MG – All Four Quarters of the Moon

Marr, Shirley. All Four Quarters of the Moon. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-1-543-38886-1. $17.99. 247 p. Grades 5-8.

Peijing Guo has a perfectly happy life in China. She is a good student who is popular and well liked at school. She loves living with her extended family. Peijing is care-taker by nature and believes honoring her parents is her duty. She loves to draw. Peijing’s five year old sister, Biju, is a wonderful storyteller. The sisters create a secret “Little World” of handmade paper cutout animals designed from Biju’s imagination and interwoven with bits of Chinese mythology. The sisters spend hours together playing in their imaginary world. When Ba Ba gets a new job, Peijing, Beiju, Ma Ma, and their grandmother Ah Ma immigrate to Australia, where the family quickly begins to fall apart. Newly settled in a gorgeous and large new home, the family begins to change. Ah Ma, who spent her days in China with friends playing games and exercising in the park, now only sits in front of the television. Ma Ma, who was once social and stylish, dresses in sweatpants, and refuses to leave the house or to learn to speak English. The sisters struggle to improve their language skills and do well in a school where everything is completely different from anything they ever experienced in China. Only Ba Ba seems to be happy in Australia. Ba Ba slowly begins to relax and participate in household chores. He seems determined to develop a relationship with his two young daughters. Peijing is confused and miserable until she befriends an outcast classmate named Joanna. Scruffy and tough, Joanna is often hungry, exhausted, and bruised. Peijing, always caring for others before herself, tries to help Joanna. Peijing brings Joanna food, encourages her artistic abilities, and defends her friend from classroom bullies. Joanna helps Peijing understand life in Australia. The two become the best of friends, each bolstering the other’s confidence. When a caring teacher intervenes to help get Joanna out of her abusive home, the two friends fear their friendship will be over. The characters in this middle grade novel are beautifully drawn. The Chinese mythology woven throughout the development of “Little World” provides a gorgeous backdrop to a story about understanding humanity, and the changes we encounter in life. 

THOUGHTS: This is a warm and thoughtful middle grade novel that depicts an immigrant experience with great respect and care. The bond between sisters Peijing and Biju is wonderfully delightful. The inner-conflict Peijing experiences as she becomes a tween trying to assimilate into a culture with different values is both heartbreaking and empowering. Readers will cheer Peijing on as she discovers who she is meant to be and how she can fit into her changing, yet traditional, family. 

Realistic Fiction          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD

Elem. – Join the Club, Maggie Diaz

Moreno, Nina. Join the Club, Maggie Diaz. Illustrated by Courtney Lovett. Scholastic, 2022. 978-1-338-83281-5. 229 p. $7.99 (pbk.). Grades 3-6.

Reminiscent of Frazzled by Booki Vivat, Join the Club, Maggie Diaz by Nina Moreno has as its protagonist a Cuban-American girl ready to start seventh grade in middle school whose friends seem to have found their niches while she is still searching for hers. As the short, sweetly illustrated novel opens, Maggie’s mother is finishing her accounting degree, the Diaz family has welcomed a new baby brother, and their grandmother has come to live with the family in Miami after their grandfather’s death. Until her tiny house is completed in the family’s backyard, Abuela has become Maggie’s roommate. She is not shy about providing Maggie with unsolicited direction and advice (in Spanish). Maggie’s aim to be independent and grown up is thwarted by her lack of a cell phone, her busy parents’ strict rules, and the overshadowing of her seemingly perfect older sister, Caro. Intertwined seamlessly in the plot is Caro’s LBGTQ+ relationship with her tutoring buddy, Alex, and Mrs. Diaz’s positive acceptance of their relationship. Pressured to appear like she is fitting in, Maggie tells little white lies and tries joining every club she can. The one catch to admission to a club, however, is good grades. Maggie finds herself overextended and in over her head and her grades are slipping. If that happens, her prize of a cell phone and more freedom go out the window. With humor and pathos, Maggie muddles through and finds strength in unexpected people. Young readers will identify with Maggie’s struggles to find her special thing and keep up with her schoolwork in an unfamiliar environment of both a new school and a new stage in life.

THOUGHTS: Fitting in and finding one’s place in middle school is not an easy task. Books that have characters failing and trying at the same thing can be encouraging. It helps that Join the Club, Maggie Diaz is a quick read. Maggie’s up and down relationship with her grandmother is also a connection with real life. A fun and relatable read, especially for reluctant or struggling readers.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – Bright Star

Morales, Yuyi. Bright Star. Holiday House, 2021. Unpaged. 978-0-823-44328-4. $18.99. Grades K-1.

Morales weaves English and Spanish text together to create a heartwarming tale of a young fawn and her mother. As narrator, the doe speaks to her child as they explore the Southwestern desert landscape. She tells her cosita (little thing) that she is a bright star and that she loves her. After hearing a loud sound, the fawn becomes frightened and the mother cautions her to be alert and find a safe space. In soothing tones, the deer comforts her anxious daughter and reminds her that she will never be alone and will always be protected. The illustrations are done in a variety of media, including embroidery, and reveal a few causes of her fear-a snake, a leopard, a cloud of dust, and a wall. In the author’s note, Morales explains that she began this book in 2019 after observing migrants being detained after attempting to cross the border and how the environment was being destroyed by the wall’s construction. Morales’ drawings are a showcase of the flora and fauna of the area, such as a hummingbird, a scorpion, and saguaro cacti, which in one spread are cut down into pieces. The author connects the disruption of the lives of the plants and animals to the disrupted lives of migrants and inhabitants of the region. This is shown in the final pages by the images of children wearing shirts with animal designs and surrounded by desert plants.  This story conveys a message of reassurance and hope during anxious times.

THOUGHTS: Morales’ art is beautiful, and the renderings of the animals, especially the fawn, are charming. Young children will enjoy looking at the creatures and will find comfort in this story. It also could be useful in ecology units. A strong purchase for elementary libraries.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired PSLA Member

Elem. – My Words Flew Away Like Birds

Pearson, Debora. My Words Flew Away Like Birds. Kids Can Press, 2021. 978-1-525-30318-0. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PreK-2. 

My Words Flew Away Like Birds follows the unnamed main character as she and her family move from one country to another. She talks about how she knew certain things when she lived in her home and now, going to a new place, she has some new words to learn. She talks about how those new words felt weird to her, and the reader follows her journey as she learns to adjust to living in a new place. The illustrations are beautiful light colors with the dark colors of the characters and buildings make a very interesting illustration to the reader as they are going through the book.

THOUGHTS: This was a very enjoyable book to read, and many readers will empathize with the main character and her journey of moving to a new place. 

Picture Book                Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Elem. – Becoming Vanessa

Brantley-Newton, Vanessa. Becoming Vanessa. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-525-58212-0 p. 40. $17.95. Grades K-3. 

The first day of school still gives most of us butterflies in our stomachs. We most likely remember the anticipation, the excitement, and the desire to put our best face forward in making a good impression. Vanessa, the main character in Becoming Vanessa, written by Vanessa Brantley-Hewton, feels all of these emotions on her first day of school as well. Vanessa puts on her fanciest outfit and her best smile for her first day of meeting her new classmates; however, she receives the attention she wasn’t expecting. Vanessa definitely stands out and begins to feel that her clothes are too bright, her boa has too many feathers, and her shoes are too shiny. Her classmates don’t seem to appreciate her bold outfit choice as much as she was hoping. Vanessa’s self-confidence begins to dwindle, and she begins to believe that she should blend in with her classmates and not stand out. 

After a tough day at school, Vanessa has a conversation with her mother that helps rebuild her confidence and gives her a new perspective on how to be herself AND share her fabulous self with others. Becoming Vanesa is inspired by the author’s real childhood and is full of self-love. 

THOUGHTS: Vanessa Brantley- Newton has become a favorite author (and illustrator too!) of mine! She is the author and illustrator of Grandma’s Purse and Just Like Me, two other fabulous picture books for young readers. Her stories burst with positivity by lifting up young girls around the world with her stories and placing girls of color at the center of the story. I cannot wait for more beautiful work from her! 

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

Elem./MG – A Glasshouse of Stars

Marr, Shirley. A Glasshouse of Stars. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-48883-0. 246 p.  $17.99. Grades 4-6.

Meixing has just arrived in a New Land to live in a New House with her parents. She and her mother and father have traveled from the Old Land to live with First Uncle, but he passed away only weeks before their arrival and now they are adrift in a strange place, not quite speaking the right language and not quite understanding the right customs. When tragedy strikes Meixing’s family, she retreats into the backyard of her new home and discovers a magical world hidden away in a broken down greenhouse where the ghost of First Uncle helps her discover her inner strength. Meixing displays incredible courage in the face of xenophobia in her new school as she tries to learn her place in this New Land, but new friends and an understanding new teacher also help her overcome her family’s difficulties as they begin to build a life in the New Land.

THOUGHTS: This story offers a unique glimpse into the struggles of immigrant children who deal with poverty, discrimination, and cultural miscommunication. The magical realism in this book provides Meixing with a symbolic escape from her troubles and a way to process her feelings with the help of her family, and adds a beautiful, lyrical layer to the storytelling. This story would be an excellent addition to studies about the immigrant experience, and should be added to collections with a focus on immigrant experiences and diverse voices.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet

Kemp, Laekan Zea. Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet. Little, Brown and Company, 2021. 978-0-316-46027-9, 343 p. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet hits all the right notes for a young person’s fantasy romance. In alternating narratives, the reader follows the growing romance between talented Mexican-American chef, Penelope (Pen) Parado, and undocumented restaurant worker, Xander Amaro. Nachos Tacos is Pen’s father’s restaurant in Austin, Texas, and the salvation of the neighborhood, providing a handout or employment to many, despite the glaring threat of a ruthless loan shark, J.P. Martello. The restaurant is dear to Pen’s heart–not only because it is there she can express her culinary skills–but also because of the sense of family it represents. She is devastated when she is banished from the restaurant after confessing to her parents that she has not attended a full semester of nursing school. Traditional Mr. Parado expects his older son, Angel, to carry on the business despite Angel’s disinterest. New employee, Xander, enters the wait staff on Pen’s last day, and though some point out her brash, bossy manner, he is smitten. Eighteen-year old, independent Pen finds a cheap apartment with the help of bff Chloe and a wretched job at a Taco Bell-like establishment. In spite of her take-charge personality, Pen suffers from self esteem issues and the narrative alludes to some self-harming; she does take medication for her low moods. In addition to being undocumented, Xander is actively searching for his father who left the family when Xander was a toddler and has never attempted contact with either Xander or his own father, Xander’s guardian. As the narration asserts, each has their own scars. The chapters develop with Pen dealing positively with her complicated love-hate relationship with her father and Xander’s appreciation of his feelings of belonging to the ragtag Nacho crew. Their days revolve around working in their respective restaurants, hanging out with the other Nacho workers, food, and their romance until the restaurant’s future is in jeopardy from the menacing loan shark. This antagonist brings the needed friction for the story, culminating in a predictable conclusion that leaves the reader with admiration for the resiliency of Pen and Xander and their Latinx neighborhood.

THOUGHTS: There is nothing too deep here or too risky (Pen and Xander have some deep kisses and smoldering feelings, but nothing more; some foul language and drinking). Latinx author Kemp tells an old-fashioned love story with the typical tropes but with more interesting words and the addition of some mental health and immigration issues. Her major and minor characters are likeable and developed. One unexpected relationship is Xander’s friendship with the local police officers, despite his undocumented status. Younger teens wanting a romance or older ones looking for an escape novel will be hooked.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia