MG – The List of Unspeakable Fears

Kramer, J. Kasper. The List of Unspeakable Fears. Atheneum, 2021. 978-1-534-48074-2. 273 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Essie O’Neill has experienced a lot in her ten years. Life in New York City in 1910 can be hazardous. After the death of her beloved Da, Essie becomes more and more fearful of things both ordinary and extraordinary, to the point where her life is severely curtailed. When her mother suddenly announces that she has remarried and she and Essie will be moving, with her new husband, to North Brother Island, Essie’s fears go into overdrive. North Brother Island is an isolation ward for individuals with incurable diseases, such as smallpox. Once installed on the island, Essie’s night terrors grow worse and she becomes convinced there is a ghostly presence in the house. She fears her new stepfather, a doctor at the quarantine hospital, certain he is responsible for the disappearance of many nurses who work on the island. But maybe Essie has reason to be afraid. Why does her stepfather roam the island in the middle of the night? Who is opening her locked bedroom door? And then there is the island’s most famous resident: Typhoid Mary. This pint-sized gothic tale contains plenty of moments to give young readers delightful shivers, but also weaves in a fascinating historical foundation, including life on North Brother Island, Typhoid Mary’s fight to leave her forced quarantine on the island, and the horrific fire aboard the steamboat General Slocum. Themes of the story touch on dealing with grief and the death of a parent, overcoming traumatic experiences, and the universal childhood frustration of not being taken seriously by adults. Essie’s patient stepfather proves endearingly adept at treating Essie with respect and providing the guidance she needs to find a path to recovery.

THOUGHTS: This just-spooky-enough story, with twists and turns, should captivate readers, who will sympathize with Essie’s fears and frustrations.

Mystery          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem./MG – The World below the Brine

Whitman, Walt. The World below the Brine. Creative Editions, 2021. 32 p. 978-1-568-46361-2. $18.99. Grades 4-6.

This picture book is a beautiful iteration of Whitman’s poem from Leaves of Grass. In just one stanza, the poet directs the reader’s attention to the wonderful and varied life under the salty sea. Whitman begins with a discussion of the plant life and how its many colors play with the light. Next are the “dumb swimmers,” who appear sluggish as they crawl on the bottom, like the sea snail, or like jellyfish that “graze…suspended.” The free verse poem ends with a catalog of better-known sea creatures, such as the shark, whale, and sting-ray. In the final lines, the poet observes that the world below the ocean does not differ much in its environment and society from the one above it. The verse comes alive with James Christopher Carroll’s rich, luminescent illustrations which the publisher likens to the works of Marc Chagall. Done with mixed media, the stunning images create a surrealistic atmosphere in the text. The drawings depict the poem through the eyes of a boy, who dives into the ocean and is amazed at all that he sees and experiences. As he swims furiously to escape from the jaws of hungry predators, the boy is surprised at his marine rescuer and returns to his boat. Whitman’s verses inspire us to open our eyes to the wonders of all worlds of our planet.

THOUGHTS: This is truly a remarkable rendition of Whitman’s “The World below the Brine.” The illustrations are Caldecott quality and readers will enjoy examining the drawings closely. This lyrical work is a great resource for poetry units. Highly recommended for elementary and middle school libraries.

811.3 Poetry          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem./MG – The Curse of the Mummy: Uncovering Tutankhamun’s Tomb

Fleming, Candace. The Curse of the Mummy: Uncovering Tutankhamun’s Tomb. Scholastic Focus, 2021. 978-1-338-59662-5. 304 p. $18.99. Grades 4-8. 

The discovery of the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922 made headlines all over the world. Soon, rumors of a curse on the tomb began to circulate. Author Candace Fleming takes readers on a journey back in time as archeologist Howard Carter and his partner and patron Lord Carnarvon embark on their hunt to find the tomb of Tutankhamun. The discovery of the tomb was the result of years of planning and earlier expeditions. Readers will follow along as Carter, Carnarvon, and their workers embark on their hunt and the thrill and excitement they felt when they made their amazing discovery. The work that went into removing treasures from the tomb, preserving them, and cataloging them is also discussed. Scattered throughout the text are short sections of several pages each that present some of the numerous curse stories surrounding Tutankhamun, his tomb, and it’s discovery. These sections help to add an element of mystery to the story and are sure to catch the attention of readers. At the end of the book, a chapter is devoted to examining the curse stories and separating fact from fiction. The text is enhanced by the inclusion of numerous period photographs of the amazing discoveries made within the tomb. 

THOUGHTS: This narrative non-fiction title is certain to keep readers engaged. Since the title reads somewhat like an adventure or thriller, it sure to be a hit with fans of these genres as well as those interested in history or Ancient Egypt. Highly recommended. 

932.014 Ancient Egypt        Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg SD

MG – The Shape of Thunder

Warga, Jasmine. The Shape of Thunder. Balzar & Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-95667-5. $16.99. 275 p. Grades 5-8.

Cora Hamid and Quinn Macauley are next door neighbors and inseparable friends all their twelve years of life–until they are not. Quinn’s older brother, Parker, takes his father’s hunting guns to his high school one November morning and shoots Cora’s sister, Mabel, a teacher, another student, and himself. The two families’ approach to grief could not be more different. Abandoned as a baby by her mother (the reader never discovers why), Lebanese-American and Muslim Cora has the nurturing support of her biologist dad; thoughtful, maternal Gram; and the professional support of a trained therapist. Quinn’s family buries the issue. Told in alternating voices, the reticent and less academic Quinn has difficulty expressing her thoughts and guilty feelings. Her workaholic father is against any outside help to ease the family’s suffering, and her mother hides in the house cooking and baking. Longing to reconnect with Cora, Quinn delivers a box to her doorstep stuffed with articles about time travel and wormholes on Cora’s birthday. She knows Cora well enough to appeal to her scientific nature. Perhaps the two of them could find a wormhole and travel back in time to stop the tragedy of that fateful day. As the pair work through the logistics of approaching a huge tree in the forest for the site of their wormhole/time traveling, they each experience the pain of regret and the insistence on holding fast to the memory of a loved one. While Cora has made new friends on her Junior Quizbowl Team and excels in her studies, Quinn has felt shunned. She longs to be on the soccer team, but is too ashamed to try out. Her art gives her some pleasure, yet not even drawing can remove the heavy weight of a secret she knows about her brother, the possibility that she could have prevented the circumstances. After she confides in the school librarian her remorse, she resolves to confess this awful secret to Cora. Though the revelation breaks their renewed bond, Cora devotes more time to her plan to make the impossible possible. When she questions her father about time travel, she is encouraged and inspired by his answer. He tells her that her absent mother had a theory comparing the shape of time to the shape of thunder: “impossible to map” (p. 213). When both Cora and Quinn are coaxed by different people to attend the traditional Fall Festival at their middle school, the rumble of thunder pulls the two estranged girls to the woods to prove Cora’s theory. The hopeful resolution of the story, despite the sadness surrounding it, gives the reader relief. Quinn’s and Cora’s relationship see-saws throughout realistically. After all, Quinn reminds Cora of the unspeakable thing Parker did. Quinn’s strained home life with her parents who refuse any kind of self-reflection or examination of the devastating action of their son is painful.  Minor situations like the jealousy of Mia, another friend of Cora’s, toward Quinn; the snide remarks of Quinn’s former teammate and friend; the growing crush Cora has with her classmate, Owen (a Japanese-American character), will resonate genuinely with middle school readers. The Shape of Thunder is a tough read, but one that confirms that happiness can co-exist with grief, and friendships can be mended.

THOUGHTS: This novel is full of emotion and rich in language and characterization, but not so intense that a sensitive middle grade student would be put off. Cora is a thinker and an intellectual. Throughout the novel, students will find themselves entertained by the interesting facts Cora spouts (“…cows kill more people than sharks each year…”). The images Warga uses to describe different feelings are unique but spot on (the “fizziness” Cora feels in her tummy when talking to her crush, Owen, etc.). She also makes dialogue very interesting. Quinn has a hard time speaking; her brain freezes and she can’t say the words. When she finally gets angry enough to spill over her feelings to her buttoned up family, it is heartbreaking. The conversations between Cora and her father and grandmother also are authentic and tell the reader so much about the characters. What the reader must conjecture about are Parker’s reason for the shooting and the absence of Cora’s mother since her father seems to have no obvious vices. Ms. Euclid, the school librarian and art teacher, is a heroine for Quinn. This book should be issued with a box of tissues.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG/YA – The Chemistry of Food

Mooney, Carla. The Chemistry of Food. Nomad Press, 2021. 978-1-647-41026-1. 118 p. $17.95. Grades 6-10.

This comprehensive overview does a deep dive into the formal chemistry of cooking and preparing food as well as a breakdown of the food humans eat and the impact it has on their bodies. Typical of most nonfiction books, there are bolded words, popouts, color photos, but this text also includes QR codes throughout for videos to enrich the experience. The content is broken up into five chapters, most of which have popup comic boxes with characters that follow along throughout the book.

THOUGHTS: A fun introduction to cooking and food investigation for middle grade students. The book can easily be adapted for classroom use or specific project research.

664 Food Technology          Samantha Hull, Ephrata

Elem./MG – The Science of Song: How and Why We Make Music

Cross, Alan, Emme Cross, and Nicole Mortillaro. The Science of Song: How and Why We Make Music. Kids Can Press, 2021. 978-1-771-38787-3. 48 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

A concise and colorful historical and psychological foundation of sound that starts with the origin of music over 40,000 years ago and how we hear to digital and artificial music makes this book a great addition to intermediate and middle school libraries. The content is broken into 19 one page chapters that summarizes the topic at hand. Each section also has engaging images and a three song playlist to accompany it. The book ends with a timeline, glossary, and index that can be helpful for curious young minds. 

THOUGHTS: A fun and low stakes way to introduce younger minds to the psychology and importance behind the music we all hear on a daily basis. This title would be a great addition to an elementary, intermediate, or middle school library looking to refresh their nonfiction collection.

780 Music          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

MG – The Black American Journey (Series NF)

The Black American Journey. The Child’s World, 2021. $22.00 ea. $528.00 set of 24 (2021-2022 titles). 32 p. Grades 4-7.

Somervill, Barbara A. The Amistad Mutiny. 978-1-503-85370-6.
Shaffer, Jody Jensen. Barack Obama: First African American President. 978-1-503-85377-5.
Maupin, Melissa. Benjamin Banneker: Astronomer and Mathematician. 978-1-503-85378-2.
Venable, Rose. The Civil Rights Movement. 978-1-503-85369-0.
Carey, Charles W. The Emancipation Proclamation. 978-1-503-85368-3.
Dolbear, Emily J. Juneteenth. 9781503853799.
Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur. 9781503853768.
Jones, Amy Robin. Mary McLeod Bethune: Pioneering Educator. 9781503853751.
Neshama, Rivvy. Nat Turner and the Virginia Slave Revolt. 9781503853720.
Meadows, James. Slavery. 9781503853744.
Laughlin, Kara L. The Tulsa Race Massacre. 9781503853713.
Williams, Carla. The Tuskegee Airmen. 9781503853737.

This reviewer read The Tuskegee Airmen from the The Black American Journey series. This series offers approachable information in a visually-appealing format relating to Black culture and the history of slavery, discrimination, and the Civil Rights Movement throughout American history. Each book in the series includes clearly-labeled sections, attractive sidebars and captions, bolded vocabulary words that are also found in the included glossary, and a variety of interesting historical photographs to accompany the text. “Think about it” questions, a timeline, and an index round out the back matter for each book. 

THOUGHTS: These titles would make great additions to collections where students will benefit from engaging text introductions to the topics in this series. Fans of military history would also enjoy this quick read about a fascinating chapter in the evolution of fighter pilot training, racial integration, and the Air Force. (Title Reviewed: The Tuskegee Airmen.)

940.54 Military History of World War II            Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Oh My Gods!

Cooke, Stephanie. Oh My Gods! Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021. 978-0-358-29952-3. $12.99. 202 p. Grades 4-8.

Being a teenager is tough enough, but when Karen’s mom gets the job offer of her dreams, Karen is obligated to move to Greece to live with her Dad, Zed, which means her life is about to get much more complicated. Soon after her arrival, it is clear that living on Mt. Olympus will be a lot different than the life she was used to in New Jersey! Karen quickly meets a group of friends at her new school, and to her they seem normal, but anyone familiar with Greek mythology will immediately realize that the references and similarities to Greek deities mean Karen’s new friends are more than the everyday teenagers they pretend to be. Together, the new friends discover a student turned into a statue in the library one night, and Karen realizes she must solve the mystery of who is turning kids to stone on campus!

THOUGHTS: Fans of fiction featuring Greek mythology, including Rick Riordan fans, will love the multitude of references to gods and goddesses in this book. Students who do not know much about the Ancient Greeks may be inspired to learn more; this would make a great pairing with nonfiction titles like those in the Mythlopedia series. The graphic illustrations are charming and enhance the mystery and quirky humor in the story. Strong themes of friendship and acceptance in this book leave the reader eager to see what the next installment (April 2022) of Karen’s adventures on Mt. Olympus will hold!

Graphic Novel          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – The Genius Under the Table

Yelchin, Eugene. The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Candlewick Press, 2021. 978-1-536-21552-6. $16.99. 201 p. Grades 5-8.

Eugene (Yvevgeny) Yelchin lives in the USSR during the height of Cold War communism, and all he wants to do is find his own “artistic talent,” usually of an athletic nature, so that he can live a better life.  In the USSR, most people are poor, but people with artistic talent are more valuable to the country, and they often enjoy more comfortable living conditions and greater opportunities to work and travel. Yelchin’s parents try everything to discover his athletic talent, but they eventually discover that he is a gifted artist. While Yelchin pursues his dream of becoming a talented member of Communist society, he begins to understand a more complicated truth; in the USSR it is not easy to play by the rules of Communism and also live an authentic life.

THOUGHTS: This brief memoir is easy to read, and the illustrations that accompany the text are a delightful addition to the story.  Harder truths about life in Soviet Russia, and the tragic impacts of dictators like Stalin and Lenin, are gently introduced in a way that will encourage students to seek out further information. The book ends on a hopeful note that mirrors the path of the author’s own life. Recommended addition for any middle school biography section!

Memoir          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem./MG – Perfectly Imperfect Stories : Meet 28 Inspiring People And Discover Their Mental Health Stories

Potion, Leo. Perfectly Imperfect Stories : Meet 28 Inspiring People And Discover Their Mental Health Stories. Lawrence King Publishing, 2021. 978-1-786-27920-0. $17.99. 58 p. Grades 3-7. 

28 famous people, both historical figures of note and pop culture icons of the last few years, are highlighted in this book as a way to normalize the conversation around mental health issues. Each brief biography covers the background, struggle, and hopeful outcome of a person who has grappled in the past with conditions like eating disorders, panic attacks, PTSD, and depression. Quirky, colorful illustrations decorate almost every page, drawing in the reader and helping to lighten the overall mood of this important book. A brief but heartwarming forward, helpful back matter, and a detailed bibliography offer opportunities for students to explore further information about mental health, suicide prevention, and the stories of famous lives that may look perfect from the outside, but contain untold struggles on the inside.

THOUGHTS: This book delivers the powerful message that no one is too rich, popular, smart, or successful to be immune from mental health struggles, and does it in an appealing package that should draw in elementary and middle school level students. Pop culture figures do come in and out of style, but there are notable people from the past mentioned as well, giving this book more potential longevity. This could be a great leaping-off book for biography studies as well.

616.89 Mental Health Stories          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD