YA – A Dark and Starless Forest

Hollowell, Sarah. A Dark and Starless Forest. Clarion Books, 2021. 978-0358424413. $19.99. 368 p. Grades 9-12.

“The flowers that grow from my magic are usually indistinct little things, but those flowers – I knew those flowers. They were mandrake flowers. In legend, mandrakes grow where the blood falls under a gallows.” Derry and her adopted siblings all have one thing in common: they all have magical abilities. Abandoned by their families, the girls live with their caretaker, Frank. In addition to caring for the girls, he teaches them to use their magic and protects them from the dangers of the outside world. He prefers to call them alchemists rather than witches, and over the years, the girls have bonded and consider themselves a family. When Jane, the oldest, disappears, Derry knows she didn’t run away. Desperate to find her, Derry ventures into the dark forest that surrounds their isolated cabin looking for answers. Each night, she’s drawn to the forest, and while her magic begins to grow, darkness takes root within her and she soon discovers that nothing is what it seems. As more of her sisters go missing, protecting her family becomes her most important priority, and she soon realizes that the forest may not be the dangerous presence lurking in the shadows of her life.

THOUGHTS: This is a fantasy novel unlike any that I’ve read before, and by the end, it felt a bit like a horror movie. One of the book’s best features is the diversity and representation among the main characters including sexual orientation, gender identities, race, mental health, body image, and even deafness. Although the book is fantasy, it covers a lot of real world issues like abuse, neglect, and grooming but leaves romance out of the plot. The mystery of the forest and the disappearance of the girls will keep readers hooked and intrigued until the very end.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Gilded

Meyer, Marissa. Gilded. Feiwel & Friends, 2021. 978-1-250-61884-9. $19.99. 512 p. Grades 8-12.

“Sometimes superstitions are all that we have been given by the gods in order to make sense of our world. Superstitions and stories.” Serilda has always been a storyteller. When she was a baby, she was blessed with this gift, or curse, by the god of lies and mischief. When Serilda begins a story, she doesn’t know how it’s going to end, and she’s just as entranced and bewitched as her listeners. Children adore her unique talent, but others simply view her as the untrustworthy and deceptive miller’s daughter who spins stories and lies. When Serilda convinces the fearsome Erlking that she was out of her house on the night of a hunt collecting straw that she spins into gold in order to save two moss maidens hiding nearby, she soon finds herself inside of his dungeon with a spinning wheel, her chance to prove her story was not a falsehood. Just when all hope seems lost, a boy named Gild appears in her cell and agrees to help her, for a price. Serilda begins to realize that she may never be free of the Erlking, even if she can complete this impossible task, and she soon finds herself right in the middle of one of her own fantastical, mysterious, and dangerous tales.

THOUGHTS: Marissa Meyer has created a new world for her retelling of the Rumpelstilskin tale. Unlike the Lunar Chronicles, this new series is not science fiction, nor is it standalone like Heartless. Rather, she brings to life the dark and foreboding atmosphere reminiscent of classic fairy tales where danger lurks around every corner, and happy endings are few and far between. Readers will be drawn into Gilded just as eager listeners are drawn into Serilda’s mesmerizing and spellbinding tales.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – You’ll be the Death of Me

McManus, Karen M. You’ll be the Death of Me. Delacorte Press, 2021. 978-0-593-17586-6. 326 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.

Ivy, Cal, and Mateo used to be friends, but then high school happened.  Now in their senior year, things aren’t quite going as they had hoped.  After losing the senior class presidential election, Ivy doesn’t want to be at school to hear the winner’s speech. Cal was stood up for a breakfast date, so he’s not in the mood for school, and Mateo’s just in the right place at the right time. Cal suggests the three recreate “The Greatest Day Ever” when they skipped a class field trip in Boston, and they agree. Once in Boston, the three end up following another classmate, Boney Mahoney, into an abandoned warehouse where Ivy finds him dead. Caught up in a murder-mystery, with Ivy as the prime suspect (according to all of the gossip and “news” reports), the three try to figure out what happened and how to get out of this mess. Things only get worse as history is revealed and current situations are realized.

THOUGHTS: Although it started out slow, You’ll Be the Death of Me keeps the reader questioning what they know and don’t know. Ivy, Cal, and Mateo are all unreliable narrators who continually hide information from one another leading to more mystery beyond the death of Boney Mahoney. This title will fly off the shelves with all of McManus’s books.

Mystery          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

YA – Why We Fly

Jones, Kimberly, and Gilly Segal. Why We Fly. Sourcebooks Fire, 2021. 978-1-492-67892-2. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

With a shared love for cheerleading, Eleanor (“Leni”) and Chanel (“Nelly”) have been long time best friends. Continuing to recover from a bad fall and concussion, Leni attends physical therapy in preparation for senior season. When Leni, a White, Jewish girl, is named captain over the more deserving Nelly, a Black girl who has stepped up during Leni’s injury, the friendship begins to splinter. Since she’s become interested in star quarterback Three, Leni doesn’t seem to notice how hurt Nelly feels. Nelly, meanwhile, has her own pressures to cope with and does so by making some questionable choices. Leni struggles to reign in the team and feel like a true captain. Then in support of a professional football player who is from their Atlanta, Georgia high school, Leni convinces the cheer team to take a knee during a game. The repercussions ripple through their community, impacting each character differently. Told in alternating voices by author team Jones and Segal (I’m Not Dying with You Tonight, 2019), this novel tackles social issues in a new perspective from those who are on the sidelines. 

THOUGHTS: This novel addresses how friends, despite similar interests and history, may grow apart. Told amongst a contemporary backdrop with racial justice at the center, Why We Fly will be popular where similar books are enjoyed.

Realistic Fiction           Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – What’s Not to Love

Wibberley, Emily, and Austin Siegemund-Broka. What’s Not to Love. Viking, 2021. 978-1-984-83586-4. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Straight-laced, straight-A student Alison competes for everything in high school – top grades, club and activity leadership, and even community service. As senior year comes to an end, Alison begins to realize she hasn’t really taken the time to enjoy anything, but it all is a means to her end goal: acceptance into Harvard. Pushing her at everything is fellow valedictorian competition Ethan Molloy. Alison and Ethan have a toxic competition, always checking to see who scores the highest grade and having crazy competitions called “blitzes” to see who finishes a test first. Then the principal assigns these top two the task of co-planning a previous class’s 10-year reunion and dangles a Harvard recommendation if they can pull off the reunion. Competition reaches a new high, and despite being completely annoyed at times, Alison realizes she might kind of like Ethan as more than a competitor and maybe even as more than and friend. But where does that leave their competition, and who will get the Harvard recommendation?

THOUGHTS: Written by husband and wife YA romance duo, readers will enjoy the banter of Alison and Ethan even if they can’t completely relate. Fans of opposites attract or enemies to lovers stories will enjoy this competitive, steamy romance. A purchase for high school libraries where realistic romance or other titles by these authors are popular.

Romance           Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – Kingdom of the Cursed

Maniscalco, Kerri. Kingdom of the Cursed. Hodder & Stoughton, 2021. 978-0-316-42847-7. $18.99. Grades 12+.

Kingdom of the Cursed picks up with Emilia selling her soul in order to figure out what happened to her sister, Vittoria. Some of the decisions that Emilia made have helped to unlock some secrets and cause her to ask more questions. As this book progresses, the reader sees Emilia trying to figure out if she should trust Wrath as she learns that she can’t trust anyone. Kingdom of the Cursed delves more into the world building of this fantasy world, as well as more character development of Emilia. 

THOUGHTS: Overall, this is a great addition to this series that continues to build on the characters and plot that was laid out in the first book. There are some scenes that are a little more on the explicit side, hence the higher grade level rating. However, this would be a great recommendation for fans of the first book, or fans of the author’s other work. 

Fantasy           Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Grades 10-12+.

After making a deal with the devil, Emilia travels to the seven circles in the Kingdom of the Wicked with Prince Wrath. As the betrothed of Prince Pride, her plan is to infiltrate his court and make it one step closer to avenging the death of her twin sister Vittoria. However, the journey is not easy, and before she meets Pride, she becomes a resident of House Wrath. From Wrath, she learns just how dangerous and deceptive his brothers can be, and he advises her to trust no one. When Emilia slowly begins to unravel the secrets of the past, she realizes that she’ll need the help of magical objects to discover who she really is and if she can really trust Wrath.

THOUGHTS: Kingdom of the Cursed is listed as a young adult title and can be found in the YA section of book stores; however, the romantic scenes between Emilia and Wrath are very descriptive, and I’d go as far to classify this one as new adult for that reason alone. Although it’s heavy on romance that doesn’t always advance the plot, I still enjoyed the book and cannot wait to see how it all ends. I’ll be impatiently waiting for the next installment. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

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

YA – you don’t have to be everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves

Whitney, Diana. you don’t have to be everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves. Workman Publishing, 2021. 978-1-523-51099-3. 165 p. $14.95. Grades 9-12. 

I want this book on my coffee table, but I also want it on my nightstand. And I also want it in my office, and maybe in my car. It’s beautiful and consumable and has something for any woman, in any moment. Whitney’s subtitle is “poems for girls becoming themselves,” but I think many women never got the chance to be themselves. The collection is organized by eight themes: seeking, loneliness, attitude, rage, longing, shame, sadness, and belonging. There is something in this small book for everyone, they just have to be willing to let the poetry awaken their heart and the affirmation of who they are and how they feel will be present. 

THOUGHTS: If your high school students are as hungry for poetry as mine are, add this to your collection. The art and design make the work of legends like Angelou and Oliver as accessible as their modern day counterparts like Gorman, Acevedo, and Baer. At the very least, get this book to just have in your office and hand out the poems like candy on Halloween, but every day. 

Poetry         Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

YA – Faith: Greater Heights

Murphy, Julie. Faith: Greater Heights. ‎ Balzer and Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-89968-2. 352 p. $18.99. Grades 8-12. 

Ever a fan of anything Julie Murphy writes, diving into a magical realism book gives pause to some readers. The authentic writing style is descriptive enough to make the reader feel like they’re flying. This  is part two of Faith’s story, and she is fully aware of her superpowers but still not super sure how to deal with her grandmother’s dementia or how to cope with exes. Murphy’s world building and origin story preparation make it pretty clear that we can expect more to come on Faith’s story, with action plugged into scenes when Faith isn’t just trying to figure out normal life.

THOUGHTS: For Julie Murphy fans in general, this book should make its way onto high school shelves as long as book one is already there. While you’re at it, you can make sure you have a few of her other series as well. Murphy has a knack for writing in an inclusive way that feels like how it should’ve always been (spoiler: it should’ve been). Her writing is trustworthy and representative. 

Fantasy           Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

YA – You’ll be the Death of Me

McManus, Karen. You’ll be the Death of Me. Delacorte Press, 2021. 978-0-593-17586-6. 336 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.

She’s back again. New characters, same sticky mystery style that has the reader guessing until the end. In McManus’ newest novel, we meet Ivy, Mateo, and Cal who used to be friends in middle school, but now as seniors, it’s been a long time since they’ve hung out. Enter: The worst day ever. McManus has yet to shy away from heavy and uncomfortable topics like the opioid crisis, death, and on the periphery, racism. This story starts with a student death, from an overdose or murder, and genuinely keeps the pages turning faster and faster as tiny clues and back stories surface through this varying point-of-view novel. Ivy, Mateo, and Cal work together to solve how their classmate died, and to keep themselves out of trouble.

THOUGHTS: If McManus’ novels aren’t on your high school shelves yet, purchase all of them, but don’t expect them to stay on your shelf long. Her classic whodunit style is laced perfectly with an authentic take on the high school experience (hopefully with a lot less drugs, drama, and death!). 

Mystery          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD