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

Elem. – An Ordinary Day

Arnold, Elana K. An Ordinary Day. Beach Lane Books, 2020. 978-1-481-47262-3. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades 1-3.

This is a poignant and beautiful tale of the circle of life.  The author begins by explaining that this street appears like any other, with children playing and a woman watering her flowers. Then, two cars drive up to neighboring houses and two people get out and go into adjacent houses. Both the man and the woman are wearing stethoscopes around their necks. The man enters a house where a dog is on a bed, surrounded by a family who is crying. The woman who enters the other house meets a family whose mother is expecting another child. The veterinarian consoles the family, as the dog is put to sleep, while the midwife or obstetrician helps deliver a new child into the world. All of this is told not so much in words, but through the illustrations. The characters in the story are of various ethnicities and the author writes that both families are “surrounded by family and love.” Magnificent the Crow oversees the “extraordinary” activities on this ordinary street on an ordinary day. The Illustrator uses a variety of media, such as charcoal, watercolor, soft pastels, ink and graphite, to create a soft and muted color palette. These drawings add to the contemplative tone of the story.

THOUGHTS: This is a touching story that will appeal to a sensitive reader who may have experienced the loss of an animal.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

MG – Hunger Winter: A World War II Novel

Currie, Rob. Hunger Winter: A World War II Novel. Tyndale House, 2020. $14.99 253 p. 978-1-496-44034-1  Grades 4-8.

In late 1944, 13-year-old Dirk’s father has gone into hiding as a leader of the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis. The chase begins immediately; in chapter one, Dirk learns via a neighbor that his older sister Els has been captured by the Gestapo, to question and torture for information, and to encourage their father’s cooperation. Dirk knows his next move must be to escape with his younger sister, six-year-old Anna, to their grandparents’ home, but questions and worries bombard his mind. Chapter two reveals Els’s perspective as she is starved; questioned; threatened; and worries for her father, brother, and sister.  Most of the story is Dirk’s, but returns to Els’s point-of-view in the final chapters. This tense novel reveals the strength of the Dutch people during what became known as the “Hongerwinter” when Nazi control of resources led to daily food rations of a mere 320 calories per person. Dirk must call upon memories of his father’s instructions and strength to guide him through difficult decisions on his journey, while shielding Anna from the brutal realities of war as best he can.

THOUGHTS: This is a middle-grade novel a step up in complexity and danger for readers who loved Number the Stars and The Devil’s Arithmetic. It will expand readers’ knowledge of Nazi tactics and brave Dutch resistance. An inspiring read.

Historical Fiction; World War II in Netherlands  Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – Believe

Mathison, Julie. Believe. Star Creek Press, 2020. 978-1-735-00371-9. 230 p. $8.99. Grades 6-8.

The first time they met, Sabrina “came out of nowhere” according to Melanie, an imaginative 5th grader at the experimental school Buckminster Elementary. As they develop a friendship, Sabrina helps Melanie cope with her mother’s disappearance and a father who prefers to spend time creating art than paying attention to his daughter. After being cast as Peter Pan in the upcoming school musical, Melanie learns to stand up against the school bully and make true friends by being her authentic self. As the one year anniversary of her mother’s disappearance approaches, Melanie confronts her anxieties stemming from her family’s tragic past and finds that forming real, honest connections with her loved ones can help heal pain better than any make-believe world ever could.

THOUGHTS: Readers identifying as outsiders will connect with the main character in this story as well as middle grade readers struggling with difficult life experiences including divorce, death, and bullying. Readers should have a basic knowledge of Peter Pan in order to deeply understand Melanie’s emotions and grief. Some older readers may not have the patience to read the story entirely, especially if they pick up on key details early on that lead to revelations at the end of the story.

Realistic Fiction          Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD

YA – Bent Heavens

Kraus, Daniel. Bent Heavens. Henry Holt, 2020. 978-1-250-15167-4. 291 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Liv Fleming’s father has been missing for four year now, but no one really cares. What does it matter if the town loon is gone? He’s just another crazy man. Beloved teacher Lee Fleming showed up naked in the town square rambling about an alien abduction thus beginning a steady decline into madness, turning his shed into an armory and setting traps to protect his family against the alien invaders who Lee was sure would return for him. After Lee disappears Liv and her childhood friend Doug find something extraordinary in one of her dad’s traps they must figure out what to do next. As it turns out, the truth is even stranger than fiction.

THOUGHTS: This was one of the most horrifying books I’ve ever encountered. The emotions it evokes are intense and will leave you reeling. The story is dark and powerful with a twist you will never see coming. Bent Heavens will stick with me for a long time.

Horror        Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD