MG/YA – You Bet Your Heart

Parker, Danielle. You Bet Your Heart. Joy Revolution, 2023. 9780593565278. 307 pp. $18.99. Grades 7-10.

Sasha Johnson-Sun (SJ) and Ezra Davis-Goldberg were best friends back in grade school, then he moved from Monterey, California, to live with his physician father for two years. Now, he is back and has become SJ’s competition for valedictorian. African-American-Jewish Ezra proposes three wagers to decide who will take the coveted position. As the bets mount, SJ feels the chemistry between them grow stronger. Though Ezra admits his feelings for her, the financially-strapped SJ cannot subdue her ambition and desire to receive the $30,000 scholarship attached to the valedictorian position. Not only does her family need the money since the death of her beloved African-American dad a few years’ prior, but also the Korean side of her family expects to be proud of her. SJ has spent so much of her life working toward her academic goals; she has a difficult time opening up to love and happiness. Even her best friends, Chance and Priscilla, think her reasoning to thwart Ezra is wrong-headed. This light romance may be predictable, but the connection between SJ and Ezra is interesting to watch and the inner thoughts of SJ are interesting to follow. Since both main characters are driven academically, readers will learn about different societal issues and philosophies as the pair compete. 

THOUGHTS: Author Danielle Parker has a good ear for teen-speech and habits, which will appeal to readers. Ezra and Sasha come from different financial backgrounds, but the novel doesn’t take a deep dive into that side of their relationship. SJ works hard in school to make both her deceased father and Korean relatives proud. Ezra’s motivation seems to be only to get close again to SJ. Readers will know SJ will eventually come around and wind up with Ezra, but the well-drawn characters will keep them interested. A good pick for older middle school readers who want books with romance.

Realistic Fiction     

YA – Teen Challenges (Series NF)

Teen Challenges. ABDO Books, 2022. 112 p. $28.00 ea. or $224.00 for the set of 8. Grades 7-12.

Buckley, A. W. Body Image and Dysmorphia. 978-1-532-19625-6.
Burling, Alexis. Unplanned Pregnancies. 978-1-532-19631-7.
Duling, Kaitlyn. Social Media and Digital Stress. 978-1-532-19629-4.
Hand, Carol. Bullying. 978-1-532-19626-3.
Hogan, Christa C. Family Conflicts and Changes. 978-1-532-19627-0.
Lusted, Marcia Amidon. Puberty. 978-1-532-19628-7.
McKinney, Donna Bowen. Substance Addiction. 978-1-532-19630-0.
Mooney, Carla. Academic Anxiety. 978-1-532-19624-5.

The eight books in ABDO’s Teen Challenges series are well-chosen topics affecting teens today. Body Image and Dysmorphia showcases clearly-written text, colorful current photos, and helpful sidebars and end material: essential facts, glossary, index, source notes, and resources. Without bias or shaming, the book clearly describes body dysmorphia as a growing problem among teens, both male and female. Chapters cover how body image forms, comorbidity, society’s contribution to body image disorders, and treatment options.

THOUGHTS: It is refreshing to see new ideas covered in a series focusing on social issues, like body dysmorphia, academic anxiety, and digital stress. The book is largely helpful and hopeful, and readers will take away empathy and optimism. Recommended for middle and high school.

300s Social Issues Affecting Teenagers          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – Falling Short

Cisneros, Ernesto. Falling Short. Quill Tree Books, 2022. 978-0-062-88172-4. 292 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8.

Sixth graders, Isaac Castillo and Marco Honeyman, are best friends, next door neighbors, and complete opposites. Isaac is a tall, basketball star who struggles in school; smart as a whip, Marco gets mistaken for a kindergartner because of his short stature. What both of them share is mutual love and care and problematic fathers. Unable to cope with his alcoholism, the loving but troubled Mr. Castillo is estranged from his wife and son. On the other hand, Marco’s parents are divorced, and his father would rather write an alimony check than visit his son. The boys’ warm friendship stands up to the pressure when the pair start Mendez Middle School in California. Marco classifies the different students like fish, some are aggressives and some are community minded. In Falling Short, author Ernesto Cisneros makes a solid case that being community minded is possible and preferable. Having almost failed fifth grade, Latinx Isaac has to prove that he can make the mark, and perhaps ease some of his parents’ stress. Mexican-American and Jewish Marco, too, wishes to impress his neglectful father, a jock, who dismisses Marco’s scholastic achievements. The basketball team is a choice that fits both boys’ needs: Isaac can coach Marco in baller moves; Marco can be Isaac’s loyal study buddy. Determined to escape the taunts of the school bullies–especially basketball eighth grade standout, the looming Byron–Marco takes on becoming a basketball player as an intellectual pursuit. Motivated by Marco’s relentless efforts to learn how to play ball, Isaac disciplines himself to complete all homework assignments. Their bro’mance gets them through their respective feelings of inadequacy in either sports or studies and their family issues. Marco skips an elective course and completes Isaac’s missed homework assignment. Isaac convinces Coach Chavez that Marco will be a valuable player on the team. Told in alternating voices that mix feeling with humor, the story reaches a climax when Isaac’s dad suffers a car accident while driving drunk right before the big basketball tournament. To add to the tension, Marco’s errant dad comes to see him play at the tournament. Reading how these true friends push each other to achieve their goals and affirm themselves in the process imitates the deft moves of a satisfying game and does not fall short.

THOUGHTS: Author Ernesto Cisneros mixes lots of details in Falling Short that cater to the typical middle school student: description of basketball plays, mention of well-known basketball players, team spirit, an explosive farting episode. It also touches on the awkwardness and helplessness kids can feel when dealing with parental flaws. The book includes some nice touches that point to a better world: Coach Chavez throws Byron, the bully, off the team when he finds out Byron humiliated Marco; Marco has a short teacher who can be both self-deprecating and inspirational; there is a girl on the basketball team; some of the other team members also look past Marco’s lack of height and see his kindness. Spanish phrases are scattered throughout the book.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Realistic Fiction for Middle Grades…House Arrest; The Honest Truth; Fish in a Tree


Holt, K.A. House Arrest. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2015. 978-14521-3477-2. 304 p. $16.99. Gr. 6-10.

Timothy makes a bad decision for all the right reasons. Dealing with a baby brother with a serious medical condition and a single mother facing deep financial burdens, Timothy takes measures into his own hands to help his struggling family. His bad decision gets him court ordered house arrest for a full year, a weekly check-in with a probation officer, sessions with a therapist, and journal writing to document his thoughts (which of course is under lock and key). Author K.A. Holt manages to take Timothy’s journal entries and turn them into poetic redemption. THOUGHTS:  This unique novel in verse will reach out to middle grade readers with passages that are, at times, both comical and touching.

Realistic Fiction    Jane Farrell, Dallastown Area Intermediate




Gemeinhart, Dan. The Honest Truth. New York: Scholastic, 2015. 978-0-545-66573-5. 240p. $16.99. Gr. 5-8.

Mark is determined. Determined to climb Mt. Ranier, determined to keep it from his parents, and determined to let his best friend since forever know he will be okay no matter what. Mark sets off on his journey alone. Armed with his camera and notebook full of Haiku, Mark devises a plan to go. However, before he can get started, he throws the people who love him and worry about him the most off his trail. It’s not that his mother and father would not be supportive of his Herculean dreams. It’s just that they don’t want him to miss the chemotherapy treatment he has scheduled for the next day. Yeah, there’s that. Faced with death, the threat of a snowstorm, no gear to climb the mountain, and very little money to keep him healthy for the climb, Mark sets off determined to make the climb of his life. His best friend, Jessie, can only worry about him, hoping he makes it before she spills the secret she has to keep. With the characters he meets and the adventures he faces, Mark’s odyssey becomes a life lesson even when survival at home seems pointless.

Readers will keep hoping for a happy ending for this boy. Told through the alternate voices of Mark and his best friend, Jessie, the book gives readers a hole in their stomach to ultimately fill. Gemeinhart creates characters who want to be loved and have their voices heard; a boy who is sick of facing death leaves his family to face another sort of danger and that tiny act brings a new level of courage to his fight. Jessie has a fight on her own, facing the inner conflict of taking Mark’s parents to where she knows he is or letting her best friend die from what he chooses; not from what chooses him. This is a great read for middle grade readers who are interested in The Fault in Our Stars.  This book is one best read alone and with tissues.

Realistic Fiction      Brooke Gerlach, Manheim Central Middle School




Hunt, Lynda Mullaly. Fish in a Tree. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books, 2015. 978-0-399-16259-6. 288p. $16.99. Gr. 5-8

Lynda Mullaly Hunt, author of One for the Murphys, hits her new book, Fish in a Tree, out of the park. Ally, the daughter of a soldier stationed overseas, has moved around for much of her educational career.  Landing in 6th grade, she has mastered the ability to be under her teachers’ radars by acting out and diverting attention from her lack of ability.  After making a huge error at her pregnant teacher’s baby shower, Ally is sent to the office where she finds out she will be transferred again; this time into Mr. Daniels’s class.  It’s there she discovers what she is good at and starts to gain the confidence to build on her academic skills while building bonds with her classmates and teacher. Even Ally’s older brother sees the benefit of Ally’s hard work.  THOUGHTS: A middle level read, this book has the ability to engage students who may have academic issues. This book would be a perfect choice for a discussion group or literature circle investigating the reason why students may want to hide things about themselves.

Realistic Fiction    Brooke Gerlach, Manheim Central Middle School