MG -Finally Seen

Yang, Kelly. Finally Seen. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2023. 978-1-534-48833-5. unpaged. $17.99. Grades 3-7.

When her parents emigrated to the United States with her young sister Millie, Lena Gao stayed behind in the “waiting city” of Beijing with her beloved lao lao (grandmother). In the opening pages of Finally Seen, Lena is on a flight to Los Angeles to be reunited with her family! But five years is a long time, and Lena has a lot to learn about her own family, not to mention the English language and American culture. Lena quickly realizes that nothing has been perfect for her parents in California either. Her dad works very long hours on an organic farm, back rent will be due in a few short months when COVID-19 rent relief expires, and their green cards are hung up in red tape. To make ends meet, Mom and Millie make bath bombs to sell on Etsy, and Lena happily joins in the family business. At school, Lena begins to learn English with the help of an empathetic ELL teacher and Flea Shop, a graphic novel that offers Lena a mirror of her own life. But Lena’s joy at being “finally seen” in a book also finds her caught in the midst of a culture war over what books are appropriate for students to read. 

THOUGHTS: Kelly Yang delivers another charming and relatable middle grade novel rooted in the real experiences of so many young people in the United States and beyond. Her Author’s Note describes the impact of attempts to ban her novel Front Desk, and her steadfast belief in the freedom to read books that offer windows, mirrors, and sliding doors.

Realistic Fiction

MG – Operation Pangolin: Saving the World’s Only Scaled Mammal

Eszterhas, Suzi. Operation Pangolin: Saving the World’s Only Scaled Mammal. Millbrook Press, 2022. 40 p. $23.04. 978-1-728-44295-2. Grades 5-8. 

Pangolins are an endangered species, and they couldn’t ask for a better book than Operation Pangolin to entice humans to ensure their survival. Wildlife photographer Eszterhas uses photographs liberally on wide pages, sure to elicit “oohs and aahs,” as well as “awws” for amazing baby pangolin photos.  Eszterhas begins by focusing on the story of conservationist Thai Van Nguyen, who recalls the day as a child when he saw a pangolin and her baby being captured by poachers (likely for their scales, which are mistakenly believed to have medicinal properties), and how he vowed to “save all the pangolins in the world” (5). He now runs the world’s largest pangolin rescue operation, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife. He and his staff rescue and treat injured pangolins, and Thai frequently speaks about and introduces pangolins to humans. The small numbers of pangolins and their shyness means that scientists still have many questions about their life habits, such as life span, mating habits, and duration of pregnancy. Researchers do know that pangolins have poor eyesight and a strong sense of smell; they have special muscles to close their ears and nostrils (in addition to eyes) while eating ants; their sticky tongues can be longer than their bodies; and they swallow sand and small stones to aid digestion. The photos are the focus of this book. Readers see pangolins curled into balls, eating ants, using their fingers to dig or hold onto branches, undergoing medical exams by Thai’s staff, and babies feeding and riding on their mothers’ backs. The remarkably close and clear photos, even of their scales, gives a sense of wonder and understanding of these creatures. 

THOUGHTS: This book is a winner for upper elementary and above, with facts and photographs to enthrall readers and urge them to help.  Don’t miss other recent amazing animal books by Eszterhas, including A Leopard Diary (2022) and The Adventures of Dr. Sloth (2022).

599.3 Pangolins          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG/YA – Almost There

Rochon, Farrah. Almost There. Disney Hyperion, 2022. 978-1-368-07756-9. $18.99. 464 p. Grades 7-12.

“What if Tiana made a deal that changed everything?” This story begins where the movie comes to an end, and against Tiana’s better judgment, she decides to make a deal with Dr. Facilier, also known as The Shadow Man. He not only promises that Tiana will have her restaurant but that she’ll have it with her father who died when she was young. In return, she must give up a future with Prince Naveen and add a special potion into her gumbo each night at the restaurant. When she agrees to the terms, she wakes up to a seemingly perfect life. Although she misses Naveen, she now has her father and the restaurant of their dreams. As time goes on, strange things start to happen in New Orleans, and Tiana may need the help of closest friends to set things right.

THOUGHTS: I’ve been a big fan of the Twisted Tales since I started reading them a few years ago but as a lifelong Disney fan, I was skeptical of the idea; however, each one has exceeded my expectations, including Almost There, a twist on The Princess and the Frog. Although this series has two main authors, Disney chose an African American author from Louisiana to bring Tiana’s story from the screen to the page. Set in 1920s New Orleans, the book is able to touch on subjects, such as racism, that the movie did not explore. Readers will enjoy this tale even if they haven’t seen the movie and will be inspired to explore the others as well. The Twisted Tales are a must have series for any middle and high school library.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

Elem./MG – Be the Change: Rob Greenfield’s Call to Kids: Making a Difference in a Messed-Up World

Greenfield, Rob, and Antonia Banyard. Be the Change: Rob Greenfield’s Call to Kids: Making a Difference in a Messed-Up World. Greystone Kids, 2022. 978-1-771-64591-1. 87 p. $18.95. Grades 4-6.

This book is a blend of autobiographical information about the author, Rob Greenfield, and environmental activism facts and challenges. Rob Greenfield has a popular Youtube channel where he completes challenges such as growing all his own food for a year, or biking across the country on a bamboo bicycle, in order to raise awareness about environmental and sustainability issues. This book is an extension of his online media work and details the ways in which he has tried to live more sustainability and simply while also helping  kids to understand ideas like minimalism, recycling, food availability, and the global impact of different types of transportation.

THOUGHTS: This is an easy to read guide with a friendly tone and beautifully designed pages. The inspirational actions of Rob Greenfield make the book feel positive, even when delivering messages about world-wide issues like climate change, food shortages, and feeling disconnected from one’s community. The ideas in each chapter will be welcomed by students looking for ways to contribute positively to the world around them. Bright sidebars, bold text features, and short paragraphs with lots of pictures and white space on each page make the text an approachable read for upper elementary and middle school students alike.

333.72 Environmentalism and Conservation          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG -The Bluest Sky

Gonzalez, Christina Diaz. The Bluest Sky. Alfred A. Knopf, 2022. 978-0-593-37279-1. 314 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Political unrest in the Communist government of 1980s Cuba made life in Havana a delicate balancing act. In public, people must support all government decisions or face retribution from friends and family through the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, but in private, people are secretly becoming disenfranchised with the Communist Party and the lack of freedom and opportunity in Communist Cuba. Hector’s father, a political dissenter who was jailed for speaking out against the government, was sent to the United States after serving time in prison, and now Hector’s mother is also considering leaving Cuba to reunite their family and build a new life away from Communism. When Hector’s grandmother, a fierce supporter of the Communist regime, finds out that his family may be leaving Cuba, she does everything in her power to make the family stay, and the terrible consequences of her actions spur Hector, his mother, and his brother Rodrigo to try to leave Cuba once and for all.

THOUGHTS: This book is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in Cuba during the Mariel Boatlift, a time in Cuban history that was marked by economic problems, widespread protests, and political unrest throughout many segments of Cuban life. Hector and his family give context to the general upheaval of this time period and provide an emotional window into the plight of people who live under oppressive governments. Fans of popular historical fiction authors such as Alan Gratz and Jennifer Nielsen will love this exploration of a little-known period of Cuban and American history.

Historical Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet

Dee, Barbara. Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet. Aladdin, 2022. 978-1-534-48983-7. 286 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8. 

Haven spends a lot of time worrying about the climate crisis. When she begins to suspect that a local factory is polluting the river in her town, she jumps at the chance to organize her friends and family in an effort to expose a potential problem with the water supply and the corporate world that may be perpetuating the problem. What she learns, however, is that the situation is more complicated than it appears on the surface, and that the consequences of investigating environmental pollution may be more far-reaching than she anticipated. Still, the vivid characters and interesting plot help this book to end on a hopeful note, and the story may provide a helpful example for a new generation of climate activists.

THOUGHTS: This is a wonderful book for students who are worried about climate change and pollution but don’t know how they themselves fit into the larger picture of the world’s environmental problems. The factory that Haven fears is polluting her town also employs her father, and her activism sometimes creates additional tension in her friendships that the book explores with a refreshing, realistic voice. Once again, Barbara Dee tells a story in this book that many middle-grade readers will find relatable and thought-provoking.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG/YA – 100 African Americans Who Shaped History

Beckner, Chrisanne. 100 African Americans Who Shaped History. Sourcebooks Explore, 2022. 978-0-912-51718-6, 112 p. $7.99. Grades 7-12. 

This slim volume contains 100 biographies of notable African American men and women who have influenced the course of United States history. Each biography contains a simple black and white drawing of the subject of the biography, a rough placement on a United States map to show where that person lived, and the birth and death dates at the top of the page. The biographies offer a good overview of the lives of these notable people, and bold-faced text on each page identifies achievements, places, or people who connect to the life being described. The table of contents includes a timeline sorting the biographies chronologically, and the index helps organize the bold-faced terms throughout the book.

THOUGHTS: This is an excellent volume for students who want to read brief descriptions of notable African Americans and would serve as a good overview or introduction to biography projects that focus on African American historical figures. The book is well-designed and organized, and the text is easy to read for casual nonfiction browsers. 

920 Collected Biography          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem./MG – Thirst

Bajaj, Varsha. Thirst. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2022. 978-0-593-35439-1. 179 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7. 

In poor Mumbai neighborhoods, accessing fresh water is a constant struggle. Each day, people wait for a turn to collect water from communal taps, but sometimes the water runs out before everyone gets a fair share, and sometimes the water that is available is not safe to drink without boiling. In this story, Minni and her family deal with water-borne illnesses, long lines that prevent people from going to work or school, and even water “bandits” that monopolize water access by controlling who can access community water sources. Minni even sees how wealthy people treat poorer people when she must take over her sick mother’s cleaning job.  Minni’s brother, Sanjay, and Minni’s friend, Faiza support her and keep her grounded to the important things in life, and Minni experiences the support of her community in order to overcome her personal challenges as she works to create a more equitable life for everyone she knows.

THOUGHTS: This book is a thoughtful look at the inequalities that people experience around the world when it comes to accessing clean water. Tough issues are presented  in an approachable way that upper-elementary and middle school students can understand, and ultimately Minni’s family comes through their struggles and can move forward in life stronger and more closely-knit, making the ending feel hopeful and inspiring readers to seek positive change.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – A Duet for Home

Glaser, Karina Yan. A Duet for Home. Clarion Books, 2022.  978-0-544-87640-8. 358 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

The Yang family has just experienced a terrible loss, and June, her little sister Maybelle, and her mother are homeless as well as grief-stricken. They end up at Huey House, a shelter for homeless families in New York City, and begin to try to fit into a new and unfamiliar life. A whole host of characters, including some long-time residents of the shelter, rally around June and support her as she begins to put her life back together, but then the shelter itself is threatened as the director looks for ways to save money.

THOUGHTS: This is a heart wrenching and heartwarming story highlighting the plight of homeless children and the importance of empathetic and helpful assistance programs to help families get back on their feet. June struggles to be as strong and brave as her mother and sister need her to be, and Tyrell struggles to keep his life going in a positive direction even when it seems almost impossible to do the right thing. The characters in his book are so real and appealing that readers cannot help but root for them to succeed in spite of all the hardships they face.

Realistic Fiction Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – The Edge of In Between

Savaryn, Lorelei. The Edge of In Between. Viking Books for Young Readers, 2022. ISBN 9780593202098. 304 p. $17.99 Grades 4-8.

Lottie enjoys an idyllic life with her parents in a city where almost everyone she knows has magical abilities. The Living Gray somehow exist without magic, but Lottie is sure that she will never suffer that depressing and magic-less fate. Then Lottie experiences a tremendous tragedy, and her magic slips away, leaving her feeling lost and hopeless. When Lottie’s uncle offers her a chance to live in the In Between and regain her magic and her family, she jumps at the chance, but the magic she is searching for seems permanently out of reach. Eventually, Lottie befriends a family who lives and works on her uncle’s estate and discovers that she can learn to coexist with loss, not as one of the Living Gray, but as a vivid character in a rich and rewarding life of her own.

THOUGHTS: Reminiscent of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, this book strikes all the right notes of tragic orphan storytelling and dreamy magical realism. Discussions about life, grief, letting go of lost family, and moving forward with joy are all part of this haunting story. The way Lottie and her new friends intertwine and support each other leaves the reader with a satisfyingly hopeful ending.

Fantasy Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD