MG – Golden Arm

Deuker, Carl. Golden Arm. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. $17.99. 978-0-358-01242-9 . Grades 5-8.

Sixteen-year-old Laz Weathers may be slow, but he sees his future baseball prospects pretty clearly. His solid pitching gets no real training and won’t get noticed in his small, poor district. His own weak academics, his stutter, and his ‘tics’ in response to anxiety don’t do him any favors, either. It’s Laz’s younger half-brother, Alberto, who people respond to, and who will speak up when Laz can’t or won’t. But this summer, Alberto’s father has returned and moved in with their mom in their trailer park, causing initial resentment and adjustment by both boys. Laz convinces Alberto to stick with the scrappy baseball team led by Coach L—, who coaxes and cajoles thirteen youths to join the team, then badgers coaches of established teams to compete. Thanks to Laz’s pitching, they often win, which gets him noticed. Laz learns that his family must move (the trailer park will be razed for a high-rise) and that his district will eliminate baseball for his senior year. This allows Laz to join another team, if they’ll have him. A coach who noticed his “golden arm” will give Laz a chance, but can he leave when Alberto is being drawn into drug dealing? Just when Laz has the perfect chance to shine in a championship game, Laz learns his brother is in serious danger from his drug-abusing friends, and it doesn’t matter if Alberto has used, sold, or not–he’s the immediate target. Laz’s choices show his character and alter everything for his future.

THOUGHTS: Deuker shines with baseball scenes and infuses each interaction with tension and a sense of doom. This is hard to put down and will pull in baseball fans and non-fans (the sports writing is that superb). Readers will root for Laz, even as they see everything stacked against him. When the novel ends, I found myself wondering about a sequel showing Laz’s choices in a tough environment over the next 5-10 years, and how his integrity will be tested. This powerful, timeless novel melds baseball with the pressures of class status, mixes dreams with hard reality, and the result is a first-choice novel not to be missed.

Sports Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – Kind of a Big Deal

Hale, Shannon. Kind of a Big Deal. Roaring Brook, 2020. 978-1-250-20623-7. 400 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Back in high school, Josie was kind of a big deal. A talented actress, she left school early to take Broadway by storm. Only, it didn’t quite work out the way it was supposed to. Now, a Broadway failure with monumental credit card debt, she’s living in Missoula, Montana, working as a nanny and trying to recapture that magnificent life she remembers, back when she was a big deal. After impulsively purchasing a romance novel one day while taking her adorable charge, Mia, to the park, Josie opens the book (the first she’s read since The Scarlet Letter in school) and shortly finds herself experiencing the plot from inside the story. A la The Wizard of Oz, the story is peopled with individuals she passed around town: customers in the bookstore, the sales clerk, individuals in the park. Josie is both fascinated and terrified by the experience: she likes the take-charge person she is in the story, but struggles to get back to reality and make sure Mia is safe. But the adventure is addictive, and once Josie finishes reading the first book, she’s back for more. As Josie genre-jumps, the experiences work as bibliotherapy, assisting her in assessing her life, and realizing she needs to move on from high school, and let her supportive best friend and her boyfriend move on as well. But, it turns out, the creative muses are not done with Josie, and when she gets wrapped up in one book too many, she will need to rely on all the skills and knowledge she has gained to save herself, as well as others trapped in the world of stories. Hale presents a delightful YA story. Josie is an appealingly sweet character, and her journeys inside the books will be amusing to any reader. Like Josie’s book hopping episodes, the plot refuses to stand still, continually twisting in another direction until the surprise ending. While Josie is on the cusp of adulthood, the book is refreshingly free of sex, profanity, and other vices. Like on the stage, Josie is the star, and she is all the story needs. Readers will cheer for her to realize she is a big deal, in the story of her own making.

THOUGHTS:  Hale’s YA entry is a bubbly read with a deeper message. Dedicated readers will enjoy the genre spoofs (the dystopian ordeal is far and away the best segment), but it will be interesting to see if students not yet through high school can relate to Josie needing to walk away from those years and move on. I hope so! I want more Hale YA books.

Fantasy (Realistic)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – It Sounded Better in My Head

Kenwood, Nina. It Sounded Better in My Head. Flatiron Books, 2020. 978-1-250-21926-8. 260 p. $18.99. Grade. 8-12.

Natalie had a good grip on her life until her parents jovially announce they’re getting a divorce. They’ve known this for months but waited until the Christmas holidays and high school graduation (which coincide in Australia, where the book was first published). A rarity for literature, Natalie has a great relationship with her parents and is devastated by the news and hurt by their deceit. She turns to her support network, her best friends Lucy and Zach. But since they started dating, Natalie sometimes feels like a third wheel. Having suffered through severe, scarring acne during puberty, Natalie has a shattered self image and has not dated. At a party, she connects with Alex, Zach’s older brother, but quickly convinces herself Alex’s interest was an act of kindness perpetrated by Zach. But an accidental case of musical bedrooms at a beach house over New Year’s brings Natalie and Alex back into close proximity, and as they talk they again feel a positive connection. However, Natalie’s lack of confidence and poor self image quickly threaten to sabotage the burgeoning relationship. This engaging book covers a topic not discussed in YA literature, the trauma of severe teen acne, and the scars it leaves, both physical and psychological. Natalie is a bright teen with caring parents and friends, but the long term effects of her acne are evident in her image, (styling her hair to cover which side of her face looks worse) confidence, and self-worth. American readers will need to translate Australian terms and references but will recognize themselves in the three friends as they shakily navigate through the next phase in their lives.

THOUGHTS: A welcome addition to YA realistic fiction collections. While some characters have sex off-page, Natalie and Alex discuss the issue and decide they are not ready.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Chirp

Messner, Kate. Chirp. Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020. 978-1-547-60281-0. 227 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Mia and her family leave Boston to move back to Vermont in order to help Mia’s Gram sell her failing cricket farm. Strange things have been happening at Gram’s cricket farm, and Mia suspects sabotage by the man interested in buying the farm. Mia joins two summer camps, Launch Camp & Warrior Camp, at her mother’s request to keep her busy during the summer. At Launch Camp, Mia meets Clover who is instantly invested in helping Mia figure out what is going on at the cricket farm and in building a business plan to help the farm. Along with Anna, the girls create a robot to harvest crickets, a social media campaign (with the #ChirpChallenge), and a plan to pitch to several local businesses to hopefully gain investors. Clover decides to join Mia at Warrior Camp where Mia’s past gymnastic experience impacts her ability to perform. Each week Mia builds her confidence and strength up in order to confront an uncomfortable situation from her past. The girls form a strong friendship and work together to solve the mystery of who is trying to kill Gram’s cricket farm.

THOUGHTS: Messner does it again! This beautifully written, coming of age story is timely and offers readers a glimpse into the struggle kids face with speaking up. The story approaches the #metoo topic with grace and is appropriate to middle grade readers. Filled with plot twists, red herrings, and other elements of mystery, this book is a quick read and sure to delight fans of Messner’s work!

Mystery          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Mia’s family moves from Boston to Vermont to be near her grandmother, and Mia is glad for the change. Since she broke her arm at gymnastics, and despite her skill and enjoyment of the sport, she is relieved to give it up. She hasn’t told anyone about Coach Phil’s uncomfortable attention. If it wasn’t all right, wouldn’t an adult have stepped in? And besides, everyone likes Phil. Mia did, too, until hugs became too tight, his texts became personal, and finally, he gave her a friendly back rub she didn’t want. Mia felt “icky” around Phil, but nothing was wrong, was it? Now in Vermont, she finds an old photograph of herself and wonders if she can ever again be the brave girl who smiled as she jumped from the rocks into Lake Champlain with friends. In the meantime, she helps with her grandma’s cricket farm, caring for the crickets, working on advertising, and more. However, as more problems occur, her grandma is worried about sabotage and keeping the business afloat. Mia knows her mom wonders about her grandma’s memory and wishes her grandma would slow down.  But as Mia learns more, she and her friends begin to look into the problems. Could an outsider be trying to put her grandma out of business? Mia has spent time lately learning to be quiet, unnoticed, and unquestioned. But finding out the truth, and sticking up for another girl, helps her to find her voice. Mia learns that it’s not about finding her way back to the brave girl she once was, but finding her way forward, and she gets to decide for herself who she will be.

THOUGHTS: Messner expertly molds the serious issue of grooming and abuse into a coming of age mystery appropriate for upper elementary and middle school readers. Mia is a likeable personality, and readers will cheer for her as she stands up for herself and others and uses her voice once more.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Mia’s family is moving back to Vermont after living in Boston for a few years. Mia, a seventh grader, is happy about this move, as she gets to spend more time with her entomologist grandmother who owns a cricket farm. Mia is recovering from a gymnastics accident, but we learn that there was more damage than a broken arm from Tumblers Gymnastics in Boston.  With her parents making her choose two camps to participate in over the summer, Mia chooses Launch, an entrepreneurship camp that helps Mia save her Gram’s farm, and Warrior Camp, a parkour camp that helps Mia come to grips with her inner athlete. In her camps she makes lasting friendships that help her solve the mystery of who is sabotaging her Gram’s cricket farm and gives her the strength to face the secret she has been hiding from her parents.

THOUGHTS: This book is a must purchase for any middle grade library. Addressing all of the controversy surrounding gymnastics recently in a very appropriate way for middle schoolers (Mia’s male coach massages her shoulders and sends “friendly” texts and is generally just a bit too friendly in a creepy way), this novel focuses on female relationships and empowerment.

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

MG – Mañanaland; Nat Enough; Black Brother, Black Brother; On the Horizon

Ryan, Pam Muñoz. Mañanaland. Scholastic Press, 2020. 978-1-338-15786-4.  251 p. $16.53. Grades 3-6.

Maximiliano Córdoba has a lot. He has his hard-working, bridge builder father and his loving Buelo who cooks delicious dinners and tells fantastic stories. He has a best friend, Chuy, and a group of neighborhood boys with whom he plays soccer. He even has a playful dog named Lola. But it is what Max doesn’t have that occupies his thoughts. He doesn’t have the strength that Ortiz has when he throws the fútbol out of the goal, and he doesn’t have a pair of Volantes, which would ensure his success at tryouts. He doesn’t have the freedom to attend a summer clinic in Santa Inés with his friends. And most of all, he does not have a mother. He doesn’t know where she is or why she left, and his Papá will not tell Max anything about her. “When you’re older, I’ll explain more,” is what he hears from his Papá, but he wants answers now, and he may just get them sooner rather than later. The new soccer coach expects all players to have a birth certificate to try out for the team, and Max learns his mother took his documents with her when she left. With Papà out of town in search of Max’s documents, Max finds himself thrust into an adventure of a lifetime. Will the legend his Buelo has been telling him his whole life lead Max to the answers he seeks? And will Papà finally accept that he can be trusted?

THOUGHTS:  Middle school is a time for students to explore their strengths and weaknesses and also to test the boundaries of the freedoms that come with growing up. Many middle schoolers will see themselves in Max and their parents in his Papà. The folklore adds interest to this coming of age story. Pam Muñoz Ryan’s fantasy novel is a self-discovery tale for every upper elementary and middle school library.

Fantasy          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD


Scrivan, Maria. Nat Enough. Graphix, 2020. 978-1-338-53821-2. 235 p. $21.59. Grades 3-6.

Natalie Mariano is not enough. She is not cool enough, not athletic enough, not talented enough. Whatever you need to make you enough for middle school, Natalie doesn’t have it–at all. And to make matters worse, her best friend, Lily, seems to have changed her mind about wanting to be friends with Natalie, so now she is not enough for Lily either.  Add in a disastrous first day of gym class; bully Shawn Dreary, who barks at Natalie every chance he gets; and a Jell-o frog dissection debacle, and Natalie is sure that she will never have what it takes to make it in middle school. But maybe Natalie has it all wrong. Instead of focusing on what she isn’t, maybe Natalie should focus on what she is. With the help of some new friends and some old hobbies, a story contest and some new-found confidence, maybe Natalie will discover that who she is, in fact, is exactly enough.

THOUGHTS: Every middle school student has been in Natalie’s shoes at one point, whether it is a falling out with a friend, that awkward feeling when trying something new, or an embarrassing moment that everyone sees. Her epiphany is gradual, but the progression is logical, and even the bullies have evolved by the end. Maria Scrivan’s debut graphic novel is a perfect fit for upper elementary and middle school libraries.

Graphic Novel    Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD


Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Black Brother, Black Brother. Little, Brown and Company, 2020. 978-0-316-49380-2. 239 p. $14.81. Grades 3-6.

Donte Ellison fit in in New York, in his multiracial neighborhood. He fit in at his old school. He does not fit in in his new white neighborhood, and he certainly does not fit in at his new school, Middlefield Prep. His brother, Trey, fits in, and everyone wants to know why Donte can’t be more like Trey. But Trey has light hair and blue eyes like their father, and Donte has dark hair and brown eyes like their mother, and this makes all the difference at Middlefield Prep, and makes Donte a target of bullies, especially Alan. When Alan throws a pencil at another student, Donte is immediately blamed. Frustration turns to anger, and Donte finds himself in handcuffs in the back of a police car. No one in his school sees him. They only see the color of his skin, and Alan has made sure that Middlefield Prep is a miserable place for Donte to be. A week of suspension gives Donte time to plan his revenge on Alan, but is revenge really what Donte needs? A mentor, some new friends, and an athletic outlet provide Donte with support, purpose, and a goal that goes far beyond Alan and revenge.

THOUGHTS:  Middle grade students, regardless of race, will understand Donte’s anger and frustration with not being seen or heard, but his story will resonate most with BIPOC students. White students will benefit from reading this novel as a window into the experiences of their BIPOC classmates.  A must-read for students and teachers alike.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD


Lowry, Lois. On the Horizon: World War II Reflections. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-12940-0. 75 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Inspired by her own personal memories, Lowry has created a wonderful contemplative work about two major events that occurred during World War II. The text, told mostly in verse, contains a single reflection per page concerning specific incidents or individuals during the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the bombing of Hiroshima. These short remembrances are about some who perished and some who survived. In Hawaii, one of the Anderson twins survives the attack on the Arizona, and his ashes are buried with his brother years later. Frank Cabiness saves his watch that is stopped at 8:15, the time of the attack. The author deftly contrasts this story with Hiroshima. Four year old Shinichi Tetsutani is riding his red tricycle when the bomb falls and is buried with his bicycle. Shinji Mikamo survives the bombing, while his father does not. All he can find in the ruins is his father’s watch that is stopped at 8:15.  It is details like this that make these stories come alive for the reader. The illustrations by Kenard Pak are done in pencil and add to the thoughtful tone. Part of the story is autobiographical. Lowry was born in Honolulu in 1937 and remembers playing on the beach with her grandmother while a giant ship passed by on the horizon. As an adult, she later realized this was the Arizona. As a child, she returned to Japan after the war and while riding her bicycle, sees a young boy that will become a famous author.

THOUGHTS: Lowry’s work is a masterpiece made powerful by the stories of real people who were impacted by these historical events. These poignant tales will linger in the reader’s mind for a long time. This is an essential purchase for all elementary and middle school libraries.

940.54 World War II          Denise Medwick, Retired, West Allegheny SD

Elem. – Lupin Leaps In; Emmy Noether; Astronauts Zoom; The Big Break

Dunn, Georgia. Lupin Leaps In. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2019. 978-1-449-49522-0. $9.99. Grades 3-6.

It’s Cat Network, brought to you by Elvis, Lupin, and Puck! These three cats report their day-to-day lives, including all of the members of the household. Between the ceiling cats, the crazy outfits that they are forced into, and the newest addition to the household, Elvis, Lupin, and Puck are always getting into mischief and informing the world!

THOUGHTS: Honestly, this took me a bit to get into. Once captivated, each report was hilariously illustrated and explained how a cat may view the situation. A funny read that is short with each report, but full of a year’s worth of adventures.

Graphic Novel          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

 


Becker, Helaine. Emmy Noether: The Most Important Mathematician You’ve Never Heard Of. Kids Can Press, 2020. 978-1-525-30059-2. 40 p. $18.99. Grades 3-5.

This picture book tells the life story of a little-known female mathematician.  Emmy Noether always excelled in math even as a young girl growing up in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century. She preferred doing puzzles to playing the piano or doing things expected of girls at that time. Emmy wanted to attend university to study math, but this was not permitted at that time. Her father was a professor there, so she was allowed to sit in on classes. Even though the male students resented her because of her intelligence, they often asked her for help with homework without giving her credit.  Eventually she was accepted into the university, but even after earning a degree, she was not permitted to teach men. About this time, Albert Einstein was developing his theories of relativity and Noether helped solve one of the problems in his theory. While working on that problem, she thought about related laws of physics and discovered that the laws of symmetry and conservation are linked. Her work on the principle of symmetry became known as Noether’s Theorem. The author does an excellent job in explaining physics in terms that are easy to understand, aided by the illustrator’s appealing drawings which are hand drawn and digitally colored. For instance, the illustrator demonstrates symmetrical motion by showing Emmy on a swing. This book works well as a read aloud and uses a checklist format to begin and end Noether’s story.

THOUGHTS: This is an excellent picture book biography that shows how one woman overcame obstacles in order to reach her goals. This text could be used to introduce basic physics in science units. Becker’s work would also be a good choice for Women’s History Month. Elementary librarians should consider adding this one to their biography or math sections.

510.92 Mathematics          Denise Medwick, Retired, West Allegheny SD
92, 921 Biography                                                  


Rose, Deborah Lee. Astronauts Zoom! An Astronaut Alphabet. Persnickety Press, 2020. 978-1-943-97850-2. 38 p. Grades K-2. $16.95.

This is an engaging nonfiction picture book about the astronauts who live on the International Space Station. Using an alphabet format, the author explains what astronauts do while in space. Rose describes how astronauts work, play, relax, and take care of their hygiene in simple text. Featured words and their relevant letters are highlighted in the same color. The stunning colorful photographs are the winning aspect of the book. One image shows an astronaut reading near a window showing the Earth below, and readers will be amused by an astronaut who is juggling sixteen pieces of fruit at one time. The extensive back matter contains more details about each of the activities described. There is a long list of vocabulary words, but no definitions are given. Included is a section discussing how readers can make their own facsimile space station at home, in the classroom, or in the school library.

THOUGHTS: This nonfiction text works well for alphabet units or to introduce a science unit on space. Young readers will enjoy reading this book and examining the photographs on their own. Purchase where astronaut books are popular.

629.442 International Space Station          Denise Medwick, Retired, West Allegheny SD
629.45 Astronauts


Tatulli, Mark. The Big Break. Little, Brown and Company. 2020. 978-0-316-44055-4. 248 p. $12.99. Grades 4+.

Seventh graders Andrew Fineman and Russell Kahng live near the Pine Barrens, in New Jersey. Friends since second grade, they are now hard at work on their entry for the Middle Grade Viral Video Contest: “Terror of the Jersey Devil,” a mockumentary on the legend and its many rumored sightings. But phone calls, study dates, and hand-holding with Tara Wallbuck are pulling Russell’s attention away from writing and filming crucial scenes. Frustrated and left out, Andrew fears that more than just the movie is in jeopardy. A fresh round of Jersey Devil sightings (and an overnight excursion into the woods) might provide the push they need to recover from their friendship meltdown in time for a true surprise ending.

THOUGHTS: Mark Tatulli depicted his own tween years to wonderfully universal effect in 2018’s Short & Skinny. In The Big Break he revisits the years between action figures and driver’s licenses, chronicling the friendship friction when one matures a little faster than the other. His latest has the perfect blend of realism and whimsy, in both plot and art style, to reach a wide audience. He brings an especially light touch to Andrew’s relationship with his widowed mom, who’s struggling to allow her son to grow up.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – The Giver; Teen Guide to Mental Health; All American Muslim Girl; Loki; Feed Your Mind

Russell, P. Craig. The Giver. Based on the Novel by Lois Lowry. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2019. 978-0-544-15788-0. 176 p. $22.99 Grades 5-8. 

A powerful adaptation of the classic YA novel. Jonas lives in a community of perfect harmony in which the people face no hardships or concerns in their daily lives, and every decision is carefully made for each citizen by the elders. At his Age Twelve ceremony, Jonas is assigned to the unique role of Receiver of Memory, chosen to take on the memories, both good and bad, of a society who is shielded from them. With every day that passes, Jonas learns and experiences more and begins to realize the harsh truths that keep the society in order. The story remains faithful to Lowry’s original dystopian tale. The panels of beautifully illustrated pictures change from muted grays to vibrant colors as Jonas’ understanding of life experiences expands.

THOUGHTS: Suggest this title to provide a struggling reader or English Language Learner support for a novel which is required reading in many schools.

Graphic Novel          Nancy Summers Abington SD


Nardo, Don. Teen Guide to Mental Health. Reference Point Press., 2020. 978-1-682-82753-6. 80 p. $30.95. Grades 6+. 

The prolific Don Nardo has another nonfiction title for the K-12 audience. This slim volume focuses on the stressors and common mental health issues facing today’s teens such as body image issues, depression, and divorce in the family. Most pages have pop out quotes from mental health professionals or people who have faced difficult issues.  The book only touches briefly on many of the mental health concerns mentioned but includes a valuable resource list of websites and mental health organizations for students, parents, or teachers seeking information or help.

THOUGHTS: An optional purchase for a junior or senior high collection.

618.92 Mental Health          Nancy Summers  Abington SD


Courtney, Nadine Jolie. All American Muslim Girl. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2019. 978-0-374-30952-7.  336 p. $17.99. Grades 7+. 

Allie Abraham is the only daughter of an immigrant professor in search of a tenure track position and an American mother, who have recently settled in yet another new town just outside of Atlanta. Allie once again sets about fitting in with her new community, finding a group of friends, and even beginning a relationship with a kindhearted new boyfriend. Though her extended family from Jordan and elsewhere in the States are practicing Muslims, Allie’s parents have given up most of the practices of Islam in an effort to keep their family safe from suspicion in a post 9/11 world. Ally can easily pass as an all American girl with her light complexion; she nevertheless feels left out as she is the only one of her extended network of cousins who does not practice the faith or speak Arabic. After finding a young women’s prayer and Koran study group, she begins to explore her religion in earnest. The book follows Allie as she comes to terms with the many layers of her life as a typical American teen while trying to reconcile her American culture with her growing Islamic faith.

THOUGHTS: The book is enlightening, revealing many of the tenets and rituals of Islam and shedding a positive light on a religion which unfortunately is sometimes misunderstood and feared.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Summers Abington SD


Lee, Mackenzi. Loki: Where Mischief Lies. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2019. 978-0-544-15788-0. 176 p. $17.99 Grades 6+.  

A fun and witty origin tale for Loki, the trickster from Norse mythology and the Marvel Universe. Loki, the younger son of Odin, King of Asgard, has always felt inferior to his more favored and less quick witted elder brother Thor. The sibling rivalry between the brothers is explored, and the dialogue between the two of them is hilarious. Since Loki does not possess the physical strength of his brother, he experiments at an early age with his magic, a gift inherited from his mother which is not welcomed by his father. Loki finds a companion in his childhood friend Amora, a sorceress in training. At the Feast of Gullveig, Odin sees a prophecy in the Godseye Mirror of one his sons leading an army of the dead against Asgard. When the sacred Mirror is destroyed, Amora is banished to Midgard (Earth) where magic does not exist. Loki is left alone again, struggling to prove that the prophecy does not point to him. He gets a chance to serve his father when he is sent to Midgard to investigate a series of magic-related murders with SHARP, a secret society of mortals in Victorian London. On Midgard, Loki finds himself drawn to Theo, a key member of SHARP and encounters Amora once again. The book delves into LGBTQ issues in London, with Theo suspected and isolated as a homosexual. Theo is awed by Loki’s open gender fluidity and his descriptions of  Asgard’s open mindedness about gender and sexuality. The ending comes as Loki must choose his own path – to be a loyal prince of Asgard or the villain everyone believes him to be.

THOUGHTS: A recommended next step for fans of Rick Riordan’s mythology series. This title will also appeal to Marvel fans and for fans of Lee’s period adventures in the Montague Siblings books.

Fantasy Fiction          Nancy Summers Abington SD


Bryant, Jen. Feed Your Mind: A Story of August Wilson. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019. 978-1-419-73653-7. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades 4-6.

Bryant’s brilliant picture book biography of the African-American playwright from Pittsburgh is truly unconventional. It is written in two acts, not unlike Wilson’s plays, and is done in free verse. She concentrates more on Wilson’s early life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District rather than focusing on details of his plays and later life. Frederick August Kittel, his birth name, was able to read from age four, and this was encouraged by his mother, who said, “If you can read, you can do anything.” The author describes the boy as a good student who dropped out of school due to prejudice and bullying, not only by students, but also by a teacher who believed that August plagiarized a term paper. He then spent his days in the Carnegie Library and educated himself by reading. While working a series of service jobs, August Wilson, as he was then known, began to write poetry and soon presented them at poetry readings. In listening to people in his hometown speak about their experiences, he acquired subject matter for his works. On the urging of a friend, Wilson began writing plays, which lead to an award winning career as a playwright whose works focused on the lives of African American men in Pittsburgh. The full page illustrations by Chapman are done in a variety of media and are symbolic in some cases. There is a striking drawing of Kittel as a teenager walking between rows of books at the library. Superimposed on the rows of books are rows of corn stalks. In the text, Bryant tells us that his mother also left school and went to work in the cornfields with her family. On the back cover, young August is pictured reading at a fancy dining table on which are platters and bowls full of books, which relates to the title. The back matter contains a timeline of this famous African American’s life.

THOUGHTS: This book is a wonderful example of creative nonfiction. The author chose to write this text in a style that echoes the poetic and dramatic works of the man about whom she was writing. The book is lengthy for a picture book biography, and the text contains two instances of a pejorative word for African Americans, so students would need some background and preparation if this is used in the classroom. Readers will be inspired by the accomplishments of this self-made man and will understand how the power of books and words can change our lives.

Biography          Denise Medwick, Retired, West Allegheny SD


MG – Elizabeth Webster and the Court of Uncommon Pleas; Twinchantment; A Talent for Trouble; Mean; The Friendship Lie

Lashner, William. Elizabeth Webster and the Court of Uncommon Pleas. Disney/Hyperion, 2019. 978-1-368-04128-7. 310 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

If Elizabeth Webster was unprepared when middle school celebrity Henry Harrison asked her to tutor him in math, she was thoroughly speechless when she discovers he really needs help dealing with a headless ghost who appears in his bedroom. Angry teenage spirit Beatrice Long has requested Lizzie’s help, telling her, “Save me, save him”. While Lizzie wants no part of exorcising Beatrice, she guesses her long absent father is somehow involved, and sets out to find him. When she learns he works for the law firm Webster & Son, Attorneys for the Damned, awkward pieces begin to fall into place. But with her father missing, Lizzie is on her own to placate Beatrice, solve the mystery of her death (and find her head), as well as rescue her father. And, apparently, take her place as a litigator before the Court of Uncommon Pleas. Lucky for Lizzie, she has the support of her best friend, Natalie, and her long despised stepfather (maybe she was wrong about him?), as well as several new friends who enthusiastically help her polish her litigation skills. How did Lizzie go from fly-under-the-radar middle schooler to Elizabeth Webster, barrister, facing down the fallen angel Abezethibou? Part mystery, part ghost story, and totally fun, Elizabeth Webster and the Court of Uncommon Pleas touches on family relationships as well as being willing to trust and to extend yourself.

THOUGHTS: Hand this rollicking good time to readers looking for a humorous book, as well as those who enjoy a light mystery or a spooky book.

Realistic Fantasy (Paranormal)           Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD


Allen, Elise. Twinchantment. Roaring Brook, 2019. 978-1-534-13288-7. 336 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

Being a princess means you can do whatever you want, and everyone has to listen to you, right? Normally in stories this is true, but for Flisarra her very existence is technically illegal. You see, the princess known as Flisarah is actually twins Sarah and Flissa, and in their kingdom being a twin is illegal as is anything else seen as magical. A long time ago magic was common and used everywhere. When one Mange tried to use dark magic to take over the kingdom, rules were created and only chosen mange are allowed magic for the protection of the kingdom. Flissa and Sarah must be very careful and never be seen together. That all changes when their mother is sick, and they believe it is because of a curse. The princesses now must sneak across their kingdom and enter the magical realm to bring back the very mange who tried to take over the kingdom. As they travel they discover life and what they have been taught may not always be what it seems.

THOUGHTS: This book would be great for students who like the fantasy genre and books like Harry Potter. The way the girls work together and build friendships throughout the book makes it a great middle grades read.

 Fantasy          Arryn Cumpston Crawford Central SD


Farrant, Natasha. A Talent for Trouble. Clarion, 2019 (US Edition).  978-1-328-58078-8. 258 p. $16.99. Gr. 5-7.

Alice Mistlethwaite has been sent off to Stormy Loch, a boarding school in Scotland, by her Aunt Patience and her father, Barney. Aunt Patience hopes that this will be a new start for the whole family who is grieving over the death of Alice’s mother. Naturally a shy child who loves to write fantasy stories, Alice is apprehensive and lonely, and despite evidence to the contrary, she is devoted to her father. On the train ride to school she meets Jesse, another lonely child who feels lost and is worried about living up to the reputation of his older brothers. Then there is Fergus Mackenzie, who is very bright, plays mean pranks, and doesn’t know how to focus his gifts. Major Fortescue, the headmaster is reminiscent of Dumbledore. Seemingly formidable he, as the reader will discover, knows just how to get his charges on the right path to self-understanding. The three students are assigned team for the Year Sevens’ orienteering challenge in the hills of Scotland. This leads to perilous adventures through the rough terrain. Not only must they survive the trek, but they also escape some villainous characters who are after Alice because of her father.

THOUGHTS: The unidentified narrator really involves the reader and draws us into the story. The ending is not what most would expect – a grand reunion of father and daughter. It is so very difficult to realize that your parent is not the hero and that you have misplaced trust in your dead-beat dad. Life’s lesson can be hard, but Alice is much stronger as are the others.

Realistic Fiction          Jeannie Bellavance, Retired


Sayre, Justin. Mean. Penguin Workshop, 2019. 978-1-524-78795-0. 232 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8. 

Set in the same world as his other novels, Husky and Pretty, Justin Sayre delivers a poignant look at what it means to find yourself when you don’t know where to start. Ellen was once told she gets one adjective to describe herself when she gets to high school, and it turns out she’s mean. She doesn’t try to be; she just has trouble holding back her opinions because why should she have to? Together with best friends Ducks and Sophie, Ellen experiences regular school and, on her own, Hebrew school while preparing for her bat mitzvah. At school, everything is changing. Girls are starting to become boy crazy and change who they are. At Hebrew school, is she starting to become boy crazy herself? And what does that mean? Does she now have to change who she is? Throughout the novel Ellen navigates life’s ups and downs with friends and family all while trying to answer the one essential question: on the day she becomes a woman, what kind of woman does she want to be?

THOUGHTS: Mean was a charming read about what it takes to grow into who you are meant to be and the people who help you along the way.

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD


Donnelly, Rebecca. The Friendship Lie. Capstone Editions, 2019. 978-1-684-46061-8. 267 p. $15.95. Grades 4-6.

Cora Davis’s parents know all about garbage, literally. They study where garbage goes after we toss it, and Cora has spent many an afternoon digging through garbage and sorting it. Lately, Cora feels like her life has been thrown in the trash when she and her best friend Sybella stop talking. 5th grade is not turning out the way that Cora wanted it to be. Woven throughout the book are also diary excerpts from a diary of a girl named Penny Ellen Chambord. The diary plays a large part in the friendship between the two girls and causes them to be able to see things from the other person’s perspective. There is also a family element, as Cora’s parents are separated, and that is causing tension in the family. Cora is a twin, and the relationship she has with her brother, who is the complete opposite of her, plays a rather large role. While Cora’s friendship is falling apart, her parents’ marriage is falling apart. Her mother is away for most of the book, and Cora ‘calls’ her and leaves her voicemails, which are a great insight into how Cora is feeling, both about her parents’ relationship as well as her former friendship with Sybella.

THOUGHTS: There is a major focus on garbage and the science of garbage, so that might turn some readers off. However, at the heart of the book is a sweet story about two friends who have to work at their friendship and learn that friendships change and grow. Overall, I think this book is a great representation of what it’s like for girls and boys to deal with friendships.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Academy

MG – Dream within a Dream; My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich; Child of the Dream; Best Friends

MacLachlan, Patricia. Dream within a Dream. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2019. 978-1-534-42959-8. 119 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Thirteen year old Louisiana and her ten year old brother Theo are spending the summer on Deer Island with their grandparents. Louisa, who loves to write, would rather be with her parents on their latest bird watching expedition, but her brother wants to stay on the island forever and read books. Grandfather Jake is losing his vision and is trying to etch faces into his memory before he loses it completely. Louisa meets other inhabitants of the island, including 14 year old George and his family. She experiences her first kiss with George, and the theme of romantic love is peppered throughout the story. George’s parents say that romance helped pass the time during a severe storm, Louisa’s grandparents enjoy slow dancing without music, and George touches his fingers to Louisa’s lips and dances close to her in the water. The plot deals more with feelings than events. The only real conflict in the story occurs when the parents return to the island intending to take their children on the next expedition. The parents are surprised and somewhat saddened to learn that the siblings want to stay on the island with their grandparents.

THOUGHTS: Hand this one to readers who prefer relationship books without much plot development and to fans of MacLachlan’s other books.

Realistic Fiction          Denise Medwick, Retired, West Allegheny SD


Zoboi, Izi. My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich. Dutton, 2019. 978-0-399-18735-3. 250 p. $16.99  Grades 4-8.

Ibi Zoboi’s (American Street) historical fiction middle grade novel with a sci-fi vibe features Ebony-Grace Norfleet Freeman, or, as she likes to call herself, E-Grace Starfleet. Ebony-Grace hails from Huntsville Alabama, where she lives with her mother and, up until recently, her beloved grandfather, one of the first Black engineers at NASA. When trouble brews, Ebony-Grace is sent to Harlem for what is supposed to be a few weeks with her father. Southern girl Ebony-Grace does not take to the hustle and bustle of New York City, which she calls “No-Joke City.” Harlem in 1984 is a vibrant place, but Ebony-Grace finds hip-hop, breakdancing, and double-dutch more unfamiliar and alien than outer space. As weeks drag into an entire summer, she retreats into an imaginative world fed by her love of Star Trek, Star Wars, and NASA. The girls in the neighborhood think she is crazy: they tell her she has no “Flava,” and nickname her “ice cream sandwich.” Ebony-Grace never completely assimilates, but more importantly, she starts to appreciate people and perspectives different from her own. The story, setting, themes, and characters are all unique and compelling, but the narrative thread is often difficult to follow. There is a thin line between the bizarre stories going on in Ebony-Grace’s head and the actual goings-on of 126th St. in Harlem that results in an overarching sense of hyperreality. Some cartoon panels illustrating Ebony-Grace’s fantasies are included throughout.

THOUGHTS: A fascinating but flawed book. Many readers are likely to find My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich too frustrating to finish (even if the awesome cover draws them in), but the book may find an appreciative audience among young teens and tweens who love Star Trek and Star Wars, and, like Ebony-Grace, sometimes feel like aliens in the real world. A possible purchase for middle school libraries where science fiction is popular. 

Historical Fiction          Maggie Bokelman, Cumberland Valley SD

Ebony-Grace’s world knows no bounds. Her beloved grandfather, a pioneering black engineer with NASA, has shared his love of space with her and encouraged her dreams.  Her imagination has conjured up a universe populated with villains and heroes where she and her grandfather battle evil so good can triumph. When a hushed up crisis with her grandfather erupts, Ebony Grace is sent to New York City to spend time with her father. Harlem of 1984 is a whole different galaxy from Huntsville, Alabama. The Harlem girls are doing double-dutch, playing in the fire hydrants, rapping and breakdancing. Her New York friend, Bianca, no longer wants to act out make believe space missions, telling Ebony-Grace to grow up. Ebony longs to go home, and to talk to her granddaddy, but she is continuously redirected from contact with him. The truth of her grandfather’s trouble is needlessly mystified. There are hints of a possible scandal, amplified when Ebony learns he no longer works at NASA. Only at the end of the book does the reader discover the truth, that he is dying in the hospital. Throughout her Harlem summer, Ebony tries to balance her true self with the kids in Harlem, locking away her “imagination place,” as she attempts to figure out how to be part of a very different crew. Near the end of the book Ebony makes a friend who shares her passion for space and returns to Huntsville more knowledgeable about dealing with alien life forms in their home environment, and a more mature understanding of her imagination and dreams. 

THOUGHTS: Ebony Grace is a spunky protagonist whose lively imagination shines. Readers will identify with Ebony not knowing how to fit in and will root for her to follow her dreams. 

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich follows Ebony-Grace who lives in Alabama in 1984. When the book opens, she is headed to New York City to spend the summer with her father which she is not happy about. Ebony-Grace and her grandfather share a love of space and Star Trek, and she feels like an alien coming to New York City. This place is nothing like her hometown, and she misses her family and her grandfather especially. Ebony-Grace struggles to make friends and fit into the new life that she is forced into. It is never stated that Ebony-Grace has a disability, but there is something going on as you read through the novel. There is also something going on with her grandfather, but that is never directly addressed or even dealt with. The book mainly focuses on Ebony-Grace trying to make friends and trying to fit into New York City.

THOUGHTS: I have read the other two books published by Ibi Zoboi (Pride and American Street) and those were geared for Young Adult audiences; meanwhile, this book is clearly for middle grade readers. The main character feels like she has some form of autism, or Aspergers, but there is nothing stated within the book. The main character is extremely well created and thought out; her friendships and problems with getting friends feels realistic and true to life. I really enjoyed this book and hope that Ibi Zoboi writes more middle grade.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy


Robinson, Sharon. Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963. Scholastic Press, 2019. 978-1-338-33113-4. 240 p., $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Sharon Robinson tells of her coming awareness of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s when she is thirteen. After his retirement from baseball her famous father, Jackie Robinson, is active in the civil rights movement, but has sheltered his children from the harsher realities. They live very comfortably outside of New York City in mostly white suburban Stamford, Connecticut. Although her parents have their children join Jack and Jill of America, an organization which is dedicated to leadership development in young African Americans, the children feel isolated as there are few African Americans in town. When she hears the speech by George Wallace, declaring “segregation now, segregation, tomorrow, segregation forever,” Sharon begins to wonder where her place is in this struggle. Her parents realize that they need to expose their children to more. During 1963 the Robinsons host fundraisers at their home to help support the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Shortly after this triumphant summer of activism, the four young girls were killed when a bomb blew up at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Sharon and her family were overcome with sadness but found strength to carry on.

THOUGHTS: This is a well-rounded story in that Sharon blends her activism with other teenaged concerns such as the first dances, boys, riding her horse, and getting along with her brothers. The importance of this book shows that even though she has lived a privileged life, she wants and needs to be connected with the people who are still struggling for equal rights.

973.92, 92, Autobiography, Memoir, Civil Rights         Jeannie Bellavance, Retired


Hale, Shannon. Best Friends. Roaring Brook Press (First Second). 2019. 978-1-250-31745-2. 239 p. $21.99. Grades 4-7.

Shannon’s looking forward to 6th grade and is thrilled that she has become one of the popular girls but learns that navigating the social tract can be very tricky.  Today’s cool songs and TV shows can be out-of-date by tomorrow. She finds that there are traps and petty power plays as the “rules” change seemingly arbitrarily.  Shannon gets upset when her friends try to trick her, or she realizes that she is falling into some of the same habits as the “mean” girls. Shannon begins to question her so called friendships as she starts to decide what she wants. Does she really want to be nasty and hurt others? To help herself cope with different situations, Shannon is writing a fantasy about Alexandra a lonely rich girl who is going through some of the same issues. Shannon also struggles with her teacher who accuses her of not paying attention. It is another teacher who recognizes Shannon’s skills, boosting her confidence. When it is time to select courses for seventh grade, Shannon has the self-understanding and courage to choose what she wants, her own direction.

THOUGHTS: Sixth grade can be a time of growth, but it can also be very stressful as preadolescent girls (and boys) try to discover who they are. At one point being part of a group is important, but does it come at a cost? Through her own experience Shannon Hale offers insight and guidance.  

Graphic Novel          Jeannie Bellavance, Retired

YA – 10 Blind Dates; Brave Face; The Institute; Let Me Hear a Rhyme; Lucky Caller

Elston, Ashley. 10 Blind Dates. Hyperion, 2019. 978-1-368-02749-6. 327 p. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

With the Christmas holiday fast approaching, Louisiana senior Sophie finds herself unexpectedly (and unhappily) single after her boyfriend, Griffin, breaks up with her. Her parents are away, tending to Sophie’s very pregnant older sister, so she heads to Shreveport to nurse her broken heart in the company of her grandparents and large, boisterous extended family. Nonna decides to cheer up her granddaughter by organizing family members to set Sophie up on ten blind dates. Each chapter in this delightful rom-com covers a day and a date; they range from sweet (a Festival of Lights) to embarrassing (a Nativity scene with Sophie and her date in the roles of Mary and Joseph) to very public (a Kiss Cam!) as Sophie navigates ten days and ten dudes. In the meantime, Sophie’s sister delivers her baby prematurely, Griffin wants her back, and Sophie realizes that the one date she really wants is the one she will never have … or will she? With plenty of holiday cheer and a loving, eccentric family that always provides a soft place to fall, this ultra-fresh romance will look perfect under the tree!

THOUGHTS: I fell head over heels for Ashley Elston’s remarkable (and under-rated) The Lying Woods, and I highly recommend a date with her newest novel!

Realistic Fiction          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD


Hutchinson, Shaun David. Brave Face: A Memoir. Simon Pulse, 2019. 978-1-534-43151-5. 356 p. $18.99. Grades 9+.

In his compelling memoir, Brave Face, prolific young adult author Shaun David Hutchinson recounts his teenage years and his experiences with identifying as queer, coming out, and depression. Growing up in Florida in the 1990s, Hutchinson internalized many of the stereotypes and misconceptions about gay people that were common at the time. He despised and dreaded every future he could envision for himself, all involving a terrifying combination of risky sex, AIDS, drugs, hate crimes, and a flamboyant persona. In his own words, “I was trying to see a future for myself where I could be gay without being a fag.” Lonely, frustrated, and angry, he punched walls, cut, and burned himself to vent his pain as his depression deepened, accompanied by a sharp fear of abandonment by his friends and family and he began to come out to them. As his depression whispered that this bleak existence was the one he deserved, he became suicidal. Brave Face is, indeed, a brave book. Hutchinson openly reveals the “shape and texture” of his pain. It’s also a great time capsule of a 1990s adolescence: Tori Amos CDs, dial-up, and a part-time job at Waldenbooks in the mall. 

THOUGHTS: The author deftly meshes journal entries, a frank depiction of his self-hatred, and his sly sense of humor with his vantage point “from the light at the other end of the tunnel” to create a most worthwhile read.

Memoir          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD


King, Stephen. The Institute. Scribner, 2019. 978-1-982-11056-7. 561 p. $30.00. Grades 10+.

Luke Ellis is a smart kid, a really smart kid. The 12-year old student at the Broderick School for Exceptional Children in Minneapolis is ready to start two college programs … and he can move objects with his mind. This telekinetic ability brings him, through a violent turn of events, to the Institute in rural Maine, where special children like Luke are subjected to weeks of tests in Front Half before being moved to Back Half. There a mysterious but dire fate awaits the residents. No one has ever escaped the Institute; no one is quite as smart as Luke, either. Stephen King’s harrowing depiction of Luke’s and his fellow captives’ experiences, complete with sadistic medical treatments, taps into a classic horror vein. The parallel story of erstwhile police officer Tim Jamieson and his arrival in DuPray, South Carolina, eventually intertwines with Luke’s, leading to a literally ground-shaking showdown between the forces of good and evil (or so they seem).

THOUGHTS: What could make a Stephen King book even more appealing to young adults? A cast of characters made up mostly of pre-teens and adolescents! With plenty of Stephen King’s trademark self-referential Easter eggs, The Institute is a great read for budding horror fans of all ages who have the patience for a slow but highly satisfying boil.

Fiction (Crossover / Horror)          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley


Jackson, Tiffany D. Let Me Hear a Rhyme. Katherine Tegen Books, 2019. 978-0-062-84032-5. 376 p. $17.99. Grades 9+.

Late 1990s. Bed-Stuy, Brooklynn, New York. Tupac is dead. Biggie Smalls is dead. Stephon Davis is dead. After the murder of their best friend, Quadir and Jarrell are determined to immortalize Steph through his music. With the help of Steph’s sister, Jasmine, the three create a rap album to promote Steph’s previously recorded songs. When a major record label contacts “The Architect,” Steph’s rap name, to set up a meeting, Quadir and Jarrell formulate a plan to promote Steph’s music without him or Jasmine. As their lies and deceit grow bigger and bigger, the two friends must face the truth and the possibility that fighting to immortalize Steph might just be what kills him again. With the continued secrets and lies, Quadir, Jarrell, and Jasmine must face their own stories and come to terms with the Steph’s murder and their possible involvement. 

THOUGHTS: Tiffany D. Jackson once again crafts a beautiful novel of friendship, love, and what-ifs.  Each friend must grapple with their own actions and interactions that led to Steph’s death while trying to come to terms with his murder and their need for their friend. This is a must-have for all high school collections as are all of Jackson’s novels.  

Realistic Fiction          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD


Mills, Emma. Lucky Caller. Henry Holt and Company, 2020. 978-1-250-17965-4. $17.99. 336 p. Grades 8+. 

Nina took the radio broadcasting class for a fun “A” in her final semester at her Indianapolis-area high school. Whether she consciously realizes it or not, she is going to need something positive to keep her mind off her changing family dynamics – her mom is getting remarried, and as a result, she and her sisters will probably move to a new house with their mom and future stepdad, Dan the dentist (who they jokingly call “the Dantist”). But when childhood family friend Jamie ends up in the radio broadcasting class as well, he turns what was supposed to be a fun class into a complicated minefield of awkward interactions and bittersweet memories resurfacing. And that does not even take into consideration their group’s squabbling over everything from their show’s format to its name and their individual roles. In a desperate attempt to solve their problems and increase their listeners – and thus their grades – the group hatches a brilliant plan that involves Nina and her sort-of famous DJ dad out on the west coast. He’ll have to actually follow through for a change in order for it to work. 

THOUGHTS: When it comes to YA contemporary, Emma Mills never fails. Lucky Caller tackles all the typical coming-of-age themes and does it while evoking both emotional tears and knee-slapping laughter. Her narrator’s voice is authentic and contains the biting sometimes dark wit her readers know and love. Mills’ novels always do justice to intimate teen friendships, and this one in particular is full of nostalgia that will take readers back to their tween years when it was still ok to play and imagine, yet it also explores how difficult it is to navigate changing relationships as one moves into high school and eventual adulthood. And the 90’s music is the icing on the cake.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD