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

YA – Rise to the Sun

Johnson, Leah. Rise to the Sun. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-66223-8. 336 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Olivia is planning an epic best friend weekend at the Farmland Music and Arts Festival with Imani. Determined to leave a disastrous junior year behind her, self-proclaimed heartbreak expert Olivia has relied on Imani to get her through too many heartbreaks to count. Reluctant about the Festival, Imani – who always supports and goes along with Olivia – thinks Olivia’s mind should be on other things, like an upcoming judicial hearing. But Olivia can’t focus on that right now, even thought the white lie about a youth church retreat she told her mom does make her feel a little guilty. She wins Imani over because her favorite band is headlining the festival, and Olivia promises a hookup free best friend weekend with great music and a ride on the Ferris wheel. Toni is at the festival – like every summer she can remember – with her best friend Peter. Though nothing is the same as last year, Toni is hoping this year’s festival gives her some much needed clarity and life direction before she goes where she’s supposed to next week. When Toni spots a clear festival newbie, donning impractical attire and literally wrapped up by the tent she’s trying to setup, her weekend goes in a completely different direction. Olivia is determined to play matchmaker between Imani and Peter and can’t help but notice her feelings for Toni. She breaks through Toni’s Ice Queen exterior by offering to help Toni enter the Golden Apple in exchange for help with the #FoundAtFarmland contest. Without another option, Toni agrees, and each girl has a weekend like she couldn’t have imagined. Once the magic of the festival wears off, will Olivia be heartbroken, and what about her promises to Imani?

THOUGHTS: With a loveable, Black bisexual protagonist, readers will root for Olivia to find herself, without losing herself. This whirlwind romance is a must have for high school collections to add more romance or LGBTQ+ titles.

Romance          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – That Weekend

Thomas, Kara. That Weekend. Delacorte Press, 2021. 978-1-524-71836-7. 336 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12. 

Claire’s – who had been unconscious – senses suddenly start becoming alert when a hiker and her dog approach on Bobcat Mountain. Claire doesn’t know if she’s alone, and she has a splitting headache. The woman and her dog leave to get help, and Claire begins to piece together what little she does remember: it’s prom weekend, but she didn’t go; she lied to her parents about being on Fire Island; and she’s hurt. Arriving at Sunfish Creek Hospital in the Catskill Mountains, Claire realizes she wouldn’t have hiked without friends Kat and Jesse, since Kat’s grandmother has a lake house nearby. After glimpsing herself in the ER bathroom mirror, Claire wonders, “Who are you?” and “What happened to you?” Then readers are taken back three days before Clair’s trip to Sunfish Creek. Told in alternating time, readers travel back and forth as Claire tries to puzzle out what happened to her and to her friends up on Bobcat Mountain.

THOUGHTS: When readers think they have another puzzle piece, the timeline switches, and this fast-paced mystery goes in another direction. Mental health, drug/alcohol abuse, and domestic violence make this thriller best suited for high school collections.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – Fat Chance, Charlie Vega

Maldonado, Crystal. Fat Chance, Charlie Vega. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-823-44717-6. 343 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Fat Chance, Charlie Vega is an homage to every brown girl who has experienced fat shaming. The main character of Crystal Maldonado’s debut novel, sixteen-almost-seventeen Charlotte “Charlie” Vega struggles with self-acceptance. An unabashed nerd, the Connecticut teen excels at her studies, likes her after school job, and has a kind and loyal best friend, Amelia. On the down side, she still grieves for beloved Puerto Rican father, butts heads with her recently slimmed-down mother, and feels diminished next to the perfect Amelia. A striving idealist and aspiring writer, Charlie longs for the ever-allusive storybook romance. When popular, athletic Cal invites her to the homecoming dance, Charlie is on Cloud 9 and is humiliated when she discovers Cal expected her to deliver Amelia as his date. She finds a ready ear to share her troubles in her kind and understanding class and job mate, Brian Park, who is Korean-American. As her relationship with Brian develops and deepens, Charlie’s self esteem increases. She and Brian are sympatico; he is a thoughtful boyfriend and even his two moms like her. Bolstered with this newfound confidence, Charlie is able to feel secure about her appearance, despite her mother’s insistence on protein shakes and popularity. Talking (and making out) with Brian feels so good, Charlie neglects her bff who is also in a new relationship with a girl from the soccer team. In a rare argument, African American Amelia reveals Brian asked her out in the past. Charlie once again feels second best and takes steps to guarantee a miserable life and fulfill her belief that she just isn’t good enough. Through listening to the positive feedback from her supportive network of co-workers, family, and friends, Charlie comes to believe that she is deserving of love, no matter what her physical appearance. The casual, almost chummy, tone of the language, the inclusion of references to current celebrities and trends, and the relatable theme will make this novel a winner.

THOUGHTS: No matter what gender one identifies with, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega picks up the despair of rejection and invisibility and the thrill of feeling chosen and desired. Though skirting any graphic description of sex, Maldonado woos the teen reader with the building up of her feelings in the make out sessions with Brian. Charlie’s volatile relationship with her well-meaning but issue-ridden mother can be the script for many students dealing with a parent who mixes up wanting the best for one’s child and creating a safe, accepting space. In addition, Charlie’s devotion to writing and Brian’s interest in art make for interesting reading while the humor-infused narrative makes the serious theme smoother going down. Author Maldonado blends diverse gender roles and races seamlessly in an accessible book.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – The Life I’m In

Flake, Sharon G. The Life I’m In. Scholastic Press, 2021. $18.99. 978-1-338-57317-6. Grades 9-12.

In Sharon G. Flake’s best selling novel, The Skin I’m In, Charlese–Char–Jones is the confident bully wreaking havoc on the life of the diffident and vulnerable Maleeka. In The Life I’m In, African-American Char appears as the main character, still inwardly grieving for the loss of her beloved parents, and continuing to make bad decisions. Her older sister and guardian, Juju, has begun to get her life together–stopping the house parties and securing a job in a bank–and needs Char–sixteen and a seventh-grade drop out–to live with their grandparents in Alabama. At the start of this reluctant bus trip, Char is flippant and rude, comical and outspoken. The passengers are alternately annoyed and amused by her unself- conscious antics. When young, white mother, April gets on the bus with her three-month old biracial baby, Char’s maternal instincts urge her to assist April. Bound for a job, April shows the distressed signs of living rough on the streets. To provide for her child, she sells narcotics and sexual favors to truck drivers; she suppresses suspicion about this new employment that requires she pay for the position. When April disembarks the bus with baby Cricket in tow, naive Char decides she will go out on her own and not continue to Alabama. Thinking it is temporary, she volunteers to take care of Cricket when April’s aunt never shows up at the bus station and well-dressed and smooth talking Anthony arrives as April’s ride to Florida. Char enlists all her resources to persuade a hotel proprietor to rent her a suite; she figures out and procures the necessary baby supplies with the money from Juju; she contacts Juju and even the newly reconciled Maleeka to tell them of her actions if not her whereabouts. Char may talk a good game, but she is young, inexperienced, and a virgin. When Char’s funds dwindle and her efforts to find work are hindered by her motherly duties, she runs into Anthony again and, in an attempt to save Cricket, finds herself a victim of sex trafficking. Author Flake describes the depravity of Char’s existence during this time delicately, but does not stint on the truth. Char receives some solace in the community of other girls in Anthony’s pack, who seem to be of different races and backgrounds. When she eventually escapes and is reunited with Juju, Char needs the help of not only her sister, but also Maleeka, her former teacher, Ms. Saunders, and professionals to survive the trauma and feel truly free. The fluid text reflects Char’s actual voice, and her first-person narration gives an intense look into her complex feelings and her maturity as she tries to survive under egregious conditions. Although the stress and suffering Char conveys is painful to read about, readers will find this a compelling book.

THOUGHTS: This is a harsh story to tell, and Sharon Flake tells it well. The book serves as a mirror for those who have suffered sexual abuse or trauma of any kind as well as a window into the lives of people who have experienced homelessness and poverty. The reader leaves feeling not pity but understanding and an admiration for the resilience and effort exerted by trauma victims. It acts as a call for all to refrain from rash judgements and to be kind. Char’s second escape from Anthony seems contrived (would the driver wait for Char as she says good-bye to Maleeka?); however, readers will be rooting for the happy ending.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – On the Hook

Stork, Francisco X. On the Hook. Scholastic, 2021. 304 p. 978-1-338-69215-0. $17.99. Grades 7-12.

Hector is a decent, smart kid living in the projects since his father died of cancer. He excels at chess and thinks college may be a possibility, so he keeps his head down, desperate to be overlooked by Chavo’s local drug-dealing crew. But Joey, Chavo’s younger brother and a member of the crew, singles him out, carves a “C” on his chest (for coward) and declares, “I’m going to kill you.” Fear invades every space in Hector’s life. He can’t fathom how his father stayed strong, or how his older brother Fili can command respect in the neighborhood. His best friend Azi tries to help and keep him focused on chess and the future. But Hector’s fears overwhelm him daily. He wonders how to change himself and how to be fearless, and he longs to put his cowardly self behind him. But in failing to stand up for his brother when Fili is attacked by Chavo and Joey, Hector spirals downward into deep questioning and self-loathing. Hector is sentenced to six months in a juvenile probation academy, a friendlier place than most in the system, and encounters numerous guards and inmates seeking to teach him to give up the hate he feels. Hector is torn and the outcome is anything but clear. Can he recreate himself into someone he’s proud to be? And what does that look like?

THOUGHTS: This is a realistic look into dangers young people face, inside and out. Despite the numerous safeguards around him, Hector’s choices are anything but clear. Readers will be interested in what he decides to do.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD