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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kinney, Jeff. Big Shot (Diary of a Wimpy Kid). Amulet Books, 2021. 978-1-419-74915-5. 217 p. $13.99. Grades 3-6.
Greg Heffley’s never been much of a joiner or a kid who enjoys hard work and exercise, but his middle school field day earns the winning homeroom a day off school! Student trading, super pumped lunch ladies, and disastrous trips to the gym with his dad are all part of Greg’s field day, but his mom decides afterwards that Greg could use some experience as part of a real team and encourages him to choose a sport to try. Greg, sensing he’ll easily be cut from the team, chooses basketball. Greg’s worst nightmare happens when another team is formed from all the kids who were cut, and Greg is forced to live out the rest of the basketball season on a series of teams doomed for failure. Somehow, Jeff Kinney continues to make hilarious Greg Heffley adventures.
THOUGHTS: Venturing into the sports world with Greg will be sure to give your readers some good laughs.
When a storm rolls in, a family must stay at home and figure out how to live together without getting on one another’s nerves. At first, this proves difficult, and the family struggles to get along. However, when the power goes out one particularly scary night, they all apologize to one another and things gradually improve until the storm ultimately passes.
THOUGHTS: This book clearly was written as a reflection on the recent disruption of familial routines during the COVID-19 pandemic. I love the hopeful message it offers readers: humans are resilient, and the love of family can carry one through any storm, whether it be a pandemic, an illness, the death of a loved one, or any other hardship. Hand this book to any young reader who is going through a rough patch and needs some reassurance.
Dobbs, Alda P. Barefoot Creams of Petra Luna. Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-728-23465-6. $17.99. 288 p. Grades 4-7.
Set in 1913 during the time of the Mexican Revolution, twelve-year-old Petra’s father is captured by soldiers. She promises him that she will help take care of her grandmother and two younger siblings. When it is no longer safe for them to stay in their village, they decide to flee north through the Mexican desert to safety, and America. Petra’s dreams of finding a safe haven for her family and learning to read burn within her. Her dreams persist through her abuelita’s negative talk of Petra’s “barefoot dreams” of freedom and education. Petra’s persistence keeps her family going and leads them to safety and realized dreams in America. This is based on a true story and includes a timeline of the Mexican Revolution.
THOUGHTS: I read this story after reading the “grown up” book American Dirt. Even though that story is set in present day, Barefoot Dreams would be an excellent companion read for upper elementary students who are looking for a story about immigration and the reasons behind why people leave their war torn countries.
Historical Fiction Krista Fitzpatrick, Wissahickon Charter School
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
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