MG -Down to Earth

Culley, Betty. Down to Earth. Crown Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-593-17573-6. 210 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

9-year-old Henry Bowers is worried about whether he will be a dowser. His family has worked the land, quarried for granite, and drilled for water in rural Maine for generations, and many of them have a unique talent for dowsing, or finding water through the use of a forked stick and instinct. While Henry worries about his upcoming 10th birthday, the birthday when dowsers find out if they have the knack for dowsing or not, he carries on with his quiet life, including taking care of his sister Birdie and recording his observations about rocks in his homeschooling journal. Then one night, Henry witnesses a very large meteorite fall into his backyard, and he feels an instant connection with the huge lump of space rock. The meteorite turns out to be both a problem and a blessing for Henry and his town, and ultimately, his connection to the meteorite helps him discover who he is and what he wants to do with his young life.

THOUGHTS: This is a heartwarming story about a thoughtful boy who finds himself and his unique gifts through acts of helping others. Henry and his family are loving people who endure hardships with grace, and the pace of the book matches the soothing pace with which they seem to live life. Vague allusions to the healing powers of water “called” by the meteorite are sprinkled throughout this book, but the emphasis on facts from encyclopedia and book entries, a visit from a scientist from the American Museum of Natural History, and Henry’s own journal of science questions keep the story believable and rooted in realism.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – A Shot at Normal

Reichardt, Marisa. A Shot at Normal. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. 978-0-374-38095-3. 352 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Juniper Jade is the oldest child in a family that grows their own organic foods, homeschools their children, and goes without many of the everyday things others have (plastics, cell phones, and vaccinations). Often passing the local high school, Juniper longs to feel normal, but she respects her family’s values and doesn’t question them (too much) until she contracts the measles and unknowingly passes the virus to others. Then tragedy strikes, and suddenly, Juniper isn’t so sure about her family’s lifestyle. With the help of Nico, a friend who may be more than a friend, Juniper decides she’s going to be vaccinated. Despite her parent’s wishes. She isn’t quite prepared for their reaction, though, and Juniper really has to consider how much she’s willing to risk to get her vaccines.

THOUGHTS: Readers who are looking for a little more independence from the adults in their lives will connect with Juniper. With the vaccine debate at a pinnacle (though this book is not about COVID), A Shot at Normal deserves a place in high school collections.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry

Goffney, Joya. Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-006-302479-3. 352 p. 17.99. Grades 9-12.

Quinn, a high school senior, keeps lists. Of EVERYTHING. Boys she’d like to kiss, movies with intense rewatchability, things people assume about her. It’s how she copes with life. The notebook in which she keeps her lists is her most treasured possession, and when it goes missing, she panics. Then it gets even worse. Someone posts one of the lists on Instagram, for the whole school to see, and blackmails Quinn into completing her list of fears, or the whole journal will be released. Hot guy Carter, who has decided he doesn’t like Quinn because she’s an oreo – Black on the outside but white on the inside, was the last person to have the journal; he offers to work with Quinn to complete her list and deduct who is holding the journal hostage. While the romance that ensues between the pair may be predictable, the book is about so much more. Quinn and Carter are two of a handful of Black students at a predominately white private school. Although they share some experiences, Carter is quick to point out that wealthy Quinn has a very different life than he does. The plot examines racial issues and stereotypes from a variety of perspectives, and focuses on the value of true friends, who just might be the people you would least expect. Besides facing her fears, Quinn also has to accept that her beloved grandmother has Alzheimer’s disease, and worries that her parents are headed for divorce. All the characters are well developed, and each story arc is satisfyingly wrapped up. This is a superbly well crafted book that is a delight to read.

THOUGHTS:  This will be a huge hit with romance fans, but hand to fans of realistic fiction as well.

Romance          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

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