Elem. – The Long Ride Home

Graegin, Stephanie. The Long Ride Home. Random House Studio, 2022. 978-0-593-42602-9. Unpaged. Grades K-2. 

Little Koala is on a car ride home. As her mother drives through town, the locations the car passes by remind Koala of her best friend Little Cheetah and all the fun times they have shared together. The ice cream parlor reminds her of the times they would sit at a table, sharing stories and enjoying their favorite ice cream. The big hill prompts memories of bicycling trips and a mishap resulting in a skinned knee. When the car passes the library, Koala remembers sitting on the floor inside, side by side with Cheetah, reading their favorite book. Every location evokes a memory of Cheetah; in fact, the text is told in first person, as Koala speaks to her friend. In the closing pages of the book, the reader learns why Cheetah is on Koala’s mind so much and why her thoughts seem to have a melancholy and longing tone. Cheetah and her family  have moved away, and the girls are no longer able to spend time together on a regular basis. The story ends on a positive note when it is revealed that the friends now maintain a long-distance friendship and that Cheetah is thinking about Koala at the same time Koala is thinking about her. 

THOUGHTS: This gentle story would be ideal for children dealing with feelings of loss and grief over friends or family members that have moved or passed away. The emotion of the text is enhanced by Graegin’s digitally created illustrations, which are rendered in a more muted-style color palette. Highly recommended.

Picture Book          Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg SD

MG – Cress Watercress

Maguire, Gregory. Cress Watercress. Candlewick Press, 2022. 978-1-536-21100-9. $19.99. 227 p. Grades 3-8.

Cressida Watercress and her rabbit family live in a spacious and well kept burrow. Young Cress has never known a moment’s want or worry until the day Papa fails to return from foraging. Unable to care for her young children alone, Mama makes the difficult decision to move her  family to a cramped basement apartment in an animal tenement known as the Broken Arms. Cressida’s brother Kip is often sickly, and Mama must work harder than ever to feed, shelter, and support Cress and Kip. The Broken Arms is filled with animal characters of all shapes, sizes, and temperaments. Mr. Owl, the landlord, is an enigmatic figure who will often comment on the comings and goings and behavior of his tenants from high above though he is never seen by those same tenants. Manny, the building superintendent, is helpful but demanding. The pressure to make timely rent payments is difficult for Mama, especially when Kip is not well. Cress must learn to accept and understand her new neighbors, and must step-up to help Mama. Growing up is not easy, especially when dealing with childhood grief. As Cress matures, her relationship with her mother becomes strained at times, and she grapples with friendships just as many tween human children do. Eventually the Watercress family finds great comfort and companionship in the community at Broken Arms, and Cress finds herself in a position to save the day when her newly adopted community is threatened.

THOUGHTS: Beautiful illustrations by David Litchfield set the tone for this coming of age novel. The struggles Cress encounters in her relationship with her mother and her friends will be easily recognized by middle grade readers and adults alike. The depiction of childhood grief is especially well characterized in this warm and gentle story.

Animal Fiction          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD
Realistic Fiction

MG – The Lost Ryu

Cohen, Emi Watanabe. The Lost Ryu. Levine Querido, 2022. 978-1-646-14132-6. 200 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

This book explores an alternate history full of magical realism where dragons or “ryu” are real; some big ryu even helped Japan fight in WWII, but now most big dragons have disappeared. Even though they both care for small family dragons as pets and companions, Kohei and his new friend Isolde want to try to find a “big” dragon and bring back the majestic creatures who were lost after the war. Kohei is also trying to discover more about the father who passed away when he was three and reconnect with his mother and grandfather, who both seem stuck in the past. Will Kohei and Isodle ever discover where the big ryu have gone, and will that discovery help to heal all the terrible scars the war has left on the world?

THOUGHTS: Students who like historical fiction and fantasy will like this imaginative take on friendship, family, and Japanese dragon mythology. Kohei is Japanese, Isolde is Japanese-Jewish, and the story uses their mutual love of dragons to help them deal with the complicated history of Japan, World War II, and the Holocaust. The relationships in this book also show the struggles of children who cope with the trauma suffered by their parents and contain hopeful messages about learning how to move forward after tragedies have happened within a family.

Historical Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – M Is for Monster

Dutton, Talia. M Is for Monster. Abrams ComicArts, 2022. 978-1-4197-5197-4. 224 p. $17.99. Grades 7-10.

Frankenstein’s monster gets a gender-flipped, graphic novel update in Talia Dutton’s M Is for Monster! Innovative scientist Frances Ai lost her younger sister in a laboratory accident six months ago. Frankie cobbled Maura back together and, with the help of a well-timed lightning strike, brought her back to life. However, she isn’t quite … Maura. “M” has no memories from before her resurrection, and she fears that Frankie may take apart and reassemble her over and over again until she gets it right. She finds an unlikely ally in the ghost of Maura, who appears in mirrors and coaches M through interactions with her older sister. This way, M avoids a dismantling and Maura gets to keep living, in a fashion. But the cracks in this arrangement begin to show as M and Maura assert their individuality. Can they both find a path forward, or will Frankie intercept their Cyrano de Bergerac-style ruse? Author and illustrator Talia Dutton uses a green, black, and white color scheme (and plenty of period details) to portray M’s limited but intriguing world. It’s one she desperately wants to continue living in, and readers will feel the same!

THOUGHTS: What first appears to be a straightforward horror novel is also a thought-provoking take on grief and identity.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Full Flight

Schumacher, Ashley. Full Flight. Wednesday Books, 2022. 978-1-250-77978-6. $18.99. 309 p. Grades 9-12.

In the provincial town of Enfield, Texas, Weston Ryan seems a rebel with his leather jacket and motorcycle and his bad reputation for cutting down the sapling Memorial Tree on the high school campus. His vulnerability is what shy, curvy, sixteen-year old Anna James sees. Both are members of the school’s marching band, and when they are paired for a duet, sparks fly. Perpetually obedient Anna tells lies to carve out time with Weston as their sweet romance builds. Her tight-knit family–strict but nurturing parents and 12 year old sister, Jenny–keep tabs on her every move and don’t approve of Weston. While Weston, reeling from his parents’ recent divorce, bounces back and forth between his depressed father and his distant mother. As the band competition approaches, Anna and Weston have ironed out the bumps in their duet and displayed their mutual love confidently to friends and classmates. Weston’s joy in life is Anna, and Anna is an expert in plunging Weston’s depths and revealing his goodness. Only the hurdle of Anna’s parents needs to be vaulted. All seems in proper alignment for these star-crossed lovers until tragedy strikes. Told in alternating voices, this well-written love story offers two teens masking insecurities and depression who learn to understand each other and themselves. All characters seem to be white. 

THOUGHTS: Though no evidence is present, this book seems to be reflective of an experience in the author’s life. Perhaps because of this, little diversity appears. It does deal with body image, judgment, and depression. The boyfriend dies in an accident in the end; but Anna lives through it, a stronger person for having been loved. The story may appeal to those longing for a romance; students who come from small towns may identify with having one’s life in view of everyone. A strong Christian element runs through  this book: One example, one of Anna’s and Weston’s successful ruses is going to the Church youth group. Schumacher writes well and the dialogue between Anna and Weston is unique and meaningful, thus raising this novel to a higher level. After a long prelude, Anna and Weston eventually have intercourse, but with no graphic details. I did not like the cover. Though well-written, the story was not compelling to me, but may appeal to a niche audience. 

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke  School District of Philadelphia

MG – Aviva vs. the Dybbuk

Lowe, Mari. Aviva vs. the Dybbuk. Levine Querido, 2022. 978-1-646-14125-8. $17.99. 176 p. Grades 5-8.

Aviva vs. the Dybbuk takes on an unusual theme in a not frequently used setting. Sixth grader Aviva Jacobs is an orthodox Jewish girl plagued by a dybbuk (“a ghost of a deceased person who returns to complete a certain task”). Aviva’s family unit–she and her mother–is not doing well. The reader knows that Abba has died in an unnamed accident five years prior. Since then, Aviva’s life is off kilter. Through the kindness of their close knit community, her mother manages the mikvah (“pool used for religious immersion”) and lives in the apartment above it. The reader also sees that Ema is depressed, but Aviva just views the disappearance of her vibrant, soft-spoken mother into a scared, nervous agoraphob. Aviva, too, has become an outsider from her classmates and estranged from her best friend, Kayla. Instead, her constant companion is the mischievous dybbuk who only she can see. The dybbuk soaps the floor in the mikvah, unplugs the refrigerator, rips up checks, and generally haunts Aviva. Moreover, the mikvah and the shul are under attack: A swastika is on the sidewalk outside the shul. In the midst of this disruption, Aviva and Kayla–both talented players– get into an altercation at the machanayim, “a ball game played in some Jewish schools and camps.” The consequence of their action is having to plan the annual Bas Mitzvah Bash at the arcade. The planning sessions reignite Aviva’s and Kayla’s friendship in the weeks before the event and seem to have a positive effect on Ema as well. The dybbuk, also, is in high gear with wild shenanigans that Aviva attempts to stop. As Kayla and Aviva grow closer, and the caring community rallies around Ema, anti-semitism rears its ugly head, forcing Aviva to recall her father’s death and recognize the effect of that trauma. Lowe’s fluidity with language makes this compact story a smooth read. The emotions displayed in Aviva vs. the Dybbuk coupled with the engaging story give it universal appeal. Includes glossary (excerpted definitions in quotes above).

THOUGHTS: You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate Aviva’s situation. Lowe presents the story through Aviva’s eyes which may make it more relatable to students: The distant mother, the struggle to be independent and act like everything is fine, the alienation from classmates. Lead readers who like this book to Lilliam Rivera’s young adult novel, Never Look Back. The dybbuk goading Aviva parallels the mysterious creature named Ato who haunts the main character. This well-written, compelling story offers an opportunity for non-Jewish readers to learn about different aspects of the Jewish religion in a non-polemic way. Any way books can open us up to be more tolerant, understanding people is a good thing. 

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Great or Nothing

McCullough, Joy, Caroline Tung Richmond, Tess Sharpe, Jessica Spotsword. Great or Nothing. Delacorte Press, 2022. 978-0-593-37259-3. $18.88. 393 p. Grades 7-10.

Louisa May Alcott’s four March sisters have entered the 20th century, circa 1943. Beth has died, and the family struggles to cope with the overwhelming sadness of this loss. Marmee distracts her grief with committees and charitable works; Father, next-door neighbor, Theodore Laurence, and teacher John Brooks go off to fight the war; and the three young women are split apart. Four talented authors take on the personas of the classic characters, and each chapter recounts that character’s experiences against the backdrop of World War II. Beth’s voice in verse reflects her omniscient view of each of her sisters. Meg decides to stay close to home, dedicated to teaching at her former high school, but is so lonely, she concedes to pal around with an insipid but wealthy former classmate which results in revelatory consequences. After rebuffing Laurie’s unexpected marriage proposal, Jo goes off to Hartford, Connecticut, to work in a munitions factory and live in a boarding house with other female workers and pursue her writing. When she meets Charlie–Charlotte–a war journalist, Jo starts to come to terms with her sexual identity. Under the pretense of studying art in Montreal, Amy instead takes on a false identity and ships off with the Red Cross to minister to the morale of soldiers with coffee and doughnuts in London, England. There, she encounters prejudice and discrimination foreign to her upbringing, as well as the promise of true love. This contemporary spin on the classic Little Women is an easy read with touches of romance, LBGTQ+, and slang from the forties. Grab yourself a cuppa, curl up in your favorite chair, and hunker down to meet these Little Women.

THOUGHTS: Though four authors take on each of the March sisters, the writing flows smoothly and the writing is fairly even. Beth’s perspective voiced by Joy McCullough was my least favorite.  Reading the prose, characters were more well developed and satisfying. Though the story begins with the March sisters going their separate ways, it ends with the promise of them reuniting. Suggest this novel to lovers of the classic, but those who have never read Little Women will still understand the closeknit March family and the dynamic among the sisters.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

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