YA – Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet

Kemp, Laekan Zea. Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet. Little, Brown and Company, 2021. 978-0-316-46027-9, 343 p. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet hits all the right notes for a young person’s fantasy romance. In alternating narratives, the reader follows the growing romance between talented Mexican-American chef, Penelope (Pen) Parado, and undocumented restaurant worker, Xander Amaro. Nachos Tacos is Pen’s father’s restaurant in Austin, Texas, and the salvation of the neighborhood, providing a handout or employment to many, despite the glaring threat of a ruthless loan shark, J.P. Martello. The restaurant is dear to Pen’s heart–not only because it is there she can express her culinary skills–but also because of the sense of family it represents. She is devastated when she is banished from the restaurant after confessing to her parents that she has not attended a full semester of nursing school. Traditional Mr. Parado expects his older son, Angel, to carry on the business despite Angel’s disinterest. New employee, Xander, enters the wait staff on Pen’s last day, and though some point out her brash, bossy manner, he is smitten. Eighteen-year old, independent Pen finds a cheap apartment with the help of bff Chloe and a wretched job at a Taco Bell-like establishment. In spite of her take-charge personality, Pen suffers from self esteem issues and the narrative alludes to some self-harming; she does take medication for her low moods. In addition to being undocumented, Xander is actively searching for his father who left the family when Xander was a toddler and has never attempted contact with either Xander or his own father, Xander’s guardian. As the narration asserts, each has their own scars. The chapters develop with Pen dealing positively with her complicated love-hate relationship with her father and Xander’s appreciation of his feelings of belonging to the ragtag Nacho crew. Their days revolve around working in their respective restaurants, hanging out with the other Nacho workers, food, and their romance until the restaurant’s future is in jeopardy from the menacing loan shark. This antagonist brings the needed friction for the story, culminating in a predictable conclusion that leaves the reader with admiration for the resiliency of Pen and Xander and their Latinx neighborhood.

THOUGHTS: There is nothing too deep here or too risky (Pen and Xander have some deep kisses and smoldering feelings, but nothing more; some foul language and drinking). Latinx author Kemp tells an old-fashioned love story with the typical tropes but with more interesting words and the addition of some mental health and immigration issues. Her major and minor characters are likeable and developed. One unexpected relationship is Xander’s friendship with the local police officers, despite his undocumented status. Younger teens wanting a romance or older ones looking for an escape novel will be hooked.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – The Dream Weaver

Alegre, Reina Luz. The Dream Weaver. Simon & Schuster Publishers, 2020. $17.99. 978-1-534-46231-1. Grades 5-8.

After drifting around the country following her father’s next big idea her whole life, twelve-year-old Zoey Finolio and her college-bound brother, Jose, land at the Jersey shore living with their maternal Cuban grandfather—one of the most stable homes since their mother’s death. Though Zoey loves her father, she revels in a summer at the beach, doing things most kids her age do and embraces the dream of saving Gonzo’s, her grandfather’s rundown bowling alley, from a developer. When she gets a chance to fill in as a bowler on a local team headed for a championship, Zoey sees it as an opportunity to not only savor friendship but also rejuvenate the boardwalk business. The familial relationships and friendships are nurturing and supportive throughout the book, but this book doesn’t resort to past solutions. Even after the valiant efforts of Zoey and her new friends, Pappy decides to unload the bowling alley and just manage it; Jose still wants to pursue his dream of being an engineer at college; and Zoey’s father continues to try his luck at a different job despite sacrificing his children’s stability. Zoey shows strength of character in expressing her feelings to her father and finds solace in her supportive brother, her new friends, and her new home with her beloved Pappy.

THOUGHTS: The close familial relationships and kind friend relationships are a delight to read. Zoey’s father’s behavior is abysmal and may be a form of bibliotherapy for some readers. In Chapter One, Zoey gets her period for the first time and the narrative explains her distress and how she deals with it, so using the book as a read aloud—at least the first chapter—may be uncomfortable.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Running

Sylvester, Natalia. Running. Clarion Books, 2020. 978-0-358-12435-1. $17.99. 323 p. Grades 9 and up.

Mari’s father, Anthony Ruiz, is running for President of the United States. She is proud of her father and knows he’ll make a great president, but she is not so crazy about how much his campaign and potential win will disrupt her life. Not only might he have to move to Washington, but the constant intrusion of his campaign manager, the demanding schedule of interviews and events, and cameras following her around every corner are also exhausting. In school, Jackie, the leader of a student protest group and ruthless editor of the school newspaper seems determined to embarrass Mari with an interview regarding her father’s recent comment that was insensitive to his fellow Latin American constituents. Despite everything, Mari can’t imagine not supporting her father… until she is assigned a community service project in school and finally talks to Jackie about some of the questionable policies for which her father’s campaign stands. The final straw for Mari is when she sees how his campaign platforms affect others she cares about. Like Gloria, the family’s beloved housekeeper who feels she has to hide who she is and who she loves for the sake of her boss’s conservative campaign. Like Vivi, her best friend whose grandmother is sick because of their water which was allowed to become dangerous because of her father’s own legislation. Now, not only is Mari unsure she can support her father’s campaign, but she might also have to stand up against it.

THOUGHTS: Inspired by real events in the Florida legislature in 2018, Running is an incredibly timely and important read for teens who may not see eye to eye with their loved ones when it comes to politics but are too afraid to talk about it. It manages to teach important lessons without being overly preachy. Additionally, there is no love plot in this book whatsoever, which is somewhat refreshing and worth noting as many students crave a good story without the romance, and they’re often hard to come by. A good addition to any high school collection, and a possible independent read or conversation starter in a Language Arts or Social Studies class.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

TAGS: Presidential election, campaign, student protests, family, father and daughter relationships, Miami, Latinx protagonist, environmental concerns

MG – The List of Things that Will Not Change

Staed, Rebecca. The List of Things that Will Not Change. Wendy Lamb Books, 2020. 978-1-101-93810-2. 218 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Bea was eight when her parents divorced and gave her a green notebook with a list of “Things that will not change” written into it.  The first two items on the list are that her mom and dad will always love her and each other. Bea has been adding to that list ever since getting her notebook. The thing is, lots of things in Bea’s life are changing, and being the worrier that she is, it’s not always easy to adjust. Seeing her therapist helps, as does having both parents love and support her. When her dad tells her that he and his boyfriend are getting married, Bea is filled with excitement, for her father and his boyfriend, and for herself as Jesse has a daughter that is her age.  Bea has always wanted a sister, but things aren’t as easy as Bea wishes. As the wedding gets closer, Bea comes to terms with her past secrets and the fact that things don’t always have to be perfect to be perfect for her.

THOUGHTS: A must purchase for any middle grade library collection.

Realistic Fiction                   Krista Fitzpatrick- Waldron Mercy Academy

The Islands at the End of the World

islands

Aslan, Austin.  The Islands at the End of the World.  New York: Wendy Lamb Books, 2014.  978-0-375-99145-5.  358p.  $17.99.  Gr. 7 and Up.

Sixteen-year-old Leilani is the daughter of a native Hawaiian and a professor at the University of Hawaii.  Leilani has never fit in because of her mixed heritage and her epilepsy.  At the beginning of this novel, she and her father (Mike) have traveled from the big Island of Hilo to Oahu.  Leilani will be participating in a research study for a promising new medication that might control her epilepsy, and she is hoping for a seizure-free future.  While they are in the city of Honolulu, tsunamis hit the Hawaiian Islands’ Eastern Shore.  The tsunamis are followed by a strange green “presence” in the sky.  The residents of Oahu have named this phenomenon the Emerald Orchid.  These unusual natural events are accompanied by the catastrophic failure of power and communication systems.  Native Hawaiians begin to turn on tourists in a fight for meager resources, and those who are trapped in Honolulu are moved to military-run refugee camps.  After spending weeks in the refugee camp, Mike and Leilani realize they must escape if they ever want to get home.

The journey home seems impossible.  Nothing works, and anything that does function comes at a dear price.  Leilani is running out of her epilepsy medication, and there is danger around every corner.  When Leilani has a seizure, she experiences strange dreams and hears voices.  Her experiences hint at some kind of connection between her epilepsy and what is going on in the outside world.

The Islands at the End of the World is a wonderful book in many ways.  Leilani is courageous and special, while being a typical teenager in other aspects.  The relationship between Leilani and her father is loving and filled with mutual respect.  Themes of Hawaiian religion, mythology, and culture run throughout the book and the Hawaiian language is used throughout the book, giving the story a real sense of “place”.  This is the first volume in what will be at least a two-book series, and students will certainly want to see how Leilani’s story ends.

As a word of warning, there are a few YA moments in the book including a marijuana smoking scene between father and daughter.  However, this book is so different and enjoyable; it should still be a part of your library anyway.

Science Fiction          Susan Fox, Washington Jr./Sr. High School