MG – The Last Cuentista

Higuera, Donna Barba. The Last Cuentista. Levine Querido, 978-1-646-14089-3. 320 p. $17.99. Grades 5-9.

In the year 2061, a comet has been knocked off course and is hurtling to planet Earth. While the majority of earth’s citizens will die as the comet collides with the planet, a small group of citizens are selected to travel to space and prepare to make a new home on planet Sagan. Petra, her brother Javier, and her scientist parents make the cut, but her beloved grandmother Lita does not. Petra and her grandmother have a special relationship, strengthened by the cuentos, or stories, that Lita tells her. Petra lives for these moments with her grandmother and vows that she will remember every single one of her grandmother’s cuentos so she always has a piece of her to share with others. After boarding the ship that takes them away from Earth, Petra and her family are frozen for 380 years inside stasis pods until they reach Sagan. While frozen, each person receives a brain download that inputs all kinds of knowledge so they are fully educated and ready to colonize a new planet when they arrive at their destination. Hundreds of years later, as Petra is taken out of her stasis, she realizes very quickly that she is the only one that remembers anything about Earth – and the plan for colonization has changed. A group called The Collective has taken over the ship and has plans to erase everything relating to Earth and its human inhabitants. According to them, the humans of Earth have made a lot of mistakes, and they do not intend on repeating (or remembering) those mistakes on their new planet. Petra realizes that if she wants Earth’s cuentos to live on, she must fight The Collective from the inside.

THOUGHTS: This book has received a slew of awards, including this year’s Newbery Medal. The Mexican-American main character is a strong female hero that readers will root for. It is a beautiful story filled with loss and hope, which makes it a perfect cuento. A must-purchase for middle grade libraries.

Science Fiction            Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem. – Chunky

Mercado, Yehudi. Chunky. Katherine Tegan Books, 2021. 978-1-713-75878-5. 199 p. $21.99. Grades 3-6. 

When Hudi was younger he had some health issues which caused him to have his one lung removed. As he gets older, his parents are worried about his health and want him to lose weight and stay healthy, so they set him up with a variety of different sports. These end in Hudi getting injured most of the time. Hudi has a great imagination along with an awesome sense of humor, which help him through most of his sports injuries and endear him to his doctors. Hudi has an imaginary friend that he names Chunky who is his cheerleader throughout the book as Hudi goes through all of these activities.

THOUGHTS: The illustrations are bright and colorful, and the addition of the Spanish is a wonderful addition. There is an author’s note that delves more into the book and explains how some of this book is based on the author’s experiences growing up as a Mexican Jewish child. This is a lovely addition to any middle school collection.

Graphic Novel            Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Hudi Mercado doesn’t quite know where he fits in. He is the only Mexican Jewish kid in his neighborhood and, since Hudi suffered a serious medical condition as a child, his parents are always concerned about his health. Or more specifically, his weight. Hudi’s parents push him to try a variety of sports like tennis, soccer, and swimming. Somehow, most of these endeavors end with a trip to the hospital. To help cope, Hudi invents Chunky, an imaginary mascot who is Hudi’s biggest fan. Together, the two of them love drawing and making jokes. With Chunky, Hudi is able to deal with all the demands coming his way from his parents. However, when his dad loses his job and things at home become even more tense, Hudi starts to forget himself and his imaginary cheerleader.

THOUGHTS: Inspired by the author’s childhood, this graphic novel is perfect for middle grade readers who are fans of Jerry Craft. Readers will relate to Hudi’s struggles and laugh alongside him as he finds his place in his world. Expect book 2 two early this summer.

Graphic Novel          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG – ¡¡Manu!!

Fernandez, Kelly. ¡¡Manu!! Graphix, 2021. 978-1-338-26419-7. $24.99. 192 p. Grades 4-7.

Manu is a young girl who was given over by her family at a young age to live at a convent that is known for raising girls who have magical powers. The headmistress of the school believes Manu has very strong powers that could be used to help many, but Manu just wants to have fun with her magic. Fun often turns into mischief as Manu has trouble controlling her incredibly powerful magic. One of her pranks goes seriously wrong, and her friend, Josefina, wishes for Manu’s powers to disappear. They do disappear, and the girls attempt a dangerous spell to have Manu’s powers restored. Will Manu be able to control her magic before it destroys the people Manu loves?  

THOUGHTS: This graphic novel would be a great read for kids who love fantasy and stories about magic. There is an underlying theme of Manu figuring out who she is and if her friendship with Josephina is more than just friendship.  

Graphic Novel          Krista Fitzpatrick, Abington SD

Elem. – A Thousand White Butterflies

Betancourt-Perez, Jessica. A Thousand White Butterflies. Charlesbridge. 978-1-580-89577-4. 32 p. $16.99. Grades K-3. 

Isabella has just moved to the United States from Colombia. She’s about to begin school, but an unexpected blizzard cancels her first day. She feels trapped by all the unfamiliar snow, and she misses her friends and her Papa who is still in Colombia. While looking out the window, Isabella sees a girl slip and fall into the snow outside. She bundles into her puffy coat and boots and hurries outside to see if the girl is alright. The pair end up spending the afternoon making snow angels, snowballs, and a snowman. Despite the language barrier, they laugh and play and make the most out of their surprise meeting and unexpected day off from school. Two Author’s Notes describe how the co-authors met and the real-life inspiration behind this book. Additionally, a “More Info” section defines “immigrants” as people who leave their original country to live permanently in a new place. It also includes a brief history of immigration to the United States. Lastly, a glossary defines each Spanish word or phrase used in the story. 

THOUGHTS: Hope, resilience, and friendship are central themes in this immigration story, as is the idea that children are able to make connections with each other despite language and cultural differences. These ideas will make good talking points during morning meetings or when welcoming a new student into a classroom. Share this title with guidance counselors and ESOL teachers. 

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD

MG – Paola Santiago and the River of Tears

Mejia, Tehlor Kay. Paola Santiago and the River of Tears. Disney-Hyperion, 2020. 978-1-368-04917-7. 350 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Scientific Paola just eyerolls when her superstitious mother talks of spells, wards, and evil beings like La Llorona, the creature who roams the river stealing children to replace those she lost. But Paola and her friends Emma and Dante do respect the Gila River near their Arizona home. Several local children have drowned in the waters. Not that that stops them from lying to their parents and hanging out on the banks of the river. But when Paola repeatedly has dreams of a creature reaching out of the waters and grabbing her, and Emma disappears one evening, Paola begins to reconsider whether her mother’s superstitions are as ridiculous as she always assumed them to be. When the police refuse to listen to Paola, she and Dante decide to take matters into their own hands. Armed with support and advice from a most surprising source, they venture into a world of legendary monsters battled by lost children, shocked to discover their own roles in this world that shouldn’t exist. Paola Santiago, part of the Rick Riordan imprint, is a page turner from the very beginning. Pao is a delightful protagonist, supported by her two best friends. Scientific-minded, fascinated by space, she is stunned by the existence of magic, myth, and monsters. Dante and Emma are strong characters as well (in every sense of the word), and the various creatures they encounter don’t stand a chance against the combined wiles of the trio. But Pao also learns that there is more to life than what the power of physics can prove and becomes closer to her mother through the ordeal. Paola and Dante are Hispanic; Emma is white.

THOUGHTS: Paola Santiago and the River of Tears is an exciting page turner that is hard to put down. Paola is a feisty heroine who is easy to love and is sure to gain legions of fans. Add this to your collection if other mythology-based books are popular.

Fantasy/Mythology          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem. – Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away

Medina, Meg. Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away. Candlewick, 2020. 978-1-536-20704-0. 32 p. $17.99. Grades PreK-2.

A short, sweet tale of a friendship changing because of a move. Evelyn and Daniela are best friends who have twin apartments across the street from each other. Both welcome in each other’s home as a bonus child, and the girls play up until it’s time for the moving truck to pull away. The Spanish that is sprinkled in the story, along with beautiful illustrations of an urban neighborhood make the sing-song story about difficult change digestible for even the youngest of readers.

THOUGHTS: An #ownvoices book that encourages adolescents to celebrate change, even if it’s not easy, is always a great addition to elementary libraries. The Spanish language exposure and vibrant illustrations of city life are an added bonus for urban and rural libraries alike.

Picture Book          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

YA – Miss Meteor

Mejia, Tehlor Kay, and Anna-Marie McLemore. Miss Meteor. Harper Teen, 2020. 978-0-062-86991-3. $17.99. 392 p. Grades 9 and up.

Meteor, New Mexico is a cheesy tourist town known for three things: the regional cornhole tournament, the Miss Meteor Pageant, and, of course, the huge meteor that landed there fifty years ago. Everyone knows that’s why the town is named “Meteor,” but they don’t know Lita landed there with it. Lita lives her human life now in Meteor with Bruja Lupe, her “mom,” who may or may not have come from the same space rock. Being of Mexican descent and the daughter of the town witch does nothing to help Lita in the popularity department. That doesn’t stop her from fantasizing over and pretending to enter and win the Miss Meteor Pageant as a kid, her best friend Chicky playing along as her manager. Things don’t get better for her over the years, though. Chicky ends their friendship abruptly in middle school, and since then it seems as though Lita is turning back into the stardust from which she came; tiny patches of it are visible under her skin. Also of Mexican descent, flannel-and-combat-boot-wearing Chicky has harbored a secret and has had to deal with bullying for most of her life, Miss Meteor pageant legacy Kendra Kendall being her harshest and most frequent bully. When Lita decides to go for her dream of Miss Meteor because she’s running out of time and has nothing to lose, Chicky decides to resume her role as Lita’s manager. Kendra Kendall losing the crown everyone expects her to win to the weirdest girl in town would be fitting, so it’s worth it to Chicky to rekindle her friendship with Lita to make it happen. How long can Chicky continue to keep her secret from her friend though, since that’s why she ended their friendship in the first place? Will Lita even make it to the pageant, or will she turn to stardust before it even starts? Find out in this beautifully written poignant story of friendship and self-love.

THOUGHTS: Miss Meteor is adorable and imaginative, and Tehlor Kay Mejia is quickly becoming a must-read YA author for me, personally. This book is co-written with Anna-Marie McLemore, and each author writes one of the main characters’ point of view in alternating chapter format. Lita is particularly quirky and innocent (which makes sense, given she’s made of stardust), and I found myself smiling a lot while reading this book… and laughing. And I may have shed a tear or two. While there are several instances of harsh bullying including homophobia and transphobia, this book is heartwarming overall with a cast of extremely lovable and diverse characters. Chicky’s sisters are hilarious, and the girls themselves as well as their friends/love interests are of various sexual orientations including a trans character. Highly recommended addition for all high school collections.

Fantasy (Magical Realism)          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – With a Star in My Hand: Rubén Darío, Poetry Hero

Engle, Margarita. With a Star in My Hand: Rubén Darío, Poetry Hero. Atheneum, 2020. 978-1-534-42493-7. 144 p. $17.99. Grades 7-12. 

Based on the life of Rubén Darío, Margarita Engle’s With a Star in My Hand depicts a fictionalized account of the poet’s rise to fame. Coming from humble origins, a mother who abandoned him to a poor working aunt who encouraged his love of literature, Rubén Darío rose to become the father of a literary movement. From a young age his poems inspired and awed those around him as he took chance after chance offered to him. However, his road to fame wasn’t all gold; there were many hiccups along the way that added texture to his poems. Traveling helped to color his world and determine the kind of poet, and person, he wanted to be.

THOUGHTS: A delightful and inspiring novel-in-verse account of a young boy striving against almost insurmountable odds to find his place in a world that frequently rejected him. 

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD