MG – Alone

Freeman, Megan E. Alone. Aladdin, 2021. 978-1-534-46756-9. 404 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Maddie, a twelve year old girl, plans the perfect sleepover night at her Grandmas. Unfortunately, her friends cancel, and Maddie spends the night alone – only to wake up to everyone gone. Maddie learns that an “imminent threat” has forced mass evacuations and her divorced parents never knew that Maddie was alone. Maddie must now fend for herself and hope that help comes soon. Maddie visits the empty homes and starts to gather items necessary to survive for the next few weeks. But weeks turn into months, and months into years and Maddie’s only company is a rottweiler named George. On her own Maddie faces looters, tornadoes, a devastating fire, and a flash flood while navigating springtime at her mom’s house and winters at her father’s home. Maddie uses her local library to gain knowledge, and find hope that rescue will soon arrive.

THOUGHTS: A wonderful survival story with a strong female character that will leave you rooting for her. The story is well written, and fans of Life as We Knew It and Hatchet will enjoy this adventure. The author provides a variety of challenges for Maddie to face, while showing how to be brave and creative in overcoming obstacles.

Adventure          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh Middle School

MG – The Traitor’s Blade

Sands, Kevin. The Traitor’s Blade. (The Blackthorn Key, 5.) Aladdin, 2021. 380 p. 978-1-5344-8456-6. $18.99 Grades 5-9.  

In book 5 of this popular series, Christopher Rowe and his friends Tom and Sally continue unraveling codes and threats, this time against Christopher and King Charles II, in 1666 London. Christopher, Tom, and Sally have only just returned from Paris, when Christopher stops in at Blackthorn’s now-dusty shop to find a threatening letter with a code leading to more information. While there, his friend Simon arrives at the door–with a knife in his back. Miraculously, Simon lives, but the similarity of his death to the recent deaths of two of the king’s servants leads Christopher to be apprenticed to the King’s spymaster. Because Christopher, Tom, and Sally had saved the life of the king’s sister Minette, King Charles extends his grateful generosity to the trio by giving each of them an annual stipend, as well as an individual gift. For Christopher, it is his apprenticeship. For Sally, it is designation as the king’s ward. And for Tom, it is a secret that he keeps from Christopher, a secret which makes him sad. Meanwhile, Simon shares news that Remi, believed to be The Raven, is dead.  Christopher should feel relieved, but questions still abound, and he is caught up in following codes in the letters from the Templars. The closer he gets, the more dangerous the group becomes, and the more convoluted the codes and suppositions. Christopher’s new master cautions him against jumping to conclusions, but Christopher recognizes he’s done exactly that. The novel ends with hand-to-hand combat, a frightening discovery, and a selfless decision by Tom that will make the reader believe in the power of friendship.

THOUGHTS: This is a wonderful continuation of the series that Sands promises has “one more to go.”  Purchase the entire series for grades 5-9; it has proven popular with reviewers and readers.

Historical Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Elem./MG – Wild River

Philbrick, Rodman. Wild River. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-64727-3. $17.99. 189 p. Grades 3-6.

This middle grade adventure follows soon-to-be middle schooler Daniel Redmayne on what is supposed be a fun filled white water rafting trip in Montana for the Project Future Leaders school group. But what is to be a thrilling trip soon turns into a life or death trek through the Montana wilderness! The adult guides were able to save their middle school charges, but could not save themselves when the aptly named Crazy River’s dam broke and flooded the areas surrounding the river. What follows is an exciting journey in which the five survivors, with very limited supplies, need to work together to survive. Dangerous disagreements lead to the group splitting up and a tragic ending for one. Can the group put aside their anger and survive? Includes an Afterword that is a mini wilderness survival guide.

THOUGHTS: A must purchase for reluctant readers! Each short chapter ends with a twist that will keep readers turning the pages.

Adventure          Krista Fitzpatrick, PSLA Member

YA – Lore

Bracken, Alexandra. Lore. Disney Hyperion, 2021. 978-1-484-77820-3. $18.99. 480 p. Grades 9-12.

Lore Perseus is trying to live a normal life, but as a descendant of the Greek hero Perseus, it’s not that simple. Every seven years, a new Agon begins. During this time, nine Greek gods walk the Earth as mortals as a punishment from Zeus. These gods are hunted by the descendants of the ancient Greek bloodlines. If a god is killed by a mortal during an Agon, the mortal hunters will inherit their power and immortality. Although Lore walked away from that world after her family was murdered, her past is catching up with her. When she is approached by a childhood friend and the god Athena, Lore strikes up an alliance hoping to avenge the death of her family and finally escape the Agon forever. Set against the backdrop of modern day New York City, Lore must confront her past, figure out who she can trust, and ultimately save the world from both old gods and new.

THOUGHTS: This book has been described as a mix between The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and I would absolutely recommend it to readers that are fans of Rick Riordan and Greek mythology. In addition, Lore is a standalone fantasy novel which may appeal to readers who are not looking to commit to a series. The main character, Lore, is a strong and powerful female determined to take control of her own life. The fast-paced story is full of action, and the surprising plot twists will keep readers on their toes!

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

Lore Perseous wants to be a normal teenage girl living in New York City. She wants to forget that she is from an Ancient Greek bloodline, descended from Perseus himself. However, the brutal reminder of who she is becomes apparent as the Agon begins its next cycle after seven years. The Agon, which started as a punishment from Zeus for past rebellions, is a time in which nine Greek gods and goddesses are forced to walk on Earth as mortals. During the seven days of the Agon, if a god or goddess is killed by a descendant of an ancient bloodline, the descendant seizes that god’s powers and immortality. For her own sanity and protection, Lore is determined to ignore the Agon as she has horrible memories of what happened to her family during the last one. The Fates have other plans for her when two people seek her out: Castor, a childhood friend, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war. Athena offers Lore an alliance in an attempt to stop one god from becoming all-powerful. Joining this alliance means she could possibly end the horrors of the Agon forever, so Lore is tempted. She knows, however, binding to Athena could come at a deadly cost and wipe out the rest of the Perseous bloodline forever. By rejoining the hunt, Lore is leaving her fate in the hands of a powerful goddess who is not always known for keeping her promises.

THOUGHTS: Alexandra Bracken’s book is a heart-pounding adventure that leaves the reader at a cliffhanger with the end of every chapter. Readers should have a basic knowledge of Greek Mythology to get the most out of this book, but fans of Zeus and all the rest are sure to love this tale. This book is a fantastic purchase for high school libraries, especially with students who read Percy Jackson in middle school and are now looking for something more advanced.

Fantasy/Adventure        Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

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