MG – City of Secrets

Ying, Victoria. City of Secrets. Viking, 2020. 978-0-593-11448-3. 252 p. $22.99. Grades 5-8.

In the city of Oskar there is a switchboard that connects more than just phone calls. Ever Barnes, an orphan, hides in the switchboard building and protects a secret that not even he knows. When the owner of the switchboard brings his daughter Hannah to see how it works, she discovers Ever and is instantly intrigued. When a secret society threatens to kill Ever and take the secret for themselves, Hannah, Ever and a switchboard worker must go to great lengths to protect the secret and the city.

THOUGHTS: This graphic novel delivers a beautiful storyline and will captivate readers who love adventure and spy stories! Both of the children in the story play a vital role, and it is a breath of fresh air to see a girl protagonist. This graphic novel does not disappoint!

Graphic Novel          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

YA – Almost American Girl

Ha, Robin. Almost American Girl. Balzar and Bray, 2020. 978-0-062-68509-4. 228 p. $12.99. Grades 7 – 12.

Almost American Girl is a graphic memoir that follows the author’s real life journey from Seoul, South Korea to America when she is fourteen years old. At the beginning of the book, you learn that Robin is moving with her mother to Alabama, with Robins’ mother not really telling her all the details about the move. Throughout the graphic memoir, you learn more about Robin’s life when she was living in Seoul, her family and friends who still live in Seoul, as well as how she found a way to fit into this new life that her mother basically dropped her into. On the surface, the book feels like it’s just recounting Robin’s life; however, there are moments of racial slurs that Robin deals with at school which were difficult to read about. The illustrations throughout are beautifully done and add the right touch of emotions to the different scenes through the use of color.

THOUGHTS: This graphic memoir is a must have book for any high school library. The themes that are woven throughout are extremely relevant for a wide audience. I loved the ending of this book, and the glossary found at the end was extremely helpful for terms with which I was unfamiliar.

Graphic Memoir          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Charter Academy 

MG – When Stars are Scattered

Jamieson, Victoria, and Omar Mohamed. When Stars are Scattered. Dial, 2020. 978-0-525-55391-5. 257 p. + notes. $20.99. Grades 3-8.

Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have been living in a Kenyan refugee camp since fleeing Somalia at the age of 4. Omar’s life consists of taking care of Hassan, with the assistance of Fatuma, an elderly woman who has been appointed the boys’ guardian. UN supplied food rations are meager and entertainment is what can be manufactured, such as playing soccer with a ball created from plastic bags. Omar has not gone to school, feeling responsible for Hassan. But a camp community leader encourages Omar to begin attending school, and a new world  opens to Omar. But it can be a painful world, of crushed dreams and disappointments. Brilliant student Maryam who dreams of going to university in Canada, is forced to quit school and get married. The system of choosing people for possible relocation to the United States seems random, and when Omar and Hassan are finally chosen for an emigration interview, nothing comes of it. But Omar continues to study and dream. When Omar is 18 the brothers are finally selected for resettlement. This stunning autobiography portrays, in beautiful color palettes, the reality of life in a refugee camp. Living conditions are horrific, but there are also close bonds of people who care for and support each other. Omar’s horrific backstory is revealed during his first resettlement interview, explaining how he and Hassan came to be in the  camp alone at such a young age. Author notes at the end of the story update the reader on the brothers’ story after reaching the United States, including the delightful surprise that Omar is currently living in Lancaster, PA.

THOUGHTS: This important story is a must purchase for most libraries. It carries the gravitas of Jarrett Krosocka’s Hey Kiddo, but appropriate for a younger audience.

Autobiography          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

As Omar so succinctly states in the word bubble on the back cover: “Refugee Camps are supposed to be a temporary place to stay until it’s safe to go back home. I guess no one expected the war to last so long, though, because Hassan and I have been here for 7 years.” With gorgeous colors and interesting characters, Jamieson and Mohamed take us through childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya. The monotony of daily essential routines for survival are mixed with increasing odds against finding their mother or going back home to Somalia. What remains is the effort to take care of one another, the opportunity to get schooling and seek a future, and the slightest chance to immigrate to another country for a new beginning. All of these seem unlikely for Omar, who faces tragic memories, current realities, and future possibilities with truth and sincerity that will bring young readers into his world and into their hearts. When the Stars Are Scattered is a remarkable light in the night sky which guides hope home.

THOUGHTS: Both Pennsylvania residents do an excellent job bringing the refugee experience to children. The sibling relationship with Hassan, who is nonverbal except for one word, is truly touching and real. The afterword and authors’ notes bring the story up to date, and help realize the many other refugee stories that need to be heard. Highly recommended.

Graphic Novel          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

This beautifully drawn graphic novel tells the story of Omar Mohamed, a young Somalian boy who was forced out of his country and into a refugee camp in Kenya with his young brother at the age of 4.  Omar’s younger brother, Hassan, is special needs and only says one word, Hooyo, the Somalian word for Mama. Omar and Hassan saw their father killed and were separated from their mother as the Civil War in Somalia started. With the kindness of a new foster mother, Omar and Hassan survive and grow up in the Dadaab refugee camp. Omar’s life changes when he starts school and excels, earning the right to continue to attend school as he grows up. Omar and Hassan never give up looking for their real mother, and in the Afterword we see real photos of Omar and Hassan, and learn that, years later, they are reunited with her.

THOUGHTS: A must purchase for any middle grade library collection.

Graphic Novel          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

YA – Heartstopper #1

Oseman, Alice. Heartstopper # 1. Graphix, 2020. 978-1-338-61743-6. 288 p. $14.99. Grades 8-12.

Fans of romance and coming of age stories, go no further. Oseman’s volume one of the Heartstopper series will do just that: stop your heart. This light take on a young man coming out to his school before he was really ready, dives into male friendships and more within a school setting. The story is set in England and revolves around a rugby team so there is slang that might be lost on some readers. This is a great story of male friendship that broadens into something more. Although school isn’t always a safe place, Oseman reminds us that there are people to be safe with. It’s important to note that this is a story revolving around gay high school students and that includes the abuse, both physical and verbal that still occurs, especially for individuals who are trying to figure themselves out. Oseman leaves the reader hanging and ready for volume two.

THOUGHTS: This is a great addition to high school libraries who are looking to make their graphic novel collection more realistic. In addition, this is a great mirror into the thoughts and feelings adolescents may have while discovering their sexual preferences and navigating the rough seas of high school.

Graphic Novel          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

MG – The Magic Fish

Nguyen, Trung Le. The Magic Fish. Random House Graphic, 2020. 978-0-593-12529-8. 256 p. $23.99. Grades 7-9.

In The Magic Fish, author/illustrator Trung Le Nguyen braids together a family’s immigration story, a son’s desire to reveal a part of his identity to his parents, and retellings of classic fairy tales such as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Eighth-grader Tien reads these fairy tales to his mother, whose first language is Vietnamese, to help her improve her English. Mother and son (and father, when he isn’t at work) are close as can be, but still Tien struggles with how to share his secret with them: he is attracted to boys. The problem is part language barrier, part apprehension for how they will react. Tien’s mother, meanwhile, is struggling with the declining health of her own mother in Vietnam, and memories of fleeing her home country many years ago. Nguyen’s truly exquisite artwork is color-coded to orient the reader both in time and within the story; the present is ruby red, the past is mustard yellow, and the fairy tales are various jewel tones. It sounds complicated, but it works beautifully. The fairy tales foreground themes of new beginnings, identity, isolation, and connection, while also casting light on the experiences of our main characters. The gentle twist at the end satisfyingly reminds Tien (and readers!) that true happy endings are the ones we write for ourselves.

THOUGHTS: Readers of The Magic Fish will find themselves equally captivated by each storyline within this many-layered tale.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

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. – 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

YA – Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio

Backderf, Derf. Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. Abrams ComicArts. 2020. 978-1-4197-3484-7. 288 pp. $24.99. Gr. 10+.

For many of us, “Kent State” is synonymous with one of the most indelible images of the Vietnam War era. John Paul Filo’s influential, award-winning photograph captured the aftermath of four days of antiwar protests and National Guard presence, and more specifically thirteen seconds of gunfire. Tragically, four students were shot and killed, and nine more were wounded. In this gripping and painstakingly sourced graphic narrative, comics artist Derf Backderf turns his inimitable skill to chronicling May 1-4, 1970, from the perspectives of the four students whose lives were lost. They played music, went on dates, studied, called their parents, protested President Nixon’s escalation of the war, and uneasily observed the presence of the Ohio National Guard on campus (called in to suppress the “radicals” and agitators, who were generally not part of the student body). Backderf portrays the exhaustion, confusion, unpreparedness, muddled leadership, and dishonesty of the Guard throughout the catastrophic operation, as well as the political pressures impacting their actions.

THOUGHTS: Backderf recreates these four days with such intimate immediacy that the panels depicting the deaths of Jeff, Allison, Sandy, and Bill are gut-wrenching, even 50 years later. Distinctive artwork, ample period details, and integrated exposition set the narrative firmly within the era and provide helpful context. Simply outstanding on every level!

Michael Burgan’s 2017 juvenile nonfiction title, Death at Kent State, and Deborah Wiles’ recent novel-in-verse, Kent State, would round out a text set on this topic for a range of readers.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed

Anderson, Laurie Halse, and Leila Del Duca, Illustrator. Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed. DC Comics. 2020. 978-1-4012-8645-3. 207 pp. $16.99. Grades 7-10.

Themyscira, the secret island home of the Amazons, is protected by a barrier that shelters them from the outside world, although global conflict and human suffering weaken the barrier. On Princess Diana’s 16th “Born Day,” she breaks the rules to help refugees stranded at sea, and is trapped beyond the barrier. Days later, she washes ashore in Greece, now a refugee herself. Her skill with languages earns her a student visa to the United States. In New York city, “Diana Prince” learns about social justice issues (racism, income inequality, gentrification) through her feisty foster sister, Raissa. She also discovers that the square where Raissa and her friends practice parkour is an excellent makeshift training facility for an erstwhile Amazon. Through a free lunch program where the girls volunteer, Diana learns of a possible human trafficking ring, and she discovers her true purpose: protecting the most vulnerable. Sunny, high-contrast artwork in shades of turquoise, terra cotta, and blue-black perfectly frame a diverse cast, and especially Diana’s expressive face and body language.

THOUGHTS: Themes of preparing to be a warrior, fighting for what’s right, and forging a “found family” are always appealing to teen readers, and Wonder Woman finds an audience generation after generation. With Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed, Laurie Halse Anderson joins Leigh Bardugo, Marie Lu, Matt de la Peña, and more top YA authors who are reinventing the superhero origin story. The title is a wink to Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus,” and its famous line: “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – Mañanaland; Nat Enough; Black Brother, Black Brother; On the Horizon

Ryan, Pam Muñoz. Mañanaland. Scholastic Press, 2020. 978-1-338-15786-4.  251 p. $16.53. Grades 3-6.

Maximiliano Córdoba has a lot. He has his hard-working, bridge builder father and his loving Buelo who cooks delicious dinners and tells fantastic stories. He has a best friend, Chuy, and a group of neighborhood boys with whom he plays soccer. He even has a playful dog named Lola. But it is what Max doesn’t have that occupies his thoughts. He doesn’t have the strength that Ortiz has when he throws the fútbol out of the goal, and he doesn’t have a pair of Volantes, which would ensure his success at tryouts. He doesn’t have the freedom to attend a summer clinic in Santa Inés with his friends. And most of all, he does not have a mother. He doesn’t know where she is or why she left, and his Papá will not tell Max anything about her. “When you’re older, I’ll explain more,” is what he hears from his Papá, but he wants answers now, and he may just get them sooner rather than later. The new soccer coach expects all players to have a birth certificate to try out for the team, and Max learns his mother took his documents with her when she left. With Papà out of town in search of Max’s documents, Max finds himself thrust into an adventure of a lifetime. Will the legend his Buelo has been telling him his whole life lead Max to the answers he seeks? And will Papà finally accept that he can be trusted?

THOUGHTS:  Middle school is a time for students to explore their strengths and weaknesses and also to test the boundaries of the freedoms that come with growing up. Many middle schoolers will see themselves in Max and their parents in his Papà. The folklore adds interest to this coming of age story. Pam Muñoz Ryan’s fantasy novel is a self-discovery tale for every upper elementary and middle school library.

Fantasy          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD


Scrivan, Maria. Nat Enough. Graphix, 2020. 978-1-338-53821-2. 235 p. $21.59. Grades 3-6.

Natalie Mariano is not enough. She is not cool enough, not athletic enough, not talented enough. Whatever you need to make you enough for middle school, Natalie doesn’t have it–at all. And to make matters worse, her best friend, Lily, seems to have changed her mind about wanting to be friends with Natalie, so now she is not enough for Lily either.  Add in a disastrous first day of gym class; bully Shawn Dreary, who barks at Natalie every chance he gets; and a Jell-o frog dissection debacle, and Natalie is sure that she will never have what it takes to make it in middle school. But maybe Natalie has it all wrong. Instead of focusing on what she isn’t, maybe Natalie should focus on what she is. With the help of some new friends and some old hobbies, a story contest and some new-found confidence, maybe Natalie will discover that who she is, in fact, is exactly enough.

THOUGHTS: Every middle school student has been in Natalie’s shoes at one point, whether it is a falling out with a friend, that awkward feeling when trying something new, or an embarrassing moment that everyone sees. Her epiphany is gradual, but the progression is logical, and even the bullies have evolved by the end. Maria Scrivan’s debut graphic novel is a perfect fit for upper elementary and middle school libraries.

Graphic Novel    Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD


Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Black Brother, Black Brother. Little, Brown and Company, 2020. 978-0-316-49380-2. 239 p. $14.81. Grades 3-6.

Donte Ellison fit in in New York, in his multiracial neighborhood. He fit in at his old school. He does not fit in in his new white neighborhood, and he certainly does not fit in at his new school, Middlefield Prep. His brother, Trey, fits in, and everyone wants to know why Donte can’t be more like Trey. But Trey has light hair and blue eyes like their father, and Donte has dark hair and brown eyes like their mother, and this makes all the difference at Middlefield Prep, and makes Donte a target of bullies, especially Alan. When Alan throws a pencil at another student, Donte is immediately blamed. Frustration turns to anger, and Donte finds himself in handcuffs in the back of a police car. No one in his school sees him. They only see the color of his skin, and Alan has made sure that Middlefield Prep is a miserable place for Donte to be. A week of suspension gives Donte time to plan his revenge on Alan, but is revenge really what Donte needs? A mentor, some new friends, and an athletic outlet provide Donte with support, purpose, and a goal that goes far beyond Alan and revenge.

THOUGHTS:  Middle grade students, regardless of race, will understand Donte’s anger and frustration with not being seen or heard, but his story will resonate most with BIPOC students. White students will benefit from reading this novel as a window into the experiences of their BIPOC classmates.  A must-read for students and teachers alike.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD


Lowry, Lois. On the Horizon: World War II Reflections. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-12940-0. 75 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Inspired by her own personal memories, Lowry has created a wonderful contemplative work about two major events that occurred during World War II. The text, told mostly in verse, contains a single reflection per page concerning specific incidents or individuals during the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the bombing of Hiroshima. These short remembrances are about some who perished and some who survived. In Hawaii, one of the Anderson twins survives the attack on the Arizona, and his ashes are buried with his brother years later. Frank Cabiness saves his watch that is stopped at 8:15, the time of the attack. The author deftly contrasts this story with Hiroshima. Four year old Shinichi Tetsutani is riding his red tricycle when the bomb falls and is buried with his bicycle. Shinji Mikamo survives the bombing, while his father does not. All he can find in the ruins is his father’s watch that is stopped at 8:15.  It is details like this that make these stories come alive for the reader. The illustrations by Kenard Pak are done in pencil and add to the thoughtful tone. Part of the story is autobiographical. Lowry was born in Honolulu in 1937 and remembers playing on the beach with her grandmother while a giant ship passed by on the horizon. As an adult, she later realized this was the Arizona. As a child, she returned to Japan after the war and while riding her bicycle, sees a young boy that will become a famous author.

THOUGHTS: Lowry’s work is a masterpiece made powerful by the stories of real people who were impacted by these historical events. These poignant tales will linger in the reader’s mind for a long time. This is an essential purchase for all elementary and middle school libraries.

940.54 World War II          Denise Medwick, Retired, West Allegheny SD