MG – Falling Short

Cisneros, Ernesto. Falling Short. Quill Tree Books, 2022. 978-0-062-88172-4. 292 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8.

Sixth graders, Isaac Castillo and Marco Honeyman, are best friends, next door neighbors, and complete opposites. Isaac is a tall, basketball star who struggles in school; smart as a whip, Marco gets mistaken for a kindergartner because of his short stature. What both of them share is mutual love and care and problematic fathers. Unable to cope with his alcoholism, the loving but troubled Mr. Castillo is estranged from his wife and son. On the other hand, Marco’s parents are divorced, and his father would rather write an alimony check than visit his son. The boys’ warm friendship stands up to the pressure when the pair start Mendez Middle School in California. Marco classifies the different students like fish, some are aggressives and some are community minded. In Falling Short, author Ernesto Cisneros makes a solid case that being community minded is possible and preferable. Having almost failed fifth grade, Latinx Isaac has to prove that he can make the mark, and perhaps ease some of his parents’ stress. Mexican-American and Jewish Marco, too, wishes to impress his neglectful father, a jock, who dismisses Marco’s scholastic achievements. The basketball team is a choice that fits both boys’ needs: Isaac can coach Marco in baller moves; Marco can be Isaac’s loyal study buddy. Determined to escape the taunts of the school bullies–especially basketball eighth grade standout, the looming Byron–Marco takes on becoming a basketball player as an intellectual pursuit. Motivated by Marco’s relentless efforts to learn how to play ball, Isaac disciplines himself to complete all homework assignments. Their bro’mance gets them through their respective feelings of inadequacy in either sports or studies and their family issues. Marco skips an elective course and completes Isaac’s missed homework assignment. Isaac convinces Coach Chavez that Marco will be a valuable player on the team. Told in alternating voices that mix feeling with humor, the story reaches a climax when Isaac’s dad suffers a car accident while driving drunk right before the big basketball tournament. To add to the tension, Marco’s errant dad comes to see him play at the tournament. Reading how these true friends push each other to achieve their goals and affirm themselves in the process imitates the deft moves of a satisfying game and does not fall short.

THOUGHTS: Author Ernesto Cisneros mixes lots of details in Falling Short that cater to the typical middle school student: description of basketball plays, mention of well-known basketball players, team spirit, an explosive farting episode. It also touches on the awkwardness and helplessness kids can feel when dealing with parental flaws. The book includes some nice touches that point to a better world: Coach Chavez throws Byron, the bully, off the team when he finds out Byron humiliated Marco; Marco has a short teacher who can be both self-deprecating and inspirational; there is a girl on the basketball team; some of the other team members also look past Marco’s lack of height and see his kindness. Spanish phrases are scattered throughout the book.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG- Karthik Delivers

Chari, Sheela. Karthik Delivers. Amulet Books, 2022. 978-1-419-75522-4. $17.99. 255 p. Grades 6-9.

The 2008 recession has hit Alston, Massachusetts, hard. The Raghaven Indian grocery store is not doing well, so Mr. Raghaven recruits thirteen-year old Karthik as a delivery boy, a perk for his customers during the sweltering summer months. Remembering the orders is simple for Karthik; in fact, he remembers everything, including the 50 ice cream flavors at Carmine’s where he and his best friends, Miles, a white crossword whiz, and Binh, a sensitive Vietnamese boy, hang out when they can. At Carmine’s, Karthik also can catch a glimpse of Juhi Shah, his crush, despite her puzzling affinity for brawny bully Jacob Donnell and his wing man, Hoodie Menendez. This summer before high school becomes one of challenges for Karthik: can he stand up to Jacob who addresses him as Kar-dick; can he resist his mother’s pressure to be a doctor; can he help his father’s store withstand the stiff competition of the popular take-out place, House of Chaats (Juhi’s family business); most of all, can he discover what he truly wants to be? When Boston University budding playwriting student Shanthi Ananth persuades Karthik to take a leading role in her twenty-minute play about a childhood incident in the life of Alston native and world-renown composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein, Karthik’s world changes. Like Bernstein, whose musical career started with the gift of a piano from his aunt, Karthik realizes he has some unmined talents as well. His delivery job shows him he has a gift for making people feel noticed and listened to; his relationship with Shanthi encourages his talent for acting and reveals that it is possible to follow one’s own heart’s desire, not one’s parent’s.  The only problem is, he has to keep this project a secret. Against the backdrop of hard financial times, Karthik juggles all the different aspects of his life–family, friends, acting, job, first love–with an authenticity that will touch readers. Chari’s writing, whether in narrative or action or plot movement, makes this story so real. Though the Raghaven family and other characters suffer some bumps in life’s course, they retain their senses of humor and compassion, giving the story a buoyancy and truthfulness. This novel immerses the reader in a diverse community, strong friendships, and the sacrifices made for family.

THOUGHTS: Chari has a gift for developing rich major and minor characters. Students may draw parallels between the recession happening now in 2022 and the financial crisis of the early 2000’s that Karthik’s family experiences. Characters are of different ethnicities, but Indian foods and dishes as well as customs and mores are dominant. Karthik’s play, Being Lenny, may pique interest in Leonard Bernstein, his life and works.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero

Faraqi, Saadi. Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero. Quill Tree Books, 2021. 978-0-062-94325-5. 357 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8. 

Yusuf lives in Texas with his family, and he has some big life changes coming up. He is starting middle school, hoping to enter a Robotics competition with his school’s Robotics team and is spending time helping his family build their community’s new mosque. However this is the 20th year anniversary of September 11th, and his community isn’t happy about the new mosque, or any of his family living in their small town anymore. Yusuf has to deal with bullies from many different directions, and he isn’t sure how to handle it. Will Yusuf be able to hold onto things that bring him such happiness in the face of so much hate and hostility?

THOUGHTS: This well told story touches on many things that today’s readers are either familiar with from their own personal experience, or they have seen it happen to their friends and community members. This book handles these topics with grace and compassion as well as feeling authentic to the situation. Highly recommend this for any middle school collection. 

Realistic Fiction          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Elem./MG – Flight of the Puffin

Braden, Ann. Flight of the Puffin.  Penguin Random House, 2021. 978-1-984-81606-1  $17.99. 229 p. Grades 4-6.

This story follows 4 young lives as they struggle to find belonging and acceptance in each of their unique situations. Libby comes from a family that sees love as providing essentials. But all Libby wants to do is be accepted and understood for who she is and make a difference in the world. Living nearby is Jack, a boy who wants his rural school to stay just the way it is, as he struggles with the death of his younger brother. Across the country lives Vincent, a boy who loves triangles and wants to live by the beat of his own drum. If only his mother, and the kids at school, could understand this. Nearby is T, a runaway who left home and just wants to be accepted for who they are. The lives of these four young teens intersect in a way that makes each one realize that they matter.

THOUGHTS: This book is timely and so important in the quest to let all kids know that they matter, for who they are! It shows how little acts of kindness and understanding can make a huge difference.

Realistic Fiction         Krista Fitzpatrick, Abington SD

MG – The Year I Flew Away

Arnold, Marie. The Year I Flew Away. Versify, 2021. 978-0-358-27275-5. 285 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Marie Arnold establishes herself as a gifted storyteller, weaving realistic setting with a magical tale involving a talking rat, wishes, and witches. Ten-year-old Gabrielle Jean’s Haitian family sends her to live with her uncle and aunt in Flatbush, a busy neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, until they can save enough funds to join her. She looks forward to the American Dream, but it doesn’t take long before it is shattered. Classmates make fun of her accent; she feels strange and left out. Though Carmen, a Mexican-American girl, is anxious to be her friend, Gabrielle still feels incredibly lonely and unmoored from her friends and immediate family in Haiti. These bleak feelings motivate her to make a deal with the witch, Lady Lydia, in Prospect Park. Lady Lydia gives Gabrielle three magic mango slices. Each one represents a wish; each wish granted brings Gabrielle closer to Lady Lydia capturing her essence. With the first mango slice, Gabrielle loses her accent, making her better understood and accepted by the other students. The second mango slice is even more powerful. After eating it, Gabrielle not only erases her memories of Haiti but also entails the added consequence of losing her entire Flatbush family. Seemingly, Gabrielle’s wishes have been fulfilled. Her classmates believe they have known Gabrielle forever and believe she was born in America, but, of course, she cannot be happy without her aunt, uncle, the toddler twins, and teen-age cousin. It troubles her that she can no longer communicate in Haitian Creole. Rocky, a rat Gabrielle encounters on the street, nicely translates for her and helps Gabrielle problem solve how she will outwit Lady Lydia (though Rocky has its own unfulfilled wish to be a rabbit). As the school looks forward to Culture Day, Gabrielle tries to resist the last mango and still save her family. She knows she needs the help of a good witch to counteract this bad witch who desires a homogenous Brooklyn where perfection is everyone is the same. Arnold whips up a twenty-first century fairy tale to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion that blends American patriotism, pride in and acceptance of differences, and appreciation of one’s heritage.

THOUGHTS: If Kate DiCamillo is an author who demonstrates the beauty of language, then Marie Arnold is an author who demonstrates the beauty of storytelling. Accessible, genuine, and creative, Ms. Arnold weaves an unusual tale (sometimes I had to stretch my believability especially when Gabrielle cozies up to vermin who wishes to be a rabbit) that builds to a crescendo of patriotism, pride in one’s culture and heritage. Realistically, most sixth grade students may not have the ability to wax eloquently about their backgrounds, yet Arnold has Gabrielle come to the realization that a person can be an immigrant loyal to the country of one’s birth and equally be an American, loyal to a new country. An added bonus is the character of Mrs. Bartell, the solicitous school librarian who happens to be Haitian-American and helps Gabrielle every step of the way.

Fantasy          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
Magic Realism

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 – After the Ink Dries

Gustafson, Cassie. After the Ink Dries. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 406 p. 978-1-534-47369-0. $19.99 Grades 10-12.

Trigger warning: sexual assault and abuse; suicide ideation, self-harm, and attempted suicide; bullying and victim-shaming.

It is fitting that this book begins with a trigger warning, for it is much needed. It is difficult to read of the characters’ experiences in this book without a strong emotional and intellectual response.

The opening chapter plunges the reader immediately into Erika’s world as she wakes disoriented in an unknown bedroom to discover herself naked with Sharpie writing all over her body–crude messages from–she sees later–at least four boys who also signed their names. She struggles to remember the events of the night before–a party…she was so happy with her new boyfriend Thomas’s attention…finally feeling more accepted in her new town….the campfire….she must have passed out. She slowly realizes she’s been assaulted and manages to leave the house unnoticed, but not before hearing four boys gloating over their conquest of Erika, attempting to pull in Thomas, whose response is unknown. Her shame and revulsion is absolute, and all she wants to do is retreat home, remove the filthy writing, and undo the entire past 12 hours.

Meanwhile, the perspective shifts to Thomas, who is dazed by the events and slow to admit to anyone–even himself–what happened at the party. He’s on his way to a coveted, much-planned-for audition to music school, arranged by his uncle in the absence of any fatherly support. He bombs the audition, then scrambles to a double lacrosse practice, where the other guys are ready to tell him how to think about the party (and don’t bail on your friends). Erika and her mom have only been in town for a few months, with her mom taking all the overtime she can as a nurse, and Erika making her way in new teenage social circles. Erika seems to have made friends with Caylee and perhaps Amber, and she’s made enemies with Tina, whose interest was in Thomas. Erika needs a friend, and instinctively thinks of Caylee, but how can she talk to Caylee when Caylee is so proud to be Zac’s girlfriend, and when Zac’s name is written on Erika’s body? Erika tries to act as though nothing is amiss, but Tina’s social media posts start rumors which others only fuel. Ringleader Zac texts Erika simply to torment her. Quickly, Erika becomes a pariah: She’s mentally unstable, a nobody, new to town, sl**, must have wanted it, should have known better, and on and on. With nowhere to turn, Erika seeks to end her life. She is resuscitated and held in the hospital while the boys, their parents and lawyers round up to crucify her. Enter Amber, who emerges as a firehouse of a real friend to strengthen and support Erika (and her mom). The police want details, but Erika wavers. If she doesn’t explain, there will be no repercussions, and maybe this could be over. A visit from Caylee, who has only Zac’s best interest in mind, enrages Erika enough to realize she must speak.

THOUGHTS: Gustafson’s first novel, written in alternating voices of Erika and Thomas, is a terribly real book, leaving readers as witnesses to sexual assault, disbelief of survivors, and seeming powerlessness of young women. The novel very importantly shows that although Erika was not raped, this was sexual assault. After the Ink Dries is recommended for mature readers with a support system to discuss its contents.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Elem./MG – The Magical Reality of Nadia

Youssef, Bassam. The Magical Reality of Nadia. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-67481-1. 176 p. $14.99. Grades 3-6.

The Magical Reality of Nadia is a realistic fiction that follows Nadia, a 6th grade student who loves facts, and loves sharing them with her friends and classmates. Some fun facts about her: her family moved from Egypt when she was 6 years old, she collects bobbleheads, and she has a hippo amulet she wears that is actually from Ancient Egypt. One day there is a new student that comes to Nadia’s school who teases her about her heritage which causes some issues with her friends and throws Nadia for a loop. The other thing that throws her for a loop? The amulet around Nadia’s neck starts glowing! She finds that her amulet was holding a secret, which is hilarious and helpful at the same time!

THOUGHTS: This is an amazing transition novel, for a student who isn’t ready for longer chapter books. There are black and white illustrations found throughout the novel, which break up the book. This is a great book to have in any upper elementary/middle school collection.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

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