YA – Chain of Iron

Clare, Cassandra. Chain of Iron. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021. 978-1-481-43190-3. $24.99. 688 p. Grades 9-12.

Chain of Iron, book two in The Last Hours series, continues the story of James Herondale and Cordelia Carstairs who find themselves engaged to one another to avoid ruining Cordelia’s reputation. However, James is still in love with the elusive Grace Blackthorn, much to Cordelia’s dismay. Meanwhile, James and his friends, The Merry Thieves, are trying to discover who is responsible for murdering Shadowhunters during the night while Lucie Herondale plans to raise Jesse Blackthorn from the dead, and Cordelia wonders why she can no longer hold her beloved sword, Cortana, without getting burned. Together these friends uncover dark secrets while they attempt to protect their fellow Shadowhunters from harm.

THOUGHTS: Cassandra Clare is a unique, fantasy author. She has never “left” the world of Shadowhunters that she first created with The Mortal Instruments, but instead continues the story both before and after the events of the original series. In my opinion, each series gets better and better and should be included in every young adult library collection. If you can get a student hooked on one series, they’ll want to read them all!

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Wings of Ebony

Elle, J. Wings of Ebony. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 978-1534470675. $19.99. 368 p. Grades 9-12.

Rue has lived in Houston with her mother and half sister for her entire life, but when her mother is murdered outside of their apartment, the sisters are separated. Rue is sent to live with her father, who had previously been absent from her life. Not only is she forced to leave Houston, but discovers her father lives on the hidden island of Ghizon, a home for magic wielders. Rue discovers she has these magical abilities also, and although she makes some friends in Ghizon, she leaves on the anniversary of her mother’s death, hoping to catch a glimpse of her sister Tasha. However, Rue wasn’t supposed to leave the island, and her actions lead to violent consequences. Although Houston and Ghizon are on opposite sides of the world, Rue’s two homes collide, and it’s up to her to save her neighborhood and Ghizon from the violence and corruption that could destroy both.

THOUGHTS: Rue is a strong, African American female protagonist, whose motto is “make a way out of no way” and puts family above all. Wings of Ebony is the perfect blend of fantasy and contemporary, urban fiction, and I would recommend this title to fans of Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, and Tomi Adeyemi. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

Elem./MG – The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. as Told to His Brother

Levithan, David. The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. as Told to His Brother. Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 978-1-984-84859-8. 215 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

It has been six days since Lucas’s brother Aidan went missing, and of course, everyone is frantic. Police, search-and-rescue teams, friends, and family members are searching everywhere for him, not daring to consider the worst. On the sixth night, Lucas hears a noise above the bedroom he shares with his brother and goes up to the attic to investigate. He finds Aidan face down on the floor in front of a dresser as if he had fallen out of it. Disheveled and disoriented, Aidan lifts himself from the floor and looks inside the dresser, seemingly dismayed. After Lucas alerts his family to Aidan’s reappearance, everyone wants to know where he was for those six harrowing days. A fantastic world called “Aveinieu” is his reply. No one believes that Aidan actually went to a magical world that only exists through the dresser doors. But Lucas does believe him because he remembers something. He remembers that when his brother was lying on the floor of the attic, there was something in his hair: a blue leaf in the shape of a diamond, unlike anything Lucas had seen in this world.

THOUGHTS: Students will read this book to find out if Aveinieu really exists and end up discovering that the bond between brothers can be stronger than anything in the world (this world or any others that exist). At its surface, this book is a fantastical tale of getting lost in another world, but deep down, it is a heartwarming story about family. This is definitely a must-have book for upper elementary and middle grade libraries. 

Fantasy Fiction           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Aidan, twelve years old, has gone missing. Lucas awakes one morning to find the room he shares with his older brother Aidan, empty. The boys’ parents start a frantic search alongside members of the community to find Aidan that lasts for 6 days. By this time the local police are hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. But when Lucas hears a thump from the attic, everything changes. Aidan appears in the attic looking confused with a blue diamond leaf in his hair. When Lucas asks Aidan where he was, he replies, “Aveinieu.” Everyone is happy that Aidan has returned, but there are big questions about where Aidan was for those six days. Aidan attempts to tell his story, but the adults do not believe him at all. Lucas talks to Aidan at night and over the course of a few days learns about Aveinieu and gains Aidan’s trust. While Lucas accepts Aidan’s story, the town does not and the students at school turn against Aidan and start making fun of him. The brothers stick together and in the end Lucas (who narrates the story) says, “Like all honest stories, it lives within us.”

THOUGHTS: Leviathan’s first middle grade novel does not disappoint. The story will tug at your heart strings and has a Narnia-esque quality to it. Aveinieu is a magical place with green skies, blue trees, and strange creatures. The struggle Aidan faces in wanting to return to this magical place while not being believed by the adults is heartbreaking. This book was a quick read because I couldn’t wait to find out if Aidan would be allowed back in Aveinieu.

Fantasy Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

MG – The Year I Flew Away

Arnold, Marie. The Year I Flew Away. Versify, 2021. 978-0-358-27275-5. 285 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Marie Arnold establishes herself as a gifted storyteller, weaving realistic setting with a magical tale involving a talking rat, wishes, and witches. Ten-year-old Gabrielle Jean’s Haitian family sends her to live with her uncle and aunt in Flatbush, a busy neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, until they can save enough funds to join her. She looks forward to the American Dream, but it doesn’t take long before it is shattered. Classmates make fun of her accent; she feels strange and left out. Though Carmen, a Mexican-American girl, is anxious to be her friend, Gabrielle still feels incredibly lonely and unmoored from her friends and immediate family in Haiti. These bleak feelings motivate her to make a deal with the witch, Lady Lydia, in Prospect Park. Lady Lydia gives Gabrielle three magic mango slices. Each one represents a wish; each wish granted brings Gabrielle closer to Lady Lydia capturing her essence. With the first mango slice, Gabrielle loses her accent, making her better understood and accepted by the other students. The second mango slice is even more powerful. After eating it, Gabrielle not only erases her memories of Haiti but also entails the added consequence of losing her entire Flatbush family. Seemingly, Gabrielle’s wishes have been fulfilled. Her classmates believe they have known Gabrielle forever and believe she was born in America, but, of course, she cannot be happy without her aunt, uncle, the toddler twins, and teen-age cousin. It troubles her that she can no longer communicate in Haitian Creole. Rocky, a rat Gabrielle encounters on the street, nicely translates for her and helps Gabrielle problem solve how she will outwit Lady Lydia (though Rocky has its own unfulfilled wish to be a rabbit). As the school looks forward to Culture Day, Gabrielle tries to resist the last mango and still save her family. She knows she needs the help of a good witch to counteract this bad witch who desires a homogenous Brooklyn where perfection is everyone is the same. Arnold whips up a twenty-first century fairy tale to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion that blends American patriotism, pride in and acceptance of differences, and appreciation of one’s heritage.

THOUGHTS: If Kate DiCamillo is an author who demonstrates the beauty of language, then Marie Arnold is an author who demonstrates the beauty of storytelling. Accessible, genuine, and creative, Ms. Arnold weaves an unusual tale (sometimes I had to stretch my believability especially when Gabrielle cozies up to vermin who wishes to be a rabbit) that builds to a crescendo of patriotism, pride in one’s culture and heritage. Realistically, most sixth grade students may not have the ability to wax eloquently about their backgrounds, yet Arnold has Gabrielle come to the realization that a person can be an immigrant loyal to the country of one’s birth and equally be an American, loyal to a new country. An added bonus is the character of Mrs. Bartell, the solicitous school librarian who happens to be Haitian-American and helps Gabrielle every step of the way.

Fantasy          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
Magic Realism

YA – Donuts and Other Proclamations of Love

Reck, Jared. Donuts and Other Proclamations of Love. Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 978-1-524-71611-0. 306 p. $17.99. Grades 7-10.

Oscar Olsson knows exactly what he wants to do with his life after high school: work on his family’s food truck, Hej Hej!, with his Swedish grandfather and longtime guardian, “Farfar.” In fact, the sooner that future arrives, the better. He views senior year as a series of endless hoops to jump through, though he does enjoy his independent study in the culinary lab. Unfortunately, Oscar gets roped into a cafeteria food waste reduction project spearheaded by Ivy League hopeful Mary Louise Messinger, a.k.a. Lou. Hundreds of rescued apples, batches of cider, and trays of crisp later, laser-focused Lou has worked her way onto the food truck and into Oscar and Farfar’s lives … and maybe into Oscar’s heart? But an overheard comment reminds him that Lou thinks he is beneath her, a loser with no serious plans for his future. Hints dropped throughout the narrative cue readers to an upcoming wrench in Oscar’s plans, possibly a tragic one, and when the moment arrives it is, indeed, devastating. Jared Reck’s pitch-perfect sophomore novel perfectly captures the way that life can be hilarious one moment and heartbreaking the next. Main and supporting characters are well-developed and distinctive, especially the unforgettable Farfar and his beloved cat Koopa, as is the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, setting.

THOUGHTS: This winning story about food trucks, family, friendship, and first love is fantastic from start to finish.

Realistic Fiction          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – The Infinity Courts

Bowman, Akemi Dawn. The Infinity Courts. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-45649-5. 465 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.

The Infinity Courts starts with Nami who is sure that her life is finally beginning at the age of eighteen; however, those dreams are halted when she is murdered. When she comes to, she realizes she is in a place called Infinity. Infinity is ruled by a queen called Ophelia who was a virtual assistant to the human race when Nami was alive. Now, Ophelia is determined to eradicate humans, and she is very close to completing that mission. Nami has a choice to join the resistance and help eliminate Ophelia, or just ignore everything and let Ophelia take over and complete her mission.

THOUGHTS: This is a great science fiction book that doesn’t get bogged down in science facts. The pacing is well done, and the main characters have decent character arcs throughout the story. This is the first book in a trilogy, so readers have something to look forward to.

Science Fiction          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 – Instructions for Dancing

Yoon, Nicola. Instructions for Dancing. Delacorte Press, 2021. 978-0-593-43494-9. 285 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.

Ever since her parents split up, Yvette (“Evie”) hasn’t found romance novels quite as magical anymore. She sees through the happily ever after to the true equation of every love story: “Heartbreak = love + time.” While donating a stack of previously beloved books to a Little Free Library near her L.A. apartment building, Evie finds a book called Instructions for Dancing. Returning home with the book, she sees her younger sister Danica and her boyfriend kissing on the stoop and has a vision of the couple’s love story, including how it began and how it will end. Later that night, Evie realizes that her premonition of Danica’s break-up came true, and it’s the first of many such visions. Pinning her new ability to the secondhand book in her backpack, Evie follows its instructions to return it to a dancing school in La Brea. There, she meets (charming, attractive, talented, and tall) Xavier, or X, whose grandparents own the studio. With a little nudge, in hopes of boosting business, the pair enter the L.A. Danceball competition, Amateur Under 21 category. Genuine feelings develop as Evie and X master elements of ballroom including footwork, artistry, showmanship, and chemistry. But can Evie truly open her heart to love when she knows that it will inevitably end?

THOUGHTS: Nicola Yoon’s latest promises (and skillfully delivers) romance, ballroom dancing, a hint of magic, and one girl’s quest to answer that age-old question: is love worth the risk?

Romance          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – Almost There and Almost Not

Urban, Linda. Almost There and Almost Not. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-47880-0. 211 p. $17.99. Grades 5-7.

Eleven year old California Poppy doesn’t know if she is coming or going. Her widowed father is heading to Alaska for a salmon fishing job and takes her to Minnesota to stay with Aunt Isabelle, who should know more about taking care of a “bra needing” child than he does. It turns out that Aunt Isabelle is not really the nurturing type and is too busy working on a meatloaf recipe for the Great Meatloaf Bake Off. So California finds herself traveling to Michigan to live with Great Aunt Monica. Her great aunt, still grieving for her late husband, broke her hand and needs help with her research on Eleanor Fontaine, an author of etiquette books from the 1920s. Aunt Monica wants to complete her husband’s planned biography of his author-ancestor and asks California to read Fontaine’s Proper Letters for Ladies and to practice writing letters to become familiar with the author. Callie soon realizes that there are two ghosts in the house: a dog who enjoys playing with her and a refined lady named Eleanor, who dissolves into a pile of dust when she gets upset. Aunt Monica is not aware of these guests, so her niece takes care when talking to them. Eleanor begins to share her story with the young girl, who notices that the ghost seems to be getting younger each time she appears.  California soon learns the truth about her father’s whereabouts and Eleanor’s secret. Just as Callie feels she has come to terms with her father’s absence, her struggles in school and having periods, she overhears a conversation that changes her life forever.

THOUGHTS: Urban has written a very engaging story about loss, grief, and resilience. Although the text is not lengthy, a lot happens and one cannot help but root for the likeable main character who narrates the story. Readers will enjoy California’s letters to Aunt Isabelle, her father, and the Playtex Company. This sensitive but humorous tale is a solid choice for upper elementary and middle school collections.

Fantasy          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

When California Poppy is 11 years old, she is dropped off at her Aunt Monica’s house while her father claims to look for work in Alaska. During her stay, she plays with the ghostly dog and talks to the ghostly woman who haunts her aunt’s home, a woman who turns out to be California’s Great-Aunt Eleanor. Eleanor teaches California about all the etiquette she thinks a proper lady should know, and California begins to unearth details about Eleanor’s past, which is not as simple as the old woman wants it to seem. As a relationship between the girl and the ghost develops, California also grows closer to her Aunt Monica by helping with research for Eleanor’s biography. Eventually, these relationships help California to confront the reality of her father’s abandonment and allow her to begin to heal in her new, more stable life.

THOUGHTS: This story, told in the first person by California herself, is about the life of two young girls who are trying to figure out who they are in a grown-up world. Magical realism, historical fiction, and a love of family and friends weave together in this book to create the story of a girl who has a lot to learn, but also a lot to offer the world. The ghosts in this book are friendly rather than scary. Kids and teens who are wise beyond their years, and those that deal with family troubles and long for a better, more stable life, will find it easy to relate to California.

Fantasy          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem./MG – Amina’s Song

Khan, Hena. Amina’s Song. Saleem Reads, 2021. 978-1-534-45988-5. 275 p. $17.99. Grades 4-6.

Amina is spending some of her summer in Pakistan with a family that she doesn’t see often, and she loves it! The market, the food, the sights, as well as spending time with her extended family, it’s hard to pick a favorite thing. With the end of the summer pending, Amina is headed back home and ready to share her favorite parts of Pakistan with her friends and classmates. However, they only seem to hear the bad parts of Pakistan, which is extremely frustrating and disheartening to Amina. She wonders if she can change their minds when she gets just that opportunity! Her history teacher assigns a project which just might help Amina change her classmates’ mind about her homeland, as well as show them the Pakistan Amina knows.

THOUGHTS: Amina’s Song is an amazing sequel which showcases the bond that Amina’s family has between Pakistan and the United States wonderfully. I feel many readers will be able to relate to Amina’s thoughts and feelings, especially when Amina is struggling to share her favorite parts of Pakistan with her classmates and friends. Highly recommend this book for any elementary or middle school collection.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy