YA – Thieves’ Gambit

Lewis, Kayvion. Thieves’ Gambit. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2023. 978-0-593-62536-1. 384 p. $19.99. Grades 8-12.

Ross Quest is about to pull off the biggest heist of her life in order to save her kidnapped mother in this action-packed YA thriller. Ross and her mother have planned many robberies together—as one of the most notorious thief-families in North America, they have a reputation to uphold. When a robbery goes awry, Ross reluctantly must enter into the mysterious and dangerous Thieves’ Gambit, a high-stakes game made up of the best young criminal minds from around the world. If Ross wins, she’ll have one wish granted: in her case, it’s the wish to rescue her mother by paying her mother’s billion dollar ransom. All goes according to plan until feelings for one of the contestants, the handsome British Devroe, threatens to throw Ross off of her game. Filled with twists and turns right until the end, this one will keep your students reading the whole way to the last page.

THOUGHTS: A high-stakes heist must-read title. For teens who love lots of action, twists, turns, and a fast-paced plot, this is the ideal story. Thieves’ Gambit reads like a heist movie on paper as it takes readers on a wild adventure around the world. Ross is a likable and realistic character trying to fulfill quests before time runs out. There is enough romantic tension between Ross and Devroe that will keep romance readers loving this book, too. Ideal for fans of series like The Inheritance Games. Strong diversity and character development.


YA – Fake Dates and Mooncakes

Lee, Sher. Fake Dates and Mooncakes. Underlined, 2023. 978-0-593-56995-5. 272 p. $10.99. Grades 9-12.

Last year Dylan Tang lost his mom to cancer and since has been living with his Aunt Jade and cousins Megan and Tim above the family’s Singaporean Chinese takeout in Brooklyn. A true team effort means every member of the family contributes to Wok Warriors, but the small takeout still has its struggles. Though he wants to follow in his mom’s footsteps and become a veterinarian, Dylan shines in the kitchen, especially making xiao long bao. His mom and Aunt Jade have honored their culture and have taught Dylan and his cousins all about their heritage. When a delivery driver ends up with a flat tire, Dylan jumps on his bike and takes care of the delivery. At his last stop, Dylan meets Adrian, a customer who threatens legal action for including spring onions when he clearly instructed them not to, and Theo, an attractive guy who walks into the room wearing nothing but boxer briefs. Dylan gets out of there as quickly as he can while trying to save the restaurant’s reputation. When Theo shows up at the restaurant to smooth things over, he and Dylan have instant chemistry, but Theo’s wealthy life is worlds away from Dylan’s family’s struggles. Theo may be a distraction from Dylan’s plan to honor his mom’s memory by entering the Mid-Autumn Festival Mooncake-Making Contest. But after spending some time together, Theo convinces Dylan to pose as his boyfriend for a weekend family wedding in the Hamptons. Dylan doesn’t realize the family drama (and extent of a wealthy lifestyle) he’s about to step into. Can two guys who live very different lives but who have such a strong pull towards each other make it work, or will other forces keep them apart?

THOUGHTS: Mouth-watering descriptions of authentic Asian food and background on cultural traditions are plentiful throughout this sweet romance. Hand this title to foodie fans or readers who like family dramas or romances like A Pho Love Story, A Taste for Love, Donuts and Other Proclamations of Love, or The Way You Make Me Feel.


Elem. – The Whole World Opened Up

Richmond, Laylah, and Sharon Richmond. The Whole World Opened Up. Two Pigeons Press, 2023. 978-0-991-81619-4. $14.99. 64 p. Grades 3-6.

Aspiring author, third-grader, Laylah Richmond, loves to read, write, and draw. At dinner after church, her grandmother tells her about a reading contest sponsored by The Black Star Project in downtown Chicago: Black Girls Read for Cash and Glory. Though Laylah is hesitant–she sometimes gets confused with the different pronunciation of words–she consents to enter if her grandmother accompanies her. Further encouragement comes when her best friend, Ria, says she will enter, too. Unfortunately as the competition draws closer, her grandmother has to attend a funeral on the morning of the contest. Though nervous and disappointed, Laylah and Ria attend the competition located in the historic Chicago neighborhood called Bronzeville. Founder, Philip Jackson, hosts the event and offers the prizes; he recites his motto, “Educate or Die.” Laylah and Ria select writings of African-American women heroines and mount the stage to recite the words of Harriet Tubman and Josephine Baker. Inspired and proud, Laylah returns home after her day and soon learns she is the recipient of a second-place prize. She and her family are invited to the African-American owned radio studio where Laylah and the other winners will be interviewed. Not only does Laylah grow in confidence through this experience, she also learns about the accomplishments of famous African-American people, nationally and locally. The title, The Whole World Opened Up, harkens to a Mary McLeod Bethune quote: “The whole world opened to me when I learned to read.” This beginning chapter book, illustrated with folk-like style art by the authors, acknowledges the importance of reading and language and pays tribute to Philip Jackson (1950-2018), the founder and director of The Black Star Project and The Parent Revolution Radio Program. The cozy narrative of this book will draw in young readers. Like the Ryan Hart series by Renee Watson, the Richmonds’ book offers a story with African American characters in a modern, family setting with the added bonus of finding out about the history of people and places about which they may not yet know.

THOUGHTS: The Whole World Opened Up is a simply written book that manages to interject seamlessly lots of helpful information: difficult English words, famous Chicago places, African-American owned businesses, and African-American people. Laylah and Ria take on the challenge, even though they are nervous. Laylah wins, but Ria doesn’t –and it’s fine. It is obvious that the grandmother/grandchild writing team want to honor Philip Jackson, a local businessman and public servant who dedicated his life to activism, particularly in education. A photograph at the end of the book verifies that Laylah was an actual winner of the contest, but the story is not set up like a memoir. Share this book with young readers and writers as an example of plot or even read it aloud to generate interest in African-American businesses and heroes and heroines in their own towns. (Note: I read an e-book ARC from NetGalley and Lorraine Hansberry’s name was misspelled.)

Realistic Fiction 

YA – The Luminaries

Dennard, Susan. The Luminaries. Tor Teen, 2022. 978-1-250-19404-6. $18.99. 304 p. Grades 9-12.

Hemlock Falls is not your average town. It’s surrounded by a forest inhabited by nightmares and monsters. The town is kept safe by The Luminaries, an ancient order of hunters who protect the residents each night. Families that make up the Luminaries take turns hunting throughout the days of the week. Winnie Wednesday, of the Wednesday clan, is preparing to participate in the hunter trials. Although she is turning 16 and is eligible to participate, her family has been shunned by the Luminaries ever since her father was accused of being a witch and betraying them all. This is the only way that Winnie can restore her family back to the order, so Winnie must try, no matter how great the danger. Reluctantly, she accepts help from her former best friend, Jay Friday, one of the best hunters in the Luminaries. As Winnie trains for her hunter trials, she continues to learn about the nightmares lurking outside of her town, and when she encounters a new kind of monster, she’ll have to convince the order that exiled her family that this new danger may be a threat to them all.

THOUGHTS: The Luminaries, the first of a new series, has a little bit of everything for readers. In this fantasy world, teenage hunters typically choose their roles rather than have it forced upon them but although they live in a town surrounded by monsters, their lives are quite ordinary. Action, adventure, and mystery await in this new, contemporary fantasy, and it’s the perfect choice for readers looking to try something new.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – A Far Wilder Magic

Saft, Allison. A Far Wilder Magic. Wednesday Books, 2022. 978-1250623652. $18.99. 384 p. Grades 9-12.

Margaret Welty spends most of her time living alone with her dog, Trouble. Her mother, a famous alchemist, spends most of her time traveling, away from home. Weston Winters is desperate to become an official alchemist, and when he arrives at the Welty house looking for the famous alchemist to become her apprentice, Margaret strikes a deal with him: she will allow him to stay until her mother returns if he agrees to join her in the annual hunt to kill the legendary Hala, a mythical and deadly fox that stalks the town until the hunt begins. Margaret knows she has a great shot, but she needs an alchemist as a part of her team in order to enter the competition. These two strangers soon find that they are drawn to each other and have more in common than they know. As the competition looms closer, so does danger, and together they must learn to trust each other in order to survive.

THOUGHTS: This unique, stand alone fantasy takes place in a made up world influenced by the culture and lifestyle of the 1920s. Although fantastical, the story also tackles more serious and relatable issues like prejudice and racism. Readers will be drawn into Saft’s world and the slow romance that builds between Margaret and Weston and the connection they have as outcasts in their communities.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

MG – Alice Austen Lived Here

Gino, Alex. Alice Austen Lived Here. Scholastic Books, 2022. 978-1-338-73389-1. 162 p. $17.99. Grades 4-12.

Seventh graders Sam and TJ are nonbinary students who come from supportive and loving homes on Staten Island. Sam lives in an apartment complex along with several other supportive friends and members of the LGBTQ community. Sam and TJ’s history teacher assigned them a project to nominate an individual in history that lived on Staten Island and contributed to the community. The winning entry will have a statue commissioned to face New York Harbor.  This is when the pair discovers Alice Austen who was a photographer and an important queer figure that lived and worked on Staten Island.

THOUGHTS: I read this book quickly and really enjoyed the character development. I love that Sam and TJ acted like middle schoolers. Their emotions and reactions felt genuine. I also enjoy reading about Alice Austen who was a new name to me.

Realistic Fiction          Victoria Dziewulski, Plum Borough SD

Sam is a nonbianary teen with a nonbianry best friend, TJ, and they often hang out with a lesbian couple, babysitting the couple’s new baby, in the same building. When Sam and TJ are challenged by a teacher to propose building a new statue to honor an important figure in Staten Island history, they immediately begin looking for someone that will represent their LGBTQ+ community. They find the perfect person in Alice Austen, a photographer who lived and worked in Staten Island in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sam and TJ also befriend an older woman who lives in their building, a former teacher, who helps them contextualize what they learn about Alice Austen during the course of their project. This story ultimately illustrates the value of studying the past, especially important issues and events in the LGBTQ+ community, while also moving forward in the present. 

THOUGHTS: Issues of queer identity and nonbinary identity are central to the book, but Sam and TJ also struggle with typical adolescent issues and friendships to which almost anyone will be able to relate. These thoughtful teens use the power of their voices and the support of their community to bring about positive change and highlight important people from the past who deserve recognition, especially since those historical figures lived in a time when the freedom to choose how you lived and who you loved was much more limited.

Realistic Fiction        Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – Be Dazzled

La Sala, Ryan. Be Dazzled. Sourcebooks, 2021. 978-1-492-68269-1. 336 p. $17.99. Grades 9+.

If ever there was a meet-cute, Raffy and Luca are it. They meet in the gem aisle of Craft Club, the local craft megastore, both boys zeroing in on Sea Foam Dream #6 gems. Dark-haired, dark-eyed Raffy is a supremely talented cosplay crafter/video streamer, with a devoted internet following; Luca, a smokin’ hot Italian American soccer player. Raffy can’t believe Luca was (he was, wasn’t he?) flirting with him. Raffy introduces Luca into the nerdom of cosplay and conventions. Luca introduces Raffy to fun. Raffy, 17 year old, is so focused on impressing the judges at the various Cons he attends, hoping to gain sponsorship for his crafting, and scholarships to art school, that he has lost the joy of crafting. Teaching Luca brings back the fun. But when Raffy’s maniacal intensity collides with Luca’s laissez faire approach, the inevitable breakup occurs. Yet now Raffy’s success at Controverse depends on working with the boy who broke his heart. Adding to the storyline is Luca’s inability to tell his family he is bisexual, as well as coming out as a closet nerd, and Raffy’s intense, “ARTIST” mother, who scorns sequins, satin and sewing. When all the worlds collide, will Raffy and Luca be able to survive, the second time around? This dazzling nerd romance is heart-meltingly cute. The behind-the-scenes look at cosplay crafting is fascinating, and Raffy is an expert guide to the design and creation of costumes. Both boys have loyal friends to support them, and while family issues are resolved quickly and neatly, it makes for a satisfying conclusion to a fun read.

THOUGHTS: There is nothing not to love about this bedazzling nerd romance with a happy ending.

Romance          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem./MG – The Magical Reality of Nadia

Youssef, Bassam. The Magical Reality of Nadia. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-67481-1. 176 p. $14.99. Grades 3-6.

The Magical Reality of Nadia is a realistic fiction that follows Nadia, a 6th grade student who loves facts, and loves sharing them with her friends and classmates. Some fun facts about her: her family moved from Egypt when she was 6 years old, she collects bobbleheads, and she has a hippo amulet she wears that is actually from Ancient Egypt. One day there is a new student that comes to Nadia’s school who teases her about her heritage which causes some issues with her friends and throws Nadia for a loop. The other thing that throws her for a loop? The amulet around Nadia’s neck starts glowing! She finds that her amulet was holding a secret, which is hilarious and helpful at the same time!

THOUGHTS: This is an amazing transition novel, for a student who isn’t ready for longer chapter books. There are black and white illustrations found throughout the novel, which break up the book. This is a great book to have in any upper elementary/middle school collection.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Collins, Suzanne. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Scholastic Press, 2020.  978-1-338-63517-1. $24.99. 528 p. Grades 9-12.

The much-anticipated prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy begins 64 years before Katniss Everdeen enters the arena to fight for her life. The Hunger Games are only ten years old and are not yet the spectacle they go on to become. Coriolanus Snow, future president of Panem, along with his cousin and grandmother, have sold almost all of their possessions after the war drains their finances. The Snow name is synonymous with wealth, and they struggle to maintain a wealthy facade. The Snow family motto demands it: snow lands on top. Head gamemaker Dr. Gaul pairs each tribute with a Capitol Academy mentor. Coriolanus is paired with District 12’s Lucy Gray Baird, who immediately becomes a fan favorite due to her songbird voice. Coriolanus falls for her and, upon seeing the horrific conditions where the tributes are kept before the games, arranges for her to have food and medical care, a precursor to tribute treatment in the later books. But he still has strong loyalty to the Capitol. This is much different from his peer, Sejanus. He views The Hunger Games as unjust, and at times, Coriolanus sees his point. As his love for Lucy Gray deepens, he is conflicted. He believes in her but also in the Capitol. Most of all, he believes he needs to make something of himself in order to keep proving that snow always indeed lands on top.

Thoughts: Readers will want to simultaneously empathize and loathe Coriolanus. He wants to make the right decisions, but there are already glimpses of what he will become in later books. Fans of The Hunger Games will love discovering the origins of the trilogy’s most important symbols, such as the mockingjay and Victors’ Village. For those who have never read The Hunger Games, it serves as a good start. Similar to its predecessors’, the book does have a fair amount of blood and violence and is better suited for high school readers who are sure to enjoy this action-packed origin story.

Dystopian Fiction     Danielle Corrao, Ephrata Area SD