YA – Turtle Under Ice

Del Rosario, Juleah. Turtle Under Ice. Simon Pulse, 2020. 259 p. $18.99 978-15344-4295-5 Grades 9-12.

Teenage sisters Rowena and Ariana have drifted apart since the unexpected death of their mother several years ago. Rowena has thrown herself into soccer, becoming a respected top athlete on her team. Fearing change, Ariana has retreated into…nothing, and risks failing school. The sisters’ closeness has become a barrier as they both fear moving on, and as they both communicate less, and less honestly. Their father has remarried a woman they also love, and the family is incredibly hopeful about the arrival of their new half-sister. However, Maribel suffers a miscarriage, and the loss is too cruel for the sisters. “Our sister’s heart stopped beating/like our mother’s, unexpectedly/on a day that was otherwise/normal” (53).  Ariana vanishes, which leaves Rowena feeling angry and abandoned. This novel in verse is narrated by both sisters as they try to come to terms with this new grief, in addition to the unending grief of losing their mother. Slowly, both sisters discover that their grief has led them to close themselves off to others. Rowena tracks down Ariana at an art exhibit, where Ariana shows a painting “Turtle Under Ice” in memory of their mother. The relief comes very slowly as both girls see hope in Ariana’s art.

THOUGHTS: Del Rosario has a way with creating beautiful images with her words: “Our family…/is a frayed string of lights/that someone needs to fix/with electrical tape./It’s the electricity/that can’t get to us/because Mom’s bulb/has burned out,/so now the whole string is dark./But without the lights turned on/does anyone even notice/that we are broken?” (43-44). Ultimately, the insightful thoughts aren’t enough to save this novel from the monotonous weight of the crushing grief and depression, and the cover does little to draw in all but the most curious of readers. Recommended where novels in verse or multiple narrators are in heavy demand.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Novel in Verse

MG – When You Know What I Know

Solter, Sonja. When You Know What I Know. Little, Brown & Company, 2020. 212 p. $16.99. 978-0316-53544-1 Grades 5-8.

Ten-year-old Tori is struggling with the aftermath of sexual abuse by her once-favorite uncle. She feels shame, anger, loss, sadness, and fear. She tells her mom, who is reluctant to believe her, and her grandmother takes her uncle’s side. Since her single mom relied on Tori’s grandmother and uncle for any childcare for Tori and her eight-year-old sister Taylor, the family strain increases. Their responses make Tori feel worse: “Maybe I shouldn’t have told,” and her secret is building a wedge between her and her friends as well. This novel told in verse reveals her confusion and pain without being specific about the incident. Eventually, another girl accuses her uncle of abuse, and Tori finds a freeing yet sickening feeling of vindication, along with support from her mother and grandmother.  By novel’s end, she discovers she is able to forget the incident for a few hours. The memories still return, “But still./A day like today…/It’s possible./I know that now.”

THOUGHTS: Solter’s novel provides acknowledgement of sexual abuse of young people and the difficulty of not being believed when speaking up; this honesty will provide hope for survivors as well. The content, in no way explicit, is appropriate for upper elementary and middle school readers. The Author’s Note states, “My hope for this book is that readers will be encouraged to tell their own truths, and–if someone doesn’t believe them at first–to keep on telling until they get the help they need. Healing takes time…[and] is not only possible, it IS where all of our stories are going” (208).

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Novel in Verse

MG – How to Be a Girl in the World

Carter, Caela. How to Be a Girl in the World. Harper Collins Childrens, 2020. 294 p. $16.99 978-0-062-67270-4 Grades 5-8.

Lydia has spent the entire summer in pants, long sleeves, and turtlenecks, despite the heat, despite her single mom’s concerned comments, and despite friends’ odd looks. Lydia knows she’s not normal, and she doesn’t want to talk about it. Lydia, her biracial cousin Emma, and Lydia’s mom are proudly moving from an apartment to a dilapidated house of their own. Living in the house will require a huge amount of work (it’s chock full of dusty furniture left behind), but Lydia sees in it a chance to be safe. She would love to escape the nicknames, looks and comments of the boys at her private school. She shivers at men’s glances on the subway, or sitting too close. She feels extremely uncomfortable with her mom’s boyfriend Jeremy, whose hugs are just a little too long or too tight, and who assumes a greater friendliness with Lydia and Emma than Lydia would like. But no one else seems to notice any problem, so Lydia knows it’s her. She’s not normal, and if she can’t fix it, at least she can hide herself. Then maybe she’ll feel protected. In the new house, she finds a room full of herbs in jars and a book of spells. It’s exactly what she needs and even allows her to re-forge a connection with the best friend she’s ignored for the summer. They both try the spells, but the boys’ behavior and Jeremy’s behavior only becomes more troublesome, and an outburst from Lydia results in her being suspended from school. Lydia finally confides in her mother about the boys’ treatment of her, and her mother swiftly comes to her aid. When Lydia next explains Jeremy’s actions, her mother is devastated but resolute that Jeremy will never set foot in their house again. To Lydia, the revelatory message that she alone makes “the rules” concerning her body is freeing, and the new understanding and openness with those around her helps her to learn to own those rules.

THOUGHTS: This is a powerful, “ordinary” story that every middle school girl would benefit from reading. It’s for every girl who’s ever been told, “it’s no big deal,” “you’re such a baby,” “that’s part of being a girl,” etc. And it’s for every boy who’s ever been told, “she likes it,” “you’re just being a boy,” or “looking doesn’t hurt.”  Pair with Barbara Dee’s Maybe He Just Likes You.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – Beast: Face-to-Face with the Florida Bigfoot

Key, Watt. Beast: Face-to-Face with the Florida Bigfoot. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2020. 215 p. $16.99 978-0-374-31369-2 Grades 5-8. 

Adam survives the car crash that apparently killed his parents–at least, they have disappeared. When questioned by police, he speaks bewilderedly but honestly of what he saw in the wooded road near the Suwanee River: not a person or a bear, but something bigger than a bear, covered in hair, with a human face and huge black eyes. When the local paper runs a story about the accident including a “Sasquatch-like creature,” Adam regrets saying anything. The questions and the disbelief become overwhelming, especially from his Uncle John, who takes him in while the search for his parents continues. Adam can’t forget the creature, and due to disrupted sleep and nightmares, he begins searching online for information. He learns of a local Sasquatch appearance nearly 30 years ago, and sets out to question the man who reported it. He finds the near-hermit “Stanley” who reluctantly, then completely, tells Adam all he knows about the creatures, with a strong warning that the search for answers destroys your life. Adam decides he needs answers, and sets off on his own with some basic supplies.  What follows is a hard-core survival story wherein Adam becomes so attuned to the forest and animals that he lives as one of them, soon close to starving. Then he sees one of the creatures, then more. The scenes with the creatures shift from past tense to present tense, adding to the sense of unreality. Adam has found what he came for, but can he survive, can he find his parents, and can he get proof of the creatures’ existence?

THOUGHTS: With a likeable narrator, reasonable length (215 pages), and an attractive cover (see the creature in the trees?), Key has written a suspenseful survival story that will attract middle school readers curious about Bigfoot. Key includes helpful explanatory information about Sasquatch sightings.

Fantasy, Paranormal Fiction        Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

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

YA – Love & Olives

Welch, Jenna Evans. Love & Olives. Simon Pulse, 2020. 978-1-534-44883-4. $18.99. 352 p. Grades 7-12. 

On the outside it appears that Liv has everything figured out, but inside she’s struggling with a few things. For one, her long time high school boyfriend Dax just graduated, and he wants Liv to follow him to Stanford. She hasn’t found the right way to tell him that her heart is set on RISD, and anyway she might not even get in (and still has one more year). When a beat-up postcard for Liv arrives days before Dax’s senior trip – which Liv is supposed to go on – Liv feels her perfect outside begin to crumble. Dax doesn’t know this side of Liv. At her mom’s insistence, Liv is headed to Santorini, Greece to spend some time with her father, whom Liv hasn’t seen since she was 8. Since she hasn’t heard from him in years, Liv has many conflicted emotions about seeing her father again. Why after all this time does he think they can have a relationship. But Liv’s father’s love of Atlantis was a connection the two of them shared during her childhood, and an exciting special project helps them begin to reconnect after all those years. His persistent assistant Theo is a great buffer between the awkward moments, and Theo helps Liv experience Santorini. His good looks are a great distraction too, and as they work together and become friends Liv begins to question some of the choices she’s made in her own life. The clock on her visit is ticking, though, and Liv isn’t sure she can count on her father. Is their relationship beyond repair, and can Liv move on beyond her childhood broken heart?

THOUGHTS: Set among a gorgeous backdrop with detailed descriptions of Santorini, readers will fall in love with Greece. Liv/Olive/Kalamata/Indiana Olive has a lot to learn about herself, and readers will be rooting for her from the beginning. With a strong cast of characters and a little bit of mystery and romance, this book will be a hit among middle and high school students.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem. – An Ordinary Day

Arnold, Elana K. An Ordinary Day. Beach Lane Books, 2020. 978-1-481-47262-3. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades 1-3.

This is a poignant and beautiful tale of the circle of life.  The author begins by explaining that this street appears like any other, with children playing and a woman watering her flowers. Then, two cars drive up to neighboring houses and two people get out and go into adjacent houses. Both the man and the woman are wearing stethoscopes around their necks. The man enters a house where a dog is on a bed, surrounded by a family who is crying. The woman who enters the other house meets a family whose mother is expecting another child. The veterinarian consoles the family, as the dog is put to sleep, while the midwife or obstetrician helps deliver a new child into the world. All of this is told not so much in words, but through the illustrations. The characters in the story are of various ethnicities and the author writes that both families are “surrounded by family and love.” Magnificent the Crow oversees the “extraordinary” activities on this ordinary street on an ordinary day. The Illustrator uses a variety of media, such as charcoal, watercolor, soft pastels, ink and graphite, to create a soft and muted color palette. These drawings add to the contemplative tone of the story.

THOUGHTS: This is a touching story that will appeal to a sensitive reader who may have experienced the loss of an animal.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

MG – Golden Arm

Deuker, Carl. Golden Arm. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. $17.99. 978-0-358-01242-9 . Grades 5-8.

Sixteen-year-old Laz Weathers may be slow, but he sees his future baseball prospects pretty clearly. His solid pitching gets no real training and won’t get noticed in his small, poor district. His own weak academics, his stutter, and his ‘tics’ in response to anxiety don’t do him any favors, either. It’s Laz’s younger half-brother, Alberto, who people respond to, and who will speak up when Laz can’t or won’t. But this summer, Alberto’s father has returned and moved in with their mom in their trailer park, causing initial resentment and adjustment by both boys. Laz convinces Alberto to stick with the scrappy baseball team led by Coach L—, who coaxes and cajoles thirteen youths to join the team, then badgers coaches of established teams to compete. Thanks to Laz’s pitching, they often win, which gets him noticed. Laz learns that his family must move (the trailer park will be razed for a high-rise) and that his district will eliminate baseball for his senior year. This allows Laz to join another team, if they’ll have him. A coach who noticed his “golden arm” will give Laz a chance, but can he leave when Alberto is being drawn into drug dealing? Just when Laz has the perfect chance to shine in a championship game, Laz learns his brother is in serious danger from his drug-abusing friends, and it doesn’t matter if Alberto has used, sold, or not–he’s the immediate target. Laz’s choices show his character and alter everything for his future.

THOUGHTS: Deuker shines with baseball scenes and infuses each interaction with tension and a sense of doom. This is hard to put down and will pull in baseball fans and non-fans (the sports writing is that superb). Readers will root for Laz, even as they see everything stacked against him. When the novel ends, I found myself wondering about a sequel showing Laz’s choices in a tough environment over the next 5-10 years, and how his integrity will be tested. This powerful, timeless novel melds baseball with the pressures of class status, mixes dreams with hard reality, and the result is a first-choice novel not to be missed.

Sports Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Elem. – The Box Turtle

Roeder, Vanessa. The Box Turtle.  Dial Books, 2020. Unpaged. $17.99 978-07352-3050-7  Grades K-2.

When Terrance the turtle is born without a shell, his parents provide a shell and a name, “both of which fit just right.”  Terrance grows and finds his shell keeps him dry, safe, and able to share space with a friendly hermit crab. But one day, three turtles pronounce his shell “weird,” and Terrance begins a search for a substitute. He finds–and discards–a mailbox (it “showed to much cheek”), a hat box, a jack-in-the-box, a boom box, a lunch box, a flower box, a treasure chest, and a kitty litter box (which “stunk”). It is then that his unnamed crab friend offers his own shell, and Terrance realizes that the crab is “so much more than just a shell,” and a turtle is, too! He seeks out his original shell and after refurbishing it, walks proudly once more, this time easily dismissing the bully turtles’ “weird” claim.

THOUGHTS: This title works for social-emotional learning about the concepts of friendship and accepting oneself (and others) for who they are.

Picture Book          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – When You Trap a Tiger

Keller, Tae. When You Trap a Tiger. Random House Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-524-71570-0. 287 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Lily, known as Lily Bean to her mom, and Eggi in her Halmoni’s stories, and her family suddenly pack up and move to Washington one rain soaked evening. They are moving in with her Halmoni, a storyteller, and the story she shares with Lily from many years ago is about how she stole the stars from the sky and bottled up the bad stories which angered a tiger. Lily is intrigued by her story, and when a tiger suddenly appears in the middle of the road one rainy night, Lily is convinced everything is real. But time is of the essence, as Halmoni is showing signs of illness – could it be a consequence of her stealing the stars? With the help of Ricky, a boy Lily meets at the library across the street, the two devise a “hypothetical” tiger trap. Little did Lily know that the Tiger would make her an offer that can help her Halmoni, but with consequences. Lily wants answers and to find a way to help her Halmoni before it’s too late. But can a QAG, short for quiet Asian girl, really find the truth? Can she rescue her family before it’s too late?

THOUGHTS: Readers will not be disappointed with the characters in this book – they are full of heart, determination, love, and curiosity, even if one of them is a tiger. This title is perfect to add to your collection of diverse books, as it shows the struggle of an Asian family and how their history and heritage affect their lives today. I truly enjoyed reading this story and believe it is the perfect story to capture how storytelling and reading books can truly be art.

Fantasy          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Change is happening in Lily’s life. With little notice, her mother has uprooted her daughters from their California home to their halmoni’s (grandmother’s) home in Sunbeam, Washington. Lily does her best to be the invisible, accommodating, “QAG” (quiet Asian girl) while her older sister, Sam, finds every reason to voice her displeasure to their mother and often rebukes Lily. Lily both chafes under and finds comfort in her invisibility. Lily’s many worries worsen when she (and only she) sees a tiger in the road as they approach their halmoni’s home. Her grandmother has shared countless Korean folktales with Lily and Sam, often with a dangerous tiger involved. When Lily discovers that her grandmother is ill and facing death, she’s determined to convince the tiger to use its magic to cure her grandmother, despite admonitions from her mother and sister that dissuade her from believing the “silly” stories have any power in their lives. The library across the street provides hope and friendship for Lily, who teams up with Ricky to build a tiger trap in her grandmother’s basement. Can she convince the tiger to help, and can she convince her family that the stories are real and useful?  Will the stories save her grandmother and her family?

THOUGHTS: This is a tale of a young girl growing up and deciding who she will be, while she comes to terms with death. The targeted age level seems to increase through the story as Lily matures, and this may not quite work for readers. The grief, anger at moving, and the sister difficulties between Lily and Sam smooth a bit too perfectly by the story’s end. I found myself wishing for more scenes with the interesting, enigmatic tiger.

Magical Realism          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Korean Folktales