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 – 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

Elem. – No Pants!

Grant, Jacob. No Pants! Viking, 2021. 978-0-593-11766-8. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PreK-1.

It’s party day for Pablo and his father, but first, he must get ready. Pablo eats breakfast, brushes his teeth, uses the bathroom, and washes his hands; all that’s left to do is get dressed, and then Pablo and his father can go to the party, but Pablo does not want to wear pants! His father explains that everyone wears pants, and Pablo needs to wear pants to go to the party. After pushing his father to the edge, Pablo finally puts on pants, but now his father is missing his pants!

THOUGHTS: This is a humorous look at a common disagreement between parents and children: clothes and getting dressed. Readers will connect with either Pablo (not wanting to wear pants) or his father (needing to leave and having an uncooperative child). As Pablo’s father tries to get him to put his pants on and explains that everyone wears pants, Pablo pushes him to his breaking point (as many parents will understand). Jacob Grant uses bright paper, pencil, and digital illustrations to bring Pablo to life. This is a fun, universal addition to any picture book collection.

Picture Book        Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

YA – Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story)

Nayeri, Daniel. Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story). Levine Querido, 2020. 346 p. 978-1-646-14000-8. $17.99.  Grades 7-12.

When Khosrou’s (Daniel’s) physician mother converts to Christianity in the 1980’s, she endangers her life because of the Iranian government’s restrictions on religion. His father, a jovial, loquacious dentist covertly obtains the proper paperwork for escape, then drops off his eight-year-old son and twelve-year-old daughter, Dina, at the airport as his wife starts a journey that will take the threesome to Dubai, Italy, and finally, Oklahoma. Daniel Nayeri’s Printz Award-winning book, Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story), telling how his family turned from comfortable, wealthy land owners to battered, poor refugees can be summed up in these few sentences; but the flow of the chapter-less pages weaves a tale likened to the much admired, Scheherazade of 1,001 Nights. The paragraphs describing memories of Daniel’s (no one in America can pronounce Khosrou!) grandparents’ home and his parents’ relationship spin into beloved Persian legends and myths and wind up next to pages relating the harsher daily existence he experiences in Oklahoma. Daniel is at the center of a maelstrom as the cover depicts, a twelve-year-old boy with different tastes in foods and specific hygienic customs, wanting to fit in yet also wanting to hold on to the Persian culture he cherishes. A son with vivid recollections who longs for the warmth of his biological father, but is resigned to live with his stern, abusive Farsi- speaking step-father whom his mother marries and keeps remarrying for companionship and convenience, despite the beatings she suffers. As Daniel narrates his life tale with casual familiarity, the reader learns of the ancient heritage of Iran and its reverence and love of story, his difficulties adjusting to each stage of the refugee journey, and his impressions of Americans and life here. Most of all, the story is a tribute to the perseverance and unconditional love of his mother, Sima. In the refugee hotel of Italy instead of lolling around all day waiting for the call to emigrate, she makes a connection with a Texan woman living in Rome who home schools her own children and arranges for Daniel and Dina to share in the lessons even though Sima has to spend hours erasing the answers from the host children’s cast-off notebooks so that Daniel and Dina can use them. Her determination and dignity to make life good for her son and daughter are evident in that scene. Told not as a memoir, but as a work of fiction—for as the narrator tells us, it is not so simple to sort out fact from fiction when dealing with one’s memories—Daniel delivers the truth of his life as he remembers it with humor and charm and not a bit of self-pity. Shifting from present to far past to recent past, he shares his varied observations, thus preserving his precious legacy of storytelling, made up or real, or a mixture of both.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: Like the coveted cream puffs described in one of Nayeri’s tales, this book is a treat for those who appreciate a different writing style and matchless imagery. There are bits of scatological references—the unhappy affect of a first-time encounter with Sloppy Joes and negotiating a toilet with a bidet—but the targeted audience may appreciate and even empathize with Daniel’s situations. Written with a truly inimitable voice, this work is unlike any book for middle grade or young adult this reader has encountered. Recommend to students who love words or like to write, to those new to a place, or those needing to understand another perspective.

MG – Clean Getaway

Stone, Nic. Clean Getaway. Crown Books for Children, 2020. 978-1-984-89297-3. $16.99. 240 p. Grades 6-8.

Nic Stone is typically a popular young adult writer (Dear Martin, Dear Justyce). Her debut in the middle school arena is the realistic, first-person narrative, Clean Getaway. William aka “Scoob” Lamar gets grounded when he shares a computer hack and plans to stay in his entire spring vacation. Until… his G’ma–grandmother–shows up in a RV she purchased with the profit from selling her house and asks him to accompany her on a road trip. Without telling his father, Will becomes G’ma’s wingman on this memorable ride retracing the route G’ma and his deceased grandfather Jimmy took from Georgia through the rest of the South during the segregated sixties. The pair follow the Green Book, a listing of acceptable accommodations for people of color. Will’s grandparents had the added burden of being a mixed race couple, against the law in many states at the time. Will experiences his African-American heritage firsthand, visiting important markers of the struggle for Civil Rights. At first, he is excited for the chance to share this adventure with his beloved grandmother, but then he notices G’ma’s strange behavior: she dines and dashes; switches license plates; steals jewelry. He discovers some things that make him suspect something else is afoot, but can’t quite connect the dots or even reach out to his father because G’ma keeps hiding or ditching their one cell phone. What keeps him going is the revealing conversations he has with his funny and candid G’ma. He realizes how much she loves her long incarcerated husband and suspects that his father may not be fair in his complete rejection of him. The pair’s joy ride comes to a halt when G’ma falls ill, but the experience prompts Will to question the absence of his own mother and the image of his grandfather and rejuvenates his relationship with his sometimes-distant father. Though not a difficult read lexile-wise, Clean Getaway does bring up serious issues of race, inequity, and discrimination. Nic Stone has proven she is a master storyteller for middle school students as well.

THOUGHTS: The intergenerational experience lends itself to history lessons of the Civil Rights era. The discrimination Will’s grandparents encountered in the sixties can be compared with the same displays of implicit bias Will and G’ma feel in their present-day travels. The reason for the grandfather’s imprisonment is also steeped in racial injustice and inequity. Will has little contact with his mother because she abandoned him as a baby–addiction is implied–but Will’s father is reluctant to have her re-enter twelve-year-old Will’s life just like he turned his back on Jimmy, his own father. This situation as well as the racism that necessitated the Green Book lays open talk about forgiving past wrongs, both personal and institutional. 

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Meet 11 year old William Lamar, aka Scoob. Unable to stay out of trouble at school, spring break is looking pretty boring. Until Scoob’s grandmother shows up and convinces Scoob to come along on an impromptu road trip across the American South in her RV. Scoob soon finds out that this trip is a re-creation of one his grandmother, who is white, and his African American grandfather took years ago. The South is changed since then, but G-ma’s crazy maps, her Traveler’s Greenbook (an African American guide to traveling safely in the 1960s), her changing of the license plate on the RV, and her refusal to take Scoob’s dad’s calls is adding up to some uneasy feelings the longer the trip continues. Add in the discovery that his G-ma may be a jewel thief, and Scoob is wishing he stayed home for that boring break!

THOUGHTS: Nic Stone’s first middle grade novel is an excellent read and one that readers will enjoy. There is enough historical fiction to peak the interest of the middle grade readers while satisfying the adventure reader as well.

Realistic Fiction                    Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

YA – Just Our Luck

Walton, Julia. Just Our Luck. Random House. 2020,  978-0-399-55092-8. $17.99. 272 p. Grades 9-12.

Leonidas –Leo- quirky knitter and sensitive photographer, has been successful staying under the radar for most of his high school years. Then Drake Gibbons a wise-cracking, hyperactive jock punches him, and their consequences are enduring each others’ company in the counselor’s office until they become amicable. Leo’s mother died years ago and now with his Greek grandmother Yia Yia’s death, the silence in their Greek household is deafening and the relationship between him and his father even more distant. When his father insists his gentle son take a martial arts course to improve his pugilistic skills, Leo gets scared off and signs up for a yoga master certification course. Turns out, the person taking his registration is Evey Paros, from another Greek family who just happened to have cursed Leo’s many generations ago. Though she seems aloof, Evey has her own agenda. She’s been wronged by the biggest, richest, most popular dude at school, Jordan Swansea. After their breakup, Jordan sent out nude pictures of Evey over social media. She enlists Leo as her assistant in wreaking revenge. What ensues is a light romance with a touch of humor. Leo unexpectedly finds love, friends, and self confidence. A bonus is that Evey, too, finds a powerful alternative to thwarting Jordan besides sophomoric pranks.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, SD Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: Librarians should be aware this quick read has a lot of curses and little diversity (Drake’s girlfriend Jenn seems to be Latinx). However, the characters are humorous, and the plot discusses generalized anxiety, a condition today’s teens may recognize. Both Leo and Evey also have an interest in writing, and Leo delivers his first-person narrative in journal format. Pull for reluctant readers.

New Kid

newkid

Green, Tim. New Kid. New York: Harper, 2014. 978-0-06-220872-9. 307 p. $16.99. Gr. 5-8.

Brock Nickerson is the new kid. Last week his name wasn’t even Brock Nickerson. He only has his father left; his mother was killed. His father is very secretive about what he does for a living, but it keeps him moving to a new place and gaining a new identity every few years. The last time, his father pulled him out of his last at bat during a championship baseball game. Brock doesn’t ask much of his father. He wonders what his father does for a living, and he is often left alone, but his father is very unapproachable. Brock has a gift when it comes to pitching. He can throw some serious heat. Coach Hudgens notices this and invites Brock to come to his house and throw a few pitches. He then asks Brock to play on his travel team. Brock has a hard time convincing his father to allow him to play, but he finally gives in after meeting Coach Hudgens and his wife. Brock has some issues pitching, but Barrett Malone, a big league player gives him some pointers. Brock’s father shows up at his game during his last at-bat and wants to pull him out. Brock finally stands up to his father and asks to finish the game. What Brock doesn’t realize is that the game may cost him more than he is willing to give.

This is a book about baseball; I could feel myself in the stands, cheering for the team. I could see myself as a coach, realizing that something was missing from Brock’s life and wanting to help fill the void. It is about relationships, family and tough choices. It could easily be used to help students develop setting in their stories. Tim Green’s descriptions are vivid and lifelike. I felt like I was there with Brock.

Realistic; Sports    Kathy Gilbride North Pocono MS and HS