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

Daniel Redmayne is honored he is chosen for a white water rafting trip sponsored through Project Future Leaders. While he doesn’t exactly understand WHY he has been chosen, he is excited to take this trip with fellow middle school classmates Deke, Tony, Mia, and Imani. When they arrive in the Montana wilderness, their two adult guides, Sky and Cindi, realize their original destination isn’t going to work: The river is too dry. Instead, they move 100 miles down to Crazy River which they promise lives up to its name. Everyone sets up camp with the promise of adventure in the morning. However, Daniel and the other campers wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of Sky and Cindi screaming for them to climb up the nearby ridge. Daniel realizes a dam broke, and there is a flood threatening to wash them away. The adults risk everything to get all five campers on the ridge, so they are safely out of the water’s path. Unfortunately, Sky and Cindi do not make it up in time, and they are swept away by the flood right in front of the campers’ eyes. Daniel, Deke, Tony, Mia, and Imani are completely alone in the wilderness and miles away from their original destination. Together, they must figure out a way to survive and make it back home to their families.

THOUGHTS:  This book is a fast-paced, action-packed novel. The chapters, all of which end with cliffhangers, are short, making this book a good choice for a reluctant reader or a reader with a short attention span. Middle grade readers, especially those who love Gary Paulsen, will want to read this book.

Adventure          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

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

YA – Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story)

Nayeri, Daniel. Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story). Levine Querido, 2020. 346 p. 978-1-646-14000-8. $17.99.  Grades 7-12.

When Khosrou’s (Daniel’s) physician mother converts to Christianity in the 1980’s, she endangers her life because of the Iranian government’s restrictions on religion. His father, a jovial, loquacious dentist covertly obtains the proper paperwork for escape, then drops off his eight-year-old son and twelve-year-old daughter, Dina, at the airport as his wife starts a journey that will take the threesome to Dubai, Italy, and finally, Oklahoma. Daniel Nayeri’s Printz Award-winning book, Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story), telling how his family turned from comfortable, wealthy land owners to battered, poor refugees can be summed up in these few sentences; but the flow of the chapter-less pages weaves a tale likened to the much admired, Scheherazade of 1,001 Nights. The paragraphs describing memories of Daniel’s (no one in America can pronounce Khosrou!) grandparents’ home and his parents’ relationship spin into beloved Persian legends and myths and wind up next to pages relating the harsher daily existence he experiences in Oklahoma. Daniel is at the center of a maelstrom as the cover depicts, a twelve-year-old boy with different tastes in foods and specific hygienic customs, wanting to fit in yet also wanting to hold on to the Persian culture he cherishes. A son with vivid recollections who longs for the warmth of his biological father, but is resigned to live with his stern, abusive Farsi- speaking step-father whom his mother marries and keeps remarrying for companionship and convenience, despite the beatings she suffers. As Daniel narrates his life tale with casual familiarity, the reader learns of the ancient heritage of Iran and its reverence and love of story, his difficulties adjusting to each stage of the refugee journey, and his impressions of Americans and life here. Most of all, the story is a tribute to the perseverance and unconditional love of his mother, Sima. In the refugee hotel of Italy instead of lolling around all day waiting for the call to emigrate, she makes a connection with a Texan woman living in Rome who home schools her own children and arranges for Daniel and Dina to share in the lessons even though Sima has to spend hours erasing the answers from the host children’s cast-off notebooks so that Daniel and Dina can use them. Her determination and dignity to make life good for her son and daughter are evident in that scene. Told not as a memoir, but as a work of fiction—for as the narrator tells us, it is not so simple to sort out fact from fiction when dealing with one’s memories—Daniel delivers the truth of his life as he remembers it with humor and charm and not a bit of self-pity. Shifting from present to far past to recent past, he shares his varied observations, thus preserving his precious legacy of storytelling, made up or real, or a mixture of both.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: Like the coveted cream puffs described in one of Nayeri’s tales, this book is a treat for those who appreciate a different writing style and matchless imagery. There are bits of scatological references—the unhappy affect of a first-time encounter with Sloppy Joes and negotiating a toilet with a bidet—but the targeted audience may appreciate and even empathize with Daniel’s situations. Written with a truly inimitable voice, this work is unlike any book for middle grade or young adult this reader has encountered. Recommend to students who love words or like to write, to those new to a place, or those needing to understand another perspective.

Elem. – Sticks and Stones

Polacco, Patricia. Sticks and Stones. Simon & Schuster, 2020. Unpaged. 978-1-534-42622-1. $18.99. Grades 2-4.

In another story based on her childhood, Polacco has created a heartwarming tale about the school year she spent with her father in Michigan. Trisha is eager to start middle school with her summer friends, but they desert her at the front door. She is on her own until a skinny boy with glasses called Thom helps her find her first class. The pair sits with a quiet girl named Ravanne, who is artistic and another outsider. A bully named Billy calls Trisha “Cootie” because of a nervous rash on her face and gives Thom and Ravanne the cruel nicknames “Sissy Boy” and “Her Ugliness.” The trio become fast friends as they deal with taunts from Billy and his gang. The three friends go kite flying with hand painted silk kites made by Ravanne and have a great time on Halloween, until Billy steals their candy. Trisha learns that she and Thom share a love of ballet and that he takes ballet lessons.  His secret is revealed to the other students when Thom easily clears the high jump bar, which Billy just failed to do. Thom shouts out, “See what ballet can do for you!” which is overheard by Billy and the coach. The bully is furious that the coach wants Thom to try out for the team and confronts him on his way home, breaking his glasses. Sick of the bullying, Thom announces that he is going to perform a dance in the talent show. Because he cannot see well with the broken glasses, Ravanne and Trisha help their friend with stage blocking. At the talent show, Thom dances the part of Prince Siegfried from Swan Lake and his classmates are amazed at his “high and powerful” leaps and other athletic moves. Thom’s brave performance earns him respect from his classmates. Polanco’s signature illustrations are done with pencil and acetone markers. The kite flying drawings contain so much movement that the reader can almost feel the wind. In the author’s note, the reader learns what her Michigan friends are doing today.

THOUGHTS: This is a powerful story of bullying and resilience. Although the text is wordy, it will still hold interest as a read aloud, because of the dialogue and pictures. It is a good choice for guidance counselors or classroom teachers for character lessons.  A worthwhile purchase and one of Polacco’s better works.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

YA – Miss Meteor

Mejia, Tehlor Kay, and Anna-Marie McLemore. Miss Meteor. Harper Teen, 2020. 978-0-062-86991-3. $17.99. 392 p. Grades 9 and up.

Meteor, New Mexico is a cheesy tourist town known for three things: the regional cornhole tournament, the Miss Meteor Pageant, and, of course, the huge meteor that landed there fifty years ago. Everyone knows that’s why the town is named “Meteor,” but they don’t know Lita landed there with it. Lita lives her human life now in Meteor with Bruja Lupe, her “mom,” who may or may not have come from the same space rock. Being of Mexican descent and the daughter of the town witch does nothing to help Lita in the popularity department. That doesn’t stop her from fantasizing over and pretending to enter and win the Miss Meteor Pageant as a kid, her best friend Chicky playing along as her manager. Things don’t get better for her over the years, though. Chicky ends their friendship abruptly in middle school, and since then it seems as though Lita is turning back into the stardust from which she came; tiny patches of it are visible under her skin. Also of Mexican descent, flannel-and-combat-boot-wearing Chicky has harbored a secret and has had to deal with bullying for most of her life, Miss Meteor pageant legacy Kendra Kendall being her harshest and most frequent bully. When Lita decides to go for her dream of Miss Meteor because she’s running out of time and has nothing to lose, Chicky decides to resume her role as Lita’s manager. Kendra Kendall losing the crown everyone expects her to win to the weirdest girl in town would be fitting, so it’s worth it to Chicky to rekindle her friendship with Lita to make it happen. How long can Chicky continue to keep her secret from her friend though, since that’s why she ended their friendship in the first place? Will Lita even make it to the pageant, or will she turn to stardust before it even starts? Find out in this beautifully written poignant story of friendship and self-love.

THOUGHTS: Miss Meteor is adorable and imaginative, and Tehlor Kay Mejia is quickly becoming a must-read YA author for me, personally. This book is co-written with Anna-Marie McLemore, and each author writes one of the main characters’ point of view in alternating chapter format. Lita is particularly quirky and innocent (which makes sense, given she’s made of stardust), and I found myself smiling a lot while reading this book… and laughing. And I may have shed a tear or two. While there are several instances of harsh bullying including homophobia and transphobia, this book is heartwarming overall with a cast of extremely lovable and diverse characters. Chicky’s sisters are hilarious, and the girls themselves as well as their friends/love interests are of various sexual orientations including a trans character. Highly recommended addition for all high school collections.

Fantasy (Magical Realism)          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

MG – What Lane?

Maldonado, Torrey. What Lane? Nancy Paulsen Books, 2020. 978-0-525-51843-3. $16.99. 125 p. Grades 3-6.

Biracial Stephen pals around with his white friend Dan in their gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, but lately, Stephen is noticing he is viewed more negatively by the janitor or passers-by than his paler friend. Dan is sympathetic and though he is oblivious to the harsher treatment Stephen gets as they course around their city streets, he doesn’t deny his friend’s feelings and tries to understand. Dan’s cousin Chad who recently moved nearby and drops over frequently is the opposite. Author Torrey Maldonado depicts Chad’s parents as more into their phones and social lives than the well-being of their son and has them voice micro-aggressive remarks about Stephen. Chad challenges Stephen and his white friends to some dangerous pranks; and Stephen fears, rightfully, that if the group gets caught, he’ll get the blame. His African-American dad counsels him with “the talk” warning him how to behave if stopped by the police, though his white mother thinks eleven-year-old Stephen is too young to lose his innocence. Stephen’s Black friend Will shares the same cautions as Stephen and agrees that Chad is up to no good and questions Stephen’s closeness to his white friends. At a basketball game, Stephen purchases a bracelet that says, “What Lane?” to remind him of a basketball star that could play all the moves. A thoughtful person, Stephen struggles with the different groups and decisions around him. When Chad plays a hurtful trick on Stephen, Dan and his other white friends are allies and call out Chad’s bad behavior; Will and his friends come to Stephen’s rescue. In this coming-of- age novel for young middle school students, a likeable, relatable Stephen trusts he can enjoy the friendship of all different kinds of people and is able to fit into all types of worlds as long as he is true to himself.

THOUGHTS: A teacher himself, Maldonado has a great ear for middle school dialogue and a keen eye for capturing middle school dynamics. This book can be a relevant read aloud for all children but particularly relatable to children of color. It brings up some delicate but real situations that would encourage healthy discussion (for example, when Dan and Stephen are play fighting, an older white lady assumes Stephen is attacking Dan). I think it is a must buy.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia