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

YA FIC – The Special Ones; Children of Blood & Bone; List of Cages

Bailey, Em.  The Special Ones.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.  978-0-544-91229-8. 297 p. $17.99.  Gr. 9-12.

For the past few years, Esther has been living in an old farmhouse with Harry, Lucille, and Felicity.  They have all been brainwashed to believe that they are the “Special Ones” who “he” (their captor) has saved from the atrocities of the modern world.  They have no electricity and running water, and they are forced to follow very strict behavioral guidelines. Because he is always watching them, failure to follow these guidelines often results in punishment or, even worse, renewal. When a “Special One” is renewed, they leave the house and are replaced by someone else who has been kidnapped and must be brainwashed. Although Esther has begun to question the entire process – especially what really happens to those who are renewed – she must continue to play her part if she wants to survive.  This gripping page-turner full of surprising twists will have readers rooting for Esther and the others until the very end. THOUGHTS: This would be an interesting book to analyze in a psychology class.  Students could discuss the mentality of the kidnapper (and what made him that way), and/or they could discuss the difficulty the victims have assimilating back into society after the ordeal.  Real-life examples, such as the Elizabeth Smart case, could be compared. Fans of kidnapping stories like Emma Donoghue’s Room or Lucy Christopher’s Stolen would enjoy this title, as would fans of psychological thrillers like Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train or Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

Psychological Fiction      Julie Ritter, Montoursville Area School District

 

Adeyemi, Tomi. Children of Blood and Bone. Henry Holt, 2018. 978-1-250-17097-2 532p. $18.99.  Gr. 9 and up.

Ademi witnessed her mother’s brutal murder by soldiers on the night magic disappeared throughout Orisha.  When Ademi and the princess meet in a marketplace, a strange partnership and a long string of events lead to great change.  Magic is being reawakened. Romances, betrayals, and plot twists lead to an enjoyable storyline. THOUGHTS: This fresh new fantasy world has some interesting parallels with our very real world.  Readers with dark skin will see themselves in this book as people who can take power into themselves and perhaps make some change. I really enjoyed reading this, but had to set it aside for a while when the violence got to be too much for me.  I will keep reading the series, in spite of all of the bloodshed.

Fantasy      Toni Vahlsing, Abington Friends School

 

Roe, Robin. A List of Cages. Hyperion, 2017. 978-1-148476380-3. 310 pp. $17.99. Gr. 9-12.

Adam and Julian’s paths keep crossing. First, Adam was assigned as a reading buddy to mentor Julian when the boys were in 5th and 2nd grade. Then, after Julian’s parents were killed in an accident, Adam’s single mom fostered Julian for about a year. Now, Adam is a popular high school senior assigned to escort quiet, withdrawn Julian to his twice-weekly school counseling appointments. The two quickly reconnect, and Adam’s tight circle of friends expands (sometimes grudgingly) to allow room for the younger boy. But Julian is hiding a terrible secret: his guardian, an uncle by marriage, has been physically abusing him for years. When Uncle Russell finds out that his nephew has newfound friends, he withdraws Julian from school and the abuse escalates over some extremely difficult-to-read chapters. Throughout the book’s final fifty pages, it’s almost impossible not to read ahead just to find out what happens to each character. THOUGHTS: This is a well-paced, affecting, terribly sad, and somehow still uplifting story of what too many young people face when they go home at the end of each school day. It’s also an homage to friendship, courage, and kindness that still manages to be a gripping page-turner. At the novel’s heart is the lesson that “Hate ricochets, but kindness does too.”

Realistic Fiction    Amy V. Pickett, Ridley School District

YA Realistic Fiction – Mr. 60%; Saints & Misfits; We Come Apart; Grit

Barrett Smith, Clete. Mr. 60%. Crown Books, 2017. 978-0-5535-3466-5. 192 p. $17.99. Gr. 9 and up.

Meet Matt, aka “Mr. 60%”, a nickname earned thanks to just-passing grades and Matt’s habit of doing the bare minimum both academically and socially to graduate high school. The only time he engages in conversation is when he’s completing a “transaction” with a classmate. Instead, he spends his time looking for more creative places to stash his “merchandise” at school so when his nemesis, the vice principal, and the on-campus cop conduct random drug searches, they turn up nada.  Everyone thinks Matt is destined to be a high school dropout, yet what they don’t know is that Matt feels like he has no other choice; he’s only selling drugs to pay for medicine to help ease his uncle’s pain in the wake of a fatal cancer diagnosis. With his mother in jail, his dad never having been in the picture, and living in trailer #6 at the local trailer park with his dying uncle, Matt has limited options and no one to turn to.  When the school board develops a new policy requiring seniors to participate in at least one student activity club in order to graduate, Matt is forced to see he’s not as alone as he thought.  There just might be a friend he can lean on when times get unbearable.  THOUGHTS:  Mr. 60% reminds adult readers, educators especially, that our children are more than what we see on the surface, and reminds teen readers that they’re not alone, that a classmate passing them in the hallway might have it worse than they do.  Despite its somber tone and overwhelming sense of helplessness readers may feel for Matt; there is still a note of hope throughout the story: the fellow classmate whose offer of friendship helps her just as much as it helps Matt and his uncle, the guidance counselor willing to try over and over again to offer Matt options to help him graduate even though he doesn’t seem to appreciate it, the police officer who keeps trying to warn Matt of his impending future should he not change his drug-dealing ways, among others. My only complaint is the abrupt ending; the conclusion needed at least one more chapter to feel complete. Teens and adults alike will appreciate the realistic characters and the how real Matt’s life is portrayed, and the short length is perfect for reluctant readers. 

Realistic Fiction            Sandra Reilly, Pleasant Valley SD

 

Ali, S.K. Saints and Misfits.  Salaam Reads, 2017. 978-1-4814-9924-8. 328 p.  $18.99  Gr. 7-12.

Janna sees people as fitting into three different categories:  saints, misfits, and monsters.  She herself is a misfit:  a Muslim girl who chooses to wear the Hajib, struggling to fit in to a variety of different places and with different people, including two families, since her parents are divorced (and have very different views on religion). Janna has a crush on Jeremy, who isn’t Muslim; he’s a misfit, too, if only because he’s willing to consider dating her.  Then there are saints: people so perfect and good, like her brother’s girlfriend, they make Janna feel like she’s lacking.  Finally, there’s the monsters.  Janna tries not to think about the monster in her life; a monster who pretends to be a saint.  He’s the brother of one of Janna’s friends, and she’s afraid to tell anyone the truth, that he tried to sexually assault her once, and she’s afraid he might do it again.  THOUGHTS:  The sensitive subject matter is handled frankly and yet not too graphically, so that this book is accessible to middle as well as high school readers.  This well written book is an important addition to school library collections both because it features a Muslim heroine, and because it empower girls who have been assaulted.

Realistic Fiction               Maggie Bokelman, Cumberland Valley SD

 

Crossan, Sarah and Conaghan, Brian. We Come Apart. Bloomsbury, 2017. 978-1-68119-275-8. $17.99. 320p. Gr. 9+.

Sarah Crossan teamed up with Brian Conaghan to write in verse from two points of view. Both Jess and Nicu lead desperate lives. Jess lives in a dysfunctional home with a despicable stepfather who beats Jess’ mom and forces her to be an accomplice. Jess lives in fear of her stepfather, but it doesn’t stop her from acting out by stealing things. On her third arrest, she is forced to do community service which is where she meets Nicu, who is also performing community service. Nicu and his family have recently emigrated from Romania to England into the time of Brexit and open racism. We see through his broken-English what it is like for a teenager of color to endure racism from not just his classmates, but his teachers and society in general. Nicu also has the weight of an arranged marriage in his near future to contend with. The story begins with a hesitant friendship between Jess and Nicu and slowly transforms into love. Jess fights the relationship from the beginning, hiding it from her friends, and not step to Nicu’s defense when people attack him because of his Romanian heritage. This book reminded me of Crossan’s, The Weight of Water and the publisher likens it to Una LaMarche’s Like No Other.  THOUGHTS: I read this book quickly due to its being written in verse, but also because I wanted to find out what would happen between Jess and Nicu. It’s rated 9th grade and above due to the domestic violence and a brutal racist attack on the street, although I would consider letting 8th graders read this book. I enjoyed reading about Nicu’s perspective of moving to a country in the throes of Brexit and overt racism all the while living with old-fashioned parents that insist on an arranged marriage. I enjoyed the ending, but I can already hear my students complaining that it lacked the happy ending they seem to enjoy.

Realistic Fiction, Verse            Bridget Fox, Central Bucks SD

 

French, Gillian.  Grit.  HarperTeen, 2017.  978-0-06-264255-4. 294 p.  $17.99.  Gr. 9-12.

Seventeen-year-old Darcy Prentiss has a wild reputation that precedes her. Most of her classmates believe she is promiscuous, and she is often found drinking and taking dares at parties. The police think she knows more than she is letting on about the disappearance last summer of her former best friend, Rhiannon, and it soon comes to light that she is also hiding another secret for her cousin, Nell. As the story unfolds, mysteries that seemed totally unrelated are woven together, and the truth behind Darcy’s actions is unveiled. Teen readers will easily be able to relate to and empathize with Darcy, making this a great choice for high school libraries.  THOUGHTS: My only criticism of this title is the fact that I had a hard time figuring out what the main story line was. Did I want to know what happened to Rhiannon last summer, or did I want to discover Nell’s secret? Was I more interested in the love connection between Darcy and a boy named Jesse than I was in either of these mysteries? However, regardless of the complex plot (which all ended up weaving together in the end), Darcy proved to be an extremely relatable and likable character.  I felt for her, and I admired her courage; therefore, I needed to keep reading to find out what happened to her and everyone else. A beautifully written title, perhaps more suited towards older adolescents due to its evocative language and sexual references.

Realistic Fiction      Julie Ritter, Montoursville Area SD