MG – The Magical Imperfect

Baron, Chris. The Magical Imperfect. Feiwel & Friends, 2021. 978-1-250-76782-0. 232 p. $15.15. Grades 5-8.

Etan has not always been an outcast. He used to play baseball with the other boys during recess. He used to hang out with his best friend. He used to talk in class and interact with classmates. But that was before his mother checked into a mental hospital. Now suffering from selective mutism, Etan has pulled away from everyone in his life except for his father and grandfather, with whom he shares a very strong bond. While visiting his grandfather at his jewelry shop, Etan is asked by the grocer next door to deliver a package. It is only after his brief, mysterious, and interesting encounter with the family’s daughter, Malia, that he finds out she is known to his classmates as “The Creature.” Etan, however, doesn’t see her that way, and as he makes more trips to her house, their friendship grows. Etan wishes he could help Malia find a cure for her eczema so she can return to school. Malia wishes she could help Etan find his voice. Perhaps finding someone who accepts them for who they are will be the key for Etan and Malia to shed that outcast label.

THOUGHTS:  There is so much to unpack here–Mental illness, prejudice, immigration, bullying, friendship—the list goes on. Chris Baron knows exactly which issues face middle grade readers and writes about them in an accessible, heartfelt, and beautiful way. This book is a perfect fit for middle school libraries.

Fantasy            Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

YA – Game Changer

Shusterman, Neal. Game Changer. Quill Tree Books, 2021. 978-0-061-99867-6. 386 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Ash lives a pretty normal life as far as teenagers go. He has a younger brother, a crush on a girl, and a starting spot on the school’s football team. Unlike his best friend Leo, he really doesn’t think too hard about things like race or equality because he doesn’t have to – the world is laid out in front of him and he just has to live it. Unfortunately, that world is altered when Ash takes a hard hit during a football game. A rush of ice through his veins accompanies a universe shift as Ash jumps into another dimension; while many aspects of Ash’s life are the same, many things have changed! Stop signs are blue, his parents are rich, and… segregation in schools is the norm. Leo is Black, which means in this universe, Ash and Leo never became friends. In this universe, Ash’s life is significantly better yet also significantly worse, so Ash wants to get back to his original dimension…or perhaps, an even better one. As Ash tries to figure out how to put his world back together, he questions what he has always known and realizes he needs to shift his thinking.

THOUGHTS: Neal Shusterman has always been a young adult favorite, and this book is no exception. With an engaging plot line, relatable characters, and funny quips in dialogue, students will enjoy this book immensely. This is a fantastic purchase for high school libraries.

Science Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Haydu, Corey Ann. One Jar of Magic. Harper Collins, 2021. $16.99 978-0-062-68985-6. Grades 5-8.

Rose Alice Anders isn’t just Rose. She is “Little Luck,” so nicknamed by her father, the luckiest man in Belling Bright, the most magical place in the world. Her father has the most knowledge of magic in this town where magic is revered and frequently used for everything from improving hair quality to crafting a rainbow (though her father cautions Rose and her brother Lyle that interfering with weather is too dangerous). All her life Rose has been striving to live up to her father’s belief that she will be the most magical in their family. Her status–and her father’s–brings ‘honor’ but also trouble into her friendships. So when the new year arrives in her twelfth year, Rose both longs for the day and dreads it for the pressure. Yes, she is magical, yes, her father has answers, but something doesn’t feel right, though she’d never admit it. The town’s New Year’s Day comes, and everyone is out to capture magic in jars of any color or size. Some magic sparkles, some changes colors, some seems to enchant just by being. Rose goes straight to Too Blue Lake, where she’s certain she, of all people, will manage to fill jar after jar after jar. But as the day goes on and her friends gather jars, and her brother tries to help her (should she be grateful or insulted?), Rose is fearful to come to the feast with just one jar of magic. She can feel her father’s anger. To appease his anger, her mother takes Rose and Lyle home, stopping at a store run by “not-meant-for-magic’ people. Though the store is nearby, Rose has never been there and never met these people. Her shame at failing to live up to her name and her heritage mixes with her curiosity in these people, who seem so….free. She wants to see Zelda–the daughter of the family–again, but knows her father (and the town) forbids it. What is going on in her family and in her town?  Where does Rose belong and how can she take a stand when she’s not sure of anything?

THOUGHTS: Haydu crafts a very real town full of questions, possibilities and dangers.  She presents the confusing family dynamics well, as Rose struggles to reconcile her hesitations and doubts with her father’s certainty, her mother’s acquiescence, her brother’s kindness, and the town’s solidarity. Who is she, if she’s not Little Luck?

Magical Realism Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – Sweet & Bitter Magic

Tooley, Adrienne. Sweet & Bitter Magic. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021. 978-1-534-45385-2. $19.99. 359 p. Grades 9 and up.

It is Tamsin’s seventeenth birthday, a day which is supposed to bring a monumental life choice: Stay Within and serve the coven of witches in which she’s grown up, or leave them to go Beyond and live with common folk. Tamsin’s fate was already decided for her five years ago though when, after practicing dark magic to try to save her twin sister from death, she was banished from Within and cursed to never again feel love. Now she spends her days healing the common folk’s ailments and taking some of their love as payment, just so she can feel SOMETHING, for as long as that little bit of love lasts. Wren spends her days peddling eggs at the market and caring for her father. Everything she does is for him – including keeping her magic a secret. Wren realized at an early age that she is a source – she houses pure magic and would be very valuable to the coven – but magic tore her family apart when she was young, and so Wren keeps this secret from her father. A chance encounter with Tamsin at the market one morning changes all of that. As a plague born of dark magic spreads throughout their village afflicting her father, Wren reveals her talents to Tamsin in hopes that she’ll take her on the hunt for the source of the plague. Tamsin says she’ll hunt the witch responsible – only if Wren offers her love for her father in return. Wren agrees, and thus begins their journey to Beyond, a dangerous journey filled with twists and secrets and a romantic tension almost as dangerous as the dark magic they’re hunting.

THOUGHTS: Though many of us living in 2021 may not want to read a book involving a plague, this is a magic-induced plague, so it feels just escapist enough to not be particularly upsetting; it feels more like a dark spell being cast. It’s also an excellent addition to YA fantasy collections because in a genre flooded with series and duologies, this is a rare standalone, perfect for readers not looking to commit to reading several books.

Fantasy (Witches)          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Lore

Bracken, Alexandra. Lore. Disney Hyperion, 2021. 978-1-484-77820-3. $18.99. 480 p. Grades 9-12.

Lore Perseus is trying to live a normal life, but as a descendant of the Greek hero Perseus, it’s not that simple. Every seven years, a new Agon begins. During this time, nine Greek gods walk the Earth as mortals as a punishment from Zeus. These gods are hunted by the descendants of the ancient Greek bloodlines. If a god is killed by a mortal during an Agon, the mortal hunters will inherit their power and immortality. Although Lore walked away from that world after her family was murdered, her past is catching up with her. When she is approached by a childhood friend and the god Athena, Lore strikes up an alliance hoping to avenge the death of her family and finally escape the Agon forever. Set against the backdrop of modern day New York City, Lore must confront her past, figure out who she can trust, and ultimately save the world from both old gods and new.

THOUGHTS: This book has been described as a mix between The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and I would absolutely recommend it to readers that are fans of Rick Riordan and Greek mythology. In addition, Lore is a standalone fantasy novel which may appeal to readers who are not looking to commit to a series. The main character, Lore, is a strong and powerful female determined to take control of her own life. The fast-paced story is full of action, and the surprising plot twists will keep readers on their toes!

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

Lore Perseous wants to be a normal teenage girl living in New York City. She wants to forget that she is from an Ancient Greek bloodline, descended from Perseus himself. However, the brutal reminder of who she is becomes apparent as the Agon begins its next cycle after seven years. The Agon, which started as a punishment from Zeus for past rebellions, is a time in which nine Greek gods and goddesses are forced to walk on Earth as mortals. During the seven days of the Agon, if a god or goddess is killed by a descendant of an ancient bloodline, the descendant seizes that god’s powers and immortality. For her own sanity and protection, Lore is determined to ignore the Agon as she has horrible memories of what happened to her family during the last one. The Fates have other plans for her when two people seek her out: Castor, a childhood friend, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war. Athena offers Lore an alliance in an attempt to stop one god from becoming all-powerful. Joining this alliance means she could possibly end the horrors of the Agon forever, so Lore is tempted. She knows, however, binding to Athena could come at a deadly cost and wipe out the rest of the Perseous bloodline forever. By rejoining the hunt, Lore is leaving her fate in the hands of a powerful goddess who is not always known for keeping her promises.

THOUGHTS: Alexandra Bracken’s book is a heart-pounding adventure that leaves the reader at a cliffhanger with the end of every chapter. Readers should have a basic knowledge of Greek Mythology to get the most out of this book, but fans of Zeus and all the rest are sure to love this tale. This book is a fantastic purchase for high school libraries, especially with students who read Percy Jackson in middle school and are now looking for something more advanced.

Fantasy/Adventure        Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG – Paola Santiago and the River of Tears

Mejia, Tehlor Kay. Paola Santiago and the River of Tears. Disney-Hyperion, 2020. 978-1-368-04917-7. 350 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Scientific Paola just eyerolls when her superstitious mother talks of spells, wards, and evil beings like La Llorona, the creature who roams the river stealing children to replace those she lost. But Paola and her friends Emma and Dante do respect the Gila River near their Arizona home. Several local children have drowned in the waters. Not that that stops them from lying to their parents and hanging out on the banks of the river. But when Paola repeatedly has dreams of a creature reaching out of the waters and grabbing her, and Emma disappears one evening, Paola begins to reconsider whether her mother’s superstitions are as ridiculous as she always assumed them to be. When the police refuse to listen to Paola, she and Dante decide to take matters into their own hands. Armed with support and advice from a most surprising source, they venture into a world of legendary monsters battled by lost children, shocked to discover their own roles in this world that shouldn’t exist. Paola Santiago, part of the Rick Riordan imprint, is a page turner from the very beginning. Pao is a delightful protagonist, supported by her two best friends. Scientific-minded, fascinated by space, she is stunned by the existence of magic, myth, and monsters. Dante and Emma are strong characters as well (in every sense of the word), and the various creatures they encounter don’t stand a chance against the combined wiles of the trio. But Pao also learns that there is more to life than what the power of physics can prove and becomes closer to her mother through the ordeal. Paola and Dante are Hispanic; Emma is white.

THOUGHTS: Paola Santiago and the River of Tears is an exciting page turner that is hard to put down. Paola is a feisty heroine who is easy to love and is sure to gain legions of fans. Add this to your collection if other mythology-based books are popular.

Fantasy/Mythology          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem. – A Flicker of Courage: Tales of Triumph and Disaster!

Caletti, Deb. A Flicker of Courage: Tales of Triumph and Disaster! Putnam, 2020. 978-1-984-81305-3. 243 p. $13.99, Grades 3-6.

Henry is a nice boy, but quiet and shy with miserable, abusive parents. He longs to have friends, be brave, and be a hero. He gets his chance the morning he hears Apollo, the charming boy next door, shrieking in agony, and discovers Vlad Luxor, the HRM (Horrible Ruler with Magic), has turned Apollo’s younger brother Rocco into a lizard. What, you say, can two young boys do in the face of such terrible evil? Henry has a plan! He is shocked to discover his need to aid Apollo is stronger than his need not to be noticed. The boys, together with the lovely, kind Jo, Pirate Girl and Henry’s dog, Button, look, listen, ponder, and follow their hearts. They learn of their true identities, face down the cruel Vlad Luxor, save the day, and Rocco. This humorous adventure-story spoof, is highly reminiscent of M.T. Anderson’s Pals in Peril series. The third-person omniscient narration rarely allows the characters to show action, resulting in a somewhat stilted style that takes some getting used to. But if you let it grow on you, it’s worth the wait. There is a map! Old photos! Spell-breakers and fights! Fearsome events! And a sequel! This book may require some booktalking and encouragement, as the genre Caletti spoofs belongs to the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew era, but the general silliness and good vs evil plot may draw readers in. Most of the characters are presumed white (and appear so on the book cover), but Jo hints at being Latino.

THOUGHTS: This story, and series, has potential, but it’s hard to tell if this is a book that will appeal more to adults than children. Get it in the hands of the right reader, and it could take off.

Action/Adventure          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – A Vow So Bold and Deadly

Kemmerer, Brigid. A Vow So Bold and Deadly. Bloomsbury YA, 2021. 978-1-547-60258-2. 408 p. $18.99. Grades 9 and up.

A Vow So Bold and Deadly picks up right where the previous book left off, with Emberfall in chaos and Prince Rhen pushing everyone away. In Syhl Shallow, Lia Mara is trying to hold onto her kingdom using kindness and compassion, when her subjects are used to fear and intimidation. As the two sides race towards the deadline Grey has set for Prince Rhen, a deadly enemy has reappeared and no one is safe.

THOUGHTS: This was a thrilling conclusion to a great young adult fantasy series (Cursebreakers)! I adored the first two books in this series, and was so excited for the conclusion. I loved how Harper has been portrayed throughout this whole series, and she definitely ended up being my favorite character from the series.

Fantasy          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – The Gilded Ones

Forna, Namina. The Gilded Ones. Delacorte Press, 2021. 978-1-474-95957-5. 432 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Deka is awaiting her blood ceremony that will determine if she can become a member of her village; her blood needs to run red, and Deka is afraid her’s won’t. The day of the ceremony comes the worst case happens, and she is now faced with making a choice. Should she stay in the village and face her fate or follow this stranger to fight for the emperor with an army of girls just like her? Deka decides to leave the only life and home she’s ever known and journey to the city to learn more about herself and the empire. The Gilded Ones is the first in a young adult fantasy trilogy (Deathless) and starts off extremely fast paced. The magic system is interesting, and there definitely is room for that to grow as the series goes on.

THOUGHTS: Overall, this is an amazing introduction to a new, dark YA fantasy trilogy. In the version I read, there was a warning for violence and that would be the only thing to know going into this book.

Fantasy          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

MG – Ikenga

Okorafor, Nnedi. Ikenga. Viking, 2020. 978-0-593-11352-3. 227 p. $16.99. Grades 6-7.

Nnamdi is devastated when his father, the police chief of their Nigerian town, is murdered. He vows to get revenge, but a year later, the murder remains unsolved, and Nnamdi is increasingly frustrated as he sees his mother struggling to support them, especially after she is mugged by one of the brazen petty criminals who torment the town. That is when he encounters his father’s spirit, who gives him a small figurine called an Ikenga. Nnamdi soon discovers that the figure imbues him with superpowers like those of his favorite comic book hero, the Hulk, when he becomes enraged. While Nnamdi means to use his powers for good, taking down various local crooks, it soon becomes evident that Nnamdi has to learn how to harness his superpowers before he seriously harms someone. His alternate ego, known as The Man, is garnering much attention in the town and from the press, but not always positively, After nearly injuring his best friend, Chioma, and a classmate, Nnamdi runs away from home and hides, so he cannot endanger anyone else, or himself. However, Chioma, after an interaction with the spirit of Nnamdi’s father, pieces together what is happening and tracks Nnamdi down. With Chioma’s support, Nnamdi learns to control his abilities, unearths who murdered his father, and faces down the local crime boss. Nnamdi is an engaging character with great big flaws to go with his great big heart. Readers will empathize as he makes mistakes along the way, whether it’s jumping to conclusions or being unable to control his rage when he is The Man. Okorafor skillfully places the reader in Nnamdi’s Nigerian town, through use of local dialect and evocative description. One can easily conjure the sounds and smells of the marketplace or Nnamdi’s home. While most of the plot threads are wrapped up by the end of the book, a few loose ends hint at a sequel, which will be eagerly anticipated.

THOUGHTS: Great for fans of myth-based literature, and ties in superbly with Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong series. Unfortunately, the use of profanity may make its placement in an elementary school library problematic, leaving it with a limited audience.

Fantasy          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD