YA – At the End of Everything

Nijkamp, Marieke. At the End of Everything. Sourcebooks Fire, 2022. 978-1-492-67315-6. $18.99. 400 p. Grades 9-12.

Hope Juvenile Treatment Center is a misnomer; there is no hope in this juvenile detention center. When the guards start acting odd and then its residents wake up to no supervision, the teens feel a little celebratory. Though they’ve grown accustomed to living by strict schedules and demands, now they get to make all of the decisions. And one of the first choices is do we leave to find out what’s going on, or do we stay with what we know? The answer splits Hope’s residents in half, only to have the group who leaves discover that a deadly, highly contagious disease is spreading outside of the boundary fence. Armed guards, in fact, are stationed at the gate to keep them in, and they have no words of advice or comfort. When illness breaks out at Hope, the teens must join together to survive. But getting close to and helping others goes against everything they’re used to and puts them at a greater risk of becoming sick. As more people become ill and supplies dwindle, leaders step up to help. But with no rescue or aid in sight, will these teens make it out alive or will the infectious disease take over?

THOUGHTS: Written during the COVID-19 Pandemic, Nijkamp will captivate readers with this sci-fi thriller. Narrated by a diverse group of teens, readers will root for their survival and be amazed at what limits they push themselves to in order to make it out alive. Recommended for high school collections.

Science Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – Dark Waters

Arden, Katherine. Dark Waters. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021. 978-0-593-10915-1. $16.99. 198 p. Grades 4-7.

Best friends Brian, Ollie and Coco are back in this third book of Katherine Arden’s spooky Small Spaces series. This time, the three friends, Ollie’s dad, Coco’s mom, and school acquaintance Phil are on a quest to find Champ, the legendary monster that supposedly lives in Lake Champlain. The group sets sail on the tour boat Cassandra with Phil’s uncle, Dane Dimmonds, so that Coco’s mom can write an article about Champ for the local paper, but the trip quickly turns deadly when a real lake monster sinks the boat, kills a member of the tour group, and strands the survivors on a remote island on Lake Champlain. Brian recognizes similarities in their plight to a story he read about a smuggler’s ship that disappeared over 200 years ago on the same lake, and he also worries that The Smiling Man that tried to trap the friends during previous adventures is involved in this newest disaster as well. Phil, Ollie, Coco, and Brian must work together with their knowledge of the Smiling Man and his evil tricks if they want to get off the island alive!

THOUGHTS: This book would appeal to a wide range of middle school readers; it combines ghost stories, paranormal activities, adventure, and survival into one thrilling story! The dynamics of this friend group are realistic and engaging, and the chilling presence of The Smiling Man provides a consistent thread throughout this series that will keep readers coming back for many future adventures.

Horror Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Playing a Dangerous Game

Ochieng, Patrick. Playing a Dangerous Game. Norton Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-324-01913-8. $17.95 186 p. Grades 5-8.

A coming-of-age young adult novel by a skilled Kenyan author, this book offers a glimpse into the life of Kenyan boys in the 1970s.  Lumush and his family are doing quite well after his father gets a promotion at his job, but the teenager is understandably worried about changing schools and still being able to relate to his long-time neighborhood friends. As Lumush and his friends hang around after school each day, talking and playing small pranks and games, they eventually work up the nerve to explore a nearby abandoned house that many people think is haunted. What the group find during their explorations is more than they bargained for, and they are caught in the middle of a dangerous, and perhaps murderous, illegal smuggling operation. 

THOUGHTS: Mystery, adventure, friendship and personal growth are all major elements of this unique novel. Lumush’s life, including his family, his friends, and his school troubles, are described in rich detail. This book offers a fascinating peek into the lives of Kenyans during the 1970s; although politics and economics are mostly mentioned in passing by adults in Lumush’s life, students with an interest in Kenyan history could use this novel as a way to contextualize the facts found in traditional history books. 

Mystery           Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem./MG – Northwind

Paulsen, Gary. Northwind. Farrar, Straus, Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2022. 246 p. 978-0-374-31420-0. Grades 4-6. $17.99.

In his final book, Paulsen, the master craftsman of adventure fiction, has created another engaging survival story. Set along an unnamed northern coastline, this novel is reminiscent of Hatchet, but set hundreds of years earlier. Leif is a twelve year old orphan boy pressed into service as a mate on a seal hunting ship. Before the ship heads further north to find more seals, Leif and five others are left behind at a fish camp to catch and smoke salmon for the return voyage. Instead of their own ship, a vessel full of men dying from cholera appears and contaminates the camp, leaving Leif as the sole survivor of the deadly illness. Remembering the words of his deceased mentor, Old Carl, the boy heads north in a canoe and his first task is to find a burial site for Little Carl, another child from the ship. After nearly being ambushed by a bear, Leif quickly learns that he needs to develop skills in order to survive. After honing his abilities catching fish, making fires, and cooking, he begins to carve a storyboard that tells the story of his many adventures, which draws him closer to the mother he never knew. Leif observes a pod of orcas hunting for salmon, which leads to a frenzied battle between the ravens and eagles for leftovers. He is amazed by the beauty of the glaciers and the whale feeding dance in the bay. The boy nearly drowns in a whirlpool, but later is able to overcome strong waves by observing some dolphins. Soon Leif realizes that he is no longer the orphan boy that he was. His world, once confined to the bowels of a ship, has enlarged and he feels joy about exploring it more before returning to the world of man. In the author’s note, Paulsen explains that the novel’s coastline is based on his own experiences sailing up the California coast as well as in the fjords of Norway.

THOUGHTS: The detailed descriptions of the setting and Leif’s actions put readers into an immersive experience of the sights and sounds of a whales’ feeding frenzy, a menacing whirlpool, calving glaciers, friendly dolphins, and more. This page turner will appeal to fans of Gary Paulsen and to any reader who enjoys a book with a lot of action. This is an essential purchase for all elementary and middle school libraries.

Adventure Fiction          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem. – Off the Beaten Track

Kerangal, Maylis de. Off the Beaten Track. Greystone Kids, 2021. 978-1-771-64685-7. Unpaged. $18.95. Grades 3-6.

Ten-year-old Paul goes on a mountain trek with Bruce, an old family friend. Paul is somewhat unsure of himself at the beginning of their journey, lacking the confidence of a seasoned mountain climber. However, when he and Bruce find themselves in a precarious situation, Paul must find courage within himself in order to save their lives. The adventurous narrative is complemented by simple graphics in a limited palette of blues, browns, reds, and whites. The story does leave the reader with unanswered questions (such as what happened to Paul’s parents, as he lives with his aunt and uncle), but the unconventional style of the book still warrants its consideration for purchase.

THOUGHTS: Although the story itself left something to be desired, I found the uniqueness of this book very intriguing. Not only was the style of the illustrations uncommon, but the way the book was actually written was also unusual. The illustrator completed the images first, using only his own imagination, and then the author viewed the illustrations to invent the story. I absolutely could see this being used in a classroom for students or groups of students to invent their own stories in a similar fashion.

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

MG – Pony

Palacio, R.J. Pony. Alfred A Knopf, 2021. 978-0-553-50811-6. $17.99. 304 p. Grades 4-7.

This historical fiction selection tells the story of Silas, a 12 year old boy living with his father in rural Ohio. Awoken in the middle of night by three strange men, Silas’ father is asked to accompany these men for a nefarious seeming reason. After some back and forth, Silas’ father agrees to leave with the men, to return in one week’s time. Silas is told to stay put and wait. The next day, one of the horses returns to the farm. Silas takes this as a sign that he is to set out to find his father. Silas is joined by Mittenwool, a ghost boy who has been with Silas since he was a tiny boy. Along his journey, Silas runs into people who help him on his quest to find his father. He also realizes that he can see those who have passed on. In his quest to find his father, Silas confronts many fears and mysteries that connect his past and future.   

THOUGHTS: I had many questions of how Silas and his pony were able to sustain such a harrowing journey, but the scene where they find his father and his captures is a really exciting and a page turner! There is a lot of death in this story, so it’s definitely for the more mature reader. It’s kind of a cross between The Sixth Sense (I see dead people) and a western.

Historical Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Abington SD
Adventure

MG – City of the Plague God

Chadda, Sarwat. City of the Plague God. Disney-Hyperion, 2021. 978-1-368-05150-7. 400 p. $16.99. Grades 3-7. 

Sik, a thirteen-year-old Iraqi-American, lives with his mother and father in New York City, running a family deli specializing in middle-eastern food. He and his parents mourn his older brother, Mo, who was killed while traveling in Iraq. Alone in the deli one night, Sik encounters two scary guys in the back alley, eating rats and talking in rhyming couplets. Then Sik meets their boss, an insect infested, maggot producing 10-foot monster who proceeds to demolish the deli looking for something he says Mo stole from Iraq. If that wasn’t weird enough, Sik is saved by a pint-sized ninja, who turns out to be Belet, the new girl in his class at school. And if THAT isn’t weird enough, Belet is the daughter of Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. Ishtar explains to Sik that his nighttime visitor was Nergal, the Mesopotamian god of war and plague, and New York City has just become an immortal battle zone. Another entry from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint introduces middle grade readers to really ancient mythology – stories from the Fertile Crescent. The original super hero, Gilgamesh, appears in the story, having renounced his former violent ways. This story is not for the faint of heart. Bugs, blood, and bile dominate in this action-packed adventure. Characters come back from the dead, and Sik must visit the underworld in his pursuit of Mo’s mysterious treasure. Learning about Sumaria was never so much fun! Sik is a charming character who cares deeply about his family, and resents his brother for dying, while Belet desperately wants a family like the one Sik treasures.

THOUGHTS: Those students who may have previously eschewed the RRP family of books will be drawn in by the delightful grossness of this story. Readers may not run for a translation of Gilgamesh, but they will undoubtedly be more receptive to learning about Mesopotamia in history class.

Fantasy (Mythology)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – The Hawthorne Legacy

Barnes, Jennifer Lynn. The Hawthorne Legacy (The Inheritance Games Book 2). Hachette, 2021. 978-0-759-55763-5. $17.99. 368 p. Grades 7 and up.

“A Very Risky Gamble,” that’s what Avery Kylie Grambs is to Tobias Hawthorne, the famous billionaire that left his entire fortune and estate to her upon his death, instead of to his children and grandsons. Avery and the Hawthornes are still trying to figure out the game Tobias is playing with them and the events that connect each of them, and a history of tragedy, together. With Avery’s realization that Toby Hawthorne, Tobias’s long-lost son, is still alive and possibly the secret her mother never got to share with her before her death, she, Jameson, Grayson, and Alexander set out to find Toby and figure out the mystery that connects them all together. But, what happens when Toby doesn’t want to be found, and the others want answers? As the four dig deeper into Hawthorne history and legend, they must accept the faults of one another, a family history of secrets and lies, and overcome threats to their lives. In the end, though, are answers worth all that must be revealed in the search?

THOUGHTS: Once again, Jennifer Lynn Barnes does not disappoint. Her writing style and storytelling keeps readers on the edge of their seats for all 368 pages (and more as they look forward to the next installment). Her character development connects the reader with Avery and each member of the Hawthorne family, so as to pull the reader into the story to solve the mystery right alongside Avery, Grayson, Jameson, and Alexander. This is a must-have for all middle school and high school collections.

Mystery          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

Picking right up where The Inheritance Games leaves off, Barnes takes readers on another puzzle-filled, mystery/adventure. Avery, Jameson, Grayson, and Alexander aren’t satisfied without having all of the answers – or as much information as they can extract from Tobias Hawthorne’s clues. Though threats still are very real, Avery and the Hawthorne brothers persist, uncovering long buried secrets that send them in new directions. Finding possible connections to her past, Avery thinks she’s finally cracking the case, only to be left with someone who doesn’t want to be found. Digging deeper into the past with some who want to leave it in the past, Avery, find some uncomfortable truths about their family histories. Sometimes past mistakes are best left in the past, but is finding out the truth worth all of the pain that comes with it?

THOUGHTS: Fans of Barnes’ other novels will devour this addition and anticipate the next installment (The Final Gambit, 2022). While reading book one first makes for a more clear understanding of the events in the second book, it could be read by itself (I’d recommend enjoying both). Highly recommended for secondary collections.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Avery Grahams still is in the middle of a puzzle. Why did Tobias Hawthorne leave his fortune to her, a stranger with no connection to the famous and wealthy family? After uncovering clues left behind by Tobias in his will, Avery, along with the Hawthorne brothers, are left with more questions than answers. Do the answers lie with Toby Hawthorne who died in a fire years before or with her mother who may have been keeping some real secrets from her daughter? As the mysteries begin to unravel, the danger continues to grow. Who can Avery trust with her life, and who can she ultimately trust with her heart?

THOUGHTS: The Hawthorne Legacy had me hooked from page one, and just like the previous novel, I couldn’t stop reading! This is a great series to recommend to readers who have a hard time committing to a new book or series, or to anyone who enjoys a mystery novel. I’m impatiently waiting for the final book in the trilogy since there are still so many secrets that have not been revealed and puzzles that need to be solved. 

Realistic Fiction          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

MG – Concealed

Gonzalez, Christina Diaz. Concealed. Scholastic, 2021. 320 pp. 978-1-338-64720-4 $17.99 Grades 5-8.

Katrina has been on the move with her parents for the past three years, and those three years are the extent of her memories. She cannot remember her early years or even her real name. Her amnesia after an accident convinced her parents of the danger and led them to flee. Her parents, who call themselves “B” and “L,” have explained that it is better she doesn’t remember, and their task now is to keep her safe. With the help of their contact, Agent X, her family has moved at least eleven times in the Witness Protection Program because Katrina’s father angered some influential business partners. But since Katrina is pressing for more answers, her father makes a choice to get passports without Agent X’s help, in an effort for more freedom to tell Katrina the truth.  Their latest location is fairly remote, and Katrina tentatively becomes friends with Parker, a foster kid with few personal connections but exceptional hacking skills. Soon, Katrina’s father and mother are captured separately, and Parker willingly accompanies Katrina to the safe house in Atlanta. And all the facts that don’t add up really begin to topple down. At the safe house, Agent X whisks them to Miami (en route to safety?) as Katrina and Parker doubt him and her parents. The surprising truth comes out as X retrieves Katrina’s father, everyone is in grave danger, and everyone is saved.

THOUGHTS: While not predictable, the surprises are life-changing and resolved too easily, resulting in a lost opportunity to examine major themes of genetic engineering, twins, memory loss, trauma, and the effects of secrecy and lies. Supplemental purchase.

Realistic Fiction            Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Elem. – Total Mayhem #1 Monday: Into the Cave of Thieves

Lazar, Ralph. Total Mayhem #1 Monday – Into the Cave of Thieves. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-77037-7. 208 p. $6.99. Grades 2-5

In Dash Candoo’s world, boring days do not happen. Before he even eats his breakfast on Monday he is attacked by “combat-ready scallywags and the two tailed Devil Cat.” When Dash gets to school he has other hilarious situations to deal with, which are shown off in funny illustrations. At the back of the book, there is an almanac which gives you more information about all the things that Dash and his friend use throughout the book.

THOUGHTS: This book is great for fans of Captain Underpants and will definitely be a favorite in any elementary library.

Humorous Fiction            Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy