MG – When Winter Robeson Came

Woods, Brenda. When Winter Robeson Came. Scholastic, 2022. 978-1-524-74158-7. $16.99. 176 p. Grades 4-7.

The Coal family from 103rd Street, just west of Figueroa, not too far from Watts, is expecting a special visitor, Winter Robeson from their old hometown, Sunflower, Mississippi. The most excited person is aspiring composer, Eden Louise Coal, who hasn’t seen her country cousin since the move to the great metropolis of Los Angeles two years ago. An affable Winter has come with an agenda and a plan: on his list is visiting the happiest place on earth, Disneyland; but his priority is finding his long-lost father, J.T. who has been gone for ten years. Eden joins him in his search, and together they spend two weeks of the summer of 1965 getting closer together and closer to the truth of Winter’s father’s disappearance. As they try to trace J.T.’s whereabouts, they dance to the vinyl records with the neighborhood kids; win the hearts of the gracious friend, Winona; and meet Miss Betty West, owner of a Steinway baby grand piano. Told in verse and narrated by Eden, When Winter Robeson Came is an uplifting story of a family reunited and a close knit community surviving on the edges of the violent Watts riots and police brutality. Eden and Winter bond in genuine friendship and concern to make each others’ lives a bit brighter. That magnanimity extends to their neighbors and even virtual strangers when the need arises. The pair offer aid to the elderly, respect their parents, and kindly tolerate even friends with irritating habits. This brief, positive book offers a comforting tale against the backdrop of a tragic historical event.

THOUGHTS: This easy to read book fits lower middle grades best with its emphasis on family and its optimistic outcomes, despite the setting of the Watts riots. Perceptive students will pick up on the discrimination and racism toward people in neighborhoods in and around Watts. However, the children in this novel are nurtured and joyful. They make connections with older people and keep focused on an important task even if it puts them in danger. Pair this book with Karen English’s It All Comes Down to This to compare and contrast the same historical event.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – Freddie vs. the Family Curse

Badua, Tracy. Freddie vs. the Family Curse. Clarion, 2022. 978-0-358-61289-6. $16.99. 256 p. Grades 5-8.

Freddie Ruiz–AKA “Faceplant Freddie”–is plagued by the family curse in Freddie vs. the Family Curse. Unlike his talented, popular cousin next door, Sharlene (Sharkey) Mendoza, Freddie cannot bust a move on the Wylde Beast breakdance team, make friends with the other Robo-Warrior card players, or join any sports team because he risks injury or humiliation. His academic career is not filled with high grades and trophies but a collection of embarrassing moments and pratfalls. Just when it seems his luck cannot get much worse, he discovers an amulet while searching for glue to complete a last-minute school project on family trees. Great grandmother, Apong Rosing, calls the coin on a leather strap/cord an anting- anting and explains in a strange mix of spirituality and Filipino superstition that its magic can be unleashed through a priest and recognizes the coin as the one worn by Domingo Agustin (Ingo), her deceased older brother’s best friend. During Mass at Holy Redeemer Academy, the amulet becomes activated. Great Grand Uncle Ramon materializes, visual only to Freddie, Sharkey, and Apong Rosing.When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, seventeen-year-old Uncle Ramon went off to fight in World War II and died from an infected cut on the Bataan Death March. Through the warm and often humorous relationship Freddie develops with his newly found uncle, the seventh grader discovers the source of the curse was Uncle Ramon’s transgression, and the only way to banish the curse and keep Freddie alive is to return the amulet to its rightful owner–within a 13- day timeline! When Sharkey becomes collateral damage for the Ruiz curse, Freddy’s best solution to deliver the amulet is to master his dance moves and fill in at the breakdance championship in Las Vegas. In his chase against time, Uncle Ramon helps Freddie realize he has the talent and cleverness to make his own luck.

THOUGHTS: Author Tracy Badua involves some Filipino history in a heartfelt story of an underdog struggle to believe in himself. Story includes information about the Rescission Act, the unkept promise the U.S. government made to the Filipino soldiers to make monetary recompense. As Freddie works out how to break the curse, the reader finds a close knit Filipino-American family with their customs and folklore. The relationship between Freddie and his great grandmother and uncle forms an opportunity for an intergenerational perspective. In the beginning of the story, the author seems to include many descriptive details as though she were remembering her own family: grandmother wears a purple shawl when she goes for her dialysis, Freddie’s family observes the Filipino custom of not sweeping the floor at night for fear of “sweeping out the fortune.” Lead students who like this book to Erin Estrada Kelly’s Lalani of the Distant Seas for their next choice.

Fantasy (Magic Realism)          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Walls

Elliott, Laura, and Megan Behm. Walls. Algonquin, 2021. 978-1-643-75024-8. $19.95. 352 p. Grades 7-12.

It is 1960, and Drew MacMahon and his family have recently relocated to West Germany. Drew’s mother is thrilled, since her family emigrated to the United States in 1934, and she is eager to reconnect with the great aunt, sister, and nephew that still live behind the “Iron Curtain” on the East Berlin side of the city. Drew has more reserved feelings about his family’s move; he is nervous about starting a new school and meeting his estranged extended East German family. Although he finds his cousin and aunts difficult to understand at first, he develops a tremendous amount of empathy for them and the harshness of life under Communist rule. Over the course of one tumultuous year, Drew tries to navigate his complicated new family members, the tensions of living so close to the border between East and West Germany, and problems of his new schoolmates.  At the end of the story, he and his cousin must make a terrifying decision that will change all their lives forever.

THOUGHTS: The family dynamics between Drew, his parents, his sisters, and his East German family are realistic and poignant in this book. Watching Drew’s character and sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and efforts to understand the motivations of his friends at school and the people on both sides of the Cold War was fascinating. The detailed photographs and captions at the beginning of each chapter help the reader gain much-needed context and a greater understanding of the cultural and political climate in the early 1960’s for this important historical novel.

Historical Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem./MG – The Lost Things Club

Puller, J. S. The Lost Things Club. Little, Brown and Company, 2021. 978-0-759-55613-3. $16.99. 219 p. Grades 4-7.

Leah is looking forward to spending summer vacation in Chicago with her aunt, uncle, and cousin, just like she does every year. When she arrives at their apartment, however, she notices something is different; her younger cousin, TJ, affectionately known as “hedgehog,” is not his normal self. He isn’t talking. As Leah spends time with her aunt and uncle and some kids from the neighborhood, she begins to realize the reason that TJ isn’t talking is the terrible shooting that happened in the spring at TJ’s elementary school. Even though Leah doesn’t completely understand why TJ is struggling, she vows to help him face his feelings and come back to himself and his family. Through Leah’s summer adventures with TJ, she begins to understand that stories can be much more than silly make-believe. Stories can be a way to heal after trauma, as well as a way to communicate the experiences of others and help everyone practice empathy and understanding.

THOUGHTS: This book deals with the sensitive topics of school shootings, survivor guilt, and PTSD in a way that older elementary and middle school students can understand. It illustrates the terrible toll that such events can take on young survivors, their families, and the surrounding school community, while also portraying those that are struggling with dignity and hopefulness. Ultimately, this book highlights the essential empathy-building benefits everyone can reap from coming together and sharing stories.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – The Cousins

McManus, Karen M. The Cousins. Delacorte Press, 2020. 978-0-525-70800-1. 336 p. $22.99. Grades 7-12.

It begins with a most unexpected letter. Teen cousins Aubrey, Milly and Jonah are invited to spend the summer on Gull Island, the resort home of their wealthy WASP grandmother, Mildred Story, the woman who, decades before, cut off all contact with her children, enigmatically telling them, “You know what you did.” Except the three brothers and their sister have always denied knowing what their mother meant. Now the adult siblings, encouraged by this gesture, bribe, threaten, and cajole the cousins to accept the offer, for a variety of personal reasons, including, but not necessarily limited to, possible access to the immense Story fortune. Sweet Aubrey, bearing a traditional Story family name; sophisticated Milly, named after her grandmother; and extremely disgruntled Jonah meet up on the ferry ride to the island, pondering what the summer will hold. None of them envisions the events that unfold. But when one of the first people they encounter on the island tells them “you shouldn’t have come back,” the cousins become reluctant allies, uncovering lost family history and learning exactly what happened all those years ago. McManus presents another tour de force with her fourth young adult mystery. This character driven plot has the feel of a classic Agatha Christie. Breathtaking suspense takes a back seat as Aubrey, Milly, and Jonah, burdened with parental legacies, expectations, and disappointments, cautiously open up to each other, shedding secrets and personas molded by family legacy. Plot twists keep the reader guessing until the tempestuous climax, but the journey is the true star in this book.

THOUGHTS: McManus just keeps getting better. A first purchase for all middle school and high school collections, and multiple copies will be needed. 

Mystery          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Cousins Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah Story did not grow up enjoying extended family vacations on Gull Island or at the resort home of their wealthy grandmother. Instead each has had to deal with a parent who is still – years later – dealing with the fallout of being disinherited by their mother, matriarch Mildred Story. Cut off with only a message of “You know what you did.” the story children are left to fend for themselves which, given their upbringing, they were not prepared to do. When the cousins each receive a postcard from their grandmother inviting them to work on Gull Island’s resort for the summer, they have mixed reactions. Their parents, however, insist. It’s the opportunity to get back into their mother’s good graces, and they’ve been waiting decades. Forced together, the cousins arrive on Gull Island only to be told they “shouldn’t have come back.” They bond together to make the best of their circumstances and learn more about the family they never got to know.

THOUGHTS: This one will keep readers guessing, and fans of McManus’s other books will be happy with this new mystery. A must have for middle and high school libraries.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Twenty-four years ago the Story children were disowned by their mother, Mildred. The children, Adam, Asher, Allison, and Archer received a note with just five words: “You know what you did.” The problem was, and still is, that none of them know what the note means.  Now, 24 years later, the children of Adam, Asher, and Allison received letters inviting them to Gull Coast Island on behalf of their estranged grandmother to work in the resort’s Towhee program. The cousins have not seen each other in years, so when Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah meet up on the ferry to Gull Coast Island, it is as though they are meeting for the first time. As they are introduced to their new boss, Carson, their grandmother arrives and appears very surprised to see them. When Mildred immediately leaves for two weeks, Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah begin to question the entire situation. Who sent the letters inviting them to Gull Coast Island? Why is their grandmother so elusive? What happened over 20 years ago that has kept their grandmother away? But, it isn’t until they are finally introduced to Mildred and a night out that the cousins truly begin to delve deep into the history of the Story family. Told through alternating chapters from Milly, Aubrey, Jonah, and Allison in 1996, The Cousins looks at secrets kept to protect family and secrets hidden to expose mistakes.

THOUGHTS: Karen M. McManus once again weaves a thrilling tale of lies, secrets, and deceit.  Mystery and detective fiction lovers will devour this novel.

Mystery        Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD