YA – Six Crimson Cranes

Lim, Elizabeth. Six Crimson Cranes. Hodder & Stoughton, 2021. 978-1-529-37026-3. 454 pg. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Shiori has a secret – she has forbidden magic. As the only princess of Kiata, if her secret came to light it would have disastrous implications.  Usually Shiori keeps her secret concealed except on the day of her betrothal ceremony. That day, her stepmother Raikama notices and banishes the young princess with a curse, turning Shiori’s brothers into cranes and for every word she speaks one of her brothers will die.  Shiori is left alone and unable to speak; she sets off to find her brothers and figure out a way to save them. While she is looking for a solution, she discovers there is more to her stepmother’s deceit than meets the eye. Will Shiori be able to save herself, her brothers, and her kingdom?

THOUGHTS: This was amazingly well written, with memorable characters and great pacing throughout. Elizabeth Lim does a great job of weaving in the elements of the original fairy tale while also making the reader feel that they are reading something new. This is a must own for every high school and public library collection, as well as a must read for any fan of fantasy.

Fantasy          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Elem. – If You Miss Me

Li Langrano, Jocelyn. If You Miss Me. Orchard Books, 2021. 978-1-338-68069-0. 40 p. $18.99. Grades PreK-3.

“If you miss me. Look at the moon. I will do the same.” 

The picture book If You Miss Me by Jocelyn Li Langrano is a breath-taking story about love and loss. Charlie, a young girl who loves to dance, has a strong relationship with her grandmother. Charlie and Grandma dance through life, and even when they are not together, they seem to be connected. Grandma often reminds Charlie that when they are apart, looking at the same moon will help them feel as if they are together. As the season changes, Grandma’s unexpected death brings so much pain to Charlie’s life. Dancing does not feel the same, and indeed, she misses the most important person in her life. Will Charlie be able to heal? Will dancing become a part of her life again? This beautiful picture book explores grief in simple words and sweet illustrations– with love depicted on every page.

THOUGHTS: This lovely picture book will be available in December of 2021. Charlie’s story speaks to the heart and explores the idea that those who have died are truly not lost. This book could validate and explain complicated feelings in a gentle and heartwarming manner for children who have lost a loved one.

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

YA – A Shot at Normal

Reichardt, Marisa. A Shot at Normal. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. 978-0-374-38095-3. 352 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Juniper Jade is the oldest child in a family that grows their own organic foods, homeschools their children, and goes without many of the everyday things others have (plastics, cell phones, and vaccinations). Often passing the local high school, Juniper longs to feel normal, but she respects her family’s values and doesn’t question them (too much) until she contracts the measles and unknowingly passes the virus to others. Then tragedy strikes, and suddenly, Juniper isn’t so sure about her family’s lifestyle. With the help of Nico, a friend who may be more than a friend, Juniper decides she’s going to be vaccinated. Despite her parent’s wishes. She isn’t quite prepared for their reaction, though, and Juniper really has to consider how much she’s willing to risk to get her vaccines.

THOUGHTS: Readers who are looking for a little more independence from the adults in their lives will connect with Juniper. With the vaccine debate at a pinnacle (though this book is not about COVID), A Shot at Normal deserves a place in high school collections.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

Johnson, Varian. Playing the Cards You’re Dealt. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-34858-3 320 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Anthony “Ant” Joplin and his older brother Aaron have been schooled in the card game Spades by their father. In the Joplin family, Spades is serious business. There is a tradition of Joplin men winning their South Carolina town Spades tournament. Aaron has followed through, winning the teen tournament last year, but Ant, in his first year competing in the junior division, choked big-time. His father claims he just needs to “toughen up” and he’ll win this year. Ant and his best friend, and Spades partner, Jamal, have been practicing nonstop, but when Jamal gets suspended for fighting, Ant needs to find a new partner. Luckily there’s a new girl in Ant’s fifth grade class, and Shirley is as much of a card shark as Ant. But Ant is finding it tough to concentrate on cards when things are tense between his mom and dad, and Aaron, who attends boarding school, tasks Ant with keeping an eye on their father to see if he’s starting drinking again. But how does a 10-year-old even know what drinking looks like? Fortunately for Ant, Shirley turns out to be as good a friend as she is a card player, and helps him navigate through this challenging hand he’s holding. While the plot deftly explores the pressures put on young children by troubled adults, the narrative style keeps the tone light and comfortable. The book feels like a story being told by an older relative, sitting on a porch swing on a summer evening, including personal asides by the narrator. Johnson vividly portrays the damage toxic masculinity can wreak on families, particularly the younger men and boys who must pick up the pieces. Ant is a young man who discovers what it means to be tough, in the most difficult situation imaginable, and readers will be cheering for him to win the hand he’s dealt. All main characters are Black.

THOUGHTS: A well-developed story that hooks you from the very beginning. This should fly off the shelf.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Thanks a Lot, Universe

Lucas, Chad. Thanks a Lot, Universe. Amulet, 2021. 978-1-419-75102-8. 279 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Brian and Ezra, both 13 years old, are classmates at school, and on the same basketball team. But that’s where the similarities end. Ezra, who is biracial, appears to Brian as cool, confident, and popular, while Brian, who is white, suffers from crippling social anxiety (or Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome, as he labels it). Ezra thinks Brian seems interesting, but doesn’t go out of his way to befriend the boy until the bottom drops out of Brian’s life. On his 13th birthday, Brian awakens to discover that his father has disappeared (to evade capture by police) and his mother is unconscious from a drug overdose. In the ensuing days, Brian tries to keep his life together, after he and his younger brother, Ritchie, are placed in foster care. But eventually Brian takes Ritchie and runs away. Ezra soon gets involved in the search for Brian, and after locating the brothers, makes it his mission to befriend the young man. Along the way, Ezra is trying to understand himself as well. His circle of friends is evolving, as some of the boys become interested in girls, while Ezra is coming to terms with the fact that he is gay, and has a crush on Brian. Two well adjusted high school students provide a sounding board for both boys as they attempt to navigate the life they have been given. While racial issues are touched upon, mental health takes center stage. Brian is terrified he will be labeled “crazy” since his mother suffers with mental health issues. While these seventh grade boys are far more comfortable discussing their feelings and expressing concern for each other’s emotional well-being than your average middle schooler, the book is a marvelous, feel-good display of masculine friendship. The story, alternating between Ezra’s and Brian’s point of view, grabs hold from the opening page, and doesn’t stop until the end. Brian and Ezra are both such sympathetic characters readers will wholeheartedly root for them to find happiness. And maybe all those really nice people are what make the book so heartwarming.

THOUGHTS: Highly recommended. While there may be too many unrealistically nice people in the story, including a helpful police officer, a teacher who takes in Brian and Richie, and a pair of high school teenagers who befriend Ezra and Brian, it is worth it for the good feelings it engenders. There is no perfect ending – dad goes to prison, Ezra loses a friend, mom is still unstable – but the book still leaves you smiling. With main characters that are 13-years-old and in 7th grade, this book should have wider appeal than just middle grade. The timely issues of race and mental health make this a great fit for 7th and 8th graders. Hopefully readers will take to heart the message to befriend and understand shy kids, and to look out for each other. Perfect to pair with The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Brian, who suffers from Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome (SAWS), as he calls it, is used to having a rough time in junior high; he is a good basketball player, but feels too shy to talk to his teammates off the court. He often deals with bullying, and his dad wants him to be tougher and stand up to those who make him even more socially miserable. Then, life gets much harder when his dad suddenly leaves the family. Suddenly, Brian is taking care of his younger brother, navigating foster care, and still dealing with his social anxiety, bullies, and every-day adolescent stress. Luckily, a support system shows up to help when Ezra, a teammate from basketball, and a group of caring adults step in. Meanwhile, Ezra is dealing with uncomfortable tension between his childhood best friends, his growing interest in music and playing the guitar, and his changing feelings about boys.

THOUGHTS: This is a beautiful story about supportive friends in times of struggle. The characters in the story experience the difficulties of growing up and demonstrate the positive influences that good people and good friends can have during a teen’s formative years. This book also portrays several positive coming-out experiences and sensitively handles the struggles of a LGBTQ+ teen.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry

Goffney, Joya. Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-006-302479-3. 352 p. 17.99. Grades 9-12.

Quinn, a high school senior, keeps lists. Of EVERYTHING. Boys she’d like to kiss, movies with intense rewatchability, things people assume about her. It’s how she copes with life. The notebook in which she keeps her lists is her most treasured possession, and when it goes missing, she panics. Then it gets even worse. Someone posts one of the lists on Instagram, for the whole school to see, and blackmails Quinn into completing her list of fears, or the whole journal will be released. Hot guy Carter, who has decided he doesn’t like Quinn because she’s an oreo – Black on the outside but white on the inside, was the last person to have the journal; he offers to work with Quinn to complete her list and deduct who is holding the journal hostage. While the romance that ensues between the pair may be predictable, the book is about so much more. Quinn and Carter are two of a handful of Black students at a predominately white private school. Although they share some experiences, Carter is quick to point out that wealthy Quinn has a very different life than he does. The plot examines racial issues and stereotypes from a variety of perspectives, and focuses on the value of true friends, who just might be the people you would least expect. Besides facing her fears, Quinn also has to accept that her beloved grandmother has Alzheimer’s disease, and worries that her parents are headed for divorce. All the characters are well developed, and each story arc is satisfyingly wrapped up. This is a superbly well crafted book that is a delight to read.

THOUGHTS:  This will be a huge hit with romance fans, but hand to fans of realistic fiction as well.

Romance          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – The Hawthorne Legacy

Barnes, Jennifer Lynn. The Hawthorne Legacy (The Inheritance Games Book 2). Hachette, 2021. 978-0-759-55763-5. $17.99. 368 p. Grades 7 and up.

“A Very Risky Gamble,” that’s what Avery Kylie Grambs is to Tobias Hawthorne, the famous billionaire that left his entire fortune and estate to her upon his death, instead of to his children and grandsons. Avery and the Hawthornes are still trying to figure out the game Tobias is playing with them and the events that connect each of them, and a history of tragedy, together. With Avery’s realization that Toby Hawthorne, Tobias’s long-lost son, is still alive and possibly the secret her mother never got to share with her before her death, she, Jameson, Grayson, and Alexander set out to find Toby and figure out the mystery that connects them all together. But, what happens when Toby doesn’t want to be found, and the others want answers? As the four dig deeper into Hawthorne history and legend, they must accept the faults of one another, a family history of secrets and lies, and overcome threats to their lives. In the end, though, are answers worth all that must be revealed in the search?

THOUGHTS: Once again, Jennifer Lynn Barnes does not disappoint. Her writing style and storytelling keeps readers on the edge of their seats for all 368 pages (and more as they look forward to the next installment). Her character development connects the reader with Avery and each member of the Hawthorne family, so as to pull the reader into the story to solve the mystery right alongside Avery, Grayson, Jameson, and Alexander. This is a must-have for all middle school and high school collections.

Mystery          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

Picking right up where The Inheritance Games leaves off, Barnes takes readers on another puzzle-filled, mystery/adventure. Avery, Jameson, Grayson, and Alexander aren’t satisfied without having all of the answers – or as much information as they can extract from Tobias Hawthorne’s clues. Though threats still are very real, Avery and the Hawthorne brothers persist, uncovering long buried secrets that send them in new directions. Finding possible connections to her past, Avery thinks she’s finally cracking the case, only to be left with someone who doesn’t want to be found. Digging deeper into the past with some who want to leave it in the past, Avery, find some uncomfortable truths about their family histories. Sometimes past mistakes are best left in the past, but is finding out the truth worth all of the pain that comes with it?

THOUGHTS: Fans of Barnes’ other novels will devour this addition and anticipate the next installment (The Final Gambit, 2022). While reading book one first makes for a more clear understanding of the events in the second book, it could be read by itself (I’d recommend enjoying both). Highly recommended for secondary collections.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – Concealed

Gonzalez, Christina Diaz. Concealed. Scholastic, 2021. 320 pp. 978-1-338-64720-4 $17.99 Grades 5-8.

Katrina has been on the move with her parents for the past three years, and those three years are the extent of her memories. She cannot remember her early years or even her real name. Her amnesia after an accident convinced her parents of the danger and led them to flee. Her parents, who call themselves “B” and “L,” have explained that it is better she doesn’t remember, and their task now is to keep her safe. With the help of their contact, Agent X, her family has moved at least eleven times in the Witness Protection Program because Katrina’s father angered some influential business partners. But since Katrina is pressing for more answers, her father makes a choice to get passports without Agent X’s help, in an effort for more freedom to tell Katrina the truth.  Their latest location is fairly remote, and Katrina tentatively becomes friends with Parker, a foster kid with few personal connections but exceptional hacking skills. Soon, Katrina’s father and mother are captured separately, and Parker willingly accompanies Katrina to the safe house in Atlanta. And all the facts that don’t add up really begin to topple down. At the safe house, Agent X whisks them to Miami (en route to safety?) as Katrina and Parker doubt him and her parents. The surprising truth comes out as X retrieves Katrina’s father, everyone is in grave danger, and everyone is saved.

THOUGHTS: While not predictable, the surprises are life-changing and resolved too easily, resulting in a lost opportunity to examine major themes of genetic engineering, twins, memory loss, trauma, and the effects of secrecy and lies. Supplemental purchase.

Realistic Fiction            Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – That Weekend

Thomas, Kara. That Weekend. Delacorte Press, 2021. 978-1-524-71836-7. 336 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12. 

Claire’s – who had been unconscious – senses suddenly start becoming alert when a hiker and her dog approach on Bobcat Mountain. Claire doesn’t know if she’s alone, and she has a splitting headache. The woman and her dog leave to get help, and Claire begins to piece together what little she does remember: it’s prom weekend, but she didn’t go; she lied to her parents about being on Fire Island; and she’s hurt. Arriving at Sunfish Creek Hospital in the Catskill Mountains, Claire realizes she wouldn’t have hiked without friends Kat and Jesse, since Kat’s grandmother has a lake house nearby. After glimpsing herself in the ER bathroom mirror, Claire wonders, “Who are you?” and “What happened to you?” Then readers are taken back three days before Clair’s trip to Sunfish Creek. Told in alternating time, readers travel back and forth as Claire tries to puzzle out what happened to her and to her friends up on Bobcat Mountain.

THOUGHTS: When readers think they have another puzzle piece, the timeline switches, and this fast-paced mystery goes in another direction. Mental health, drug/alcohol abuse, and domestic violence make this thriller best suited for high school collections.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton 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