MG – Small Town Pride

Stamper, Phil.  Small Town Pride. Harper, 2023. 978-0-063-11878-2. 260 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Jake is adjusting to being his school’s first openly gay kid, but it’s not easy. His family and friends have been accepting but not everyone in the small Ohio town he lives in feels the same. The book starts with Jake coming home to an obscenely large pride flag hanging outside his house…his house across the street from the mayor’s house. People in town begin to be concerned that this could lead to a pride parade. Which causes Jake to think…why not? The main problem is that they would have to get approval from the town council and the mayor. Will Jake and his friends be able to convince people that a Pride celebration is an awesome idea? Why is Brett, the mayor’s son, spending so much time with Jake and his friends?

THOUGHTS: This was a wonderful story about standing up for yourself and what that can look like for an individual person. Highly recommended for any middle school collection.

Realistic Fiction          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

MG – My Own Lightning

Wolk, Lauren. My Own Lightning. Dutton, 2022.  978-0-525-55559-9. $17.99. 307 p. Grades 6-8.

This sequel to Lauren Wolk’s award-winning, Wolf Hollow, picks up at the close of that fateful school year. Annabelle McBride has survived classmate Betty’s bullying and the death of the traumatized World War I veteran Toby, but she still is trying to make sense of all the puzzle pieces that school year gave her and how she should view herself and her world. While helping the teacher clean the schoolhouse, she meets Mr. Graf, a man she perceives as charming and friendly, who is searching for his lost dog. On the way home, a storm kicks up and Annabelle is struck by lightning. An unknown person saves her life. Afterward, her senses seem heightened, and she feels an affinity to animals, especially dogs. Not only is Mr. Graf’s dog missing, but Annabelle’s brother, Henry, cannot find his dog, Buster, either; and neighbor, Andy (who was Betty’s accomplice in bullying Annabelle) has lost his dog as well. When Annabelle meets new neighbor, the dour Mr. Edelman, she thinks he is mean. Despite this scary first impression, when she hears barking from the Edelman property, she investigates and finds a secret animal rescue shelter. Neighbor Andy, Annabelle’s nemesis, has been sleeping in the family’s potato house to escape his abusive household. His past behavior overshadows the kindness he displays with the animals. All of these characters mix together for a sort of human mystery that Annabelle navigates that summer, both in pursuit of the lost dogs as well as a realization that people are not always what they appear. Though the lightning seemed to sharpen her perceptions, Annabelle has to figure out for herself who is sinister and who is truly kind. In the process, she learns not only about others, but also about herself.

THOUGHTS: The language in this book is delicious. The descriptions of the family suppers, the city of Pittsburgh, and the farmland are lush and rich with unique imagery. Wolk has the talent to create authentic characters; even the minor ones ring true. Sensitive readers will appreciate Annabelle’s struggle to detect who is an enemy and who is a friend and learn from her realizations that it is never a waste of time to look deeper into a person’s actions and behavior before judging them. Use this book for great examples of lush imagery.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – Bathe the Cat

McGinty, Alice. Bathe the Cat. Chronicle Books, 2022. 978-1-452-14270-8. Unpaged $17.99. Grades K-2.

Bathe the Cat is a funny rhyming picture book about a family whose grandmother is coming to visit, so they make a list of chores to do. One of those chores is to bathe the cat, which doesn’t make the cat very happy. So the cat spends the rest of the picture book messing the chore list up, so they end up doing things like mowing the floor and mopping the fishes. Finally by the end of the book the chores are done, grandma has come, and the cat escaped their bath. Throughout this book, the reader will love finding the cat and their mischievous ways they mess with the chores.

THOUGHTS: Wonderful picture book with charming illustrations. Definitely a great addition to any elementary collection.

Picture Book          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

MG – The Star That Always Stays

Johnson, Anna Rose. The Star That Always Stays. Holiday House, 2022. 978-0-823-45040-4. 274 p. $17.99. Grades 5-9.

The year is 1914 in Boyne City, Michigan, and 14 year old Norvia has her life turned upside down after her parents divorce and her mother remarries. A divorce is considered scandalous during this time, and Norvia and her siblings are about to discover the stigma that is attached to them when they move into their new home. In addition to the divorce, Norvia is discovering that not everyone is accepting of her Ojibwe heritage. Despite all the challenges facing the five Nelson siblings, they are determined to make the most of their new lives. And along the way they discover the benefits of a strong family unit whether they are connected by  blood or through marriage. 

THOUGHTS: This was a lovely historical fiction book. I enjoyed the setting, the story, and most of all the delightful and vivid characters.

Historical Fiction          Victoria Dziewulski, Plum Borough SD

Elem. – Just Harriet

Arnold, Elana. Just Harriet. Walden Pond Press. 978-0-063-09204-4. 196 p. $16.99. Grades 3-5. 

Third grade just ended, but summer is not beginning the way Harriet plans. When her mother is put on bed rest until Harriet’s new baby brother arrives, her parents also decide to send Harriet to live with her grandmother for the summer. Nanu lives on Marble Island where she runs a bed and breakfast. Harriet always enjoys visiting Nanu with her parents, but staying alone with her for the whole summer is an entirely different story. As Harriet struggles with adjusting to her new surroundings, she finds a mysterious key in Nanu’s shed. This discovery leads her on an adventure involving an antique dollhouse, her 100-year-old neighbor, and some items from her father’s childhood on the island. Harriet is a boisterous, stubborn narrator with a penchant for lying, and she does not enjoy changes that are out of her control. But, readers will root for her as she copes in her own way with the many unexpected twists her summer takes. 

THOUGHTS: This summer adventure is perfect for readers who are just transitioning to chapter books. Short chapters include at least one black and white illustration. Readers will relate to Harriet’s conflicting emotions about being sent away for the summer but also her excitement about seeing her grandmother and trying to solve the mystery of what the old key opens. 

Mystery          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD

MG – Bhai For Now

Siddiqui, Maleeha. Bhai For Now. Scholastic, 2022. 978-1-338-70209-5. $17.99. 276 p. Grades 5-8.

Eighth-grader Ashar Malik lives for ice hockey and aspires to the National Hockey League via a spot on the Icecaps, the team from the prestigious Arlington Academy. Tired of his nomad-like existence, Shaheer Atique fills up his down time by watching The Property Brothers with his grandfather, Dada, and trying out interior design ideas. At the start of the school year, they bump into each other at their Northern Virginian middle school. Cousin Zohra is the first to suggest the two are identical twins.  Then, the pair start to piece the information together: Ashar lives with his Mom, a math teacher, who needs to stick to the budget; Shaheer lives with his emergency physician father, who hands him a shiny credit card instead of his time and stability. In addition to the same birth date, they both were born in New Jersey, are Muslim, and share their parents’ same names. Convinced, the impulsive Ashar insists they switch places to get to know each other’s custodial parent. This spin on The Parent Trap discloses the individual twin’s greatest qualities highlighted with the different parent. Dad responds positively to Ashar’s spontaneity and openness while Mom appreciates Shaheer’s thoughtfulness and talent. Both families practice the Muslim religion and the faith and belief is woven seamlessly throughout the story. When Dad decides to take a job in Missouri so that he can have a more regular schedule to spend time with his son, the boys’ plan goes awry. After the parents learn of the deception, both parents and brothers turn angrily on each other–no loving reunion here. The twins scramble to keep themselves together and are willing to sacrifice to make it so. Bhai For Now is a fun story that readers easily will get into. Author Maleeha Siddiqui keeps the plot fast-paced and the characters–even minor ones–interesting and memorable. 

THOUGHTS: Though the premise seems far-fetched (parents divorcing and each keeping one child without the siblings knowing of each others’ existences), this Parent Trap spin-off works. It is entertaining, alternately funny and tender. The community is in the beginning of creating a new masjid and Shaheer/Ashar gets involved in this activity. Dada, the grandfather prays his dua several times daily. The hockey plays are described in detail. The author successfully depicts a typical American family with Muslim customs. 

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – We Deserve Monuments

Hammonds, Jas. We Deserve Monuments. Roaring Brook Press, 2022. 978-1-250-81655-9. 375 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Avery Anderson’s family has just relocated from Washington, DC, to rural Bardell, Georgia, and she is none too happy about it. The pandemic robbed Avery of many classic high school moments, and she has recently broken up with her first serious girlfriend. Now her maternal grandmother has terminal cancer, and over Mama Letty’s objections the Andersons are moving in to be present for her final months. Avery starts her senior year at Beckwith Academy and quickly bonds with her next door neighbor, Simone, and her bestie, Jade. Meanwhile, things remain tense at home. Avery’s mom and grandmother clash constantly, and Avery has questions about her grandfather that no one will answer. Avery’s motto (“Get in, get out, no drama, focus forward”) becomes more difficult to maintain as a crush on Simone blossoms into a secret romance. Brief interstitial chapters from an omniscient point of view add depth of perspective on Bardell and its inhabitants throughout the years. Add in two unsolved murders and this debut novel undeniably has a lot going on, but Jas Hammonds pulls it off beautifully. 

THOUGHTS: We Deserve Monuments offers a timely commentary on racism and homophobia as well as the unparalleled joy of first love, intergenerational connections, and the cost of keeping secrets. 

Realistic Fiction          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – After Dark with Roxie Clark

Davis, Brooke Lauren. After Dark with Roxie Clark. Bloomsbury, 2022. 978-1-547-60614-6. 341 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

The Clark women of Whistler, Indiana, are rumored to be cursed; they tend to die young, tragically, and memorably. With her popular ghost tour, After Dark with Roxie Clark, 17-year old Roxie puts her flair for the dramatic (and her penchant for all things gruesome) to profitable effect by showcasing stories from her unique family history. She only shares the stories that she’s painstakingly researched, fact-checked, and (okay) sometimes embellished for her customers. She’s less at ease discussing the still-unsolved murder of her older sister’s boyfriend, whose mutilated remains were found a year ago in one of Whistler’s many cornfields. Having dropped out of college, Skylar is now obsessed with solving Collin’s murder herself, leaving no one off the suspect list. She pulls a reluctant Roxie into her investigation, uncovering dangerous and painful secrets that make even the fearless Roxie Clark realize how vulnerable she is.

THOUGHTS: A genuinely cool lead character, slow-burn romance, and deft plot twists will have readers ready to hop aboard Roxie’s tour bus; her ghost stories are the star of this fantastic young adult thriller!

Mystery          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Elem. – Eight Nights, Eight Lights

Barnes, Natalie. Eight Nights, Eight Lights. Illustrated by Andrea Stegmaier. Kane Miller, 2022. 978-1-684-64441-4. Unpaged. $14.99  Grades 1-3.

What do Max, Lara, Ellie and Sam have in common?  They, and other characters celebrate Chanukah and share family traditions in Eight Nights, Eight Lights. On each of the first seven nights of Chanukah, Andrea Stegmaier introduces the reader to a new family and a new tradition. On the eighth night, the community gathers at the synagogue, and Rabbi Rubin tells the story of Chanukah. The story ends where it began, back at Max’s house as he watches fireworks and enjoys the menorahs in his community.

THOUGHTS: Natalie Barnes skillfully moves her readers from one home to the next as she establishes connection between her characters and shares Chanukah traditions. Andrea Segmaier’s illustrations are accessible to readers, detailing modern families celebrating their holiday in a busy city neighborhood and supporting the Rabbi’s telling of the Chanukah story. She successfully weaves a sense of warmth and community into her illustrations, which are unified throughout by shades of blue among other colors. I recommend this book for any library looking for a loving story about modern families celebrating Chanukah… and the meaning of Chanukah within families and communities.

Picture Book          Hannah J. Thomas, Central Bucks SD

Elem. – Growing an Artist: The Story of a Landscaper and His Son

Parra, John. Growing an Artist: The Story of a Landscaper and His Son. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-1-5344-6927-3. $18.99. 40 p. Grades K-3.

Heading off to help his father at work, a young boy is excited and eager to learn about landscaping. He learns to mow lawns that look like baseball fields and to shape and trim bushes. He enjoys the satisfaction of working hard and creating something beautiful. Together the father and son visit a gardening center to purchase new plants and the dump that will recycle the yard waste collected throughout the day. The final stop of the work day is at a prospective client’s home. The new client wants to transform an overgrown yard. The young boy is an artist. Throughout the day he sketches in his notebook. When he sees the overgrown yard, he is inspired to create a landscape architecture blueprint. His father is thrilled and praises his son. The new client loves the plan, and father and son work together to create a beautiful new outdoor space. Landscaping is hard work. As the father admits, many people look down on landscapers as merely laborers and do not think of them as artists. As the boy is working, he sees a classmate and eagerly waves hello, but the classmate turns and pretends he never saw the boy. His father gently explains that working hard and loving what you do and having the opportunity to be creative in that process are worthy endeavors that can bring one a great sense of pride and self-worth.

THOUGHTS: This book is visually stunning. The story is sweet and gentle with a wonderful message. Hard work, perseverance, and loving what you do all are important and worthy. The author’s note explains this is the story of John Parra’s childhood. John Parra’s parents were migrant workers from Mexico. His father started his own landscaping business, and John helped him at work from the age of seven, performing landscaping tasks and eventually helping in the design and implementation of landscape architecture plans for clients. Encouraged by his hardworking family to develop his creative talents, John Parra grew up to become a renowned award-winning illustrator. This is the first book he has both authored and illustrated.

Picture Book          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD