Magnolia “Maggie” Hagen has been waiting for years to attend Camp Rising Star with her best friend, Nora. They’ve just finished their fifth grade year and are ready to start packing, but Maggie’s parents have an unwelcome surprise in store: Maggie will attend Camp Sylvania instead. Camp Sylvania’s website promises a “place for big dreams, big fun, and big weight loss.” Maggie is horrified that her parents are sending her to “fat camp” on the Lake of the Ozarks, and without her best friend. Maggie’s mom knows the founder, Sylvia Sylvania, from her own days at a similar camp called New Beginnings, and believes that losing weight is truly in Maggie’s best interest. Although Maggie initially resents being sent to Camp Sylvania, she makes fast friends with her bunkmates and soon enjoys a sense of belonging, even auditioning for the camp’s musical. She adjusts to the camp’s grueling workouts, Sylia’s patented Scarlet Diet (the cafeteria only serves food that is red), and a blood bank where all campers are encouraged to donate regularly. But when campers begin disappearing overnight, Maggie realizes that something is very wrong at Camp Sylvania. By the time her folks arrive for Parents’ Day, it may be too late, unless Maggie and her friends take drastic action (with a little help from the camp ghost).
THOUGHTS: Julie Murphy’s latest is both a spirited summer camp horror novel and a keen take-down of diet culture.
Jain, Mahak. The Only Astronaut. Kids Can Press, 2023. 978-1-525-30736-2. $19.99. Grades PreK-2.
Avni loves that she is the only astronaut in her special space station. With it only being her, she gets to make all the decisions – what missions will she travel on, when will she leave, and what will she take with her. At times though it can be hard being the only one in your own space station, such as when your rocket ship breaks down or there are too many tasks to do. Avni makes an important decision: she needs to find an assistant! Will she be able to find an assistant up for the task?
THOUGHTS: A fun imagination story! Two heads can be better than one, leading to new missions to different places!
Howley, Jonty. The Animal Song. Random House Studio. 2023. 978-0-593-38146-5. $18.99. Grades PreK-3.
A bear, crocodile, and a weasel. What do they have in common? They love music and are in a band together! From spring to fall, these animals play music for their forest friends. When winter hits and their forest friends go to sleep, they don’t have anyone to play for, and they aren’t ready to go to sleep! This musical animal band moves and continues playing through the winter, until finally, everyone is ready to sleep!
THOUGHTS: A fun musical story with a fun rhythm to read. The back of the book contains the lyrics and musical score for The Animal Song, allowing musical readers to play and sing along!
Arnold, Elana K. Starla Jean Cracks the Case. Illustrated by A.N. Kang. Roaring Brook Press, 2023. 978-1-250-30580-0. 78 p. $15.99. Grades 1-3.
Meet Starla Jean. She has a baby sister Willa and a pet chicken Opal Egg. Walking her chicken one day (can you really walk a chicken?), Starla and Opal Egg find a bead. They wonder who it belongs to and set off to ask her friends. The beads are not theirs, but they have all found a bead too! Now everyone is in on the task of finding the owner. They happen along their friend Dani who is looking forlorn sitting on a bench. Her necklace broke, and the kids have solved their mystery!
THOUGHTS: This Level 3 chapter book is a great addition to any beginning reader section. Helpfulness and being a good friend and sister are all themes throughout this adorable read.
Two weeks ago Polly St. James ran away from the stresses of life at Torrey-Wells Academy, an elite prep school. That’s what everyone except Polly’s best friend and roommate Maren believes. But things have been different for them this year. Polly was distant and because their last conversation left her with more questions than answers, Maren is determined to uncover why. Despite searching their room and Polly’s things for clues multiple times, Maren still doesn’t have any answers. Then she finds a hidden invitation to the Gamemaster’s Society among Polly’s things. Maren knows to uncover the truth about Polly’s disappearance she needs to learn more about this rumored society, including how to get an invitation herself. But secret societies are full of rules, and despite its name this one is more than fun and games. Maren has to figure out who she can trust while competing in high-stakes games that have deadly consequences. Will she uncover what happened to Polly (and rescue her), or is Maren the next victim of the game?
THOUGHTS: With a long history of boarding school and secret society books being popular, hand this one to fans of realistic mysteries like The Ivies, Truly Devious, or Looking for Alaska. Recommended for young adult collections.
Armstrong, Jade. Scout Is Not a Band Kid. RH Graphic, 2022. 978-0-593-17622-1. 263 p. $12.99. Grades 3-7.
Rising eighth grader Scout Martins is desperate to attend AlmonteFest and meet author Pristine Wong, creator of the Posaune Warrior Princess series of books and video games. Unfortunately, her dad thinks New Almonte is too far away from Waltz, Ontario, but Scout isn’t ready to give up. Among the back-to-school handouts she sees a flier for the Holy Moly Catholic School Band, and its end-of-year trip to AlmonteFest. Scout attends her first practice, claiming to play the trombone, which makes her one half of the trombone section. The other half, trombonist Merrin LaFreniere, quickly susses out that Scout can’t play a note. Mr. Varma, the band director, interprets Merrin’s frustration as a lack of commitment to teamwork, and instructs her to tutor Scout to polish her trombone skills. An unlikely but strong friendship develops, though in the end Scout will have to decide if her loyalties lie with the band or with her own agenda for AlmonteFest. Created with a variety of digital tools, a blend of cool and warm color palettes reflect both the changing seasons and the characters’ emotions.
THOUGHTS: In their first graphic novel, author and illustrator Jade Armstrong meshes timeless themes (friendship, loyalty, teamwork) with Scout’s fandom culture in a way that middle grade readers will adore.
Khan, Hena. Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun. Salaam Reads, 2022. 978-1-534-49759-7. 127 p. $17.99. Grades 2-5.
Zara and her brother Zayd are anxiously watching activity at the house across the street, curious to see who is moving into the vacant home. Will the people have children their ages? Zara, the confident leader of the neighborhood kids, is delighted when new neighbors move in and she meets Naomi, who is exactly her age. However, Zara’s enthusiasm vanishes rapidly when Naomi unintentionally changes the dynamic of Zara’s friend group with her charisma and fresh ideas. Zara suddenly feels like an outsider. Determined to reclaim her role as Queen of the Neighborhood, she decides breaking a Guinness World Record will be sufficiently attention-getting. But Zara quickly discovers that record-breaking is tough work. Worse, Naomi decides she wants to break a record, too. Zara is frustrated, but Naomi’s sympathetic overtures help Zara understand why her old friends are annoyed with her. Eventually she hits on the perfect plan to bring the neighborhood back together. Zara is an exuberant almost 11-year-old who takes for granted her role as leader, and views herself as keeping her friends’ games and activities fair. When the status quo is disturbed, feelings are hurt. But she observes how Naomi interacts with everyone, and realizes her prior behavior may have been a bit overbearing. Young readers familiar with friendship turmoils will relate to Zara’s situation of suddenly feeling like an outsider. Zara and Zayd are Pakistani; Naomi’s family is Jewish; and other friends are Black, white, and Asian.
THOUGHTS: An entertaining story that addresses jealousy and friendship issues in an easily relatable way. The book is noted as the first in a series, so look for more adventures with Zara.
Pearson, Debora. My Words Flew Away Like Birds. Kids Can Press, 2021. 978-1-525-30318-0. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PreK-2.
My Words Flew Away Like Birds follows the unnamed main character as she and her family move from one country to another. She talks about how she knew certain things when she lived in her home and now, going to a new place, she has some new words to learn. She talks about how those new words felt weird to her, and the reader follows her journey as she learns to adjust to living in a new place. The illustrations are beautiful light colors with the dark colors of the characters and buildings make a very interesting illustration to the reader as they are going through the book.
THOUGHTS: This was a very enjoyable book to read, and many readers will empathize with the main character and her journey of moving to a new place.
Picture Book Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy
Lukoff, Kyle. Too Bright to See. Penguin Random House, 2021. 978-0-593-11115-4. $16.99. 188 p. Grades 4-7.
Set in the summer before middle school starts in rural Vermont, Bug and her friend Mo, who now wants to be called Moira, are preparing themselves for the start of something new. Moira takes it upon herself to plan makeovers and make as many new friends as she can before school starts, but all of this makes Bug feel not right. Bug’s uncle, who moved to Vermont with Bug and her mom after her father passed away when Bug was an infant, just passed away leaving them to figure out how to move on. Their old creaky house has always been filled with ghosts, but now the ghost game has stepped up, and Bug is trying to figure out who this ghost is and what it is trying to say! As Bug uncovers the mystery of the ghost and what it is trying to say, Bug makes a huge discovery – he is transgender.
THOUGHTS: This book was scarier than I thought it would be! The ghosts in Bug’s house are pretty aggressive at times, so this would appeal to horror readers. The author is transgender, and you can’t help but think that this authentic story may be semi-autobiographical. Bug’s friends’ acceptance of his identity gives you faith that kids are way more accepting than adults in these matters.
Johannes, Shelli R. Theo Thesaurus: The Dinosaur Who Loved Big Words. Illustrated by Mike Moran. Philomel Books, 2021. Unpaged. 978-0-593-20551-8 $17.99 Grades K-2.
Theo and his parents are migrating, and his parents are excited, but Theo is worried about joining a new class where no one knows him. He and his parents are a special species of dinosaurs called Thesauruses–self-described ‘logo maniacs’ or word-lovers. Sure enough, Theo’s big words create a barrier between him and his new classmates. He tries to be friendly. “Salutations!” he greets them; ‘Could you lead me to the athenaeum (library)?” in class; “Care for a crudite (raw snack)?” at lunch; “want to play conceal and search (hide and seek)?” at recess. Everything leads to misconceptions and confusion. He keeps trying, even inviting them: “I request your attendance to celebrate the anniversary of my hatching.” When the birthday party arrives, but no friends do, Theo tries several words to describe his emotions but discovers he is speechless. Then the doorbell rings and his classmates arrive, shouting, “Salutations!” Theo and his parents are equally excited to party with his new friends.
THOUGHTS: This is a cute concept, but the words used require explaining to K-2 readers for them to fully understand the humor. Also, Theo’s parents want to be helpful (but seem to miss the mark), while it is unclear what changes the minds of Theo’s classmates. A glossary of Theo’s “thesaurus” style words is included. Supplemental purchase.