MG – The Boys in the Back Row

Jung, Mike. The Boys in the Back Row. Levine Querido, 2020. 978-1-646-14011-4. 264 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Matt and Eric have been best friends forever. They are both marching band nerds, both fans of comics by artist Jonah Burns, and both are targets of bully Kenny and his side-kick Sean. When Eric learns his family will be moving at the end of the school year, the pair plan one epic last adventure. While the school marching band is on a trip to World of Amazement amusement park, Eric and Matt will sneak out to nearby DefenderCon and meet their idol, Jonah Burns. But when Sean gets wind of their plans, and inexplicably wants to join the friends, they are confounded as to how to proceed. The book uniquely highlights friendship between tween boys. The pair are openly fond of each other, but are tired being labeled gay. Matt is also called gay for playing the flute. (Neither is gay, but they do not consider it an insult). A secondary theme involves racism against Asian students such as Matt. Kenny, the chief proponent of both racism and homophobia, seems to harbor an attraction for a male, Asian band member, providing some insight into his troubled personality. While the racist theme can become heavy-handed, the exuberant friendship of the boys more than carries the book. Matt is Asian, Eric and Kenny are white, with minor characters who are a variety of ethnicities, particularly Asian.

THOUGHTS: This book should be a first purchase for middle grade collections. Stories showing kind, thoughtful male relationships are too rare.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem. – A Pig in the Palace

Bahrampour, Ali. A Pig in the Palace. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-419-74571-3. $17.99. Grades K-3.

Bobo is a little confused. He was just rolling in the mud when a note was slipped under his door. An invitation… to a dinner party… with the Queen! How could this be so? After all, he is only a pig. Bobo attends the dinner party only to do what pigs do best… make a mess out of things! With everything destroyed, the palace a mess, and lots of angry people, how can Bobo face the Queen!?

THOUGHTS: The ending of this book had me rolling with laughter! A delightful story that young readers will enjoy!

Picture Book          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

YA – Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story)

Nayeri, Daniel. Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story). Levine Querido, 2020. 346 p. 978-1-646-14000-8. $17.99.  Grades 7-12.

When Khosrou’s (Daniel’s) physician mother converts to Christianity in the 1980’s, she endangers her life because of the Iranian government’s restrictions on religion. His father, a jovial, loquacious dentist covertly obtains the proper paperwork for escape, then drops off his eight-year-old son and twelve-year-old daughter, Dina, at the airport as his wife starts a journey that will take the threesome to Dubai, Italy, and finally, Oklahoma. Daniel Nayeri’s Printz Award-winning book, Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story), telling how his family turned from comfortable, wealthy land owners to battered, poor refugees can be summed up in these few sentences; but the flow of the chapter-less pages weaves a tale likened to the much admired, Scheherazade of 1,001 Nights. The paragraphs describing memories of Daniel’s (no one in America can pronounce Khosrou!) grandparents’ home and his parents’ relationship spin into beloved Persian legends and myths and wind up next to pages relating the harsher daily existence he experiences in Oklahoma. Daniel is at the center of a maelstrom as the cover depicts, a twelve-year-old boy with different tastes in foods and specific hygienic customs, wanting to fit in yet also wanting to hold on to the Persian culture he cherishes. A son with vivid recollections who longs for the warmth of his biological father, but is resigned to live with his stern, abusive Farsi- speaking step-father whom his mother marries and keeps remarrying for companionship and convenience, despite the beatings she suffers. As Daniel narrates his life tale with casual familiarity, the reader learns of the ancient heritage of Iran and its reverence and love of story, his difficulties adjusting to each stage of the refugee journey, and his impressions of Americans and life here. Most of all, the story is a tribute to the perseverance and unconditional love of his mother, Sima. In the refugee hotel of Italy instead of lolling around all day waiting for the call to emigrate, she makes a connection with a Texan woman living in Rome who home schools her own children and arranges for Daniel and Dina to share in the lessons even though Sima has to spend hours erasing the answers from the host children’s cast-off notebooks so that Daniel and Dina can use them. Her determination and dignity to make life good for her son and daughter are evident in that scene. Told not as a memoir, but as a work of fiction—for as the narrator tells us, it is not so simple to sort out fact from fiction when dealing with one’s memories—Daniel delivers the truth of his life as he remembers it with humor and charm and not a bit of self-pity. Shifting from present to far past to recent past, he shares his varied observations, thus preserving his precious legacy of storytelling, made up or real, or a mixture of both.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: Like the coveted cream puffs described in one of Nayeri’s tales, this book is a treat for those who appreciate a different writing style and matchless imagery. There are bits of scatological references—the unhappy affect of a first-time encounter with Sloppy Joes and negotiating a toilet with a bidet—but the targeted audience may appreciate and even empathize with Daniel’s situations. Written with a truly inimitable voice, this work is unlike any book for middle grade or young adult this reader has encountered. Recommend to students who love words or like to write, to those new to a place, or those needing to understand another perspective.

Elem. – Bunbun & Bonbon: Fancy Friends

Keating, Jess. Bunbun & Bonbon: Fancy Friends. Scholastic, 2020. 978-1-338-64684-9. $22.99. Grades K-3.

Bursting with cuteness, a lonely Bunbun hops around saying hello to sticks, flowers, clouds, and rocks until a purple candy Bonbon answers. The pair become fast friends bonding over their shared fondness for fancy things like bowties, sprinkles, and hip-hop music. Later, they decide to have a fancy party followed by donuts for lunch. Impossibly adorable illustrations brimming with hearts and flowers will introduce readers to the graphic format. Characters communicate in single-sentence speech bubbles throughout five chapters. Emergent readers are sure to get lost in the silly, friendly antics of this unlikely duo.

THOUGHTS: Fancy Friends is a fun, infectious story that is sure to make young readers laugh out loud.

Graphic Novel          Jackie Fulton, Mt. Lebanon SD

Elem. – This is the Path the Wolf Took

Farina, Laura. This is the Path the Wolf Took. Kids Can Press, 2020. 978-1-525-30153-7. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-3.

Big brother loves reading to his little sister, but the stories he imagines are never quite like the ones mom or dad tell their daughter. Rather than wolves terrorizing little girls, grandmas, and pigs, all the characters make friends and have ice cream. It seems big brother does not do scary. Happy stories are his comfort zone. But his little sister sees BORING where he sees safe. Faced with losing his audience, can he confront his fears and create a story that will entertain his sister? This rollicking tale, complemented by Elina Ellis’s comic illustrations, addresses every young reader who wriggles through suspenseful fairy tales, while sharing a sly wink with older, braver readers. They will recognize the stock staple elements of fairy tales, and giggle over how big brother reimagines each story to his peaceful satisfaction. When big brother finally ups his storytelling game, readers will be surprised at who is left with the feeling that something bad is about to happen.

THOUGHTS: A delightful look at fairy tale story elements, as well as addressing the fears of timid readers. Imaginative text pairs with delightfully humorous illustrations for a winner of a book, recommended for all collections serving young readers.

Picture Book          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem. – Hotel Flamingo

Milway, Alex. Hotel Flamingo. Kane Miller, 2020. 978-1-684-64126-0. 192 p. $5.99. Grades 1-3. 

Anna has her work cut out for her when she inherits the Hotel Flamingo from her great-aunt Mathilde. The once successful hotel is now a former shell of itself, run-down with only a few employees. Anna is determined to bring the hotel back to life and make it the best hotel on Animal Boulevard. Though Anna is a young girl, the rest of the characters populating this charming book are animals! Anna soon has a complete staff helping her to get the hotel up and running including T. Bear the doorman, Madame Le Pig (chef), Stella Giraffe (handywoman) and Squeak the mouse (bellboy), among others. Their goal–to make Hotel Flamingo the sunniest and most welcoming hotel in the area. Soon, a variety of guests arrive, including a family of cockroaches, a tortoise, and even flamingoes. Anna soon realizes that running a successful hotel catering to a menagerie of guests will require staff teamwork, creative thinking and a can-do spirit. Will Hotel Flamingo succeed?

THOUGHTS: This charming story is perfect for beginning chapter book readers who will no doubt appreciate both the heart and humor present throughout the plot. As the hotel staff work to restore Hotel Flamingo, characteristics such as teamwork, cooperation, and ingenuity are woven into the storyline. What really elevates this title is the inclusion of illustrations (drawn by the author) that help to bring the animals and their unique characteristics to life. Hotel Flamingo is the first volume in a four volume series–I can’t wait to read more about these characters!

Fantasy (Animal)            Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg SD

Elem. – Perfect Pigeons

Battersby, Katherine. Perfect Pigeons. Simon & Schuster, 2020. 978-1-534-45781-2. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-2. 

Look up! A flock of brightly colored pigeons is in the sky! According to members of the flock, they are perfect pigeons, because they are all “perfectly the same.” While the pigeons might certainly all look the same, it is quickly apparent to readers that one pigeon is different from the rest. He sports round red glasses and doesn’t like to participate in the same activities as the rest of the flock. For example, when the flock sleeps on a lamppost, he sleeps in a hammock. While the flock eats birdseed, he can be found enjoying popcorn. The flock soon grows frustrated with their fellow pigeon, challenging his go against the grain attitude and habits. But rather than give into peer pressure, the pigeon encourages the flock to pursue their own individual interests and hobbies (which they do). By the end of the story, the flock still feels that they are perfect pigeons, but they now feel that way because they are “are all perfectly unique!”

THOUGHTS: This charming story celebrates the importance of valuing the uniqueness of others. Readers will enjoy the humorous illustrations featuring large, colorful pigeons created in pencil, watercolor and digital media by author-illustrator Katherine Battersby. A worthwhile addition to libraries serving primary age readers.

Picture Book                Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg SD

Elem. – On Account of the Gum

Rex, Adam. On Account of the Gum. Chronicle Books, 2020. 978-1-452-18154-7. 56 p. $17.99. Grades K-2.

It all starts when the young boy in this story wakes up and realizes he has gum in his hair. At the breakfast table, various family members try different tricks and techniques to loosen the gum’s grip on his dark locks. Some of the remedies include smearing butter on the gum, putting grass in his hair, and using noodles and bacon to get it out. And of course, because of the grass and the food in his hair, the boy’s new hairstyle attracts some animals as well, like a rabbit and a cat. And – don’t ask how – his aunt gets stuck in there, too! On top of that, it’s picture day at school. Eventually, the boy figures out exactly what it takes to get the gum out of his hair.

THOUGHTS: This book is hilarious – both the words and the illustrations are sure to make children laugh out loud. The text is written in rhyme which makes it fun to read. Because of all the objects stuck in the boy’s hair, this book could be used to discuss sequential order. And it also teaches a good lesson – never go to sleep with gum in your mouth! On Account of the Gum would be a perfectly fun read aloud for any elementary teacher or librarian.

Picture Book        Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem. – Class Picture

Carlain, Noe, and Herve Le Goff. Class Picture. Kane Miller EDC Publishing, 2020. 978-1-684-64112-3. Unpaged. $12.99. Grades K-2.

The full classroom photo may be a thing of the past, especially in this day and age, but the concept of gathering students to try and pose for a picture will always be a memorable moment. So, replace squirmy Kindergarten kids with beavers, bears, monkeys, snakes, elephants, and more for a real laugh of a book! With some repetitive wording and hilarious visual gags, each class of animals arrives for their moment with the brave and mostly patient photographer. Whether the hippos are bending the bench or the beavers are eating it, there are group and individual personalities that shine, along with some cameos from other animals to keep things interesting. Young readers will enjoy saying cheese to this colorful fun read along!

THOUGHTS: With a dozen animal sets captured in this book, several research or creative writing extensions are naturally available. From adding captions or speech bubbles to the class characters to looking up habitats and group names for each page, learners will find fun ways to keep coming back to this book. Recommended.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

MG – The Willoughbys Return

Lowry, Lois. The Willoughbys Return. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-42389-8. 182 p. $17.99. Grades 4-6.

The Willoughby family is back in this entertaining sequel. After being frozen in the snowy Swiss Alps for thirty years, Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby have thawed, apparently none the worse for wear, except for being behind the times. The couple, who were not the most caring parents, decide to return home and reunite with their children, who are now technically older than them. During the time of their absence, all four children were adopted by Commander Melanoff, who married their nanny. The eldest son, Tim, succeeded the Commander as CEO of a successful candy company. At least, it was successful until the government banned all candy as unhealthy. Next door to the mansion lives the Poore family, who like their name, is in very reduced circumstances. They open a bed and breakfast and the first guests are Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby, whose stay is cut short after eating a salad of poisonous leaves prepared by the unwitting Mrs. Poore. Eventually, the Willoughbys are reunited and the parents thaw out their relations with their children, as they adjust to the new world of Google, FaceTime and Skype. Even the hapless Mr. Poore, an unsuccessful traveling encyclopedia salesman, returns home penniless, but with some glittery rocks, which will change his family’s life forever. The author speaks to the reader in occasional footnotes, which provide additional plot details or explain a reference.

THOUGHTS: This satirical “rags to riches” and “riches to rags” story is sure to delight fans of Lemony Snicket’s books and those who can appreciate a parody of those classic orphan stories.

 Humorous Fiction          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member