MG – The Fort

Korman, Gordon. The Fort. Scholastic Press, 2022. 978-1-338-62914-9. 239 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

After a violent hurricane rips through their town, Evan and his friends decide to explore the destruction and see if their fort in the woods has survived. Unfortunately, the fort is destroyed, but the weather has unearthed something even better not too far away. The boys discover an underground bomb shelter, complete with canned goods, a record player, a TV – basically everything they need to make the ultimate clubhouse! The group decides to keep the fort a secret between the five of them. They hang out at the fort quite often, spending a lot of time with each other; however, each of them is hiding another secret besides the fort. Evan is worrying about his older brother and hoping he doesn’t succumb to drugs like their parents. Jason is trying hard not to reveal the fort to his girlfriend and her police officer father. Mitchell is trying to get his OCD under control. And CJ is sleeping at the fort every night to escape physical abuse from his stepdad. Ricky, who has not known these guys as long as they have known each other, knows something is amiss and begins to put the pieces together, determined to help them out. When some older boys get suspicious about where the friends are spending their time and an investigation begins, Ricky knows he has to work quickly to keep his friend group (and the fort) safe.

THOUGHTS: Gordon Korman’s 100th book does not disappoint. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character to get everyone’s perspectives. The friendship between the boys is heartwarming and supportive, especially in the face of the obstacles they all have in their lives. This book is a must-purchase for middle grade libraries.

Realistic Fiction            Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

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

MG – All You Knead is Love

Guerrero, Tanya. All You Knead is Love. Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-374-31423-1 375 p. $16.99. Grades 4-6. 

Twelve-year-old Alba does not want to leave New York City and move to Barcelona to live with a grandmother she barely knows or remembers. But her mother, a native from Spain herself, is not moving with her, nor is her alcoholic, abusive father. Alba is leaving behind a school she does not like, very few friends, and a home full of secrets and trauma. All You Knead is Love by Tanya Guerrero is a heartfelt story about finding one’s chosen family and discovering the passions stirring inside us. After arriving in a new country, Alba is surprised to find that she not only loves Barcelona but feels her most authentic self in this foreign land. She forms a close relationship with her grandmother, finds her first proper group of friends, and even experiences her first crush. Alba befriends a neighborhood baker who opens his kitchen as a haven to her; she begins to not only heal but thrive as his apprentice. Just as Alba discovers that she has a real passion and talent for baking bread, her beloved bakery faces an unexpected closure. Even more heartbreaking, her mother arrives in Barcelona after finally leaving her abusive relationship with Alba’s father. Alba becomes determined to save the bakery- and mend and heal the strained relationship with her mother.

THOUGHTS: All You Knead is Love seamlessly blends the right amount of culture, music, cooking, and the Spanish language into a vibrant setting that charms and delights. This story transported me to the streets of Barcelona and made me laugh and cheer for Alba and her chosen family. Tanya Guerrero writes with such sensitivity, and her authentic tone created a story with characters that will stick with me for a long time. This story was a gem!

Realistic Fiction          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

YA – The Girls I’ve Been

Sharpe, Tess. The Girls I’ve Been. Putnam, 2021. 9780593353806. $18.99. 356 p. Grades 9 and up.

Two armed men enter a bank in a sleepy rural California town assuming they’ll find the bank manager and easily coerce him into taking them to their target – a safe deposit box. The manager hasn’t arrived yet though, and who they DO find is teenager Nora O’Malley. She’s not just any teenage girl. She’s not even Nora O’Malley – depending on how you look at it. Nora spent most of her life playing the roles of different girls with her con-artist mother until her half-sister extracted her from the situation four years ago. As she tries to adjust to a “normal” life and put her past behind her, her biggest problem has been the current awkwardness between her and her ex-boyfriend but now best friend Wes because she’d been lying to him about her new relationship with their other friend, Iris. Thrust into a serious hostage situation with her friends, Nora is forced to resurrect her old identities if she wants any chance of getting them out of this alive.

THOUGHTS: A wild page-turner for fans of the thriller genre. The well-crafted plot alternates from Nora’s past to the present, and it all ties together in the end. It also tackles domestic abuse from multiple angles as all of the three teenage main characters have struggled with it in some form.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD