MG – Paola Santiago and the River of Tears

Mejia, Tehlor Kay. Paola Santiago and the River of Tears. Disney-Hyperion, 2020. 978-1-368-04917-7. 350 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Scientific Paola just eyerolls when her superstitious mother talks of spells, wards, and evil beings like La Llorona, the creature who roams the river stealing children to replace those she lost. But Paola and her friends Emma and Dante do respect the Gila River near their Arizona home. Several local children have drowned in the waters. Not that that stops them from lying to their parents and hanging out on the banks of the river. But when Paola repeatedly has dreams of a creature reaching out of the waters and grabbing her, and Emma disappears one evening, Paola begins to reconsider whether her mother’s superstitions are as ridiculous as she always assumed them to be. When the police refuse to listen to Paola, she and Dante decide to take matters into their own hands. Armed with support and advice from a most surprising source, they venture into a world of legendary monsters battled by lost children, shocked to discover their own roles in this world that shouldn’t exist. Paola Santiago, part of the Rick Riordan imprint, is a page turner from the very beginning. Pao is a delightful protagonist, supported by her two best friends. Scientific-minded, fascinated by space, she is stunned by the existence of magic, myth, and monsters. Dante and Emma are strong characters as well (in every sense of the word), and the various creatures they encounter don’t stand a chance against the combined wiles of the trio. But Pao also learns that there is more to life than what the power of physics can prove and becomes closer to her mother through the ordeal. Paola and Dante are Hispanic; Emma is white.

THOUGHTS: Paola Santiago and the River of Tears is an exciting page turner that is hard to put down. Paola is a feisty heroine who is easy to love and is sure to gain legions of fans. Add this to your collection if other mythology-based books are popular.

Fantasy/Mythology          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – The Boys in the Back Row

Jung, Mike. The Boys in the Back Row. Levine Querido, 2020. 978-1-646-14011-4. 264 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Matt and Eric have been best friends forever. They are both marching band nerds, both fans of comics by artist Jonah Burns, and both are targets of bully Kenny and his side-kick Sean. When Eric learns his family will be moving at the end of the school year, the pair plan one epic last adventure. While the school marching band is on a trip to World of Amazement amusement park, Eric and Matt will sneak out to nearby DefenderCon and meet their idol, Jonah Burns. But when Sean gets wind of their plans, and inexplicably wants to join the friends, they are confounded as to how to proceed. The book uniquely highlights friendship between tween boys. The pair are openly fond of each other, but are tired being labeled gay. Matt is also called gay for playing the flute. (Neither is gay, but they do not consider it an insult). A secondary theme involves racism against Asian students such as Matt. Kenny, the chief proponent of both racism and homophobia, seems to harbor an attraction for a male, Asian band member, providing some insight into his troubled personality. While the racist theme can become heavy-handed, the exuberant friendship of the boys more than carries the book. Matt is Asian, Eric and Kenny are white, with minor characters who are a variety of ethnicities, particularly Asian.

THOUGHTS: This book should be a first purchase for middle grade collections. Stories showing kind, thoughtful male relationships are too rare.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Aftershocks

Reichardt, Marisa. Aftershocks. Amulet, 2020. 978-1-419-73917-0. 318 p. $18.99. Grades 8+.

Ruby thought her world ended when her mom informed her she was dating Ruby’s high school water polo coach. But she soon finds out what the end of the world, or her world, really looks like. Skipping practice because she’s too embarrassed to face her coach, Ruby is hanging out at a laundromat, looking for someone to buy beer for her, when an earthquake hits. As a native Californian, Ruby is used to earthquakes, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is no minor tremor. “The ground shakes, the walls fall”, and Ruby is trapped under the rubble of the laundromat, with a young man named Charlie, with whom she had just started talking. The ‘Big One’ has hit. A 7.8 magnitude. She and Charlie can’t see each other, but they work desperately to bolster each other’s spirits. Minutes turn to hours as the pair assess their physical condition and tell each other stories and bits of their lives. Hours roll over into another day, and another, and Ruby and Charlie face the very real possibility of not being rescued in time, before their injuries overwhelm them. Unusually, the eventual rescue occurs halfway through the book and, true to the title, the second half deals with the aftershocks of the rescue and the earthquake. The pain and trauma. Ruby desperately needing her mother, but having no way to locate her in a world twisted and ravaged by the quake, bereft of cell service and internet. Ruby needing to make amends to the people she loves. The book is both edge-of-your-seat compelling and lyrically thoughtful. Reichardt’s writing deftly changes from gripping, gruesome descriptions of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, to heartbreaking, poetic passages as Ruby drifts in and out of consciousness, ready to embrace death. While character descriptions throughout the book are minimal, context clues imply that Ruby and Charlie are white.

THOUGHTS: This can’t-put-down book delivers it all: a compelling disaster story, with a satisfying ‘after’ that most books neglect. It was lovely to close the book knowing “the rest of the story.”

Action/Adventure          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Tristan Strong Destroys the World

Mbalia, Kwame. Tristan Strong Destroys the World. Disney, 2020. 978-1-368-04238-3. 390 p. $17.99. Grades 3-7.

There’s no rest for the weary. Tristan Strong may be the hero of the Battle of the Bay, having saved the mythical land of Alke, home to the West African gods and the legends of African-American folktales, but a battle means winners and losers, and it appears someone is not happy with Tristan. Barely a month has passed since Tristan returned from Alke when he’s alerted that a shadowy figure called the Shamble Man is coming after Tristan. When he comes, he destroys Tristan’s grandparents’ farm and kidnaps his grandmother. It’s time to return to Alke. Luckily Tristan has his SBP (Story Box Phone), inhabited by Anansi the spider, who is doing a little magical app development while cooped up in the SBP. Soon they are on their way to the mythical lands to try and discover the identity of the Shamble Man, rescue Nana and set Alke right again. As Tristan attempts to uncover the identity of the Shamble Man, friends old and new come to his assistance, but it looks like time might be running out on Tristan. Mbalia’s conversational narration (the audio book, read by Amir Abdullah, is sensational) grabs readers from the first words. Tristan is eminently likeable, as he struggles with fears and self doubt, but the surrounding cast of characters really brings the book to life. Once again, Tristan’s tiny, gooey sidekick, Gum Baby, steals the show, offering a steady stream of tongue-twisted patter and comic relief. Fortunately for readers, the ending leaves plenty of room for further sequels, because we all need more Gum Baby.

THOUGHTS: There is no sophomore slump for Mbalia. This second entry in the series is easily as good as the first, if not better. The characters from African American folk tales and West African gods may not be familiar to young readers, but they will have a very good time meeting them. Hand this series to readers who enjoy mythology based books, but also those who like to laugh.

Fantasy          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Soul Riders: Jorvik Calling

Dahlgren, Helena. Soul Riders: Jorvik Calling. Andrews McMeel, 2020. 978-1-524-85532-1. 189 p. $8.99. Grades 4-6.

Lisa hopes the move to the remote island of Jorvik will be what she and her father need to reestablish their relationship. The 15-year-old’s mother was killed three years ago in a horseback riding accident, and her father accepted this new job so the pair could spend more time together. But when her father is immediately called into work, Lisa finds herself on her own to explore the island. She is drawn to nearby Jorvik stables, even though she lost her love of horses after her mother’s death and hasn’t been on a horse since. Lisa is quickly accepted into a circle of three girls her age at the stable, and their gentle friendship, along with a deep connection to a native island horse, Starshine, encourages her to ride again. However, evil lurks on the peaceful island. A mysterious, sinister man and a pair of teen girls seem determined to injure or steal the horses of the four friends. Eventually, the girls uncover a local myth of the Soul Riders, four ancient riders associated with certain symbols and powers. Could there be any connection between what is happening to the girls and these ancient beings? This mystical story, associated with an online immersive adventure game, is perfect for horse-crazy tweens. The theme of overcoming adversity through friendship is prevalent throughout the book, woven into an adventure tinged with mythology and danger. Mysterious individuals and uncovered magical abilities add interest to the story, but the real star is the love between girl and horse. Although there is a limited amount of character diversity, as Jorvik is somewhere in the North Sea, apparently near the Scandinavian countries, one of the girls is Pakistani. The second book in the trilogy, The Legend Awakens, was published in September 2020, and the final book is due out in April 2021.

THOUGHTS: This series could have wider appeal among fantasy readers not ready for lengthy, multi-volume series, but it will mostly resonate with horse lovers. The Star Stable online game does require fees to play after a trial period.

Fantasy          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem. – Princess Adventures: This Way or That Way?

Misslin, Sylvie. Princess Adventures: This Way or That Way? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-04186-2. 32 p. Grades K-2. 

When Princesses Rose and Josephine set out for adventure, they cannot agree on which path to take, thus it is up to the reader to decide. A two sentence introduction to the plot is followed by a choice of two icons, one for each girl. These coordinate with tabs running vertically along the right edge of the page. At top is a castle which serves as a home tab followed by a picture of each princess then moving down to common items: flowers, a sword, a spiderweb, a window. Each item leads readers to a spread featuring a brief plot point in the tale. After selecting one of the girls to follow, readers use these tabs to turn to the next installment of the story until a happy ending or the return to castle prompt begins the story all over again. Depending on the reader’s interests, the princesses may stop for berries or a nap in the forest, encounter a fearsome dragon, or sample sweets baked by the royal chefs. While some choices are linear, parts of the story may require readers to return to earlier pages in the book or to skip ahead. Plots are brief but endearing and likely to be enjoyed by early readers while the interactive tabs will empower reluctant readers to take control of the story. Whimsical illustrations enhance the humorous fairytale theme. Princess Rose appears to be slightly older with brunette hair and glasses while Josephine’s hair is a reddish blonde. Both Princesses and all secondary human characters present as white with variations of blonde, brown and black hair.

THOUGHTS: This interactive picture book is sure to be a hit with the fairytale lovers and offers pre-readers a chance to practice storytelling and may incentivize reluctant readers to keep trying until one of two possible paths to a happy ending is revealed. Tabs are integral to the page, making it easy for readers to select their story path with minimal wear and tear. The story mechanic of selecting a plot line is intuitive but not explicitly explained to readers.

Picture Book/Moveable          Jackie Fulton, Mt. Lebanon SD

Elem. – Dandan’s Dream

Zhu, Xiaowen. Dandan’s Dream. Reycraft Books, 2020. 978-1-478-86853-8. 32 p. Grades K-2. 

Thanks to a new Post Office policy stating “that children, in addition to letters and packages, could now be mailed” a young Chinese girl sets off on an adventure to mail herself to the South Pole. Wanting to visit her father, Dandan cashes in the contents of her piggy bank and creates a new skirt composed of stamps for her voyage. Not long after, the wind carries her over the ocean where she spies a ship filled with people in peril thanks to a huge blue whale. After stopping to save the day, Dandan has to create new stamps in order to continue her journey to the land of penguins, seals, and Dad waiting in his green coat. Filled with fantasy and childlike joy, Dandan is an inspiring protagonist with spunk, creativity, and compassion. Yangling Gong’s illustrations filled with deep colors and rich texture enhance the dreamlike state of this modern day fairytale. Occasionally, emboldened and enlarged text emphasizes the storyline while brief sentences and engaging illustrations will make this a joy to read aloud.

THOUGHTS: This joyful, fantastical adventure picture book has all of the elements of a must-buy for elementary library collections.

Picture Book          Jackie Fulton, Mt. Lebanon SD

YA – These Violent Delights

Gong, Chloe. These Violent Delights. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2020. 978-1-534-45769-0. $19.99. 464 p. Grades 9-12.

“These violent delights have violent ends.” It’s 1926, and the city of Shanghai is ruled by two gangs: The White Flowers and The Scarlet Gang. Juliette Cai has just returned to the city after spending four years in America, and she’s ready to forget her past and take on the role of heir to the Scarlets. When she is approached by Roma Montagov, the White Flower heir, he insists they work together to stop a madness plaguing their city and taking the lives of members of both gangs. She reluctantly agrees, although she was betrayed by Roma in the past. Together, as they prepare to hunt down a monster, they can’t ignore the passion that still exists between them, but if their alliance is discovered by either gang, the madness will be the least of their worries, and the blood feud between the two could turn deadly.

THOUGHTS: This novel brings some exciting new aspects to William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet: 1920s flappers, the setting of Shanghai, monsters, and madness! The Scarlet Gang members are Chinese, The White Flowers are Russian, but the French and English are powerful presences in Shanghai as well, and this brings some diversity to the characters. You’ll be rooting for Roma and Juliette as they discover the secret behind the madness, and against all odds, find their way back to each other. This is perfect for readers who like action and historical fiction, as well as a bit of romance, and the ending will have them impatiently waiting for book two!

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

Juliette Cai seems to have it all as the eighteen-year-old heir to Shanghai’s revered Scarlet Gang. Juliette’s only problem seems to be her love/hate relationship with Roma Montagov, the heir of the rival gang the White Flowers. The Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers’ criminal networks operate above the law and are continually fighting, often killing each other on the spot when they accidentally cross into the other’s territory. However, a mysterious plague descends upon Shanghai, causing people from both sides to become mad and claw out their own throats. People begin whispering of a monster with glittering eyes, often seen in the water and controlling lice-like insects that burrow into people’s brains. In this retelling of Romeo and Juliet, both Juliette and Roma must put their feelings aside and work together to find the origin of this madness and stop it before Shanghai is destroyed.

THOUGHTS: With her beautiful descriptive language, author Chole Gong puts a riveting twist on a classic story in her debut novel, which promises to delight fans of the fantasy genre. Fans of fantasy sequels and trilogies will also appreciate that this story will continue in a yet-to-be-published sequel.

Fantasy          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem. – Outdoor Adventure Guides (Series NF)

Outdoor Adventure Guides. Capstone Press, 2020. $24.04 ea. $96.16 set of 4. 48 p. Grades 3-6.

Bean, Raymond. Backpacking Hacks: Camping Tips for Outdoor Adventures. 978-1-543-59031-9.
Hoena, B.A. Campfire Cooking: Wild Eats for Outdoor Adventures. 978-1-543-59033-3.
Hoena, B.A. Wilderness Survival: Basic Safety for Outdoor Adventures. 978-1-543-59029-6.
Bean, Raymond. Wildlife Watching: Spotting Animals on Outdoor Adventures. 978-1-543-59035-7.

Part of the Outdoor Adventure Guides series, Backpacking Hacks is a valuable resource for both the novice and experienced hiker. Chapter titles include “Preparation and Planning;” “Food, Water, and Shelter;” and “Critters and Fire.” There are thoughtful tips for staying warm, staying cool, and staying dry. The book also includes information on how to pack food and what to pack, how to make your tent more comfortable, and hygiene when you are away from a bathroom. Readers who are using this guide to plan a trip will appreciate the websites listed in the back and the “Hack Your Pack” section that will make all hikers well prepared.

THOUGHTS: This is a thorough guide for planning a backpacking trip. There is so much great information packed into the scant 48 pages. Appropriate for all school libraries, this book should have broad appeal.

796.54 Camping          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

YA – The Princess Will Save You

Henning, Sarah. The Princess Will Save You. Tor Teen, 2020. 978-1-250-23742-2. $19.99. 352 p. Grades 9-12.

The Princess Will Save You is loosely based upon The Princess Bride, but puts a twist on the classic tale: What if Buttercup saved Westley? Princess Aramande lives in the kingdom of Ardenia. She’s the only child of King Sendoa, and when he suddenly dies, Aramande is told she cannot rule unless she marries. Although she’s suspicious of his death, and doesn’t believe it to be an accident, princes and suitors of neighboring kingdoms have already arrived hoping to win her hand. The last thing she wants to do at sixteen is marry a stranger and give up control of the kingdom, but it doesn’t seem as if she’ll have much of a choice. When Luca, the stableboy and her true love, is kidnapped to be used as ransom against her, she immediately goes after him. Although she hasn’t spent much time outside of her kingdom, she has been trained as a warrior, and finally has a chance to put her skills to the test. Aramande encounters hardships along the way, and when Prince Renard, the man who intends to marry her, finds out she is missing, he sets after her to reclaim his runaway prize. Meanwhile, Luca, who is being held captive by pirates, has no doubt in his mind that his princess will save him.

THOUGHTS: Like The Princess Bride, The Princess Will Save You is full of action and adventure, and yes, it is a kissing book! The plot has similarities to The Princess Bride, but it’s in no way an exact retelling, just a loose adaptation. This book has a number of strong, female characters, and I loved the surprise plot twists packed into both the ending and epilogue!

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

Princess Amarande of Ardenia is not like other princesses in the Kingdom of Sand and Sky. She spends more time in the stables training with stableboy Luca than she does in the castle. Though just as well-suited for the battlefield as she is the throne, Amarande is the only child of her father, King Sendoa, which means she can’t inherit her crown unless she marries a prince in this very patriarchal society. When her father dies unexpectedly, 16-year old Amarande is not ready to marry, especially not to a power-hungry prince she doesn’t even know. She doesn’t understand what marrying a prince has to do with her bloodline. And then there’s the fact that, while they’ve never openly admitted it to each other, Amarande and the stableboy Luca are in love. Though she tries to convince the elders of the kingdom that she can rule without a husband, they deny her requests and begin inviting other princes to draw up marriage contracts. When Amarande refuses to cooperate, Prince Renard from neighboring Pyranee and his family of equally power-hungry villains arrange to have Luca kidnapped. The pirates who kidnap Luca leave behind a note stating, “Marry Renard or you will never see your love again.” Amarande cannot marry Renard. She also cannot let anything happen to Luca. Her only choice is to go after him. The pirates who kidnap Luca mock him when he proclaims that Amarande will come after them. “Sure, the Princess will save you,” they joke. But they don’t know this princess.

THOUGHTS: Full of adventure, a lovable rag-tag supporting cast, and a kick-butt female protagonist, this YA fantasy is based on The Princess Bride, and fans of the beloved classic will definitely pick up on several nods to the film including the famous line, “As you wish.” The last 20 pages are full of proverbial dropped bombs, and readers will be salivating for the sequel when it releases this summer.

Fantasy          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD