YA – Your Heart, My Sky

Engle, Margarita. Your Heart, My Sky. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 208 pp. 978-1-5344-64964 $18.99 Grades 9-12.

Engle focuses on a difficult time in Cuba’s history lived through by her own relatives. Euphemistically named by the government as “the special period in times of peace,” the 1990s are in reality a time of starvation. Strict rules keep Cubans from growing their own food; U.S. embargo limits trade; and most recently, Russia has dropped its promised support of the Communist nation, leaving commoners struggling for daily food and afraid to speak out, knowing that retribution comes in the form of limited opportunities, fewer rations, prison or death. Two young people, Liana and Amado, find their hunger gives them strength to defy the government-required summer volunteer work, even as they dread the consequences. Amado’s older brother is in prison for speaking out against the government. Liana is befriended by a ‘singing dog’ Paz who becomes her daily companion in search of food, and the dog brings her and Amado together. The two fall in love and consider their limited future options. Leave the island for the dangerous attempt to reach Miami? Or remain in their homeland to share and fight the deprivation with loved ones? Engle’s beautiful verse, and switching between Liana, Amado, and Paz’s voices, gives this novel depth and richness. 

THOUGHTS: Moving words bring to life this time of desperation.       

Historical Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – Amber & Clay

Schlitz, Laura Amy. Amber & Clay. Candlewick Press, 2021. 978-1-536-20122-2. 532 p. $22.99. Grades 5-9.

Told in the alternating voices of Rhaskos and Melisto, this book transports readers to the richness of life in Ancient Greece. Rhaskos is a Thracian slave, serving his masters and making his way through the world with his wits, his passion for art, and his camaraderie with donkeys. Melisto is the daughter of wealthy Greek parents who, try as they might, cannot stifle her wild spirit within the confines of a weaving room. They lead incredibly different lives, but their paths cross when Rhasko’s mother appears in Melisto’s house as a slave. Brightly drawn and multi-dimensional, these two Greek youths are easy to like, even if they are not always easy to understand, and readers will cheer for them when they finally meet and work together to fulfill their destinies.

THOUGHTS: This is the latest offering from Newbery-prize-winning author Laura Amy Schlitz, and it does not disappoint with its lyrical prose and abundant historical details. Full of ancient Greek culture, references to gods, goddesses, and the philosopher Socrates himself, fans of Greek mythology will be happy to immerse themselves in the time and place of this story.

Fantasy Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Soul Lanterns

Kuzki, Shaw. Soul Lanterns. Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-593-17434-0. 162 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Each August, Nozomi and her family release lanterns on the river to guide the souls of lost loved ones. The year she turns twelve, an unsettling encounter with a stranger at the ceremony makes Nozomi wonder about her mother’s past, and about the stories of other adults who lived through the Hiroshima bombing of 1945.  Nozomi likes art, and for an upcoming art showcase, she and three school friends ask relatives and community members to relate heartbreaking stories from “the flash” that they lived through before the children were born. This school project prompts the friends to create moving works of art to remember those that were lost. Ultimately, their works of art help the children to better understand the significance of the lantern ceremony. As Nozomi’s art teacher says at the end of the book, releasing the lanterns helps those in the community not only remember lost loved ones from the tragedy of the bomb, but also “remember the question of why such an awful thing happened.”

THOUGHTS: This story is told from the fascinating perspective of Hiroshima children who do not fully grasp the significance of the Hiroshima bombing because it occurred before they were born, and considerable character growth occurs when they find out through stories and family members what really happened on that terrible day. Many cultural references and Japanese words throughout the book make for a rich reading experience. Although there are descriptions of death and suffering which sensitive students may find disturbing, the author does an excellent job of describing the tragedy of the Hiroshima bomb with sensitivity and respect. This book will inspire readers to look more deeply into the history and ethics of nuclear warfare. Translated from Japanese.

Historical Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Ground Zero

Gratz, Alan. Ground Zero. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-24575-2. 336 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

Brandon, 9 years old, suspended from school for fighting, is spending the day with his father, who works at the Windows on the World Restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. He sneaks away from his dad to run an errand when a plane flies into the building. It is September 11, 2001. Brandon’s life has changed forever. Decades later, and a world away, Reshmina, a young Afghan girl, also lives with the fallout of that horrific day. Life in rural Afghanistan changed drastically when the US armed forces came to push back the Taliban. While no one likes the American soldiers, most Afghans fear the Taliban as well. Alan Gratz’s take on the 9/11, attack follows the two young people, alternating between their stories. While Brandon fights for his life as he tries to escape the burning tower, Reshmina struggles with the burden of Pashtunwali, providing aid to those who request it. Reshmina comes across an American soldier injured during a Taliban ambush. Despite her hatred of the Americans, she cannot leave him to die after he asks for help. The move places her family in danger; her twin brother has begun working with the Taliban and threatens to notify them of the soldier’s presence at their home. It won’t surprise any reader that the soldier is Brandon, 18 years later. There is nothing subtle about this book. Gratz had a point to make, and he hammers it home. The two stories aren’t just parallel, but painfully structured to be identical stories – an event in one story is mirrored by a similar event in the other narrative. And Gratz does not couch his opinion that everything the US did in Afghanistan was wrong and hurtful. While the current generation of readers looks for books set around 9/11, Gratz, a master of historical fiction adventure, who single handedly has converted young readers to historical fiction fans, falls a bit flat with this story. Gratz fans will want to read it, but it will not replace gems like Refugee or Projekt 1065.

THOUGHTS: Purchase where Alan Gratz is popular, but readers may be disappointed.

Historical Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – My Contrary Mary

Hand, Cynthia, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows. My Contrary Mary. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-062-93004-0. 496 p. $18.99. Grades 8-12. 

For readers who like their historical fiction a bit more on the fiction side, the trio of authors known as the Lady Janies offer their fourth rollicking rewrite of history, this time turning to Renaissance France for felicitous fodder. Mary, Queen of Scots has been engaged to Francis, Dauphin of France since they were tiny tots. They are best friends, and Francis keeps Mary’s deepest secret: she is an Eꝺian, a shape shifter with an animal alter ego. In a country ruled by Verities, this is a death sentence. This story returns to the highly enjoyable world of the trio’s first book, replacing religious warfare with Eꝺian/Verity strife. While historical events form the basis of the plot, the authors never let facts get in the way of a good story, and certainly not a happy ending. When King Henry suddenly dies, (possibly probably with an assist from Mary’s uncles), and Francis is placed on the throne, the maneuvering begins to gain control of France. Ari, the daughter of the court prognosticator, Nostradamus, finds herself thrust into the middle of the messy machinations, as her skill as a potion maker is in demand on all sides. Can Mary save Francis, save France, save Scotland, save her mother, save Eꝺians, and save her marriage? Of course she can! This is history as it ought to have been, and far more fun than anything you were taught in school. All characters are presumed white, but Ari develops a romantic relationship with one of Mary’s ladies-in-waiting.

THOUGHTS: This is a delightful, giggle-inducing romp through history, containing just enough facts to send readers to Wikipedia to discover what really happened. A steady stream of asides from the authors adds to the hilarity.

Fantasy (Historical)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

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 Traitor’s Blade

Sands, Kevin. The Traitor’s Blade. (The Blackthorn Key, 5.) Aladdin, 2021. 380 p. 978-1-5344-8456-6. $18.99 Grades 5-9.  

In book 5 of this popular series, Christopher Rowe and his friends Tom and Sally continue unraveling codes and threats, this time against Christopher and King Charles II, in 1666 London. Christopher, Tom, and Sally have only just returned from Paris, when Christopher stops in at Blackthorn’s now-dusty shop to find a threatening letter with a code leading to more information. While there, his friend Simon arrives at the door–with a knife in his back. Miraculously, Simon lives, but the similarity of his death to the recent deaths of two of the king’s servants leads Christopher to be apprenticed to the King’s spymaster. Because Christopher, Tom, and Sally had saved the life of the king’s sister Minette, King Charles extends his grateful generosity to the trio by giving each of them an annual stipend, as well as an individual gift. For Christopher, it is his apprenticeship. For Sally, it is designation as the king’s ward. And for Tom, it is a secret that he keeps from Christopher, a secret which makes him sad. Meanwhile, Simon shares news that Remi, believed to be The Raven, is dead.  Christopher should feel relieved, but questions still abound, and he is caught up in following codes in the letters from the Templars. The closer he gets, the more dangerous the group becomes, and the more convoluted the codes and suppositions. Christopher’s new master cautions him against jumping to conclusions, but Christopher recognizes he’s done exactly that. The novel ends with hand-to-hand combat, a frightening discovery, and a selfless decision by Tom that will make the reader believe in the power of friendship.

THOUGHTS: This is a wonderful continuation of the series that Sands promises has “one more to go.”  Purchase the entire series for grades 5-9; it has proven popular with reviewers and readers.

Historical Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – War and Millie McGonigle

Cushman, Karen. War and Millie McGonigle. Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 210 p. 978-1-984-85010-2. $16.99.  Grades 4-6.

Mollie McGonigle is a twelve year old girl who lives with her family in San Diego. It is the autumn of 1941 and with war raging in Europe, Millie worries that the conflict will come to California. The young girl is grieving for her grandmother, who died on Millie’s birthday. Her grandmother’s gift was a diary, and she suggested that Millie “use [it] to remember the good things in this world…things that seem lost or dead-keep them alive and safe in your book.” Millie interprets this to mean that she should keep a list of dead things and explores the beach and neighborhood to find or hear about something to write down. When not looking after her younger asthmatic sister and energetic brother or doing chores, Millie finds time to be with her friend Rosie from Chicago, who is temporarily living with relatives. Then, Pearl Harbor is attacked, and Millie becomes even more alarmed about a possible invasion, as do others in the town. With Rosie’s help, Millie comes to terms with her anxiety about the world and the loss of her grandmother, realizing that “whatever is lost stays alive when we remember it.”

THOUGHTS: This novel explores the effects of grief and anxiety about a world turned upside down. The story is not all doom and gloom, as Cushman has included some comic relief in characters like Aunt Edna and MeToo. Millie is a likeable character and readers who enjoy books about sensitive issues and friendship will like this one.

Historical Fiction          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Rossi, Veronica. Rebel Spy. Delacorte, 2020. 978-1-524-77122-5. 348 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

When Frannie Tasker’s abusive stepfather announces it is time for her to take her dead mother’s place in the household, she knows she has to escape her brutal life with him as a salvage diver on Grand Bahama Island. Fate intervenes by way of a fatal shipwreck, and a dead young woman who looks similar to Frannie. A quick change of clothes, (and a bout of “trauma-induced” mutism until she can polish her vocabulary and manners) and she becomes Emmeline Coates, wealthy British heiress on her way to America, during the height of the Revolution. She gradually adapts to her new life, family and friends, and even catches the eye of a handsome British officer. But a chance encounter with American rebel Asa Lane, who befriended Frannie on the voyage to New York and coached her in the ways of society women, shakes her out of her comfortable lifestyle. Utilizing her position in Loyalist society, Frannie begins spying for the Americans, passing along information she overhears during teas and dinner parties. But spying is a dangerous game,and Frannie is risking everything, including her new life and persona. Will Emmeline, or Frannie, survive? Based on the unknown identity of a member of the famous Revolutionary War Culper spy ring, Rossi creates a story for female agent 355. Meticulous research brings to life events of the war, many less familiar than those learned in history class, highlighting the little-emphasized contributions of women patriots.

THOUGHTS: A well-constructed combination of mystery, romance, and history featuring a strong, intelligent female main character, Rebel Spy is perfect for historical fiction fans, readers seeking an adventure story, or period romance readers.

Historical Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem. – The Lady with the Books

Stinson, Kathy. The Lady with the Books. Kids Can Press, 2020. $17.99. 32 p.  978-1-525-30154-4. Grades 2-5. 

Annelise and her younger brother Peter wander aimlessly through the streets of post-World War Munich. Feeling hungry and dejected, Annelise wonders why people are attempting to clean up the rubble. Outside of a building they join a queue hoping there will be something to eat. Grey, somber streets give the reader a realistic sense of the destruction Germany was facing after the war, but a lovely green tree just outside the building is a beacon of hope. Once inside, the pair is greeted by a room filled with books. Forgetting their woes for an afternoon, the children become completely absorbed. The illustrations skillfully capture a bustling archive brimming with colorful books from around the world. The children return the next day, just in time to listen as the “lady with the books” reads aloud from The Story of Ferdinand complete with translation from English to German. This story is especially comforting to Peter and Annelise, whose father was killed during the war for “standing up to” orders. Although the children cannot borrow books from the exhibit, they are encouraged to read as many books as possible. Whimsical characters and blooming flowers creep into the pages and eventually follow the children home. Annelise is able to find hope among the destruction and vows to join the rebuilding efforts. Graphite pencil and digitally colored illustrations beautifully enhance Annelise’s mood transformation from hopelessness to regaining a childlike sense of wonder. Annelise, Peter and Mama are white with blonde hair while the story lady has the same complexion with short dark hair. Some diversity in skin and hair types is shown among the book exhibition crowds. Backmatter informs the reader that the children in this story stumbled upon an international collection of books at the Haus der Kunst art museum as curated by Jella Lepman. A Jewish refugee who returned home after the war, Lepman managed to create a traveling collection of books that had been previously banned from Germany, including The Story of Ferdinand which she translated and printed by the thousands to distribute among children. Later, she was able to raise enough money to create the International Youth Library, also known as the “Book Castle” and contributed to the formation of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY).

THOUGHTS: This picture book provides a nice mix of fantasy and historical fiction for elementary readers to get a glimpse of the impact Jella Lepman and her international book collections made on children recovering from the trauma of war.

813 Picture Book          Jackie Fulton, Mt. Lebanon SD