MG – The Midnight Children

Gemeinhart, Dan. The Midnight Children. Henry Holt & Co., 2022. 978-1-250-19672-9. $16.99. 352 p. Grades 4-8.

Ravini Foster never has had a friend. Growing up in Slaughtersville is difficult. The town is a miserable place filled with miserable people, many of whom make their living at the slaughter house in the center of town. Ravi, an only child, is lonely. He delights in the woods, and birds, and the adult characters in his small town, but his greatest wish is to have a friend. Picked on by the town bullies, unathletic, unable to connect with his exhausted father, Ravi yearns for something to change. Then one night, unable to sleep for loneliness, Ravi sees something he isn’t supposed to see. A family of seven children move into the abandoned house across the street in the dead of night. There are no adults with them. Ravi’s curiosity gets the better of him, and with persistence, patience, and small, but exceedingly kind gestures, Ravi is able to earn the trust of Virginia and her siblings. Discovering the mysterious secret behind Virginia’s family life puts Ravi in a curious position. He is thrilled to finally belong somewhere but now must help his new friends remain a family. Ravi never has been prone to taking risks or accepting leadership, but friendship and belonging help him to see a different side of himself. The Midnight Children is darkly funny in the vein of Lemony Snicket but with an emotional and serious message about the nature of friendship and the meaning of family.

THOUGHTS: A stunning middle grade novel that is an absolute delight to read aloud.

Realistic Fiction          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD

MG – Cress Watercress

Maguire, Gregory. Cress Watercress. Candlewick Press, 2022. 978-1-536-21100-9. $19.99. 227 p. Grades 3-8.

Cressida Watercress and her rabbit family live in a spacious and well kept burrow. Young Cress has never known a moment’s want or worry until the day Papa fails to return from foraging. Unable to care for her young children alone, Mama makes the difficult decision to move her  family to a cramped basement apartment in an animal tenement known as the Broken Arms. Cressida’s brother Kip is often sickly, and Mama must work harder than ever to feed, shelter, and support Cress and Kip. The Broken Arms is filled with animal characters of all shapes, sizes, and temperaments. Mr. Owl, the landlord, is an enigmatic figure who will often comment on the comings and goings and behavior of his tenants from high above though he is never seen by those same tenants. Manny, the building superintendent, is helpful but demanding. The pressure to make timely rent payments is difficult for Mama, especially when Kip is not well. Cress must learn to accept and understand her new neighbors, and must step-up to help Mama. Growing up is not easy, especially when dealing with childhood grief. As Cress matures, her relationship with her mother becomes strained at times, and she grapples with friendships just as many tween human children do. Eventually the Watercress family finds great comfort and companionship in the community at Broken Arms, and Cress finds herself in a position to save the day when her newly adopted community is threatened.

THOUGHTS: Beautiful illustrations by David Litchfield set the tone for this coming of age novel. The struggles Cress encounters in her relationship with her mother and her friends will be easily recognized by middle grade readers and adults alike. The depiction of childhood grief is especially well characterized in this warm and gentle story.

Animal Fiction          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD
Realistic Fiction

Elem. – Up and Adam

Zapata, Debbie. Up and Adam. Illustrated by Yong Ling Kang. Kids Can Press, 2022. Unpaged. $18.99 978-1-5253-0441-5  Grades PK-2.

Zapata uses her son Adam, with Down Syndrome, as inspiration for this uplifting book celebrating all kinds of abilities. After a huge storm rages through his town, Adam hears a news broadcast in which the Mayor asks the community for help, and adds, “Up and at ‘em!” Did the mayor just tell Adam and his dog (named Up) to get to work? Adam says yes, and sets out to help. He picks up fallen branches; helps the school janitor to clean up the playground; gives help to a girl on a ladder; and with a teenager, sweeps the mess outside the pizza shop. Adam goes home…not to rest, but to bake cookies to give to all the helpers and the community. At the boardwalk, Adam finds his recipients, and the people find a boost from the cookies and the friendly, “Hi! Hiiiii!” Adam repeats. Adam learns from the day that “a pair of smiles can make a difference” and is satisfied that “we helped.” The author’s note positively describes her son and how everyone deserves dignity and respect. Resources for readers included. 

THOUGHTS: It’s hard not to smile while reading this book, thanks to Adam’s smile and relentless optimism. This book is a wonderful way to further illustrate the importance of respect for all; community service gets a needed boost as well.  

Picture Book          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Elem. – Marley and the Family Band

Marley, Cedella, with Tracey Baptiste. Marley and the Family Band. Illustrated by Tiffany Rose. Random House Kids, 2022. Unpaged. $17.99  978-0-593-30111-1. Grades PK-2.

Marley and her family are newcomers from Jamaica to their Delaware town. To feel more at home and get to know neighbors, Marley plans a concert (in the park) by her family band. However, the day of the concert dawns wet and stormy. The concert is canceled, most would say, but Marley keeps looking for a way to outshine the rain. She knows rain and how it intrudes on people’s lives–and she also knows that “rain never lasts.” Marley and her siblings think of covering the concert area with umbrellas, which they’ll get from helping their neighbors with rain problems. They retrieve a cat from a roof, bail water from a basement and help with indoor gardening. At the last house, Marley uses all her umbrellas given from grateful neighbors (and intended for the concert) to cover a neighbor’s upset animals who are getting wet. At home, Marley finds her family preparing for the concert, because, “your friends helped.” The final pages show Marley and her musical family performing indoors at the neighbor’s house, letting the rain add its own rhythmic beats. 

THOUGHTS: Marley has written an upbeat and hopeful tale about coming together to help and celebrate communities. The colorful illustrations fit well with the optimistic and hopeful message.  

Picture Book          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – Aviva vs. the Dybbuk

Lowe, Mari. Aviva vs. the Dybbuk. Levine Querido, 2022. 978-1-646-14125-8. $17.99. 176 p. Grades 5-8.

Aviva vs. the Dybbuk takes on an unusual theme in a not frequently used setting. Sixth grader Aviva Jacobs is an orthodox Jewish girl plagued by a dybbuk (“a ghost of a deceased person who returns to complete a certain task”). Aviva’s family unit–she and her mother–is not doing well. The reader knows that Abba has died in an unnamed accident five years prior. Since then, Aviva’s life is off kilter. Through the kindness of their close knit community, her mother manages the mikvah (“pool used for religious immersion”) and lives in the apartment above it. The reader also sees that Ema is depressed, but Aviva just views the disappearance of her vibrant, soft-spoken mother into a scared, nervous agoraphob. Aviva, too, has become an outsider from her classmates and estranged from her best friend, Kayla. Instead, her constant companion is the mischievous dybbuk who only she can see. The dybbuk soaps the floor in the mikvah, unplugs the refrigerator, rips up checks, and generally haunts Aviva. Moreover, the mikvah and the shul are under attack: A swastika is on the sidewalk outside the shul. In the midst of this disruption, Aviva and Kayla–both talented players– get into an altercation at the machanayim, “a ball game played in some Jewish schools and camps.” The consequence of their action is having to plan the annual Bas Mitzvah Bash at the arcade. The planning sessions reignite Aviva’s and Kayla’s friendship in the weeks before the event and seem to have a positive effect on Ema as well. The dybbuk, also, is in high gear with wild shenanigans that Aviva attempts to stop. As Kayla and Aviva grow closer, and the caring community rallies around Ema, anti-semitism rears its ugly head, forcing Aviva to recall her father’s death and recognize the effect of that trauma. Lowe’s fluidity with language makes this compact story a smooth read. The emotions displayed in Aviva vs. the Dybbuk coupled with the engaging story give it universal appeal. Includes glossary (excerpted definitions in quotes above).

THOUGHTS: You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate Aviva’s situation. Lowe presents the story through Aviva’s eyes which may make it more relatable to students: The distant mother, the struggle to be independent and act like everything is fine, the alienation from classmates. Lead readers who like this book to Lilliam Rivera’s young adult novel, Never Look Back. The dybbuk goading Aviva parallels the mysterious creature named Ato who haunts the main character. This well-written, compelling story offers an opportunity for non-Jewish readers to learn about different aspects of the Jewish religion in a non-polemic way. Any way books can open us up to be more tolerant, understanding people is a good thing. 

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem – If You Were a Garbage Truck or Other Big-Wheeled Worker!

Ohanesian, Diane C. If You Were a Garbage Truck or Other Big-Wheeled Worker! Random House Studio, 2022. 978-0-593-37515-0. 32 p. $17.99. Grades K-2. 

Young readers get to imagine life from the perspective of ten different big-wheeled workers in this colorful rhyming story. The upbeat text puts a positive spin on the tough jobs these vehicles do each day, subtly encouraging readers to look on the sunny side too. Rather than focusing on the troubling parts of their jobs – trains traveling the same tracks day in and day out, fire trucks constantly being on-call, garbage trucks filling with smelly trash – this title’s rhyming verses put a positive spin on the important work each of these big-wheeled workers do each day. Trains are reliable transportation for many people, fire trucks always do the best work they can in emergency situations, and garbage trucks keep our towns and our planet clean. Every double-page spread features full-bleed, large-scale illustrations that capture each vehicle’s impressive size and the important work they’re built to do. In one scene, a tough-looking snow plow clears the pavement on a wintry afternoon. Another scene highlights a mail truck delivering all kinds of letters to a neighborhood. Bright colors, anthropomorphized vehicles, and a diverse cast of human characters help this title feel fresh and inclusive. 

THOUGHTS: Share this title with big truck enthusiasts and with teachers who focus on community helpers. It might also be useful for guidance counselors since it highlights themes of resilience, teamwork, and having a positive outlook. 

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD

MG – Maizy Chen’s Last Chance

Yee, Lisa. Maizy Chen’s Last Chance. Random House, 2022.  978-1-984-83025-8. 276 p. $16.99. Grades 3-6.

Maizy and her mother decide to return to Last Chance, Minnesota for a couple of weeks while Maizy’s grandfather gets better. However, things don’t go as planned, and they end up spending more time in Last Chance. At the family restaurant Golden Palace, Maizy learns a lot about her family history and the people that frequent the Golden Palace. As the story progresses, Maizy and her family deal with support from the community as well as racism, added onto the family struggles that Maizy’s mother and grandmother are dealing with. When a family treasure is stolen, the community rallies around Maizy and her family to help them.

THOUGHTS: This is a heartwarming story that deals with many different issues so easily the reader doesn’t feel that those issues are the prominent part of the story. The relationship with Maizy’s mother and grandmother was hard to read at times as they clearly do not have a great relationship, but the overarching theme in their relationship is their love for each other and Maizy’s grandfather.  This is a great addition to any middle school collection.

Realistic Fiction          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

MG – The Ogress and the Orphans

Barnhill, Kelly. The Ogress and the Orphans. Algonquin Young Readers, 2022. 978-1-64375-074-3. $19.99. 392 pages. Grades 4-8.

Once there was an Ogress. In her long life she had many adventures, and lived in many places, always searching for a community in which to belong. The Ogress hears of a town called Stone-in-the-Glen that used to be quite lovely and that has fallen on hard times. The Ogress has experienced grief and disconnection and believes she can help the people of the town. She creates a home for herself on the outskirts of Stone-in-the-Glen, and anonymously sets out to perform random acts of kindness for the people of the town. Stone-in-the Glen was once regarded as a friendly and kind place where people took good care of each other. The citizens adored their dragon-slaying Mayor who was charming and protective. When the town library burns to the ground, the town itself begins to unravel. More community institutions are destroyed, crops fail, and slowly the people of Stone-in-the-Glen stop taking care of their neighbors. In fact, hard times make the citizens distrustful of each other. An orphanage on the edge of Stone-in-the-Glen houses 15 orphans, cared for by an elderly couple. The 15 young children are plucky and smart, and love each other dearly. They enjoy helping and learning, but most of all they care for each other and consider each other family. When one of the children goes missing, the Mayor gleefully prods the citizens of Stone-in-the-Glen to turn on the Ogress. It is up to the orphans to save each other, their home, the Ogress, and ultimately their community.

THOUGHTS: A stunning allegory with many themes to explore. What is a neighbor? What makes a community a community? How do we live with people and ideas that are different from our own experiences and beliefs? Kindness ultimately wins the day. Strong themes of the power of libraries and reading throughout this beautiful and well-told story.

Fantasy          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD

Elem. – In Our Garden

Miller, Pat Zietlow. In Our Garden. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 978-1-9848-1210-0. 32 p. $17.99. Grades K-3. 

Millie is homesick for her old apartment, now an ocean away, where she and her family tended a rooftop garden and grew fresh vegetables with their neighbors. Her new apartment building doesn’t have the right kind of roof for a garden, but her school has a large flat one! When she shares her idea about a garden in the sky with her classmates, they are initially hesitant, but soon everyone has ideas about how the garden might look. Over the course of a few months, the students plan, measure, build, plant, and wait to see if their hard work pays off. Vibrant illustrations, composed from both traditional and digital mediums, change with Millie’s mood. Initially, the grays and tans reflect a rainy morning, the city’s cold hardscape, and Millie’s homesickness. However, once she starts believing in her urban garden idea and her classmates and teacher buy in too, the colors shift to shades of green, blue, and yellow. Millie’s classmates and neighbors reflect racial diversity as well as a variety of physical abilities. 

THOUGHTS: This title will be a welcome addition to science curriculum centering on gardening since it presents a nontraditional option that some students may not be familiar with. Additionally, it will fit well with units about neighborhoods working together and with lessons about immigrants settling into a new community. 

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD

MG – Caprice

Booth, Coe. Caprice. Scholastic, 2022. 978-0-545-93334-6. $17.99. 243 p. Grades 6-8.

Sensitive, poetical Caprice is a rising eighth grader with a big decision: should she grab the opportunity of attending a prestigious boarding school or stick with her friends in Newark, New Jersey? Though she loved her seven-week stint at summer camp at Ainsley School for Girls, she is torn because of her closeness to her best friend, Nicole, a budding romance with Jarrett, and her commitment to the Center, the community place that fosters fun and leadership in her neighborhood. Through her poems and flashbacks, the reader learns of sexual abuse that Caprice keeps buried and secreted from her family. She is considerate of her parents’ precarious financial situation because of their faltering business and is scared that her need to be in Newark keeps her mother and father apart. Her return home a week before school starts corresponds with a call from Baltimore informing the family of her maternal grandmother’s serious illness. Caprice’s mother and grandmother have been estranged since Caprice was four-years-old when her grandmother sent Caprice and her mother away from the family home after a dangerous incident. Only Caprice and her grandmother know the real reason for their banishment, but her mother has lived all these years with hurt and resentment, alienated from her mother and brother, Raymond. The reader meets Caprice over an important week when school, friendships, and soul-searching come to a head. Her sporadic panic attacks increase, and she waffles between closing herself off and speaking up for herself in new ways. In Caprice, Coe Booth tackles a difficult topic by mining the memories and feelings of Caprice as she faces her demons and challenges herself to esteem who she is. Caprice’s immediate family is loving and communicative. Her friendships with both adults and kids at the Center are genuine and nicely developed. Though the confrontation with her abuser at story’s end avoids any expected messiness and description, the emotions Caprice experiences throughout the novel will resonate with many readers dealing with changes in their lives. The students at Ainsley are international: New Zealand, Ghana, Toronto. Race is not mentioned directly in the book; however, Caprice gets her locs done and the book’s cover art displays an African American girl, so there are implications that the other characters are African American.

THOUGHTS: Coe Booth lets Caprice’s voice come through in the narration and the typical middle school dialogue with which readers will relate. The thriving Center Caprice attends is core to the community and helps to shape the kids who participate in the different activities it affords, from a Women’s Club, to film making, to dance. Caprice takes part in some neat poetry activities that readers can replicate. Her leadership qualities come out in her refusal to be treated less than boys and to tolerate snide remarks about her body. The adults surrounding Caprice–even though they know nothing about her abuse at the time–are nurturing and say the right things. Caprice’s pride in her neighborhood and loyalty to her friends are good discussion points.

Realistic Fiction   Bernadette Cooke   School District of Philadelphia

Twelve-year-old Caprice should be having the time of her life. She just finished a seven week summer program at a prestigious school in upstate New York, and she has now been offered a full scholarship through high school. She has a week to make the decision to accept the scholarship. She returns to her home in Newark, NJ and learns that her grandmother is seriously ill. This brings back the memories of the abuse that she endured while living there with her grandmother and uncle. She has remained quiet about this abuse and has told no one. The deadline to commit to Ainsley is coming closer and closer, and Caprice is struggling with her past while trying to make a decision about her future. 

THOUGHTS: This book is a powerful read for a middle schooler. It addresses the issue of child abuse – sexual and emotional. It could have some triggers for some readers.    

Realistic Fiction          Victoria Dziewulski, Plum Borough SD

Sometimes it’s hard for kids to decide what they want from life, and what they are willing to let go of, until they are faced with some life-changing events. This is certainly true for Caprice, a smart, motivated, and mature 7th grade girl who has just finished an exclusive summer leadership experience at a private school in an affluent part of Washington, D.C. She loved that school, but she also loves her home and friends in urban New Jersey. After she is offered a full scholarship to return to the private school for her 8th grade year, she quickly must decide whether she is willing to give up her familiar home and her best friend in favor of the school opportunity of her dreams. In addition to the stress of her impending education decisions, past childhood trauma and the declining health of a grandmother she hasn’t seen in years add to her troubles. Will Caprice be able to navigate her painful past, her complicated family, and her new and old friendships to see her way to a brighter future?

THOUGHTS: Caprice and her family are warmly drawn, and her friendships feel so real! This book deals with difficult topics including childhood abuse, family secrets, divorce, adolescent feelings, and confusion about the direction and meaning of one’s life, but everything is dealt with a sensitive and graceful hand that still makes the book a pleasure to read and recommend to students.

Realistic Fiction        Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD