Walton, Julia. On the Subject of Unmentionable Things. Random House, 2022. 978-0-593-31057-1. 320 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.
Phoebe knows what her peers need, and her unique – yet secret – research hobby is just the thing to help them. Though not in a serious relationship herself, Phoebe is somewhat of an expert when it comes to sex education, and she started The Circle in the Square, a blog where she posts information written for teens anonymously as Pom. Even her best friend Cora doesn’t know she’s Pom which is convenient when Cora asks for Phoebe’s advice regarding taking things to the next level with her boyfriend. A writer/researcher at heart, Phoebe does more research to find answers to questions she’s asked, and she presents her information in an honest, non-judgmental manner. When one of her blog posts goes viral and catches the attention of mayoral candidate Lydia Brookhurst, a conservative local politician, Phoebe fears her identity will be revealed. After all, Brookhurst’s mission is to shut down the blog and out the person causing an “assault on morality.” Gathering supporters from conservative parents and local business supporters, Brookhurst is determined to use her resources to uncover Pom’s identity. As Phoebe tries to maintain her two identities, readers will root for their side (Brookhurst or Phoebe) while learning factual details related to sex education.
THOUGHTS: With likeable Pom/Phoebe as her voice in this sex-positive read, Walton provides readers with plenty of useful information related to sex education. Loosely connected to the recent information challenge climate, this title is recommended for high school libraries.
Realistic Fiction Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD
Cory Tan’s break dance team is about to compete in a big competition, and all eight members are excited. The team captain, Tess, is pushing the group harder than ever before to the point where it causes some strain in the group. Cory causes even more strain when his parents check his grades and ground him until he gets his grades back to acceptable levels. His punishment means the dance crew has to rehearse without Cory. His parents hire a tutor named Sunna, a classmate of Cory’s who is a bit of an outcast at school. She constantly is writing intensely in a notebook and barely talks to anyone. After a rocky first tutoring session, Cory discovers that Sunna has a secret: She has incredible yo-yo skills! Sunna uses yo-yo moves to help him learn geometry and in the process, Cory becomes hooked on yo-yoing. Instead of devoting what little free time he has to the dance team, he starts hanging out with Sunna outside of tutoring to work on his yo-yo moves. Eventually, Cory discovers that Sunna’s parents also have very high expectations of her which leaves her feeling like she is never good enough. Cory and Sunna have to figure out how to fit this budding friendship into their already packed lives while also navigating their parents’ and friends’ expectations of them.
THOUGHTS: The newest book from Galligan, the author responsible for the illustrated adaptations of the beloved Babysitters Club graphic novels, is a must-purchase for middle grade libraries. Featuring a diverse cast of characters living in New York City, this book shows that pre-teens from all backgrounds struggle with parental acceptance and peer pressure. The book is fun and full of heart.
King, Amy Sarig. Attack of the Black Rectangles. Scholastic Press, 2022. 978-1-338-68052-2. 258 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.
Mac Delaney is excited to start 6th grade even though his teacher Ms. Sett is known around their small town for enforcing rather strict rules, such as a curfew for teenagers and no pizza delivery after a certain time of night. She even got the town to give up trick-or-treating at Halloween! Mac does not let her rules bother him; after all, he has his hands full trying to understand his dad who is struggling with an unnamed mental illness. When his class starts literature circles, Mac and his friends pick Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic. However, he is horrified to find that there are certain words and sentences covered in black rectangles, specifically words in the scene where the main character Hannah enters the shower at the concentration camp she is forced to go to. He buys the book from the local bookstore to compare the copies and finds that those black rectangles were put there by someone else in order to censor parts of the story. After finding out that Ms. Sett did indeed censor the book’s shower scenes because “some boys might giggle,” Mac is furious. Mac’s father does not understand what the big deal is, but Mac knows censorship is wrong. He and his friends decide they need to take action, and in doing so they find more people willing to fight against censorship than he ever thought possible.
THOUGHTS: A.S. King’s book shows the harm that censorship can have on a small community while handling the topic fairly. She clearly thinks highly of young adults as the young characters in this book are whip-smart and fully aware of the social issues that plague the world. This timely novel takes place in a famously small town in Lancaster, PA; local readers will enjoy seeing their favorite establishments pop up in the book as the backdrop to Mac’s story.
Realistic FictionDanielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD
Ferguson, Jen. The Summer of Bitter and Sweet. Heartdrum, 2022. 978-0-06-308616-6. 360 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.
Lou spends her summer, before she heads to university, working at her family’s ice cream shack. She works with her friends and her ex-boyfriend. She is living with her two uncles while her mother spends the summer traveling solo in the United States. Lou is an indigenous person who lives on the Canadian prairie where she has experienced horrible racism, physical and sexual abuse, and betrayal. This summer she received a letter from someone she never imagined she would hear from–her father. The letter starts the unraveling of a plethora of lies that have surrounded her life. Lou must find the strength to trust those close to her and trust herself.
THOUGHTS: This is a powerful, intense, and emotional book. The characters in this book are dynamic and real. It is a heavy book with serious content and triggers.
Realistic Fiction Victoria Dziewulski, Plum Borough SD
Calendar, Kacen. Moonflower. Scholastic Press, 2022. 978-1-338-63659-8. 272 p. $17.99. Grades 3-7.
The dreamy scenes and atmospheric tone of this novel contrast sharply with the depression and anxiety that plague the main character, a child named Moon. Moon has trouble sleeping, speaking, and attending school with other kids, and instead they choose to get lost in a world of magical realism where they feel more “real” than they do in real life. Their mother is clearly distraught and although she tries to help, Moon’s mental health is not something she can cope with well on her own. Eventually, Moon’s therapist and a cast of metaphorical guides they find on their journeys to the spirit realm help them realize that all people are worthy of love, and that life is full of pain, but also of great beauty and joy.
THOUGHTS: Moon’s struggles throughout this book are highlighted by vivid descriptions of depression and suicidal thoughts that might be triggering for some people. Despite the pain that Moon endures, and the sometimes didactic internal dialogue we hear from them during their various encounters with antagonists, teachers and friends, the story ends on a tremendously hopeful note that centers around the idea that everyone deserves love.
Dutton, Talia. M Is for Monster. Abrams ComicArts, 2022. 978-1-4197-5197-4. 224 p. $17.99. Grades 7-10.
Frankenstein’s monster gets a gender-flipped, graphic novel update in Talia Dutton’s M Is for Monster! Innovative scientist Frances Ai lost her younger sister in a laboratory accident six months ago. Frankie cobbled Maura back together and, with the help of a well-timed lightning strike, brought her back to life. However, she isn’t quite … Maura. “M” has no memories from before her resurrection, and she fears that Frankie may take apart and reassemble her over and over again until she gets it right. She finds an unlikely ally in the ghost of Maura, who appears in mirrors and coaches M through interactions with her older sister. This way, M avoids a dismantling and Maura gets to keep living, in a fashion. But the cracks in this arrangement begin to show as M and Maura assert their individuality. Can they both find a path forward, or will Frankie intercept their Cyrano de Bergerac-style ruse? Author and illustrator Talia Dutton uses a green, black, and white color scheme (and plenty of period details) to portray M’s limited but intriguing world. It’s one she desperately wants to continue living in, and readers will feel the same!
THOUGHTS: What first appears to be a straightforward horror novel is also a thought-provoking take on grief and identity.
Sibling dynamics are at the heart of Jose Pimienta’s cleverly titled middle grade graphic novel, Twin Cities. Fraternal “Lu-Lu” twins Louisa Teresa and Luis Fernando Sosa opt to attend different middle schools, on different sides of the U.S. / Mexico border that divides Mexicali and Calexico. Teresa, who is very focused on her education and future opportunities, gets up extra early and spends long hours on homework in order to succeed at her Catholic school in Calexico, California. Fernando prefers the familiarity of his local school in Mexicali. The siblings grow apart as Teresa establishes her own identity with a new set of school friends. Fernando, meanwhile, is befriended by another boy who may lead him down a dangerous path of dealing illegal drugs. Bickering between siblings gets serious when Teresa discovers her brother’s secret, and he accuses her of being a “pocha” (abandoning her culture to assimilate on the U.S. side). Author/illustrator Pimienta employs side-by-side page spreads to portray the daily experiences of each twin. It’s also a great tool for depicting the varying characteristics of a city divided by an international border. Pimienta’s “Notes on a Particular Word” provide background on their decision to use the pejorative term “pocha” in the book.
THOUGHTS: Twin Cities is full of vibrant colors, authentic details, and relatable sibling tension. It’s one of many recent, outstanding graphic novels for middle grade readers that is not to be missed!
Sumner, Jamie. The Summer of June. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-1-53448-602-7. 188 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.
June Delancey decides that this summer is going to be a season of change. Her goals include conquering her extreme anxiety and becoming a fierce, independent female along with her single mother. Now that they are free from her mother’s boyfriend (to June’s relief), the two of them can tackle summer together. June’s anxiety can be overwhelming at times; to cope, she pulls whole chunks of hair from her scalp, leaving bloody, scabby patches. Her first order of business for the summer is shaving her head, and her mother follows suit in support of her daughter. At the public library, where her mother works as a librarian, June finds comfort. She meets a boy named Homer Juarez who also likes to hang out at the library. But June knows that it is only a matter of time before Homer realizes her anxiety makes her unworthy of a friendship and so she keeps her distance. June also finds comfort in starting a community garden on library property. When an event causes her anxiety to completely spin out of control and the cranky head librarian threatens to destroy her beautiful garden, June has to face her anxiety head-on before everything falls apart.
THOUGHTS: This moving story about family, friendship, and mental health is perfect for any middle grade student who worries. A sweet note from the author in the back encourages anxious students to embrace themselves as they are and know that they deserve to be seen. Sumner’s book would be a solid purchase for upper elementary and middle grade libraries.
Realistic FictionDanielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD
Keller, Tae. Jennifer Chan is Not Alone. Random House, 2022. 978-0-593-31053-3. 277 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.
When Jennifer Chan goes missing, the entire community of Norwell, Florida is worried. But no one is more worried than her Korean-American classmate Mallory Moss, who knows of two possible reasons why Jennifer ran away. One of those reasons involves aliens. When Jennifer moved across the street from Mallory before school started, she confided in Mallory about her space research. According to Jennifer, aliens exist and they are trying to make contact with humans on earth. Jennifer knows that she has the code needed to help these aliens make contact, and she wrote all of her research down in her notebooks, which she lets Mallory take home to read. Unfortunately, Mallory knows that her friends Reagan and Tess will think Jennifer is absolutely crazy, so she distances herself from Jennifer as soon as school starts. But Reagan and Tess immediately start teasing Jennifer, and Mallory has no choice but to join in or she will lose her hard-earned popular status at school. This leads to reason number two of why Jennifer is missing: The Incident. Mallory believes that aliens may have taken Jennifer and realizes that Jennifer’s notebooks might hold the clues for how to reach her. However, Mallory knows that if she searches for Jennifer, her part in The Incident might be revealed and make her the most hated girl in school. Mallory must figure out what is more important: what other people think about her or finding Jennifer before it’s too late.
THOUGHTS: This is the first novel for Tae Keller since winning the Newbery Award for When You Trap a Tiger, and it does not disappoint. Keller tackles serious issues tweens and teens face in a compelling and gentle way, the most prominent being the cost of being popular at the expense of others. This book is a must-read and a must-buy for middle grade students.
Realistic FictionDanielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD
Korman, Gordon. The Fort. Scholastic Press, 2022. 978-1-338-62914-9. 239 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.
After a violent hurricane rips through their town, Evan and his friends decide to explore the destruction and see if their fort in the woods has survived. Unfortunately, the fort is destroyed, but the weather has unearthed something even better not too far away. The boys discover an underground bomb shelter, complete with canned goods, a record player, a TV – basically everything they need to make the ultimate clubhouse! The group decides to keep the fort a secret between the five of them. They hang out at the fort quite often, spending a lot of time with each other; however, each of them is hiding another secret besides the fort. Evan is worrying about his older brother and hoping he doesn’t succumb to drugs like their parents. Jason is trying hard not to reveal the fort to his girlfriend and her police officer father. Mitchell is trying to get his OCD under control. And CJ is sleeping at the fort every night to escape physical abuse from his stepdad. Ricky, who has not known these guys as long as they have known each other, knows something is amiss and begins to put the pieces together, determined to help them out. When some older boys get suspicious about where the friends are spending their time and an investigation begins, Ricky knows he has to work quickly to keep his friend group (and the fort) safe.
THOUGHTS: Gordon Korman’s 100th book does not disappoint. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character to get everyone’s perspectives. The friendship between the boys is heartwarming and supportive, especially in the face of the obstacles they all have in their lives. This book is a must-purchase for middle grade libraries.
Realistic FictionDanielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD