MG – The List of Unspeakable Fears

Kramer, J. Kasper. The List of Unspeakable Fears. Atheneum, 2021. 978-1-534-48074-2. 273 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Essie O’Neill has experienced a lot in her ten years. Life in New York City in 1910 can be hazardous. After the death of her beloved Da, Essie becomes more and more fearful of things both ordinary and extraordinary, to the point where her life is severely curtailed. When her mother suddenly announces that she has remarried and she and Essie will be moving, with her new husband, to North Brother Island, Essie’s fears go into overdrive. North Brother Island is an isolation ward for individuals with incurable diseases, such as smallpox. Once installed on the island, Essie’s night terrors grow worse and she becomes convinced there is a ghostly presence in the house. She fears her new stepfather, a doctor at the quarantine hospital, certain he is responsible for the disappearance of many nurses who work on the island. But maybe Essie has reason to be afraid. Why does her stepfather roam the island in the middle of the night? Who is opening her locked bedroom door? And then there is the island’s most famous resident: Typhoid Mary. This pint-sized gothic tale contains plenty of moments to give young readers delightful shivers, but also weaves in a fascinating historical foundation, including life on North Brother Island, Typhoid Mary’s fight to leave her forced quarantine on the island, and the horrific fire aboard the steamboat General Slocum. Themes of the story touch on dealing with grief and the death of a parent, overcoming traumatic experiences, and the universal childhood frustration of not being taken seriously by adults. Essie’s patient stepfather proves endearingly adept at treating Essie with respect and providing the guidance she needs to find a path to recovery.

THOUGHTS: This just-spooky-enough story, with twists and turns, should captivate readers, who will sympathize with Essie’s fears and frustrations.

Mystery          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – The Shape of Thunder

Warga, Jasmine. The Shape of Thunder. Balzar & Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-95667-5. $16.99. 275 p. Grades 5-8.

Cora Hamid and Quinn Macauley are next door neighbors and inseparable friends all their twelve years of life–until they are not. Quinn’s older brother, Parker, takes his father’s hunting guns to his high school one November morning and shoots Cora’s sister, Mabel, a teacher, another student, and himself. The two families’ approach to grief could not be more different. Abandoned as a baby by her mother (the reader never discovers why), Lebanese-American and Muslim Cora has the nurturing support of her biologist dad; thoughtful, maternal Gram; and the professional support of a trained therapist. Quinn’s family buries the issue. Told in alternating voices, the reticent and less academic Quinn has difficulty expressing her thoughts and guilty feelings. Her workaholic father is against any outside help to ease the family’s suffering, and her mother hides in the house cooking and baking. Longing to reconnect with Cora, Quinn delivers a box to her doorstep stuffed with articles about time travel and wormholes on Cora’s birthday. She knows Cora well enough to appeal to her scientific nature. Perhaps the two of them could find a wormhole and travel back in time to stop the tragedy of that fateful day. As the pair work through the logistics of approaching a huge tree in the forest for the site of their wormhole/time traveling, they each experience the pain of regret and the insistence on holding fast to the memory of a loved one. While Cora has made new friends on her Junior Quizbowl Team and excels in her studies, Quinn has felt shunned. She longs to be on the soccer team, but is too ashamed to try out. Her art gives her some pleasure, yet not even drawing can remove the heavy weight of a secret she knows about her brother, the possibility that she could have prevented the circumstances. After she confides in the school librarian her remorse, she resolves to confess this awful secret to Cora. Though the revelation breaks their renewed bond, Cora devotes more time to her plan to make the impossible possible. When she questions her father about time travel, she is encouraged and inspired by his answer. He tells her that her absent mother had a theory comparing the shape of time to the shape of thunder: “impossible to map” (p. 213). When both Cora and Quinn are coaxed by different people to attend the traditional Fall Festival at their middle school, the rumble of thunder pulls the two estranged girls to the woods to prove Cora’s theory. The hopeful resolution of the story, despite the sadness surrounding it, gives the reader relief. Quinn’s and Cora’s relationship see-saws throughout realistically. After all, Quinn reminds Cora of the unspeakable thing Parker did. Quinn’s strained home life with her parents who refuse any kind of self-reflection or examination of the devastating action of their son is painful.  Minor situations like the jealousy of Mia, another friend of Cora’s, toward Quinn; the snide remarks of Quinn’s former teammate and friend; the growing crush Cora has with her classmate, Owen (a Japanese-American character), will resonate genuinely with middle school readers. The Shape of Thunder is a tough read, but one that confirms that happiness can co-exist with grief, and friendships can be mended.

THOUGHTS: This novel is full of emotion and rich in language and characterization, but not so intense that a sensitive middle grade student would be put off. Cora is a thinker and an intellectual. Throughout the novel, students will find themselves entertained by the interesting facts Cora spouts (“…cows kill more people than sharks each year…”). The images Warga uses to describe different feelings are unique but spot on (the “fizziness” Cora feels in her tummy when talking to her crush, Owen, etc.). She also makes dialogue very interesting. Quinn has a hard time speaking; her brain freezes and she can’t say the words. When she finally gets angry enough to spill over her feelings to her buttoned up family, it is heartbreaking. The conversations between Cora and her father and grandmother also are authentic and tell the reader so much about the characters. What the reader must conjecture about are Parker’s reason for the shooting and the absence of Cora’s mother since her father seems to have no obvious vices. Ms. Euclid, the school librarian and art teacher, is a heroine for Quinn. This book should be issued with a box of tissues.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – In the Wild Light

Zentner, Jeff. In the Wild Light. Crown Publishers, 2021. 978-1-524-72024-7 429 p. $17.99. Grades 9 and up.

Set in a small Tennessee town, two misfits from troubled families develop a strong bond after meeting at a Narateen meeting. Cash is struggling to come to terms with his mother’s death, the knowledge that his beloved grandfather is dying, and his fear that he has no special gift to offer anyone. Delaney is a brilliant, self-taught scientist who discovers a bacteria-destroying mold with potential medicinal benefits.  Because of this discovery, she is offered a full ride scholarship to an elite New England prep school and secures a spot for Cash as well.  Delaney is determined to start anew and pushes Cash to join her, though he believes he is not deserving of this opportunity and fears missing precious time with his grandfather. They both struggle to adjust to their new life so far removed from their roots but are fortunate to find a friendship with two other new students at Middleford Academy and to nurture their own interests and passions and the special bond between them.

THOUGHTS: A thoughtful, coming of age story with a strong focus on the value of friendship and family, with charming characters, beautiful descriptions, and some gorgeous poetry. Touching, emotional, and heartfelt, this book will be appreciated by fans of All the Bright Places and Looking for Alaska.

Realistic Fiction                Nancy Summers,   Abington SD

YA – Punching Bag

Ogle, Rex. Punching Bag. Norton Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-324-01623-6. $17.95. 217 p. Grades 9-12.

As with his debut memoir, Free Lunch, Latinx author Rex Ogle is honest and sensitive in his recounting of his high school years with his volatile mother, Luciana, and abusive stepfather, Sam. At the book’s opening, Rex’s mother reveals that she has lost an infant girl, Marisa, while seven-year-old Rex was visiting his paternal grandparents. In front of her sensitive son, she is distraught with grief and places the blame at his feet. Ogle carries that guilt with him as he navigates his teen-age years protecting his half-brother, Ford, from the chaos erupting from domestic violence in their tiny Texas apartment. At times, this guilt is assuaged with the remembrance of Marisa, giving him the encouragement and strength not extended by other adults. Though his alcoholic stepfather beats his mother regularly, Rex’s mother refuses to press charges or escape. In fact, in a brief stint when Sam leaves her, she picks on Rex, goading him to hit her. Rex acts as the parent here. He has the maturity to see their household is toxic and to recognize his mother’s mental health issues. From conversations with family members, he gets an insight into the root causes of his mother’s and stepfather’s behaviors. However, he feels responsible for the safety of his younger brother and the financial stability of the family. He receives some emotional support from his grandmother and his mother’s sister; he is able to confess to his stepfather’s brother the physical abuse suffered in their family. Nevertheless,with little adult support from teachers or neighbors, young Ogle is out there on his own with the lone comfort of Marisa’s ghostly voice convincing him her death was not his fault. When Luciana and Sam repeatedly wind up together with little improvement, Ogle has to value his own life and aim for his own dreams to keep him resilient and hopeful. This memoir is an excellent example of bibliotherapy. Ogle does not gloss over the brutality and the bewildering reality of domestic violence and the devastating effect of a parent’s untreated mental health issues on her children. Ogle acknowledges this in the book’s preface with a disclaimer emphasizing his purpose for writing his story is to show that it is possible to survive. Students suffering the same trauma will appreciate his frankness. Contains an informative Q & A with author.

THOUGHTS: The account of domestic abuse as well as physical and emotional child abuse is constant, but Ogle is a talented narrator and compels the reader to endure it. Rex Ogle himself stands out as an exceedingly mature, resilient, compassionate person, despite a lifetime to being put down, parentified, terrified, neglected. It prompts the thought, where was this behavior learned. He records little resentment of being the person in charge of his younger brother. He willingly shoulders adult responsibilities around the house with hidden resentment and–mostly-controlled anger. The book delivers an important message to any students in similar circumstances.

Memoir          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
362.7 Child Abuse

YA – The Lucky List

Lippincott, Rachael. The Lucky List. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 978-1-534-46853-5. $18.99. 294 p. Grades 7-12.

Shunned by her high school peers for boldly kissing an underclassman at the junior prom in full view of her well-liked boyfriend, Matt, Emily Clark faces a lonely summer in Huckabee, her small Pennsylvania town. Her best friend, Kiera, is working as a counselor at a sleep away camp; Matt is kind but confused at her actions; her dad is as distracted by work as ever leaving Emily to pack up her deceased mother’s belongings. Still nursing her grief over her mother’s passing three years prior from cancer, Emily finds a bucket list her mother penned her senior year of high school. When her parents’ best friend, Johnny Carter, moves to Huckabee from Hawaii with his daughter, Blake, the two girls spend a special summer together. Both motherless, they bond easily, and Blake is supportive when the diffident, cautious Emily challenges herself to check off the twelve points on her mother’s list. Convinced this accomplishment will reveal the new and improved Emily, she finds herself—with Blake’s encouragement and help—jumping off cliffs, sleeping under the stars, fending off others to steal forbidden apples, picking a four-leaf clover, etc. until ultimately, she is faced with the final task: kissing Matt. Rachael Lippincott’s The Lucky List is a cozy coming-of-age novel with a LBGTQ+ theme. Narrator Emily relates the questioning, the fears, the missteps of discovering whom one really is authentically and satisfyingly. The relationship between Emily and Blake is gradual and fun; the soul-searching Emily is relatable. A pleasant read for any teen, but may strike a particular chord with those grappling with their sexual identity. 

THOUGHTS: The Lucky List is a light read, heavy on friendship and caring rather than sex. The awakening of a person to her sexual identity may be helpful addition on school library shelves.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke  School District of Philadelphia

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 – The Castle School (for Troubled Girls)

Content warning: This book contains depictions of mental illness, including but not limited to addiction, anorexia, self-harm, and trichotillomania.

Moira (Moor-a, not Moy-ra) has been skipping school, meals, and leaving her apartment for hours at a time. Her parents stage an intervention where they share that they’re sending Moira to The Castle School, a school for girls going through a “rough patch” not a reform school. Though two bodyguard types look ready to spring into action should Moira bolt, she willingly packs her things and gets on a plane heading to a remote part of Maine. There she meets eleven other girls who like her are experiencing their own struggles, each unique and told in her own voice in a sporadic chapter throughout the novel. When asked why she’s at The Castle School, Moira reports it’s because she got a tattoo. She does not share that she lost her best friend. With a very regimented schedule which includes lights out and individual therapy sessions, Moira struggles to adjust at first. She has some time on her own, though, as her roommate Eleanor is staying in the infirmary. While reading by a secret flashlight, Moira hears music in the distance and notices that the padlock on her window’s security bars is broken. The next night Moira and Eleanor head out to investigate and discover a castle that seems a lot like theirs, only happier, warmer, and with twelve boys. The Castle Schools may not be what Moira thought. Moira notices that she feels more like herself than she has in a long time when she’s at the other Castle School (Castle South); it seems to have the same effect on Eleanor. What type of experiment is Dr. Prince conducting with two schools run so differently, and why – other than the fact that she’s a girl – is Moira at Castle North? Why does Dr. Prince’s son Randy live at Castle North instead of with the boys in Castle South? As Moira gets to know the girls and attends sessions with Dr. Prince, she struggles through her grief and begins to come to terms with why she’s at The Castle School.

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Moira as she adjusts to her new life at The Castle School and works through her grief. As an adult reader, I felt like Moira’s semester ended a bit too tidy (though she does work through a lot). I’m interested to talk to a student reader about their thoughts of authenticity. Purchase for high school collections where character driven, mental health titles are popular.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – The Cost of Knowing

Morris, Brittney. The Cost of Knowing. Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-44545-1. 336 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Despite trying his best to hold things together, sixteen year old Alex Rufus is struggling. Since the death of their parents, he and his little brother Isaiah have grown apart, barely interacting with each other in their Aunt Mackie’s house. Alex has his girlfriend Talia but constantly worries that he’ll do something wrong to ruin their relationship. At work Alex would prefer to remain in the back washing dishes while wearing rubber gloves than be out front scooping ice cream and interacting with customers. At the same time, Alex and Isaiah’s neighbor Mrs. Zaccari makes initially subtle and increasingly frustrating comments about neighborhood crime and what the Shiv concert coming to the area will mean for their safety. Alex is one touch from losing his carefully constructed exterior. Since the death of his parents, Alex gets a glimpse of the future when he touches anything. Usually something simple and easily dismissed, things become complicated when Alex visualizes an unreadable expression on Talia’s face – the sign of a breakup – and unbearable when he has a vision of his brother’s death. Burdened with the knowledge that he he can’t stop the inevitable, but determined to fix his relationship with Isaiah, Alex races to reconnect with his brother and learns that the two may not be as different as he thought.

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Alex from the beginning as he works against “his curse.” Many readers will be able to suspend reality enough to believe this mostly realistic fantasy. Recommended for high school collections where compelling, character driven titles are in demand.

Fantasy (Paranormal)          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD
Magical Realism
Realistic Fiction

YA – One of the Good Ones

Moulite, Maika, and Maritza Moulite. One of the Good Ones. Inkyard Press, 2021. 978-1-335-14580-2. 384 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Teen YouTube activist and influencer Kezi Smith dies under police custody following her arrest at a social justice rally on her eighteenth birthday. Instantly immortalized as a martyr in the fight against police brutality, Kezi’s family is devastated by loss. While her pastor parents want to preserve and protect Kezi’s memory, sisters Happi and Genny look for a unique way to honor her. Embarking on the trip Kezi planned to take following an heirloom copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book, the sisters and friends Ximena (Kezi’s girlfriend) and Derek go on a journey to reconnect with the Smith’s African American family history and remember Kezi. Tormented by her broken relationship with Kezi, the trip is an opportunity for Happi to understand her older sister, who she feels like she didn’t truly know. Together they will learn more about Kezi, each other, and their family’s history. A surprising twist won’t shock careful readers, but the alternate time periods may challenge struggling readers.

THOUGHTS: This title examines what it means to be remembered and who gets to be called “one of the good ones.” Recommended for high school collections where social justice and social issue titles are popular.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem./MG – The Lost Things Club

Puller, J. S. The Lost Things Club. Little, Brown and Company, 2021. 978-0-759-55613-3. $16.99. 219 p. Grades 4-7.

Leah is looking forward to spending summer vacation in Chicago with her aunt, uncle, and cousin, just like she does every year. When she arrives at their apartment, however, she notices something is different; her younger cousin, TJ, affectionately known as “hedgehog,” is not his normal self. He isn’t talking. As Leah spends time with her aunt and uncle and some kids from the neighborhood, she begins to realize the reason that TJ isn’t talking is the terrible shooting that happened in the spring at TJ’s elementary school. Even though Leah doesn’t completely understand why TJ is struggling, she vows to help him face his feelings and come back to himself and his family. Through Leah’s summer adventures with TJ, she begins to understand that stories can be much more than silly make-believe. Stories can be a way to heal after trauma, as well as a way to communicate the experiences of others and help everyone practice empathy and understanding.

THOUGHTS: This book deals with the sensitive topics of school shootings, survivor guilt, and PTSD in a way that older elementary and middle school students can understand. It illustrates the terrible toll that such events can take on young survivors, their families, and the surrounding school community, while also portraying those that are struggling with dignity and hopefulness. Ultimately, this book highlights the essential empathy-building benefits everyone can reap from coming together and sharing stories.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD