Elem. – Bad Apple

Jones, Huw Lewis, and Ben Sanders. Bad Apple. Thames & Hudson, 2021. 978-0-500-65243-5. unpaged. $16.95. Grades K-2.

The thing about Apple is that he’s rotten to the core. It’s not fair that he steals pear’s chair or drinks pea’s tea. Each rhyming act gets worse as Apple bullies the produce and others… until along comes snake! That turns into his big mistake, and the silly surprising moral will have fans of Jory John and Jon Klassen wanting to read it again! Jones and Sanders create an easy reading, silly sketched, rhyming bit of fun!

THOUGHTS: Those connections to the Hat trilogy by Klassen and the Bad Seed by John will be apparent to even the youngest reader, but it is different enough, and certainly good fun for those who know that style and enjoy a surprise ending! Hopefully a better discussion about respect and bullying comes from the readers than from the book itself!

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

YA – The Ivies

Donne, Alexa. The Ivies. Crown, 2021. 978-0-593-30370-2. 320 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Olivia and her four best friends rule Claflin Academy and loving refer the themselves as The Ivies. Together they work to edge out their classmates for every opportunity to improve their chances at one of the coveted Ivy League spaces. Olivia, a scholarship student, is Penn, even though she had her heart set on Harvard and The Harvard Crimson. She’s accepted her role as Penn for friendship, though, since Avery, a triple legacy student has her sights set on Harvard. Each friend represents a different Ivy: Emma, Brown; Sierra, Yale; Margot, Princeton. By cataloging their classmates, The Ivies know exactly whom to target to make sure they each have ideal class ranks, club leadership positions, summer internships, academic competitions, and athletic/musical auditions. Teamwork only works when everyone plays by the same rules, and as Olivia discovers she doesn’t know everything – or everyone – she thought she did. Beginning with ED (early decision) day, this thriller will leave readers wondering who the Ivies crossed one too many times, and who’s next?

THOUGHTS: Readers will want to unravel the mystery behind The Ivies and all that they’ve done. They’ll root for Olivia even when her role in The Ivies doesn’t paint her in the best light. Recommended for high school collections where fast-paced mysteries/thrillers are in demand.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – The Magical Imperfect

Baron, Chris. The Magical Imperfect. Feiwel & Friends, 2021. 978-1-250-76782-0. 232 p. $15.15. Grades 5-8.

Etan has not always been an outcast. He used to play baseball with the other boys during recess. He used to hang out with his best friend. He used to talk in class and interact with classmates. But that was before his mother checked into a mental hospital. Now suffering from selective mutism, Etan has pulled away from everyone in his life except for his father and grandfather, with whom he shares a very strong bond. While visiting his grandfather at his jewelry shop, Etan is asked by the grocer next door to deliver a package. It is only after his brief, mysterious, and interesting encounter with the family’s daughter, Malia, that he finds out she is known to his classmates as “The Creature.” Etan, however, doesn’t see her that way, and as he makes more trips to her house, their friendship grows. Etan wishes he could help Malia find a cure for her eczema so she can return to school. Malia wishes she could help Etan find his voice. Perhaps finding someone who accepts them for who they are will be the key for Etan and Malia to shed that outcast label.

THOUGHTS:  There is so much to unpack here–Mental illness, prejudice, immigration, bullying, friendship—the list goes on. Chris Baron knows exactly which issues face middle grade readers and writes about them in an accessible, heartfelt, and beautiful way. This book is a perfect fit for middle school libraries.

Fantasy            Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

MG – The Kate in Between

Swinarski, Claire. The Kate in Between. Quill Tree Books, 2021. 978-0-062-91270-1. 289 p. $15.15. Grades 5-8.

Kate and Haddie are best friends and have been since first grade. But Kate needs a change, and she’s not exactly sure where Haddie fits in the new life she is trying to fashion for herself.  Kate’s mother has left town to pursue her dream of becoming a True Diamond in the world of True Cosmetics, and Kate is left to move into the guest room of her police officer father’s apartment where she doesn’t even have a bed. It’s embarrassing for Kate, and it’s sometimes difficult when you have a friend who knows your truth. She hopes seventh grade will be different, and when Kate finds herself in popular mean girl Taylor’s orbit, there just isn’t room for Haddie. When a near tragedy involving Haddie and some bullies who may or may not be Kate’s friends turns Kate into a hero, she begins to question exactly what it means to be Taylor’s friend and why it is harder than it should be. But when a video of the incident goes viral, her status as a hero also goes viral. Kate knows what really happened, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone else does too. Will Kate be able to figure out just who she is with her life in the spotlight?

THOUGHTS: Claire Swinarski takes a familiar middle grade theme of friends growing apart and makes it fresh. I would recommend this book to upper middle school students.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

YA – Middletown

Moon, Sarah. Middletown. Levine Querido, 2021. 978-1-656-14042-8. 288 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

What do you do when your mother is an alcoholic assigned to rehab, and your sixteen-year old sister disguises herself as Aunt Lisa to prevent the two of you from being sent to foster care? Thirteen-year-old, Caucasian Eli who identifies as a boy keeps a lot of secrets from good friends: Latino Javi, who is gay, and her crush, Indian-American, Meena. In the ninety days Carrie Reynolds is confined to rehab, her children eke out a life with funds Eli has squirreled away from their mother’s pay checks. But when Eli gets suspended from school for punching bully, Kevin, the same week older sister Anna goes AWOL with her boyfriend, a social worker comes knocking, and Eli and Anna slip out the window. Their road trip brings them to the doors of their respective fathers (John is a role model and completely surprised by his new offspring; the other dear- remembered Sam is deceased but leaves them an extensive letter confessing his care for them both, telling them about saving accounts he opened for them, and revealing that he is gay). Their limited funds, though, force them to head to their estranged Aunt Lisa’s house in Oxbridge, Vermont. She, too, is a recovering alcoholic who lives a simple life sans television or cell phones, works at a college bookstore, and keeps chickens. In the last weeks of their mother’s rehabilitation, the siblings bond with Aunt Lisa, adjust gladly to a non-parentified life, and benefit from attending Al-Anon meetings. When Mom returns from rehab, life is more stable and the siblings’ futures seem on the upswing. Eli is truthful with both friends and receives their full acceptance and understanding, Anna graduates and looks forward to college, and their mother and Aunt Lisa reconcile and support each other.

THOUGHTS: Author Sarah Moon touches on important issues: alcoholism, gender identity, money problems, domestic instability, parental neglect. The narrative is compelling, albeit with contrivances: would a judge grant “Aunt Lisa” custody without both siblings present?; parents are not obliged to attend report card conferences; the social worker would expect to see Anna, Eli, and Aunt Lisa. Still, the plot describing how alcoholism affects the family, and Eli’s struggles with gender are handled well and are important topics for students to see in books.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem./MG – Wild River

Philbrick, Rodman. Wild River. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-64727-3. $17.99. 189 p. Grades 3-6.

This middle grade adventure follows soon-to-be middle schooler Daniel Redmayne on what is supposed be a fun filled white water rafting trip in Montana for the Project Future Leaders school group. But what is to be a thrilling trip soon turns into a life or death trek through the Montana wilderness! The adult guides were able to save their middle school charges, but could not save themselves when the aptly named Crazy River’s dam broke and flooded the areas surrounding the river. What follows is an exciting journey in which the five survivors, with very limited supplies, need to work together to survive. Dangerous disagreements lead to the group splitting up and a tragic ending for one. Can the group put aside their anger and survive? Includes an Afterword that is a mini wilderness survival guide.

THOUGHTS: A must purchase for reluctant readers! Each short chapter ends with a twist that will keep readers turning the pages.

Adventure          Krista Fitzpatrick, PSLA Member

MG – Other Boys

Alexander, Damian. Other Boys. First Second,  978-1-250-22282-4. 208 p. $21.99. Grades 5-8.

Damian always has felt different from other boys, preferring activities like playing with dolls, reading fairy tales, and sewing to GI Joes and superhero movies. He was teased and bullied relentlessly for being “gay” and a “homo” long before he knew what those words meant. Although it’s not discussed in detail, the reader learns that Damian’s mother was murdered by his father when Damian was a small child. Now, he lives with his brother and grandmother in a small apartment. Tired of being the “dead mom” kid and a target for bullies, Damian stops talking on the first day of 7th grade, after moving to a new town and entering a new school. After months of silence and loneliness, Damian finally shares his feelings with a kind therapist, who helps normalize his crushes on boys. Friendly peers, including a couple of cute boys, begin to draw him out of his protective shell, lending a hopeful note to an often heartbreaking graphic memoir. Inspired by colorful cartoons, funky arcade decor, and VHS tape boxes, Damian Alexander’s artwork is both firmly rooted in his childhood era and as timeless as a child’s secret pain.

THOUGHTS: Other Boys is a heartfelt graphic memoir about the loss of a parent, coming out, bullying, and self-acceptance. It’s an excellent addition to shelves that already include options for slightly older readers, such as Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka and Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson.

Graphic Memoir          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Elem. – Daisy

Bagley, Jessixa. Daisy. Neal Porter Books/Holiday House, 2021. Unpaged. 978-0-823-44650-6. $18.99. Grades K-1.

Daisy is a young warthog named after her mother’s favorite flower. Her mother often comments that “They seem plain, but when you look closer you see their beauty.” At school, the other animals laugh at her name, saying she looks more like a thistle. This teasing makes her sad and she finds herself often looking down at her feet. One day, the young warthog realizes that there are marvelous objects to be found when looking at the ground and begins to collect them. Among her treasures are a chipped teacup, buttons, old glasses, and other discarded and overlooked items, which she keeps in a secret place. While her classmates see her collection as junk, Daisy finds beauty in every object. Then, new pieces suddenly appear in her path and on returning to her special place, Daisy finds the most important gift of all- friendship. The full bleed illustrations by the author are done in watercolor and pencil. The endpapers reflect the theme, picturing unopened daisies in the front, but in full bloom in the back. It may be a little puzzling to the reader why Daisy is called “Thistle” when a porcupine is also in the class. This and a retrospective examination of the animals’ facial expressions would be good discussion starters. Readers will enjoy the clever way that the author reveals the animals’ names.

THOUGHTS: This story works as a great read aloud for anti-bullying and character lessons and to help students understand that all individuals are special in their own way.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

MG – The Boys in the Back Row

Jung, Mike. The Boys in the Back Row. Levine Querido, 2020. 978-1-646-14011-4. 264 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Matt and Eric have been best friends forever. They are both marching band nerds, both fans of comics by artist Jonah Burns, and both are targets of bully Kenny and his side-kick Sean. When Eric learns his family will be moving at the end of the school year, the pair plan one epic last adventure. While the school marching band is on a trip to World of Amazement amusement park, Eric and Matt will sneak out to nearby DefenderCon and meet their idol, Jonah Burns. But when Sean gets wind of their plans, and inexplicably wants to join the friends, they are confounded as to how to proceed. The book uniquely highlights friendship between tween boys. The pair are openly fond of each other, but are tired being labeled gay. Matt is also called gay for playing the flute. (Neither is gay, but they do not consider it an insult). A secondary theme involves racism against Asian students such as Matt. Kenny, the chief proponent of both racism and homophobia, seems to harbor an attraction for a male, Asian band member, providing some insight into his troubled personality. While the racist theme can become heavy-handed, the exuberant friendship of the boys more than carries the book. Matt is Asian, Eric and Kenny are white, with minor characters who are a variety of ethnicities, particularly Asian.

THOUGHTS: This book should be a first purchase for middle grade collections. Stories showing kind, thoughtful male relationships are too rare.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Starfish

Fipps, Lisa. Starfish. Nancy Paulson Books, 2021. 978-1-9848-1450-0. 256 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

Starfish follows the story of Ellie, who has been bullied her whole life for her weight. In order to deal with these issues, she creates “Fat Girl Rules” to live by; however, the reader can tell that these “rules” aren’t working for her. Ellie’s favorite thing is to swim and she can forget about her weight issues and take up all the space that she wants. This novel is told in verse, which really adds to the overall plot, and I feel makes this a more impactful book versus if it were told in regular novel form.

THOUGHTS: I loved Ellie and her journey throughout this book, and it felt so authentic to me. The only part that frustrated me was her mom; however, I can also imagine there are parents out there who are like that with their children who struggle with weight issues so I kept that in mind while reading.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Ellie’s nickname Splash has been with her since she was five years old. She did a cannonball into the pool in her whale-print bathing suit, and Splash was born. Now she is in middle school, and her classmates constantly tease her about her weight. Even worse, so does her family: her brother is downright mean, her sister never sticks up for her, and her mother is constantly putting her on crazy diets and weighing her at the start of every week. Her only allies are her father and her new best friend Catalina, whose family only see how wonderful Ellie really is. Ellie doesn’t understand why no one else can see what they see, especially her own family. She tries to take up less space living by the Fat Girl Rules she creates, especially one that states you don’t deserve to be seen or heard or noticed. She lives by these rules everywhere except the pool; the pool is one place where she can be weightless in a world that is obsessed with body image. With help from Catalina, her dad, and her new therapist, Ellie embarks on the difficult journey of learning to love herself despite what others think.

THOUGHTS: This middle grade novel is equal parts heart-wrenching and heart-warming. Written in verse, Lisa Fipps’ beautiful writing will resonate with anyone who has ever had body image issues or struggled to love themselves. Starfish is a must-have for middle grade libraries.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD