MG – Santiago’s Road Home

Diaz, Alexandra. Santiago’s Road Home. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-534-44623-6. $17.99. 325 p. Grades 5-8.

Once more author Alexandra Diaz raises our consciousness about the plight of Central American immigrants in our country at this critical time. As she did in The Only Road and Crossroads, Diaz gives a fact-based novel of Santiago Garcia Reyes’s escape from domestic abuse in Mexico through the desert to the detention centers of New Mexico. She does not pull any punches describing the sacrifices and suffering Santiago endures as he makes his way to America with newfound “family” Maria Dolores and her five-year-old daughter, Alegria. After being thrown out once again from a relative’s home where he worked as a free babysitter, Santiago refuses to return to his abusive, neglectful grandmother. Instead, he makes the acquaintance of the kind and generous Maria Dolores and her young daughter and convinces her to take him as they migrate to the United States where Maria Dolores’s sister owns a restaurant. For the first time since his Mami died when he was five-years-old, Santiago feels loved and cared for; and he reciprocates by being the protective big brother. By working in the cheap tavern at the crossroads, he discovers Dominquez, the best coyote to help them cross. Unfortunately, rival coyotes kill Dominquez, leaving the refugees abandoned just shy of the border. Diaz describes the arduous and dangerous journey through the desert, dodging border patrol officers and experiencing dehydration and hunger under a blistering sun. Their efforts end in hospitalization and detention. Again, Diaz intertwines facts and realistic representation about the conditions children suffer in the detention centers, yet maintains both the negative and positive aspects. Some of the detention center guards are kind; some are arrogant brutes. Minor characters like an interested teacher and volunteering lawyers give the story balance. The distress and maltreatment of Santiago as he lingers in detention as well as his brave struggle to belong to a loving family is heart wrenching and sure to instill empathy and compassion toward a timely situation. Includes a glossary of Spanish terms and extensive resources.

THOUGHTS: Diaz’s writing has a way of creating a fully developed character and a well-rounded setting that arouses true sympathy in readers. This book can provide a reference point to discussions of undocumented immigrants, refugees, migration to America as well as current events around asylum seekers and their reasons for immigration.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Ever Cursed

Haydu, Corey Ann. Ever Cursed. Simon & Schuster, 2020. 978-1-534-43703-6. $18.99. 296 p. Grades 9-12.

Five princesses have been cursed, the queen is trapped in a glass box, and the spell is almost turning true. Jane, Alice, Nora, Grace, and Eden have all been cursed by a young witch to be without something: food, sleep, love, memory, and hope. Jane, the oldest, has been without food for five years, and the sisters finally have the opportunity to break their spell before it turns true and becomes permanent. Jane and her sisters are forced to work with the young witch, Raegan, who cursed them five years ago. To break the spell, they must collect a clock from the oldest, a tear from the saddest, a lock of hair from the most beautiful, and a crown from the richest. But, the kingdom of Ever is under a spell far more threatening than any cast by a witch, and the sisters soon discover the terrible truths about their own kingdom and the one person they thought they knew best.

THOUGHTS:  Although Ever Cursed appears to be a fairy tale, this is mainly a book about sexual assault and the abuse of power, and their patriarchal world is not so unlike our own. The beginning of the book includes a content warning for readers explaining that this book may also be triggering for anyone who is currently or previously struggling with an eating disorder. Overall, the strong, female characters in this book have to come to terms with some hard truths, but they are able to work together to expose the real evil plaguing their kingdom.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Where We Are

McGhee, Alison. Where We Are. Atheneum/A Caitlyn Dlougy Book, 2020. 978-1-534-44612-0. $18.99. Grades 7-10.

Micah and Sesame had a plan. If Micah and his parents mysteriously disappeared from their home in present-day, downtown Minneapolis, Micah would text Sesame and she would find him. When Deacon comes to escort the Stone family to the South Compound, he confiscates their cell phones so Micah leaves a cryptic note on the wipe-off board on the refrigerator. The Stones have joined a cult that scorns all worldly things—even pencils—and cower and obey the harsh and unreasonable mandates of one man they call the Prophet. Not Micah. He resists and accumulates so many infractions for what the cold and domineering Prophet deems insubordination that the young man barely exists in solitary confinement. Though free, Sesame Gray lives a secret life. After her mother dies (she calls her grandmother because the woman was older when she adopted Sesame), she concocts stories so that neither her friends nor her solicitous neighbors suspect she is living alone in an abandoned garage. Throughout the book, Sesame reflects on both her grandmother’s goodness and also her habit of keeping them isolated and self-sufficient. That behavior serves Sesame well in her current situation, but her experience relying on others to help in the search for Micah brings a new realization that every person needs to depend on someone. High school seniors and sweethearts, Micah and Sesame narrate this curious story in alternating chapters: faithful Sesame on the outside, remains single-mindedly determined to find her lost boyfriend; resilient Micah, imprisoned in a basement laundry and wasting away, continues to leave clues, sure Sesame will find him. In the hands of a different writer, this book about cults and loss would be a toss off. Author Alison McGhee’s writing pulls the reader along this strange tale and makes us care about these two sensitive and insightful characters. Still, the subject manner is very particular and though there is the element of romance, their love is played out through devotion rather than a relationship, leaving the book with limited appeal. It is unclear what ethnicity the characters are (the cult and its members seem white); two neighbor couples are gay; it all is seamless.

THOUGHTS:  I have read other books by Ghee (Maybe a Fox), and admired her unique plot selections. A hide-and-seek love story centered around a cult but not really about the cult is unique, but not so interesting. The fact that present-day Minneapolis is the focal point of so much foment, violence, and pain, and Ghee picks that city to be the setting for a cult/kidnap/romance seems to me an odd-and avoidable-choice. The dust jacket states Ms. McGhee splits her residence between Minneapolis and another place, so perhaps the setting doesn’t matter. Though I couldn’t, I thought these factors promoted this book: subtle but solid theme, good writing, clever idea of creative Sesame to leave poems boxes around town, appealing characters. Like McGhee’s other books, this one fits only a narrow audience. 

Realistic Fiction Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Girl, Unframed

Caletti, Deb. Girl, Unframed. Simon Pulse, 2020. 978-1-534-42697-9. 368 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Can you imagine if your mom was famous? Like moviestar-famous? Sydney doesn’t usually have to deal with her mom and her drama, but she’s going to visit her for the summer. Before setting eyes on her mom, the newest man in Lila’s life picks Sydney up from the airport, and it’s all downhill from there. From shady art dealings to rejected credit cards, Sydney misses her friends from home. Luckily, she befriends a guy working construction next door because shady art dealings quickly become the least of their worries. It’s as if Lila’s movie script has come to life, but crimes of passion are still crimes.

THOUGHTS: There is a lot of heaviness to unpack in this story, from women who prioritize beauty over motherhood and men treating women like objects, not to mention murder. A good addition for high school libraries looking for YA thrillers that are also coming of age stories.

Mystery          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

MG – #MOVEMENTS (Series NF)

#MOVEMENTS. ABDO Publishing, 2020. $20.95 ea. $125.70 set of 6 (library bound). 32 p. Grades 5-9.

Borgert-Spaniol, Megan. #MeToo: Unveiling Abuse. 978-1-532-11931-6.
Felix, Rebecca. #Pride: Championing LGTBQ Rights. 978-1-532-11933-0.
—. #WomensMarch: Insisting on Equality. 978-1-532-11934-7.
Rusick, Jessica. #IAmAWitness: Confronting Bullying. 978-1-532-11930-9.
Thomas, Rachel L. #BlackLivesMatter: Protesting Racism. 978-1-532-11929-3.
—. #NeverAgain: Preventing Gun Violence. 978-1-532-11932-3.

This new series takes a look at the hottest topics of 2020. The #movements series takes hashtags that are trending on social media and brings awareness to social justice issues such as bullying, racism, and more. Each title provides an overview of the topic and introduces people who are champions for social justice. The books provide a look into how these movements came into being and provide information regarding the reasons why we fight for certain rights.

THOUGHTS: This series would be a great addition to a middle school library. These titles can help the younger generation be champions for the future. The simple text is easy to read and comprehend, which would make it a great series for struggling readers who have an interest in social justice.

306.76 Culture & Institutions          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

YA – Heartstopper #1

Oseman, Alice. Heartstopper # 1. Graphix, 2020. 978-1-338-61743-6. 288 p. $14.99. Grades 8-12.

Fans of romance and coming of age stories, go no further. Oseman’s volume one of the Heartstopper series will do just that: stop your heart. This light take on a young man coming out to his school before he was really ready, dives into male friendships and more within a school setting. The story is set in England and revolves around a rugby team so there is slang that might be lost on some readers. This is a great story of male friendship that broadens into something more. Although school isn’t always a safe place, Oseman reminds us that there are people to be safe with. It’s important to note that this is a story revolving around gay high school students and that includes the abuse, both physical and verbal that still occurs, especially for individuals who are trying to figure themselves out. Oseman leaves the reader hanging and ready for volume two.

THOUGHTS: This is a great addition to high school libraries who are looking to make their graphic novel collection more realistic. In addition, this is a great mirror into the thoughts and feelings adolescents may have while discovering their sexual preferences and navigating the rough seas of high school.

Graphic Novel          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

MG – When You Know What I Know

Solter, Sonja. When You Know What I Know. Little, Brown & Company, 2020. 212 p. $16.99. 978-0316-53544-1 Grades 5-8.

Ten-year-old Tori is struggling with the aftermath of sexual abuse by her once-favorite uncle. She feels shame, anger, loss, sadness, and fear. She tells her mom, who is reluctant to believe her, and her grandmother takes her uncle’s side. Since her single mom relied on Tori’s grandmother and uncle for any childcare for Tori and her eight-year-old sister Taylor, the family strain increases. Their responses make Tori feel worse: “Maybe I shouldn’t have told,” and her secret is building a wedge between her and her friends as well. This novel told in verse reveals her confusion and pain without being specific about the incident. Eventually, another girl accuses her uncle of abuse, and Tori finds a freeing yet sickening feeling of vindication, along with support from her mother and grandmother.  By novel’s end, she discovers she is able to forget the incident for a few hours. The memories still return, “But still./A day like today…/It’s possible./I know that now.”

THOUGHTS: Solter’s novel provides acknowledgement of sexual abuse of young people and the difficulty of not being believed when speaking up; this honesty will provide hope for survivors as well. The content, in no way explicit, is appropriate for upper elementary and middle school readers. The Author’s Note states, “My hope for this book is that readers will be encouraged to tell their own truths, and–if someone doesn’t believe them at first–to keep on telling until they get the help they need. Healing takes time…[and] is not only possible, it IS where all of our stories are going” (208).

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Novel in Verse

YA – Rules for Being a Girl

Bushnell, Candace, and Katie Cotugno. Rules for Being a Girl. Balzer & Bray. 2020. 304 p. $19.99 978-0-062-80337-5. Grades 10-12.

For Marin and best friend Chloe, life is going well. They co-edit the school paper together, they’re top students, and they have family support to head for the colleges of their dreams.  Their English teacher, Mr. Beckett, “Bex,” is seriously intelligent and cool, and treats students as equals with funny stories and insightful classes. Bex goes too far and comes on to Marin (he kisses her), leaving Marin shocked into silence. Had she encouraged him?  Why didn’t she anticipate that? What should she do now? She tries to act as though nothing happened, and Bex attempts a “re-set” of their relationship, saying it was an accident, and blaming her. When Marin finally tells Chloe, Chloe believes Marin is either lying or at fault.  Next, when Marin tells her principal, she is told she must have misunderstood and a full investigation will have to be done, since it’s her word against Mr. Beckett. Quickly, everyone’s talking, joking, or blaming Marin, her English grades dive, and the worst knife of all is that Marin fails to gain acceptance to her dream university due to the incident (and alumnus Mr. Beckett’s tip-off to university staff). Her world has exploded, and Marin is struggling against demeaning comments and, suddenly, it seems, all of the ridiculous assumptions people make about girls and women. Finally, Chloe reveals that Mr. Beckett had pulled her into a relationship in the fall, and Marin’s truth devastated her. Together, they publish an open letter to staff and students in the school newspaper, asking for any others to come forward. They do, the girls are finally believed, and Mr. Beckett is dismissed without investigation.

THOUGHTS: The characterization of Marin seems contradictory–she is both incredibly intelligent and mature, unbothered by peer reactions, yet initially unaware of–or unbothered by–even the simplest of girl stereotypes. As long as the stereotypes didn’t ‘hurt’ her, she was living a golden life. Bushnell and Cotugno present only a semi-realistic version of a school setting (the school’s actions on the allegations are poorly researched), and she gives a far-too-tidy, happy ending–including enlightened boyfriend–for Marin.  This book would be stronger if Mr. Beckett had not been a teacher, but a family friend or a boss, and if Marin’s cultural and social awareness matched her intelligence.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – How to Be a Girl in the World

Carter, Caela. How to Be a Girl in the World. Harper Collins Childrens, 2020. 294 p. $16.99 978-0-062-67270-4 Grades 5-8.

Lydia has spent the entire summer in pants, long sleeves, and turtlenecks, despite the heat, despite her single mom’s concerned comments, and despite friends’ odd looks. Lydia knows she’s not normal, and she doesn’t want to talk about it. Lydia, her biracial cousin Emma, and Lydia’s mom are proudly moving from an apartment to a dilapidated house of their own. Living in the house will require a huge amount of work (it’s chock full of dusty furniture left behind), but Lydia sees in it a chance to be safe. She would love to escape the nicknames, looks and comments of the boys at her private school. She shivers at men’s glances on the subway, or sitting too close. She feels extremely uncomfortable with her mom’s boyfriend Jeremy, whose hugs are just a little too long or too tight, and who assumes a greater friendliness with Lydia and Emma than Lydia would like. But no one else seems to notice any problem, so Lydia knows it’s her. She’s not normal, and if she can’t fix it, at least she can hide herself. Then maybe she’ll feel protected. In the new house, she finds a room full of herbs in jars and a book of spells. It’s exactly what she needs and even allows her to re-forge a connection with the best friend she’s ignored for the summer. They both try the spells, but the boys’ behavior and Jeremy’s behavior only becomes more troublesome, and an outburst from Lydia results in her being suspended from school. Lydia finally confides in her mother about the boys’ treatment of her, and her mother swiftly comes to her aid. When Lydia next explains Jeremy’s actions, her mother is devastated but resolute that Jeremy will never set foot in their house again. To Lydia, the revelatory message that she alone makes “the rules” concerning her body is freeing, and the new understanding and openness with those around her helps her to learn to own those rules.

THOUGHTS: This is a powerful, “ordinary” story that every middle school girl would benefit from reading. It’s for every girl who’s ever been told, “it’s no big deal,” “you’re such a baby,” “that’s part of being a girl,” etc. And it’s for every boy who’s ever been told, “she likes it,” “you’re just being a boy,” or “looking doesn’t hurt.”  Pair with Barbara Dee’s Maybe He Just Likes You.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – A Breath Too Late

Callen, Rocky. A Breath Too Late. Henry Holt and Co., 2020. 978-1-250-23879-5. 272 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Trigger Warning: This title deals with abuse, depression, domestic violence, and suicide. The day after she dies by suicide, Ellie wakes up from the worst dream. As she goes about her morning, things feel off, but Ellie escapes her sad house and makes her way to school. She slips into first period where the class is told that a classmate died yesterday. It isn’t until Ms. Hooper says the name that Ellie realizes no one can hear her scream. Because Ellie’s recent memories are distorted, she tries to uncover what exactly happened. Her regret is evident, but the permanency of her decision is firm. Ellie witnesses the grief of others as she tries to come to terms with and understand her death. Through this experience, Ellie realizes that though she felt like there was no escape in sight and nothing left to hope for, not all was as it seemed. Despite not feeling it, Ellie was loved.

THOUGHTS: This book is devastating and very compelling. Readers will want to know if Ellie figures out what happened and if she finds peace through her regrets. Highly recommended.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD