MG – Show Me a Sign

LeZotte, Ann Clare. Show Me a Sign. Scholastic Press, 2020. 269 p.  978-1-338-25581-2. $ 18.99. Grades 4-7.

Part Historical Fiction and part Thriller, this story is set in 1805 Martha’s Vineyard and follows 11 year old Mary. Mary is one of the many deaf inhabitants of Martha’s Vineyard who descended from a small town in England. This genetic abnormality passes over some, yet inflicts others. However, life on the island is normal for the deaf and hearing alike. Most inhabitants speak their own form of island sign language as well as English. Life is normal until a young scientist from Boston comes to the island to study this abnormality. In trying to uncover the cause of deafness, Andrew captures Mary as his specimen and absconds with her to mainland Boston. Tortured by her captor, and realizing that she is different for the first time, Mary must find a way to escape and return to her family. Follow Mary as she escapes with the help of some Vineyard friends and finds her way home to her family and friends. The afterword includes a short history of deafness on Martha’s Vineyard, Sign Language, and the Wampanoag Tribe.

THOUGHTS: Such an interesting and unforgettable story that is rooted in history. LeZotte is deaf herself and does a fantastic job of bringing you into the world of Mary.

Historical Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

Tags: Deafness, Kidnapping, Sign Language

YA – The Boy in the Red Dress

Lambert, Kristin. The Boy in the Red Dress. Viking, 2020. 978-0-593-11368-4. $18.99. 362 p. Grades 9 and up. 

It’s New Year’s Eve, 1929 in the French Quarter, and Millie is running her Aunt Cal’s speakeasy, the Cloak and Dagger, while she’s out of town. Running a speakeasy during prohibition is dangerous enough, but the Cloak and Dagger’s entertainment includes drag shows, and the patrons are primarily from the LGBTQ community, making it doubly scandalous by 1929’s standards. The employees and patrons take care of each other though, and Millie, who is bisexual herself, would love nothing more than if her Aunt would let her quit school and help her run the place. This New Year’s Eve, she thinks, might be her chance to prove herself. But then a group of high-society newbies show up to the Cloak and Dagger, and one of them starts looking for a boy from her past she’s showing in a photograph, a boy who looks an awful lot like Millie’s best friend, who now goes by Marion and is the “undisputed queen of the Cloak and Dagger.” After Marion’s big performance at midnight, the girl – Arimentha – is found dead in the alley, apparently pushed off the balcony near Marion’s dressing room, and all the evidence points to Marion as the murderer when details emerge about their past. Millie knows her best friend is not a murderer; she just has to prove it to everyone else. As if solving a murder mystery isn’t complicated enough, Millie’s mostly-absent mother reappears forcing her to deal with some repressed feelings, and throughout her quest to clear Marion’s name, she also finds herself romantically interested in both Bennie – the son of one of their bootlegged alcohol suppliers – and Olive – a waitress at the Cloak and Dagger.

THOUGHTS: This is a fun, different kind of LGBTQ tale given the time period. Though primarily a mystery, the novel has lots of layers including a love triangle that is good but very much a sub-plot that doesn’t take over the primary storyline. Touches on the history of the time period, but at its heart, this murder mystery is just plain entertaining with a likeable cast of outcast characters, even Millie’s flawed mother. Highly recommended for collections where patrons can’t get enough LGBTQ.

Mystery          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

MG – Becoming Muhammad Ali

Patterson, James, and Alexander, Kwame. Becoming Muhammad Ali. Jimmy Patterson Books, 2020. 978-0-316-49816-6. 310 p. $16.99. Grades 4-8.

We all know about the legend that is Muhammad Ali, but few know about the boy called Cassius Clay. This book, written partly in verse and partly in prose is a must read for any sports loving reader. Told in ten rounds, like a boxing match, Clay’s friend Lucky tells part of the story (written by Patterson) while Cassius’ voice is told in verse (written by Alexander). Learn how the events of the day shaped Clay into Ali and how sheer determination and self belief led to Clay’s success. A bibliography is included.

THOUGHTS: A first purchase for any middle grade library collection.

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

YA – The Vanishing Half

Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. Riverhead Books. 2020. 978-0-525-53629-1. 343 pp. $27.00. Gr. 10+.

In 1954, the morning after Founders Day, the 16-year old Vignes twins disappeared from their tiny town of Mallard, Louisiana. Desiree and Stella made their way to New Orleans, where their lives took two very different directions and identities. Stella began “passing” as white, and Desiree continued living as a black woman. Now, fourteen years later, Desiree has returned to Mallard with a young daughter in tow. Jude’s dark complexion makes waves in Mallard, a town founded on the principle of prizing each generation’s lighter and lighter skin tones. No one has seen or heard from Stella in almost as many years. The narrative shifts between 1968, when Desiree and Jude arrive in Mallard, and 1978, when Jude herself leaves to attend UCLA. There she falls in love with a trans man named Reese. Brit Bennett expertly depicts each time period and setting, weaving in real-world events such the integration of wealthy suburban neighborhoods, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the early days of the AIDS crisis. She realistically embeds each woman’s story within the timeline, gradually turning up the tension in one plot strand before focusing on another, equally well-crafted, character arc. No jaw-dropping plot twists are required in a historical novel this good, with storylines that converge, draw apart, and come together again with heartbreaking realism.

THOUGHTS: Crisp, unpretentious writing, vivid settings, and characters who genuinely feel real make for one of the best reads of 2020.

Historical Fiction          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Elem. – Leaving Lymon

Cline-Ransome, Lesa. Leaving Lymon. Holiday House, 2020. 978-0-823-44442-7. 199 p. $17.99. Grades 4-6.

In this companion novel to Finding Langston, Cline-Ransome creates a story about ten year old Lymon, an African-American boy who lives in Vicksburg, Mississippi with his grandparents during the 1940s Jim Crow era. Lymon’s mother abandoned him when he was an infant, and his father is in prison. Despite this, he is happy enough with his life, especially when playing the guitar with his grandfather. Life changes for Lymon after his grandfather dies, and he and his grandmother move to Milwaukee. Lymon has difficulty adjusting to life in the North and struggles in school. When his grandmother becomes ill, he is sent to live with his mother in Chicago. Even though this is what he always wanted, he faces challenges in his new life with his abusive stepfather and emotionally distant mother. After a bad decision, Lymon must come to terms with yet another life adjustment, one which has the potential to change his life forever.

THOUGHTS: Told in first person, this novel allows the reader to understand the difficulties and emotions that Lymon experiences. The author has created a likeable character and readers will be rooting for him and hope for a sequel to learn what happens next. This is a strong purchase for all middle grade libraries.

Historical Fiction          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem. – Freedom Bird

Nolen, Jerdine. Freedom Bird. Simon & Schuster, 2020. 978-0-689-87167-2. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades 2-5.

Brother and sister Millicent and John Wheeler are enslaved children whose parents instilled in them the dream of freedom. One day, while the children are working in the fields of a North Carolina plantation, the overseer takes a whip and hits a large mysterious bird, knocking it to the ground. At night, the children rescue the bird and keep it safe. The siblings learn that John would soon be sold to a farm in Georgia, and the pair realize that now is the time to make their escape. As the children run away from the overseer, the bird takes flight into a storm and heads west. The children hide in the woods during the storm and they eventually escape westward across the Missouri River. On the last page, the author reveals this tale was one that was told by storytellers and utilized the common imagery of the bird’s flight to symbolize freedom. James E. Ransome has created vibrant full bleed illustrations that show the characters on a large scale, like the drawing of the bird taking flight. The images masterfully show motion, and the reader can almost feel a breeze from the bird’s wings.

THOUGHTS: This book completes a trilogy of stories that feature African Americans from the same plantation and their journey to freedom from slavery (Big Jabe and Thunder Rose). This book works well as a mentor text for imagery and metaphor and shows the power of storytelling. A wonderful read aloud for anytime.

Easy Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem. – Blue Skies

Bustard, Anne. Blue Skies. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 978-1-534-44606-9. 218 p. $17.99. Grades 3-5.

Glory Bea Bennett is a young girl who lives with her mother and grandparents in a small town in Texas. The year is 1948, and memories of the war still linger. Her friend Ben’s father suffers from PTSD, and Glory Bea’s own father was listed as “missing in action,” which gives her hope that he is still alive. In fact, she is certain that he will return to town on the Merci Train, which carries gifts from France to America for its support in the war.   While the town is preparing for the visit, Glory Bea is trying out her matchmaking skills between her best friend Ruby Jane and Ben, although she is clueless about whom he really likes. Then, a fellow soldier and friend of Glory Bea’s father comes to visit, and her mother and the soldier begin dating, which is a relationship she is trying to sabotage. After all, the Merci Train will be bringing her father home soon.

THOUGHTS: This is a beautifully crafted novel which is both poignant and uplifting. Readers will empathize with Glory Bea and learn how one family supports each other in their grief. The author balances this with some well-placed humorous incidents in the story, such as Glory Bea’s attempt at giving Ruby Jane a permanent. The characters are well-developed and very likeable, and readers will be eager for more stories about the Bennett family and their friends. This is a first purchase for elementary and middle grade collections.

Historical Fiction                                                          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

MG – Hunger Winter: A World War II Novel

Currie, Rob. Hunger Winter: A World War II Novel. Tyndale House, 2020. $14.99 253 p. 978-1-496-44034-1  Grades 4-8.

In late 1944, 13-year-old Dirk’s father has gone into hiding as a leader of the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis. The chase begins immediately; in chapter one, Dirk learns via a neighbor that his older sister Els has been captured by the Gestapo, to question and torture for information, and to encourage their father’s cooperation. Dirk knows his next move must be to escape with his younger sister, six-year-old Anna, to their grandparents’ home, but questions and worries bombard his mind. Chapter two reveals Els’s perspective as she is starved; questioned; threatened; and worries for her father, brother, and sister.  Most of the story is Dirk’s, but returns to Els’s point-of-view in the final chapters. This tense novel reveals the strength of the Dutch people during what became known as the “Hongerwinter” when Nazi control of resources led to daily food rations of a mere 320 calories per person. Dirk must call upon memories of his father’s instructions and strength to guide him through difficult decisions on his journey, while shielding Anna from the brutal realities of war as best he can.

THOUGHTS: This is a middle-grade novel a step up in complexity and danger for readers who loved Number the Stars and The Devil’s Arithmetic. It will expand readers’ knowledge of Nazi tactics and brave Dutch resistance. An inspiring read.

Historical Fiction; World War II in Netherlands  Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – Traitor

McCrina, Amanda. Traitor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. 978-0-374-31352-4. 368 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12. 

War is not clean and neat, and McCrina’s Traitor masterfully portrays the emotional and ethical wreckage it causes. The two-pronged storyline begins with Tolya, in July 1944. A young soldier in the Soviet army during World War II, Tolya keeps his head down. With his Ukranian father executed as a traitor, and his mother shot for being Polish, his loyalties do not lie with the Soviets, but he enlisted because he was alone and hungry. When he shoots his unit’s political officer during an assault on a young woman, it’s only a matter of time until the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police, arrest and shoot him. However, when he is whisked away, it turns out to be an extraction by the Ukranian Insurgent Army, who are looking for a sniper to assassinate a high ranking Soviet officer. The alternate plot line begins in June 1941, following young Ukranian Aleksey who is attempting to break  his Ukranian nationalist hero father out of a Russian controlled Polish prison prior to the arrival of German troops. As life deteriorates in the Polish city, an injured Aleksey and his brother, Mykola, find themselves in the care of the Polish Resistance. Both plotlines highlight the confusing disintegration of loyalties as the Germans advance into Russian territory. While the Russians had allied themselves with the Polish resistance earlier in the war, now they are actively hunting and killing them. Astute readers may pick up on the connection between the two plotlines early in the book; most will unravel it deeper into the story, hindered by the profusion of characters with unfamiliar names. But the ultimate moral of the story is that there are no winners in war. Readers’ hearts will ache for the profound loneliness of both Tolya and Aleksey, as they cannot bring themselves to trust anyone. Ultimately, it seems, everyone’s goal is to just survive. A character list and an outline of military units at the end of the book are extremely useful to readers in keeping the complex stories organized.

THOUGHTS: This outstanding historical fiction story highlights a lesser known corridor of World War II. The era is presented in deeply humanistic terms, highlighting the psychological toll war causes on those caught up against their will. It can be a challenging read with dozens of characters and multiple factions to keep straight, but the reward is magnificent. Hand this stunning book to Alan Gratz fans who are ready for something more mature. 

Historical Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Village of Scoundrels

Preus, Margi. Village of Scoundrels. Amulet Books, 2020. 978-1-419-70897-8. 295 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

To the people of Nazi ocupied France, every step must be calculated and every risk weighed carefully. In this powerful novel, Preus explores how the young people of France band together in order to smuggle refugees across the border into neutral Switzerland. Henni, a Jewish girl in hiding, helps to protect children by hiding them in the woods during Nazi raids on their hiding spot. Celeste bravely travels across the country to procure items necessary to continue bringing people to safety. Although these girls are brilliant in their work, they also need someone who can provide legal documents and safe travel. Jean Paul is an expert at forgery, and Philippe is knowledgeable with the terrain and how to arrange passage. This group of children will assist the extrication of hundreds of people and stand up for what is right no matter the risk and danger associated with their tasks.

THOUGHTS: This novel is based on a true story and is thoughtfully written. The pages are filled with accurate details and French and German words. The author provides a Cast of Characters (almost like a Playbill) and a pronunciation guide at the start of the book. This proves useful because there are a variety of characters to keep up with, which at times is overwhelming as they jump from person to person within a chapter. A great read for those who enjoy reading historical fiction and the World War II time period.

Historical Fiction        Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD