YA – Kind of Sort of Fine

Hall, Spencer. Kind of Sort of Fine. Atheneum, 2021. 978-1-534-48298-2. 276  p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Senior Hayley Mills is a straight-A student in her advanced classes and a star athlete on the tennis team. Or at least she was. Last year she had a mental breakdown in front of her high school and, thanks to some onlookers, it became a viral video. Now, at the start of what is supposed to be the best year of her life, Hayley’s parents and teachers want her to make some changes to ensure the breakdown doesn’t happen again. As a result, she ends up in a TV Production class instead of one of her advanced placement courses. In TV Production, she meets Lewis Holbrook. A long-time member of the TV Production crew, Lewis is looking to be his best self in 12th grade. This means getting in better shape and finally drumming up the courage to ask out his crush. When Hayley and Lewis are paired up in class, they decide to make documentaries about the little known talents of their fellow classmates. Together, the two of them get to know their classmates’ identities more deeply than ever. What they didn’t expect, however, was to discover new things about themselves along the way.

THOUGHTS: Hall’s first novel is a humorous, coming-of-age story in which high school students (and those who have experienced high school) can relate. Told in alternating chapters between Hayley and Lewis, each point of view brings senior year anxiety into sharp focus but in different ways. This book would be a solid choice for high school libraries.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – Perfectly Parvin

Abtahi, Olivia. Perfectly Parvin. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021. 978-0-593-10942-7. 310 p. $17.99. Grades 7-10.

On the cusp of starting ninth grade, Iranian-American Parvin Mohammadi has a lot going for her: her BFFs Ruth and Fabián, an aunt (Ameh Sara) in Iran who helps her apply make-up via video chat, and a cute boy who has just asked her to be his girlfriend. But days later, Wesley unceremoniously dumps her at their high school orientation. His reason? She’s just “too much.” After (literally) peeling herself off the linoleum to binge-watch her favorite romantic comedies, Parvin hatches a plan to secure a date to Homecoming. By modeling her behavior after the demure leading ladies of The Princess Bride, The Little Mermaid, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Parvin is sure she can get a new boy to like her. No more outlandish outfits, pranks, Hot Cheetos, or being too loud. In other words, none of the things that make her (yes) perfectly Parvin. But can she lock down a real relationship with a fake personality? A compelling subplot about Ameh Sara securing a visa to visit the States (and deliver make-up tutorials in person) adds timeliness and tension.

THOUGHTS: This effervescent, laugh-out-loud debut perfectly captures Parvin’s humor, hijinks, and occasional humiliations. It matches the tone and depth of Netflix’s Never Have I Ever and Sandhya Menon’s Dimple and Rishi series. 

Realistic Fiction          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Parvin is determined to enter ninth grade with a boyfriend and relish in all of the new high school experiences. She’s never felt quite perfect in a family that doesn’t look like those in mainstream media. Her mom is white, and her dad is Iranian, so she doesn’t feel like she fits with either, despite their support and weekly Farsi lessons. Video chat makeup tutorials from Ameh Sara (who is in Iran) are a highlight, as Ameh Sara gets Parvin and can help her with things her mom doesn’t understand. After a perfect summer of pranks at the beach with Wesley leads to him asking her out, Parvin can’t wait for school to begin. Nothing possibly could go wrong with best friends Ruth and Fabián at her side. Then at high school orientation Parvin is rejected by Wesley, who explains that she’s “too much.” What does that even mean? While her friends and Ameh Sara try to tell her she’s better off, Parvin is determined to make Wesley jealous by finding a date to Homecoming. She can tamp down her “too much” side by acting like the leading ladies in some of her favorite romances. Becoming obsessed with impressing a potential date (and hiding her real self), Parvin also neglects her friends who start to feel abandoned. But she’s so close to being asked to Homecoming; can’t they understand? When Parvin loses control of the situation and her aunt’s long planned visit to the States is put in jeopardy, she has to find a way to resolve everything.

THOUGHTS: The audiobook of this title is outstanding, and Parvin’s voice truly is brought to life by Mitra Jouhari. Readers will root for Parvin to give up on Wesley (who couldn’t even be bothered to pronounce her name right) and figure out who she is. Highly recommended for middle and high school collections.

YA – Punching Bag

Ogle, Rex. Punching Bag. Norton Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-324-01623-6. $17.95. 217 p. Grades 9-12.

As with his debut memoir, Free Lunch, Latinx author Rex Ogle is honest and sensitive in his recounting of his high school years with his volatile mother, Luciana, and abusive stepfather, Sam. At the book’s opening, Rex’s mother reveals that she has lost an infant girl, Marisa, while seven-year-old Rex was visiting his paternal grandparents. In front of her sensitive son, she is distraught with grief and places the blame at his feet. Ogle carries that guilt with him as he navigates his teen-age years protecting his half-brother, Ford, from the chaos erupting from domestic violence in their tiny Texas apartment. At times, this guilt is assuaged with the remembrance of Marisa, giving him the encouragement and strength not extended by other adults. Though his alcoholic stepfather beats his mother regularly, Rex’s mother refuses to press charges or escape. In fact, in a brief stint when Sam leaves her, she picks on Rex, goading him to hit her. Rex acts as the parent here. He has the maturity to see their household is toxic and to recognize his mother’s mental health issues. From conversations with family members, he gets an insight into the root causes of his mother’s and stepfather’s behaviors. However, he feels responsible for the safety of his younger brother and the financial stability of the family. He receives some emotional support from his grandmother and his mother’s sister; he is able to confess to his stepfather’s brother the physical abuse suffered in their family. Nevertheless,with little adult support from teachers or neighbors, young Ogle is out there on his own with the lone comfort of Marisa’s ghostly voice convincing him her death was not his fault. When Luciana and Sam repeatedly wind up together with little improvement, Ogle has to value his own life and aim for his own dreams to keep him resilient and hopeful. This memoir is an excellent example of bibliotherapy. Ogle does not gloss over the brutality and the bewildering reality of domestic violence and the devastating effect of a parent’s untreated mental health issues on her children. Ogle acknowledges this in the book’s preface with a disclaimer emphasizing his purpose for writing his story is to show that it is possible to survive. Students suffering the same trauma will appreciate his frankness. Contains an informative Q & A with author.

THOUGHTS: The account of domestic abuse as well as physical and emotional child abuse is constant, but Ogle is a talented narrator and compels the reader to endure it. Rex Ogle himself stands out as an exceedingly mature, resilient, compassionate person, despite a lifetime to being put down, parentified, terrified, neglected. It prompts the thought, where was this behavior learned. He records little resentment of being the person in charge of his younger brother. He willingly shoulders adult responsibilities around the house with hidden resentment and–mostly-controlled anger. The book delivers an important message to any students in similar circumstances.

Memoir          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
362.7 Child Abuse

YA – Squad

Tokuda-Hall, Maggie, and Lisa Sterle. Squad. Greenwillow Books, 2021. 978-0-06-294314-9. 224 pp. $14.99. Grades 9-12.

Becca’s single mom recently moved to Piedmont, California, so Becca could graduate from an outstanding high school and enjoy a safe, upper-class community. To her own surprise, Becca is befriended by Piedmont High’s most elite “squad” of girls, led by ultra-rich Arianna. But these girls have a secret, alluded to in the graphic novel’s vibrant cover art: they are werewolves. Becca loves belonging to a tight clique, but their collective hunger has a price. On the full moon they must feed, usually on the overly aggressive boys they meet at parties. When Becca accidentally kills one of Piedmont’s own (Arianna’s unfaithful boyfriend Thatcher) the squad risks exposure, and everyone’s loyalty is put to the test. Squad features ethnically diverse characters (Becca is depicted as Asian American, fellow squad member Mandy is Black), a healthy dose of camp, and delightful snark. Arianna helpfully informs Becca, for example, “You’re way too pretty to be dressing like a Santa Monica basic.” Comparisons to Heathers, Teen Wolf, and Riverdale are all well-earned!

THOUGHTS: Beneath Lisa Sterle’s fabulous jewel-toned artwork readers will discover powerful messages about consent and the perils of following the pack.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Blue

Delano, L.E. Blue. Gaze Publishing, 2021. 978-1-736-47310-8. 258 p. $9.99. Grades 9-12.

Blue Mancini is rather confident that her name has doomed her to a life of sadness. Just one year ago, her brother Jack was driving drunk and was in a car accident resulting in a fatality. Because Blue and Jack have rich parents with expensive lawyers, he avoids a manslaughter charge and instead is in a detention center for only a few months. Blue might be able to live with that fact… except that Maya is returning to school. A classmate in the same grade, Maya had been out of school for a while as her family adjusted to the death of her father, the man Jack killed the night he was driving drunk. Although Blue is not directly responsible for what happened to Maya’s dad, Maya seems to think she is also to blame. This becomes apparent when Maya picks fights with her in the classes they have together. With Maya taunting her in class and on social media, her mother’s constant nagging to visit Jack in the detention center, and the fact that her boyfriend is hiding a major secret from her, Blue succumbs to feeling sorry for herself, but she isn’t great at keeping it all inside. After one particularly physical fight between Maya and Blue, the principal and counselor decide they must attend after-school sessions and create a club together. As they meet, both of them have to work through their issues to find common ground.

THOUGHTS: Blue highlights the importance of what happens when one bad decision alters the course of a life. High school readers will relate to the mental health struggles Blue goes through. This book is an easy read and ends on a light note with a positive message despite the difficult events.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – The Lucky List

Lippincott, Rachael. The Lucky List. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 978-1-534-46853-5. $18.99. 294 p. Grades 7-12.

Shunned by her high school peers for boldly kissing an underclassman at the junior prom in full view of her well-liked boyfriend, Matt, Emily Clark faces a lonely summer in Huckabee, her small Pennsylvania town. Her best friend, Kiera, is working as a counselor at a sleep away camp; Matt is kind but confused at her actions; her dad is as distracted by work as ever leaving Emily to pack up her deceased mother’s belongings. Still nursing her grief over her mother’s passing three years prior from cancer, Emily finds a bucket list her mother penned her senior year of high school. When her parents’ best friend, Johnny Carter, moves to Huckabee from Hawaii with his daughter, Blake, the two girls spend a special summer together. Both motherless, they bond easily, and Blake is supportive when the diffident, cautious Emily challenges herself to check off the twelve points on her mother’s list. Convinced this accomplishment will reveal the new and improved Emily, she finds herself—with Blake’s encouragement and help—jumping off cliffs, sleeping under the stars, fending off others to steal forbidden apples, picking a four-leaf clover, etc. until ultimately, she is faced with the final task: kissing Matt. Rachael Lippincott’s The Lucky List is a cozy coming-of-age novel with a LBGTQ+ theme. Narrator Emily relates the questioning, the fears, the missteps of discovering whom one really is authentically and satisfyingly. The relationship between Emily and Blake is gradual and fun; the soul-searching Emily is relatable. A pleasant read for any teen, but may strike a particular chord with those grappling with their sexual identity. 

THOUGHTS: The Lucky List is a light read, heavy on friendship and caring rather than sex. The awakening of a person to her sexual identity may be helpful addition on school library shelves.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke  School District of Philadelphia

MG/YA – Huda F Are You?

Fahmy, Huda. Huda F Are You? Dial Books, 2021. 978-0-593-32430-1. 192 p. $22.99. Grades 6-9.

Huda F (a self-described “extension” of author-illustrator Huda Fahmy) is “just your friendly neighborhood Arab-Muslim hijab-wearing American whatever” entering the ninth grade in Dearborn, Michigan. Despite these labels, Huda isn’t sure who she really is or even who she wants to be. She tries to form a friend group while establishing her true personality, but discrimination and microaggressions take a toll on her well-being (and her transcript). Despite the seriousness of these issues, Fahmy brings a light touch and plenty of self-deprecating humor to Huda’s predicament. For example, she depicts Huda’s inner monologues through two mini-Hudas on her shoulders, one in a leather jacket, bickering over her decisions and delivering brutal honesty. Huda’s journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance is portrayed through simple drawings, uncluttered backgrounds, and a limited color palette. Narration boxes and Huda’s delightful facial expressions move the action along to a satisfying conclusion.

THOUGHTS: Huda F Are You is funny, unexpectedly universal, and an excellent choice for fans of Almost American Girl by Robin Ha.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Grades 8-11.

Huda Fahmey, along with her four sisters and her parents, have moved to Dearborn, Michigan, a town with a large Muslim population. This is a big change for Huda: in her old school, she was the only girl who wore a hijab, but that is not the case in Dearborn. While Huda is proud to wear her hijab, she is also aware of the prejudice she faces while wearing it, even from some of her high school teachers. Because of this, Huda sets out to learn more about her religion and figure out what it means to wear the hijab. Since she is no longer the only hijabi girl, Huda has absolutely no idea who she is. Huda tries to figure out who her friends are, what cliques she might belong to, and where she fits in. Academically, Huda is a stellar student, but that doesn’t seem like quite enough to encompass an entire identity. She categorizes herself as “miscellaneous,” a label that makes Huda feel as though she is a nobody. With the help of her friends and family, she begins her journey to find out Huda F. she is.

THOUGHTS: Huda Fahmey’s semi-biographical graphic novel is funny and relatable. This is an absolute must-buy for secondary libraries. Be aware that the title may raise some eyebrows, but there is no strong language in the content of the book.

Graphic Novel           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – Muted: A Novel in Verse

Charles, Tami. Muted: A Novel in Verse. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-67352-4. $18.99. 386 p. Grades 9-12.

Author Tami Charles, who once belonged to rhythm and blues girl group, relates a compelling story reminiscent of the R. Kelly scandal. She chooses a real-life small town between the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania and the Catskills in New York. Drawn to each other because they are the few persons of color in their predominantly white high school, three talented girls are overwhelmed and overjoyed to get the notice of a leading recording artist and record producer, Sean “Mercury” Ellis. Denver LaFleur, a curvy, African American with a powerhouse voice, her talented friends Dalisay Gomez and Shakira Brown, sneak behind their parents’ backs to meet with Merc. When Shak drops out because she has suspicions about Merc’s intentions, Merc whisks Denver and Dali to Atlanta where he grooms them to be performers separately in his mansion on Pristine Road. Gradually, Denver takes center stage, while Merc tells Dali she is not ready. Though Denver finds Merc’s methods stringent and mercurial (he limits her calories and takes away her cell phone and internet) and he adapts and takes credit for her original songs, she does get the chance to cut a demo record and make money. Both girls stay with Merc with their parents’ permission (they are only seventeen when he takes them under his wing) because of the possibility of fame and fortune. However, not long into the novel, Denver has difficulty sorting out the rigor becoming a lead singer requires from the torture of being blocked from her family and true love, Dali. Thinking Dali has returned home to Sholola, their hometown, Denver makes clandestine phone call to Shak and discovers Dali is not back in Pennsylvania. Where is she? Using her wiles, Denver explores Merc’s mansion, uncovering a maze of rooms, each one holding captive girls Merc kidnapped. Told in verse, the book is not graphic, but it is brutal. The ending brings some resolution, although not happy ones. The realistic subject matter conveys successful people get away with incorrigible acts is troubling, yet highly readable.

THOUGHTS: Students will draw parallels between this verse novel and R. Kelly, the R & B singer, and similar allegations of captive girls and sexual misconduct. Denver is a sympathetic, authentic character and her involvement in the glittering world of celebrity makes for an interesting, if depressing, read. The setting in Sholola, Pennsylvania, too, is a draw for local readers. The print in the book is extra tiny; hopefully, the published version will be standard size font. Some cursing and descriptions of sexual activity.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Best friends Denver LaFleur, Dalisay (Dali) Gomez, and Shakira (Shak) Brown are the trio that make up Angelic Voices, a singing group with hopes of making it big and getting out of their small town Sholola, Pennsylvania. When Denver sees their opportunity to get noticed in front of Sean “Mercury” Ellis (Merc), she grabs her friends’ hands and presses play on a cell phone to cue up the music. Time stands still as the group beautifully blends harmonies, and they begin to see their dreams within reach. Denver is ready to do whatever it takes to make it. But Shak has doubts about Merc who creeps her out, and she has other obligations with her family, church, and basketball. Shak isn’t ready to sneak around and lie to her family to get her big break, so the trio becomes a duo under Merc’s guidance. Denver and Dali leave their families and move into Merc’s Atlanta mansion. Despite small doubts, Denver is mostly okay as long as Dali is by her side (no one else knows of their secret relationship). Merc has rules, though, to keep his legacy safe and keep the creative juices flowing. The girls hand over their cell phones, have no internet access, sleep in separate parts of the house, and only come out of their rooms when permitted, all in the name of getting into the zone. The next time Denver sees Dali, though, Dali has been on a trip with Merc to have a complete makeover including having work done on her teeth so she no longer needs braces. Denver feels a hint of jealousy with the attention Dali’s been getting while she’s been stuck at home with a personal trainer and very limited food. And there’s Merc’s ever present old school camcorder. Fame isn’t quite what Denver thought it would be, and not being in contact with her family starts to get hard. In a few short months Denver’s life looks entirely different, but is it all worth losing herself and everyone she loves in the process?

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Denver and cringe at the warning signs she misses. This one would pair well with Tiffany D. Jackson’s Grown and is a must have for high school collections.

Realistic Fiction          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 – Game Changer

Shusterman, Neal. Game Changer. Quill Tree Books, 2021. 978-0-061-99867-6. 386 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Ash lives a pretty normal life as far as teenagers go. He has a younger brother, a crush on a girl, and a starting spot on the school’s football team. Unlike his best friend Leo, he really doesn’t think too hard about things like race or equality because he doesn’t have to – the world is laid out in front of him and he just has to live it. Unfortunately, that world is altered when Ash takes a hard hit during a football game. A rush of ice through his veins accompanies a universe shift as Ash jumps into another dimension; while many aspects of Ash’s life are the same, many things have changed! Stop signs are blue, his parents are rich, and… segregation in schools is the norm. Leo is Black, which means in this universe, Ash and Leo never became friends. In this universe, Ash’s life is significantly better yet also significantly worse, so Ash wants to get back to his original dimension…or perhaps, an even better one. As Ash tries to figure out how to put his world back together, he questions what he has always known and realizes he needs to shift his thinking.

THOUGHTS: Neal Shusterman has always been a young adult favorite, and this book is no exception. With an engaging plot line, relatable characters, and funny quips in dialogue, students will enjoy this book immensely. This is a fantastic purchase for high school libraries.

Science Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD