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

Elem./MG – A Glasshouse of Stars

Marr, Shirley. A Glasshouse of Stars. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-48883-0. 246 p.  $17.99. Grades 4-6.

Meixing has just arrived in a New Land to live in a New House with her parents. She and her mother and father have traveled from the Old Land to live with First Uncle, but he passed away only weeks before their arrival and now they are adrift in a strange place, not quite speaking the right language and not quite understanding the right customs. When tragedy strikes Meixing’s family, she retreats into the backyard of her new home and discovers a magical world hidden away in a broken down greenhouse where the ghost of First Uncle helps her discover her inner strength. Meixing displays incredible courage in the face of xenophobia in her new school as she tries to learn her place in this New Land, but new friends and an understanding new teacher also help her overcome her family’s difficulties as they begin to build a life in the New Land.

THOUGHTS: This story offers a unique glimpse into the struggles of immigrant children who deal with poverty, discrimination, and cultural miscommunication. The magical realism in this book provides Meixing with a symbolic escape from her troubles and a way to process her feelings with the help of her family, and adds a beautiful, lyrical layer to the storytelling. This story would be an excellent addition to studies about the immigrant experience, and should be added to collections with a focus on immigrant experiences and diverse voices.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Soul Lanterns

Kuzki, Shaw. Soul Lanterns. Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-593-17434-0. 162 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Each August, Nozomi and her family release lanterns on the river to guide the souls of lost loved ones. The year she turns twelve, an unsettling encounter with a stranger at the ceremony makes Nozomi wonder about her mother’s past, and about the stories of other adults who lived through the Hiroshima bombing of 1945.  Nozomi likes art, and for an upcoming art showcase, she and three school friends ask relatives and community members to relate heartbreaking stories from “the flash” that they lived through before the children were born. This school project prompts the friends to create moving works of art to remember those that were lost. Ultimately, their works of art help the children to better understand the significance of the lantern ceremony. As Nozomi’s art teacher says at the end of the book, releasing the lanterns helps those in the community not only remember lost loved ones from the tragedy of the bomb, but also “remember the question of why such an awful thing happened.”

THOUGHTS: This story is told from the fascinating perspective of Hiroshima children who do not fully grasp the significance of the Hiroshima bombing because it occurred before they were born, and considerable character growth occurs when they find out through stories and family members what really happened on that terrible day. Many cultural references and Japanese words throughout the book make for a rich reading experience. Although there are descriptions of death and suffering which sensitive students may find disturbing, the author does an excellent job of describing the tragedy of the Hiroshima bomb with sensitivity and respect. This book will inspire readers to look more deeply into the history and ethics of nuclear warfare. Translated from Japanese.

Historical Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Kaleidoscope

Selznick, Brian. Kaleidoscope. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-77724-6. 208 p. $19.99. Grades 5-8.

Have you ever woken up from a dream and only remembered bits and pieces, like a blur in the back of your memory? Have you ever felt that stories are all loosely connected but not sure exactly how the thread begins or ends? Have you spun a kaleidoscope and wondered about the tiny pieces that get reflected and refracted and turned again and again into patterns of endless combinations? Brian Selznick brings some of those ideas to print in his latest genre twisting novel. Using his classic black and white illustrations, he offers one picture that is in kaleidoscope vision, then a focused image accompanying a short vignette depicting mainly scenes from a narrator’s first person view. Often a character named James shows up for comfort or reminiscing or the narrator is grieving his passing; however, there is not a linear narrative or consistent plot. Instead, the reader is invited to take in each snapshot and interpret for themselves. Themes and objects repeat through the book, much like gems in a kaleidoscope tumble and change focus. The view at the end may surprise and delight some readers and will certainly encourage repeated readings for further meaning.

THOUGHTS: The short stories stand well on their own, but may not help younger readers to keep focused on the arching story. However, classes could easily study literary examples such as setting, narrative, theme, allegory, and allusion throughout. Recommended.

Fantasy          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

A thirteen-year-old narrator wants to find out more about the world around him, so he sets sail with his friend James. The journey takes them to the moon. They find that the moon is at war with the sun because the sun believes no one needs the darkness the moon brings. But James defends the moon’s side, arguing that people need to have the dreams that come about when the moon is high. James is crowned king, and he defends the moon’s honor for years and years to come. In the subsequent chapters, the narrator and James have a bunch of different adventures that transcend time and space. Although the stories are different, there are common threads running throughout, including references to biblical and mythological items that tie the stories together. Much like a kaleidoscope itself, each scene (or in this case, story) is unique but made up of a different combination of the same bits and pieces.

THOUGHTS: Brian Selznick has once again written a fascinating book that children will enjoy. Each chapter is accompanied by his signature black and white drawings, this time of kaleidoscope scenes. This would be a great pick for a book club or class novel as it might be a bit confusing for readers to understand how the stories connect. Overall, Selznick’s story collection should definitely be included in middle grade libraries.

Fantasy/Short Story Collection           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem. – If You Miss Me

Li Langrano, Jocelyn. If You Miss Me. Orchard Books, 2021. 978-1-338-68069-0. 40 p. $18.99. Grades PreK-3.

“If you miss me. Look at the moon. I will do the same.” 

The picture book If You Miss Me by Jocelyn Li Langrano is a breath-taking story about love and loss. Charlie, a young girl who loves to dance, has a strong relationship with her grandmother. Charlie and Grandma dance through life, and even when they are not together, they seem to be connected. Grandma often reminds Charlie that when they are apart, looking at the same moon will help them feel as if they are together. As the season changes, Grandma’s unexpected death brings so much pain to Charlie’s life. Dancing does not feel the same, and indeed, she misses the most important person in her life. Will Charlie be able to heal? Will dancing become a part of her life again? This beautiful picture book explores grief in simple words and sweet illustrations– with love depicted on every page.

THOUGHTS: This lovely picture book will be available in December of 2021. Charlie’s story speaks to the heart and explores the idea that those who have died are truly not lost. This book could validate and explain complicated feelings in a gentle and heartwarming manner for children who have lost a loved one.

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

MG – Thanks a Lot, Universe

Lucas, Chad. Thanks a Lot, Universe. Amulet, 2021. 978-1-419-75102-8. 279 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Brian and Ezra, both 13 years old, are classmates at school, and on the same basketball team. But that’s where the similarities end. Ezra, who is biracial, appears to Brian as cool, confident, and popular, while Brian, who is white, suffers from crippling social anxiety (or Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome, as he labels it). Ezra thinks Brian seems interesting, but doesn’t go out of his way to befriend the boy until the bottom drops out of Brian’s life. On his 13th birthday, Brian awakens to discover that his father has disappeared (to evade capture by police) and his mother is unconscious from a drug overdose. In the ensuing days, Brian tries to keep his life together, after he and his younger brother, Ritchie, are placed in foster care. But eventually Brian takes Ritchie and runs away. Ezra soon gets involved in the search for Brian, and after locating the brothers, makes it his mission to befriend the young man. Along the way, Ezra is trying to understand himself as well. His circle of friends is evolving, as some of the boys become interested in girls, while Ezra is coming to terms with the fact that he is gay, and has a crush on Brian. Two well adjusted high school students provide a sounding board for both boys as they attempt to navigate the life they have been given. While racial issues are touched upon, mental health takes center stage. Brian is terrified he will be labeled “crazy” since his mother suffers with mental health issues. While these seventh grade boys are far more comfortable discussing their feelings and expressing concern for each other’s emotional well-being than your average middle schooler, the book is a marvelous, feel-good display of masculine friendship. The story, alternating between Ezra’s and Brian’s point of view, grabs hold from the opening page, and doesn’t stop until the end. Brian and Ezra are both such sympathetic characters readers will wholeheartedly root for them to find happiness. And maybe all those really nice people are what make the book so heartwarming.

THOUGHTS: Highly recommended. While there may be too many unrealistically nice people in the story, including a helpful police officer, a teacher who takes in Brian and Richie, and a pair of high school teenagers who befriend Ezra and Brian, it is worth it for the good feelings it engenders. There is no perfect ending – dad goes to prison, Ezra loses a friend, mom is still unstable – but the book still leaves you smiling. With main characters that are 13-years-old and in 7th grade, this book should have wider appeal than just middle grade. The timely issues of race and mental health make this a great fit for 7th and 8th graders. Hopefully readers will take to heart the message to befriend and understand shy kids, and to look out for each other. Perfect to pair with The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Brian, who suffers from Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome (SAWS), as he calls it, is used to having a rough time in junior high; he is a good basketball player, but feels too shy to talk to his teammates off the court. He often deals with bullying, and his dad wants him to be tougher and stand up to those who make him even more socially miserable. Then, life gets much harder when his dad suddenly leaves the family. Suddenly, Brian is taking care of his younger brother, navigating foster care, and still dealing with his social anxiety, bullies, and every-day adolescent stress. Luckily, a support system shows up to help when Ezra, a teammate from basketball, and a group of caring adults step in. Meanwhile, Ezra is dealing with uncomfortable tension between his childhood best friends, his growing interest in music and playing the guitar, and his changing feelings about boys.

THOUGHTS: This is a beautiful story about supportive friends in times of struggle. The characters in the story experience the difficulties of growing up and demonstrate the positive influences that good people and good friends can have during a teen’s formative years. This book also portrays several positive coming-out experiences and sensitively handles the struggles of a LGBTQ+ teen.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem. – Out to Sea

Kellock, Helen. Out to Sea. Thames & Hudson, 2021. Unpaged. 978-0-500-65236-7. Grades 1-3.  $17.95.

Kellock has created a beautiful story about grief and loss. Lara’s grandmother has died and she misses her terribly. The young girl thinks about how her grandmother “smelled like strawberries” and how the pair would spend time on the beach. At night, Lara is filled with sadness and begins to cry, as thoughts swirl around in her head, keeping her from sleep. The author ingeniously uses the sea as a metaphor for Lara’s grief for the rest of the story. Tears fill the child’s bedroom and carry her out to sea in a boat. She leaves behind all the things that used to give her joy and continues to drift on the water, forgetting “everything that made her feel happy or safe,” like the smell of strawberries or her grandmother’s warm hands. All she feels is the “cold swirling sea.” Then, in the deep ocean appears a glowing pearl, which gives her comfort. The young girl realizes that there are things in her life that still make her happy, like the memories of her Nana, and she rows the boat home. Through the imagery of the sea, the author has crafted a story that clearly portrays the sentiments of loss, such as feeling “out to sea,” drifting aimlessly and being down in the depths. The progression of Lara’s emotions is creatively shown in the author’s full bleed illustrations. At first, she floats down a narrow stream along her street, but then the boat continues on past the big city, arrives on the beach and heads into the wide open ocean. Initially, the boat moves under its own power, but Lara picks up the oars to steer it home after she finds the pearl. At the end, the author observes that even with the pearl, Lara still has “other sleepless nights and sad goodbyes,” but now understands that she is not alone.

THOUGHTS: This book is a wonderful and fitting story for children experiencing loss.  It is a good one to share with your guidance counselor and is a must-have for elementary collections.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

MG – Almost There and Almost Not

Urban, Linda. Almost There and Almost Not. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-47880-0. 211 p. $17.99. Grades 5-7.

Eleven year old California Poppy doesn’t know if she is coming or going. Her widowed father is heading to Alaska for a salmon fishing job and takes her to Minnesota to stay with Aunt Isabelle, who should know more about taking care of a “bra needing” child than he does. It turns out that Aunt Isabelle is not really the nurturing type and is too busy working on a meatloaf recipe for the Great Meatloaf Bake Off. So California finds herself traveling to Michigan to live with Great Aunt Monica. Her great aunt, still grieving for her late husband, broke her hand and needs help with her research on Eleanor Fontaine, an author of etiquette books from the 1920s. Aunt Monica wants to complete her husband’s planned biography of his author-ancestor and asks California to read Fontaine’s Proper Letters for Ladies and to practice writing letters to become familiar with the author. Callie soon realizes that there are two ghosts in the house: a dog who enjoys playing with her and a refined lady named Eleanor, who dissolves into a pile of dust when she gets upset. Aunt Monica is not aware of these guests, so her niece takes care when talking to them. Eleanor begins to share her story with the young girl, who notices that the ghost seems to be getting younger each time she appears.  California soon learns the truth about her father’s whereabouts and Eleanor’s secret. Just as Callie feels she has come to terms with her father’s absence, her struggles in school and having periods, she overhears a conversation that changes her life forever.

THOUGHTS: Urban has written a very engaging story about loss, grief, and resilience. Although the text is not lengthy, a lot happens and one cannot help but root for the likeable main character who narrates the story. Readers will enjoy California’s letters to Aunt Isabelle, her father, and the Playtex Company. This sensitive but humorous tale is a solid choice for upper elementary and middle school collections.

Fantasy          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

When California Poppy is 11 years old, she is dropped off at her Aunt Monica’s house while her father claims to look for work in Alaska. During her stay, she plays with the ghostly dog and talks to the ghostly woman who haunts her aunt’s home, a woman who turns out to be California’s Great-Aunt Eleanor. Eleanor teaches California about all the etiquette she thinks a proper lady should know, and California begins to unearth details about Eleanor’s past, which is not as simple as the old woman wants it to seem. As a relationship between the girl and the ghost develops, California also grows closer to her Aunt Monica by helping with research for Eleanor’s biography. Eventually, these relationships help California to confront the reality of her father’s abandonment and allow her to begin to heal in her new, more stable life.

THOUGHTS: This story, told in the first person by California herself, is about the life of two young girls who are trying to figure out who they are in a grown-up world. Magical realism, historical fiction, and a love of family and friends weave together in this book to create the story of a girl who has a lot to learn, but also a lot to offer the world. The ghosts in this book are friendly rather than scary. Kids and teens who are wise beyond their years, and those that deal with family troubles and long for a better, more stable life, will find it easy to relate to California.

Fantasy          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG -The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy

Heider, Mary Winn. The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy. Little, Brown & Company, 2021. 978-0-759-55542-6. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

For freckled-faced, dark haired Louise and Winston Volpe, the center of the galaxy is the 50-yard line of a football field in honor of their ex-quarterback player and now missing father, Lenny Volpe. Life was tough before their father disappeared, a victim of too many head-crushing plays as a Chicago Horribles team member, Mr. Volpe had trouble with his cognitive skills and executive brain function. After three years gone, the siblings burrow into their respective worlds: Winston taking up the tuba and Louise initiating a Science Club in order to experiment with ways to find her father. Flipping back and forth between eighth-grade Winston’s and seventh-grade Louise’s life, author Mary Winn Heider creates sympathetic characters trying to unravel an incredible mystery. Because their mother is buried in work and debt, the brother and sister are on their own a lot and the story takes place mostly at school. Winston’s friend and fellow tuba player, Frankie—who has a pigment condition—insists that the faculty of Subito School are an organized crime ring, and Winston willingly joins the investigation, spurred on when the teachers throw their tubas off the school’s roof. Louise, on the other hand, rejects the overtures of friendship from the other nerdy club members, even after they volunteer to use club dues for a bake sale to recoup the ruined tubas. She is more determined in perfecting a glowing GLOP cream and freeing the Chicago Horribles Football Team’s mascot, a bear. She does, however, develop an appreciation for pop star Kittentown Dynamo’s music. The two worlds collide at the football stadium’s half-time show: tubas, sinister teachers, Kittentown Dynamo, and the bear. Though the infiltration of the stadium and the bear rescue are far-fetched, they are entertaining. To balance this, the ending of this realistic fiction is not all wrapped up, but the characters do come to a healthy place in their family relationships and acceptance of their father’s demise.

THOUGHTS: When I started this book, I saw thin traces of other books in The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy: a less cerebral Wrinkle in Time where the daughter uses science to try to find her father;  James Ponti’s  City Spies where the kids are free-roaming, figuring their own solutions to problems and the adults are “other” and on the fringe; Jacqueline Woodson’s  Before the Ever After where the father has brain injuries from sports. Heider, though makes this book her own and uses unusual plot twists to lead these grieving siblings who are focused on their own sadness back to each other. Perhaps fourth graders would like this book, too; I extended the grade to 8 because Winston and Frankie are eighth graders and seem like they are headed for more than friends status by the book’s conclusion (he lets Frankie comfort him with a hug and he is thrilled to take Frankie to the Aquarium Dance).

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – Glitter Gets Everywhere

Clark, Yvette. Glitter Gets Everywhere. Harper, 2021. 978-0-063-03448-8. 308 p. $15.15. Grades 5-8.

Kitty has barely had time to process her mother’s illness and death from cancer. Her dad can’t possibly be serious about taking her and her older sister, Imogen, from their home in London to New York City for four months. Everything that reminds her of her mum is in London. If they leave, will she be leaving her mother’s memory also? And as if it isn’t already awkward being the new kid with the funny accent, how is she supposed to explain to the PTA moms that her own mum will not be joining them on the committee for the Halloween dance? New York City seems destined to be a disaster, but just because so much is new doesn’t mean Kitty has to say goodbye to the old. Maybe some distance is just what Kitty needs to start the healing process.

THOUGHTS: It can hit a school hard when a student loses a parent, and unfortunately, it happens all too often. Glitter Gets Everywhere is an excellent book to have on your shelves for that student who needs to read about grief in a way that does not tie it up in a neat bow, but rather shows that it is messy, ongoing, and devastating, and like glitter thrown into the air, reminders are everywhere. But like Kitty, they too can find a way to make their new reality the new normal.

Realistic Fiction                            Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD