Elem. – A Flicker of Courage: Tales of Triumph and Disaster!

Caletti, Deb. A Flicker of Courage: Tales of Triumph and Disaster! Putnam, 2020. 978-1-984-81305-3. 243 p. $13.99, Grades 3-6.

Henry is a nice boy, but quiet and shy with miserable, abusive parents. He longs to have friends, be brave, and be a hero. He gets his chance the morning he hears Apollo, the charming boy next door, shrieking in agony, and discovers Vlad Luxor, the HRM (Horrible Ruler with Magic), has turned Apollo’s younger brother Rocco into a lizard. What, you say, can two young boys do in the face of such terrible evil? Henry has a plan! He is shocked to discover his need to aid Apollo is stronger than his need not to be noticed. The boys, together with the lovely, kind Jo, Pirate Girl and Henry’s dog, Button, look, listen, ponder, and follow their hearts. They learn of their true identities, face down the cruel Vlad Luxor, save the day, and Rocco. This humorous adventure-story spoof, is highly reminiscent of M.T. Anderson’s Pals in Peril series. The third-person omniscient narration rarely allows the characters to show action, resulting in a somewhat stilted style that takes some getting used to. But if you let it grow on you, it’s worth the wait. There is a map! Old photos! Spell-breakers and fights! Fearsome events! And a sequel! This book may require some booktalking and encouragement, as the genre Caletti spoofs belongs to the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew era, but the general silliness and good vs evil plot may draw readers in. Most of the characters are presumed white (and appear so on the book cover), but Jo hints at being Latino.

THOUGHTS: This story, and series, has potential, but it’s hard to tell if this is a book that will appeal more to adults than children. Get it in the hands of the right reader, and it could take off.

Action/Adventure          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – The Boys in the Back Row

Jung, Mike. The Boys in the Back Row. Levine Querido, 2020. 978-1-646-14011-4. 264 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Matt and Eric have been best friends forever. They are both marching band nerds, both fans of comics by artist Jonah Burns, and both are targets of bully Kenny and his side-kick Sean. When Eric learns his family will be moving at the end of the school year, the pair plan one epic last adventure. While the school marching band is on a trip to World of Amazement amusement park, Eric and Matt will sneak out to nearby DefenderCon and meet their idol, Jonah Burns. But when Sean gets wind of their plans, and inexplicably wants to join the friends, they are confounded as to how to proceed. The book uniquely highlights friendship between tween boys. The pair are openly fond of each other, but are tired being labeled gay. Matt is also called gay for playing the flute. (Neither is gay, but they do not consider it an insult). A secondary theme involves racism against Asian students such as Matt. Kenny, the chief proponent of both racism and homophobia, seems to harbor an attraction for a male, Asian band member, providing some insight into his troubled personality. While the racist theme can become heavy-handed, the exuberant friendship of the boys more than carries the book. Matt is Asian, Eric and Kenny are white, with minor characters who are a variety of ethnicities, particularly Asian.

THOUGHTS: This book should be a first purchase for middle grade collections. Stories showing kind, thoughtful male relationships are too rare.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – The Girls I’ve Been

Sharpe, Tess. The Girls I’ve Been. Putnam, 2021. 9780593353806. $18.99. 356 p. Grades 9 and up.

Two armed men enter a bank in a sleepy rural California town assuming they’ll find the bank manager and easily coerce him into taking them to their target – a safe deposit box. The manager hasn’t arrived yet though, and who they DO find is teenager Nora O’Malley. She’s not just any teenage girl. She’s not even Nora O’Malley – depending on how you look at it. Nora spent most of her life playing the roles of different girls with her con-artist mother until her half-sister extracted her from the situation four years ago. As she tries to adjust to a “normal” life and put her past behind her, her biggest problem has been the current awkwardness between her and her ex-boyfriend but now best friend Wes because she’d been lying to him about her new relationship with their other friend, Iris. Thrust into a serious hostage situation with her friends, Nora is forced to resurrect her old identities if she wants any chance of getting them out of this alive.

THOUGHTS: A wild page-turner for fans of the thriller genre. The well-crafted plot alternates from Nora’s past to the present, and it all ties together in the end. It also tackles domestic abuse from multiple angles as all of the three teenage main characters have struggled with it in some form.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Be More Chill: The Graphic Novel

Levithan, David. Be More Chill: The Graphic Novel. Hyperion, 2021. 978-1-368-05786-8. 138 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.

High school is hard. Jeremy finds it especially hard being an awkward nerd who can’t seem to say the right thing to anyone. He really wants to catch the eye of Christine, a pretty girl he sees every day at play rehearsal. When Jeremy tries to talk to her, he bumbles through his words, and that’s when he realizes he will never be able to charm her… until he hears about the squip. The squip is a supercomputer, compressed into a pill-sized capsule and swallowed. After that, it takes over your brain and helps awkward teens navigate through the complex social hierarchy of high school. Don’t know what cool clothes to buy at the mall? The squip will guide you. Not sure what to say to the most popular girl in school? The squip will tell you. When Jeremy buys one on the black market, he thinks he has squashed his awkward behavior for good. But he very quickly realizes the dark consequences that can come from trying to alter his own biology.

THOUGHTS: This graphic novel, adapted from the hit Broadway musical of the same name, will resonate with any high schooler who struggles to fit in. The art, done mostly in black, white, and blue, shows the differences between dialogue and the squip’s commands, making it easy to follow. High school librarians should add this to their graphic novel collections.

Graphic Novel          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – Love Is a Revolution

Watson, Renee. Love Is a Revolution. Bloomsbury YA, 2021. 978-1-547-60060-1. 304 p. $18.99. Grades 9 and up. 

Nala agrees to attend an open mic night with her cousin, not really expecting to find love. She meets Tye Brown, an activist and Nala is… not; Tye wants to spend his summer doing community service, and Nala wants to hang out and try new ice cream flavors. Nala makes the decision to tell a couple white lies to Tye, and that ends up spiraling into something she did not expect. Will Nala come clean to the guy of her dreams or keep the lies going? The best part about this novel is the body positivity and Nala’s friend group. While this is a YA romance, there is a larger message about being true to yourself and loving yourself for who you are.

THOUGHTS: I adored everything about this book and these characters. I loved the way Renee Watson develops her characters, and her writing style makes this book so easy to read. Highly recommended for any high school collection.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Elem. – Julián at the Wedding

Love, Jessica. Julián at the Wedding. Candlewick Press, 2020. 978-1-536-21238-9. 40 p. $16.99. Grades PreK-2.

Julián returns! This time he isn’t donning a mermaid costume but is attending a wedding! Abuela and Julián arrive at the wedding, but Julián quickly finds a new friend. Julián and his new friend, Marisol, find their own adventures during the celebration, but Marisol’s flower girl dress gets ruined in all the fun. Julián and Marisol work together to fashion a new fairy-like dress as they reunite with the party. Similar to Julián’s first story, themes of identity and who people are on the outside and who they are on the inside can be more easily understood through this work. A story filled with love, beautiful colors, and culture is another one for bookshelves of blooming readers.

THOUGHTS: Love seamlessly incorporates a same sex wedding into a typical story of children being children. She provides the anchor for the opportunity for social emotional in safe ways for young readers. This book should be added to elementary libraries everywhere!

Picture Book          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

Elem. – Playing Possum

Black Reinhardt, Jennifer. Playing Possum. Clarion Books. 2020. 978-1-328-78270-0. $17.99. Grades K-3.

Alfred is a possum. When possums become nervous, they tend to freeze and play dead. Unfortunately, Alfred is an extremely nervous possum, which means he often is freezing up. This can make life very difficult for him, as he does not do well in school, sports, or even making friends because of his freezing up. Sofia is an armadillo. Armadillos will often curl into a ball when nervous. Together, Alfred and Sofia slowly learn to trust each other and become friends, understanding that everyone has moments. Together they learn all of the animals cope differently, and it is okay. Friendship and trust can take time, but it is worth it!

THOUGHTS: A cute book about different animals, nerves, and anxiety! The back of the book contains information on how different animals react in different situations. A fun read that can be helpful for readers who may need help with nerves or anxiety.

Picture Book          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

Elem. – Ellie Makes a Friend

Mike, Wu. Ellie Makes a Friend. Disney Hyperion, 2020. 978-1-368-01000-9. $16.99. Grades K-2.

There is a commotion at the zoo! A new animal has joined, and it is a painter just like Ellie! Only instead of an elephant, the new animal is a Panda who came all the way from China. Ellie wonders if there is room for two painters at the zoo. Ellie decides to learn all about her new possible friend. Soon, the two are sharing stories, ideas, and painting together. They find harmony in the ways they are different, and delight in learning more about each other. Sharing can be the best way to learn about someone else and a great way to make a new friend.

THOUGHTS: A delightful book on friendship and sharing. This book is a nice beginner book for readers to look at the country of China, as it contains some brief discussion topics and ideas.

Picture Book          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

YA – Super Fake Love Song

Yoon, David. Super Fake Love Song. G.P. Putnam & Sons, 2020. 978-1-984-81223-0. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Asian-American Sunny Dae is a nerd, into Dungeons and Dragons with his best buddies, Jamal and Milo and anticipating multiple followers when they broadcast an interview with the much admired Lady Lashblade. Then he meets Cirrus Soh, the daughter of a Japanese couple who do business with his own workaholic parents. To impress Cirrus, he takes on the persona of his rocker-brother, Gray. His older brother has returned from his Hollywood pursuit for fame with his tail between his legs. Depressed and disillusioned, Gray succumbs himself to his basement room only to be drawn out to mentor the fledgling band Sunny and his pals have formed as they rehearse for the annual high school talent show. As Sunny’s feelings for Cirrus deepen, he becomes more conflicted about his duplicity: he is pretending to be a rocker and gaining Cirrus’s admiration and the longer he pretends, the more he likes the confidence and attention he is getting from others, including Gunner, his former bully.  When the day for the show comes, the Immortals pull it off, until a drunk Gray interferes. Author David Yoon has a knack for clever dialogue. His narrator, Sunny, weaves DnD references with contemporary situations that are fun for teens. Sunny is wealthy and lives in a posh area of Rancho Ruby in California. Though he is intelligent and good-looking, he still deals with insecurities and feelings of being a loser. However, the charmed life he leads refutes that claim. For those looking for a light romance enhanced by good writing, Super Fake Love Song may be just the thing.

THOUGHTS: Dungeons and Dragons fans will appreciate Sunny’s obsession. Romance fans will like the different male perspective. Though the genre is realistic fiction, the circumstances and events that occur in this book are fantasy to many of the teens who may pick up this book. In one section Sunny gives his take on the extravagant party Cirrus throws when her parents leave her home alone: “Such phenomena occurred solely on insipid television shows written by middle-aged hacks eager to cash in on the young adult demographic” (224). This comment may be a prediction for Super Fake Love Song.

Realistic Fiction/Romance          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – The True Definition of Neva Beane

Kendall, Christine. The True Definition of Neva Beane. Scholastic, 2020. 978-1-338-32489-1. $17.99. Grades 3-7.

While Neva Beane’s parents are on a summer singing tour abroad, she and her sixteen-year-old brother, Clay, are staying with their grandparents in West Philadelphia. The new girl across the street, Michelle Overton, is only a year older than Neva, but Michelle’s full figure and bikini outfits has Neva feeling inexperienced and babyish. In addition, Clay is preoccupied with the community organizing Michelle’s father is spearheading, and Neva’s best friend Jamila is busy preparing for her family vacation in Ghana. It’s a hot time in the city this summer, though. People are protesting unfair practices in housing and wages.  Against his grandparents’ orders, Clay is surreptitiously leading the youth branch of the protests. Although they were activists when they were younger, Nana and Grandpa now believe their duty is to protect their grandchildren which means keeping them away from the protests. Neva feels left out, but so does her grandmother—especially when her grandson forges her signature on the permission slip for a protest. Twelve-years-old and on the cusp of being a teen, Neva grapples with many conflicting feelings: she’s intimidated by Michelle but admires her, too; she values her friendship with Jamila, but they seem out of step; she’s homesick for her parents but doesn’t want her selfishness to stop their success; she’s wants to support the good cause but is anxious about protesting. Christine Kendall has produced a middle grade novel that recreates a Black American neighborhood against the backdrop of a tumultuous summer. Not only is the appealing character of Neva well-developed and identifiable to other readers her age, but the other characters are equally as genuine. Neva’s fascination with words is an added bonus to the book. This page-turning book will be a favorite and also boost the reader’s vocabulary!

Realistic Fiction    Bernadette Cooke  School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: With the mention of familiar street names and places and the extremely relatable main character and timely setting, this book will fly off the shelves at my library. This book is an incentive to learn how to use the dictionary and improve one’s vocabulary and spelling. Food for thought in classroom social/emotional discussions is Neva’s processing of social activism.