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

YA – Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry

Goffney, Joya. Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-006-302479-3. 352 p. 17.99. Grades 9-12.

Quinn, a high school senior, keeps lists. Of EVERYTHING. Boys she’d like to kiss, movies with intense rewatchability, things people assume about her. It’s how she copes with life. The notebook in which she keeps her lists is her most treasured possession, and when it goes missing, she panics. Then it gets even worse. Someone posts one of the lists on Instagram, for the whole school to see, and blackmails Quinn into completing her list of fears, or the whole journal will be released. Hot guy Carter, who has decided he doesn’t like Quinn because she’s an oreo – Black on the outside but white on the inside, was the last person to have the journal; he offers to work with Quinn to complete her list and deduct who is holding the journal hostage. While the romance that ensues between the pair may be predictable, the book is about so much more. Quinn and Carter are two of a handful of Black students at a predominately white private school. Although they share some experiences, Carter is quick to point out that wealthy Quinn has a very different life than he does. The plot examines racial issues and stereotypes from a variety of perspectives, and focuses on the value of true friends, who just might be the people you would least expect. Besides facing her fears, Quinn also has to accept that her beloved grandmother has Alzheimer’s disease, and worries that her parents are headed for divorce. All the characters are well developed, and each story arc is satisfyingly wrapped up. This is a superbly well crafted book that is a delight to read.

THOUGHTS:  This will be a huge hit with romance fans, but hand to fans of realistic fiction as well.

Romance          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – I Think I Love You

Desombre, Auriane. I Think I Love You. Underlined, 2021. 978-0-593-17976-5. $9.99. 309 p. Grades 9 and up.

Emma loves love, particularly romantic comedies. She wants to make film her life’s work, and winning the NYC-LA Student Film Festival and a full scholarship to study film would convince her parents that it’s a worthwhile pursuit. The fact that the love story she wants to tell is a female-female relationship is also important to her as it might finally help her come out to her parents as bisexual. Just as she enlists her friend group’s help and is prepared to start making the gay rom-com of her heart, their friend Sophia comes back from spending a year in Paris and messes it all up. Not only have they never gotten along, as two of the only queer girls at school, classmates constantly try to pair them up, which is super annoying and cliche. Now Sophia, also a film geek, wants to enter the film festival too, but with an artsy, angsty film a-la Paris because she hates love, which is understandable after her parents divorced. The friend group splits into two film-making teams, and a rivalry ensues, but when the filming stops and Emma and Sophia are thrown together in social situations – some orchestrated by their friends – they can’t help but see each other through a different lens… pun intended.

THOUGHTS: A loose retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, this is a mostly lighthearted and fun queer romance told in alternating points of view. While some readers may find the subplot drama unnecessary and the way these friends treat each other frustrating at times, the main plot involving Emma and Sophia and the laugh-out-loud moments redeem its status as a solid choice for your LGBTQ+ students.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD