Elem. – Big Dog, Little Dog

Rippin, Sally. Big Dog, Little Dog. Illustrated by Lucinda Gifford. Kane Miller Publishing, 2022. Unpaged. 978-1-684-64383-7. Grades K-3. $17.95.

With a great friend and a lot of attention, Big Dog enjoys a great life with his person. But sometimes the days can be long and lonely. One day while on a walk, Big Dog and his friend meet another person with a little dog. Then things begin to change. Little Dog and her person move in with Big Dog and his person, and Little Dog doesn’t seem to understand how anything works. Big Dog decides Little Dog needs to go, so he begins to sabotage Little Dog to show their people just how annoying Little Dog is. When Big Dog goes too far and is sent outside for the night, Big Dog realizes he and Little Dog may not be so different. Beautiful watercolor illustrations enhance this story of dealing with life’s changes. Children will adore the dogs and root for them to learn to like each other.

THOUGHTS: Big Dog, Little Dog is great for a lesson on how friends can have big differences. Hand this title to a child who is getting a new sibling or going through a change in family situation. Highly recommended for elementary collections. Note: This title originally was published in Australia in 2021.

Picture Book          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – A Dark and Starless Forest

Hollowell, Sarah. A Dark and Starless Forest. Clarion Books, 2021. 978-0358424413. $19.99. 368 p. Grades 9-12.

“The flowers that grow from my magic are usually indistinct little things, but those flowers – I knew those flowers. They were mandrake flowers. In legend, mandrakes grow where the blood falls under a gallows.” Derry and her adopted siblings all have one thing in common: they all have magical abilities. Abandoned by their families, the girls live with their caretaker, Frank. In addition to caring for the girls, he teaches them to use their magic and protects them from the dangers of the outside world. He prefers to call them alchemists rather than witches, and over the years, the girls have bonded and consider themselves a family. When Jane, the oldest, disappears, Derry knows she didn’t run away. Desperate to find her, Derry ventures into the dark forest that surrounds their isolated cabin looking for answers. Each night, she’s drawn to the forest, and while her magic begins to grow, darkness takes root within her and she soon discovers that nothing is what it seems. As more of her sisters go missing, protecting her family becomes her most important priority, and she soon realizes that the forest may not be the dangerous presence lurking in the shadows of her life.

THOUGHTS: This is a fantasy novel unlike any that I’ve read before, and by the end, it felt a bit like a horror movie. One of the book’s best features is the diversity and representation among the main characters including sexual orientation, gender identities, race, mental health, body image, and even deafness. Although the book is fantasy, it covers a lot of real world issues like abuse, neglect, and grooming but leaves romance out of the plot. The mystery of the forest and the disappearance of the girls will keep readers hooked and intrigued until the very end.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

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

YA – Never Saw You Coming

Hahn, Erin. Never Saw You Coming. Wednesday Books, 2021. 978-1-250-76124-8. 320 p. $18.99. Grades 8-12.

Upon learning that she’s been lied to her entire life, eighteen-year-old Meg flees her hometown to find herself in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. While Meg tries to process her feelings and question her beliefs, she meets Micah who has his own reasons to question his faith as well. Meg, a former church youth group leader and church camp counselor, struggles to accept the strict Christian way her mom raised her when it comes out that her mom’s own teen years were not so pure. Even with the church’s conservative views on modesty, purity, abstinence education, and homosexuality, Meg still strongly values her faith and belief in God. And she has to reconcile her feelings. Micah, who idolized his father before he was caught in a sexual misconduct and embezzling scandal, has shunned his beliefs and struggles to find forgiveness for his father’s mistakes. Life in the church community his dad demolished hasn’t been easy for Micah. Both feeling wronged by the families they trusted, Meg and Micah become fast friends then more than friends, and their relationship gives them the space to process their hurt feelings, questioned beliefs, and church teachings. Told in alternating narratives, teen readers will love this sweet romance that addresses the core of one’s beliefs and values.

THOUGHTS: This story is a personal one for Hahn, and she well represents the struggles that teens of faith may face. With honesty and care for the topics, Hahn addresses the church’s hypocrisy in a way that will help teens consider their own feelings. Highly recommended for high school collections.

Romance          Maryalice Bond, SD

YA – 10 Truths and a Dare

Elston, Ashley. 10 Truths and a Dare. Disney-Hyperion, 2021. 978-1-368-06238-1. 291 p. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

Olivia is a focused and ambitious top student, selected to be her class salutatorian. In order to take all of those extra AP classes to earn that spot, she opted to take a golf class outside of school, figuring it was a quick and easy “A”. Now it is the week before graduation, the traditional themed parties for graduation are gearing up, and Olivia and her classmates are looking forward to all of the celebrations. That is when she gets the surprising news that her golf instructor is refusing to sign off on her PE credit, because she rarely attended or participated in classes. She strikes a  deal with him to earn that credit by working all graduation week at the college recruiting tournament for high school athletes. She has to hide this looming disaster from her large Italian family and her classmates at school and with the help of her cousins and friends she is able to. Her week of hard work, over-commitment, and exhaustion brings her an understanding of the value of family, friendship, integrity, and honesty, and also the possibility of romance with an unlikely partner.  

THOUGHTS: A second title by the author of 10 Blind Dates, recommend this for students looking for a light-hearted, PG read.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Summers, Abington SD

MG – Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero

Faraqi, Saadi. Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero. Quill Tree Books, 2021. 978-0-062-94325-5. 357 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8. 

Yusuf lives in Texas with his family, and he has some big life changes coming up. He is starting middle school, hoping to enter a Robotics competition with his school’s Robotics team and is spending time helping his family build their community’s new mosque. However this is the 20th year anniversary of September 11th, and his community isn’t happy about the new mosque, or any of his family living in their small town anymore. Yusuf has to deal with bullies from many different directions, and he isn’t sure how to handle it. Will Yusuf be able to hold onto things that bring him such happiness in the face of so much hate and hostility?

THOUGHTS: This well told story touches on many things that today’s readers are either familiar with from their own personal experience, or they have seen it happen to their friends and community members. This book handles these topics with grace and compassion as well as feeling authentic to the situation. Highly recommend this for any middle school collection. 

Realistic Fiction          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

MG – Deadman’s Castle

Lawrence, Iain. Deadman’s Castle. Margaret Ferguson Books, 978-0-823-44655-1. 247 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Igor Andrew Watson does not remember his original name because he has had so many. In fact, no one in his family has their original name because every so often, they are assigned new names and a new home by The Protectors, an organization that helps keep Igor’s family safe. All Igor knows is that when he was a child, his father witnessed a horrific crime. When his father testified in court, the criminal was put in jail, and Igor’s dad made an enemy that Igor only knows as “The Lizard Man.” After their next move to escape the Lizard Man and his vengeance, twelve-year-old Igor grows frustrated with having such an odd life. He longs to go to a regular school and have real friends. After much bargaining and begging, his parents finally agree that he can attend the local middle school as long as he does not tell anyone anything about his identity or lifestyle. Igor makes two close friends and starts to live a somewhat normal life. As he explores his new neighborhood with his friends, Igor has flashbacks of memories. He thinks he has lived in this place before… and he starts to doubt that the Lizard Man even exists.

THOUGHTS: This novel’s interesting plot and cliffhanger chapters will be appealing to middle grade readers looking for a suspenseful thriller. I believe this will be a fan favorite in libraries where mysteries/thrillers are often requested.

Mystery          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG – Stealing Home

Torres, J. Stealing Home. Kids Can Press, 2021. 978-1-525-30334-0. 112 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Baseball is Sandy Saito’s favorite hobby – in fact, he sees it as more of a lifestyle than anything else. His favorite team, the Asahi, are the pride of the Vancouver community. Sandy loves playing catch with his younger brother Ty and his father, a respected doctor. His life changes drastically; however, when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, and suddenly anyone of Japanese descent is treated very differently than before. His father daringly breaks the curfews imposed on the Japanese to care for patients but one day, he does not return home. The Saito family is relocated to an internment camp without Dr. Saito. Sandy’s mother explains that his father is in a camp where his medical expertise is needed, but Sandy is doubtful he will ever see his father again. Eventually, Sandy realizes that, much like in baseball, he will have to figure out how to handle what is thrown his way.

THOUGHTS: Even though this is a complex historical event, baseball ties the story together and makes it relatable to young readers who may only be learning about Japanese internment camps for the first time. Back matter in the book provides more information and sources for readers eager to learn more. This graphic novel is a great fit for middle grade libraries and complements other graphic novels like George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy and Kiku Hughes’ Displacement which are on the same topic.

Graphic Novel           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem. – Soul Food Sunday

Bingham, Winsome. Soul Food Sunday. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-419-74771-7. 48 p. $17.99. Grades K-2.

It can’t be soul food Sunday without the macaroni and cheese, greens, and chicken, ribs, and sausage! The narrator is a young boy but old enough to join in the fun (and hard work!) in his grandmother’s kitchen. His grandmother guides him through grating cheese, rinsing greens, skinning the chicken, skinning the sausage, and even a special surprise. The hard work that goes into this meal makes the food taste that much more delicious! The beautiful story of mouthwatering family time showcases tradition and culture that goes far beyond the actual recipes–but a recipe for mac and cheese is included! An author’s note includes the importance of soul food to the author and a story of how the illustrator learned to cook from her family members.

THOUGHTS: A great addition to any elementary library to showcase culture that emphasizes the importance of food and family and how they come together.

Picture Book          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

MG – Frankie & Bug

Forman, Gayle. Frankie & Bug. Aladdin, 2021. 978-1-534-48253-1. 288 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Tired of experiencing life in 2021? Jump back to the summer of 1987, before social media, cell phones, and when summer break meant kids had an opportunity to get bored. Bug was all ready to go to the beach every day with her brother, but he was too cool for that now. While she was moping about, her upstairs neighbor informed her that his nephew would be coming to stay for the summer. Though they don’t hit it off at first, Frankie and Bug cover a lot of ground as ten and eleven year olds in Venice Beach. From sleuthing to try uncover the midnight marauder to a lesson or two in self identity, Frankie and Bug discover the importance of being true to yourself and family is who you surround yourself with.

THOUGHTS: A fantastic addition to middle level libraries. It’s a relief to read a story without the burden of current times, but one that still hits a lot of major themes. The story includes LGBTQ+ and Hispanic representation in an age appropriate manner.

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD