YA – More Than Maybe

Hahn, Erin. More Than Maybe. Wednesday Books, 2020. 978-1-250-23164-2. $17.99. 308 p. Grades 9 and up.

Luke has been reading Vada’s music blog, secretly commenting on it (and crushing on her) for three years. Vada’s also been falling asleep listening to Luke’s “deep, lyrical, and crisp” voice on the podcast he records with his brother… in the studio above the Loud Lizard, the bar where Vada works, which happens to be owned by her mom’s boyfriend and former drummer, Phil. Of course neither of these introverted music nerds have the guts to talk to each other even though they go to the same school and see each other regularly at the Loud Lizard. That is, until Vada’s dance class and Luke’s music composition class get paired together for the end-of-the-year spring showcase. Luke finally takes a risk and offers to partner up with Vada to compose a song for her dance performance, which seems like it might be the end of the story. They’re going to fall in love now, right? It’s not that simple when Luke is hiding his love for composing music from his dad, a former British punk rock star who wants Luke to follow in his footsteps. Luke has no interest in performing – just composing – and to avoid the pressure from his dad entirely, he hides the fact that he even plays music at all. Vada has obstacles of her own. Her mostly absent (also former musician) father only shows up to drink himself stupid at the Loud Lizard, and when he says he’s not helping her pay for college, Vada has to figure out a way to make her music journalism dreams come true on her own. Working at the Loud Lizard and having easy access to concerts helps, but the Loud Lizard is just barely surviving financially. Enter the power of music.

THOUGHTS: Flirting via lyrics? Yes, please! While I think anyone can appreciate this adorable love story whether you know the bands mentioned or not, contemporary music lovers will find themselves swooning over this book. There’s even a user-created playlist on Spotify made up of all the songs mentioned! Highly recommended for any YA collection. Put it in the hands of anyone who loves music.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Majesty

McGee, Katharine. Majesty (American Royals Book 2). Random House, 2020. 978-1-984-83021-0. 374 p. Grades 9 and up.

Following the death of her father, King George IV, Beatrice is now Queen of America, but not everyone is happy about this; she is young, female, and unmarried. As Beatrice tries to establish herself as Queen, her impending wedding and the Lord Chamberlain, Robert Standish, stand in her way. Forced to focus on her wedding instead of ruling the nation, Beatrice begins to connect with Teddy and build a loving relationship with him, but when Connor, her past love, returns, Beatrice is forced to make a choice: her love for Connor or her love for an America not quite ready for a Queen?

Meanwhile, Samantha is still reeling over the loss of Teddy and his impending marriage to Beatrice. As the new heir apparent, Samantha must change her ways and become more regal and less wild, but how?

Daphne is still determined to win Jefferson back and become a princess. Through schemes and treachery, Daphne convinces Jefferson’s best friend, Ethan, to pursue a relationship with Nina, Samantha’s best friend and Jefferson’s ex-girlfriend. As Daphne’s dreams seem to be within her grasp, a past secret returns and threatens everything. Daphne will do anything to become royal even if that includes destroying everything and everyone in her way.

THOUGHTS: Majesty is the perfect follow-up to American Royals. Picking up right where the first book ended, McGee continues developing the world of the American Royal Family; a world of love, pain, back-stabbers, cruelty, and never ending possibilities (or perhaps all-ending). In this newest title, McGee focuses on the fear of a female leader and the sexism and misogyny faced by women in powerful positions. Readers will be furious with Beatrice (and enraged at times with the actions of others toward her) and then cheer her on as she figures out who to trust and who to leave behind.  Although a romance, Majesty presents readers with questions about gender equality, racism, loyalty, trust, friendship, family allegiance, and where each of us stands in our own story.

Romance        Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

Elem. – The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story

Lam, Thao. The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story. Owlkids Books, 2020. 978-1-771-47363-7. 40 p. $17.95. Grades K-3.

The Paper Boat, inspired by events that happened during the author’s childhood, is a wordless picture book. The story begins with a Vietnamese family eating a meal together at the table. Throughout the course of their meal, ants invade the table in search of crumbs. The young daughter saves the ants from drowning in her soup as her parents watch tanks rumble past the windows. In the dead of night, the family travels quietly in search of the escape boat that will take them away from their war-torn country. The daughter and her mother find themselves separated from the others. To soothe her frightened child, the mother makes a boat out of paper. All seems lost until a trail of ants appears and leads them to their escape boat where they are able to join the others. The paper boat, left behind by the daughter, becomes the escape boat for the little ants as they make their way to a new world just like the family.

THOUGHTS: Because this is a wordless book, the pictures must tell the story, and they do just that. The illustrations, which look to be paper cut outs, beautifully show the emotional and physical struggle the family faces as they leave the only home they have known. This book could be appropriate for students even at the intermediate level as the illustrations can spur deep conversations about the hardships of war and the parallels between ant and refugee travels. This stunning book is a must-have for elementary and intermediate libraries.

Picture Book           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – We Are Not Free

Chee, Traci. We Are Not Free. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-13143-4. $17.99. 384 p. Grades 9 and up.

Traci Chee’s National Book Award Finalist, We Are Not Free, takes the reader from the close-knit community of Japantown in San Francisco at the start of World War II to the gradual closing of the Japanese imprisonment camps at the end of the war. Told in first-person narrative, each teen—ranging from ages 14 to 19–brings a perspective of life as an American of Japanese descent, from the growing discrimination toward the Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the injustices of the camps to the explicit racism displayed when their families return to their former neighborhood. In a novel where credible character development is critical, author Chee shows a wide range of astute writing ability inhabiting the minds of the varied group of young people inhabiting two camps, Topaz and Tule Lake. Sensitive Aiko Harano who at only 13 realizes not only the unfairness of the American government’s oppression of her family and friends, but also the repugnancy of her own parents’ abusive treatment of her older brother, Tommy. Intellectual Stan Katsumoto surrenders his hard-earned dream of continuing his college education when he sides with his parents in being a “No No” person: refusing to relinquish allegiance to the Japanese emperor when no allegiance had ever been formed. Perhaps the most impressive chapter is David “Twitchy” Hashimoto’s, the happy-go-lucky, ever-moving nineteen-year-old who, like several of his friends, volunteered to serve in the military, to go to war. The battle description Chee develops with Twitchy’s commentary is both action-packed and gut-wrenching. Though there are other selections telling of the imprisonment of the Japanese-Americans (in an afterword, Chee advises to delete the term, Japanese internment, in favor of more accurate terms like incarceration, imprisonment, forced removal), We Are Not Free dives deep into what it was like in the camps and how it affected a non-combative community. Works like Journey to Topaz  by Yoshiko Uchida, Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata, or Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban—to name just a few–give readers a glimpse into this ignominious period of American history, but We Are Not Free covers the full scope and does so through the voices of teens with whom young readers can relate. This book tells a powerful story, one that has not always been fully explored, but has a new resonance in today’s society. Contains further readings, some historical images.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: After reading this book, I feel that all the other historical fiction books on this topic are just a prelude. If I had to choose one book to recommend on the experience in Japanese prison camps to a high school student, We Are Free would be the one. Chee is able to reveal the complications of feeling American and patriotic while also feeling unaccepted by and disheartened by one’s government. In literature lessons, students can examine the character development in a short chapter. In history class, the revelations of injustices and wrongs can be debated and discussed.

YA – Cemetery Boys

Thomas, Aiden. Cemetery Boys. Swoon Reads, 2020. 978-1-250-25046-9. 344 p. $17.99. Grades 7-12. 

In the heart of LA lives a cemetery where the dead roam long after they’re gone. They’re welcome to stay as long as they stay themselves, but stay too long and a ghost risks turning maligno. Protected by the brujx, a line of guardians who roam the cemetery to keep the peace, the cemetery is home to the newly dead and those not quite ready to let go. Once they are ready, the brujos are there to release them into the afterlife. Yadriel comes from a long line of brujx and wants nothing more than to become one. However, even after coming out as trans, his family still tries to push him to be a bruja, a healer, and refuses to let him try to take the test meant for the men. When Yadriel takes matters into his own hands he ends up with a companion he didn’t expect, the ghost of a classmate who rarely attends school. If Yadriel can release him then he will prove himself as a real brujo. Julian, however, isn’t going to give up so easily.

THOUGHTS: A powerful story of Latinx heritage and the strength it takes to break with tradition and find your own place in the world. While not the same premise, readers of They Both Die At The End will love Cemetery Boys.

Fantasy (Paranormal)          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

YA – Skyhunter

Lu, Marie. Skyhunter. Roaring Brook Press, 2020. 978-1-250-22168-1. $19.99. 384 p. Grades 9-12.

Talin lives in the futuristic nation of Mara, and she is a striker. Every striker has a shield, a partner during a fight against the ghosts, the once human turned zombie experiments created by the Karensa Federation. If a striker’s shield is attacked by a ghost, it becomes their responsibility to end their shield’s life before he or she turns into a federation ghost as well. Mara and Karensa are at war, but Mara is losing since they do not have the technology of the “early ones” that Karensa has discovered and used to its advantage. Although Talin lives and fights for Mara, it hasn’t always been her home. Talin and her mother fled from Basea to Mara years ago when it was under attack from Karensa, and after inhaling poisonous gas, she lost her ability to speak when her throat was badly damaged. Referred to as a “rat” by many Marans, she found her place among the strikers who commonly communicate with sign language in order to sneak up on the ghosts they hunt. When the strikers capture a strange Karensa prisoner, Talin steps in to save his life, and as a punishment for her actions, he becomes her shield and her responsibility. It doesn’t take long for Talin and her fellow strikers to discover that this prisoner, called Red, is a new “weapon” of the Federation and possibly the key to their salvation from Karensa. Talin and Red soon form an inseparable bond, and together, they plot to bring down the Federation that has taken so much and caused them both so much pain.

THOUGHTS: Readers will quickly discover that when Talin speaks of “the early ones” she is speaking of the world in which we currently live. It certainly adds some mystery to the story since Talin isn’t sure exactly what destroyed the early one’s civilization and brought upon the current nation of Mara and the Federation of Karensa. Talin, who is Basean, not Maran, must endure some pretty harsh racism from the Marans who consider her to be beneath them, along with the rest of the Baseans living in poverty within the nation of Mara since Basea was destroyed and conquered. So many of the same issues that exist in today’s world are present in this futuristic society, and fans of Marie Lu, science fiction, action, or popular shows like The Walking Dead will enjoy Skyhunter. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

Elem. – The World Needs More Purple People

Bell, Kristen & Hart, Benjamin. The World Needs More Purple People. Random House Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-0-593-12196-2. 40 p. $17.99. Grades PreK-2.

You can hear Kristen Bell’s voice on every page in this adorable story about the importance of being an everyday hero. The moral of the story is to work hard, bring the community together, and use your voice. This book does not offer answers to some of the world’s toughest current issues, but it does offer a primer in recognizing that the world isn’t perfect and it’s hard to be angry if you’re laughing.

THOUGHTS: Although the book isn’t explicitly political, I do wonder if purple comes from combining red and blue (political party colors). A quick, silly read that can keep the attention of the youngest readers.

Picture Book          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

Elem. – The One and Only Ivan: Draw Me a Story

Ferry, Beth, and Gonzalo Kenny. The One and Only Ivan: Draw Me a Story. Disney Press, 2020. 978-1-368-06024-0. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-2.

The fictional world of Ivan is growing quite nicely lately, with a captivating sequel as well as a movie to describe the amazing true story of The One and Only Ivan. Now comes a sweet picture book to bring the power of art and stories to connect friends and family. In Draw Me a Story, Ruby the baby elephant learns about life from Ivan’s observations of people and then through his pictures. She wants to learn to draw, and gets advice about drawing from the heart and feelings over what she sees. Choosing the right colors and finding similar features helps connect the two different species. Then Ruby wants a whole story. Making a full story from pictures is not really Ivan’s style, so he takes a creative mathematical approach to show how this menagerie of animals has become a family. The warm and wonderful drawings from Kenny and the sparse but meaningful text from Ferry help make this a great read aloud or bedtime story for the animal lovers and loved ones in your library.

THOUGHTS: Definitely a great introduction for younger readers and an art extension for those who are already fans of Ivan. This naturally works with an art activity and could extend to a discussion of who defines a family for the students, including all kinds of loved ones in the mix! Recommended.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

MG – My Life in the Fish Tank

Dee, Barbara. My Life In the Fish Tank. Aladdin, 2020. 978-1-534-43233-8. $17.99. Grades 6-8.

Zinny Manning’s family is known for being noisy and tightknit. She has a nurturing older brother, Gabriel; a moody sister in high school, Scarlett; and a younger, inquisitive brother, Aiden; and two longtime best friends, Kailani and Maisie. At the beginning of seventh grade, though, her world comes crashing down when Gabe steals and crashes his college roommate’s car. His impulsive behavior and hospitalization uncover Gabe’s bipolar disease. Now, a cloud hangs over the whole family as they strive to keep Gabe’s mental illness a secret from classmates, teachers, and neighbors. Zinny’s voice alternates from the present to the recent past. While she drifts further and further away from her concerned friends, Zinny recalls the fun times she has had with Gabe and dissects occasions when signs of his mental illness appeared. Zinny finds some solace in the predictable, controlled world of science. Her favorite teacher, Ms. Molina, has recommended her for a coveted spot as part of a middle school research team for the summer. Zinny gets respite from her friends’ constant questioning by helping Ms. Molina set up the crayfish tanks for the class’s animal unit. Zinny proves herself a resilient girl, helping her younger brother with his “how-to” project, shopping for groceries for the family, and sparking her beleaguered mother’s interest with an herb garden. When Zinny receives an invitation to the counselor’s Lunch Club, she at first throws it in the trash; but eventually, she starts to appreciate the opportunity to align with others who are also suffering from family concerns: divorce, stepfamilies, grief, or sick parents. Although it takes quite a while for Zinny to feel comfortable sharing, the group supports her and makes her feel she is not alone. At a therapy session at Gabe’s residential treatment center, Zinny confesses the anger she feels keeping the family secret. That small confession spurs a huge release that eases Gabe’s return home and allows the family to accept Gabe with a chronic illness just like cancer or diabetes. My Life in the Fish Tank is a story of a family in crisis and the shame and guilt they struggle with trying to deal with insurance, disruption, and worry. Author Barbara Dee has excelled in presenting an important topic with sensitivity and honesty. The Manning family seems to be white; the author integrates the diversity of other characters organically into the plot.

THOUGHTS: Though there are some fine books dealing with mental illness (Crazy by Han Nolan and All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker), My Life in the Fish Tank is a welcome addition. The dialogue captures the main character’s frame of mind well and depicts a likeable, relatable person. Zinny’s love of science and the crayfish experiment act as metaphors for her family situation Even though the plot flipped back and forth, the chapters were short and the writing fluent, making the story easy to follow. I could not put down this book.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – What Lane?

Maldonado, Torrey. What Lane? Nancy Paulsen Books, 2020. 978-0-525-51843-3. $16.99. 125 p. Grades 3-6.

Biracial Stephen pals around with his white friend Dan in their gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, but lately, Stephen is noticing he is viewed more negatively by the janitor or passers-by than his paler friend. Dan is sympathetic and though he is oblivious to the harsher treatment Stephen gets as they course around their city streets, he doesn’t deny his friend’s feelings and tries to understand. Dan’s cousin Chad who recently moved nearby and drops over frequently is the opposite. Author Torrey Maldonado depicts Chad’s parents as more into their phones and social lives than the well-being of their son and has them voice micro-aggressive remarks about Stephen. Chad challenges Stephen and his white friends to some dangerous pranks; and Stephen fears, rightfully, that if the group gets caught, he’ll get the blame. His African-American dad counsels him with “the talk” warning him how to behave if stopped by the police, though his white mother thinks eleven-year-old Stephen is too young to lose his innocence. Stephen’s Black friend Will shares the same cautions as Stephen and agrees that Chad is up to no good and questions Stephen’s closeness to his white friends. At a basketball game, Stephen purchases a bracelet that says, “What Lane?” to remind him of a basketball star that could play all the moves. A thoughtful person, Stephen struggles with the different groups and decisions around him. When Chad plays a hurtful trick on Stephen, Dan and his other white friends are allies and call out Chad’s bad behavior; Will and his friends come to Stephen’s rescue. In this coming-of- age novel for young middle school students, a likeable, relatable Stephen trusts he can enjoy the friendship of all different kinds of people and is able to fit into all types of worlds as long as he is true to himself.

THOUGHTS: A teacher himself, Maldonado has a great ear for middle school dialogue and a keen eye for capturing middle school dynamics. This book can be a relevant read aloud for all children but particularly relatable to children of color. It brings up some delicate but real situations that would encourage healthy discussion (for example, when Dan and Stephen are play fighting, an older white lady assumes Stephen is attacking Dan). I think it is a must buy.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia