YA – Just Our Luck

Walton, Julia. Just Our Luck. Random House. 2020,  978-0-399-55092-8. $17.99. 272 p. Grades 9-12.

Leonidas –Leo- quirky knitter and sensitive photographer, has been successful staying under the radar for most of his high school years. Then Drake Gibbons a wise-cracking, hyperactive jock punches him, and their consequences are enduring each others’ company in the counselor’s office until they become amicable. Leo’s mother died years ago and now with his Greek grandmother Yia Yia’s death, the silence in their Greek household is deafening and the relationship between him and his father even more distant. When his father insists his gentle son take a martial arts course to improve his pugilistic skills, Leo gets scared off and signs up for a yoga master certification course. Turns out, the person taking his registration is Evey Paros, from another Greek family who just happened to have cursed Leo’s many generations ago. Though she seems aloof, Evey has her own agenda. She’s been wronged by the biggest, richest, most popular dude at school, Jordan Swansea. After their breakup, Jordan sent out nude pictures of Evey over social media. She enlists Leo as her assistant in wreaking revenge. What ensues is a light romance with a touch of humor. Leo unexpectedly finds love, friends, and self confidence. A bonus is that Evey, too, finds a powerful alternative to thwarting Jordan besides sophomoric pranks.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, SD Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: Librarians should be aware this quick read has a lot of curses and little diversity (Drake’s girlfriend Jenn seems to be Latinx). However, the characters are humorous, and the plot discusses generalized anxiety, a condition today’s teens may recognize. Both Leo and Evey also have an interest in writing, and Leo delivers his first-person narrative in journal format. Pull for reluctant readers.

YA – Bookish and the Beast

Poston, Ashley. Bookish and the Beast. Quirk, 2020. 978-6-836-9193-8. 283 p. $18.99. Grades 6-10. 

Poston continues her delightful, fairy tale based Once Upon a Con series with a reworking of Beauty and the Beast to which Belle would give her stamp of approval. In the “no good deed goes unpunished” category, high school senior Rosie Thorne attempts to return a run-away dog with disastrous results. Following the dog into an apparently vacant house, she discovers a swoon–worthy library, filled with the books of the Starfield space saga universe, the very books her recently deceased mother read to her growing up. When Rosie is startled by another individual in the house she attempts to flee, accidentally dropping a rare first-edition in the pool. Sopping wet, Rosie learns the house is currently occupied by Starfield bad-boy actor Vance Reigns, serving a parental imposed timeout from his celebrity antics. She is now on the hook to organize the library, with the assistance of the self-absorbed star, to work off her debt. As if Vance Reigns would deign to dirty his hands working with books. But as any bibliophile knows, books have a magic all their own, and surely some magic will happen between the book-loving beauty with the mousy brown hair and the gorgeous guy hiding behind a beastly bad-boy persona. The book is populated with an appealing supporting cast of diverse characters, including Rosie’s bisexual librarian father and a gender-fluid best friend, and in a sop to series fans, Poston offers a few brief appearances by characters from the previous two novels. The Gaston plotline does double duty emphasizing that in the relationship world No should always mean No. While the plot is grounded in the Starfield Excelsi-Con world of the previous two books, the Con plays only a minor role this time, which should open the book to a wider romance audience.

THOUGHTS:  A thoroughly delightfully romp through Beauty and the Beast. Rosie is independent, feisty, and sweet, and while she deserves her happily-ever-after, she would have been OK without it. A solid purchase for collections where romance and fairy tale rewrites are popular, as well as an addition to LGBTQ+ collections.

Romance          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Birdie and Me

Nuanez, J.M.M. Birdie and Me. Kathy Dawson Books, 2020. 978-0-399-18677-6. 249 p. $14.81. Grades 5-8.

Jack and her little brother, Birdie, were perfectly happy living with Uncle Carl after their mother’s sudden death. Uncle Carl let them eat as many Honey Bunny Buns as they wanted, school was optional, and Birdie could wear his lip gloss and sparkly clothes.  But it turns out school is not optional, so Jack and Birdie are now going to live with Uncle Patrick. Life with Uncle Patrick is very different from their life with Uncle Carl or their life with their mom. He doesn’t talk much, and Jack and Birdie are sure he doesn’t like them. Living with Uncle Patrick means school every day, and Birdie will have to wear “normal” clothes if he wants to fit in with his classmates. But what about Jack? Can she find a way to fit in? And will Birdie’s bully back off if he wears the clothes Uncle Patrick buys for him? It won’t be easy, but if they all can confront the past, they may just find a way to become a family.

THOUGHTS: This is a beautiful debut about love and loss and how to make a family. An important addition to middle school libraries.

Realistic          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

YA – What I Like About You

Kanter, Marisa. What I Like About You. Simon & Schuster, 2020. 978-1-534-44577-2. $18.99. 409 p. Grades 7-12.

Halle Levitt and her brother Ollie have just moved in with their grandpa. She will spend her senior year in a new small town and new school while her parents jet off to another country to film their newest documentary. Halle struggles, along with her Gramps, to be in the house without her Grams who passed away just a few years ago. It was her Grams that inspired her love of reading and baking, and when Halle isn’t studying for her SATs or applying for college at NYU, she connects with her online best friend, Nash, and updates her online blog called One True Pastry. Online, Halle is known as Kels, and she’s famous for her YA book reviews and her cupcake book cover creations. When Halle meets Nash in real life and discovers he lives in the same town as her Gramps, she decides not to tell him that she’s also his online best friend, Kels. Halle and Nash grow closer, but Halle needs to find the courage to tell him who she really is and hopes that he’ll like real-life, awkward Halle as much as he likes online, confident Kels.

THOUGHTS: What I Like About You reminds me of a YA version of the movie You’ve Got Mail. Halle’s decision to keep her Kels identity from Nash is frustrating, especially when he feels guilty about liking Halle while also keeping his crush on Kels. This book not only focuses on romantic relationships, but on family relationships as well. I love how close Halle is to her brother Ollie, and together they help their Gramps overcome the loss of their beloved Grams, and although Halle and Ollie are Jewish, their busy parents never had much time for their family to be a part of a Jewish community, like they can be with Gramps. Anyone that loves books will connect with Halle, Nash, and their online friends, and after finishing this sweet, romantic story, you might be inspired to whip a batch of cupcakes for yourself. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Turtle Under Ice

Del Rosario, Juleah. Turtle Under Ice. Simon Pulse, 2020. 259 p. $18.99 978-15344-4295-5 Grades 9-12.

Teenage sisters Rowena and Ariana have drifted apart since the unexpected death of their mother several years ago. Rowena has thrown herself into soccer, becoming a respected top athlete on her team. Fearing change, Ariana has retreated into…nothing, and risks failing school. The sisters’ closeness has become a barrier as they both fear moving on, and as they both communicate less, and less honestly. Their father has remarried a woman they also love, and the family is incredibly hopeful about the arrival of their new half-sister. However, Maribel suffers a miscarriage, and the loss is too cruel for the sisters. “Our sister’s heart stopped beating/like our mother’s, unexpectedly/on a day that was otherwise/normal” (53).  Ariana vanishes, which leaves Rowena feeling angry and abandoned. This novel in verse is narrated by both sisters as they try to come to terms with this new grief, in addition to the unending grief of losing their mother. Slowly, both sisters discover that their grief has led them to close themselves off to others. Rowena tracks down Ariana at an art exhibit, where Ariana shows a painting “Turtle Under Ice” in memory of their mother. The relief comes very slowly as both girls see hope in Ariana’s art.

THOUGHTS: Del Rosario has a way with creating beautiful images with her words: “Our family…/is a frayed string of lights/that someone needs to fix/with electrical tape./It’s the electricity/that can’t get to us/because Mom’s bulb/has burned out,/so now the whole string is dark./But without the lights turned on/does anyone even notice/that we are broken?” (43-44). Ultimately, the insightful thoughts aren’t enough to save this novel from the monotonous weight of the crushing grief and depression, and the cover does little to draw in all but the most curious of readers. Recommended where novels in verse or multiple narrators are in heavy demand.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Novel in Verse

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

MG – Beast: Face-to-Face with the Florida Bigfoot

Key, Watt. Beast: Face-to-Face with the Florida Bigfoot. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2020. 215 p. $16.99 978-0-374-31369-2 Grades 5-8. 

Adam survives the car crash that apparently killed his parents–at least, they have disappeared. When questioned by police, he speaks bewilderedly but honestly of what he saw in the wooded road near the Suwanee River: not a person or a bear, but something bigger than a bear, covered in hair, with a human face and huge black eyes. When the local paper runs a story about the accident including a “Sasquatch-like creature,” Adam regrets saying anything. The questions and the disbelief become overwhelming, especially from his Uncle John, who takes him in while the search for his parents continues. Adam can’t forget the creature, and due to disrupted sleep and nightmares, he begins searching online for information. He learns of a local Sasquatch appearance nearly 30 years ago, and sets out to question the man who reported it. He finds the near-hermit “Stanley” who reluctantly, then completely, tells Adam all he knows about the creatures, with a strong warning that the search for answers destroys your life. Adam decides he needs answers, and sets off on his own with some basic supplies.  What follows is a hard-core survival story wherein Adam becomes so attuned to the forest and animals that he lives as one of them, soon close to starving. Then he sees one of the creatures, then more. The scenes with the creatures shift from past tense to present tense, adding to the sense of unreality. Adam has found what he came for, but can he survive, can he find his parents, and can he get proof of the creatures’ existence?

THOUGHTS: With a likeable narrator, reasonable length (215 pages), and an attractive cover (see the creature in the trees?), Key has written a suspenseful survival story that will attract middle school readers curious about Bigfoot. Key includes helpful explanatory information about Sasquatch sightings.

Fantasy, Paranormal Fiction        Melissa Scott, Shenango Area 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

YA – Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir

Feder, Tyler. Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir. Dial Books. 2020. 978-0-525-55302-1. 201 p. $18.99. Grades 7+.

During the summer after her freshman year at college, Tyler Feder’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. By spring break of her sophomore year, Rhonda had died. Tyler understandably felt rudderless, “like I was on an iceberg out to sea.” Her mom was gone … now what? Chapters tenderly portray the diagnosis, the death, “making arrangements,” sitting shiva, and navigating a new normal. Dancing at the Pity Party is every bit as heartbreaking as it sounds, but it is also a little bit celebratory (as the title suggests). Readers will come to know and care for Tyler’s mom, because her loving personality is so vividly present on every page, even in her absence.

THOUGHTS: This is a must-read for teens who have experienced a loss, who want to support a grieving friend, or who are struggling and just want to know that someone out there gets it. Readers of Lucy Knisley’s introspective graphic memoirs will love this one, too.

Graphic Memoir          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Who I Was With Her

Tyndall, Nita. Who I Was With Her. HarperTeen, 2020. 978-0-062-97838-7. $17.99. 385 p. Grades 9 and up.

Corrine Parker arrives at school one morning to overhear her cross country teammates talking about how their rival school’s team captain, Maggie – who happens to be Corrine’s girlfriend – died the previous night in a car accident. This is tragic enough on its own. But Corrine is not out, and she and Maggie were dating in secret. This means Corrine can’t even genuinely express her grief when she hears the news or talk to anyone about it. Living in a conservative area of North Carolina, Corrine never felt ready to come out to anyone, so she feels she can’t talk to her divorced parents – especially her alcoholic mother – or her best friend Julia. The only person she can talk to is Dylan, Maggie’s older brother and the only other person who knew the two were dating. And even Dylan is not an optimal confidant – he and Corrine had a rocky relationship while she was dating his sister. What Dylan does do for Maggie is introduce her to someone else to talk to: Elissa, Maggie’s ex-girlfriend who she dated prior to Corrine. It’s complicated even to talk to Elissa, though. Why hadn’t Maggie ever mentioned her? Why did Dylan have a good relationship with Elissa and not her? And why does she find herself starting to feel an attraction to Elissa?

THOUGHTS: This is not a typical coming out story given the circumstances. The complexities of Corrine and Maggie’s secret relationship and Corrine’s struggles to deal in the aftermath of Maggie’s death are told in an alternating timeline format back and forth from their year-long relationship prior to the accident to the present months following her death. It’s also a very unique grief story as Corrine struggles with it primarily on her own, so it understandably gets messy at times. The novel also touches on addiction, college admissions pressures, and asexuality through subplots and supporting characters. Overall, recommended addition to collections where the demand for LGBTQIA+ literature, particularly bisexual protagonists, is high.

Realistic Fiction                              Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD