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

YA – Ever Cursed

Haydu, Corey Ann. Ever Cursed. Simon & Schuster, 2020. 978-1-534-43703-6. $18.99. 296 p. Grades 9-12.

Five princesses have been cursed, the queen is trapped in a glass box, and the spell is almost turning true. Jane, Alice, Nora, Grace, and Eden have all been cursed by a young witch to be without something: food, sleep, love, memory, and hope. Jane, the oldest, has been without food for five years, and the sisters finally have the opportunity to break their spell before it turns true and becomes permanent. Jane and her sisters are forced to work with the young witch, Raegan, who cursed them five years ago. To break the spell, they must collect a clock from the oldest, a tear from the saddest, a lock of hair from the most beautiful, and a crown from the richest. But, the kingdom of Ever is under a spell far more threatening than any cast by a witch, and the sisters soon discover the terrible truths about their own kingdom and the one person they thought they knew best.

THOUGHTS:  Although Ever Cursed appears to be a fairy tale, this is mainly a book about sexual assault and the abuse of power, and their patriarchal world is not so unlike our own. The beginning of the book includes a content warning for readers explaining that this book may also be triggering for anyone who is currently or previously struggling with an eating disorder. Overall, the strong, female characters in this book have to come to terms with some hard truths, but they are able to work together to expose the real evil plaguing their kingdom.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – The Black Kids

Reed, Christina Hammonds. The Black Kids. Simon & Schuster, 2020. 978-1-534-46272-4. 362. p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Los Angeles is in flames after the police officers who beat Rodney King senseless are acquitted. These events of the early 90s have an intense, life-changing effect on native Angelinos and upper middle-class African Americans, Ashley Bennett and her older sister Jo. As Christina Hammonds Reed’s relatable narrator, the popular, thoughtful Ashley, nears graduation, she starts to view her childhood (white) friends differently, a situation exacerbated by the local disruptions. Her teenage stresses about college acceptances, parental conflicts, and illicit flirting, pale once the riots start and her rebellious sister Jo drops out of school, marries, and protests the verdicts. Ashley has lived a privileged life pampered by the family’s Guatemalan housekeeper, Lucia, and indulged in every material way. Now, her father’s family-owned business–run all these years by his brother– is in ruin, bringing her uncle and her cousin to the Bennetts’ doorstep. When Ashley connects with the kind, charming basketball star, LaShawn Johnson who attends the elite prep school on scholarship, and the off-beat Lana Haskins who is possibly a victim of physical abuse, she questions her friend choices and wonders why she has no Black friends. When Ashley inadvertently starts a rumor at her school that gets LaShawn suspended, she finds it difficult to rectify the situation; but it makes her reflect on the inequity in the lives of people of color. Her sister’s mounting militancy finally gets her arrested and sentenced, though she was just one of the crowd of protestors when someone threw a Molotov cocktail setting a fire. Ashley becomes accepted by the Black kids at school and discovers she can widen her circle of friends. More importantly, the Bennett family grows better at communicating with each other and, in doing that, they realize they care deeply about each other. Christina Hammonds Reed takes a coming-of-age story set in the early nineties against the backdrop of the Rodney King beatings to a new level. The relationships, tension, and plot development as well as the cultural references and dialogue draw in the reader. In particular, Reed’s writing style is fresh and exact, giving a unique take on the typical high school tropes—mothers vs. daughters, siblings, popularity, the future, romance, self-discovery –thus making The Black Kids a compelling read.

THOUGHTS: Recommend this title to high school students who liked Karen English’s middle grade novel, It All Comes Down to This that told of the Watts riots, and lead them to Ana Deavere Smith’s one-woman show featuring the players in the Rodney King beating and its aftermath, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Activism and passivity are shown in the two sisters and students can discuss these divergent characters. The difficulty separating from childhood friends or the desire to be seen in a different light as one matures is a strong theme in this book. Though the elements of the story are not uncommon, Reed’s gifted writing style pulls you into to the book.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Step back into the early nineties in LA for a coming of age story that could easily situate itself into the current landscape of America (without social media and cell phones). Main character, Ashley lives a pretty posh life, removed from the hardships her parents faced growing up and even from a lot of the current events. She attends a private school with a lot of white friends and lives in a respected neighborhood. When the Rodney King trial and subsequent riots take over the city, Ashley’s world starts to shake, and she’s forced to reckon with questions of identity. From the shift from child to adult, Ashley’s experience provides the foreground to the city of Los Angeles during a fragile moment in US history.

THOUGHTS: This book should replace some of the dusty “classics” taking up room on high school shelves. Although suitable for high school students, there is mention of drugs, alcohol, and self harm.

Historical Fiction          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

YA – Girl, Unframed

Caletti, Deb. Girl, Unframed. Simon Pulse, 2020. 978-1-534-42697-9. 368 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Can you imagine if your mom was famous? Like moviestar-famous? Sydney doesn’t usually have to deal with her mom and her drama, but she’s going to visit her for the summer. Before setting eyes on her mom, the newest man in Lila’s life picks Sydney up from the airport, and it’s all downhill from there. From shady art dealings to rejected credit cards, Sydney misses her friends from home. Luckily, she befriends a guy working construction next door because shady art dealings quickly become the least of their worries. It’s as if Lila’s movie script has come to life, but crimes of passion are still crimes.

THOUGHTS: There is a lot of heaviness to unpack in this story, from women who prioritize beauty over motherhood and men treating women like objects, not to mention murder. A good addition for high school libraries looking for YA thrillers that are also coming of age stories.

Mystery          Samantha Hull, Ephrata 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

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

Donte Ellison attends Middlefield Prep and when the book opens, Donte is getting in trouble for something he did not do. Donte is biracial (with one Black parent and one white parent), and he has a brother who is much lighter skinned compared to Donte. Trey has not had nearly as much trouble as Donte has, in dealing with classmates and teachers. Donte decides he wants to learn how to fence, so he can confront one of the bullies, the school’s fencing team captain.

THOUGHTS: This book weaves beautiful storytelling with lessons about racial justice as well as a commentary on the school to prison track that many young Black students face. A must own for every upper elementary through high school collection.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter 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

Cori’s summer before her senior year of high school starts just like every other summer for the last several years – a trip to the community pool with her two best friends, Maritza and JaKory, followed by movies in her basement. Cori wonders what it must be like to be one of those normal “wild teenagers” and if she and her socially awkward friends will ever actually act like teenagers before they graduate. She and JaKory haven’t even had their first kiss yet, and not being straight makes navigating dating even more tricky for this trio. When they pick up Cori’s younger brother from what looks like a date at the movie theater, the thought of him getting his first kiss before any of them is too pathetic to handle. To remedy this, Maritza and JaKory decide they should crash a party in their neighborhood. Cori, true to her predictably boring norm, decides not to join them. But when Maritza and JaKory get drunk and text her for a ride home, Cori begrudgingly shows up to rescue them. Little does she know, this sets a summer’s worth of events into action. Walking up to the house, Cori catches Ricky – host of the party and “normal” popular jock teenager – kissing a boy behind some bushes. Cori’s promise to Ricky not to tell anyone forges an unlikely friendship that introduces her to a whole new group of friends, “normal” teenager activities, and maybe, hopefully, her first kiss. Cori finally feels like a “normal” teenager… and Maritza and JaKory have no idea it’s happening because Cori never tells them.

THOUGHTS: This book has it all: family, friendship, and romance. Readers who identify with Cori’s shyness and insecurities will appreciate her honest, revealing, and authentic voice as she grapples with many internal struggles faced by both gay and straight teens. Speaking of authenticity, it would be difficult to explore typical “wild teenager” behavior without instances of alcohol and marijuana use. While this does occur in Late to the Party, the characters are not typically reckless about it. Cori is not out to her parents, but this is not a coming out story. It’s a story of emotional growing pains and self-discovery, but in a very non-cliche way. This is a must-have for the YA readers looking for LGBTQ+ books.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth 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