MG – The Supernatural Society

Ogle, Rex. The Supernatural Society. Inkyard Press, 2022. 978-1-335-42487-7. 281 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Will moves with his mom and his dog, Fitz, from New York City to a new school in East Emerson because his parents have recently divorced, and he is not pleased. Will deals with quite a bit of culture shock as he acclimates to small-town life and realizes that East Emerson isn’t just a sleepy, boring town; his new home is also overrun with monsters! Eventually, though, he befriends Linus and Ivy, two siblings from his neighborhood who help him deal with the monsters and make him feel as though he has found a “tribe” among all the upheaval and heartbreak in his life.

THOUGHTS: Good for students who want more scary stories, those who are fans of Stranger Things and groups of smart, multicultural kids finding monsters and solving mysteries. Linus is unapologetically smart, Ivy is strong, and Will is the glue that holds the band together. Students will be waiting with excitement for future books as well! This story will also serve as an unusual but interesting way to lead students to Free Lunch, Rex Ogle’s gritty and fascinating memoir.

Mystery Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD
Supernatural Fiction

Elem./MG – Super Troop

Hale, Bruce. Super Troop. Scholastic, 2022. 978-1-338-64599-6.  276 p. $17.99. Grades 3-5.

Cooper and Nacho are best friends – and partners in mischief – which, naturally, continually gets them into trouble. Big Trouble. Particularly after the stunt they pull on the pirate ride at their local theme park. The end result!? The boys’ families enroll them in Boy Rangers as punishment and to teach them discipline. A whole summer of dorky Boy Rangers. And if Cooper quits? The graphic novel camp he’s been dreaming of all summer becomes just that: a dream. The boys reluctantly join the Boy Rangers and soon encounter a new scoutmaster, Mr. Pierce, whose goal is to make their ragtag troop into the best in the area after the old scoutmaster quits rather than have girls join the troop. Their troop has a lot to learn if they are to qualify for and win the Ranger Jamboree. A disastrous camping trip and the resulting review of the scout master gives the troop members an opportunity to find their voices with the adults in their lives. In the midst his trials and tribulations with Boy Rangers, Cooper decides that this should be the summer he brings his divorced parents back together. The problem is their lives have moved on, and his efforts result in a series of stumbles that will be relatable to many children living in divorced families who just can’t quite let go of the dream of the family they once knew. In the course of the book, Cooper discovers himself and realizes that the family he once felt was broken has simply grown larger and different.

THOUGHTS: I selected this book because I was looking for realistic fiction with primarily male main characters.  Between the covers, I found an adventure that integrates nature, friendship, and the main character’s evolving thinking about his parents’ divorce. Super Troop is told through Cooper’s voice and contains a diverse cast of characters–without an obvious focus on their diversity. Occasional illustrations by the author break up the text as do a few texted conversations between Cooper and his friends. I can think of many readers who will enjoy the adventures in the pages, particularly my students involved in Scouts and struggling with divorce. A solid addition to any collection looking to develop its offerings to boys, reluctant readers, and those seeking insight on divorce.

Realistic Fiction          Hannah J. Thomas, Central Bucks SD

MG – Falling Short

Cisneros, Ernesto. Falling Short. Quill Tree Books, 2022. 978-0-062-88172-4. 292 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8.

Sixth graders, Isaac Castillo and Marco Honeyman, are best friends, next door neighbors, and complete opposites. Isaac is a tall, basketball star who struggles in school; smart as a whip, Marco gets mistaken for a kindergartner because of his short stature. What both of them share is mutual love and care and problematic fathers. Unable to cope with his alcoholism, the loving but troubled Mr. Castillo is estranged from his wife and son. On the other hand, Marco’s parents are divorced, and his father would rather write an alimony check than visit his son. The boys’ warm friendship stands up to the pressure when the pair start Mendez Middle School in California. Marco classifies the different students like fish, some are aggressives and some are community minded. In Falling Short, author Ernesto Cisneros makes a solid case that being community minded is possible and preferable. Having almost failed fifth grade, Latinx Isaac has to prove that he can make the mark, and perhaps ease some of his parents’ stress. Mexican-American and Jewish Marco, too, wishes to impress his neglectful father, a jock, who dismisses Marco’s scholastic achievements. The basketball team is a choice that fits both boys’ needs: Isaac can coach Marco in baller moves; Marco can be Isaac’s loyal study buddy. Determined to escape the taunts of the school bullies–especially basketball eighth grade standout, the looming Byron–Marco takes on becoming a basketball player as an intellectual pursuit. Motivated by Marco’s relentless efforts to learn how to play ball, Isaac disciplines himself to complete all homework assignments. Their bro’mance gets them through their respective feelings of inadequacy in either sports or studies and their family issues. Marco skips an elective course and completes Isaac’s missed homework assignment. Isaac convinces Coach Chavez that Marco will be a valuable player on the team. Told in alternating voices that mix feeling with humor, the story reaches a climax when Isaac’s dad suffers a car accident while driving drunk right before the big basketball tournament. To add to the tension, Marco’s errant dad comes to see him play at the tournament. Reading how these true friends push each other to achieve their goals and affirm themselves in the process imitates the deft moves of a satisfying game and does not fall short.

THOUGHTS: Author Ernesto Cisneros mixes lots of details in Falling Short that cater to the typical middle school student: description of basketball plays, mention of well-known basketball players, team spirit, an explosive farting episode. It also touches on the awkwardness and helplessness kids can feel when dealing with parental flaws. The book includes some nice touches that point to a better world: Coach Chavez throws Byron, the bully, off the team when he finds out Byron humiliated Marco; Marco has a short teacher who can be both self-deprecating and inspirational; there is a girl on the basketball team; some of the other team members also look past Marco’s lack of height and see his kindness. Spanish phrases are scattered throughout the book.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – Violet and the Pie of Life

Green, Debra. Violet and the Pie of Life. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-823-44755-8. $18.99. 279 p. Grades 5-8.

Violet is a quiet kid who loves math, pie, and her best friend McKenzie. Violet and McKenzie try to navigate seventh grade together, as they always have, but they begin to grow apart as Violet’s parents separate, and Violet begins to spend more time with Ally, a friend from the school play that McKenzie does not like. As Violet struggles with her parents’ problems and with her perception that some people have a “perfect life,” she begins to realize that all families are more complicated than they seem on the surface, and all aspects of life cannot be easily distilled into the mathematical equations, flow charts, and logical lists that she uses to try to make sense of the changes she is experiencing.

THOUGHTS: This novel brings the struggles and friendships of middle school students to life in an authentic way, and the story uses humor, math, and the arts to show that people are flawed, but still deserving of love and opportunity.  The understanding that grows between Violet and her mother is a heartwarming and hopeful presentation of adolescent-parent relationships, and Violet’s relationship with her father experiences a closure that is poignant if not satisfying. 

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Just Like That

Schmidt, Gary. Just Like That. Clarion Books, 2021. 978-0-544-08477-3. 387 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Meryl Lee, reeling from the tragic death of her best friend Holling, is struggling to find joy in anything. Her parents enroll her into a New England boarding school to help her find herself again (while also shielding her from the divorce process they are secretly going through). At St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls, Meryl Lee feels like she has more in common with the young ladies who are employed there rather than the stuck-up girls who attend as students. Despite being told that it is “unbecoming” to mingle with the staff, Meryl Lee knows in her heart this is wrong. With the support of the headmistress, Dr. Nora MacKnockater, Meryl Lee works on healing her heart and finding her place in the world. At the same time, a boy named Matt Coffin is always on the move. Homeless and parent-less, he moves from place to place carrying his pillowcase full of money, intent on avoiding the scary people who are coming after him. His travels take him to New England and there, his world collides with Meryl Lee’s and Dr. MacKnockater’s. With their help, he confronts his past and starts planting permanent roots in one place.

THOUGHTS: Although these two characters are seemingly different, the struggles they are going through tie them together. The book takes place in 1968 but still feels very modern. The character’s struggles are definitely ones that middle grade readers will relate to (fitting in, divorce) combined with the global struggle of the Vietnam War in the background of the story makes it more complex than it seems on the surface. Gary Schmidt’s witty writing style will make middle grade readers laugh, cry, and think.

Historical Fiction           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – Instructions for Dancing

Yoon, Nicola. Instructions for Dancing. Delacorte Press, 2021. 978-0-593-43494-9. 285 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.

Ever since her parents split up, Yvette (“Evie”) hasn’t found romance novels quite as magical anymore. She sees through the happily ever after to the true equation of every love story: “Heartbreak = love + time.” While donating a stack of previously beloved books to a Little Free Library near her L.A. apartment building, Evie finds a book called Instructions for Dancing. Returning home with the book, she sees her younger sister Danica and her boyfriend kissing on the stoop and has a vision of the couple’s love story, including how it began and how it will end. Later that night, Evie realizes that her premonition of Danica’s break-up came true, and it’s the first of many such visions. Pinning her new ability to the secondhand book in her backpack, Evie follows its instructions to return it to a dancing school in La Brea. There, she meets (charming, attractive, talented, and tall) Xavier, or X, whose grandparents own the studio. With a little nudge, in hopes of boosting business, the pair enter the L.A. Danceball competition, Amateur Under 21 category. Genuine feelings develop as Evie and X master elements of ballroom including footwork, artistry, showmanship, and chemistry. But can Evie truly open her heart to love when she knows that it will inevitably end?

THOUGHTS: Nicola Yoon’s latest promises (and skillfully delivers) romance, ballroom dancing, a hint of magic, and one girl’s quest to answer that age-old question: is love worth the risk?

Romance          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – Summer of Brave

Parks, Amy Noelle. Summer of Brave. Albert Whitman & Co., 2021. 978-0-807-57660-1. 232 p. $16.99. Grades 4-8.

Lilla likes to make everyone happy, even if it means not speaking her mind. The Summer Wish is a tradition between friends Knox, Vivi, and Lilla – whoever blows off the most seeds of the dandelion gets to make a Summer Wish that the other two must do. When Vivi wins (again), she decides to make her wish for a summer of brave, where everyone is honest and shares their feelings in order to overcome a fear. For Lilla this will be a challenge at home since she spends half her time living on the second floor with her mother, a scientist, and the other half on the first floor with her father, an artist. When the trio apply for summer camp counselors, tensions mount when Vivi doesn’t get chosen and Lilla can’t tell her the truth (which equals not being brave). Add to that the decision on which school to attend in the fall (the private school for science or art? Or the public school for a more well rounded education?), Lilla struggles with finding her voice to tell both her parents and friends her true wish. Will the Summer of Brave truly work?

THOUGHTS: A great coming of age story about being honest with yourself and others while finding out who you are. These middle school students are relatable and each bring a special connection to the story. Lilla struggles with self doubt, and readers at this level will connect with her in more ways than one. A wonderfully written and brave story of finding the courage to speak up for what you believe in.

Realistic Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

YA – Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story)

Nayeri, Daniel. Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story). Levine Querido, 2020. 346 p. 978-1-646-14000-8. $17.99.  Grades 7-12.

When Khosrou’s (Daniel’s) physician mother converts to Christianity in the 1980’s, she endangers her life because of the Iranian government’s restrictions on religion. His father, a jovial, loquacious dentist covertly obtains the proper paperwork for escape, then drops off his eight-year-old son and twelve-year-old daughter, Dina, at the airport as his wife starts a journey that will take the threesome to Dubai, Italy, and finally, Oklahoma. Daniel Nayeri’s Printz Award-winning book, Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story), telling how his family turned from comfortable, wealthy land owners to battered, poor refugees can be summed up in these few sentences; but the flow of the chapter-less pages weaves a tale likened to the much admired, Scheherazade of 1,001 Nights. The paragraphs describing memories of Daniel’s (no one in America can pronounce Khosrou!) grandparents’ home and his parents’ relationship spin into beloved Persian legends and myths and wind up next to pages relating the harsher daily existence he experiences in Oklahoma. Daniel is at the center of a maelstrom as the cover depicts, a twelve-year-old boy with different tastes in foods and specific hygienic customs, wanting to fit in yet also wanting to hold on to the Persian culture he cherishes. A son with vivid recollections who longs for the warmth of his biological father, but is resigned to live with his stern, abusive Farsi- speaking step-father whom his mother marries and keeps remarrying for companionship and convenience, despite the beatings she suffers. As Daniel narrates his life tale with casual familiarity, the reader learns of the ancient heritage of Iran and its reverence and love of story, his difficulties adjusting to each stage of the refugee journey, and his impressions of Americans and life here. Most of all, the story is a tribute to the perseverance and unconditional love of his mother, Sima. In the refugee hotel of Italy instead of lolling around all day waiting for the call to emigrate, she makes a connection with a Texan woman living in Rome who home schools her own children and arranges for Daniel and Dina to share in the lessons even though Sima has to spend hours erasing the answers from the host children’s cast-off notebooks so that Daniel and Dina can use them. Her determination and dignity to make life good for her son and daughter are evident in that scene. Told not as a memoir, but as a work of fiction—for as the narrator tells us, it is not so simple to sort out fact from fiction when dealing with one’s memories—Daniel delivers the truth of his life as he remembers it with humor and charm and not a bit of self-pity. Shifting from present to far past to recent past, he shares his varied observations, thus preserving his precious legacy of storytelling, made up or real, or a mixture of both.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: Like the coveted cream puffs described in one of Nayeri’s tales, this book is a treat for those who appreciate a different writing style and matchless imagery. There are bits of scatological references—the unhappy affect of a first-time encounter with Sloppy Joes and negotiating a toilet with a bidet—but the targeted audience may appreciate and even empathize with Daniel’s situations. Written with a truly inimitable voice, this work is unlike any book for middle grade or young adult this reader has encountered. Recommend to students who love words or like to write, to those new to a place, or those needing to understand another perspective.

MG – The List of Things that Will Not Change

Staed, Rebecca. The List of Things that Will Not Change. Wendy Lamb Books, 2020. 978-1-101-93810-2. 218 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Bea was eight when her parents divorced and gave her a green notebook with a list of “Things that will not change” written into it.  The first two items on the list are that her mom and dad will always love her and each other. Bea has been adding to that list ever since getting her notebook. The thing is, lots of things in Bea’s life are changing, and being the worrier that she is, it’s not always easy to adjust. Seeing her therapist helps, as does having both parents love and support her. When her dad tells her that he and his boyfriend are getting married, Bea is filled with excitement, for her father and his boyfriend, and for herself as Jesse has a daughter that is her age.  Bea has always wanted a sister, but things aren’t as easy as Bea wishes. As the wedding gets closer, Bea comes to terms with her past secrets and the fact that things don’t always have to be perfect to be perfect for her.

THOUGHTS: A must purchase for any middle grade library collection.

Realistic Fiction                   Krista Fitzpatrick- Waldron Mercy Academy

MG – A Thousand Questions

Faruqi, Saadia. A Thousand Questions. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2020. 978-0-062-94320-0. 225 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8. 

In this East meets West friendship story, A Thousand Questions shows the disparity in lifestyles between the United States and Pakistan told alternately by the two main characters. Eleven-year-old Mimi Scotts and her mother travel from Houston, Texas, for summer vacation to visit her wealthy grandparents, Begum Sahib and Sahiba Ji, in Karachi for the first time. She is awed by the wealth and luxury of her grandparents’ home compared with her tiny apartment and stretched budget back in the United States. While Mimi’s mother reconnects with her school chums, Mimi forms a friendship with the servant girl, Sakina Ejaz. Too poor to go to school, Sakina assists her diabetic father cooking in the Ji’s kitchen. The two girls become fast friends. With the backdrop of the campaign season for new elections, Sakina shows Mimi the sites of Karachi, and Mimi agrees to tutor to Sakina for her English examination so that she can win a school scholarship. Mimi’s narration includes secret letters she writes to Tom Scotts, the father she has never met. When Mimi discovers her freelance journalist father is living in Karachi, she is determined to meet him and Sakina is a willing accomplice. Author Saadia Faruqi captures the richness of the Asian city from the delicious dishes and its atmosphere to the inequity of the caste system as well as the authenticity of the fully-drawn main characters: Sakina, mature beyond her years, cognizant of her integral role in providing for the welfare of her family; Mimi, an ordinary American girl of modest means, getting to know her grandparents and also her own mother in her childhood home and longing to connect with father.

THOUGHTS: This book reminds the reader of When Heaven Fell  by Carolyn Marsden, a story that compares the life of  a struggling Vietnamese family with the life of an adult Vietnamese-American adoptee who visits her Vietnamese birth mother. There’s a part where Sakini asks Mimi if there are poor people in America and Mimi answers, “No,” at first until she remembers a homeless man and the kids at school who qualify for free lunch. Discussion of social justice issues, equity in education, and divorce can ensue.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

When Mimi and her mother arrive in Karachi, Pakistan for the summer, Mimi immediately misses air conditioning, soccer, and chicken nuggets, all staples of her American upbringing. Mimi is surprised to find that her grandparents live in luxury, employing servants and wearing fancy clothes, while Mimi and her mother can barely afford rent in their tiny Houston apartment. Mimi realizes there is so much she doesn’t know about her mother, her grandparents, and her father who left years ago without explanation. After learning that her father’s job brought him to Karachi, Mimi befriends a servant girl who agrees to help Mimi find him in exchange for English lessons. Sakina, a servant of Mimi’s grandparents, dreams of going to school like Mimi, but her servant status prohibits her from making her dreams a reality. After all, when would she find the time to go to school when she must keep her job to take care of her own family and ailing father? Going to school seems even more impossible when she takes a secret exam and fails the English portion, but when Sakina and Mimi strike up their deal, Sakina starts to hope for her future and a better life for her family. As their friendship blossoms, the inequities of the Pakistani class system are revealed, and the friends determine to make good in both of their worlds despite the challenges.

THOUGHTS: Instead of multiple perspectives from different time periods, this story highlights two contemporary perspectives in a country many readers will be unfamiliar with. Shining light on the class system that still exists today in Pakistan, readers may feel compelled to learn more about the living inequalities and hardships people face who live outside of the United States. This is a good #ownvoices addition to any library seeking to diversity their collection.

Realistic     Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD