of print), and character description–maybe even people poems. Grandmothers of all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities show up in this book, but the author still focuses on the healthy grandmother whom the child will visit or be visited by. In some communities, that vision of a grandmother may not be the one the young child actually has. A book early with diversity on a similar theme is the late, great Vera B. Williams’s More, More, More Said the Baby.( I guess I am dating myself with the mention of two old –and perhaps better-books.)

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – One Sun and Countless Stars: A Muslim Book of Numbers

Khan, Henna. One Sun and Countless Stars: A Muslim Book of Numbers. Illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini. Chronicle Books, 2022. 978-1-452-18272-8. $17.99. Unpaged. Grades K-3.

For Muslim children, One Sun and Countless Stars: A Muslim Book of Numbers, is a mirror; for non-Muslim children, it is a window. Saturated in rich colors– golds, reds, turquoise–this horizontally-shaped book uses simple yet significant objects special to the Muslim community to correspond to the numbers. The story focuses on a young boy’s family and some basic precepts of the Muslim religion: kindness, generosity, and prayerfulness. This visual presentation illustrator Mehrdokht Amini’s drawings connect perfectly with the sparse text. Characters are depicted realistically with enlarged faces, full of expression; the calligraphy conveying the four-line rhymes on each page is readable and large font, also. The double-page spreads take up the entire space with vibrant paint or, in some instances, with a collage effect. Islamic motifs repeat in tablecloths, book covers, and window panes; minarets in the skyline indicate a Middle Eastern setting. The story marks an intersection of the ancient and the modern. Though the young boy dons western dress, the adults wear traditional Muslim garb as they make their pilgrimage to Mecca. Children of other faiths may find similarities, such as gathering to study the Quran, doing good works, fasting, or repetitious prayer. Though targeted for a primary grade audience, the book can inform older students as well. Includes a helpful glossary.

THOUGHTS: From end page to end page, this gorgeous picture book emanates a Middle Eastern tone. Though this book is an easy reader, the information it conveys may dispel any misconceptions young people may have about the Muslim religion. For this reason, teachers could use this book for students of higher grades, too.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – Miguel’s Community Garden

Brown-Wood, JaNay. Miguel’s Community Garden. Illustrated by Samara Hardy. Peachtree Books, 2022. 978-1-682-63166-9. $16.99. Unpaged. Grades K-3.

It is a beautiful day in an urban neighborhood, and Miguel’s two dads take him to the community garden. A sign shows they are here for a community picnic with their friends, but first, Miguel wants to see the sunflowers. While searching for the cheerful plant, the little boy becomes acquainted with the different vegetables grown in the plot. Illustrator, Samara Hardy, generates the vibrant activity of a garden in the many double-page spreads awash in a palette of greens, browns, reds, and oranges. Her childlike style depicts chubby-faced children of all colors and abilities, brightly detailed garden animals and exaggerated close ups of various vegetables, some not as familiar to most young children. A bee cavorts from page to page leading the reader toward the sunflower. This teachable picture book focuses on the clearly outlined drawings and the simple, explanatory text describing how these food staples grow and how to recognize them: apricots, artichokes, cherries, mulberries, spinach, asparagus, mushrooms, celery, peppers. Author JaNay Brown-Wood holds a doctorate in Education with a specialty in Child Development. Her writing style evidences her expertise. Teachers of primary grades starting units on nutrition or community will find this pleasant read engaging for students. Beginning readers, too, will benefit from the repetition and pattern in the text.

THOUGHTS: Miguel’s Community Garden reminded me so much of DyAnne DiSalvo’s (Ryan) thirty-year old book, City Green in look and theme. Brown-Wood’s book, though, shows a deliberate use of metacognition. Both a pattern book and informative, young readers can build reading skills and learn valuable facts about food.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – Join the Club, Maggie Diaz

Moreno, Nina. Join the Club, Maggie Diaz. Illustrated by Courtney Lovett. Scholastic, 2022. 978-1-338-83281-5. 229 p. $7.99 (pbk.). Grades 3-6.

Reminiscent of Frazzled by Booki Vivat, Join the Club, Maggie Diaz by Nina Moreno has as its protagonist a Cuban-American girl ready to start seventh grade in middle school whose friends seem to have found their niches while she is still searching for hers. As the short, sweetly illustrated novel opens, Maggie’s mother is finishing her accounting degree, the Diaz family has welcomed a new baby brother, and their grandmother has come to live with the family in Miami after their grandfather’s death. Until her tiny house is completed in the family’s backyard, Abuela has become Maggie’s roommate. She is not shy about providing Maggie with unsolicited direction and advice (in Spanish). Maggie’s aim to be independent and grown up is thwarted by her lack of a cell phone, her busy parents’ strict rules, and the overshadowing of her seemingly perfect older sister, Caro. Intertwined seamlessly in the plot is Caro’s LBGTQ+ relationship with her tutoring buddy, Alex, and Mrs. Diaz’s positive acceptance of their relationship. Pressured to appear like she is fitting in, Maggie tells little white lies and tries joining every club she can. The one catch to admission to a club, however, is good grades. Maggie finds herself overextended and in over her head and her grades are slipping. If that happens, her prize of a cell phone and more freedom go out the window. With humor and pathos, Maggie muddles through and finds strength in unexpected people. Young readers will identify with Maggie’s struggles to find her special thing and keep up with her schoolwork in an unfamiliar environment of both a new school and a new stage in life.

THOUGHTS: Fitting in and finding one’s place in middle school is not an easy task. Books that have characters failing and trying at the same thing can be encouraging. It helps that Join the Club, Maggie Diaz is a quick read. Maggie’s up and down relationship with her grandmother is also a connection with real life. A fun and relatable read, especially for reluctant or struggling readers.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – Dear Student

Swartz, Elly. Dear Student. Delacorte Press, 2022. 978-0-593-37412-2. $16.99. 293 p. Grades 6-8.

Starting middle school is difficult for most students, but for sixth-grader Autumn Blake, it’s a lonely, anxious time not only because her friend Prisha has moved to California but also because her father has decided to “seize the day” and grant his lifelong wish to help others by joining the Peace Corps in Ecuador. Now, Autumn, her mom, and her little sister, Pickles, have to move to the apartment above her mother’s veterinary practice, and Autumn has more responsibilities to help with her sister, their home, and the practice. Though she feels like a misfit at school, she responds to her father’s daily advice to challenge herself and applies for the position as the advice columnist for the school newspaper, The Daily Express. As she awaits the decision on the newspaper slot, Autumn is surprised by the attention from popular, confident classmate, Logan. Selected as the anonymous advice columnist, Autumn reveals that under her awkward and self-conscious exterior lies an insightful and wise counselor. She even winds up giving advice to Logan and learning about her new friend’s hidden insecurities and needs. Autumn also balances this friendship with Cooper, a newcomer to her small community, whom Logan says is weird. When she responds to a disturbing accusation about Beautiful You, a cosmetic business in her community that has provided jobs for many, including Cooper’s mother, her reply sparks controversy around suspected animal testing; and when word leaks out that Autumn is the one dispensing advice, both Logan and Cooper turn against her. To make matters worse, her fantasy about her dad returning home for her birthday fizzles. Ultimately, Autumn realizes she is strong enough to grab hold of her Fearless Fred –a nod to a family story–and summon the courage to do what is hard to make things right. The premise of the friendly advice columnist being the introverted character has been done in Lifetime movies, but Elly Schwarz’s middle school take on it is refreshing and unique. Hard to tell what race the characters are, but both Logan and Autumn are white; Autumn refers several times to her Jewish religion.

THOUGHTS: Give this book to the shy student, the one who travels under the radar whom you suspect has something valuable to say. This book may be a good springboard for Social Emotional Learning–after all, Autumn is providing advice and the situations in which she finds herself can be good What if? examples. What if a parent chooses to go away for a long time? What if you need to move because your family’s financial situation changes? What if you are given more responsibilities? What if you make presumptions about how you impress people and how other people appear to you? What if you need to take a stand about something you really believe in and a friend disagrees? What if a situation arises where you need to speak up? Autumn Blake, with her complicated feelings and struggle for confidence, is a character middle school students would like to meet.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – Caprice

Booth, Coe. Caprice. Scholastic, 2022. 978-0-545-93334-6. $17.99. 243 p. Grades 6-8.

Sensitive, poetical Caprice is a rising eighth grader with a big decision: should she grab the opportunity of attending a prestigious boarding school or stick with her friends in Newark, New Jersey? Though she loved her seven-week stint at summer camp at Ainsley School for Girls, she is torn because of her closeness to her best friend, Nicole, a budding romance with Jarrett, and her commitment to the Center, the community place that fosters fun and leadership in her neighborhood. Through her poems and flashbacks, the reader learns of sexual abuse that Caprice keeps buried and secreted from her family. She is considerate of her parents’ precarious financial situation because of their faltering business and is scared that her need to be in Newark keeps her mother and father apart. Her return home a week before school starts corresponds with a call from Baltimore informing the family of her maternal grandmother’s serious illness. Caprice’s mother and grandmother have been estranged since Caprice was four-years-old when her grandmother sent Caprice and her mother away from the family home after a dangerous incident. Only Caprice and her grandmother know the real reason for their banishment, but her mother has lived all these years with hurt and resentment, alienated from her mother and brother, Raymond. The reader meets Caprice over an important week when school, friendships, and soul-searching come to a head. Her sporadic panic attacks increase, and she waffles between closing herself off and speaking up for herself in new ways. In Caprice, Coe Booth tackles a difficult topic by mining the memories and feelings of Caprice as she faces her demons and challenges herself to esteem who she is. Caprice’s immediate family is loving and communicative. Her friendships with both adults and kids at the Center are genuine and nicely developed. Though the confrontation with her abuser at story’s end avoids any expected messiness and description, the emotions Caprice experiences throughout the novel will resonate with many readers dealing with changes in their lives. The students at Ainsley are international: New Zealand, Ghana, Toronto. Race is not mentioned directly in the book; however, Caprice gets her locs done and the book’s cover art displays an African American girl, so there are implications that the other characters are African American.

THOUGHTS: Coe Booth lets Caprice’s voice come through in the narration and the typical middle school dialogue with which readers will relate. The thriving Center Caprice attends is core to the community and helps to shape the kids who participate in the different activities it affords, from a Women’s Club, to film making, to dance. Caprice takes part in some neat poetry activities that readers can replicate. Her leadership qualities come out in her refusal to be treated less than boys and to tolerate snide remarks about her body. The adults surrounding Caprice–even though they know nothing about her abuse at the time–are nurturing and say the right things. Caprice’s pride in her neighborhood and loyalty to her friends are good discussion points.

Realistic Fiction   Bernadette Cooke   School District of Philadelphia

Twelve-year-old Caprice should be having the time of her life. She just finished a seven week summer program at a prestigious school in upstate New York, and she has now been offered a full scholarship through high school. She has a week to make the decision to accept the scholarship. She returns to her home in Newark, NJ and learns that her grandmother is seriously ill. This brings back the memories of the abuse that she endured while living there with her grandmother and uncle. She has remained quiet about this abuse and has told no one. The deadline to commit to Ainsley is coming closer and closer, and Caprice is struggling with her past while trying to make a decision about her future. 

THOUGHTS: This book is a powerful read for a middle schooler. It addresses the issue of child abuse – sexual and emotional. It could have some triggers for some readers.    

Realistic Fiction          Victoria Dziewulski, Plum Borough SD

MG- Karthik Delivers

Chari, Sheela. Karthik Delivers. Amulet Books, 2022. 978-1-419-75522-4. $17.99. 255 p. Grades 6-9.

The 2008 recession has hit Alston, Massachusetts, hard. The Raghaven Indian grocery store is not doing well, so Mr. Raghaven recruits thirteen-year old Karthik as a delivery boy, a perk for his customers during the sweltering summer months. Remembering the orders is simple for Karthik; in fact, he remembers everything, including the 50 ice cream flavors at Carmine’s where he and his best friends, Miles, a white crossword whiz, and Binh, a sensitive Vietnamese boy, hang out when they can. At Carmine’s, Karthik also can catch a glimpse of Juhi Shah, his crush, despite her puzzling affinity for brawny bully Jacob Donnell and his wing man, Hoodie Menendez. This summer before high school becomes one of challenges for Karthik: can he stand up to Jacob who addresses him as Kar-dick; can he resist his mother’s pressure to be a doctor; can he help his father’s store withstand the stiff competition of the popular take-out place, House of Chaats (Juhi’s family business); most of all, can he discover what he truly wants to be? When Boston University budding playwriting student Shanthi Ananth persuades Karthik to take a leading role in her twenty-minute play about a childhood incident in the life of Alston native and world-renown composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein, Karthik’s world changes. Like Bernstein, whose musical career started with the gift of a piano from his aunt, Karthik realizes he has some unmined talents as well. His delivery job shows him he has a gift for making people feel noticed and listened to; his relationship with Shanthi encourages his talent for acting and reveals that it is possible to follow one’s own heart’s desire, not one’s parent’s.  The only problem is, he has to keep this project a secret. Against the backdrop of hard financial times, Karthik juggles all the different aspects of his life–family, friends, acting, job, first love–with an authenticity that will touch readers. Chari’s writing, whether in narrative or action or plot movement, makes this story so real. Though the Raghaven family and other characters suffer some bumps in life’s course, they retain their senses of humor and compassion, giving the story a buoyancy and truthfulness. This novel immerses the reader in a diverse community, strong friendships, and the sacrifices made for family.

THOUGHTS: Chari has a gift for developing rich major and minor characters. Students may draw parallels between the recession happening now in 2022 and the financial crisis of the early 2000’s that Karthik’s family experiences. Characters are of different ethnicities, but Indian foods and dishes as well as customs and mores are dominant. Karthik’s play, Being Lenny, may pique interest in Leonard Bernstein, his life and works.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Love, Decoded

Yen, Jennifer. Love, Decoded. Razorbill, 2022. 978-0-593-11755-2. $18.99. 303 pp. Grades 7-10.

Love, Decoded by Jennifer Yen paints a world of Superbia, a Manhattan prep school, family life in a five-story brownstone with an elevator, and the fashionable and edible haunts of wealthy young New Yorkers that mixes Kevin Kwan’s Crazy, Rich Asians PG with Jane Austen’s Emma. Gigi Wong is a matchmaker-in-training with her Great-Aunt Rose in the backroom of her Chinatown shop, Rose and Jade. A computer coding whiz, sixteen-year-old Gigi convinces Auntie Rose to let her digitize some of the biodata on her clients. In first-person narration, Gigi describes her close friendship with next-door neighbor, Chinese and white, Kyle Miller; he is her confidante and go-to person, but nothing more (cue predictability). As a volunteer at the Suzuki Youth Center, the beautiful and magnanimous Gigi takes under her wing mentee, Etta, a Filipino-American scholarship student. Gigi learns to appreciate Etta’s exuberance and guilelessness and introduces her to a make over, exclusive restaurant openings, and demonstrations of privilege. In turn, Etta, an anime and video game aficionado, teaches Gigi how to use the subway, to buy clothes on a budget, and to appreciate the sacrifices Gigi’s chauffeur Fernando makes to be at the Wongs’ beck and call. Etta’s difficulty fitting in at Superbia also provides Gigi with the idea for her entry in a Junior Coding Contest. Using her novice matchmaking skills, Gigi enhances her program Quizlr into one that matches compatible friends. When former friend, Joey Kwan, returns from Singapore looking new and improved, Gigi thinks she has found a match for Etta. As the deadline for the contest approaches, Gigi has her pals try out her app only to find out that it has gone viral producing glitches in the program and serious problems for Gigi and her teacher, Ms. Harris. All gets neatly resolved with Gigi gaining new insight into what she truly wants for her future. Most readers will be treated to this world where teens wear original designers, dine at the trendiest restaurants, have their own credit cards, achieve high grades and awards, converse honestly and comfortably with their parents, and find their true love. Who wouldn’t want to escape there?

THOUGHTS: There are so many reasons this story is irritating, yet readers feel compelled to read it to the end. It fits all the stereotypes: wealthy prep school students can buy anything; the main characters are always going to the latest, best restaurants or ordering in their favorite foods; the narrator takes care to describe in detail their designer outfits and make up. Gigi knows the right things to say to maintain her sweet girl demeanor. She is supposed to be beautiful, smart, and popular, but no other girlfriends enter the story but her mentee, Etta, and through her, Gigi’s ex-friend, Anna. Perhaps Love, Decoded is an example of why we read fiction: to escape into a different world unlike our own. For that reason, Love, Decoded may become a seller among older middle school and younger high school students.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia