YA – Promise Boys

Brooks, Nick. Promise Boys. Henry Holt and Company, 2023. 978-1-250-86697-4. 294 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.

J.B., Ramón, and Trey are students at the Urban Promise Prep School in Washington, DC. They do their best to follow the ultra-strict rules established by their principal as part of his “Moore Method.” But when Principal Moore is murdered, each of the three boys (who were all in detention and adjacent to the crime scene that day) become suspects. Although they do not trust each other at first, they soon realize that their best chance at clearing their names is to work together to expose the real killer. Debut author Nick Brooks does a great job of developing each character’s unique voice and personality, which is pivotal because the story is told from numerous points of view. Each teen has his own struggles, triumphs, and secrets that play into how they approach the world and each other. In addition to being a propulsive murder mystery, Promise Boys poses some serious questions about the prep school’s toxic culture of excellence. 

THOUGHTS: Readers who enjoy books by Jason Reynolds, Angie Thomas, and Karen M. McManus will gravitate to this novel, which is both entertaining and rich with opportunities for deep discussion.


J.B.Williamson, Trey Jackson, and Ramon Zambrano all attend Promise Academy, an all-male charter school in Washington D.C. intended to groom young men of color with its high standards and academic rigor. Its principal and founder, Kenneth Moore, is both slick and tough. The reader meets him as he is unraveling. He rules the school with an iron fist, yielding his power with impossible demands and punitive measures–a far cry from the environment of the school at its inception. The students keep silent in the building; follow straight, blue lines through the hall; and angst over demerits for petty infractions that threaten detention or expulsion. On the afternoon of an important basketball game, the three protagonists find themselves in detention when Principal Moore is mortally shot. All three are suspects for the murder. What follows is an examination from each character’s point of view of the events that brought them to that moment and their efforts to exonerate themselves and uncover the real murderer. Though the three are not friends, their common trouble unites them, and they join forces with their friends’ support to trace the downfall of a formerly idealistic leader and find his killer. Told in different voices and scenes, Promise Boys depicts cameos of boys of color striving to be their best selves but thwarted by an academic system that degrades and punishes them. Author Nick Brooks tells a compelling story featuring loving families and friends juxtaposed against the pressure of living in a world that deems one guilty before innocent. An important novel for any high school library.

THOUGHTS: This layered story provokes discussion around student voice and justice which keeps readers turning the pages. Both a mystery and a commentary on black young men in American society, the nature of school and punishment, and greed and corruption, Promise Boys reveals people are not all they seem. It forces the reader to see that each person has complicated workings and what they deal with may not be evident–even to those closest to them. Some curse words, some illegal activity (breaking into the school building), police shown in a negative light,  and an intimation of sex (JB has his first girlfriend, and it is implied they had intercourse.), notwithstanding, this book relates a truthful tale relatable to many eighth grade students as well as upper high school. Weaving in text messages and multiple perspectives of various characters, Brooks’s unusual plot engages even reluctant readers. Compare this significant novel with Jason Reynolds’s and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys or Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down.

Realistic Fiction

MG – Just Like That

Schmidt, Gary. Just Like That. Clarion Books, 2021. 978-0-544-08477-3. 387 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Meryl Lee, reeling from the tragic death of her best friend Holling, is struggling to find joy in anything. Her parents enroll her into a New England boarding school to help her find herself again (while also shielding her from the divorce process they are secretly going through). At St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls, Meryl Lee feels like she has more in common with the young ladies who are employed there rather than the stuck-up girls who attend as students. Despite being told that it is “unbecoming” to mingle with the staff, Meryl Lee knows in her heart this is wrong. With the support of the headmistress, Dr. Nora MacKnockater, Meryl Lee works on healing her heart and finding her place in the world. At the same time, a boy named Matt Coffin is always on the move. Homeless and parent-less, he moves from place to place carrying his pillowcase full of money, intent on avoiding the scary people who are coming after him. His travels take him to New England and there, his world collides with Meryl Lee’s and Dr. MacKnockater’s. With their help, he confronts his past and starts planting permanent roots in one place.

THOUGHTS: Although these two characters are seemingly different, the struggles they are going through tie them together. The book takes place in 1968 but still feels very modern. The character’s struggles are definitely ones that middle grade readers will relate to (fitting in, divorce) combined with the global struggle of the Vietnam War in the background of the story makes it more complex than it seems on the surface. Gary Schmidt’s witty writing style will make middle grade readers laugh, cry, and think.

Historical Fiction           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – On the Hook

Stork, Francisco X. On the Hook. Scholastic, 2021. 304 p. 978-1-338-69215-0. $17.99. Grades 7-12.

Hector is a decent, smart kid living in the projects since his father died of cancer. He excels at chess and thinks college may be a possibility, so he keeps his head down, desperate to be overlooked by Chavo’s local drug-dealing crew. But Joey, Chavo’s younger brother and a member of the crew, singles him out, carves a “C” on his chest (for coward) and declares, “I’m going to kill you.” Fear invades every space in Hector’s life. He can’t fathom how his father stayed strong, or how his older brother Fili can command respect in the neighborhood. His best friend Azi tries to help and keep him focused on chess and the future. But Hector’s fears overwhelm him daily. He wonders how to change himself and how to be fearless, and he longs to put his cowardly self behind him. But in failing to stand up for his brother when Fili is attacked by Chavo and Joey, Hector spirals downward into deep questioning and self-loathing. Hector is sentenced to six months in a juvenile probation academy, a friendlier place than most in the system, and encounters numerous guards and inmates seeking to teach him to give up the hate he feels. Hector is torn and the outcome is anything but clear. Can he recreate himself into someone he’s proud to be? And what does that look like?

THOUGHTS: This is a realistic look into dangers young people face, inside and out. Despite the numerous safeguards around him, Hector’s choices are anything but clear. Readers will be interested in what he decides to do.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – These Violent Delights

Gong, Chloe. These Violent Delights. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2020. 978-1-534-45769-0. $19.99. 464 p. Grades 9-12.

“These violent delights have violent ends.” It’s 1926, and the city of Shanghai is ruled by two gangs: The White Flowers and The Scarlet Gang. Juliette Cai has just returned to the city after spending four years in America, and she’s ready to forget her past and take on the role of heir to the Scarlets. When she is approached by Roma Montagov, the White Flower heir, he insists they work together to stop a madness plaguing their city and taking the lives of members of both gangs. She reluctantly agrees, although she was betrayed by Roma in the past. Together, as they prepare to hunt down a monster, they can’t ignore the passion that still exists between them, but if their alliance is discovered by either gang, the madness will be the least of their worries, and the blood feud between the two could turn deadly.

THOUGHTS: This novel brings some exciting new aspects to William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet: 1920s flappers, the setting of Shanghai, monsters, and madness! The Scarlet Gang members are Chinese, The White Flowers are Russian, but the French and English are powerful presences in Shanghai as well, and this brings some diversity to the characters. You’ll be rooting for Roma and Juliette as they discover the secret behind the madness, and against all odds, find their way back to each other. This is perfect for readers who like action and historical fiction, as well as a bit of romance, and the ending will have them impatiently waiting for book two!

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

Juliette Cai seems to have it all as the eighteen-year-old heir to Shanghai’s revered Scarlet Gang. Juliette’s only problem seems to be her love/hate relationship with Roma Montagov, the heir of the rival gang the White Flowers. The Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers’ criminal networks operate above the law and are continually fighting, often killing each other on the spot when they accidentally cross into the other’s territory. However, a mysterious plague descends upon Shanghai, causing people from both sides to become mad and claw out their own throats. People begin whispering of a monster with glittering eyes, often seen in the water and controlling lice-like insects that burrow into people’s brains. In this retelling of Romeo and Juliet, both Juliette and Roma must put their feelings aside and work together to find the origin of this madness and stop it before Shanghai is destroyed.

THOUGHTS: With her beautiful descriptive language, author Chole Gong puts a riveting twist on a classic story in her debut novel, which promises to delight fans of the fantasy genre. Fans of fantasy sequels and trilogies will also appreciate that this story will continue in a yet-to-be-published sequel.

Fantasy          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – Concrete Rose

Thomas, Angie. Concrete Rose. Balzer + Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-84671-6. 368 p. $19.99. Grades 9 and up.

Maverick Carter is trying to get by. As a 17-year old single father, he realizes that he must put his gang and drug dealing days behind him in order to care for his son and future child. But, working for Mr. Wyatt isn’t paying enough to take care of Seven and help his mother out, and he is “Little Don,” son of Adonis, a King Lords legend. After the death of his cousin and best friend, Dre, Maverick tries to keep Dre’s wishes of laying low and getting away from gang life, but Maverick lost his brother; he is ready to seek revenge. He returns to dealing for King and goes after Dre’s assumed killer. When King provides him with the means to remain in the game and get his revenge, Maverick must decide if Seven, Lisa, and their unborn child are more important to him than his need for  revenge and the gang.

THOUGHTS:  This prequel to The Hate You Give is a glimpse into the struggles and early life of Starr’s father, Maverick Carter. He wrestles with wanting to provide for his son and mother in a legitimate way while also feeling a need to follow in his father’s footsteps as a King Lord and make “easy money.” These struggles are very real to readers because they are universal: Do what is right or do what is “easy.” This novel also deals with many social issues: teenage pregnancy, gang life, drug dealing, imprisonment of a parent, being a high school dropout, sexual orientation, and more, but it never seems preachy or frivolous.  Readers will also enjoy connecting Maverick’s story to Starr’s story and seeing how and why he is who he is. Highly recommended to all who loved The Hate You Give.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

Real men take care of their family and even though he’s 17 years old, that’s what Maverick plans on doing when he finds out he’s a father. The way Maverick helps his family at the beginning of the novel is by dealing with the King Lords. That career choice doesn’t bother Maverick too much until he becomes a father to a baby boy he names Seven, then Maverick decides it’s time to straighten up. However, walking away from the King Lords is easier said than done, and it will take everything in him to do so.

THOUGHTS: If you read and loved The Hate U Give, this is a must read, and I feel you can read them in any order. It definitely gives the reader a better understanding of Starr’s father, and you empathize with him throughout the novel. Highly recommended for any high school collection!

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

This Way Home


Moore, Wes and Shawn Goodman. This Way Home. New York: Delacorte Press, 2015. 978-0-375-99019-9. 245 p. $17.99. Gr. 9 and up.

Elijah Thomas is a high school basketball star, and he and his two best friends are competing in the neighborhood adult league championships for prize money as well as recognition. They become entangled with a violent gang, Blood Street Nation, when the gang leader offers to supply them with new shoes and jerseys. When the boys, with encouragement from their mothers, decide to not wear the jerseys that bear the gang logo, the gang retaliates by killing one of the trio of best friends. The contrast and conflict are palpable – Elijah is grief stricken at the same time as he should be celebrating for not only winning the tournament but also for being recruited by a university basketball coach. The side story is one of Elijah connecting with and learning from a retired army officer who teaches him responsibility in his father’s absence. THOUGHTS: Although several elements in the story line are unrealistic, including the teenage boys’ acquiescing to their mothers’ wishes and the ending with the demise of the gang, I would recommend this book to teenage students who claim to hate reading, particularly to urban youth who will recognize the neighborhood violence that threatens their life dreams.

Realistic Fiction; Urban       Annette Sirio, Pittsburgh Obama Academy of International Studies

How It Went Down


Magoon, Kekla. How It Went Down. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2014. 978-0805098693. 336 p. $17.99. Gr. 9+.

Kekla Magoon tackles the difficult subjects of racism and gun violence in her intense and engaging novel. The plot is one that is familiar to anyone who has been keeping up with the news lately: a black teen is shot by a seemingly well-meaning white man, who is let go after police deem the shooting as self defense. Uncertainty and hearsay surround the story as no one really know whether or not Tariq had a gun or a Snickers bar, and whether or not he was a member of the Kings, a local gang. Magoon chooses to tell the story from the perspective of all of the people affected by the tragedy, which is an ambitious and powerful method of storytelling. Each character’s voice is unique and compelling. They range from Tyrell, Tariq’s best friend, to his little sister, the white man harboring the shooter, a black minister turned politician trying to capitalize on the tragedy to bolster his own career, the leader of the Kings, and many others. Magoon succeeds in telling the story of an urban area embroiled in violence and poverty, with characters who want to escape but have many factors working against them. Tyrell stands out as one who is struggling to remain true to his goal of attending college while resisting the pressure to join the Kings. I highly recommend this book for high school book clubs that enjoy deep discussion on current events and topics.

Realistic Fiction         Lindsey Myers, Peters Township High School

This book captivated me from the beginning, and caused me to reflect on my understanding of the current issues with violence and racism that are permeating the media. In the beginning I did have to remind myself of the many different characters as they appeared, since each character usually only has one or two pages devoted to their story at a time. The distinctive voices, however, do shine through and by the end I felt that I knew each person intimately, and identified with their hopes and dreams. All of the characters are dynamic. Moogan could have fallen into the trap of making the characters reflect stereotypes, but she gives each character a backstory that completely changes the reader’s judgement of the character. Since many of my students have been discussing the various cases in the news, I am nominating this book to be read in our student book club. I am going to also share it with our sociology teacher, as I think that selections of the text would be perfect to read and discuss in her classes.