MG – The Magical Imperfect

Baron, Chris. The Magical Imperfect. Feiwel & Friends, 2021. 978-1-250-76782-0. 232 p. $15.15. Grades 5-8.

Etan has not always been an outcast. He used to play baseball with the other boys during recess. He used to hang out with his best friend. He used to talk in class and interact with classmates. But that was before his mother checked into a mental hospital. Now suffering from selective mutism, Etan has pulled away from everyone in his life except for his father and grandfather, with whom he shares a very strong bond. While visiting his grandfather at his jewelry shop, Etan is asked by the grocer next door to deliver a package. It is only after his brief, mysterious, and interesting encounter with the family’s daughter, Malia, that he finds out she is known to his classmates as “The Creature.” Etan, however, doesn’t see her that way, and as he makes more trips to her house, their friendship grows. Etan wishes he could help Malia find a cure for her eczema so she can return to school. Malia wishes she could help Etan find his voice. Perhaps finding someone who accepts them for who they are will be the key for Etan and Malia to shed that outcast label.

THOUGHTS:  There is so much to unpack here–Mental illness, prejudice, immigration, bullying, friendship—the list goes on. Chris Baron knows exactly which issues face middle grade readers and writes about them in an accessible, heartfelt, and beautiful way. This book is a perfect fit for middle school libraries.

Fantasy            Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

MG – The Kate in Between

Swinarski, Claire. The Kate in Between. Quill Tree Books, 2021. 978-0-062-91270-1. 289 p. $15.15. Grades 5-8.

Kate and Haddie are best friends and have been since first grade. But Kate needs a change, and she’s not exactly sure where Haddie fits in the new life she is trying to fashion for herself.  Kate’s mother has left town to pursue her dream of becoming a True Diamond in the world of True Cosmetics, and Kate is left to move into the guest room of her police officer father’s apartment where she doesn’t even have a bed. It’s embarrassing for Kate, and it’s sometimes difficult when you have a friend who knows your truth. She hopes seventh grade will be different, and when Kate finds herself in popular mean girl Taylor’s orbit, there just isn’t room for Haddie. When a near tragedy involving Haddie and some bullies who may or may not be Kate’s friends turns Kate into a hero, she begins to question exactly what it means to be Taylor’s friend and why it is harder than it should be. But when a video of the incident goes viral, her status as a hero also goes viral. Kate knows what really happened, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone else does too. Will Kate be able to figure out just who she is with her life in the spotlight?

THOUGHTS: Claire Swinarski takes a familiar middle grade theme of friends growing apart and makes it fresh. I would recommend this book to upper middle school students.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

MG – Summer of Brave

Parks, Amy Noelle. Summer of Brave. Albert Whitman & Co., 2021. 978-0-807-57660-1. 232 p. $16.99. Grades 4-8.

Lilla likes to make everyone happy, even if it means not speaking her mind. The Summer Wish is a tradition between friends Knox, Vivi, and Lilla – whoever blows off the most seeds of the dandelion gets to make a Summer Wish that the other two must do. When Vivi wins (again), she decides to make her wish for a summer of brave, where everyone is honest and shares their feelings in order to overcome a fear. For Lilla this will be a challenge at home since she spends half her time living on the second floor with her mother, a scientist, and the other half on the first floor with her father, an artist. When the trio apply for summer camp counselors, tensions mount when Vivi doesn’t get chosen and Lilla can’t tell her the truth (which equals not being brave). Add to that the decision on which school to attend in the fall (the private school for science or art? Or the public school for a more well rounded education?), Lilla struggles with finding her voice to tell both her parents and friends her true wish. Will the Summer of Brave truly work?

THOUGHTS: A great coming of age story about being honest with yourself and others while finding out who you are. These middle school students are relatable and each bring a special connection to the story. Lilla struggles with self doubt, and readers at this level will connect with her in more ways than one. A wonderfully written and brave story of finding the courage to speak up for what you believe in.

Realistic Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

MG – Alone

Freeman, Megan E. Alone. Aladdin, 2021. 978-1-534-46756-9. 404 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Maddie, a twelve year old girl, plans the perfect sleepover night at her Grandmas. Unfortunately, her friends cancel, and Maddie spends the night alone – only to wake up to everyone gone. Maddie learns that an “imminent threat” has forced mass evacuations and her divorced parents never knew that Maddie was alone. Maddie must now fend for herself and hope that help comes soon. Maddie visits the empty homes and starts to gather items necessary to survive for the next few weeks. But weeks turn into months, and months into years and Maddie’s only company is a rottweiler named George. On her own Maddie faces looters, tornadoes, a devastating fire, and a flash flood while navigating springtime at her mom’s house and winters at her father’s home. Maddie uses her local library to gain knowledge, and find hope that rescue will soon arrive.

THOUGHTS: A wonderful survival story with a strong female character that will leave you rooting for her. The story is well written, and fans of Life as We Knew It and Hatchet will enjoy this adventure. The author provides a variety of challenges for Maddie to face, while showing how to be brave and creative in overcoming obstacles.

Adventure          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh Middle School

Elem./MG – Unplugged

Korman, Gordon. Unplugged. Blazer + Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-79889-3. $16.99. 324 p. Grades 4-6.

Meet Jett Baranov, bratty son of a super rich tech billionaire. Jett can’t help but get himself in lots of trouble! His father has had it, and decides to send Jett to a “resort” in the middle of Arkansas called The Oasis. Thinking The Oasis will be like any other upscale camp he’s been to, Jett is stunned when he has to turn in ALL his tech devices. Another shock comes when he hits the cafeteria; it’s all vegetarian! Finding a pet “lizard” with the other kids at the camp, Jett thinks his experience is finally turning around. They can’t figure out what kind of lizard Needles is, but they are in for the shock of their lives when they figure out the mystery of where Needles came from and the truth about the head counselor at the camp.

THOUGHTS: A must purchase for fans of Gordon Korman. His stories have the best hooks, and Unplugged does not disappoint.

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, PSLA Member

MG – A Soft Place to Land

Marks, Janae. A Soft Place to Land. Harper Collins, 2021. 978-0-062-87587-7. $16.99. 288 p. Grades 4-7.

The Taylor family is going through a rough patch. Twelve-year old Joy’s father was laid off, they had to sell their beloved house and move to a small apartment, cut out all non-essential expenses like Joy’s piano lessons, and change Joy’s middle school. Bad enough her dream to be a film composer has to be put on hold and her old friends are not reaching out to her, but her parents are arguing now, and Joy feels she has to keep her feelings hidden to shield her little sister, Malia. The silver lining is the friendliness and kindness of the residents of her apartment building, from next-door neighbor, elderly Mae Willoughby and her French bulldog, Ziggy, to aspiring film-maker Nora, Joy finds a warm welcome and a ready ear that softens the edge of her disappointment and anxiety over losing her house and fearing her parents will get a divorce. Other perks of apartment living are the secret hideout where Joy and her new-found friends can get away to draw, listen to music, read, or play board games, and the dog walking business Joy starts with Nora to earn money to purchase a piano. When Joy’s parents tell the girls that her father is moving in with Uncle Spencer for a bit, though, a distraught Joy runs away to the Hideout and falls asleep, leading to the breaking of the one Hideout rule: don’t tell the adults. Though the other kids are angry that their Hideout is now off limits, Nora remains a loyal friend until Joy’s curiosity about a poignant poem and messages on the Hideout’s walls leads to a rift between them. When Nora ditches the dog walking session, Joy finds out too late she cannot handle the task solo and loses Ziggy. Despite her loneliness and sense of failure, Joy works to come up with a way to find Ziggy, mend her friendship with Nora, and remedy the loss of the special Hideout. Janae Marks’s new novel abounds with positivity while recognizing life does not go perfectly. Joy and her family are African American; most of the other characters are people of color also.

THOUGHTS: A comforting, relatable middle school read. No high drama here, just an enjoyable story showing people bonding together and helping each other, and middle school students being kind and friendly to newcomers. Although there are some difficult issues at play here, all the adults are experts at problem solving and dealing with hard things respectfully. The children follow suit. Joy and Nora show a lot of responsibility and initiative, and the other characters display other positive traits.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – The Traitor’s Blade

Sands, Kevin. The Traitor’s Blade. (The Blackthorn Key, 5.) Aladdin, 2021. 380 p. 978-1-5344-8456-6. $18.99 Grades 5-9.  

In book 5 of this popular series, Christopher Rowe and his friends Tom and Sally continue unraveling codes and threats, this time against Christopher and King Charles II, in 1666 London. Christopher, Tom, and Sally have only just returned from Paris, when Christopher stops in at Blackthorn’s now-dusty shop to find a threatening letter with a code leading to more information. While there, his friend Simon arrives at the door–with a knife in his back. Miraculously, Simon lives, but the similarity of his death to the recent deaths of two of the king’s servants leads Christopher to be apprenticed to the King’s spymaster. Because Christopher, Tom, and Sally had saved the life of the king’s sister Minette, King Charles extends his grateful generosity to the trio by giving each of them an annual stipend, as well as an individual gift. For Christopher, it is his apprenticeship. For Sally, it is designation as the king’s ward. And for Tom, it is a secret that he keeps from Christopher, a secret which makes him sad. Meanwhile, Simon shares news that Remi, believed to be The Raven, is dead.  Christopher should feel relieved, but questions still abound, and he is caught up in following codes in the letters from the Templars. The closer he gets, the more dangerous the group becomes, and the more convoluted the codes and suppositions. Christopher’s new master cautions him against jumping to conclusions, but Christopher recognizes he’s done exactly that. The novel ends with hand-to-hand combat, a frightening discovery, and a selfless decision by Tom that will make the reader believe in the power of friendship.

THOUGHTS: This is a wonderful continuation of the series that Sands promises has “one more to go.”  Purchase the entire series for grades 5-9; it has proven popular with reviewers and readers.

Historical Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Haydu, Corey Ann. One Jar of Magic. Harper Collins, 2021. $16.99 978-0-062-68985-6. Grades 5-8.

Rose Alice Anders isn’t just Rose. She is “Little Luck,” so nicknamed by her father, the luckiest man in Belling Bright, the most magical place in the world. Her father has the most knowledge of magic in this town where magic is revered and frequently used for everything from improving hair quality to crafting a rainbow (though her father cautions Rose and her brother Lyle that interfering with weather is too dangerous). All her life Rose has been striving to live up to her father’s belief that she will be the most magical in their family. Her status–and her father’s–brings ‘honor’ but also trouble into her friendships. So when the new year arrives in her twelfth year, Rose both longs for the day and dreads it for the pressure. Yes, she is magical, yes, her father has answers, but something doesn’t feel right, though she’d never admit it. The town’s New Year’s Day comes, and everyone is out to capture magic in jars of any color or size. Some magic sparkles, some changes colors, some seems to enchant just by being. Rose goes straight to Too Blue Lake, where she’s certain she, of all people, will manage to fill jar after jar after jar. But as the day goes on and her friends gather jars, and her brother tries to help her (should she be grateful or insulted?), Rose is fearful to come to the feast with just one jar of magic. She can feel her father’s anger. To appease his anger, her mother takes Rose and Lyle home, stopping at a store run by “not-meant-for-magic’ people. Though the store is nearby, Rose has never been there and never met these people. Her shame at failing to live up to her name and her heritage mixes with her curiosity in these people, who seem so….free. She wants to see Zelda–the daughter of the family–again, but knows her father (and the town) forbids it. What is going on in her family and in her town?  Where does Rose belong and how can she take a stand when she’s not sure of anything?

THOUGHTS: Haydu crafts a very real town full of questions, possibilities and dangers.  She presents the confusing family dynamics well, as Rose struggles to reconcile her hesitations and doubts with her father’s certainty, her mother’s acquiescence, her brother’s kindness, and the town’s solidarity. Who is she, if she’s not Little Luck?

Magical Realism Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG/YA – Sylvie

Kantorovitz, Sylvie. Sylvie. Walker Books, 2021. 346 p. $24.99 978-1-536-20762-0. Grades 7-12.

In this graphic novel, Artist Sylvie Kantoritz shares her life growing up in France, living in an envied apartment that was part of the small teaching college her father directed. She shows the personalities of her father (easy-going), her mother (never satisfied), and her younger brothers and sister. She strives to make everything work: to be the perfect student, daughter, sister, and friend, while feeling uncertain of where she is headed. As the years pass, she changes friends, finds a boyfriend, and always tries to find her own place. Her fascination with art continues to grow throughout her life, and her father encourages her to seek a future in teaching and art. Finally, Sylvie feels that she’s found her own way to a life of her choosing. She ends the memoir with this thought: “Finding out who we are, and not who others think we are or want us to be, is the most important search in life.” The characters’ expressions are endearing and revealing, through anger and surprise to dismay and joy.

THOUGHTS: Readers will enjoy following Sylvie’s life and growth in this quiet homage to the ups and downs of family life.

Graphic Novel          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Larson, Hope. Salt Magic. Margaret Ferguson Books, 2021. 978-0-823-44620-9. 240 p. $21.99. Grades 4-6.

Salt Magic follows our main character Vonceil whose older brother Elber is just home from World War I, and life is not going the way Vonceil pictured it. Elber comes home and marries the girl next door, which seems normal to the rest of his family but not Vonceil. Things get even odder when a woman shows up and claims Elber left her in France. When he denies her, and tells her that he is already married she reveals herself to be a witch who curses his family’s water supply and turns it into salt water. Vonceil then decides to take things into her own hands and solve everything. The illustrations of this graphic novel are wonderful and add to the overall feeling of the book. The story is beautifully woven using the illustrations as well as the language that Hope Larson uses.

THOUGHTS: This is a must own for any middle school library collection.

Graphic Novel    Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy