MG -Down to Earth

Culley, Betty. Down to Earth. Crown Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-593-17573-6. 210 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

9-year-old Henry Bowers is worried about whether he will be a dowser. His family has worked the land, quarried for granite, and drilled for water in rural Maine for generations, and many of them have a unique talent for dowsing, or finding water through the use of a forked stick and instinct. While Henry worries about his upcoming 10th birthday, the birthday when dowsers find out if they have the knack for dowsing or not, he carries on with his quiet life, including taking care of his sister Birdie and recording his observations about rocks in his homeschooling journal. Then one night, Henry witnesses a very large meteorite fall into his backyard, and he feels an instant connection with the huge lump of space rock. The meteorite turns out to be both a problem and a blessing for Henry and his town, and ultimately, his connection to the meteorite helps him discover who he is and what he wants to do with his young life.

THOUGHTS: This is a heartwarming story about a thoughtful boy who finds himself and his unique gifts through acts of helping others. Henry and his family are loving people who endure hardships with grace, and the pace of the book matches the soothing pace with which they seem to live life. Vague allusions to the healing powers of water “called” by the meteorite are sprinkled throughout this book, but the emphasis on facts from encyclopedia and book entries, a visit from a scientist from the American Museum of Natural History, and Henry’s own journal of science questions keep the story believable and rooted in realism.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem. – Nina Soni: Master of the Garden

Sheth, Kashmira. Nina Soni: Master of the Garden.  Peachtree, 2021. 978-1-682-63226-0. $7.99. 179 p. Grades 2-4.

Fourth grader Nina is very excited to finally get a warm and sunny Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day in frigid Wisconsin.  This means she and her sister and friend will get to plant a garden with her Landscape Architect mom! Nina has dreams of starting her own business with all of the extra produce their garden will grow. But gardens take time to grow, and a lot of work as well.  Throughout this illustrated novel, challenging words are defined to help promote unfamiliar vocabulary words.

THOUGHTS: Kids who enjoy outdoor activities and gardening will enjoy this read.

Realistic Fiction           Krista Fitzpatrick, Wissahickon Charter School

MG/YA – Simone Breaks All the Rules

Rigaud, Debbie. Simone Breaks All the Rules. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-68172-1. 320 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Simone Thibodeaux is tired of her overprotective Haitian parents, and when they arrange her prom date with a son of a suitable Haitian family, it is the last straw. She decides the end of her senior year at St. Clare Academy, a largely white, all-girls school, is the perfect time to start experiencing life. She enlists two classmates with similar parental issues, Indian-American Amite and Kira, the white daughter of a notorious lawyer. The trio dub themselves HomeGirls, and create a Senior Playlist of challenges and accomplishments, including going to a house party, cutting class, and changing up their style. And then there is prom. Simone works feverishly to keep her parents thinking she is going to prom with Ben, the polite Haitian boy, while lining up her own date with Gavin, a hot guy from the affiliated boys school. But why is it so hard to be herself around Gavin, and so comfortable to be with Ben? Readers will fall for Simone from the first pages. Her voice is fresh, humorous, and authentic. Anyone with parents will relate and sympathize with Simone and her girlfriends. However, along the way to ditching her parents, Simone comes to appreciate her Haitian heritage and culture, and realize how much she does love her mom, as trying as she may be. The book celebrates the value of good friends (and how not to lose them) and the families who love us. Haitian culture and Haitian Creole language are sprinkled throughout the book, deftly adding to the depiction of the New York area Haitian-American community.

THOUGHTS:  This delightful rom-com is perfect for middle school as well as high school, with nothing more dangerous than a few chaste kisses, and clubbing occurs as a teen venue serving “mocktails.”

Romance          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem. – Ninja Kid: From Nerd to Ninja

Do, Anh. Ninja Kid: From Nerd to Ninja!  Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-58523-0. $6.99. 192 p. Grades 2-5.

This illustrated novel for younger readers tells the story of Nelson, a nerd from Duck Creek. Nelson wakes up on his tenth birthday and discovers that he’s a ninja! The last ninja on earth! With the help of his grandmother’s inventions, Nelson finds a way to save the day from giant hairy spiders invading his town. He even learns of family secrets about his father’s ninja past and disappearance. This is the first book in a new series.

THOUGHTS: This illustrated novel is action packed and will appeal to reluctant readers. The humor and common theme of not fitting in will resonate.

Early Chapter Book          Krista Fitzpatrick, Wissahickon Charter School

Elem. – Memory Jars

Brosgol, Vera. Memory Jars. Roaring Book Press, 2021. 978-1-250-31487-1 48 p. $18.99. Grades K-3.

Freda is disappointed when she cannot eat all the blueberries that she picked with her grandmother. Blueberry season is over, and she has to wait an entire year to eat them again! Gran reminds her that she saves blueberries in a jar by turning them into delicious jam. What a delightful idea! Freda begins to wonder- if she can preserve blueberries in jars, why not everything else in her life that are her favorite things? Things such as warm cookies, poppies (her favorite flower), her neighbor’s beautiful singing voice, her best friend that is moving away, or the full moon. Only after she bottles everything up in mason jars does Freda realize that saving everything also means she cannot enjoy those very same things. Memory Jars, a picture book written and illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Vera Brosgol, is the perfect story to remind readers that some things are best saved as beautiful memories.

THOUGHTS: Memory Jars is written as a fable, complete with a satisfying lesson and delicious blueberry jam recipe at the end. The story is clever and charming as Freda learns that enjoying the moment is the best way to make memories. This book would be a perfect way to walk down memory lane to remember fun memories from a summer break, remember a loved one, or remember memories from a fun school year.

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

MG – Glitter Gets Everywhere

Clark, Yvette. Glitter Gets Everywhere. Harper, 2021. 978-0-063-03448-8. 308 p. $15.15. Grades 5-8.

Kitty has barely had time to process her mother’s illness and death from cancer. Her dad can’t possibly be serious about taking her and her older sister, Imogen, from their home in London to New York City for four months. Everything that reminds her of her mum is in London. If they leave, will she be leaving her mother’s memory also? And as if it isn’t already awkward being the new kid with the funny accent, how is she supposed to explain to the PTA moms that her own mum will not be joining them on the committee for the Halloween dance? New York City seems destined to be a disaster, but just because so much is new doesn’t mean Kitty has to say goodbye to the old. Maybe some distance is just what Kitty needs to start the healing process.

THOUGHTS: It can hit a school hard when a student loses a parent, and unfortunately, it happens all too often. Glitter Gets Everywhere is an excellent book to have on your shelves for that student who needs to read about grief in a way that does not tie it up in a neat bow, but rather shows that it is messy, ongoing, and devastating, and like glitter thrown into the air, reminders are everywhere. But like Kitty, they too can find a way to make their new reality the new normal.

Realistic Fiction                            Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

YA – Misfit in Love

Ali, S.K. Misfit in Love. Salaam Reads / Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-44275-7. 320 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12. 

It’s two days before her older brother Muhammad marries Sarah, the love of his life, and Janna is looking forward to the arrival of Nuah, who she finally is ready to tell “yes, I like you back.” They’re at her father’s Mystic Lake, IN estate, though Janna has had her own strained relationship with her dad. Due to Sarah finishing her Master’s degree and her family throwing their own official reception next year, wedding plans have been left up to Dad and Muhammad which means Janna has been there helping for weeks. It’s been nice to spend time away from home, even with stepmother Linda and the laddoos, Muhammad and Janna’s half siblings. Janna is excited to see her mom again, however awkward this huge family event may be, but she didn’t count on an attraction to Sarah’s gorgeous cousin, her mother’s distraction with an old friend, and a brooding sad guy who seems to get Janna. Still, she’s determined to reconnect with Nuah who, despite Janna’s best efforts, seems distracted himself. As friends and family arrive for the celebration, Janna experiences a whirlwind of emotions.

THOUGHTS: With appearances by beloved characters from other Ali books, this is a must have addition to high school romance collections.

Romance          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – A Soft Place to Land

Marks, Janae. A Soft Place to Land. Harper Collins, 2021. 978-0-062-87587-7. $16.99. 288 p. Grades 4-7.

The Taylor family is going through a rough patch. Twelve-year old Joy’s father was laid off, they had to sell their beloved house and move to a small apartment, cut out all non-essential expenses like Joy’s piano lessons, and change Joy’s middle school. Bad enough her dream to be a film composer has to be put on hold and her old friends are not reaching out to her, but her parents are arguing now, and Joy feels she has to keep her feelings hidden to shield her little sister, Malia. The silver lining is the friendliness and kindness of the residents of her apartment building, from next-door neighbor, elderly Mae Willoughby and her French bulldog, Ziggy, to aspiring film-maker Nora, Joy finds a warm welcome and a ready ear that softens the edge of her disappointment and anxiety over losing her house and fearing her parents will get a divorce. Other perks of apartment living are the secret hideout where Joy and her new-found friends can get away to draw, listen to music, read, or play board games, and the dog walking business Joy starts with Nora to earn money to purchase a piano. When Joy’s parents tell the girls that her father is moving in with Uncle Spencer for a bit, though, a distraught Joy runs away to the Hideout and falls asleep, leading to the breaking of the one Hideout rule: don’t tell the adults. Though the other kids are angry that their Hideout is now off limits, Nora remains a loyal friend until Joy’s curiosity about a poignant poem and messages on the Hideout’s walls leads to a rift between them. When Nora ditches the dog walking session, Joy finds out too late she cannot handle the task solo and loses Ziggy. Despite her loneliness and sense of failure, Joy works to come up with a way to find Ziggy, mend her friendship with Nora, and remedy the loss of the special Hideout. Janae Marks’s new novel abounds with positivity while recognizing life does not go perfectly. Joy and her family are African American; most of the other characters are people of color also.

THOUGHTS: A comforting, relatable middle school read. No high drama here, just an enjoyable story showing people bonding together and helping each other, and middle school students being kind and friendly to newcomers. Although there are some difficult issues at play here, all the adults are experts at problem solving and dealing with hard things respectfully. The children follow suit. Joy and Nora show a lot of responsibility and initiative, and the other characters display other positive traits.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – Watercress

Wang, Andrea. Watercress. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-823-446247 32 p. $18.99. Grades K-3. 

Watercress is a quiet yet profoundly moving picture book by the award-winning duo, Andrea Wang and Jason Chin. A young girl, traveling with her immigrant parents in rural America, is confused when her parents stop abruptly to collect wild watercress growing on the side of the road. Then a pair of rusty scissors and a brown paper bag are found in the depth of their old Pontiac trunk. The young Chinese girl and her brother have no choice but to roll up their jeans and follow their parents into the mud to gather the watercress. Later that evening, the dinner table holds a dish of watercress soaked in garlicky oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds, peppered with unanswered questions and confusion. At first, the little girl is angry and even embarrassed. Why didn’t her family get food from the store? But when her mother shares a story about her family and heritage in China, the girl learns to appreciate the incredible journey her family endured many years before. The beautiful watercolors and poetic text are about the power of memories, even the ones that are so difficult to share.

THOUGHTS: It is common for children to be unaware of their parent’s stories and culture. But it is also imperative to understand how we have arrived at this very moment. Watercress is a beautiful nod towards healthy communication between generations and an exploration into forgiveness and empathy. It is explained in the author’s note that this semi-autobiographical story is both a love letter and an apology letter to her parents- with an emphasis on how essential it is to share our stories.

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

MG – One Jar of Magic

Haydu, Corey Ann. One Jar of Magic. Harper Collins, 2021. $16.99 978-0-062-68985-6. Grades 5-8.

Rose Alice Anders isn’t just Rose. She is “Little Luck,” so nicknamed by her father, the luckiest man in Belling Bright, the most magical place in the world. Her father has the most knowledge of magic in this town where magic is revered and frequently used for everything from improving hair quality to crafting a rainbow (though her father cautions Rose and her brother Lyle that interfering with weather is too dangerous). All her life Rose has been striving to live up to her father’s belief that she will be the most magical in their family. Her status–and her father’s–brings ‘honor’ but also trouble into her friendships. So when the new year arrives in her twelfth year, Rose both longs for the day and dreads it for the pressure. Yes, she is magical, yes, her father has answers, but something doesn’t feel right, though she’d never admit it. The town’s New Year’s Day comes, and everyone is out to capture magic in jars of any color or size. Some magic sparkles, some changes colors, some seems to enchant just by being. Rose goes straight to Too Blue Lake, where she’s certain she, of all people, will manage to fill jar after jar after jar. But as the day goes on and her friends gather jars, and her brother tries to help her (should she be grateful or insulted?), Rose is fearful to come to the feast with just one jar of magic. She can feel her father’s anger. To appease his anger, her mother takes Rose and Lyle home, stopping at a store run by “not-meant-for-magic’ people. Though the store is nearby, Rose has never been there and never met these people. Her shame at failing to live up to her name and her heritage mixes with her curiosity in these people, who seem so….free. She wants to see Zelda–the daughter of the family–again, but knows her father (and the town) forbids it. What is going on in her family and in her town?  Where does Rose belong and how can she take a stand when she’s not sure of anything?

THOUGHTS: Haydu crafts a very real town full of questions, possibilities and dangers.  She presents the confusing family dynamics well, as Rose struggles to reconcile her hesitations and doubts with her father’s certainty, her mother’s acquiescence, her brother’s kindness, and the town’s solidarity. Who is she, if she’s not Little Luck?

Magical Realism Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD