MG/YA – A Forgery of Roses

Olson, Jessica S. A Forgery of Roses. Inkyard Press, 2022. 978-1335418661. $19.99. 384p. Grades 7-12.

Myra Whitlock has a secret: she’s a prodigy. When she paints, she can access her magic, and heal her subjects. Not everyone is accepting of prodigies, especially the governor, but when his wife discovers her secret, she hires Myra to paint her recently deceased son, Will, in the hopes of bringing him back to life. Myra has never resurrected a person before, but the reward is too great to pass up. Money has been tight since her parents’ disappearance, and her sick, younger sister needs to see a doctor, a luxury they no longer can afford. When she arrives at the governor’s house, she befriends the governor’s oldest son, August, and together, they discover that Will’s death was not an accident, and if Myra has any chance of bringing him back, she must first discover the mysterious circumstances of his death and avoid becoming the next victim herself.

THOUGHTS:  A Forgery of Roses is a magical, murder mystery that will keep readers guessing until the very end. Although two of the main characters develop feelings for each other, it goes no further than a few embraces and kisses, making this title a good fit for middle school libraries as well as high school ones. Myra is hired to use her magic to bring a person back to life, and the book does contain descriptions of blood and gore among murder victims and within art work. One of the main characters suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, and that’s not always a trait readers get to see in main characters.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

MG – The Shape of Thunder

Warga, Jasmine. The Shape of Thunder. Balzar & Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-95667-5. $16.99. 275 p. Grades 5-8.

Cora Hamid and Quinn Macauley are next door neighbors and inseparable friends all their twelve years of life–until they are not. Quinn’s older brother, Parker, takes his father’s hunting guns to his high school one November morning and shoots Cora’s sister, Mabel, a teacher, another student, and himself. The two families’ approach to grief could not be more different. Abandoned as a baby by her mother (the reader never discovers why), Lebanese-American and Muslim Cora has the nurturing support of her biologist dad; thoughtful, maternal Gram; and the professional support of a trained therapist. Quinn’s family buries the issue. Told in alternating voices, the reticent and less academic Quinn has difficulty expressing her thoughts and guilty feelings. Her workaholic father is against any outside help to ease the family’s suffering, and her mother hides in the house cooking and baking. Longing to reconnect with Cora, Quinn delivers a box to her doorstep stuffed with articles about time travel and wormholes on Cora’s birthday. She knows Cora well enough to appeal to her scientific nature. Perhaps the two of them could find a wormhole and travel back in time to stop the tragedy of that fateful day. As the pair work through the logistics of approaching a huge tree in the forest for the site of their wormhole/time traveling, they each experience the pain of regret and the insistence on holding fast to the memory of a loved one. While Cora has made new friends on her Junior Quizbowl Team and excels in her studies, Quinn has felt shunned. She longs to be on the soccer team, but is too ashamed to try out. Her art gives her some pleasure, yet not even drawing can remove the heavy weight of a secret she knows about her brother, the possibility that she could have prevented the circumstances. After she confides in the school librarian her remorse, she resolves to confess this awful secret to Cora. Though the revelation breaks their renewed bond, Cora devotes more time to her plan to make the impossible possible. When she questions her father about time travel, she is encouraged and inspired by his answer. He tells her that her absent mother had a theory comparing the shape of time to the shape of thunder: “impossible to map” (p. 213). When both Cora and Quinn are coaxed by different people to attend the traditional Fall Festival at their middle school, the rumble of thunder pulls the two estranged girls to the woods to prove Cora’s theory. The hopeful resolution of the story, despite the sadness surrounding it, gives the reader relief. Quinn’s and Cora’s relationship see-saws throughout realistically. After all, Quinn reminds Cora of the unspeakable thing Parker did. Quinn’s strained home life with her parents who refuse any kind of self-reflection or examination of the devastating action of their son is painful.  Minor situations like the jealousy of Mia, another friend of Cora’s, toward Quinn; the snide remarks of Quinn’s former teammate and friend; the growing crush Cora has with her classmate, Owen (a Japanese-American character), will resonate genuinely with middle school readers. The Shape of Thunder is a tough read, but one that confirms that happiness can co-exist with grief, and friendships can be mended.

THOUGHTS: This novel is full of emotion and rich in language and characterization, but not so intense that a sensitive middle grade student would be put off. Cora is a thinker and an intellectual. Throughout the novel, students will find themselves entertained by the interesting facts Cora spouts (“…cows kill more people than sharks each year…”). The images Warga uses to describe different feelings are unique but spot on (the “fizziness” Cora feels in her tummy when talking to her crush, Owen, etc.). She also makes dialogue very interesting. Quinn has a hard time speaking; her brain freezes and she can’t say the words. When she finally gets angry enough to spill over her feelings to her buttoned up family, it is heartbreaking. The conversations between Cora and her father and grandmother also are authentic and tell the reader so much about the characters. What the reader must conjecture about are Parker’s reason for the shooting and the absence of Cora’s mother since her father seems to have no obvious vices. Ms. Euclid, the school librarian and art teacher, is a heroine for Quinn. This book should be issued with a box of tissues.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Ain’t Burned All the Bright

Reynolds, Jason, and Jason Griffin, illustrator. Ain’t Burned All the Bright. A Caitlin Dlouhy Book, 2022. 978-1-534-43946-7. unpaged. $19.99. Grades 7-12.

In a three-part poem using breath as a metaphor, Jason Reynolds depicts what it’s like to be a young Black person in America, in the present moment. Breath One addresses the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, as the speaker’s mother watches a repetitive news cycle that “won’t change into something new.” Breath Two relates his father’s struggles to breathe without coughing, a clear reference to COVID-19; the cough is a “blues trumpet in his throat.” Breath Three alludes to climate change, pollution, wildfires, and rising sea levels through a futile search for an oxygen mask. In a pivot, seeing a hint of a smile on his mother’s face, he looks for oxygen not in a box but in his family’s lovable idiosyncrasies, “seeing each other’s mess as a breath of fresh air.” Jason Griffin’s illustrations are as essential to this book as the text. Rendered on moleskine notebook pages with paint markers, sharpies, spray paint, and various kinds of tape, the images are intermittently abstract, suggestive, and realistic. All are thematically linked to Reynolds’ poems, which are cut into lines, words, and letters and incorporated into each page’s collage.

THOUGHTS: Ain’t Burned All the Bright is a work of art that readers will want to pick up again and again to fully engage with its meaning.

Novel in Verse          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD
Graphic Novel

Through three metaphorical breaths, readers are taken on a journey through one of the most difficult times in recent history. In Breath One, readers are introduced to a narrator who wonders “why the story won’t / change into something new” as he describes how his mother won’t change the television channel and his brother won’t look away from a video game. Stunning artwork depicts cities burning as smoke billows out of windows, a NYPD van in flames, and blacked out images. The story transitions to protests over the murder of George Floyd and the back and forth fight to breathe – to have “freedom to walk / and shout / and cry / and scream / and scroll / and post / and pray.” In Breath Two, the speaker still wonders why his mom is glued to the same channel as his father “keeps coughing / from the other room.” Artwork depicts masks and isolation as COVID ravages around the world much like a tornado destroying a town. In Breath Three, the speaker searches relentlessly for an oxygen mask “but couldn’t find / a saving grace.” Clearly painted, taped, drawn, and written on the pages of a moleskine notebook, these two powerhouse creators give readers a lot to digest. The “is anyone still here?” that follows the poem describes their process in an interview style that is not to be missed.

THOUGHTS: Ain’t Burned All the Bright is a beautiful combination of poetry and art that is best enjoyed in one sitting then returned to again and again.

Poetry          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem. – Aaron Slater, Illustrator

Beaty, Andrea. Aaron Slater, Illustrator. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-419-75396-1. $18.99. Grades K-4.

Aaron Slater loves stories! He loves to listen to them and draw his very own pictures. When it is time for him to go to school, he is so excited to be able to read and write his very own stories. The words, however, look like jumbled squiggles to him and don’t really make any sense. Instead of standing out like he used to, he decides to fit in and be like everyone else. When requested by a teacher to write a story, Aaron struggles until inspiration hits him and he is able to create his very own story his way. With the help and support of those around him, Aaron begins to overcome his obstacles and struggles, becoming a reader and a writer, as well as continuing his illustrating.

THOUGHTS: This is another great book by Andrea Beaty! Written in text style Dyslexie to help individuals with dyslexia, we learn of a famous illustrator’s struggles to become a storyteller, and gain inspiration along the way.

Picture Book          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

Elem. – War

Letria, Jose Jorge. War. Greystone Kids, 2021. 978-1-771-64726-7. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades 4 -6.

With sparse words and dark pen and ink drawings, Jose Jorge and Andre Letria offer a haunting portrayal of war. The book imparts a strong sense of unease and sorrow with war being depicted as a non-feeling, cold presence delighting in the misery of the citizens it affects. The work delivers a powerful anti-war message, examining the sobering human impact of the ravages of war. A picture book best saved for older grades. 

THOUGHTS: Could be used in conjunction with a unit on the Holocaust. 

Picture Book          Nancy Summers,   Abington SD

YA – We Can Be Heroes

McCauley, Kyrie. We Can Be Heroes. Katherine Tegen Books, 2021. 978-0-062-88505-0. 368 p. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

The town of Bell is known for one thing – it’s firearms. When the heir to the company goes into his school and shoots his ex-girlfriend Cassie and then himself, the town moves on – just a bit too quickly. Beck, Cassie’s long time friend, is angered that people turned a blind eye to what happened. Beck decides to paint murals in and around the town to bring attention to the tragedy. After the first mural, Cassie (in ghost form) visits Beck in her VW van, determined to find closure. Along with Cassie’s other friend, Vivian, the trio set out to bring Cassie justice with just a touch of vengeance. Planning out the themes of their murals, gathering supplies, and finding the perfect location get harder as more attention is given to the art. Things get a bit complicated when a podcaster hears of the murals and starts investigating Cassie’s murder and the Bell family. But their time is running out as local law enforcement start closing in on who is responsible for the murals that depict Greek myths and the haunting connection to Cassie’s death. 

THOUGHTS: In McCauley’s second novel she chooses various writing styles to complement each character’s story. Cassie’s story is told in verse, Vivian and Beck in prose, and the podcaster in a script style. This was a heartbreaking story to read, but did a beautiful job of bringing attention to gun violence and domestic abuse. 

Realistic Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD
Fantasy (Paranormal)

MG – Soul Lanterns

Kuzki, Shaw. Soul Lanterns. Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-593-17434-0. 162 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Each August, Nozomi and her family release lanterns on the river to guide the souls of lost loved ones. The year she turns twelve, an unsettling encounter with a stranger at the ceremony makes Nozomi wonder about her mother’s past, and about the stories of other adults who lived through the Hiroshima bombing of 1945.  Nozomi likes art, and for an upcoming art showcase, she and three school friends ask relatives and community members to relate heartbreaking stories from “the flash” that they lived through before the children were born. This school project prompts the friends to create moving works of art to remember those that were lost. Ultimately, their works of art help the children to better understand the significance of the lantern ceremony. As Nozomi’s art teacher says at the end of the book, releasing the lanterns helps those in the community not only remember lost loved ones from the tragedy of the bomb, but also “remember the question of why such an awful thing happened.”

THOUGHTS: This story is told from the fascinating perspective of Hiroshima children who do not fully grasp the significance of the Hiroshima bombing because it occurred before they were born, and considerable character growth occurs when they find out through stories and family members what really happened on that terrible day. Many cultural references and Japanese words throughout the book make for a rich reading experience. Although there are descriptions of death and suffering which sensitive students may find disturbing, the author does an excellent job of describing the tragedy of the Hiroshima bomb with sensitivity and respect. This book will inspire readers to look more deeply into the history and ethics of nuclear warfare. Translated from Japanese.

Historical Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem. – Sometimes It’s Bright

Ruygt, Annie. Sometimes It’s Bright. Boyd’s Mill Press, 2021. 978-1-68437-982-8 p. 32. $17.99. Grades K-2.

“What is that magic, sparkling and sheer?”

A very observant little girl and her mother spend the day together. The main character notices the flow in the notes of a street musician, noise from billboards, and flying from the dancers on a stage. Where is this beauty coming from, and how does it shine so bright? The curious little girl learns that there is magic all around her and that when she digs deep, she can find this brilliant magic within herself as well. She can dance, draw, and paint to share art with the world, using everyday magic as glorious inspiration. Sometimes It’s Bright explores our most creative selves and shares the magic and happiness it can bring to others.

THOUGHTS: There is magic inside each child’s imagination, and Sometimes It’s Bright sparks the creative side in each reader. Annie Ruygt, the author, said, “I wish for you to be your whole self because this world is better when we’re all shining bright.” Gentle and straightforward text, with bright and vibrant illustrations- the story is a winner!

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

Elem. – That’s a Job? I Like Art… What Jobs Are There?

Hodge, Susie. That’s a Job? I Like Art…What Jobs Are There? Kane Miller, 2021. 47 p. 978-1-684-64168-0. $15.99. Grades 3-6. 

That’s a Job? I Like Art…What Jobs Are There? is a nonfiction book that uses the lens of art to showcase over twenty different jobs that are all related to art. There is a wide range of jobs, from ones that require working with people to jobs that are more solitary. Some of the jobs show a life in the day of the person, and some just give a smaller snapshot of what they do in a day. Each job discusses the best and worst parts of each job. At the end of the book, there is a way for the reader to try to pick out their best job, based on what they like to do/are good at.

THOUGHTS: This is an amazing book to introduce different careers to readers, and I loved how in-depth they went for the behind the scenes of each career. The illustrations show each career as well as the extra hobbies each individual has. Must have for an elementary or upper elementary school.

700 Art Careers          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – Fat Chance, Charlie Vega

Maldonado, Crystal. Fat Chance, Charlie Vega. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-823-44717-6. 343 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Fat Chance, Charlie Vega is an homage to every brown girl who has experienced fat shaming. The main character of Crystal Maldonado’s debut novel, sixteen-almost-seventeen Charlotte “Charlie” Vega struggles with self-acceptance. An unabashed nerd, the Connecticut teen excels at her studies, likes her after school job, and has a kind and loyal best friend, Amelia. On the down side, she still grieves for beloved Puerto Rican father, butts heads with her recently slimmed-down mother, and feels diminished next to the perfect Amelia. A striving idealist and aspiring writer, Charlie longs for the ever-allusive storybook romance. When popular, athletic Cal invites her to the homecoming dance, Charlie is on Cloud 9 and is humiliated when she discovers Cal expected her to deliver Amelia as his date. She finds a ready ear to share her troubles in her kind and understanding class and job mate, Brian Park, who is Korean-American. As her relationship with Brian develops and deepens, Charlie’s self esteem increases. She and Brian are sympatico; he is a thoughtful boyfriend and even his two moms like her. Bolstered with this newfound confidence, Charlie is able to feel secure about her appearance, despite her mother’s insistence on protein shakes and popularity. Talking (and making out) with Brian feels so good, Charlie neglects her bff who is also in a new relationship with a girl from the soccer team. In a rare argument, African American Amelia reveals Brian asked her out in the past. Charlie once again feels second best and takes steps to guarantee a miserable life and fulfill her belief that she just isn’t good enough. Through listening to the positive feedback from her supportive network of co-workers, family, and friends, Charlie comes to believe that she is deserving of love, no matter what her physical appearance. The casual, almost chummy, tone of the language, the inclusion of references to current celebrities and trends, and the relatable theme will make this novel a winner.

THOUGHTS: No matter what gender one identifies with, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega picks up the despair of rejection and invisibility and the thrill of feeling chosen and desired. Though skirting any graphic description of sex, Maldonado woos the teen reader with the building up of her feelings in the make out sessions with Brian. Charlie’s volatile relationship with her well-meaning but issue-ridden mother can be the script for many students dealing with a parent who mixes up wanting the best for one’s child and creating a safe, accepting space. In addition, Charlie’s devotion to writing and Brian’s interest in art make for interesting reading while the humor-infused narrative makes the serious theme smoother going down. Author Maldonado blends diverse gender roles and races seamlessly in an accessible book.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia