MG – Black Brother, Black Brother

Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Black Brother, Black Brother. Little, Brown and Company, 2020. 978-0-316-49380-2. 239 p. $16.99. Grades 4-8.

Donte Ellison is a biracial 7th grader at the exclusive Middlefield Prep. Treated unjustly because of his skin color, he is suspended from school for something he did not do. His older brother Trey is beloved at the school, and many wish Donte could be more like his lighter skinned brother. Looking for a place to belong, Donte joins a local youth center where he meets a former Olympic fencer, Arden Jones, who runs the programs for the kids. Donte, who has never been an athlete, starts training with Jones, and soon finds his niche as a fencer. But when Donte and his team have to compete against his school’s team, and the racist captain of the team whose family is the school’s largest donor, Donte has to confront his emotions, his bully, and the racism that surrounds his sport.

THOUGHTS: This book addresses many tough issues in a way that is completely appropriate for middle grade readers.  At times I felt the book did not delve into the topics as much as I would have liked, but I think middle grade readers would not feel the same. Parker Rhodes is becoming a must purchase middle grade author!

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

YA – Summer of Everything

Winters, Julian. Summer of Everything. Interlude Press, 2020. 978-1-945-05391-7. $17.99. 293 p. Grades 9 and up. 

Wesley Hudson (named after Wesley Crusher from Star Trek) has just returned from spending the first part of his summer in Italy with his parents. His dad, Calvin, is a world-class chef and his mom, Savannah, is a best-selling novelist of Horrmance, which Wes describes as “books about werewolves fighting a blood feud while trying to find a date to the prom.” He’s not exactly a fan of her books. He is a fan of comic books though, and aside from his parents and his friends, one of the things he loves most in this world is Once Upon a Page, the bookstore where he works just a few steps away from the Santa Monica pier. Wes knows that he should enjoy this last summer before college just working at Once Upon a Page and hanging out with his friends, but he also knows he has a LOT going on. For starters, he must figure out what to study at UCLA. His brother, with whom he has a somewhat strained relationship, is getting married. He also needs to come up with a plan to finally do something about the crush he’s had on his best friend Nico since sophomore year. At first, Wes’s approach is just to sit back and assume it’ll all work out at some point because in his eyes, “Life owes [him] so hard for giving him nerdy genes, a pain-in-the-ass older brother, uncooperative curly hair, and the inability to skateboard.” But then Wes and his friends discover that Once Upon a Page is in trouble of being sold, and he can no longer just sit back and wait for things to happen. 

THOUGHTS: Wes and his loveable, geeky friends come from various racial and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations making this a story where many readers can see themselves represented. It’s also full of nerdy comic book and 90’s music references. His relationship with Mrs. Rossi, the older owner of Once Upon a Page, is particularly endearing. Quite a bit of cursing, discussions about sex, and instances of underage drinking do make appearances in this book which may be worth warning sensitive readers. Ultimately though, The Summer of Everything is a look at a queer black young man’s coming of age as he starts to figure out his future and take on adult responsibilities. 

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Late to the Party

Quindlen, Kelly. Late to the Party. Roaring Brook Press, 2020. 978-1-250-20913-9. 297 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Codi is comfortable in her bubble, content to do her own thing with the same friends she’s had since elementary school, Maritza and JaKory. That is until her little brother almost has his first kiss before she does. Realizing that she is already seventeen and about to enter her senior year of high school, Codi fears her chance to be a ‘normal’ teenager is slipping away. Hesitant at first, she begins to break out of her comfort zone little by little, meeting new friends, going new places, and even experiencing her first party. All the while tensions with Maritza and JaKory continue to rise. Can Codi be the friend she once was while still discovering new things? Can she be two people, the quiet artistic girl and the social teenager, at once? Will there be room enough in her life for life?

THOUGHTS: Late to the Party is a satisfying exploration of what it means for interests and relationships to grow as you get older, a reflection of an utterly relatable internal conflict.

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

MG – Bad Best Friend

Vail, Rachel. Bad Best Friend. Viking, 2020. 978-0-451-47945-7. 301 p. $15.67. Grades 5-8.

“Everybody stand next to your best friend!” Piece of cake for Niki. She’s already standing next to her best friend, Ava. But then Ava chooses Britney, and from that moment on, eighth grade is not at all how Niki expected it to be. If Ava is now part of “The Squad,” where does that leave Niki? Told in the first person from Niki’s perspective, the reader follows along as Niki tries to understand what she did to lose her best friend, discovers her own personality without Ava, finds new friends, and navigates a difficult situation at home with her brother, Danny. When Niki deals with an unwanted kiss at a party, this book goes in a direction that is unexpected but not out of place. Vail honestly tackles sexual harassment from multiple perspectives. 

THOUGHTS: Middle school students, especially girls, will understand the drama that occurs when one person decides to end a friendship. Niki’s situation is universal, and many readers will sympathize with her and cheer her on as she finds her own way.  

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

YA – Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In

Tran, Phuc. Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In. Flatiron Books. 2020. 978-1-250-19471-8. 306 pp. $27.99. Gr. 11+.

In 1975, during the fall of Saigon, Vietnam, Phuc Tran’s family immigrated to the United States with a two-year old Phuc in tow. They landed in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where they struggled to assimilate into small town life. Sigh, Gone explores Phuc’s childhood and teenage years. Against the indelible backdrop of the 1980s, he finds comfort and connection in punk rock music, the wisdom of classic books, skateboarding with his friends, and indulging in some minor hooliganism. This memoir describes his journey of self-discovery as well as many experiences of isolation, racism, and even abuse. Although firmly rooted in time and place, Phuc’s quest to develop his own identity (and avoid the timeless pitfall of being a poser) will resonate with today’s teen readers. “I contemplated what exactly was authentic for me, a Vietnamese teenager in small-town PA,” Tran writes. “What part of me was the real me and what was the façade?”

THOUGHTS: Sigh, Gone is an uncommonly good memoir: moving, universal, and profound. Readers will laugh out loud in every chapter, look up Phuc’s many music (and hopefully literature) references online, and also look up a higher-than-average number of new words in the dictionary.

Memoir (Crossover)          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – The Vanishing Half

Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. Riverhead Books. 2020. 978-0-525-53629-1. 343 pp. $27.00. Gr. 10+.

In 1954, the morning after Founders Day, the 16-year old Vignes twins disappeared from their tiny town of Mallard, Louisiana. Desiree and Stella made their way to New Orleans, where their lives took two very different directions and identities. Stella began “passing” as white, and Desiree continued living as a black woman. Now, fourteen years later, Desiree has returned to Mallard with a young daughter in tow. Jude’s dark complexion makes waves in Mallard, a town founded on the principle of prizing each generation’s lighter and lighter skin tones. No one has seen or heard from Stella in almost as many years. The narrative shifts between 1968, when Desiree and Jude arrive in Mallard, and 1978, when Jude herself leaves to attend UCLA. There she falls in love with a trans man named Reese. Brit Bennett expertly depicts each time period and setting, weaving in real-world events such the integration of wealthy suburban neighborhoods, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the early days of the AIDS crisis. She realistically embeds each woman’s story within the timeline, gradually turning up the tension in one plot strand before focusing on another, equally well-crafted, character arc. No jaw-dropping plot twists are required in a historical novel this good, with storylines that converge, draw apart, and come together again with heartbreaking realism.

THOUGHTS: Crisp, unpretentious writing, vivid settings, and characters who genuinely feel real make for one of the best reads of 2020.

Historical Fiction          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Turtle Under Ice

Del Rosario, Juleah. Turtle Under Ice. Simon Pulse, 2020. 259 p. $18.99 978-15344-4295-5 Grades 9-12.

Teenage sisters Rowena and Ariana have drifted apart since the unexpected death of their mother several years ago. Rowena has thrown herself into soccer, becoming a respected top athlete on her team. Fearing change, Ariana has retreated into…nothing, and risks failing school. The sisters’ closeness has become a barrier as they both fear moving on, and as they both communicate less, and less honestly. Their father has remarried a woman they also love, and the family is incredibly hopeful about the arrival of their new half-sister. However, Maribel suffers a miscarriage, and the loss is too cruel for the sisters. “Our sister’s heart stopped beating/like our mother’s, unexpectedly/on a day that was otherwise/normal” (53).  Ariana vanishes, which leaves Rowena feeling angry and abandoned. This novel in verse is narrated by both sisters as they try to come to terms with this new grief, in addition to the unending grief of losing their mother. Slowly, both sisters discover that their grief has led them to close themselves off to others. Rowena tracks down Ariana at an art exhibit, where Ariana shows a painting “Turtle Under Ice” in memory of their mother. The relief comes very slowly as both girls see hope in Ariana’s art.

THOUGHTS: Del Rosario has a way with creating beautiful images with her words: “Our family…/is a frayed string of lights/that someone needs to fix/with electrical tape./It’s the electricity/that can’t get to us/because Mom’s bulb/has burned out,/so now the whole string is dark./But without the lights turned on/does anyone even notice/that we are broken?” (43-44). Ultimately, the insightful thoughts aren’t enough to save this novel from the monotonous weight of the crushing grief and depression, and the cover does little to draw in all but the most curious of readers. Recommended where novels in verse or multiple narrators are in heavy demand.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Novel in Verse

MG – When You Know What I Know

Solter, Sonja. When You Know What I Know. Little, Brown & Company, 2020. 212 p. $16.99. 978-0316-53544-1 Grades 5-8.

