Elem. – The Together Tree

Saeed, Aisha. The Together Tree. Illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Salaam Reads, 2023. 978-1-534-46296. $18.99. 40 p. Grades K-3.

On his first day in his new school, Rumi was nervous and sad. He had just moved across the country and was joining his new class midway through the year. Being the new kid is hard, and Rumi had trouble fitting in. At recess he was often seen twirling a stick under a tree at the edge of the playground. Classmates were not kind to Rumi, making fun of his brightly colored shoes. Rumi had colored the shoes with his friends back in San Francisco. Rumi longed to return to his old school and ached with loneliness. One day in music class Asher threw a balled up piece of paper at Rumi as the other students snickered. The next day at recess Asher threw a rock at Rumi, scraping his leg. As blood dripped from his leg, a tear dripped from his eyes. The playground was silent. Han bravely stood up and asked Rumi to play with him. Han discovered that Rumi had not been twirling a stick beneath the tree, but had been drawing a fantastical mural in the dirt. Dragons, castles, mermaids, and ornate birds filled the ground beneath the tree at the edge of the playground. Han joined Rumi under the tree the next day and added to the drawing. Other curious students wandered over and marveled at the pictures in the dirt. One by one the students joined in and collaborated on the work of art. Everyone was enjoying this new activity except Asher, who remained inside playing alone. Rumi gently approached Asher and asked him to join the class under the together tree.

THOUGHTS: This is a very simple but moving picture book with a gentle message. The illustrations by LeUyen Pham are glorious. The author’s note at the end explains this book was created after her son faced bullying in Kindergarten. A wonderful elementary school addition with a powerful message.

Picture Book 

MG – Doodles from the Boogie Down

Rodriguez, Stephanie. Doodles from the Boogie Down. Kokila. 2023. 978-0-451-48066-8. 200 pp. $13.99. Grades 3-7.

Welcome to Stephanie’s neighborhood in the Bronx, a.k.a the “Boogie Down,” circa 2000. Steph lives with her single mother and attends eighth grade at Our Lady of Angels School with her besties, Tiff and Ana. Her favorite subject is art, and she would love to attend LaGuardia High School of Music and Art next year, but her very strict Mami opposes the idea of a public high school, based on her own experiences with bullying as a young student. With the high school entrance exam looming, Steph comes up with a mildly deceptive plan to get into LaGuardia. First, she begins prepping her portfolio with the help of her art teacher, Ms. Santiago. Second, she plans to flunk the entrance exam, which isn’t required at LaGuardia anyway. If she’s only admitted to one high school, Mami will have to let her go … won’t she? After all, aren’t a few white lies worth it to pursue her dream of a career in art? Meanwhile, friend drama, mean girls, and a new crush keep Steph on her toes socially. 

THOUGHTS: This debut middle grade graphic novel is a work of fiction based on the author and illustrator’s own life. Stephanie Rodriguez excels at portraying Steph’s Bronx neighborhood, especially the local art that Steph explores with Ms. Santiago. This will be a hit with readers of Big Apple Diaries by Alyssa Bermudez!

Graphic Novel

Elem./MG – Four Eyes

Ogle, Rex, and Dave Valeza, illustrator. Four Eyes. Graphix. 2023. 978-1-338-57496-8. 218 p. $12.99. Grades 3-7.

In Four Eyes by Rex Ogle, with illustrations by Dave Valeza, Rex faces the many universal perils of starting middle school. He hasn’t had a growth spurt, the county’s recent redistricting means most of his friends aren’t at his new school, and money is tight at home despite his mom and step-dad’s best efforts. In addition, his vision problems are causing headaches and trouble taking accurate notes (no, WWII did not begin in 1989). The solution? Glasses! Glasses are expensive, though, and Rex must ask his father to help pay for them. His dad reluctantly agrees, but Rex’s new accessory triggers the school bullies to single him out. Even worse, Rex’s longtime friend Drew ditches him for the popular kids. Rex wonders if he can survive sixth grade with new glasses and no friends, until a new friend and some advice from his abuela help get his life back in focus. Bright artwork and a relatable protagonist will endear readers to the spectacle of Rex’s story.

THOUGHTS: This middle grade graphic novel chronicles the author’s own experience with getting glasses in sixth grade. It’s funny, heartfelt, and almost painfully real. 

Graphic Novel

Rex is dreading the start of middle school, especially when his best friend Drew suddenly seems too cool for him. In fact, Drew’s new friends from the football team constantly bully Rex while Drew stands by silently. In class, Rex finds that he cannot see the board, and he comes home with a splitting headache every day. That means Rex needs glasses. At first, he is excited about a cool gunmetal pair, but when his mother sees the price, she makes him go with a cheaper, uglier pair. His mom’s waitressing job and his stepfather’s landscaping business do not make a lot of money, and even though Rex’s dad pitches in from time to time, money is tight. This didn’t bother Rex too much before, but now, his ugly glasses mean Rex gets picked on even more. Rex sinks into self-pity and negativity until he has a conversation with his abuela, who lived a very difficult life in Mexico before she came to the United States. It puts his life into perspective. With the support of a new friend and a newfound confidence, Rex learns to love himself and find gratitude for all that his parents do for him. 

THOUGHTS: Rex Ogle’s Four Eyes is the first in a series of autobiographical graphic novels. The illustrations will draw in fans of Raina Telegemeier’s work and similarly, the theme of fitting in will resonate with middle school students. This story is touching yet funny; it would be a solid addition to middle grade graphic novel collections.

Graphic Novel

MG – A First Time For Everything

Santat, Dan. A First Time For Everything. First Second Books, 2023. 978-1-626-72415-0. 308 p. $22.99. Grades 5-8.

Dan is a quiet, obedient boy both in school and at home. His mother is often sick from her struggle with lupus, so Dan helps out when he can. At school, he follows the rules and tries to stay invisible, yet he still finds himself the target of bullying. Dan has never been outside of his small California town, and he sets his expectations low when he attends a class trip to Europe. But despite the fact that the trip gets off to a shaky start, Dan finds his travels to France, Germany, Switzerland, and England are opening his mind to new possibilities. He discovers he loves Fanta, likes French rap, and dislikes getting lost. Dan also discovers he really, really likes Amy, a girl on the trip with him. As he treks through Europe, Dan continues to push himself outside of his comfort zone as he realizes that the world is a big place – and he has a place in it.

THOUGHTS: As a Caldecott-winning illustrator (and author), Dan Santat is a familiar name to librarians. This graphic memoir about his time in Europe is funny, endearing, and relatable. The illustrations are beautifully done, especially his drawings of various European landmarks. Santat even includes back matter: a note from the author and an explanation of how he recreated his old memories in the pages of this book.

Graphic Novel Memoir

Caldecott-award winning author and illustrator (The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend), Dan Santat puts all the cringe-worthy and awkward moments of his middle grade years into the memoir, A First Time for Everything. Docile, obedient, and hard-working, middle-school Dan has a difficult time shrugging off the memory of reciting an A.A. Milne poem in front of the entire student body and being booed. A European tour with other kids his age the summer before high school finally yanks him into living a more typical adolescent life. As the group of mostly white students jaunts from city to city, shy Dan is coaxed to shed his uptight nature, take some risks, make new friends, and welcome the romantic interest of fellow tourist, Amy. When Dan’s camera doesn’t work well, he resorts to keeping a record of his trip in his detailed, realistic sketches. The graphic novel captures the humor of the group, sampling highlights from each country in food or special event. Colored frames represent present day while Dan’s recollections are black and white. Precious memories is the main theme of this lengthy graphic novel (the reader follows the group for 21 days). It sounds cliche, but Dan’s realization that making the most of each moment is genuine. Back matter contains original photographs.

THOUGHTS: The embarrassing moments, the sometimes annoying friends, and the misbehavior of peers will be relatable to most middle school students. There is not much diversity in the book, save for Dan who is Thai-American. His group is from California; the group they travel with is from the Midwest; and they are traveling only through European cities. Dan breaks out of his super rule-consciousness one night and steals a bike, bulking up his courage to sneak into a Wimbledon tennis match where he is center court with John McEnroe. The memoir teaches that each new experience can change us and help us grow, a healthy lesson for those on the brink of high school.

Memoir, Graphic Novel

This coming-of-age story from Caldecott winner Dan Santat shares the true story of his school trip to Europe when he was 14. Having been bullied and feeling invisible in middle school, Dan was not on board with his parent’s idea to travel to Europe with the same classmates who made fun of him. A series of first experiences gradually open Dan up to the world that lies before him. Will these firsts include his first kiss and first girlfriend?

THOUGHTS: A perfect read for the middle school set, this graphic novel will transport you back to all the awkward feelings of middle school and almost make you wish you could go back!

Graphic Novel

YA – Dig Two Graves

McNeil, Gretchen. Dig Two Graves. Hyperion, 2022. 978-1-368-07284-7. 352 p. $17.99. Grades 7-12.

Neve’s life seemed to derail from the moment her dad had a mental health breakdown and couldn’t return to his IT job, forcing their family to move into Grandma K’s old house in Carlsbad, CA where Neve’s mom grew up. Things were looking up for a while when Neve and Yasmin, a recent Chicago transplant, became friends. That turned out to be disastrous, and now Neve is even more of a social pariah at school. Before Yasmin, Neve already was considered an outcast due to her love of classic black-and-white film noir and its fashion which earned Neve the nickname “I Love Lucy.” With no friends and an offer of one year’s college tuition plus room and board from Grandma K, Neve accepts a spot at GLAM  Camp (Girls Leadership and Mentorship). While her mom (a former GLAMster) and Grandma K think GLAM will be a great reset before senior year, all Neve sees upon arrival are the types of girls she’d love to avoid. But no one at GLAM knows Yasmin, so even among a sea of fancy luggage and peppy girls, maybe it won’t be all that bad. Neve seems to luck out with her roommate Inara, a returning GLAMster who wears an impressive amount of plaid, but it’s Diane who captures Neve’s attention. Though polar opposites, the two bond over the ways they’ve been wronged by others, and by the end of GLAM they’re the best of friends. When a late night confessional on the last night of camp ends in a bargain – “if I took care of Yasmin and you got rid of Javier” – Neve suddenly feels uncomfortable, but of course it’s just exaggerated, exhausted conversation among friends. No one actually would get rid of anyone, right? But when Neve returns to school and everyone suspects her of foul play, a text from an unrecognizable number, “Your turn, BFF.” chills Neve to the bone. Was Diane serious, and will Neve have to keep her end of the bargain or is there another explanation for this mess she’s gotten herself in?

THOUGHTS: Hand this character driven thriller to classic film fans and those who like books by April Henry (Two Truths and a Lie) or Karen McManus (Nothing More to Tell). Recommended for high school collections where stand alone mysteries are in demand.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – A Work in Progress

Lerner, Jarrett. A Work in Progress. Aladdin, 2023. 978-1-665-90515-2. $17.99. 41 p. Grades 5-8.

Will was once a happy fourth grader with a large group of friends. Friends he could never imagine losing, fourth grade friends who had sleepovers and promised to one day be college roommates. One day a classmate teased Will about his weight, humiliating him in the hallway in front of the entire grade. With this one word, Will began to see himself differently. By middle school Will is a loner who buries his feelings by eating. Will chooses to draw constantly instead of engaging with others. He sits alone at lunch, avoids crowded hallways, and buries his head in his sketchbook when people try to engage with him. Will’s inner voice tells him he is an unworthy monster that no one will ever understand or want to be friends with. Will is sure that if he can just change his physical appearance then everything will go back to the way it was before that horrible moment so long ago. Long lost friends will return to inviting him for sleepovers, and girls will stop being disgusted by him. Will often sneaks outside at lunchtime to hide behind the auditorium. Here he meets a new student, Markus, who also is avoiding the lunchroom so that he can ride his skateboard. Markus has moved all over the country. This is his eighth new middle school. Markus is confident and kind, but Will has forgotten how to make and be friends with kids his age, and he pushes Markus away. Eventually Will’s unhealthy plan to lose weight catches up with him, and he collapses in the hallway at school. As he recovers, Will opens up to his parents, and accepts help from a therapist. Markus sticks with Will, gently encouraging him to be a friend, ride a skateboard, and to stop trying to change himself for others, but to accept himself. Markus explains that we are all “works in progress” capable of change and growth through accepting help from parents, friends, teachers, and mental health specialists. Will begins to realize that working one day at a time, he can improve his self-image.

THOUGHTS: This is an important, emotionally moving novel. Will’s thought process and the characterization of his inner monster are written in verse with illustrations from his sketchbook. The inner-angst of peer pressure, of overhearing unkind comments, the middle school awkwardness of running into an old friend, all are heartbreakingly real. The narrative cleverly changes to prose when Markus reveals his different, but difficult, backstory. Anyone who has ever struggled with food and body image, confidence, isolation, peer pressure, or bullying will relate to this beautifully written book. Equally significant, this novel shows the direct effect of a single unkind word. A fabulous read aloud that will provide an excellent opportunity for class discussions about the many issues raised in this novel. Publication date: May 2, 2023.

Illustrated Novel in Verse, Realistic Fiction

Elem. – Singing with Elephants

Engle, Margarita.  Singing with Elephants. Viking, 2022.  978-0-593-20669-0. 217 p. $16.99. Grades 4-6.

This Newbery Honor and Pura Belpre Award winning author’s latest offering is a historical novel in free verse set in 1947 California. A young girl called Oriol is finding life in Santa Barbara challenging. Her veterinarian parents, her abuelita, and her older sister came to the United States from Cuba. After the death of her beloved grandmother, Oriol has found it harder to cope with her classmates who call her a smelly “zoo beast” and mock her accent and appearance. One day she meets her neighbor Gabriela Mistral, the celebrated Latin poet (la poeta) and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Gabriela becomes a mentor to Oriol and encourages her to deal with her feelings by writing poetry.  The young girl learns about a pregnant elephant under her parents’ care at a movie star’s ranch. Her encounters with the elephant inspire her writing, and the family is thrilled when the elephant delivers twins, Song and Dance. When one of the baby elephants goes missing, suspicion falls on the actor, who believes he can teach the animal to do tricks and even talk. Oriol is determined to reunite Dance with her mother and brother and needs to enlist the help of the community to save her and other animals from abuse. In helping the animals, Oriol comes to realize her own strength. This uplifting lyrical text is peppered throughout with Spanish words. The author’s note discusses the life of Gabriela Mistral, who was also a peace activist and teacher. One of her poems is included.

THOUGHTS: A gem of a book, which will surely delight readers. Highly recommended for elementary collections.

Historical Fiction          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member
Novel in Verse

YA – The Weight of Blood

Jackson, Tiffany D. The Weight of Blood. Katherine Tegen Books, 2022. 978-0-063-02914-9. 306 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Madison “Maddy” Washington, who lives with her controlling and abusive father in their small town of Springville, Georgia, has spent her whole life “passing” as white. She straightens her hair, dutifully applies sunscreen, and stays home if there’s any chance of rain. An unexpected spring shower curls her hair and reveals that she is black, closely followed by a racist incident of bullying that is captured on another student’s cell phone. As the students at Springville High attempt damage control to prove to the world that they are not a racist community, they consider ending the tradition of segregated proms for black and white students and holding the school’s first All-Together Prom. One of the popular black students asks Maddy to prom as part of a stunt to keep up appearances, and readers familiar with Stephen King’s Carrie will suspect where things are headed. Author Tiffany D. Jackson mixes Maddy’s point of view with transcripts of a podcast called “Maddy Did It,” press coverage of events in Springville, and the perspectives of several other students. The climactic prom chapters are gleefully, horrifically over the top.

THOUGHTS: Jackson’s second foray into horror (after last year’s White Smoke) is the work of an author at the top of her game. The Weight of Blood is a standout, from the cover image of a blood-soaked prom queen to the foreboding tagline: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the tiara.”

Horror          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

The town of Springville, Georgia still is recovering from a tragedy everyone knows Maddy Washington is responsible for causing. In fact, there’s now a podcast “Maddy Did It.” But before the climactic event that changed the town forever, Maddy Washington is a high school student who keeps to herself and generally is considered a loner. At home Maddy lives in fear of her father, who owns an antique shop and enjoys reruns of favorite classic movies. Maddy, who secretly is biracial, has passed for white her entire life. Under the glare of her father’s watchful eye, she can’t imagine anyone finding out her secret and works hard to hide the truth. Avoiding the sun, wearing long clothes – even in the summer – Maddy stays home on rainy days and has a strict beauty regimen. When Maddy’s gym class gets stuck outside in a sudden rain storm, she is devastated that her secret is out. Her peers are shocked, and Maddy’s father is furious. When racist bullying, played off as a “simple joke,” is caught on camera, Springville is labeled a racist community. Hoping to prove the world is wrong about them, student leaders attempt some damage control. But with a history of segregated proms, this small town seems to be stuck in the 1950s instead of modern day.

THOUGHTS: With masterful skill, Jackson gives an updated take on a Stephen King classic, incorporating racial tensions and teenage drama into a modern day setting. Highly recommended for high schools seeking to add new titles to their mystery/horror genre.

Horror          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem. – Wildflower

Brown, Melanie. Wildflower. Greystone Kids, 2022. 978-1-77164-906-3. Unpaged. $17.95. PreK-2.

When Daisy blooms in the garden, she is immediately insulted by the other flowers for being a weed. She is told that she isn’t as beautiful as Rose or as tasty as Sage. Her flowers can’t make tea like Chamomile’s. Just as she begins to droop completely in shame, she meets other plants who have amazing qualities, even though they also are called weeds. For instance, Blackberry Vine makes delicious berries, and Sweet Pea smells amazing. Daisy soon realizes there is a place for everyone in the garden, no matter what they are called. Gorgeous, simplified illustrations highlight Daisy’s emotions throughout the story and provide readers with convincing representations of actual plants.

THOUGHTS: This is an adorable story with a subtle message about inclusion, self-respect, and accepting others for who they are. I also love that it incorporates educational information, including back matter about plants and weeds. Give this to fans of The Rainbow Fish (1992) or to gardening enthusiasts.

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

MG – The Supervillain’s Guide to Being a Fat Kid

Wallace, Matt. The Supervillain’s Guide to Being a Fat Kid. Katherine Keagen Books, 2022. 978-0-063-00803-8. 261 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7. 

Max, the main character of this heartbreaking and heartwarming story, is a great kid with one problem; he’s a fat kid, and he endures constant bullying and ostracization at school because of his weight. He and his equally-bullied friend, Luca, spend each day at their new middle school waiting for the next attack from the biggest and most popular bully, Johnny Pro. The situation seems hopeless until Max decides to reach out to Master Plan, a notorious supervillain who was recently put in jail because of his villainous deeds. Through letters between Max and Master Plan, Max learns confidence as the older supervillain teaches him to dress well and defend himself, but when Max gets a great opportunity to appear in a popular TV baking show, he begins to wonder who is really helping who in their unusual mentoring relationship. Eventually Max decides that Master Plan did help embrace his good qualities and improve his friendships, but that he, not his supervillain hero, must take responsibility for his own happiness and success.

THOUGHTS: The body-positivity and anti-bullying messages in this book are skillfully incorporated into a funny, charming and thought-provoking tale about a kid who has to deal with a bully. The dialogue and action in this story is realistic, and students who enjoy hero-and-villain tales will appreciate the way Master Plan mentors Max and helps him find his own style and his own voice. This is ultimately a light-hearted tale that contains some excellent messages.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD