MG – Thanks a Lot, Universe

Lucas, Chad. Thanks a Lot, Universe. Amulet, 2021. 978-1-419-75102-8. 279 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Brian and Ezra, both 13 years old, are classmates at school, and on the same basketball team. But that’s where the similarities end. Ezra, who is biracial, appears to Brian as cool, confident, and popular, while Brian, who is white, suffers from crippling social anxiety (or Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome, as he labels it). Ezra thinks Brian seems interesting, but doesn’t go out of his way to befriend the boy until the bottom drops out of Brian’s life. On his 13th birthday, Brian awakens to discover that his father has disappeared (to evade capture by police) and his mother is unconscious from a drug overdose. In the ensuing days, Brian tries to keep his life together, after he and his younger brother, Ritchie, are placed in foster care. But eventually Brian takes Ritchie and runs away. Ezra soon gets involved in the search for Brian, and after locating the brothers, makes it his mission to befriend the young man. Along the way, Ezra is trying to understand himself as well. His circle of friends is evolving, as some of the boys become interested in girls, while Ezra is coming to terms with the fact that he is gay, and has a crush on Brian. Two well adjusted high school students provide a sounding board for both boys as they attempt to navigate the life they have been given. While racial issues are touched upon, mental health takes center stage. Brian is terrified he will be labeled “crazy” since his mother suffers with mental health issues. While these seventh grade boys are far more comfortable discussing their feelings and expressing concern for each other’s emotional well-being than your average middle schooler, the book is a marvelous, feel-good display of masculine friendship. The story, alternating between Ezra’s and Brian’s point of view, grabs hold from the opening page, and doesn’t stop until the end. Brian and Ezra are both such sympathetic characters readers will wholeheartedly root for them to find happiness. And maybe all those really nice people are what make the book so heartwarming.

THOUGHTS: Highly recommended. While there may be too many unrealistically nice people in the story, including a helpful police officer, a teacher who takes in Brian and Richie, and a pair of high school teenagers who befriend Ezra and Brian, it is worth it for the good feelings it engenders. There is no perfect ending – dad goes to prison, Ezra loses a friend, mom is still unstable – but the book still leaves you smiling. With main characters that are 13-years-old and in 7th grade, this book should have wider appeal than just middle grade. The timely issues of race and mental health make this a great fit for 7th and 8th graders. Hopefully readers will take to heart the message to befriend and understand shy kids, and to look out for each other. Perfect to pair with The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Brian, who suffers from Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome (SAWS), as he calls it, is used to having a rough time in junior high; he is a good basketball player, but feels too shy to talk to his teammates off the court. He often deals with bullying, and his dad wants him to be tougher and stand up to those who make him even more socially miserable. Then, life gets much harder when his dad suddenly leaves the family. Suddenly, Brian is taking care of his younger brother, navigating foster care, and still dealing with his social anxiety, bullies, and every-day adolescent stress. Luckily, a support system shows up to help when Ezra, a teammate from basketball, and a group of caring adults step in. Meanwhile, Ezra is dealing with uncomfortable tension between his childhood best friends, his growing interest in music and playing the guitar, and his changing feelings about boys.

THOUGHTS: This is a beautiful story about supportive friends in times of struggle. The characters in the story experience the difficulties of growing up and demonstrate the positive influences that good people and good friends can have during a teen’s formative years. This book also portrays several positive coming-out experiences and sensitively handles the struggles of a LGBTQ+ teen.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – The Life I’m In

Flake, Sharon G. The Life I’m In. Scholastic Press, 2021. $18.99. 978-1-338-57317-6. Grades 9-12.

In Sharon G. Flake’s best selling novel, The Skin I’m In, Charlese–Char–Jones is the confident bully wreaking havoc on the life of the diffident and vulnerable Maleeka. In The Life I’m In, African-American Char appears as the main character, still inwardly grieving for the loss of her beloved parents, and continuing to make bad decisions. Her older sister and guardian, Juju, has begun to get her life together–stopping the house parties and securing a job in a bank–and needs Char–sixteen and a seventh-grade drop out–to live with their grandparents in Alabama. At the start of this reluctant bus trip, Char is flippant and rude, comical and outspoken. The passengers are alternately annoyed and amused by her unself- conscious antics. When young, white mother, April gets on the bus with her three-month old biracial baby, Char’s maternal instincts urge her to assist April. Bound for a job, April shows the distressed signs of living rough on the streets. To provide for her child, she sells narcotics and sexual favors to truck drivers; she suppresses suspicion about this new employment that requires she pay for the position. When April disembarks the bus with baby Cricket in tow, naive Char decides she will go out on her own and not continue to Alabama. Thinking it is temporary, she volunteers to take care of Cricket when April’s aunt never shows up at the bus station and well-dressed and smooth talking Anthony arrives as April’s ride to Florida. Char enlists all her resources to persuade a hotel proprietor to rent her a suite; she figures out and procures the necessary baby supplies with the money from Juju; she contacts Juju and even the newly reconciled Maleeka to tell them of her actions if not her whereabouts. Char may talk a good game, but she is young, inexperienced, and a virgin. When Char’s funds dwindle and her efforts to find work are hindered by her motherly duties, she runs into Anthony again and, in an attempt to save Cricket, finds herself a victim of sex trafficking. Author Flake describes the depravity of Char’s existence during this time delicately, but does not stint on the truth. Char receives some solace in the community of other girls in Anthony’s pack, who seem to be of different races and backgrounds. When she eventually escapes and is reunited with Juju, Char needs the help of not only her sister, but also Maleeka, her former teacher, Ms. Saunders, and professionals to survive the trauma and feel truly free. The fluid text reflects Char’s actual voice, and her first-person narration gives an intense look into her complex feelings and her maturity as she tries to survive under egregious conditions. Although the stress and suffering Char conveys is painful to read about, readers will find this a compelling book.

THOUGHTS: This is a harsh story to tell, and Sharon Flake tells it well. The book serves as a mirror for those who have suffered sexual abuse or trauma of any kind as well as a window into the lives of people who have experienced homelessness and poverty. The reader leaves feeling not pity but understanding and an admiration for the resilience and effort exerted by trauma victims. It acts as a call for all to refrain from rash judgements and to be kind. Char’s second escape from Anthony seems contrived (would the driver wait for Char as she says good-bye to Maleeka?); however, readers will be rooting for the happy ending.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – Tune it Out

Sumner, Jamie. Tune It Out. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-534-45700-3.  275 p. $15.67. Grades 3-6.

Lou doesn’t like crowds. She doesn’t like loud noises. She doesn’t even like high fives and definitely hates anyone touching her. Unfortunately for Lou, avoiding all of these is difficult when her mother wants Lou to use her singing talent to take them away from their life of coffee shop singing gigs and dead-end waitress jobs to the bright lights and jet-setting life of Los Angeles that would come with a singing contract. And they almost made it. The trip to LA was planned for Friday, but the accident happened on Wednesday, and now Lou was separated from her mother and sent to live with her aunt and uncle, people she barely knows. But she has her own bedroom there. Clean clothes, food whenever she’s hungry, and a private school to attend.  Lou’s worked hard her whole life to hide what was inside her. Will this new life give her the opportunity to face the truth about the life she and her mother were living and about the diagnosis that could change the way she feels about herself?

THOUGHTS: Sumner gives the reader a lot to unpack in a tight 275 pages–homelessness, poverty, foster care, and a sensory processing disorder, but it never feels unrealistic or overdone.  Readers will root for Lou as she makes her way in the world.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

Upper Elem/MS – Pottymouth & Stoopid; Beach Party Surf Monkey; Genevieve’s War; Ban this Book

Patterson, James and Chris Grabenstein. Pottymouth and Stoopid. Little, Brown and Company, 2017. 978-0-316-34963-5. $13.99. 305 p. Gr. 3-6.

Michael and David have been best friends since preschool. Both have corrosive nicknames bestowed on them by cruel peers and thoughtless teachers. David was tagged as Stoopid in preschool; Michael, due to his penchant for inventing outrageous words, was dubbed Pottymouth by a substitute teacher in third grade. Now the two boys, along with their friend Anna, suffer through school, tormented by their classmates and scorned by teachers for their over-the-top imagination and restlessness. But everything changes when a new TV show airs, based on the antics of the boys and their friends. Even though the show is wildly popular, it only aggravates tensions at school, until David learns his “ex-dad” is behind the show. Eventually, the boys achieve fame for all nerds and see the bullies cut down. Both boys come from challenging home lives; Michael is in foster care, and it is eventually revealed they both test as geniuses, causing trouble because they are bored in school. Teachers and administrators are uniformly portrayed as incompetent at best, cruel at worst. But students will love the potty humor and sweet revenge of the story. THOUGHTS: Patterson and Grabenstein know how to write to their audience.  While many parts of the book made me cringe, young readers will relate and thoroughly enjoy the book.  A great step up for Captain Underpants fans.

Realistic Fiction; Humor     Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

 

Grabenstein, Chris. Beach Party Surf Monkey. Random House, 2017. 978-0-553-53610-2. $13.99. 301 p. Gr. 3-6.

Entertainer extraordinaire and part-time detective P.T. Wilkie is back in this second entry to Chris Grabenstein’s Welcome to Wonderland series. P.T. and his friend Gloria are on a mission to have a new beach party revival movie filmed at his family’s St. Pete Beach, Florida, motel. The pair prove successful, but that’s when the real problems start. The teen pop idol star can’t act and has no chemistry with his Oscar-winning female costar. Plus, someone is out to sabotage the movie. Could it be the owner of the mega-hotel next store who is pressuring P.T.’s mom to sell the Wonderland Motel? P.T. and Gloria have their hands full trying to keep the movie on schedule, determine the culprit behind the dirty deeds, and control You-Tube star Kevin the Monkey. Can the creative pair of friends save the movie and the motel?  THOUGHTS: A delightfully fun read from funny guy Grabenstein. Hijinks and mayhem abound, and will keep students entertained to the last page.

Realistic Fiction, Mystery     Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

 

Giff, Patricia Reilly. Genevieve’s War. Holiday House, 2017. 978-0-8234-3800-6. $16.95. 222p. Gr. 4-8.

Genevieve and her brother, Andre, were spending the summer of 1939 with their Alsatian grandmother at her farm in France near the German border. Andre leaves early to return home to the States, but when it is time for Genevieve to leave, she surprises herself by impulsively deciding to stay. Genevieve was not particularly drawn to her dour grandmother, but she is concerned for the elderly woman on the eve of the German invasion. The two become dependent on each other as German troops establish themselves in the town and a German officer billets himself at the farmhouse. As time passes, Genevieve and her grandmother grow close as they attempt to eke out an existence in the ravaged village, and Genevieve learns about the father she never knew. The stakes become even higher when Genevieve hides an injured member of the resistance in their attic. THOUGHTS : A beautifully crafted, suspenseful story that immerses the reader in daily life in wartime France deftly conveying the suspicion that takes over the community as no one knows who to trust.

Historical Fiction     Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

 

Gratz, Alan. Ban This Book. Tom Doherty, 2017. 978-0-7653-8556-7. $15.99. 243 p. Gr. 3-6.

Quiet fourth grader Amy Anne is appalled to learn her favorite book, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, has been banned from her school library. A classmate’s mother felt the book promoted lying, stealing, and running away from home, and the school board vindicated her claim. Amy Anne goes to the board meeting but is too shy to speak up. Soon additional books disappear from the library. Starting a one-girl protest, she begins to read the banned books, then shares them with her classmates. Soon, the Banned Book Locker Library is born with the illicit books quietly passed around the school. Unfortunately, when the library is discovered, the school librarian is fired. The students come up with an ingenious plan to fight back and show the parent, as well as the school board, the innate folly of banning books. THOUGHTS: All librarians should treat themselves to this book (it’s dedicated to librarians) with Gratz’s knowledgeable treatment of the school book banning issue. For students, it’s a great introduction to the topic. The book contains a Reading and Activity Guide in the back, making it great for a classroom read-aloud or lit circle.

Realistic Fiction     Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD