MG – Air

Roe, Monica. Air. Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-0-374-38865-2. 267 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8.

Air is about a fiercely independent girl who finds confidence, independence, and friendship while living in a community that needs serious upgrades to handicapped accessibility and efforts at inclusion. Emmie and her best friend Alejandra are lively, interesting characters who both have big dreams and work together to help make those dreams a reality; Emmie’s dream is to participate in the WCMX games for wheelchair athletes, and Alejandra aspires to be a master beekeeper. Unfortunately, after an accident at school with her wheelchair, Emmie discovers that not everyone who wants to help her achieve her athletic dreams has pure intentions, and she needs to make a hard decision about who she is, what she wants, and what she must sacrifice to accomplish her goals.

THOUGHTS: Emmie is surrounded by so many supportive people in this book; her friends, her family, and even the wheelchair-bound customer she corresponds with online really help her understand what she needs to do to be successful, and they allow her to explore and make mistakes in a way that is touching and inspiring. This story is definitely a wonderful example to illustrate the idea that disability is not the only way to define a person while simultaneously showing that accessibility, accommodation and understanding are crucial pieces to the success of students and of whole communities. Fans of Wonder, Fish in a Tree and Out of My Mind will love this book too!

Realistic Fiction        Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Caprice

Booth, Coe. Caprice. Scholastic, 2022. 978-0-545-93334-6. $17.99. 243 p. Grades 6-8.

Sensitive, poetical Caprice is a rising eighth grader with a big decision: should she grab the opportunity of attending a prestigious boarding school or stick with her friends in Newark, New Jersey? Though she loved her seven-week stint at summer camp at Ainsley School for Girls, she is torn because of her closeness to her best friend, Nicole, a budding romance with Jarrett, and her commitment to the Center, the community place that fosters fun and leadership in her neighborhood. Through her poems and flashbacks, the reader learns of sexual abuse that Caprice keeps buried and secreted from her family. She is considerate of her parents’ precarious financial situation because of their faltering business and is scared that her need to be in Newark keeps her mother and father apart. Her return home a week before school starts corresponds with a call from Baltimore informing the family of her maternal grandmother’s serious illness. Caprice’s mother and grandmother have been estranged since Caprice was four-years-old when her grandmother sent Caprice and her mother away from the family home after a dangerous incident. Only Caprice and her grandmother know the real reason for their banishment, but her mother has lived all these years with hurt and resentment, alienated from her mother and brother, Raymond. The reader meets Caprice over an important week when school, friendships, and soul-searching come to a head. Her sporadic panic attacks increase, and she waffles between closing herself off and speaking up for herself in new ways. In Caprice, Coe Booth tackles a difficult topic by mining the memories and feelings of Caprice as she faces her demons and challenges herself to esteem who she is. Caprice’s immediate family is loving and communicative. Her friendships with both adults and kids at the Center are genuine and nicely developed. Though the confrontation with her abuser at story’s end avoids any expected messiness and description, the emotions Caprice experiences throughout the novel will resonate with many readers dealing with changes in their lives. The students at Ainsley are international: New Zealand, Ghana, Toronto. Race is not mentioned directly in the book; however, Caprice gets her locs done and the book’s cover art displays an African American girl, so there are implications that the other characters are African American.

THOUGHTS: Coe Booth lets Caprice’s voice come through in the narration and the typical middle school dialogue with which readers will relate. The thriving Center Caprice attends is core to the community and helps to shape the kids who participate in the different activities it affords, from a Women’s Club, to film making, to dance. Caprice takes part in some neat poetry activities that readers can replicate. Her leadership qualities come out in her refusal to be treated less than boys and to tolerate snide remarks about her body. The adults surrounding Caprice–even though they know nothing about her abuse at the time–are nurturing and say the right things. Caprice’s pride in her neighborhood and loyalty to her friends are good discussion points.

Realistic Fiction   Bernadette Cooke   School District of Philadelphia

Twelve-year-old Caprice should be having the time of her life. She just finished a seven week summer program at a prestigious school in upstate New York, and she has now been offered a full scholarship through high school. She has a week to make the decision to accept the scholarship. She returns to her home in Newark, NJ and learns that her grandmother is seriously ill. This brings back the memories of the abuse that she endured while living there with her grandmother and uncle. She has remained quiet about this abuse and has told no one. The deadline to commit to Ainsley is coming closer and closer, and Caprice is struggling with her past while trying to make a decision about her future. 

THOUGHTS: This book is a powerful read for a middle schooler. It addresses the issue of child abuse – sexual and emotional. It could have some triggers for some readers.    

Realistic Fiction          Victoria Dziewulski, Plum Borough SD

Sometimes it’s hard for kids to decide what they want from life, and what they are willing to let go of, until they are faced with some life-changing events. This is certainly true for Caprice, a smart, motivated, and mature 7th grade girl who has just finished an exclusive summer leadership experience at a private school in an affluent part of Washington, D.C. She loved that school, but she also loves her home and friends in urban New Jersey. After she is offered a full scholarship to return to the private school for her 8th grade year, she quickly must decide whether she is willing to give up her familiar home and her best friend in favor of the school opportunity of her dreams. In addition to the stress of her impending education decisions, past childhood trauma and the declining health of a grandmother she hasn’t seen in years add to her troubles. Will Caprice be able to navigate her painful past, her complicated family, and her new and old friendships to see her way to a brighter future?

THOUGHTS: Caprice and her family are warmly drawn, and her friendships feel so real! This book deals with difficult topics including childhood abuse, family secrets, divorce, adolescent feelings, and confusion about the direction and meaning of one’s life, but everything is dealt with a sensitive and graceful hand that still makes the book a pleasure to read and recommend to students.

Realistic Fiction        Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

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