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

MG – Hunger Winter: A World War II Novel

Currie, Rob. Hunger Winter: A World War II Novel. Tyndale House, 2020. $14.99 253 p. 978-1-496-44034-1  Grades 4-8.

In late 1944, 13-year-old Dirk’s father has gone into hiding as a leader of the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis. The chase begins immediately; in chapter one, Dirk learns via a neighbor that his older sister Els has been captured by the Gestapo, to question and torture for information, and to encourage their father’s cooperation. Dirk knows his next move must be to escape with his younger sister, six-year-old Anna, to their grandparents’ home, but questions and worries bombard his mind. Chapter two reveals Els’s perspective as she is starved; questioned; threatened; and worries for her father, brother, and sister.  Most of the story is Dirk’s, but returns to Els’s point-of-view in the final chapters. This tense novel reveals the strength of the Dutch people during what became known as the “Hongerwinter” when Nazi control of resources led to daily food rations of a mere 320 calories per person. Dirk must call upon memories of his father’s instructions and strength to guide him through difficult decisions on his journey, while shielding Anna from the brutal realities of war as best he can.

THOUGHTS: This is a middle-grade novel a step up in complexity and danger for readers who loved Number the Stars and The Devil’s Arithmetic. It will expand readers’ knowledge of Nazi tactics and brave Dutch resistance. An inspiring read.

Historical Fiction; World War II in Netherlands  Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – Nowhere on Earth

Lake, Nick. Nowhere on Earth. Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. 978-1-984-89644-5. 292 p. $17.99. Grades 7-10.

Emily would do anything to protect her little brother, Aiden, even stowing away on a bush plane when the men in black start following him around town. But crashing in the Alaskan wilderness wasn’t in the plan. However, the rapid arrival of men with guns, shooting at them, propels Emily into action. She, Aiden, and Bob, the injured pilot, head out across the dangerous landscape, trying to put distance between themselves and the hunters, making their way towards safety. The book opens with the plane crash and the adrenaline doesn’t let down. Emily’s and Aiden’s backstories are revealed as the story unfolds, including Emily’s tempestuous relationship with her parents. Emily does come to appreciate the myriad survival lessons her ex-special-ops father taught her, as well as the beauty of the Alaskan territory, but deeply resents her parents for moving from Minneapolis and forcing her to leave behind her beloved ballet. The book begins as an adventure-survival tale, but then evolves into so much more, including a massive plot-twist and several thought provoking ethical issues. A few threads could have been more fully developed, including a hint that the plane crashed due to sabotage, but readers will be forgiving.

THOUGHTS: This hard to pigeon hole book should find a home with a wide variety of readers. Perfect for those who prefer a book that grabs you from the first page, but also gives satisfaction to readers looking for some depth.

Science Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Maya and the Rising Dark

Barron, Rena. Maya and the Rising Dark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-10622-7. 291 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

When Maya notices the colors around her fading away, it seems like something out of the stories her father tells her, stories of ancient gods, magic and scary creatures. When she and her friend Frankie encounter terrifying werehyenas, only to be saved by Frankie suddenly throwing bolts of lightning, Maya learns that her father’s job as a structural engineer is a bit more complex than he ever let on. He is an Orisha, a god, whose job it is to maintain the veil between this world and the Dark. Maya, along with Frankie and her other friend, Eli, are all godlings, or half-Orisha. When Maya’s father disappears during a trip to fix the veil, Maya is convinced that she must find a portal to the Dark and rescue her father. Her loyal friends accompany her on a journey undertaken with love, but maybe not a lot of thought and planning. Maya and Eli have not yet discovered if they possess powers, leaving the three vulnerable to attack by the darkbringers, as well as the Lord of Shadows, a sinister creature haunting Maya’s dreams. This captivating story offers a new entry in the demi-god genre, showcasing the less known mythology of the Yoruba religion, originating in western Africa. Unique among the genre, Maya, her family and friends live in an Orisha enclave; many of her neighbors are also Orisha, and she is surrounded by other godlings. The vibrancy of the community in which Maya resides adds a warmth to the narrative, as Maya never has to search out for other individuals like herself; she has a built-in support network. The tale is suspenseful, replete with deliciously creepy characters, and filled with love – family, friends and neighbors.

THOUGHTS: A noteworthy addition to the mythology based adventure collection. Hand to fans of Percy Jackson, Sal and Gabi (Carlos Hernandez) or Aru Shah (Roshani Chokshi).

Fantasy – Mythology          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – A Song Only I Can Hear

Jonsberg, Barry. A Song Only I Can Hear. Simon and Schuster, 2020. 978-1-534-44252-8. 293 p. $17.99. Grades 6-8.

Rob is shy and prone to panic attacks, but otherwise is content with life. When gorgeous Destry transfers to the school; however, Rob discovers love. But how does an extraordinarily shy person get noticed? Rob’s beloved blankety-blank foul-mouthed grandfather (and best friend) provides some assistance early on, encouraging non-athletic Rob to play in the high-school’s annual soccer game against their arch-rival school. Surprising everyone, Rob shines at goalie; unfortunately, Destry misses the game. Soon after, Rob begins receiving texts from an unknown individual containing challenges designed to overcome shyness and bolster Rob’s confidence. This sweet story, however, is only one layer of a more complex issue. Astute readers may pick up on clues throughout the story (Rob mentions having to work out a problem with the school uniform, will not use public restrooms, and has image issues.), but most will be surprised that Rob, born Roberta, is a transgender male. (Readers who happen to read the Author’s Note first also will be clued into the big reveal). This thoughtful, quiet book, with its unique approach, is an outstanding entrant in the LGBTQ market. Readers accept Rob as a boy from the opening page and are rooting for this sweet, intelligent, quirky youth to succeed in overcoming his shyness. By the time of Rob’s announcement, readers are squarely on his side. An ingenious denouement allows readers to backtrack through the story with Rob and appreciate the full impact of his actions and the precipitating events.

THOUGHTS: This book deserves to be in all middle school libraries. Nowhere in the book is Rob’s gender debated or questioned, helping readers understand that Rob’s perception of himself is the perception that matters. As Rob says, “I don’t have problems with my identity…It’s other people who have that.” Hopefully, A Song Only I Can Hear will show readers the truth, and heart, of that statement.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Fable

Young, Adrienne. Fable. Wednesday Books, 2020. 978-1-250-25437-5. 368 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Four years ago, the day after a storm wrecked his ship and drowned his wife, Fable’s father, legendary sea-trader Saint, abandoned his 14-year-old daughter on the barbaric island of Jeval, leaving her to fend for herself on the brutal colony. Because she inherited her mother’s abilities as a gem sage, someone who can communicate with jewels, Fable survived as a dredger, mining gems from the sea, and making enough money to eventually purchase passage off the island, find Saint, and claim her place with his crew. But once she forces her way onto a trading ship, the Marigold, she wonders what secrets the small, young crew are keeping, even while being drawn in by their tight bond. When Saint refuses her appeal, sending her away with an unexpected inheritance, Fable has nowhere to turn but back to the Marigold and hope they will take her in. This lyrical novel, packed with adventure, quickly grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. Fable was raised on the sea, and she inherently loves being on board a ship. Young vividly conveys the routine of sailing a ship and the rhythm of the sea. Her world building is exquisite, and the port towns come alive, in their grandeur and squalor. Her characters are finely limned, and the hint of romance will satisfy. However, Fable has a flaw of always pushing the limit, and eventually she pays for a momentary slip, leaving readers hanging, awaiting the sequel.

THOUGHTS: This novel should find a wide audience, pleasing both action-adventure and romance fans.

Action/Adventure          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – It Sounded Better in My Head

Kenwood, Nina. It Sounded Better in My Head. Flatiron Books, 2020. 978-1-250-21926-8. 260 p. $18.99. Grade. 8-12.

Natalie had a good grip on her life until her parents jovially announce they’re getting a divorce. They’ve known this for months but waited until the Christmas holidays and high school graduation (which coincide in Australia, where the book was first published). A rarity for literature, Natalie has a great relationship with her parents and is devastated by the news and hurt by their deceit. She turns to her support network, her best friends Lucy and Zach. But since they started dating, Natalie sometimes feels like a third wheel. Having suffered through severe, scarring acne during puberty, Natalie has a shattered self image and has not dated. At a party, she connects with Alex, Zach’s older brother, but quickly convinces herself Alex’s interest was an act of kindness perpetrated by Zach. But an accidental case of musical bedrooms at a beach house over New Year’s brings Natalie and Alex back into close proximity, and as they talk they again feel a positive connection. However, Natalie’s lack of confidence and poor self image quickly threaten to sabotage the burgeoning relationship. This engaging book covers a topic not discussed in YA literature, the trauma of severe teen acne, and the scars it leaves, both physical and psychological. Natalie is a bright teen with caring parents and friends, but the long term effects of her acne are evident in her image, (styling her hair to cover which side of her face looks worse) confidence, and self-worth. American readers will need to translate Australian terms and references but will recognize themselves in the three friends as they shakily navigate through the next phase in their lives.

THOUGHTS: A welcome addition to YA realistic fiction collections. While some characters have sex off-page, Natalie and Alex discuss the issue and decide they are not ready.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD