MG – When You Know What I Know

Solter, Sonja. When You Know What I Know. Little, Brown & Company, 2020. 212 p. $16.99. 978-0316-53544-1 Grades 5-8.

Ten-year-old Tori is struggling with the aftermath of sexual abuse by her once-favorite uncle. She feels shame, anger, loss, sadness, and fear. She tells her mom, who is reluctant to believe her, and her grandmother takes her uncle’s side. Since her single mom relied on Tori’s grandmother and uncle for any childcare for Tori and her eight-year-old sister Taylor, the family strain increases. Their responses make Tori feel worse: “Maybe I shouldn’t have told,” and her secret is building a wedge between her and her friends as well. This novel told in verse reveals her confusion and pain without being specific about the incident. Eventually, another girl accuses her uncle of abuse, and Tori finds a freeing yet sickening feeling of vindication, along with support from her mother and grandmother.  By novel’s end, she discovers she is able to forget the incident for a few hours. The memories still return, “But still./A day like today…/It’s possible./I know that now.”

THOUGHTS: Solter’s novel provides acknowledgement of sexual abuse of young people and the difficulty of not being believed when speaking up; this honesty will provide hope for survivors as well. The content, in no way explicit, is appropriate for upper elementary and middle school readers. The Author’s Note states, “My hope for this book is that readers will be encouraged to tell their own truths, and–if someone doesn’t believe them at first–to keep on telling until they get the help they need. Healing takes time…[and] is not only possible, it IS where all of our stories are going” (208).

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Novel in Verse

YA – Rules for Being a Girl

Bushnell, Candace, and Katie Cotugno. Rules for Being a Girl. Balzer & Bray. 2020. 304 p. $19.99 978-0-062-80337-5. Grades 10-12.

For Marin and best friend Chloe, life is going well. They co-edit the school paper together, they’re top students, and they have family support to head for the colleges of their dreams.  Their English teacher, Mr. Beckett, “Bex,” is seriously intelligent and cool, and treats students as equals with funny stories and insightful classes. Bex goes too far and comes on to Marin (he kisses her), leaving Marin shocked into silence. Had she encouraged him?  Why didn’t she anticipate that? What should she do now? She tries to act as though nothing happened, and Bex attempts a “re-set” of their relationship, saying it was an accident, and blaming her. When Marin finally tells Chloe, Chloe believes Marin is either lying or at fault.  Next, when Marin tells her principal, she is told she must have misunderstood and a full investigation will have to be done, since it’s her word against Mr. Beckett. Quickly, everyone’s talking, joking, or blaming Marin, her English grades dive, and the worst knife of all is that Marin fails to gain acceptance to her dream university due to the incident (and alumnus Mr. Beckett’s tip-off to university staff). Her world has exploded, and Marin is struggling against demeaning comments and, suddenly, it seems, all of the ridiculous assumptions people make about girls and women. Finally, Chloe reveals that Mr. Beckett had pulled her into a relationship in the fall, and Marin’s truth devastated her. Together, they publish an open letter to staff and students in the school newspaper, asking for any others to come forward. They do, the girls are finally believed, and Mr. Beckett is dismissed without investigation.

THOUGHTS: The characterization of Marin seems contradictory–she is both incredibly intelligent and mature, unbothered by peer reactions, yet initially unaware of–or unbothered by–even the simplest of girl stereotypes. As long as the stereotypes didn’t ‘hurt’ her, she was living a golden life. Bushnell and Cotugno present only a semi-realistic version of a school setting (the school’s actions on the allegations are poorly researched), and she gives a far-too-tidy, happy ending–including enlightened boyfriend–for Marin.  This book would be stronger if Mr. Beckett had not been a teacher, but a family friend or a boss, and if Marin’s cultural and social awareness matched her intelligence.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – How to Be a Girl in the World

Carter, Caela. How to Be a Girl in the World. Harper Collins Childrens, 2020. 294 p. $16.99 978-0-062-67270-4 Grades 5-8.

Lydia has spent the entire summer in pants, long sleeves, and turtlenecks, despite the heat, despite her single mom’s concerned comments, and despite friends’ odd looks. Lydia knows she’s not normal, and she doesn’t want to talk about it. Lydia, her biracial cousin Emma, and Lydia’s mom are proudly moving from an apartment to a dilapidated house of their own. Living in the house will require a huge amount of work (it’s chock full of dusty furniture left behind), but Lydia sees in it a chance to be safe. She would love to escape the nicknames, looks and comments of the boys at her private school. She shivers at men’s glances on the subway, or sitting too close. She feels extremely uncomfortable with her mom’s boyfriend Jeremy, whose hugs are just a little too long or too tight, and who assumes a greater friendliness with Lydia and Emma than Lydia would like. But no one else seems to notice any problem, so Lydia knows it’s her. She’s not normal, and if she can’t fix it, at least she can hide herself. Then maybe she’ll feel protected. In the new house, she finds a room full of herbs in jars and a book of spells. It’s exactly what she needs and even allows her to re-forge a connection with the best friend she’s ignored for the summer. They both try the spells, but the boys’ behavior and Jeremy’s behavior only becomes more troublesome, and an outburst from Lydia results in her being suspended from school. Lydia finally confides in her mother about the boys’ treatment of her, and her mother swiftly comes to her aid. When Lydia next explains Jeremy’s actions, her mother is devastated but resolute that Jeremy will never set foot in their house again. To Lydia, the revelatory message that she alone makes “the rules” concerning her body is freeing, and the new understanding and openness with those around her helps her to learn to own those rules.

THOUGHTS: This is a powerful, “ordinary” story that every middle school girl would benefit from reading. It’s for every girl who’s ever been told, “it’s no big deal,” “you’re such a baby,” “that’s part of being a girl,” etc. And it’s for every boy who’s ever been told, “she likes it,” “you’re just being a boy,” or “looking doesn’t hurt.”  Pair with Barbara Dee’s Maybe He Just Likes You.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – Brave Like That

Stoddard, Lindsey. Brave Like That. HarperCollins Publisher , 2020. 978-0-062-87811-3. 272 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Cyrus’ dad has always been a hero. As a kid he was a star football player, and as an adult he is a firefighter who is not afraid of running into burning buildings. Everyone thinks Cyrus is following in his father’s footsteps, but deep inside Cyrus loves music instead of football and longs to sneak away to the rescue to walk a dog that showed up at the fire station out of the blue, just like Cyrus did eleven years ago. Maybe worse than that, Cyrus wants to ditch his football star friends and befriend the new boy, Eduardo, who is bullied but doesn’t waiver from who he truly is inside. Can Cyrus be brave and find the courage to be his true self?  With the help of a stray dog, new friends, and his family, join Cyrus on his journey to be brave and become his authentic self.

THOUGHTS: This story is a must purchase for your middle grade collection. It deals with the topic of bullying in a gentle but firm way. Brave Like That also addresses the issue of ailing grandparents (Cyrus’ grandmother had a stroke and cannot speak as she used to) and acceptance.

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick- Waldron Mercy Academy

Tags: bullying, friendship, family, aging grandparents

YA – We Are the Wildcats

Vivian, Siobhan. We Are the Wildcats. Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2020. 978-1-534-43990-0. 352 p. Grades 8 and up. 

The Wildcats are strong, they’re fierce, they’re close, they’re five-time state field hockey champions. Except last year, last year they came in second. Mistakes creeped in and rocked the girls to their very core. Who are they if they aren’t winners? Every year girls must re-try out for the team, even if they’ve made it before. Tryouts are grueling, and Coach is intense, picking only the best of the best. Those who make it are skilled enough to call themselves Wildcats. Traditionally, the night after tryouts, those who make the team participate in a secret midnight ceremony hosted by the captain to receive their varsity jerseys. But this year won’t quite go as planned; this year Coach decides he knows best and the girls end up chasing something they never thought they would. Happening over a 24-hour period, the Wildcats learn what it means to be a team, one that has to stick up for themselves no matter what.

THOUGHTS: We Are the Wildcats is an empowering story about trust, camaraderie, and sportsmanship (or should I say sportswomanship). There are too few truly empowering sports novels for young women, and just like Michigan vs. The Boys this book has forever won a place on my shelf.

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

MG – Lila and Hadley

Keplinger, Kody. Lila and Hadley. Scholastic Press, 2020. 978-1-338-30609-5. 256. $16.99. Grades 3-7.

Hadley has a right to be angry. Her mom is going to jail for stealing money from her boss, so Hadley has to live with the sister she hasn’t seen in three years. To make matters worse, her vision is failing due to retinitis pigmentosa, a condition meaning she will eventually become legally blind. Depressed and angry that her life is spinning out of control, Hadley reluctantly visits the animal rescue where her sister works. Despite not being a “dog-person,” she is surprised when Lila the pitbull takes a liking to her. Since she has no other plans during summer break, Hadley begrudgingly agrees to help foster and train the dog. While Hadley helps Lila, the dog also helps her with mobility training, lessons Hadley takes to learn how to use a cane, and meet a new friend. Together, the pair slowly become comfortable enough for Lila to find her forever home and Hadley to forgive her family for their faults and accept the help and love she needs.

THOUGHTS: A cute but predictable novel that young middle grade students will enjoy, especially animal lovers. The narrator’s casual language and the easy ending may be off putting to some readers, but the book will be a good addition to an upper elementary or middle grade collection needing diverse stories.

Realistic Fiction          Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD

Elem. – Blue Skies

Bustard, Anne. Blue Skies. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 978-1-534-44606-9. 218 p. $17.99. Grades 3-5.

Glory Bea Bennett is a young girl who lives with her mother and grandparents in a small town in Texas. The year is 1948, and memories of the war still linger. Her friend Ben’s father suffers from PTSD, and Glory Bea’s own father was listed as “missing in action,” which gives her hope that he is still alive. In fact, she is certain that he will return to town on the Merci Train, which carries gifts from France to America for its support in the war.   While the town is preparing for the visit, Glory Bea is trying out her matchmaking skills between her best friend Ruby Jane and Ben, although she is clueless about whom he really likes. Then, a fellow soldier and friend of Glory Bea’s father comes to visit, and her mother and the soldier begin dating, which is a relationship she is trying to sabotage. After all, the Merci Train will be bringing her father home soon.

THOUGHTS: This is a beautifully crafted novel which is both poignant and uplifting. Readers will empathize with Glory Bea and learn how one family supports each other in their grief. The author balances this with some well-placed humorous incidents in the story, such as Glory Bea’s attempt at giving Ruby Jane a permanent. The characters are well-developed and very likeable, and readers will be eager for more stories about the Bennett family and their friends. This is a first purchase for elementary and middle grade collections.

Historical Fiction                                                          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem. – Kodi

Cullum, Jared. Kodi. Top Shelf Productions. 2020. 978-1-603-09467-2. 176 p. $14.99. Grades 2-5.

While out on a walk near her grandmother’s Alaska summer house, comics-loving Katya encounters an enormous kodiak bear with its leg pinned under a fallen tree. Working together, Katya and “Meema” free the bear and mend his wounded paw. Katya and Kodi become fast friends (and an expert fishing team), so both are crestfallen when she must return to Seattle. When Kodi sees a tourist with a Seattle t-shirt, he realizes that stowing away on a cruise ship will deliver him to Katya. But finding a small girl in a big city requires some help; enter a fisherman named Joshua, who forms his own unique bond with the bear. Jared Cullum’s gorgeous watercolors portray a range of settings, emotions, and action with evocative style. Katya’s vulnerability is evident in her big eyes and slight build; her strength shows in her artwork and steadfastness. Kodi is both comically oversized and brawny, but gentle. Joshua, disabled in a previous fishing accident, is clever and kind. Readers who fly through the pages to find out what happens next will want to re-read, pausing to admire the mountain streams, city skylines, and ocean waves.

THOUGHTS: This beautifully illustrated graphic novel for young readers is also an homage to the power of friendship and creativity. Don’t miss this one!

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Elem. – Rating Your Bunkmates and Other Camp Crimes

Orr, Jennifer. Rating Your Bunkmates and Other Camp Crimes. Capstone Editions, 2020. 978-1-68446-077-9. 239 p. $16.95. Grades 3-6.

Abigail Hensley is a twelve-year old genius who knows a lot about everything – anthropology, criminal trials, even the French language. Skipping two grades in school means she knows a lot more than other girls her age. Abigail also knows herself – she doesn’t like others intruding on her personal space and she has a definite aversion to germs. The one topic Abigail doesn’t know much about is how to make real friends. All of that is going to change, however, when she arrives at Camp Hollyhock, determined to make a real friend for the first time in her life. Like any good anthropologist, Abigail uses scientific research methods and writes detailed notes as she studies her cabinmates for their sidekick potential. Although her observations are off to a good start, she is thrown off from her meticulous plans when a crime is committed in her own cabin – and she becomes the prime suspect. Abigail has to use her research methods and observations so she can clear her name and hopefully make a friend before her time at camp is done, even if the answers she seeks may be the opposite of what she thinks.

THOUGHTS: Although author Jennifer Orr doesn’t make it clear in the book, Abigail could be on the autism spectrum, which is evident as she hates invasion of her personal space and struggles to understand social norms. However, Abigail’s journey to make a friend can ring true for any middle grade reader, genius or not. Her scientific commentary on the nuances of young female friendships are humorous yet relatable. All readers can understand that friendship may not be an exact science, but when the elements align, it can be quite wonderful.

Mystery Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Ephrata Area SD

Elem. – Chick and Brain: Egg or Eyeball?

Bell, Cece. Chick and Brain: Egg or Eyeball? Candlewick Press, 2020. 978-1-536-20439-1. 70 p. $12.99. Grades K-3. 

When Brain makes an amazing discovery, he can’t wait to show his friend, Chick. But, upon seeing the object, the friends cannot agree about what it is. It’s small, white, and oval. Brain says it’s an eyeball. Chick says it’s an egg. Each friend loudly pleads his case, capturing the attention of their nearby friend Spot the dog and a sleeping cat. It’s only when they awaken another creature that the group discovers the object’s true identity once and for all. This second offering in the Chick and Brain series will have beginning readers laughing out loud at the friends’ silliness. Loose cartoon drawings in large graphic novel panels keep the story’s four action-packed chapters moving along quickly.

THOUGHTS: Recommend this to Elephant and Piggie fans. This book is made for read-alouds and will be perfect for storytime.

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD