Deonn, Tracy. Legendborn. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2020. 978-1-534-44160-6. $18.99. 498 p. Grades 9 and up.
Briana Matthews tries to get her life together after the tragic and sudden death of her mother, but she does not get off to a great start. On the night before classes in the Early College program at UNC Chapel Hill, she and her best friend Alice attend a cliff-jumping party at a quarry off-campus. There, she encounters Selwyn Kane and experiences odd sensations at his touch, sees Selwyn and another girl destroy a fiery silver mass floating above a drunken fight that breaks out, and overhears bits of mysterious conversation: mentions of magic, King Arthur, and Legendborns. She also has the strange sensation that Selwyn is trying to erase her memory of the sight of the fiery mass that night. When the cops show up to break up the fight, though, Bree has more important things to worry about now that the Dean is threatening to throw her out of the program. She is granted a second chance… and a peer mentor to keep her out of trouble. Turns out that Nick Davis, her peer mentor, only brings more trouble. While walking together on campus, Nick and Bree are attacked by a green-lit wolf-like creature, similar to the one she saw the other night with Selwyn, and Bree is unwillingly pulled into a secret world of which Selwyn and Nick are members. Though she’d love nothing more than to move on from these strange events, memories from the days after her mother’s death start resurfacing, and Bree comes to the startling conclusion that answers to mysteries surrounding her mother’s death might be found within the world of the Legendborn. Now, Bree must decide if joining the Legendborn at the brink of a war is worth finding the answers she seeks.
THOUGHTS: The first book in a series, this urban fantasy puts a new, modern spin on the Arthurian legend with a contemporary setting and characters and by interweaving African American spiritual traditions into the magic. Deonn has created a captivating world and mythology that fantasy readers will surely love. She also tackles serious issues such as grief, trauma, racism, and sexual violence throughout the book. This is a must-have for YA Fantasy collections.
Alegre, Reina Luz. The Dream Weaver. Simon & Schuster Publishers, 2020. $17.99. 978-1-534-46231-1. Grades 5-8.
After drifting around the country following her father’s next big idea her whole life, twelve-year-old Zoey Finolio and her college-bound brother, Jose, land at the Jersey shore living with their maternal Cuban grandfather—one of the most stable homes since their mother’s death. Though Zoey loves her father, she revels in a summer at the beach, doing things most kids her age do and embraces the dream of saving Gonzo’s, her grandfather’s rundown bowling alley, from a developer. When she gets a chance to fill in as a bowler on a local team headed for a championship, Zoey sees it as an opportunity to not only savor friendship but also rejuvenate the boardwalk business. The familial relationships and friendships are nurturing and supportive throughout the book, but this book doesn’t resort to past solutions. Even after the valiant efforts of Zoey and her new friends, Pappy decides to unload the bowling alley and just manage it; Jose still wants to pursue his dream of being an engineer at college; and Zoey’s father continues to try his luck at a different job despite sacrificing his children’s stability. Zoey shows strength of character in expressing her feelings to her father and finds solace in her supportive brother, her new friends, and her new home with her beloved Pappy.
THOUGHTS: The close familial relationships and kind friend relationships are a delight to read. Zoey’s father’s behavior is abysmal and may be a form of bibliotherapy for some readers. In Chapter One, Zoey gets her period for the first time and the narrative explains her distress and how she deals with it, so using the book as a read aloud—at least the first chapter—may be uncomfortable.
Realistic Fiction Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
Bowling, Dusti. The Canyon’s Edge. Little, Brown and Company, 2020. 978-0-316-49469-4. 301 p. $16.99. Grades 3-6.
Are you likely to die in this situation? is a question Nora asks herself often after surviving a shooting at a restaurant on her birthday which claimed her mother’s life. Nora and her dad trek into a canyon in the middle of the desert one day to get away from life for a few hours and spend time doing what their family loved to do – hike and explore. But when a flash flood suddenly strikes, Nora’s dad is swept away moments after saving her life. Nora is now left with absolutely nothing, not even her backpack, and must battle her inner demons and various canyon hazards to find her dad…. and a way out. Alone in the desert Nora must overcome her past in order to save her future.
THOUGHTS: A must have for your collection and for fans of Hatchet! Finally a story where a female protagonist overcomes the odds in a survival story. Bowling brings the emotion in this novel in verse and teaches us that we are more capable than we think. Bowling wrote this book to honor a family of nine that perished in a flash flood a day after she visited the same spot with her family.
McNiff, Dawn. Love From Alfie McPoonst, The Best Dog Ever. Kane Miller, 2020. 978-1-684-64027-0. Unpaged. $14.99. Grades PreK-2.
Written as a series of letters between a deceased dog and its former owner (Izzy), this story details Alfie’s new life in dog heaven. Although Alfie misses Izzy, he describes heaven as a place where he can chase postmen, eat burgers and ice cream, chew on shoes, and more–all without any punishment. A tender and somewhat humorous look at the loss of a pet, this story will encourage readers to creatively express their thoughts and feelings about death.
THOUGHTS: I actually read this story to my five-year-old daughter shortly after we lost our cat, and the first thing she wanted to do after reading it was to write a letter to our cat in heaven. Therefore, I love how this book inspires children to acknowledge their grief and make sense of death through the therapeutic act of letter writing. Pair this with Brian Lies’s The Rough Patch (2018) to spark important discussions with young children who have recently experienced loss.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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