MG – Santiago’s Road Home

Diaz, Alexandra. Santiago’s Road Home. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-534-44623-6. $17.99. 325 p. Grades 5-8.

Once more author Alexandra Diaz raises our consciousness about the plight of Central American immigrants in our country at this critical time. As she did in The Only Road and Crossroads, Diaz gives a fact-based novel of Santiago Garcia Reyes’s escape from domestic abuse in Mexico through the desert to the detention centers of New Mexico. She does not pull any punches describing the sacrifices and suffering Santiago endures as he makes his way to America with newfound “family” Maria Dolores and her five-year-old daughter, Alegria. After being thrown out once again from a relative’s home where he worked as a free babysitter, Santiago refuses to return to his abusive, neglectful grandmother. Instead, he makes the acquaintance of the kind and generous Maria Dolores and her young daughter and convinces her to take him as they migrate to the United States where Maria Dolores’s sister owns a restaurant. For the first time since his Mami died when he was five-years-old, Santiago feels loved and cared for; and he reciprocates by being the protective big brother. By working in the cheap tavern at the crossroads, he discovers Dominquez, the best coyote to help them cross. Unfortunately, rival coyotes kill Dominquez, leaving the refugees abandoned just shy of the border. Diaz describes the arduous and dangerous journey through the desert, dodging border patrol officers and experiencing dehydration and hunger under a blistering sun. Their efforts end in hospitalization and detention. Again, Diaz intertwines facts and realistic representation about the conditions children suffer in the detention centers, yet maintains both the negative and positive aspects. Some of the detention center guards are kind; some are arrogant brutes. Minor characters like an interested teacher and volunteering lawyers give the story balance. The distress and maltreatment of Santiago as he lingers in detention as well as his brave struggle to belong to a loving family is heart wrenching and sure to instill empathy and compassion toward a timely situation. Includes a glossary of Spanish terms and extensive resources.

THOUGHTS: Diaz’s writing has a way of creating a fully developed character and a well-rounded setting that arouses true sympathy in readers. This book can provide a reference point to discussions of undocumented immigrants, refugees, migration to America as well as current events around asylum seekers and their reasons for immigration.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – Rou and the Great Race

Fong, Pam. Rou and the Great Race. Reycraft Books, 2020. $17.95. 978-1-478-86952-8. Unpaged. Grades K-2. 

Rou and her grandma walk the streets of their brown and gray city, surrounded by tall buildings, metal trees, and passersby with robot pets. Grandma remembers a time when the city was alive and flowers beautified the gray surroundings but with growth came Power People who collected all the flowers for themselves. Now, children compete for a single flower in the annual Great Race. Rou is determined to win the flower for her grandma, but when she comes in last all she finds is a sad little stem with petals strewn about. Rou collects the stem, takes it home, and nurtures it into an entire garden which she shares annually at the Great Share. Fong uses colors to show the stark contrast between lively Rou, always clad in red like the flowers she grows, and the depressing brown city. Children will take away a story of kindness, both the lack of it from the Power People and the abundance shown by Rou and Grandma as they give away their flowers. Adult readers will see a more cautionary tale about power, city development, and greed mixed with Rou’s kindness.

THOUGHTS: An unusual but likeable story; readers will root for Rou.

Picture book                    Lindsey Long, Lower Dauphin SD

Elem. – Me & Mama

Cabrera, Cozbi A. Me & Mama. Denene Millner Books, 2020. $17.99. 978-1-534-45421-7. 32 p. Grades PreK-1. 

A young girl walks readers through an average day spent with her loving Mama. On the end paper, a series of mother/daughter still-life objects are presented: a large wooden spoon alongside a smaller version; a red bicycle and a tricycle; a knit winter cap next to one with fuzzy ears and pigtails. Through this series of objects, the reader gets a glimpse of the young girl’s admiration for her mother as she points out their similarities and differences in a distinctly wondrous and childlike way. Over breakfast she shares how Mama’s dainty tea cup “goes clink, clink, clink with a spoon” while her red sippy cup “goes duh, duh” yet together they sing like a chorus for their morning ritual. Later, she tells readers that Mama’s red rain boots are “bigger than my yellow ones” following up with an explanation that their dog, Max,“doesn’t wear boots.” After a day of errands and rain puddles, Mama reads a story and tucks in the girl and her brother, Luca. Although her brother seems to fall asleep immediately, the young narrator has just enough time to reflect on the day and familial love as she too drifts off. Stunning full-bleed acrylic illustrations feature detailed portraits of Mama, Luca, and the young girl with their beautiful varying shades of rich Brown skin and dark hair worn in a variety of styles throughout the day.

THOUGHTS: This lovely picture book immortalizes the precious mundane moments that make up a relationship between mother and daughter. Papa and brother Luca are also mentioned throughout, creating a snapshot day in the life of one happy family.

Picture Book          Jackie Fulton, Mt. Lebanon SD

MG – Jukebox

Chanani, Nidhi. Jukebox. First Second. 2021. 978-1-250-15636-5. 224 p. $21.99. Gr. 6-9.

Twelve-year old Shaheen and her father have always been connected through music, but lately his interest in record-collecting borders on obsession. When he doesn’t come home one evening, Shahi and her teenaged cousin Tannaz sneak into his favorite music shop to look for clues. In the attic, they discover a rare jukebox that plays whole records … and transports the listener to the album’s time period, for just as long as the side plays. A Bessie Smith record sends the girls to the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago. A Nina Simone album takes Tannaz on a solo trip to a women’s march in 1960s D.C. Shahi realizes that her dad may be trapped in another era, unable to return home. But traveling back and forth in their quest to find him has serious consequences, and the girls know they are running out of time to bring everyone home safely. The girls’ slight age difference provides an interesting dynamic, incorporating their unique strengths and insecurities. The author’s depiction of each era’s color palette and fashions are especially engaging. The abundant music references and iconic album covers are complemented by a Playlist at the book’s close, perfect inspiration for budding music lovers!

THOUGHTS: Nidhi Chanani’s Pashmina was well-received, and Jukebox displays even greater depth in portraying both adventure and family relationships.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Anna K

Lee, Jenny. Anna K. Flatiron Books, 2020. 978-1-250-23643-2. $18.99. 374 p. Grades 9-12.

Anna K. has the perfect life. Although she comes from a wealthy, Manhattan family, she prefers to spend the majority of her time in Greenwich with her NewFoundland show dogs and horses, and has been in a picture perfect relationship with her boyfriend, Alexander, for years. Anna tends to stay away from drama, but her family and friends cannot. Anna’s brother Steven and his girlfriend Lolly are trying to repair their relationship after Steven was unfaithful, Lolly’s sister Kimmie is trying to find her place after an injury prevents her from competitive ice skating, and Steven’s friend’s Dustin wants to find love before heading off to college. On her way to help Steven and Lolly with their relationship troubles, Anna meets Alexia “Count” Vronsky in the Manhattan train station, and a spark ignites between the two. Vronsky, who has quite the reputation when it comes to women, has never been in love, but he can’t stop thinking about Anna. Although Anna knows it’s wrong, she cannot stay away from Vronsky. The two begin a secret relationship, and Anna’s perfect life slowly starts to unravel around her.

THOUGHTS: I loved this modern adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina! Like the classic, this novel explores the lives and social pressures of a large cast of characters, introduced at the beginning of the book, each dealing with their own personal and family issues. Lee changes the setting, and rather than a focus on the Russian nobility of the late 1800s, Anna K. is set in modern day New York City and follows the social lives of the city’s wealthiest young elites. Fans of the classic will notice the similarities between characters and recognize key plot points, especially the ones that take place in train stations or on the train from Manhattan to Greenwich. However, readers unfamiliar with the classic will still enjoy this story of drama, passion, scandal, betrayal, heartache, and love and may find themselves checking out the original after finishing this modern adaptation.

Realistic Fiction          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

MG – Here in the Real World

Pennypacker, Sara. Here in the Real World. HarperCollins, 2020. 978-0-062-69895-7. $17.99. 320 p. Grades 3-6.

“Everything was something else before, and will be something else after.” Ware is an only child, and he’s perfectly happy spending his summer alone with his grandmother, whom he refers to as Big Deal, but when she falls and needs a hip replacement, Ware’s parents sign him up for Summer Rec where they hope he can have “meaningful social interactions” with other kids his age. To Ware, this is the worst case scenario, until he meets a girl named Jolene who is planting a garden in a half torn down, abandoned church right next to the rec center. Ware sees the potential in this church, and instead of going to rec, he spends his days with Jolene pretending the church is a castle and that he is a knight, living by their code of chivalry. For the first time in Ware’s life, he doesn’t feel ashamed about spending time off in his own world, and with the help of Jolene, his uncle, and others he meets throughout the summer, he realizes that it’s okay to be himself, and he doesn’t want to turn into someone else after all. “He had changed this summer. He was spending more time off in his own world. And it turned out, he didn’t feel ashamed about it. Turned out, he really liked it there.”

THOUGHTS:  Here in the Real World is perfect for readers who feel like they just don’t belong. Your heart will break for Ware and Jolene as they try to navigate through the real world in this moving and touching novel. Middle school can be such a hard time, and hopefully readers will realize, like Ware does, that it’s okay to be yourself, even when you feel pressure from parents and classmates to be someone else entirely. This realistic fiction book is about finding not only yourself, but your people, and being able to see them just as they are too.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

Elem. – The Perfect Shelter

Welsh, Clare Helen. The Perfect Shelter. Kane Miller, 2020. 978-1-68464-050-8. Unpaged. $14.99. Grades K-3.

The Perfect Shelter follows two sisters who are trying to make the perfect shelter outside; however, something is wrong. One sister is sick, and the other sister has to deal with the consequences of her sister being sick and not being able to build the perfect shelter with her. As the story progresses, the sisters decide to build a shelter inside because “it’s the perfect place to build a shelter.” The illustrations show the progression of the older sister’s sickness, as well as how the family handles and deals with it. The illustrations are absolutely beautiful.

THOUGHTS: I loved how the ending of this book doesn’t promise a happy ending, merely that the family will just be together. This book could be a great conversation starter for a child who is dealing with someone in their family having an illness, or if they personally have an illness. The family is drawn as being interracial, which I also loved that representation.

Picture Book          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Elem. – Yasmin the Gardner

Faruqi, Saadia. Yasmin the Gardner. Picture Window Books, 2020. 978-1-515-84641-3. $15.99. Gr K – 2.

It is spring time, and Yasmin and her Baba are going to plant a garden! Yasmin is excited to plant all sorts of different items, from vegetables to flowers. After choosing her flower seeds, Yasmin is sure to provide her plant with lots of sunlight, water, and good soil. Her flower, however, is wilting! What can Yasmin do to help her flower grow?

THOUGHTS: The culture appreciation and information provided at the end of this book is fantastic. Yasmin is from Pakistan, and she explains that she is proud of her heritage and explains different information about her country!

Picture Book          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

Tags: Garden, Outdoors, Family

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