Ten-year-old Tori is struggling with the aftermath of sexual abuse by her once-favorite uncle. She feels shame, anger, loss, sadness, and fear. She tells her mom, who is reluctant to believe her, and her grandmother takes her uncle’s side. Since her single mom relied on Tori’s grandmother and uncle for any childcare for Tori and her eight-year-old sister Taylor, the family strain increases. Their responses make Tori feel worse: “Maybe I shouldn’t have told,” and her secret is building a wedge between her and her friends as well. This novel told in verse reveals her confusion and pain without being specific about the incident. Eventually, another girl accuses her uncle of abuse, and Tori finds a freeing yet sickening feeling of vindication, along with support from her mother and grandmother.  By novel’s end, she discovers she is able to forget the incident for a few hours. The memories still return, “But still./A day like today…/It’s possible./I know that now.”

THOUGHTS: Solter’s novel provides acknowledgement of sexual abuse of young people and the difficulty of not being believed when speaking up; this honesty will provide hope for survivors as well. The content, in no way explicit, is appropriate for upper elementary and middle school readers. The Author’s Note states, “My hope for this book is that readers will be encouraged to tell their own truths, and–if someone doesn’t believe them at first–to keep on telling until they get the help they need. Healing takes time…[and] is not only possible, it IS where all of our stories are going” (208).

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Novel in Verse

MG – How to Be a Girl in the World

Carter, Caela. How to Be a Girl in the World. Harper Collins Childrens, 2020. 294 p. $16.99 978-0-062-67270-4 Grades 5-8.

Lydia has spent the entire summer in pants, long sleeves, and turtlenecks, despite the heat, despite her single mom’s concerned comments, and despite friends’ odd looks. Lydia knows she’s not normal, and she doesn’t want to talk about it. Lydia, her biracial cousin Emma, and Lydia’s mom are proudly moving from an apartment to a dilapidated house of their own. Living in the house will require a huge amount of work (it’s chock full of dusty furniture left behind), but Lydia sees in it a chance to be safe. She would love to escape the nicknames, looks and comments of the boys at her private school. She shivers at men’s glances on the subway, or sitting too close. She feels extremely uncomfortable with her mom’s boyfriend Jeremy, whose hugs are just a little too long or too tight, and who assumes a greater friendliness with Lydia and Emma than Lydia would like. But no one else seems to notice any problem, so Lydia knows it’s her. She’s not normal, and if she can’t fix it, at least she can hide herself. Then maybe she’ll feel protected. In the new house, she finds a room full of herbs in jars and a book of spells. It’s exactly what she needs and even allows her to re-forge a connection with the best friend she’s ignored for the summer. They both try the spells, but the boys’ behavior and Jeremy’s behavior only becomes more troublesome, and an outburst from Lydia results in her being suspended from school. Lydia finally confides in her mother about the boys’ treatment of her, and her mother swiftly comes to her aid. When Lydia next explains Jeremy’s actions, her mother is devastated but resolute that Jeremy will never set foot in their house again. To Lydia, the revelatory message that she alone makes “the rules” concerning her body is freeing, and the new understanding and openness with those around her helps her to learn to own those rules.

THOUGHTS: This is a powerful, “ordinary” story that every middle school girl would benefit from reading. It’s for every girl who’s ever been told, “it’s no big deal,” “you’re such a baby,” “that’s part of being a girl,” etc. And it’s for every boy who’s ever been told, “she likes it,” “you’re just being a boy,” or “looking doesn’t hurt.”  Pair with Barbara Dee’s Maybe He Just Likes You.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – Beast: Face-to-Face with the Florida Bigfoot

Key, Watt. Beast: Face-to-Face with the Florida Bigfoot. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2020. 215 p. $16.99 978-0-374-31369-2 Grades 5-8. 

Adam survives the car crash that apparently killed his parents–at least, they have disappeared. When questioned by police, he speaks bewilderedly but honestly of what he saw in the wooded road near the Suwanee River: not a person or a bear, but something bigger than a bear, covered in hair, with a human face and huge black eyes. When the local paper runs a story about the accident including a “Sasquatch-like creature,” Adam regrets saying anything. The questions and the disbelief become overwhelming, especially from his Uncle John, who takes him in while the search for his parents continues. Adam can’t forget the creature, and due to disrupted sleep and nightmares, he begins searching online for information. He learns of a local Sasquatch appearance nearly 30 years ago, and sets out to question the man who reported it. He finds the near-hermit “Stanley” who reluctantly, then completely, tells Adam all he knows about the creatures, with a strong warning that the search for answers destroys your life. Adam decides he needs answers, and sets off on his own with some basic supplies.  What follows is a hard-core survival story wherein Adam becomes so attuned to the forest and animals that he lives as one of them, soon close to starving. Then he sees one of the creatures, then more. The scenes with the creatures shift from past tense to present tense, adding to the sense of unreality. Adam has found what he came for, but can he survive, can he find his parents, and can he get proof of the creatures’ existence?

THOUGHTS: With a likeable narrator, reasonable length (215 pages), and an attractive cover (see the creature in the trees?), Key has written a suspenseful survival story that will attract middle school readers curious about Bigfoot. Key includes helpful explanatory information about Sasquatch sightings.

Fantasy, Paranormal Fiction        Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD