Elem. – Gitty and Kvetch

Pritchard, Caroline Kusin. Gitty and Kvetch. Illustrated by Ariel Landy. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-47826-4. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-3.

Gitty is sure today is “the perfect day to hang the perfect painting in our perfect, purple tree house.” Kvetch, Gitty’s bird friend, isn’t so sure he’s ready after their last adventure. But Gitty isn’t deterred by Kvetch’s pessimism and convinces him to join the fun with a tempting worm sandwich. Along the way, Gitty sees many wonderful sights, while Kvetch identifies the negatives. Even when storm clouds appear Gitty wonders, “Did we hit the jackpot or what?” It’s not until the friends are forced to take refuge in their tree house that Gitty realizes her “perfect painting was wet and wrecked, just like her perfect day.” Will Kvetch be able to overcome his negative attitude to help his friend see the bright side? Beautiful, bright digital illustrations highlight Gitty’s optimism, while muted purple tones show Kvetch’s cynicism. A glossary of Yiddish words is included at the end, helping emerging readers understand Kvetch’s meaning throughout the story. Note: Kvetch is not identified as male or female, but for the purpose of writing this review I identified him as male.

THOUGHTS: Reminiscent of Spires’ The Most Magnificent Thing, young readers will adore Gitty and Kvetch’s friendship and come to appreciate how differences put together can make the perfect pair. Highly recommended for elementary picture book collections.

Picture Book          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

Elem. – Stick and Stone Best Friends Forever

Ferry, Beth. Stick and Stone Best Friends Forever. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021. Ill. Tom Lichtenheld. 978-0-358-47302-2. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PreK-1.

We’ve always heard, “Sticks and stones may break my bones…”, but when Stick and Stone get together, they don’t break bones. They play on a slide; they read books; they hike and canoe; they are best friends. So, when Stick decides he wants to find his family tree, Stone goes with him on his quest. “They wander [and] explore”, but Stick can’t find his family. When pinecone shows up after a scary experience in the forest, Stick realizes he may never find his family tree, but that’s okay because he’ll always have Stone. 

THOUGHTS: This is a beautifully illustrated story of what it means to be a family. Stick doesn’t know what type of tree he is, but Stone says that’s okay because they have one another, and it doesn’t matter “if you’re oak or you’re pine […] you’ll always be mine.” This story shows children that all friends and families come in different shapes and sizes, and it’s love for one another that makes a family. This is a wonderful story of acceptance, and as always, Tom Lichtenheld’s illustrations are vibrant and beautiful.

Picture Book          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

Stick and Stone are best friends. When Stick decides he wants to find out where he came from, the duo head out in search of Stick’s family tree. Their journey takes them through forests, across valleys and creeks, and into the mountains. Before long, they become lost and frightened. Eventually, they run into Pinecone, who guides them safely home. Although Stick doesn’t find his family tree, he does learn something about what family means and realizes that he had one all along. The rhyming verse and cheerful illustrations will have children devouring this delightful story about friendship.

THOUGHTS: I could see this book resonating especially with students from unconventional or broken homes. It could help them understand and appreciate the value of “found family.” Fans of Mo Willems’s Elephant & Piggy books would also enjoy this amusing tale of friendship.

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

Elem. – Cornbread & Poppy

Cordell, Matthew. Cornbread & Poppy. Little, Brown and Company, 2022. 978-0-759-55486-3. 80 p. $6.99. Grades K-2.

Two mice who are the very best of friends have a real adventure in this charming chapter book! Cornbread is a planner. He is ready for the first snowfall, and his well-stocked larder is full of delicious fruit preserves, grains, and cheeses. Poppy is more carefree. She loves to hike, ride bikes, and go on adventures. Despite Cornbread’s reminders, she has put off foraging until it is all but too late. Cornbread can’t let his best friend go hungry, so he agrees to accompany Poppy up Holler Mountain in search of food for the long winter. But Holler Mountain is a scary place, with steep hills, snow, and predatory owls! Matthew Cordell’s irresistible illustrations, in pen and ink with cool watercolors, bring humor and gentle thrills to the little friends’ big excursion.

THOUGHTS: Both a friendship tale and a mild adventure story, Cornbread & Poppy is a book to read over and over again for the sweet scenes and special details. 

Chapter Book          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – In the Wild Light

Zentner, Jeff. In the Wild Light. Crown Publishers, 2021. 978-1-524-72024-7 429 p. $17.99. Grades 9 and up.

Set in a small Tennessee town, two misfits from troubled families develop a strong bond after meeting at a Narateen meeting. Cash is struggling to come to terms with his mother’s death, the knowledge that his beloved grandfather is dying, and his fear that he has no special gift to offer anyone. Delaney is a brilliant, self-taught scientist who discovers a bacteria-destroying mold with potential medicinal benefits.  Because of this discovery, she is offered a full ride scholarship to an elite New England prep school and secures a spot for Cash as well.  Delaney is determined to start anew and pushes Cash to join her, though he believes he is not deserving of this opportunity and fears missing precious time with his grandfather. They both struggle to adjust to their new life so far removed from their roots but are fortunate to find a friendship with two other new students at Middleford Academy and to nurture their own interests and passions and the special bond between them.

THOUGHTS: A thoughtful, coming of age story with a strong focus on the value of friendship and family, with charming characters, beautiful descriptions, and some gorgeous poetry. Touching, emotional, and heartfelt, this book will be appreciated by fans of All the Bright Places and Looking for Alaska.

Realistic Fiction                Nancy Summers,   Abington SD

MG – Too Bright to See

Lukoff, Kyle. Too Bright to See. Penguin Random House, 2021. 978-0-593-11115-4. $16.99. 188 p. Grades 4-7.

Set in the summer before middle school starts in rural Vermont, Bug and her friend Mo, who now wants to be called Moira, are preparing themselves for the start of something new. Moira takes it upon herself to plan makeovers and make as many new friends as she can before school starts, but all of this makes Bug feel not right. Bug’s uncle, who moved to Vermont with Bug and her mom after her father passed away when Bug was an infant, just passed away leaving them to figure out how to move on. Their old creaky house has always been filled with ghosts, but now the ghost game has stepped up, and Bug is trying to figure out who this ghost is and what it is trying to say! As Bug uncovers the mystery of the ghost and what it is trying to say, Bug makes a huge discovery – he is transgender.   

THOUGHTS: This book was scarier than I thought it would be! The ghosts in Bug’s house are pretty aggressive at times, so this would appeal to horror readers. The author is transgender, and you can’t help but think that this authentic story may be semi-autobiographical. Bug’s friends’ acceptance of his identity gives you faith that kids are way more accepting than adults in these matters.

Mystery         Krista Fitzpatrick, Abington SD

YA – The Queen Will Betray You

Henning, Sarah. The Queen Will Betray You. Tor Teen, 2021. 978-1-250-23746-0. $17.99. 368 p. Grades 8-12.

Princess Amarande and her true love, Luca, have finally been reunited. However, in order to save the Kingdoms, they must part. Luca, no mere stable boy anymore, must fulfill his role and lead a rebellion against the tyrant war lord. Meanwhile, Amarande returns to her kingdom to find that her mother, the runaway queen, has taken control through her brother, the newly crowned King Ferdinand. Desperate, Amarande unwillingly accepts the help of her enemy, Prince Tallifer, in order to escape her mother and defy the queen’s plotting for control over the kingdoms. Her love for Luca and for her people motivate her to keep going, even when all seems lost and betrayal lurks around every corner.

THOUGHTS: The Queen will betray you, but which queen? This was an immensely enjoyable and action packed follow up to The Princess Will Save You, loosely based upon The Princess Bride, and the story does not end here! The cliff hanger will leave readers impatiently waiting for the release of The King Will Kill You to find out the fate of the Kingdoms of Sand and Sky and if true love really does prevail.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

MG/YA – Simone Breaks All the Rules

Rigaud, Debbie. Simone Breaks All the Rules. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-68172-1. 320 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Simone Thibodeaux is tired of her overprotective Haitian parents, and when they arrange her prom date with a son of a suitable Haitian family, it is the last straw. She decides the end of her senior year at St. Clare Academy, a largely white, all-girls school, is the perfect time to start experiencing life. She enlists two classmates with similar parental issues, Indian-American Amite and Kira, the white daughter of a notorious lawyer. The trio dub themselves HomeGirls, and create a Senior Playlist of challenges and accomplishments, including going to a house party, cutting class, and changing up their style. And then there is prom. Simone works feverishly to keep her parents thinking she is going to prom with Ben, the polite Haitian boy, while lining up her own date with Gavin, a hot guy from the affiliated boys school. But why is it so hard to be herself around Gavin, and so comfortable to be with Ben? Readers will fall for Simone from the first pages. Her voice is fresh, humorous, and authentic. Anyone with parents will relate and sympathize with Simone and her girlfriends. However, along the way to ditching her parents, Simone comes to appreciate her Haitian heritage and culture, and realize how much she does love her mom, as trying as she may be. The book celebrates the value of good friends (and how not to lose them) and the families who love us. Haitian culture and Haitian Creole language are sprinkled throughout the book, deftly adding to the depiction of the New York area Haitian-American community.

THOUGHTS:  This delightful rom-com is perfect for middle school as well as high school, with nothing more dangerous than a few chaste kisses, and clubbing occurs as a teen venue serving “mocktails.”

Romance          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Long Distance

Gardner, Whitney. Long Distance. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-45566-5. 315 p. $21.99. Grades 5-8.

Author and illustrator Whitney Gardner’s latest, Long Distance, is a charming middle grade graphic novel with something for almost every reader to love. When 10-year old Vega’s family relocates from Portland to Seattle, she has to leave her best (and only) friend Halley behind. To help her make new friends, Vega’s dads send her to a remote camp in the Washington woods called Very Best Friend. Vega is skeptical; she has Halley, after all, although her bestie hasn’t returned her last few texts. And the camp itself is unusual, with nonstop overcast skies, zero cell reception, and awkward counselors. Vega and her fellow campers discover surveillance gear hidden inside a pinecone, fake rocks scattered in the forest, and other clues that something is amiss. Vega, twins Gemma and Isaac, and chatty Qwerty join forces to gather more information in some of the book’s most entertaining sequences. Whitney Gardner’s illustrations are digitally rendered, with camp scenes depicting the natural world in earthy tones of green, rust, and slate blue. Bright, otherworldly colors cue the graphic novel’s big reveals.

THOUGHTS: This fish-out-of-water story blossoms into a science fiction-infused mystery, all while delivering some heartfelt lessons about how to make (and be) a real friend, no matter the distance.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Elem. – Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey

Kelly, Erin Entrada. Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey. Greenwillow Books, 2021. 978-0-062-97042-8. $16.99. 160 p. Grades 3-6.

Newbery Award winning author, Erin Entrada Kelly, delivers the first in a new series with character Marisol Rainey. Marisol is a Filipino American living in Louisiana with her family. She and her best friend Jade are enjoying the start to the summer vacation by playing lots of games, using their imagination to create their own fun, and climbing the tree in Marisol’s backyard. Except, Marisol is petrified to climb the tree. Not being brave enough to climb the tree in her backyard is just one of Marisol’s many fears. There are plentiful illustrations throughout the book, drawn by Kelly herself.

THOUGHTS: This engaging book has everything a popular series needs to be a hit with readers. Marisol’s anxieties make her very relatable and the humor laced through Kelly’s writing will entertain even the most reluctant readers.

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, PSLA Member