MG – Dear Student

Swartz, Elly. Dear Student. Delacorte Press, 2022. 978-0-593-37412-2. $16.99. 293 p. Grades 6-8.

Starting middle school is difficult for most students, but for sixth-grader Autumn Blake, it’s a lonely, anxious time not only because her friend Prisha has moved to California but also because her father has decided to “seize the day” and grant his lifelong wish to help others by joining the Peace Corps in Ecuador. Now, Autumn, her mom, and her little sister, Pickles, have to move to the apartment above her mother’s veterinary practice, and Autumn has more responsibilities to help with her sister, their home, and the practice. Though she feels like a misfit at school, she responds to her father’s daily advice to challenge herself and applies for the position as the advice columnist for the school newspaper, The Daily Express. As she awaits the decision on the newspaper slot, Autumn is surprised by the attention from popular, confident classmate, Logan. Selected as the anonymous advice columnist, Autumn reveals that under her awkward and self-conscious exterior lies an insightful and wise counselor. She even winds up giving advice to Logan and learning about her new friend’s hidden insecurities and needs. Autumn also balances this friendship with Cooper, a newcomer to her small community, whom Logan says is weird. When she responds to a disturbing accusation about Beautiful You, a cosmetic business in her community that has provided jobs for many, including Cooper’s mother, her reply sparks controversy around suspected animal testing; and when word leaks out that Autumn is the one dispensing advice, both Logan and Cooper turn against her. To make matters worse, her fantasy about her dad returning home for her birthday fizzles. Ultimately, Autumn realizes she is strong enough to grab hold of her Fearless Fred –a nod to a family story–and summon the courage to do what is hard to make things right. The premise of the friendly advice columnist being the introverted character has been done in Lifetime movies, but Elly Schwarz’s middle school take on it is refreshing and unique. Hard to tell what race the characters are, but both Logan and Autumn are white; Autumn refers several times to her Jewish religion.

THOUGHTS: Give this book to the shy student, the one who travels under the radar whom you suspect has something valuable to say. This book may be a good springboard for Social Emotional Learning–after all, Autumn is providing advice and the situations in which she finds herself can be good What if? examples. What if a parent chooses to go away for a long time? What if you need to move because your family’s financial situation changes? What if you are given more responsibilities? What if you make presumptions about how you impress people and how other people appear to you? What if you need to take a stand about something you really believe in and a friend disagrees? What if a situation arises where you need to speak up? Autumn Blake, with her complicated feelings and struggle for confidence, is a character middle school students would like to meet.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Love, Decoded

Yen, Jennifer. Love, Decoded. Razorbill, 2022. 978-0-593-11755-2. $18.99. 303 pp. Grades 7-10.

Love, Decoded by Jennifer Yen paints a world of Superbia, a Manhattan prep school, family life in a five-story brownstone with an elevator, and the fashionable and edible haunts of wealthy young New Yorkers that mixes Kevin Kwan’s Crazy, Rich Asians PG with Jane Austen’s Emma. Gigi Wong is a matchmaker-in-training with her Great-Aunt Rose in the backroom of her Chinatown shop, Rose and Jade. A computer coding whiz, sixteen-year-old Gigi convinces Auntie Rose to let her digitize some of the biodata on her clients. In first-person narration, Gigi describes her close friendship with next-door neighbor, Chinese and white, Kyle Miller; he is her confidante and go-to person, but nothing more (cue predictability). As a volunteer at the Suzuki Youth Center, the beautiful and magnanimous Gigi takes under her wing mentee, Etta, a Filipino-American scholarship student. Gigi learns to appreciate Etta’s exuberance and guilelessness and introduces her to a make over, exclusive restaurant openings, and demonstrations of privilege. In turn, Etta, an anime and video game aficionado, teaches Gigi how to use the subway, to buy clothes on a budget, and to appreciate the sacrifices Gigi’s chauffeur Fernando makes to be at the Wongs’ beck and call. Etta’s difficulty fitting in at Superbia also provides Gigi with the idea for her entry in a Junior Coding Contest. Using her novice matchmaking skills, Gigi enhances her program Quizlr into one that matches compatible friends. When former friend, Joey Kwan, returns from Singapore looking new and improved, Gigi thinks she has found a match for Etta. As the deadline for the contest approaches, Gigi has her pals try out her app only to find out that it has gone viral producing glitches in the program and serious problems for Gigi and her teacher, Ms. Harris. All gets neatly resolved with Gigi gaining new insight into what she truly wants for her future. Most readers will be treated to this world where teens wear original designers, dine at the trendiest restaurants, have their own credit cards, achieve high grades and awards, converse honestly and comfortably with their parents, and find their true love. Who wouldn’t want to escape there?

THOUGHTS: There are so many reasons this story is irritating, yet readers feel compelled to read it to the end. It fits all the stereotypes: wealthy prep school students can buy anything; the main characters are always going to the latest, best restaurants or ordering in their favorite foods; the narrator takes care to describe in detail their designer outfits and make up. Gigi knows the right things to say to maintain her sweet girl demeanor. She is supposed to be beautiful, smart, and popular, but no other girlfriends enter the story but her mentee, Etta, and through her, Gigi’s ex-friend, Anna. Perhaps Love, Decoded is an example of why we read fiction: to escape into a different world unlike our own. For that reason, Love, Decoded may become a seller among older middle school and younger high school students.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG -Moonwalking

Elliott, Zetta, and Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Moonwalking. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2022. 978-0-374-31437-8. $16.99. 216 p. Grades 6-8.

The title of the verse novel, Moonwalking, refers not so much to Michael Jackson’s signature dance move, but to a certain time period–the 1980’s–when punk rock was popular, Ronald Reagan was president, the infamous air traffic controller strike raged, and Brooklyn neighborhoods were largely broken and poor. Two eighth-grade characters inhabit this book: John Joseph (JP) Pandowski whose family has to give up their house on Long Island because his father loses his job as one of those ill-fated air traffic controllers; and they move in with his Polish grandmother in a basement apartment in Greenpoint. Biracial Pie feels acutely the abandonment of his African father and the need to protect his mentally fragile Puerto Rican mother. The pair cannot be more different. JP is shy and has difficulty making friends; Pie knows the ins and outs of his neighborhood and is a creative tagger. Still, they share classes together and JP is drawn to the more confident Pie. One thing they have in common is the arts. JP yearns to learn how to play the guitar his father’s friend gave him. The kindly school art teacher takes Pie under her wing and exposes him to the art of Jean Michel Basquiat and encourages Pie to enter an art contest. Though JP lacks the words to forge a friendship with Pie, the latter shares a night of tagging with him and accepts him. While Pie is parentified and JP is ignored by their respective families, the boys are drawn to each other by their personal troubles and their artistic endeavors. The joint authors spare no words to describe the harsh and unfair rules of Reagan’s actions and include episodes that smack of blatant racism: the unfairness and harsh treatment Pie experiences at school and at the hands of the police. The conclusion of the novel is not tidy, but it is satisfactory giving a realistic view of boyhoods that come up short because of unfortunate family situations. The authors experiment with different types of poetry throughout, alternating between the two boys, making this novel a quick and compelling read for students who may opt for more believable tales.

THOUGHTS: Several threads run throughout this verse novel with some sections scripted almost like prose; some in shapes. First, the home lives of both boys is dismal but realistic and perhaps relatable to some readers. Frustrated and angry, JP’s father is verbally abusive to his son. Pie’s mother is mentally fragile. Second, the explanation of Reagan’s response contrasted with Lech Walesa’s leadership in the Solidarity movement reveals a period in history not known to many students. Last, the strong parallel of Pie’s life with the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat can be discussed and coupled with the picture book, Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe. Two incidentals: JP surprises his sister kissing her friend, Claire, but otherwise there are no other LBGTQ+ elements. The dust jacket states that JP is autistic, but this characterization is not distinct throughout the story.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – The View from the Very Best House in Town

Trehan, Meera. The View from the Very Best House in Town. Walker Books, 2022. 978-1-536-21924-1. $17.99. 261 p. Grades 4-7.

Asha and Sam have been friends forever. Sam is obsessed with astronomy, Asha with architecture, and both love playing the video game Househaunt on their phones. Each friend suspects the other is on the Autism Spectrum, but the pair have never discussed their diagnoses. When Sam is accepted into elite prep school Castleton Academy, Asha has to face public middle school without her best and only friend. In the center of town, high on a hill, sits the ostentatious mansion named Donnybrooke, home to pretty and popular Prestyn Donaldson. Years ago Asha was invited inside but has since been banned by Prestyn’s overbearing, social-climbing mother. Asha marvels over the home’s unique architectural style and years to return to study the building. Adjusting to life at Castleton is not easy for Sam, who struggles socially until Prestyn appears to befriend him. But is Prestyn truly Sam’s friend? How do friends treat each other? Is an alliance with a friend who is manipulative and mean worth it? Told from the alternating perspectives of Sam, Asha, and the mansion Donnybrooke, this book examines the true meaning of friendship and acceptance. The characters (including that of the mansion itself) are beautifully depicted with extreme sensitivity and care taken to portray the inner thoughts and feelings of the students identified on the Autism Spectrum.

THOUGHTS: Debut author Meera Trehan is a lawyer who has represented many families whose children have unique and diverse educational needs. She is also mother to a daughter with Autism. The story itself is fabulously entertaining. The Donnybrooke chapters are a highly amusing investigation of human behavior. It is the complexity of the characters and their families that won me over in this novel. This book would make a fabulous classroom read aloud, and offers many opportunities for discussions about families, friendships, Autism, kindness, acceptance, and the value and worth of success.

Realistic Fiction    Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD

YA – Killing Time

Ehrlich, Brenna. Killing Time. Inkyard Press, 2022. 978-1-335-41867-8. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Natalie has lived a pretty sheltered life in Ferry, Connecticut, thanks to her mom’s overprotective rules. Working in their family diner, it’s always just been the two of them. When Natalie, who recently graduated from high school, learns that her favorite teacher died under suspicious circumstances she’s determined to honor Mrs. Halsey’s memory. Though their last conversation didn’t end well, Mrs. Halsey understood Natalie’s interest in true crime and supported her (and Nat’s best friend Katie) as the true crime club advisor. They even started their own podcast – Killing Time – where they evolve in their discussion of legendary killers. All of this “true crime stuff” is done, of course, without her mom’s knowledge or permission. But Nat, who wants to go to college to be a journalist, is determined to tell her teacher’s story and honor her life. When she finds a threatening note telling her to “Stay out of it. I’m warning you.” she’s even more motivated to piece together what happened to Mrs. Halsey. Between the conversations among customers at the diner, her internship at the paper, and some convenient friendships, Nat seems to be getting closer to the truth. But how likely is a teenager operating on her own to solve a crime, especially when someone doesn’t want the truth to come to light? Interspersed throughout the novel are “Then” chapters that flash back to Helen’s college days which shed some light onto the strained relationship between mother and daughter and some of Helen’s overprotective tendencies.

THOUGHTS: Fans of true crime will like this one. I especially enjoyed the Then chapters which seemed to have more suspense and keep the story moving. A supplemental purchase where mysteries are popular.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – Tin Man

Madson, Justin. Tin Man. Amulet Books, 2022. 978-1-419-75104-2. 219 p. $17.99. Grades 7-10.

Solar is a senior but instead of feeling like her whole life is ahead of her, she feels scared and uncertain. The death of her grandmother, who was also her best friend and mentor, has shaken Solar to her core. Fenn, her little brother, is confused and saddened by her change in personality. The two of them used to work on building a rocket together, but now Solar has little interest in much of anything, especially if it involves Fenn. Campbell is a tin man, a woodsman who wants more in his life than just chopping down trees. Against his father’s wishes, Campbell receives a heart and leaves home to work through all of the feelings he suddenly has. Fenn, Solar, and Campbell become unlikely friends and together, they work through all of their difficult feelings to understand what life has to offer them.

THOUGHTS: This graphic novel is a heart-warming story of how friendship can help heal feelings of loss and confusion. Read closely to see other objects and symbols from The Wizard of Oz peppered throughout Tin Man. 

Graphic Novel                Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem. – PAWS: Gabby Gets It Together

Assarasakorn, Michele, and Nathan Fairbairn. PAWS: Gabby Gets It Together. Razorbill, 2022. 978-0-593-35186-4. 176 pp. $12.99. Gr. 3-6.

Fifth grader Gabby and her best friends, sixth graders Mindy and Priya, absolutely love animals, but none of them can have a pet due to parental preferences, landlord policies, and allergies. Longing for some furry friends in their lives, the three girls form PAWS: Pretty Awesome Walkers, and begin walking a small group of neighborhood dogs. They face a series of obstacles in the process of building their after-school business. Some are humorous – who will pick up the dog poop? should they wear matching uniforms? – while others stem from the girls’ different goals for PAWS, varying commitment levels, and lack of communication. Gabby especially feels like she is always out-voted by her slightly older, sometimes bossier friends. All three girls learn from their mistakes and Gabby does, indeed, get it together!

THOUGHTS: PAWS is essentially a Baby-Sitters Club for animal-loving tweens; the next installment, due in November, will focus on Mindy. Sunny artwork, friend and family dynamics, and plenty of adorable pups lend broad appeal to this graphic novel series starter.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – Lines of Courage

Nielsen, Jennifer A. Lines of Courage. Scholastic Press, 2022. 978-1-338-62093-1. 388 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

This historical fiction novel takes place during World War I. The story is told through the voices of five children who are experiencing the war from different perspectives. The story starts with the voice of young Felix in Austia-Hungary as he witnesses the assassination of the Archduke which triggers the start of the war. The book is divided into five sections and is told in chronological order through the the voices of the children. Their stories become intertwined as they try to make sense of this war that they have been forced to grow in. The novel comes to a conclusion with Felix as the final storyteller.

THOUGHTS: This book is for students who are drawn to historical fiction. The characters are well-written, and the action is fast-paced. It is good to see a book focused on World War I which does not get as much attention as other historical time periods.

Historical Fiction          Victoria Dziewulski, Plum Borough SD

YA – All That’s Left in the World

Brown, Erik J. All That’s Left in the World. Balzer + Bray, 2022. 978-0-063-05497-4. 338 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.

When 78% of the world’s population has been decimated due to a superflu, and the world has headed in post-apocalyptic terrority, survival takes center stage in the lives of those remaining. Andrew decides that he needs to leave Connecticut on foot in order to settle a debt. He becomes injured and stumbles onto a remote cabin in the Pennsylvanian woods. This is where he meets Jamie. Jamie has been surviving on his own for many months, and he has not made contact with another human during this time. The two form a friendship, and their daily lives fall into a comfortable pattern until their sanctuary is threatened and the two must escape. They spend the next few months discovering just what has happened to the rest of the country.

THOUGHTS: This was a fast read. I thoroughly enjoyed the strong character development of both Jamie and Andrew as they discover their strengths and weaknesses as they fall in love in this broken world.

Science Fiction          Victoria Dziewulski, Plum Borough SD

YA – The Agathas

Glasgow, Kathleen, and Liz Lawson. The Agathas. Delacorte Press, 2022. 416 p. 978-0-593-43112-2. Grades 9-12. $18.99.

Once one of the “Mains” – wealthy kids at Castle Cove High who go by their last names – Alice Ogilve has been a social pariah since disappearing for five days last summer, causing her friends, family, and especially her ex-boyfriend Steve a lot of heartache and costing the town of Castle Cove a lot of money. Since then Alice has been homeschooled while on house arrest, and her only friend was the complete works of Agatha Christie. Now it’s Halloween (Alice is under dressed for the occasion.), and the message: “Alice Ogilve is crazy.” greets her on her locker. Alice’s former best friends are less than thrilled to see her. To make matters worse, Alice is called out of class to visit Ms. Westmacott’s counseling office, and she’s assigned a peer tutor. One of the “Zoners” – kids who seem to be thrown together out of necessity because they’re poor – Iris prefers to fly under the radar and focus on her studies. Though they’ve gone to school together since kindergarten, Iris only accepted the tutoring job because of the promise of a nice paycheck, regardless of how well Alice does. Besides, she has other things on her mind like getting herself and her mother “out of Castle Cove and away from the Thing.” When Alice’s former best friend goes missing, the town thinks she’s “pulling an Alice,” but Alice knows Brooke never would run away. Though unlikely, Alice teams up with Iris, and the two have to work together to figure out what happened, especially when the local police and Brooke’s own father think nothing is wrong. But each with their own secrets, it won’t be easy to let someone new in, especially someone so different.

THOUGHTS: There are a few mysteries within this character driven thriller, and readers will root for different people throughout, unsure of exactly what happened until the big aha moment. Recommended for high school collections where compelling mysteries are popular.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

The previous summer, Alice suddenly disappears, and the small oceanside town of Castle Cove goes into a panic trying to locate her. She shows up unharmed without an explanation five days later. Her friends are not willing to welcome her back with open arms, and she begins to struggle with school. It is a year later, and another girl goes missing. It is believed that this is a copycat of what Alice did before, so no one is in a hurry to find her. Except Alice and her mysterious tutor, Iris. When the girl’s body is discovered, the police immediately make an arrest. Alice and Iris believe they have arrested the wrong person, and with the help of Iris’s friends they channel Agatha Christie to solve the mystery.

THOUGHTS: This book is for fans of One of us is Lying and We Were Liars. The story revolves around a small town with many mysterious characters. I really enjoyed the back and forth between Alice and Iris since the chapters alternate between their voices. It also has a map in the beginning of the book. Who doesn’t love a map?

Mystery Fiction          Victoria Dziewulski, Plum Borough SD