MG – The Lost Ryu

Cohen, Emi Watanabe. The Lost Ryu. Levine Querido, 2022. 978-1-646-14132-6. 200 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

This book explores an alternate history full of magical realism where dragons or “ryu” are real; some big ryu even helped Japan fight in WWII, but now most big dragons have disappeared. Even though they both care for small family dragons as pets and companions, Kohei and his new friend Isolde want to try to find a “big” dragon and bring back the majestic creatures who were lost after the war. Kohei is also trying to discover more about the father who passed away when he was three and reconnect with his mother and grandfather, who both seem stuck in the past. Will Kohei and Isodle ever discover where the big ryu have gone, and will that discovery help to heal all the terrible scars the war has left on the world?

THOUGHTS: Students who like historical fiction and fantasy will like this imaginative take on friendship, family, and Japanese dragon mythology. Kohei is Japanese, Isolde is Japanese-Jewish, and the story uses their mutual love of dragons to help them deal with the complicated history of Japan, World War II, and the Holocaust. The relationships in this book also show the struggles of children who cope with the trauma suffered by their parents and contain hopeful messages about learning how to move forward after tragedies have happened within a family.

Historical Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – The New Girl

Sutanto, Jesse. The New Girl. Sourcebooks, 2022. 350 p. $10.99 (paper) 978-1-728-21519-8. Grades 9-12. 

Thanks to her running speed on the track, Lia Setiawan has been given a full scholarship to prestigious Draycott Academy, and she is determined to prove she deserves it. But the school is full of extremely wealthy young people–think private jets, designer drugs, and racist, elitist attitudes. Because she begins mid-year after the dismissal of the outspoken drug-addicted Sophie, she finds few people to welcome her.  Draycott’s dirt app closely follows every student, and students anonymously post about everyone and everything (which isn’t about to end well). It turns out that Sophie had complaints about unfair grading practices of English instructor Mr. Werner, and Mr. Werner very pointedly informs Lia she does not belong in his class. Lia insists on staying in the class only to find herself failing dismally despite extreme diligence to the classwork.  She begins to suspect that some students have paid Mr. Werner for their grades, and she knows she’ll never be able to do that, and her track scholarship depends on her grades. Lia instantly connects with the drool-worthy Danny, who is another reason to fight for her place. But the dirt, the revenge, and the drugs begin to take their toll, and when Lia is the one to find Sophie dead in Mr. Werner’s office, she realizes that she needs to play the game even harder if she’s going to win–or live.

THOUGHTS: Like Sutanto’s The Obsession (2021), this novel features characters who can and will go to extremes to hide, succeed, and get revenge. By the novel’s end, nearly every character has a twisted secret revealed. And after the death Lia causes, tension rises to see if she will be revealed, too.  A good choice for suspense addicts.  

Mystery          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Realistic Fiction

YA – Full Flight

Schumacher, Ashley. Full Flight. Wednesday Books, 2022. 978-1-250-77978-6. $18.99. 309 p. Grades 9-12.

In the provincial town of Enfield, Texas, Weston Ryan seems a rebel with his leather jacket and motorcycle and his bad reputation for cutting down the sapling Memorial Tree on the high school campus. His vulnerability is what shy, curvy, sixteen-year old Anna James sees. Both are members of the school’s marching band, and when they are paired for a duet, sparks fly. Perpetually obedient Anna tells lies to carve out time with Weston as their sweet romance builds. Her tight-knit family–strict but nurturing parents and 12 year old sister, Jenny–keep tabs on her every move and don’t approve of Weston. While Weston, reeling from his parents’ recent divorce, bounces back and forth between his depressed father and his distant mother. As the band competition approaches, Anna and Weston have ironed out the bumps in their duet and displayed their mutual love confidently to friends and classmates. Weston’s joy in life is Anna, and Anna is an expert in plunging Weston’s depths and revealing his goodness. Only the hurdle of Anna’s parents needs to be vaulted. All seems in proper alignment for these star-crossed lovers until tragedy strikes. Told in alternating voices, this well-written love story offers two teens masking insecurities and depression who learn to understand each other and themselves. All characters seem to be white. 

THOUGHTS: Though no evidence is present, this book seems to be reflective of an experience in the author’s life. Perhaps because of this, little diversity appears. It does deal with body image, judgment, and depression. The boyfriend dies in an accident in the end; but Anna lives through it, a stronger person for having been loved. The story may appeal to those longing for a romance; students who come from small towns may identify with having one’s life in view of everyone. A strong Christian element runs through  this book: One example, one of Anna’s and Weston’s successful ruses is going to the Church youth group. Schumacher writes well and the dialogue between Anna and Weston is unique and meaningful, thus raising this novel to a higher level. After a long prelude, Anna and Weston eventually have intercourse, but with no graphic details. I did not like the cover. Though well-written, the story was not compelling to me, but may appeal to a niche audience. 

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke  School District of Philadelphia

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

MG – Gallant

Schwab, V.E. Gallant. Greenwillow Books, 2022. 978-0-062-83577-2. 337 p. $18.99. Grades 6-8.

Gallant introduces the reader to Olivia Prior, a girl who lives at Merilance and spends her days reading her mother’s journal, avoiding the other girls who bully her, and catching the attention of the ghosts who are still at Merilance. One day, she is told that someone has written for her and she will be going to a place called Gallant. When she gets there, life is not as wonderful and perfect as she thinks it is. She finds that her cousin, Matthew doesn’t want her there, repeatedly tells her that as well as trying to convince her to leave and tells her that his father wrote her that letter, but he’s now dead. However, now that Olivia has found the house that her mother grew up in, she won’t leave until she figures out what is going on. But Gallant has lots of secrets, and she will have to fight not only her cousin, but the supernatural to figure out what happened to her mother.

THOUGHTS: This is a great spooky, creepy book for the fall season. The main character Olivia is very strong willed and I think she will appeal to a lot of readers. Highly recommend this new V. E. Schwab addition to any middle school collection.

Mystery        Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy
Horror

MG – The Shape of Thunder

Warga, Jasmine. The Shape of Thunder. Balzar & Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-95667-5. $16.99. 275 p. Grades 5-8.

Cora Hamid and Quinn Macauley are next door neighbors and inseparable friends all their twelve years of life–until they are not. Quinn’s older brother, Parker, takes his father’s hunting guns to his high school one November morning and shoots Cora’s sister, Mabel, a teacher, another student, and himself. The two families’ approach to grief could not be more different. Abandoned as a baby by her mother (the reader never discovers why), Lebanese-American and Muslim Cora has the nurturing support of her biologist dad; thoughtful, maternal Gram; and the professional support of a trained therapist. Quinn’s family buries the issue. Told in alternating voices, the reticent and less academic Quinn has difficulty expressing her thoughts and guilty feelings. Her workaholic father is against any outside help to ease the family’s suffering, and her mother hides in the house cooking and baking. Longing to reconnect with Cora, Quinn delivers a box to her doorstep stuffed with articles about time travel and wormholes on Cora’s birthday. She knows Cora well enough to appeal to her scientific nature. Perhaps the two of them could find a wormhole and travel back in time to stop the tragedy of that fateful day. As the pair work through the logistics of approaching a huge tree in the forest for the site of their wormhole/time traveling, they each experience the pain of regret and the insistence on holding fast to the memory of a loved one. While Cora has made new friends on her Junior Quizbowl Team and excels in her studies, Quinn has felt shunned. She longs to be on the soccer team, but is too ashamed to try out. Her art gives her some pleasure, yet not even drawing can remove the heavy weight of a secret she knows about her brother, the possibility that she could have prevented the circumstances. After she confides in the school librarian her remorse, she resolves to confess this awful secret to Cora. Though the revelation breaks their renewed bond, Cora devotes more time to her plan to make the impossible possible. When she questions her father about time travel, she is encouraged and inspired by his answer. He tells her that her absent mother had a theory comparing the shape of time to the shape of thunder: “impossible to map” (p. 213). When both Cora and Quinn are coaxed by different people to attend the traditional Fall Festival at their middle school, the rumble of thunder pulls the two estranged girls to the woods to prove Cora’s theory. The hopeful resolution of the story, despite the sadness surrounding it, gives the reader relief. Quinn’s and Cora’s relationship see-saws throughout realistically. After all, Quinn reminds Cora of the unspeakable thing Parker did. Quinn’s strained home life with her parents who refuse any kind of self-reflection or examination of the devastating action of their son is painful.  Minor situations like the jealousy of Mia, another friend of Cora’s, toward Quinn; the snide remarks of Quinn’s former teammate and friend; the growing crush Cora has with her classmate, Owen (a Japanese-American character), will resonate genuinely with middle school readers. The Shape of Thunder is a tough read, but one that confirms that happiness can co-exist with grief, and friendships can be mended.

THOUGHTS: This novel is full of emotion and rich in language and characterization, but not so intense that a sensitive middle grade student would be put off. Cora is a thinker and an intellectual. Throughout the novel, students will find themselves entertained by the interesting facts Cora spouts (“…cows kill more people than sharks each year…”). The images Warga uses to describe different feelings are unique but spot on (the “fizziness” Cora feels in her tummy when talking to her crush, Owen, etc.). She also makes dialogue very interesting. Quinn has a hard time speaking; her brain freezes and she can’t say the words. When she finally gets angry enough to spill over her feelings to her buttoned up family, it is heartbreaking. The conversations between Cora and her father and grandmother also are authentic and tell the reader so much about the characters. What the reader must conjecture about are Parker’s reason for the shooting and the absence of Cora’s mother since her father seems to have no obvious vices. Ms. Euclid, the school librarian and art teacher, is a heroine for Quinn. This book should be issued with a box of tissues.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Afterlove

Byrne, Tanya. Afterlove. Hodder Children’s Books, 2021. 978-1-444-95595-8. 400 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

The last thing that Ash hears is breaking glass, followed by confusion. Is she still alive? Is she dead? She is met by a group of girls who tell her she has been chosen to be a Reaper, and she has to start over with this new “life.” However, all Ash wants is to see her girlfriend Poppy again no matter what. This is a unique LGBTQIA+ story, with a splash of paranormal thrown in.

THOUGHTS: The characters felt very unique and relatable, and the plot was extremely well crafted and thought out. The ending was gut wrenching but felt true to the plot and didn’t feel rushed at all. I would highly recommend this book for every high school and public library. 

Romance          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – Punching Bag

Ogle, Rex. Punching Bag. Norton Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-324-01623-6. $17.95. 217 p. Grades 9-12.

As with his debut memoir, Free Lunch, Latinx author Rex Ogle is honest and sensitive in his recounting of his high school years with his volatile mother, Luciana, and abusive stepfather, Sam. At the book’s opening, Rex’s mother reveals that she has lost an infant girl, Marisa, while seven-year-old Rex was visiting his paternal grandparents. In front of her sensitive son, she is distraught with grief and places the blame at his feet. Ogle carries that guilt with him as he navigates his teen-age years protecting his half-brother, Ford, from the chaos erupting from domestic violence in their tiny Texas apartment. At times, this guilt is assuaged with the remembrance of Marisa, giving him the encouragement and strength not extended by other adults. Though his alcoholic stepfather beats his mother regularly, Rex’s mother refuses to press charges or escape. In fact, in a brief stint when Sam leaves her, she picks on Rex, goading him to hit her. Rex acts as the parent here. He has the maturity to see their household is toxic and to recognize his mother’s mental health issues. From conversations with family members, he gets an insight into the root causes of his mother’s and stepfather’s behaviors. However, he feels responsible for the safety of his younger brother and the financial stability of the family. He receives some emotional support from his grandmother and his mother’s sister; he is able to confess to his stepfather’s brother the physical abuse suffered in their family. Nevertheless,with little adult support from teachers or neighbors, young Ogle is out there on his own with the lone comfort of Marisa’s ghostly voice convincing him her death was not his fault. When Luciana and Sam repeatedly wind up together with little improvement, Ogle has to value his own life and aim for his own dreams to keep him resilient and hopeful. This memoir is an excellent example of bibliotherapy. Ogle does not gloss over the brutality and the bewildering reality of domestic violence and the devastating effect of a parent’s untreated mental health issues on her children. Ogle acknowledges this in the book’s preface with a disclaimer emphasizing his purpose for writing his story is to show that it is possible to survive. Students suffering the same trauma will appreciate his frankness. Contains an informative Q & A with author.

THOUGHTS: The account of domestic abuse as well as physical and emotional child abuse is constant, but Ogle is a talented narrator and compels the reader to endure it. Rex Ogle himself stands out as an exceedingly mature, resilient, compassionate person, despite a lifetime to being put down, parentified, terrified, neglected. It prompts the thought, where was this behavior learned. He records little resentment of being the person in charge of his younger brother. He willingly shoulders adult responsibilities around the house with hidden resentment and–mostly-controlled anger. The book delivers an important message to any students in similar circumstances.

Memoir          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
362.7 Child Abuse

YA – Blue

Delano, L.E. Blue. Gaze Publishing, 2021. 978-1-736-47310-8. 258 p. $9.99. Grades 9-12.

Blue Mancini is rather confident that her name has doomed her to a life of sadness. Just one year ago, her brother Jack was driving drunk and was in a car accident resulting in a fatality. Because Blue and Jack have rich parents with expensive lawyers, he avoids a manslaughter charge and instead is in a detention center for only a few months. Blue might be able to live with that fact… except that Maya is returning to school. A classmate in the same grade, Maya had been out of school for a while as her family adjusted to the death of her father, the man Jack killed the night he was driving drunk. Although Blue is not directly responsible for what happened to Maya’s dad, Maya seems to think she is also to blame. This becomes apparent when Maya picks fights with her in the classes they have together. With Maya taunting her in class and on social media, her mother’s constant nagging to visit Jack in the detention center, and the fact that her boyfriend is hiding a major secret from her, Blue succumbs to feeling sorry for herself, but she isn’t great at keeping it all inside. After one particularly physical fight between Maya and Blue, the principal and counselor decide they must attend after-school sessions and create a club together. As they meet, both of them have to work through their issues to find common ground.

THOUGHTS: Blue highlights the importance of what happens when one bad decision alters the course of a life. High school readers will relate to the mental health struggles Blue goes through. This book is an easy read and ends on a light note with a positive message despite the difficult events.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem. – The Longest Letsgoboy

Wilder, Derick. The Longest Letsgoboy. Chronicle Books. 978-1-452-17716-8. 32 p. $16.99. Grades K-3. 

This is the story of one old dog’s final walk with the child he refers to as his “foreverfriend.” The dog’s playful first-person narration allows readers to experience the world through his eyes and through his made-up language. On the last day of his life, he and a young girl take a long walk through an autumn woods. The dog smells familiar scents and sees the same animals and trees he’s seen many times before, but on this walk, he moves slowly and feels tired. With his one good ear, he listens carefully to bird calls, telling him they will keep an eye on his “foreverfriend.” Later that evening, as shadows stretch across the yard, the dog circles and settles one final time. Although this is one of the most emotional sections of the book, Catia Chien’s masterful abstract illustrations lighten the tone and communicate what is happening to the dog in an age-appropriate way. The beautiful pages show the dog passing peacefully into a sky filled with bright colors, and it’s clear he feels no pain. Throughout the book, the colors in the mixed media illustrations morph to deftly match the emotions being expressed throughout the seasons of the year and the seasons of life. 

THOUGHTS: While this is clearly a story about loss, it’s also a story about love. The special bond between the girl and her dog is beautifully portrayed, and both the text and the illustrations will strike a chord with any reader who has experienced the loss of a pet. Share this title with guidance counselors to begin conversations with students who may be grieving their own loss. 

Picture Book     Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD