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

MG – Tristan Strong Destroys the World

Mbalia, Kwame. Tristan Strong Destroys the World. Disney, 2020. 978-1-368-04238-3. 390 p. $17.99. Grades 3-7.

There’s no rest for the weary. Tristan Strong may be the hero of the Battle of the Bay, having saved the mythical land of Alke, home to the West African gods and the legends of African-American folktales, but a battle means winners and losers, and it appears someone is not happy with Tristan. Barely a month has passed since Tristan returned from Alke when he’s alerted that a shadowy figure called the Shamble Man is coming after Tristan. When he comes, he destroys Tristan’s grandparents’ farm and kidnaps his grandmother. It’s time to return to Alke. Luckily Tristan has his SBP (Story Box Phone), inhabited by Anansi the spider, who is doing a little magical app development while cooped up in the SBP. Soon they are on their way to the mythical lands to try and discover the identity of the Shamble Man, rescue Nana and set Alke right again. As Tristan attempts to uncover the identity of the Shamble Man, friends old and new come to his assistance, but it looks like time might be running out on Tristan. Mbalia’s conversational narration (the audio book, read by Amir Abdullah, is sensational) grabs readers from the first words. Tristan is eminently likeable, as he struggles with fears and self doubt, but the surrounding cast of characters really brings the book to life. Once again, Tristan’s tiny, gooey sidekick, Gum Baby, steals the show, offering a steady stream of tongue-twisted patter and comic relief. Fortunately for readers, the ending leaves plenty of room for further sequels, because we all need more Gum Baby.

THOUGHTS: There is no sophomore slump for Mbalia. This second entry in the series is easily as good as the first, if not better. The characters from African American folk tales and West African gods may not be familiar to young readers, but they will have a very good time meeting them. Hand this series to readers who enjoy mythology based books, but also those who like to laugh.

Fantasy          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Soul Riders: Jorvik Calling

Dahlgren, Helena. Soul Riders: Jorvik Calling. Andrews McMeel, 2020. 978-1-524-85532-1. 189 p. $8.99. Grades 4-6.

Lisa hopes the move to the remote island of Jorvik will be what she and her father need to reestablish their relationship. The 15-year-old’s mother was killed three years ago in a horseback riding accident, and her father accepted this new job so the pair could spend more time together. But when her father is immediately called into work, Lisa finds herself on her own to explore the island. She is drawn to nearby Jorvik stables, even though she lost her love of horses after her mother’s death and hasn’t been on a horse since. Lisa is quickly accepted into a circle of three girls her age at the stable, and their gentle friendship, along with a deep connection to a native island horse, Starshine, encourages her to ride again. However, evil lurks on the peaceful island. A mysterious, sinister man and a pair of teen girls seem determined to injure or steal the horses of the four friends. Eventually, the girls uncover a local myth of the Soul Riders, four ancient riders associated with certain symbols and powers. Could there be any connection between what is happening to the girls and these ancient beings? This mystical story, associated with an online immersive adventure game, is perfect for horse-crazy tweens. The theme of overcoming adversity through friendship is prevalent throughout the book, woven into an adventure tinged with mythology and danger. Mysterious individuals and uncovered magical abilities add interest to the story, but the real star is the love between girl and horse. Although there is a limited amount of character diversity, as Jorvik is somewhere in the North Sea, apparently near the Scandinavian countries, one of the girls is Pakistani. The second book in the trilogy, The Legend Awakens, was published in September 2020, and the final book is due out in April 2021.

THOUGHTS: This series could have wider appeal among fantasy readers not ready for lengthy, multi-volume series, but it will mostly resonate with horse lovers. The Star Stable online game does require fees to play after a trial period.

Fantasy          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe

Herandez, Carlos. Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe. Disney, 2020. 978-1-368-02283-5. 423 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7. 

This sequel to Sal and Gabi Break the Universe picks up shortly after the end of the first book. Sal’s father, a calamity physicist, is convinced he has perfected the remembranation machine to close the wormholes in the multiverse created by Sal and Gabi. This is great news! So why does Sal feel so empty? Cuban-American Sal Vidón, seventh grade magician extraordinaire and his friend-who is-a-girl-but-NOT-his-girlfriend Gabi Reál knew they created chaos when they manipulated the wormholes previously. Yet something is obviously wrong. Then Gabi from another universe (dubbed Fix-It- Gabi) shows up and explains to Sal that his reaction to the activation of the remembranation machine was a result of being cut off from the multiverse. Repairing the membrane between the multiverses will actually destroy Sal’s universe, Fix-It Gabi declares. She has seen it happen in other universes. But Sal, who adores his family, can’t believe his Papí is a force of evil. On top of saving the multiverse, Sal has problems closer to home, including saving his school’s ambitious Rompenoche performance of Alice in Wonderland scheduled for Parent Night in just a week. The cast of characters in the book series is over-the-top delightful. Family dynamics are explored as Sal adjusts to his new stepmamí, and Gabi deals with a contingent of dads, male, female, and robotic. Artificially Intelligent characters, including Vorágine, the AI toilet at Sal’s school, as well as the newly aware remembranation machine add to the fun. Set in Miami, the book celebrates the vibrant city as well as Cuban culture, frequently integrating Spanish dialog. Sal’s type 1 diabetes also plays an integral part in the story, as it does in Sal’s life. The downside to all this joie de vivre can be feeling a bit like encountering a cyclone. Hernandez does not waste time with exposition. No recap or backstory is provided to bring readers up to speed. This is a delightful, clever sequel, but will work best if read immediately after the first book, while all events and characters are fresh in the reader’s mind. There are also some political allusions that feel out-of-place in a book aimed at 10-year-olds, who will likely not catch or understand the comments.

THOUGHTS: This is a riotous ride of a book that is definitely not a stand-alone. While filled with fart jokes and talking toilets, the book also addresses more serious issues such as diabetes, death, and abusive parents. Keeping up with the multiverse of characters is also challenging. Hand this series to readers who like books with humor, or use for a class read-aloud.

Science Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem. – Dandan’s Dream

Zhu, Xiaowen. Dandan’s Dream. Reycraft Books, 2020. 978-1-478-86853-8. 32 p. Grades K-2. 

Thanks to a new Post Office policy stating “that children, in addition to letters and packages, could now be mailed” a young Chinese girl sets off on an adventure to mail herself to the South Pole. Wanting to visit her father, Dandan cashes in the contents of her piggy bank and creates a new skirt composed of stamps for her voyage. Not long after, the wind carries her over the ocean where she spies a ship filled with people in peril thanks to a huge blue whale. After stopping to save the day, Dandan has to create new stamps in order to continue her journey to the land of penguins, seals, and Dad waiting in his green coat. Filled with fantasy and childlike joy, Dandan is an inspiring protagonist with spunk, creativity, and compassion. Yangling Gong’s illustrations filled with deep colors and rich texture enhance the dreamlike state of this modern day fairytale. Occasionally, emboldened and enlarged text emphasizes the storyline while brief sentences and engaging illustrations will make this a joy to read aloud.

THOUGHTS: This joyful, fantastical adventure picture book has all of the elements of a must-buy for elementary library collections.

Picture Book          Jackie Fulton, Mt. Lebanon SD

YA – These Violent Delights

Gong, Chloe. These Violent Delights. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2020. 978-1-534-45769-0. $19.99. 464 p. Grades 9-12.

“These violent delights have violent ends.” It’s 1926, and the city of Shanghai is ruled by two gangs: The White Flowers and The Scarlet Gang. Juliette Cai has just returned to the city after spending four years in America, and she’s ready to forget her past and take on the role of heir to the Scarlets. When she is approached by Roma Montagov, the White Flower heir, he insists they work together to stop a madness plaguing their city and taking the lives of members of both gangs. She reluctantly agrees, although she was betrayed by Roma in the past. Together, as they prepare to hunt down a monster, they can’t ignore the passion that still exists between them, but if their alliance is discovered by either gang, the madness will be the least of their worries, and the blood feud between the two could turn deadly.

THOUGHTS: This novel brings some exciting new aspects to William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet: 1920s flappers, the setting of Shanghai, monsters, and madness! The Scarlet Gang members are Chinese, The White Flowers are Russian, but the French and English are powerful presences in Shanghai as well, and this brings some diversity to the characters. You’ll be rooting for Roma and Juliette as they discover the secret behind the madness, and against all odds, find their way back to each other. This is perfect for readers who like action and historical fiction, as well as a bit of romance, and the ending will have them impatiently waiting for book two!

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

Juliette Cai seems to have it all as the eighteen-year-old heir to Shanghai’s revered Scarlet Gang. Juliette’s only problem seems to be her love/hate relationship with Roma Montagov, the heir of the rival gang the White Flowers. The Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers’ criminal networks operate above the law and are continually fighting, often killing each other on the spot when they accidentally cross into the other’s territory. However, a mysterious plague descends upon Shanghai, causing people from both sides to become mad and claw out their own throats. People begin whispering of a monster with glittering eyes, often seen in the water and controlling lice-like insects that burrow into people’s brains. In this retelling of Romeo and Juliet, both Juliette and Roma must put their feelings aside and work together to find the origin of this madness and stop it before Shanghai is destroyed.

THOUGHTS: With her beautiful descriptive language, author Chole Gong puts a riveting twist on a classic story in her debut novel, which promises to delight fans of the fantasy genre. Fans of fantasy sequels and trilogies will also appreciate that this story will continue in a yet-to-be-published sequel.

Fantasy          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD