YA FIC – Wild Beauty; Language of Thorns; Optimists Die First; The List

McLemore, Anna-Marie. Wild Beauty. New York: Feiwel & Friends, 2017. 978-1-250-122455-5. 352 p. $17.99. Gr. 8 and up.

Anna Marie-McLemore has become the undisputed queen of Magical Realism.  Her third book in as many years, Wild Beauty, is even more nuanced, sophisticated, and breathtakingly beautiful than her first two novels, and that is saying quite a lot.  Wild Beauty describes this story perfectly; it is a story about a family of women who have the ability – a compulsion, really – to grow flowers simply by reaching into the soil and willing them into existence.  As with all good stories, however, it is much more complex. Up until about a century ago, the Nomeolvides women had been persecuted, hunted, shunned, or killed because of their gifts. When they are offered sanctuary at La Pradera on the estate of the wealthy Briar family, they take it gratefully. It comes with a price, of course: the Nomeolvides women can never leave; if they try to escape, or outrun their destiny, they will die. La Pradera also takes their lovers; if a Nomeolvides woman loves someone too hard, they disappear. The current generation of cousins, Estrella, Azalea, Gloria, Calla, and Dalia, are all in love with the same girl, Bay Briar, and they are determined to keep her from disappearing. When they make a sacrifice to the land, the land gives them back a boy, a boy who can’t remember how he got there, where he came from, or who he is. This is a story of love, betrayal, heartbreak, jealousy, but above all, family, and the lengths one will go to to protect those she loves. Thoughts: Every page of Wild Beauty is a sensuous, tactile, graceful dance, and while the steps can be challenging, it is absolutely well worth the effort.

Magical Realism      Lauren Friedman-Way, The Baldwin School


Bardugo, Leigh. The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic. New York: Macmillan, 2017. 978-1250122520. 288 p. $18.99. Gr. 8 and up.

Leigh Bardugo reimagines classic tales in her newest collection of stories, The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic. Each of the six stories are set in Bardugo’s Grishaverse, but readers don’t have to be familiar with that world in order to understand or appreciate them.  There is something warm and familiar about each, but with a dark, and often subversive, twist to them; these are stories meant to be read aloud around a roaring fire on a blustery evening; the lovely and whimsical illustrations by Sara Kipin add to the magic, as well. Every story here is a gem, but there are two standouts.  “Amaya and the Thorn Wood” is a spin on the Minotaur myth, with a hint of “Beauty and the Beast.” Bardugo does a wonderful job playing with rhythm, repetition, and pacing; as it’s a story about a storyteller, it’s cleverly done. It is a story of two outcasts, both of whom are ostracized because of their looks, and both of whom are second-fiddle to their more attractive, more talented siblings. Through a shared love of stories, they redefine the idea of a “happy ending.” “The Witch of Duva,” a take on “Hansel and Gretel,” challenges the tropes of the evil stepmother, and the child-snatching witch, and explores the ways in which women mistrust each other; it is richly told, and Bardugo once again utilizes repetition to great effect. The ending is exceedingly disturbing, but will hopefully imbue a sense of caution to any young person who reads it; at the very least, it will leave a lasting impression. A common thread throughout the book is the complexity and diversity of women; each tale forces the reader to confront their own preconceived notions of how women should behave. Thoughts: Give this to lovers of fairy tales, self-proclaimed feminists, and anyone who needs a wake-up call about a woman’s place in society.

Fantasy     Lauren Friedman-Way, The Baldwin School


Nielsen, Susin. Optimists Die First. New York: Wendy Lamb Books, 2017. 978-0-553-49690-1. 240 p. $17.99. Gr. 7 and up.

Petula is scared of everything and spends her days thinking of the myriad ways in which people can be killed. Before the accident that killed her little sister, Petula was an average adolescent girl with a passion for crafting.  Petula, however, has never stopped blaming herself for what happened, and she has cut herself off from everything that reminds her of that time, including crafting, and her best friend. When Petula meets Jacob, a new boy with a prosthetic arm, a warm and open demeanor, and a tragic past of his own, her life slowly starts to knit back together. Jacob, however, is keeping a huge secret, and when Petula inevitably finds out, it completely alters the way she views him.  Nielsen does a wonderful job getting into Petula’s psyche; the way her grief and guilt manifests will hit home to a lot of people.  Petula is constantly hounded by that little voice going “If only…,” a voice that beleaguers everyone at some point in their lives.  Jacob’s prosthetic is sensitively portrayed, and is only one small part of him; it does not define who he is.  THOUGHTS:  While the heavy emphasis on crafting may turn some people off, at its heart, it is a story about two lost, grieving souls finding each other, and finding joy.

Realistic Fiction    Lauren Friedman-Way, The Baldwin School


Forde, Patricia. The List. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2017. 978-1-4926-4796-6 353p. $16.99.  Gr. 7 and up.

The Melting (of the icebergs) has happened and much of life as we know it has disappeared.  John Noa has set up a settlement he calls “Ark” where he tries to make sure humans survive by not making the same mistakes.  He thinks one of those is language, so he limits what people in Ark are allowed to say, by approving a “list” of words.  Letta, the wordsmith’s  apprentice, is overwhelmed by the order to take more and more words off of the list.  At the same time, she is trying to preserve old wordsn her master disappears, leaving Letta to become the wordsmith.  She meets a boy who speaks more eloquently than the list will allow and Letta discovers much about the artists and others who are forced to live outside of Ark.   Letta has to make a lot of decisions that she never thought she would have to, much bigger than what words to take away from the citizens of Ark.  THOUGHTS: A book that will make everyone think about the importance of words, and of language, this would be a great purchase for libraries with lovers of fantasy, especially dystopian stories.

Dystopian     Toni Vahlsing, Abington Friends School


Forde, Patricia. The List. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2017. 978-1-492-64796-6. 368 p. $16.99. Gr. 6 and up.

Ark is a gated post-apocalyptic community that only survives because of the extreme planning and strict rationing of John Noah, Ark’s founding leader. With food, water, and even words strictly limited to only what is essential, life is not always easy. Sentences like “We ready now.” and “I no wait.” are considered speaking in List and take some getting used to. Reading List sometimes requires more than one glance. Letta lives in Ark and is the apprentice to the Wordsmith, a highly respected job. Almost immediately, her master Benjamin, the Wordsmith, heads out on a journey for a few days to hunt for new words to be preserved. This is considered a typical task of the Wordsmith. Letta is left behind to run the shop, where she transcribes boxes of List words for the Ark teacher, and creates special request List words for various trades.  Shortly after Benjamin leaves, an injured boy enters the shop, requesting a box of List words. Though she does not recognize him, Letta is intrigued by Marlo, and without thinking she quickly hides him before the gavvers (police or military equivalent) arrive. As she attempts to nurse Marlo back to health, Letta learns information about life outside of Ark, and she begins to question all she’s ever known. Thus begins Letta’s dissent from Ark.  THOUGHTS: As a former English teacher, my mind was racing with fun activities for using this book in the classroom: What words would be on your list? Could you figure out all of the words on Ark’s list? Would you eliminate/add any words to Ark’s list? The focus on the importance of words can lead to many great discussions, regardless of age. Though this book is marketed as middle grade, I could absolutely see using it in a high school classroom.

Dystopian   Maryalice Bond, South Middleton School District


Middle Grades Fiction – Beetle Boy; Winter’s Bullet; Goldi & the Three Vamps; US Spec. Forces


Leonard, M.G. Beetle Boy. New York: Scholastic, 2016. 978-0-545-85346-0. 270 p. $16.99. Gr. 5-8.

Darkus is sure that his father would not abandon him, but his father is missing nonetheless. As he lives with his uncle and navigates bullies at school, Darkus makes two good friends in Virginia and Bertolt. With his friends, Darkus sets off on a dangerous mission to protect special beetles and find his father. The villain, Lucretia Cutter, an avant garde designer and scientist studying beetles, could be a fiction best friend of Dodie Smith’s Cruella de Vil from The Hundred and One Dalmatians. At the end of the novel suspense is high as the villain escapes leaving an opening for the next book in the series. Included for readers, following the story, is an insect related dictionary.  THOUGHTS: It might be a good idea to ask students who have ever had a pet beetle to get their attention and then promote this novel. An ideal read-a-like is the book In Search of Goliathus Hercules, a book that I reviewed for PSLA in March 2014 – http://pslamediaselectionreview.edublogs.org/2014/03/01/march-2014-bob-fiction-reviews/.

Adventure; Mystery       Beth McGuire, Wendover Middle School



Osborne, William. Winter’s Bullet. New York: Chicken House, 2016. 978-0545- 853446. $18.99. 221 pp. Gr. 5-8.

Fifteen-year old Tygo Winter is brave but alone since his Dutch parents were killed and his older sister was taken away (and likely dead). He is hated and hunted by the Resistance for his work for Oberst Kruger, chief of the Gestapo’s “Plunder Squad” of Amsterdam. The Nazis use the ruse of “safekeeping” to loot valuables from Dutch homes, but Tygo has no choice in the matter. His expert locksmith father had worked for Kruger rather than watch his family be killed. Now it’s Tygo’s turn, and the Resistance may kill him as they did his father. Kruger has fittingly named him “Frettchen” (ferret) and keeps careful tabs on everything Tygo does, says, or thinks. While searching yet another Dutch home, Tygo finds a girl hiding in the chimney. He keeps the knowledge to himself (or so he thinks) but returns when he realizes who she is and what she may have: the “Red Queen” diamond that Kruger wants for Hitler himself. Meanwhile, Tygo learns of a secret weapon Hitler has commissioned, a weapon that can destroy New York City. All of this comes together in the last days of the war, and Tygo is an important part of it all. THOUGHTS: This offers a look at an important time in World War II history, the gains and losses of the final days of the war. Tygo’s desperate situation sheds light on the Plunder Squad, the Resistance movement, the atomic bomb, and Argentina’s support of the Nazis. Readers get to know Tygo, but only scratch the surface with other characters, despite Osborne’s occasional narrative switch from Tygo to Kruger or Heinrich Muller. The fact that Osborne has long been a screenwriter explains the fact that this novel reads like a movie. Despite this, middle school readers will be drawn to the topic and enjoy the action.

Historical Fiction      Melissa Scott, Shenango High School



Sutton, Laurie, and C. S. Jennings. Goldilocks and the Three Vampires: A Graphic Novel. North Mankato, MN: Stone Arch , 2017. 978-1-4965-3783-6.  33 pp. $17.99. Gr 3-6.

This isn’t your grandparents version of Goldilocks, but it sure makes for an interesting adventure! In the Far Out Fairy tale, we find the spunky, dark skinned Goldi acting more like a tomb raider than a nosy porridge eater. She is searching for King Arthur’s treasure and cherishes the traps and tricks that await her. Finding three treasure rooms, Goldi begins to borrow some items when she hears some surprising voices just waking up from the dead. The vampires are historical, somewhat hysterical, and only slightly evil as they chase Goldilocks away. Though she certainly hasn’t learned her lesson, with more adventures likely ahead.  THOUGHTS: I think it’s worth getting the whole Far Out Fairy tale series for the crazy hybrid comparisons to the originals. The end pages after the story are also valuable, as they include the original tale and comparison to the new twist, plus some great visual questions and a glossary.

Graphic Novel; Fairytale       Dustin Brackbill, State College Area



Manning, Matthew K., and Jeremy Enecio. U.S. Special Forces: Ghosts of the Night. North Mankato, MN: Stone Arch,  2017. 978-1-4965-3475-0.  90 pp. $17.99. Gr 4-7.

Go behind a special ops mission in Afghanistan with this realistic military adventure. The story starts out of sequence, with the special forces team and its rescued reporters trapped in a possibly haunted house. Then, through various viewpoints, readers learn brief backstories and see the action unravel. There are several moments to consider military decisions and realize the danger and threats which affect soldiers and civilians every day in war zones. This eye opening narrative will end too quickly, with many unanswered questions for readers to ponder and discuss. THOUGHTS: There are nonfiction texts from Capstone to connect those who want more information. Also, readers and librarians should realize that there are casualties in this book. While not graphic, and fortunately glossed over, a pilot, a soldier, and several combatants are killed in action. Still, this story is a fair way to bring those realizations to life for early chapter book readers.

Action/Adventure; Military     Dustin Brackbill, State College Area