YA – The Box in the Woods

Johnson, Maureen. The Box in the Woods. Katherine Tegen Books, 2021. 978-0-063-03260-6. 383 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12. 

In July of 1978, Sabrina Abbott was breaking the rules, something this too good girl had never done. She and her friends paid dearly. Student sleuth Stevie Bell, known for solving the unsolvable Ellingham Academy case is home for the summer, working the second shift at the deli counter of her town’s local grocery store in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Desperate for her next case – or something more interesting than thinly sliced meat and cheese – Stevie receives an email referencing Camp Wonder Falls, and Stevie being Stevie knows this is the Camp Wonder Falls with the box in the woods murders. The email’s sender, Carson Buchwald, knows of Stevie’s talent for crime solving, and he wants to give Stevie full access to the camp, now known as Camp Sunny Pines, in exchange for her help in creating a true-crime podcast/documentary. Stevie and her friends will be counselors at camp, but Stevie really will focus on the case. Of course, her parents never will let her go for a decades old murder investigation, so Stevie has to get creative. Once at camp, Stevie enjoys time with her friends and barely tolerates the outdoors, but having real life family members of victims is harder than Stevie thought. Then an eerie message appears on Stevie’s bedroom wall – much like the one at Ellingham – and Stevie realizes not everyone is happy with Carson’s plan to  drudge up buried memories. Someone definitely doesn’t want the truth to surface, but that’s never stopped Stevie before.

THOUGHTS: Fast-paced and twisty, this thriller/mystery works best if you have the context of the series, but it can be read as a stand alone. A must purchase for high schools where mysteries are in demand.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Stevie Bell is back. With the Ellingham mystery solved and summer in full swing, Stevie’s life has returned to “normal” until she receives an email from Carson Buchwald, owner of Camp Sunny Pines in Massachusetts. Previously Camp Wonder Falls, where four gruesome murders happened in July 1978, Carson wants Stevie’s help to solve the “Box in the Woods” murders for his podcast. Stevie is intrigued by the request and accepts a position at the camp, along with Nate and Janelle, so that she can investigate the murders further. As Stevie learns more about the murders, she realizes that the town, and those who were there in 1978, are not sharing the whole truth. While she delves into the details and ultimately figures everything out, Stevie must also deal with David and her relationship, whatever it may be, with him.

THOUGHTS: Told through alternating chapters of present day with Stevie and flashbacks to July 1978, Maureen Johnson adds another delightful mystery to her repertoire. The only downside to this stand-alone is that I wish it weren’t a stand-alone. Stevie Bell is a fantastic character who is the perfect 21st Century detective. Readers want (and need) more of Stevie, Nate, Janelle, and David.

Mystery          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

Elem./MG – Unplugged

Korman, Gordon. Unplugged. Blazer + Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-79889-3. $16.99. 324 p. Grades 4-6.

Meet Jett Baranov, bratty son of a super rich tech billionaire. Jett can’t help but get himself in lots of trouble! His father has had it, and decides to send Jett to a “resort” in the middle of Arkansas called The Oasis. Thinking The Oasis will be like any other upscale camp he’s been to, Jett is stunned when he has to turn in ALL his tech devices. Another shock comes when he hits the cafeteria; it’s all vegetarian! Finding a pet “lizard” with the other kids at the camp, Jett thinks his experience is finally turning around. They can’t figure out what kind of lizard Needles is, but they are in for the shock of their lives when they figure out the mystery of where Needles came from and the truth about the head counselor at the camp.

THOUGHTS: A must purchase for fans of Gordon Korman. His stories have the best hooks, and Unplugged does not disappoint.

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, PSLA Member

MG – Here in the Real World

Pennypacker, Sara. Here in the Real World. HarperCollins, 2020. 978-0-062-69895-7. $17.99. 320 p. Grades 3-6.

“Everything was something else before, and will be something else after.” Ware is an only child, and he’s perfectly happy spending his summer alone with his grandmother, whom he refers to as Big Deal, but when she falls and needs a hip replacement, Ware’s parents sign him up for Summer Rec where they hope he can have “meaningful social interactions” with other kids his age. To Ware, this is the worst case scenario, until he meets a girl named Jolene who is planting a garden in a half torn down, abandoned church right next to the rec center. Ware sees the potential in this church, and instead of going to rec, he spends his days with Jolene pretending the church is a castle and that he is a knight, living by their code of chivalry. For the first time in Ware’s life, he doesn’t feel ashamed about spending time off in his own world, and with the help of Jolene, his uncle, and others he meets throughout the summer, he realizes that it’s okay to be himself, and he doesn’t want to turn into someone else after all. “He had changed this summer. He was spending more time off in his own world. And it turned out, he didn’t feel ashamed about it. Turned out, he really liked it there.”

THOUGHTS:  Here in the Real World is perfect for readers who feel like they just don’t belong. Your heart will break for Ware and Jolene as they try to navigate through the real world in this moving and touching novel. Middle school can be such a hard time, and hopefully readers will realize, like Ware does, that it’s okay to be yourself, even when you feel pressure from parents and classmates to be someone else entirely. This realistic fiction book is about finding not only yourself, but your people, and being able to see them just as they are too.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD