YA – The New Girl

Sutanto, Jesse. The New Girl. Sourcebooks, 2022. 350 p. $10.99 (paper) 978-1-728-21519-8. Grades 9-12. 

Thanks to her running speed on the track, Lia Setiawan has been given a full scholarship to prestigious Draycott Academy, and she is determined to prove she deserves it. But the school is full of extremely wealthy young people–think private jets, designer drugs, and racist, elitist attitudes. Because she begins mid-year after the dismissal of the outspoken drug-addicted Sophie, she finds few people to welcome her.  Draycott’s dirt app closely follows every student, and students anonymously post about everyone and everything (which isn’t about to end well). It turns out that Sophie had complaints about unfair grading practices of English instructor Mr. Werner, and Mr. Werner very pointedly informs Lia she does not belong in his class. Lia insists on staying in the class only to find herself failing dismally despite extreme diligence to the classwork.  She begins to suspect that some students have paid Mr. Werner for their grades, and she knows she’ll never be able to do that, and her track scholarship depends on her grades. Lia instantly connects with the drool-worthy Danny, who is another reason to fight for her place. But the dirt, the revenge, and the drugs begin to take their toll, and when Lia is the one to find Sophie dead in Mr. Werner’s office, she realizes that she needs to play the game even harder if she’s going to win–or live.

THOUGHTS: Like Sutanto’s The Obsession (2021), this novel features characters who can and will go to extremes to hide, succeed, and get revenge. By the novel’s end, nearly every character has a twisted secret revealed. And after the death Lia causes, tension rises to see if she will be revealed, too.  A good choice for suspense addicts.  

Mystery          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Realistic Fiction

Elem. – Beyond the Burrow

Meserve, Jessica. Beyond the Burrow. Peachtree. 2022. 978-1-682-63375-5. $17.99. Grades K-2.

Rabbits are animals that like to be near their home called a burrow. Rabbits prefer to be safe, cozy, and to stick with what they know. They know they enjoy sleeping, hopping, carrots, and staying away from things that are dangerous or have claws, horns, scales, feathers, or hooves. When little Rabbit stretched for a carrot that was just out of reach, she tumbled and fell into a hole that wasn’t hers and continued to tumble away from her burrow. Terrified and alone, Rabbit did the only thing she knew how – she hopped away until she was even more alone, cold, and frightened. Will Rabbit be able to overcome her very not-rabbit day? Will she gain bravery and learn something new or discover her way home, or will something even more not-rabbit happen to her?

THOUGHTS: An adorable illustrated book about bravery, trying new things, and making friends along the way. Young readers will enjoy watching Rabbit as she grows into a whole new type of rabbit!

Picture Book          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

Elem. – I’m Not Scared, YOU’RE Scared

Meyers, Seth. I’m Not Scared, YOU’RE Scared! Illustrated by Rob Sayegh, Jr. Flamingo Books, 2022. Unpaged. 978-0-593-35237-3. Grades K-3. $18.99.

Despite his size, Bear is scared of just about everything, including his own reflection. Rabbit, on the other hand, likes to read scary stories. Though they have their differences, Bear and Rabbit are friends, and when Rabbit announces that they’re going on an adventure Bear suggests a book instead because “if anything goes wrong, we can just close the book.” Bear prepares for their adventure with a bike helmet, oven mitts, and bear repellent spray, but Rabbit assures him he’ll need none of those things. As Bear and Rabbit approach a small stream, the edge of the woods, a mountain, and a long rope bridge, Bear looks for ways to avoid his fears. At each obstacle, Rabbit asks, “Bear, are you scared?” and Bear replies “I’m not scared, you’re scared!” At the long, old, rickety bridge, Bear finally acknowledges his fears and heads home. Rabbit remains, determined to prove that Bear ‘s fears are over nothing. But when Rabbit gets into trouble, he’ll need his scared friend to come to his rescue. Will Bear be able to face his fears to help save his friend, or will Bear’s fears prevent him from helping Rabbit? Sayegh’s illustrations, made with digital brushes and scanned textures and photographs, bring the characters to life and highlight the emotions they’re feeling in the various settings.

THOUGHTS: This sweet story by comedian Seth Meyers will resonate with young readers who may have “irrational” fears. Use this title to talk about fear, courage, and being a supportive friend. Recommended for elementary collections.

Picture Book          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem. – The Great Zapfino

Barnett, Mac. The Great Zapfino. Beach Lane Books, 2022. Unpaged. 978-1-534-41154-8. Grades 1-3. $17.99.

In this nearly wordless picture book, Barnett has created a likable character named Zapfino who works as a high diving artist in the circus. As the story begins, the ringmaster announces that Zapfino will dive from a height of ten stories into a trampoline. The performer, wearing a cape monogrammed with a Z, climbs up a very tall ladder, but then seems tentative about jumping and simply disappears. Zapfino is next seen purchasing an airplane ticket to a coastal destination. He finds a job as an elevator operator in an apartment building located on a beach with palm trees. As a perk, he is given a room on the 10 ½ floor. Up and down in the elevator goes Zapfino, who finds himself very tired at the end of the day. While waiting for his toast to pop up, he falls asleep and wakes up to heavy black smoke. Fire engines arrive, and his only way out is to jump from the tenth floor into the fire rescue trampoline. Can he overcome his fear of heights and take the plunge? Marla Frazee’s charming drawings were created with black pencil. The illustrator depicts Zapfino as a small unassuming man, whose smile does not appear until the end of the story. The apartment building is drawn in the Art Moderne style, and the elevator passengers are shown in small multi-panel displays. A drawing on the back cover puts a finishing touch on the story.

THOUGHTS: This is a simple and engaging text about overcoming fears. Children will be fascinated by the tiny panels which reveal the personalities and interests of the residents. The trim size (31 cm. x 18 cm.) is a great vehicle for creating the illusion of height. Highly recommended for elementary collections.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

MG – The List of Unspeakable Fears

Kramer, J. Kasper. The List of Unspeakable Fears. Atheneum, 2021. 978-1-534-48074-2. 273 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Essie O’Neill has experienced a lot in her ten years. Life in New York City in 1910 can be hazardous. After the death of her beloved Da, Essie becomes more and more fearful of things both ordinary and extraordinary, to the point where her life is severely curtailed. When her mother suddenly announces that she has remarried and she and Essie will be moving, with her new husband, to North Brother Island, Essie’s fears go into overdrive. North Brother Island is an isolation ward for individuals with incurable diseases, such as smallpox. Once installed on the island, Essie’s night terrors grow worse and she becomes convinced there is a ghostly presence in the house. She fears her new stepfather, a doctor at the quarantine hospital, certain he is responsible for the disappearance of many nurses who work on the island. But maybe Essie has reason to be afraid. Why does her stepfather roam the island in the middle of the night? Who is opening her locked bedroom door? And then there is the island’s most famous resident: Typhoid Mary. This pint-sized gothic tale contains plenty of moments to give young readers delightful shivers, but also weaves in a fascinating historical foundation, including life on North Brother Island, Typhoid Mary’s fight to leave her forced quarantine on the island, and the horrific fire aboard the steamboat General Slocum. Themes of the story touch on dealing with grief and the death of a parent, overcoming traumatic experiences, and the universal childhood frustration of not being taken seriously by adults. Essie’s patient stepfather proves endearingly adept at treating Essie with respect and providing the guidance she needs to find a path to recovery.

THOUGHTS: This just-spooky-enough story, with twists and turns, should captivate readers, who will sympathize with Essie’s fears and frustrations.

Mystery          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Your Heart, My Sky

Engle, Margarita. Your Heart, My Sky. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 208 pp. 978-1-5344-64964 $18.99 Grades 9-12.

Engle focuses on a difficult time in Cuba’s history lived through by her own relatives. Euphemistically named by the government as “the special period in times of peace,” the 1990s are in reality a time of starvation. Strict rules keep Cubans from growing their own food; U.S. embargo limits trade; and most recently, Russia has dropped its promised support of the Communist nation, leaving commoners struggling for daily food and afraid to speak out, knowing that retribution comes in the form of limited opportunities, fewer rations, prison or death. Two young people, Liana and Amado, find their hunger gives them strength to defy the government-required summer volunteer work, even as they dread the consequences. Amado’s older brother is in prison for speaking out against the government. Liana is befriended by a ‘singing dog’ Paz who becomes her daily companion in search of food, and the dog brings her and Amado together. The two fall in love and consider their limited future options. Leave the island for the dangerous attempt to reach Miami? Or remain in their homeland to share and fight the deprivation with loved ones? Engle’s beautiful verse, and switching between Liana, Amado, and Paz’s voices, gives this novel depth and richness. 

THOUGHTS: Moving words bring to life this time of desperation.       

Historical Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – Playing with Fire

Henry, April. Playing with Fire. Henry Holt & Co., 2021. 978-1-250-23406-3. 225 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

A gorgeous day in Portland. An idyllic waterfall. A boy who is interested in you – what could possibly go wrong? Natalia and coworker Wyatt are just wrapping up an afternoon hike at Basin Falls when a loud pop shatters the peace. Shortly after a man goes running by, and the smell of smoke drifts in the air. In the blink of an eye Natalia’s worst fear is coming true, again. A fire is raging in the forest and now Natalia, Wyatt, and a dozen other people are trapped. Using Wyatt’s map and skills and Natalia’s medical training, the pair help navigate the motley crew through the forest as the fire chases them. As the night progresses, Natalia will face her fears while helping a burn victim, someone having a panic attack, and someone with a dislocated knee. But when a bridge prevents the troop from escape, will Natalia have the courage to overcome her demons and make up for past mistakes?

THOUGHTS: A fast paced read, Henry does not disappoint with this novel! The characters are well developed and the story follows a clear timeline. Readers get a glimpse into Natalia’s past and how her fear of fire plays such a critical role in helping others. Students who enjoy adventure stories like Hatchet will love Playing with Fire!

Adventure Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Grades 6-12.

Seventeen year old Natalia lives in Portland near beautiful hiking trails, but she’s never been hiking. She was sick – sedated in a hospital – the week of Outdoor School, where most fifth graders stay in cabins in the woods. Her Dairy Barn co-worker Wyatt is determined to right this wrong, and he takes Natalia on a hike up to see a beautiful waterfall overlook. At 6:24 pm they’re on the way down when they hear a loud pop, probably someone firing a rifle in the Gorge, Wyatt explains. Natalia notices the smell of smoke which Wyatt connects to the local Cougar Creek fire as he explains the dangers of the tinder dry woods. Thirty minutes later they approach the bottom of the trail where to their horror the very woods they need to pass through are engulfed in flames. Natalia has avoided even the smallest birthday candle for the past six years. With no cell service and few other options, Natalia and Wyatt begin to hike back up the trail to find a new exit. Warning people to return to the falls on their way back up, Natalia is reminded of her little brother. When a helicopter drops a rock with a note that says, “Fire spreading….Extreme danger.” the group needs to come together to survive. With a variety of personalities and skills and few supplies, will they make it to Sky Bridge before they’re rescued, or will the fire reach them first?

THOUGHTS: Taking a slightly different approach to her typical “missing girl” stories, Henry strikes gold with this fast-paced thriller. A must purchase for middle and high school libraries, especially where Henry books are popular, adventure/thriller fans will zip through and request another.

Adventure Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem. – Raj’s Rule (For the Bathroom at School)

Button, Lana. Raj’s Rule (For the Bathroom at School). Owlkid, 2020. 978-1-771-47340-8. Unpaged. $17.95. Grades PreK-1. 

Young Raj has a rule: He does not use the bathroom at school. Of course, this is a gigantic challenge, and requires a lot of strategy. But he’s happy to share his knowledge: avoid any intake of liquids; avoid the sound of running water; avoid laughing (because you KNOW what might happen then!). But one day, when Raj is desperately holding it, he is undone by an unavoidable sneeze and flees to the bathroom. To his surprise, he successfully completes his mission, and his phobia is gone. Now, his school day is so much fuller, and he gleefully partakes in all the activities he had assiduously avoided, including belly laughing at classmate Kyle’s goofy antics. The story, told via speech bubbles filled with rhyming text, is amplified by Hatem Aly’s vivid cartoon-like illustrations. Raj’s classroom is lively, and his classmates diverse, all drawn with satisfying attention to detail. The topic may address a fear felt by first time school students, but will also be sure to elicit giggles from older students who can sympathize with having to “hold it,” for whatever reason.

THOUGHTS: While not a first purchase, the book will undoubtedly be read by young students who enjoy bathroom humor.

Picture Book          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem. – The Shark Report (Benny McGee and the Shark Book 1)

Anderson, Derek. The Shark Report (Benny McGee and the Shark Book 1). Penguin Workshop, 2020. 978-0-593-09338-2. 64 p. $15.99. Grades 1-3.

Benny McGee is scared of swimming in the ocean because of sharks. He knows a lot about sharks because he is learning about them for a school report. When a shark appears at his house, Benny doesn’t know what to do. His father suggests Benny invite the shark in, so he does, thus beginning his friendship with the shark. When Benny’s shark report is due and he realizes he never wrote it, he decides to take Mr. Chompers with him to school as his report. But, Benny forgot today is also the day the deep-sea fisherman is scheduled to visit his class.  When the deep-sea fisherman sees Mr. Chompers, Benny must decide which is more important: his report or his new friend.

THOUGHTS: This early chapter book is a fun, fact-filled read.  Anderson includes lots of accurate information about sharks while keeping the narrative light-hearted. Emerging readers will enjoy Mr. Chomper’s shenanigans while also connecting with Benny’s fears and how he overcomes them. Book 2 of Benny McGee and the Shark, We are Famous, is also available now.

Early Chapter Book          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

Elem. – Tiny T. Rex and the Very Dark Dark

Stutzman, Jonathan. Tiny T. Rex and the Very Dark Dark. Ill. Jay Fleck. Chronicle Books, 2020. 978-1-4521-7034-3. Unpaged. $15.99. Gr. PreK-1.

Tiny T. Rex and his best friend, Pointy, are ready for their first campout.  There’s just one problem; both are afraid of the dark. Inside the dark isn’t quite so dark, but outside the dark is DARK! Together, Rex and Pointy devise a plan to keep them safe from the Grumbles, Nom-bies, and Crawly-creeps that lurk in the dark. But, when their plan doesn’t go quite right, Rex and Pointy learn to open their eyes and see the light in their fear of the dark.

THOUGHTS: This second installment in the Tiny T. Rex series shares a common fear amongst children: fear of the dark. Through make-believe creatures, Rex and Pointy confront their fear and learn to be brave in the face of fear. The illustrations represent the dark well through dark backgrounds and bright characters, pjs (Pointy’s are specially made to cover his spikes), and various items when the friends are outside, and bright, light images when they are indoors devising their plan. The theme of working together to confront fear is prominent but not overshadowing of the actual fear children face in the dark. This is a great story to help children face their fears.

*Jonathan Stutzman is a PA author who lives in Palymra.

Picture Book        Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD