Elem. – Starting Over in Sunset Park

Pelaez, Jose & Lynn McGee. Starting Over in Sunset Park. Tilbury House Publishers, 2021. 978-0-884-48844-6 p. 40. $17.95. Grades 1-5. 

Brooklyn, New York, can be a lonely and intimidating place for an eight-year-old girl. Especially a girl that moves to the United States for the first time and speaks very little English. Starting Over in Sunset Park is the story of an immigrant girl finding her place in a vastly different environment than what she had previously known. Jessica and her mother Camila moved from the Dominican Republic into a crowded apartment in Brooklyn to live with cousins. With the apartment feeling a bit crowded, Jessica’s mother finds work making holiday decorations in a factory so that they can afford their own place to live. Jessica also feels isolated in her new school, the playground is challenging to play in, and she cannot understand the English she hears all day long. Throughout the story, the reader feels Jessica’s intense longing for her previous home and the desire to feel accepted and comfortable in this new place. Little by little, Jessica and her mother adapt to their new home, and thanks to an incredible experience, mother and daughter are inspired to make the best of their situation. Starting Over in Sunset Park will resonate with any reader who has experienced change and begun anew.

THOUGHTS: Starting Over in Sunset Park is a lovely picture book that embraces immigration, change, and overcoming obstacles. Jessica and Camilia’s journey is compassionate and full of hope. With the inclusion of the Spanish Language, this picture book would resonate strongly with anyone who has ever made a home in a new country and learned a new language.

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

Elem. – Home is in Between

Perkins, Mitali, and Lavanya Naidu. Home is in Between. Farrar, Straus, Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-374-30367-9. unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-3.

Shanti is a sweet girl who says goodbye to her village in Bengal and moves with her parents to America. She keeps a curious and positive attitude through the cultural shifts of home and school and town and activities while trying to help her parents and keep their cultural identities intact. But all of this code switching takes a toll on Shanti, as she finds herself occasionally worn down and exhausted trying to keep up. The resolution of a social gathering to share the space between cultures is perhaps a simplified ending to what is surely an ongoing process for adapting and adopting to a new home, but readers will feel and empathize with Shanti’s dilemma. Mitali Perkins keeps the story relatable and mixed with personal experience and plenty of Hindi words and Indian customs. Lavanya Naidu shines as the illustrator who creates the family dynamics and emotional changes through the story with colorful expressions and emotional details. While the journey to a new home is not easy, this tale will help readers see that the ‘in between’ brings needed value to feeling at home.

THOUGHTS: The idea of code switching for young children from other countries and cultures has rarely been illustrated as well as this book. Perfect for classrooms who are welcoming ELL students or libraries looking for demonstrations of social emotional skills. Highly recommended.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill    State College Area SD

Elem. – The Color Collector

Solis, Nicholas. The Color Collector. Sleeping Bear Press, 2021. 978-1-534-11105-9 32 p. $14.99. Grades K-3. 

Violet is quiet and keeps to herself; yet, there is a bit of mystery that surrounds the new girl at school. A young boy notices that the new girl collects colorful pieces of debris and trash and places them in her backpack on her walk home from school. A red candy wrapper, bright blue cookie wrappers, yellow pieces of paper, green bottle caps, and red leaves disappear into her backpack every day. Full of curiosity, the young boy gently asks the new girl what she does with her collection of trash. Violet takes her new friend home and proudly shows him the mural in her bedroom. Each piece of trash and each colorful piece of debris has found a home in her artwork displayed on the wall. The mural shines bright and depicts the home that Violet misses so dearly. A friendship ensues as the children talk and confide in each other about the stories and the people that mean so much to them. Renia Metallinou’s beautiful art tells the story as much as the author’s words. As the friendship between the two children develops throughout the story, the artwork changes from gray tones to vibrant and bright colors. The beautiful illustrations compliment the author’s gentle and endearing text.

THOUGHTS: The Color Collector would make for a great read aloud for any grade level in the elementary school setting and would encourage conversations about friendship, empathy, and kindness. The story of Violet and her new friend is relatable to anyone that may have moved a short distance, immigrated from a far away county, or even simply longed to belong. It may also hold a special place in the hearts of elementary art teachers, as the book pays homage to self expression and identity.

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

MG – Santiago’s Road Home

Diaz, Alexandra. Santiago’s Road Home. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-534-44623-6. $17.99. 325 p. Grades 5-8.

Once more author Alexandra Diaz raises our consciousness about the plight of Central American immigrants in our country at this critical time. As she did in The Only Road and Crossroads, Diaz gives a fact-based novel of Santiago Garcia Reyes’s escape from domestic abuse in Mexico through the desert to the detention centers of New Mexico. She does not pull any punches describing the sacrifices and suffering Santiago endures as he makes his way to America with newfound “family” Maria Dolores and her five-year-old daughter, Alegria. After being thrown out once again from a relative’s home where he worked as a free babysitter, Santiago refuses to return to his abusive, neglectful grandmother. Instead, he makes the acquaintance of the kind and generous Maria Dolores and her young daughter and convinces her to take him as they migrate to the United States where Maria Dolores’s sister owns a restaurant. For the first time since his Mami died when he was five-years-old, Santiago feels loved and cared for; and he reciprocates by being the protective big brother. By working in the cheap tavern at the crossroads, he discovers Dominquez, the best coyote to help them cross. Unfortunately, rival coyotes kill Dominquez, leaving the refugees abandoned just shy of the border. Diaz describes the arduous and dangerous journey through the desert, dodging border patrol officers and experiencing dehydration and hunger under a blistering sun. Their efforts end in hospitalization and detention. Again, Diaz intertwines facts and realistic representation about the conditions children suffer in the detention centers, yet maintains both the negative and positive aspects. Some of the detention center guards are kind; some are arrogant brutes. Minor characters like an interested teacher and volunteering lawyers give the story balance. The distress and maltreatment of Santiago as he lingers in detention as well as his brave struggle to belong to a loving family is heart wrenching and sure to instill empathy and compassion toward a timely situation. Includes a glossary of Spanish terms and extensive resources.

THOUGHTS: Diaz’s writing has a way of creating a fully developed character and a well-rounded setting that arouses true sympathy in readers. This book can provide a reference point to discussions of undocumented immigrants, refugees, migration to America as well as current events around asylum seekers and their reasons for immigration.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Illegal

Stork, Francisco X. Illegal. Scholastic, 2020. 978-1-338-31055-9. 291 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12. (Book 2 in Disappeared series)

Brother and sister Emiliano and Sara Zapata must flee from Mexico and the nefarious unnamed boss pursuing them. They cross the border into the United States, then split up.  Sara requests asylum, and Emiliano nearly dies in the desert before being picked up by an American rancher, then reunited with his father in Chicago. Emiliano carries the cell phone of a member–perhaps the leader–of a human trafficking organization that Sara has worked so hard to bring to justice. Neither Emiliano or Sara is safe, and conditions only worsen as Sara is separated and threatened in the detention facility, and Emiliano is tracked down in Chicago. Neither Emiliano or Sara is able to trust anyone immediately, and each must trust that the other will do “the right thing”–but the right thing for the victims of the human trafficking organization could be exactly the wrong thing for Sara and Emiliano. Both realize repeatedly that their lives are expendable and meaningless to others. Sara and Emiliano share one phone call in which Sara (in code) urges him to remember what he learned from Brother Patricio. Through his work for a neighbor of his father’s, Emiliano learns of a retired policeman who may help him. But Sara is to be moved to another facility–code for ‘lost’ or ‘terminated’–and both realize that time is running out.

THOUGHTS: Stork continues Sara and Emiliano’s stories (from Book 1, Disappeared), this time in the US. The various characters show human strength and frailty, stereotypes, hopes, and hatred. A must-purchase where the first novel was popular, though this novel can stand on its own.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – When Stars are Scattered

Jamieson, Victoria, and Omar Mohamed. When Stars are Scattered. Dial, 2020. 978-0-525-55391-5. 257 p. + notes. $20.99. Grades 3-8.

Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have been living in a Kenyan refugee camp since fleeing Somalia at the age of 4. Omar’s life consists of taking care of Hassan, with the assistance of Fatuma, an elderly woman who has been appointed the boys’ guardian. UN supplied food rations are meager and entertainment is what can be manufactured, such as playing soccer with a ball created from plastic bags. Omar has not gone to school, feeling responsible for Hassan. But a camp community leader encourages Omar to begin attending school, and a new world  opens to Omar. But it can be a painful world, of crushed dreams and disappointments. Brilliant student Maryam who dreams of going to university in Canada, is forced to quit school and get married. The system of choosing people for possible relocation to the United States seems random, and when Omar and Hassan are finally chosen for an emigration interview, nothing comes of it. But Omar continues to study and dream. When Omar is 18 the brothers are finally selected for resettlement. This stunning autobiography portrays, in beautiful color palettes, the reality of life in a refugee camp. Living conditions are horrific, but there are also close bonds of people who care for and support each other. Omar’s horrific backstory is revealed during his first resettlement interview, explaining how he and Hassan came to be in the  camp alone at such a young age. Author notes at the end of the story update the reader on the brothers’ story after reaching the United States, including the delightful surprise that Omar is currently living in Lancaster, PA.

THOUGHTS: This important story is a must purchase for most libraries. It carries the gravitas of Jarrett Krosocka’s Hey Kiddo, but appropriate for a younger audience.

Autobiography          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

As Omar so succinctly states in the word bubble on the back cover: “Refugee Camps are supposed to be a temporary place to stay until it’s safe to go back home. I guess no one expected the war to last so long, though, because Hassan and I have been here for 7 years.” With gorgeous colors and interesting characters, Jamieson and Mohamed take us through childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya. The monotony of daily essential routines for survival are mixed with increasing odds against finding their mother or going back home to Somalia. What remains is the effort to take care of one another, the opportunity to get schooling and seek a future, and the slightest chance to immigrate to another country for a new beginning. All of these seem unlikely for Omar, who faces tragic memories, current realities, and future possibilities with truth and sincerity that will bring young readers into his world and into their hearts. When the Stars Are Scattered is a remarkable light in the night sky which guides hope home.

THOUGHTS: Both Pennsylvania residents do an excellent job bringing the refugee experience to children. The sibling relationship with Hassan, who is nonverbal except for one word, is truly touching and real. The afterword and authors’ notes bring the story up to date, and help realize the many other refugee stories that need to be heard. Highly recommended.

Graphic Novel          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

This beautifully drawn graphic novel tells the story of Omar Mohamed, a young Somalian boy who was forced out of his country and into a refugee camp in Kenya with his young brother at the age of 4.  Omar’s younger brother, Hassan, is special needs and only says one word, Hooyo, the Somalian word for Mama. Omar and Hassan saw their father killed and were separated from their mother as the Civil War in Somalia started. With the kindness of a new foster mother, Omar and Hassan survive and grow up in the Dadaab refugee camp. Omar’s life changes when he starts school and excels, earning the right to continue to attend school as he grows up. Omar and Hassan never give up looking for their real mother, and in the Afterword we see real photos of Omar and Hassan, and learn that, years later, they are reunited with her.

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

Graphic Novel          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

MG – The Magic Fish

Nguyen, Trung Le. The Magic Fish. Random House Graphic, 2020. 978-0-593-12529-8. 256 p. $23.99. Grades 7-9.

In The Magic Fish, author/illustrator Trung Le Nguyen braids together a family’s immigration story, a son’s desire to reveal a part of his identity to his parents, and retellings of classic fairy tales such as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Eighth-grader Tien reads these fairy tales to his mother, whose first language is Vietnamese, to help her improve her English. Mother and son (and father, when he isn’t at work) are close as can be, but still Tien struggles with how to share his secret with them: he is attracted to boys. The problem is part language barrier, part apprehension for how they will react. Tien’s mother, meanwhile, is struggling with the declining health of her own mother in Vietnam, and memories of fleeing her home country many years ago. Nguyen’s truly exquisite artwork is color-coded to orient the reader both in time and within the story; the present is ruby red, the past is mustard yellow, and the fairy tales are various jewel tones. It sounds complicated, but it works beautifully. The fairy tales foreground themes of new beginnings, identity, isolation, and connection, while also casting light on the experiences of our main characters. The gentle twist at the end satisfyingly reminds Tien (and readers!) that true happy endings are the ones we write for ourselves.

THOUGHTS: Readers of The Magic Fish will find themselves equally captivated by each storyline within this many-layered tale.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

The Magic Fish introduces readers to Tien who enjoys reading his favorite books from the library, specifically fairy tales.  Tien has a hard time communicating with his parents for multiple reasons, one of which is a language barrier, however he also is finding it hard to put into words what he’s feeling and thinking. Tien finds it especially difficult because he is grappling with his sexual identity and whether or not he might be gay. Trung uses fairy tales in such a beautiful way to deal with hard things for kids, and parents, to talk about, that the book never feels too heavy or weighed down by these big topics. The illustrations are absolutely beautiful and add so much to the story.

THOUGHTS: I’d highly recommend this book for any high school library graphic novel collection. The story feels so relatable, even if you have never had to deal with any of the topics that are woven throughout the book.

Graphic Novel          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Academy Charter School

YA – Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From

De Leon, Jennifer. Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From. Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2020. 978-1-534-43824-8. 336 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12. 

Though nothing at home is as it should be, fine is the one word that describes 15 year old Liliana. After her father takes off (again), her family is barely holding things together. Her mom seems to be living in a fog (if you can even call it that), and her younger brothers are hard to reign in and keep calm. Even her best friend is too distracted by a boyfriend to be an ear to listen. Unbeknownst to Liliana, before he left her father signed her up for METCO, a scholarship opportunity of sorts for city kids to attend “better” schools in the suburbs. Liliana (half Guatemalan, half Salvadorian) fit right in at her richly diverse school in Boston. Not only is her new school unbelievably white, Westburg is an hour bus ride away. Liliana gives it a chance, though, because it was her father’s dream. To fit in at Westburg, Liliana becomes Lili, but when she discovers some secrets about her father’s citizenship, she is even more torn between her two very different worlds.

THOUGHTS: This book will find a home with anyone who is sick of the “Where are you from?” or “What are you?” questions. Liliana’s story will personalize the more generalized immigration news stories for teens and will open their eyes to the struggles of undocumented citizens and the reasons so many flee to America for better opportunities. This is a must have for high school libraries looking to diversity their collections with contemporary issues.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – Maybe He Just Likes You; Good Enough; Klawde; Viewpoints on the Sinking of the Titanic; The Okay Witch; Over the Moon; Other Words for Home; Last Meeting of the Gorilla Club; Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky; The Story Web; Dragon Pearl

Dee, Barbara. Maybe He Just Likes You. Aladdin, 2019. 978-1-534-43237-6. 283 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

When do you decide enough is enough? Seventh grade Mila is excited to celebrate her friend Omi’s birthday after lunch with a thoughtful gift and a group hug with her other friends Max and Zara. This moment between friends is perfect – that is until the basketball boys come over and hug them too, lingering on Mila. This small moment makes Mila uncomfortable, and it doesn’t stop there. The boys find ways to bump into Mila, make comments, and invade her personal space. Afraid to tell her mom, the principal (who is also the boys basketball coach), or her guidance counselor, Mila’s emotions spiral out of control. Mila tries to tell her friends what is going on, but they shrug it off, saying that’s just how boys are. But when a friend comes to Mila with information about a “scorecard” and another friend steps forward and says it happened to her too, Mila finds the strength to speak up for herself and stop the unwanted attention.

THOUGHTS: This middle grade novel does a perfect job of exploring the #metoo movement and how harassment and innocent “jokes” can end up affecting others. The story will bring you all the feels – joy, anger, shock – and leave you feeling like you may know someone this book is perfect for. The book also explores different relationships between characters and the strength a person has to stand up for themselves.

Realistic Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD


Petro-Roy, Jen. Good Enough. Feiwel and Friends, 2019. 978-1-250-12351-0. 261 p. $16.99. Grades 7-9.

Twelve year old Riley doesn’t think she’s good enough, fast enough, talented enough…the list goes on and on. Tired of being compared to her “golden” younger sister Julia, Riley starts running excessively, skipping meals, and having a bad attitude. And it gets worse! At school she is being picked on for what she looks like and how she eats, which leads Riley down the path to an eating disorder. Riley’s parents decide she needs to be hospitalized in order to find the path to recovery. The story is presented as a journal of Riley’s experiences while hospitalized – her struggle with anxiety, food issues, and her parents’ constant judging and disappointment. The program requires strict meal planning, therapy sessions, group activities, and even counting out loud while you go to the bathroom. Riley meets several girls in the program all while dealing with the loss of her best friend and discovers that she is more than the voice in her head telling her she’s “not enough.” Will Riley’s parents accept her for who she is and not just as someone with a problem? Does Riley have the power to be in control of herself? A must read!

THOUGHTS: Perfection. Petro-Roy does a fantastic job of approaching a delicate subject as she is someone who battled an eating disorder. The journal style of writing allows readers to feel as if they are taking the journey with Riley day by day and makes for a fast read. The story deals with so much more than recovering from an eating disorder and allows readers to see that we all have flaws that make us who we are.

Realistic Fiction         Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD


Marciano, Johnny, & Emily Chenoweth. Klawde: Evil Alien Warlord Cat: The Spacedog Cometh. Book 3. Penguin Workshop, 2019. 978-1-524-78724-0. $14.99. Grades 4-8.

The third epic adventure of Klawde: Evil Alien Warlord Cat! As Klawde continues to plot his return to his home planet and take over from the tiny evil kitten who has taken command, he is unaware that there are others looking for him: the most loyal beasts of all…dogs! Barx has been given the mission to capture and return Klawde to his home plant to pay dues for blowing up one of their most amazing plants! As Barx travels to Earth, he realizes just how wonderful it is, especially Klawde’s master Raj. While the animals fight and attempt their vengeful missions, Raj is suffering with his own problems. His parents are out of town for a few weeks for a conference vacation, so his Ajji, grandmother, is staying with him. All she cooks is weird, un-American food and decides to throw him a birthday party. How will Raj deal with Ajji, as well as dealing with Klade being…Klawde!

THOUGHTS: I was so excited to see the third book to this hilarious series! The addition of the dog characters brought forth more excitement and perspective to the “dog vs. cat” personality stereotypes. A great third book for the Klawde lovers!

Adventure/Action/Fantasy          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD


Russo, Kristin J. Viewpoints on the Sinking of the Titanic. Orchard Books, 2019. 978-1-228-18736-6. 48 p. $25.95. Grades 5-8.

In a subseries of Part of the Perspectives Library, Viewpoints and Perspectives takes a look at how various people may have different views about some of the most known events in history. In Viewpoints on the Sinking of the Titanic readers get a look inside the Titanic through the eyes of three very different passengers. Using first person stories inset with facts about the ship and a timeline of the events, this title takes readers through what the sinking of the Titanic was like for a first, second, and third class passenger. This book is a nice mixture of pictures and stories, allowing for students not to be overwhelmed by the amount of text to read. With a mixture of historical black and white, recreated color, and pencil drawings readers get a look back in time. The simplicity of the pages and clear nonfiction text structure lends this book to be a great introduction to text structures including table of context, index, timeline, and captions. The book includes ideas for teachers in the sidebars to help lead research or a lesson on the Titanic.  

THOUGHTS: The unique look into different classes on the Titanic would allow students to see how classes were separated and the prejudice against the lower classes even while evacuating the boat. A book like this could, and others in this series, be used in middle schools to see how prejudices have changed throughout history.

910.9 History, general          Arryn Cumpston, Crawford Central SD


Steinkellner, Emma. The Okay Witch. Aladdin, 2019. 978-1-534-43146-1. 271 p. $20.99. Grades 4-8.

Moth believes she is a typical Halloween loving teenager, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. After studying the history surrounding Founder’s Bluff and the persecution of witches, Moth suddenly discovers that she may have special “powers.” After an incident with the school bullies and a talking cat at home, Moth confronts her mother for the truth. Yes, Moth is from a long line of witches, and with her mother’s diary and her new found powers, she is about to discover the truth. The witches of Founder’s Bluff were real…and they are still alive. Moth learns to navigate middle school (including a new boy who keeps bumping into her), harness her powers against her mother’s wishes, and meet her very ancient grandma. Travel with Moth through past and present as she discovers her heritage and becomes an “okay” witch.

THOUGHTS: This debut graphic novel will delight middle schoolers as Moth discovers who she truly is. The illustrations are whimsical and eye-catching, while the story just flows across the frames through a series of chapters. Graphic novel readers will want to pick this novel up, especially if they enjoy the element of magic.

Graphic Novel            Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD


Lloyd, Natalie. Over the Moon. Scholastic Press, 2019. 978-1-338-11849-0. 291 p. $14.95. Gr. 4-8.

The Dust has taken away the light from the stars in Coal Top, made the villagers feel hopeless, and forced children to work for measly wages. Mallie cleans the home of a well to do family in the “Down Below.” The work is hard and does not pay enough to help protect her brother from being taken by the Guardians and sent to the mines to work. When a mysterious flyer appears and offers an opportunity for orphan boys to earn riches, Mallie knows this is her chance to save her family. Mallie quickly discovers that the task is to tame and ride a Starbird into the Dust above in order to retrieve gold dust. Up for the challenge, she doesn’t back down and struggles with her disability as well as the others who wish she wasn’t there. With the help of her friend Adam, and her loyal Starbird Leo, Mallie finds she can be successful. But when she discovers the leader, Mortimer, is up to something dark and sinister, Mallie decides she must expose the truth. Risking her life and her family’s, Mallie races against the Dust and Mortimer to prove that the stars really do exist.

THOUGHTS: You can’t help but cheer for Mallie as she struggles to protect her family, discover the truth, and overcome obstacle after obstacle. The characters are well developed and the whimsy of flying horses and dust puppets make the story come to life. Fans of Lloyd will not be disappointed with this title that pulls at your heart strings and reminds you to shoot for the stars.

Science Fiction            Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD


Warga, Jasmine. Other Words for Home. Balzer and Bray, 2019. 978-0-062-74780-8. $16.99. 352 p. Grades. 4-8.

Jude, young immigrant from Syria adjusts to her new life in Ohio. She had to flee with her pregnant mother, leaving behind her father and older brother. There is so much change living with her uncle, aunt, and cousin who is in the same grade. Although her aunt and uncle are accommodating, her cousin Sarah is a bit jealous of the attention and practically ignores Jude at school. School is a challenge. She thought her English was good in Syria, but in the United States pace of life is so much faster, including the language! Life is definitely not like the American movies she used to watch with her friends. Jude is a resilient girl. She makes friends with others in ESL (English as a Second Language) and meets Layla who is also Muslim. She wants to fit in, and one of her real motivations is the musical. She works really hard to try out, perfecting her English and learning about drama. This annoys Sarah and her friends who Jude thinks of as “SarahMinaHarperStone” (They seem to lack individuality.). Jude is concerned for Amal, her new baby sister. Amal, whose name means Hope, will be an American, not an immigrant. Jude realizes that home is where the people you love and those who love you are. It is where you feel you belong, and Jude works very hard to create a place for herself.

THOUGHTS: Jude voices very real concerns about fitting in, prejudices against Muslims, and the safety of her father and older brother who are still in Syria. The reaction to a bombing in the Middle East and subsequent vandalism of Layla’s family property is both upsetting to the community and an opportunity to bond. Warga’s use of verse to tell the story makes it accessible and poignant as the succinct wording and rhythm evoke emotions and meaning.

Realistic Fiction          Jeannie Bellavance, Retired


Nicherson, Sara. Last Meeting of the Gorilla Club. Dutton Children’s Books, 2019. 978-1-101-99442-9. 240 p. $17.99. Grades 3-7.

Josh is starting fifth grade at a new school, a fresh start, where no one knows of Josh’s multiple invisible friends. Only Josh’s friends are not imaginary; they just can’t be seen by anyone else. But the friends are all gone, buried at his old house. Until Big Brother shows up again on Josh’s first day of school. Big Brother dispenses advice, comfort, and companionship. But Josh is not the only student in his class with an awkward friend. Lucas has an invisible friend, Maxie, and Josh can see her too. While Big Brother gently guides and encourages Josh to be brave and try new experiences, Maxie seems a bit more malevolent. When she engineers a meeting between the two boys, she may be dangerously replaying her sad history. But Lucas and Josh discover real friends are powerful also.

THOUGHTS: A unique look at processing death and maturing. Readers who feel they see the world differently than those around them will definitely relate to Josh and Lucas.

Fantasy          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD


Mbalia, Kwame. Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky. Rick Riordan Presents, 2019. 978-1-368-03993-2. 482 p. $17.99. Grades 3-7.

Tristan is having a difficult time recovering from the school bus accident that left his best friend Eddie dead. Frustrated, his mother sends him to spend some time with his grandparents down south in Alabama. Grandma warns Tristan to stay away from the bottle tree, a traditional structure to capture haints, or spirits, at the edge of the forest. Tristan would have gladly done so, but that night he is awoken by a small, sticky figure sneaking in his room. Gum Baby has come to steal Eddie’s journal, and Tristan chases her into the forest, attempting to reclaim his cherished memento. When Tristan punches the bottle tree in frustration, he inadvertently creates a hole in the sky and is pulled into another world, where the stories his grandma used to tell him and Eddie come alive. Another mythology/folklore based adventure from Rick Riordan’s imprint, Tristan Strong brings alive the tales of the deep south, featuring Brer Rabbit, John Henry and, of course, Tristan’s reluctant sidekick Gum Baby. Tristan is sent on a quest to find the trickster god, Anansi, who can weave the sky back together. While Tristan is convinced he cannot save anyone (he broods that he failed to save Eddie), he discovers heroes do not necessarily have to be strong, or even brave, and he is more than capable of saving the world of his new friends from destruction.

THOUGHTS: This lightning fast, rollicking tale will win many fans, as well as introduce them to Black American folklore. Tristan and Gum Baby are a new dynamic duo that provide constant laughs as they attempt to save the day.

Fantasy (Mythology)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD


Blakemore, Megan Frazer. The Story Web. Bloomsbury, 2019. 978-1-681-19525-4. 321 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7. 

When Alice was little, her magical father would regale her with wondrous stories. But now Alice’s world is broken in so many ways. She no longer socializes with friends, she quit her ice hockey team, and even nature seems out of whack, with forest creatures making their way into town. She believes everything stems back to that something she did that made her father go away. But Alice can no longer maintain her invisible persona. The animals know; Alice’s classmate, frequently bullied Melanie, knows; and her best friend, Lewis, knows. The story web, a fragile creation of spiders, spun to record the stories of man, is broken. If it is not fixed soon, the world will be in peril. Alice’s father had explained the story web to her when she was young, and now Alice must look past her grief and fear to work with Melanie, Lewis, and many caring individuals, to repair it. But when the stories Alice remembers from her father don’t rebuild the web, the children realize they must find their own stories, as painful as they may be. The plot unfolds at a leisurely pace, through various viewpoints, including several animals. Much like spinning a web, individual threads eventually weave together in a breathtaking finale. The storyline of Alice’s father, who is eventually revealed to be suffering from PTSD, also takes time to uncover, and is never explained directly, but rather through oblique comments, reminiscences, and finally a conversation between Alice and her father.

THOUGHTS:  While the climax is riveting, it will take a patient reader to navigate to that point. Hand this lovely, heartwarming story to a reader who enjoys the journey as well as the destination.  

Fantasy          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD


Lee, Yoon Ha. Dragon Pearl. Rick Riordan Presents, 2019. 978-1-368-01335-2. 320 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl, one of the first titles published under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, will delight young readers who like their fantasy informed by the trappings and tropes of science fiction. Lee imagines a world—a thousand worlds, actually—inspired by Korean mythology, and then sends it – them – spinning off into outer space. The young protagonist, Min, is a shape-shifting fox disguised as a human to avoid the persecution her species has long suffered. When her brother disappears, she sets off in search of him, planet-hopping through the universe on a grand and dangerous adventure. The plot moves at a breathless, breakneck pace as Min pilots a rocket ship and has run-ins with ghosts, dragons, and pirates.  

THOUGHTS: A top-notch #own voices entry in the sci-fi/fantasy genre that subtly addresses issues of identity and acceptance.  Highly recommended for middle schools.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Fiction          Maggie Bokelman, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Harbor Me; Winterhouse; Front Desk; The Third Mushroom; Someone Like Me

Woodson, Jacqueline. Harbor Me. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2018. 978-0-399-25252-5. 176 p. $17.99. Gr. 4 and up.

Hayley has a secret that she’s not quite ready to share, but she soon learns, so do all of her classmates. When Ms. Laverne, their teacher, introduces the class to ARTT (A Room to Talk), Hayley learns about her classmates, Esteban, Tiago, Amari, Ashton, and Holly, and the struggles they deal with each day. Struggles with race, immigration, economics, bullying, family, grief, and loss. As each student shares his or her story, Hayley realizes that she is not alone. Everyone struggles and has fears. It’s not about the individual struggle but about how one finds strength to overcome the struggle and be a harbor, for those struggling.  Soon she understands what Ms. Laverne means when she tells the students to “be a harbor” and protect someone else. ARTT and each other are her harbor, and she is theirs.

THOUGHTS:  This book could not be more timely. From the perspective of fifth and sixth graders, the stories of deportation, bullying, fear of being shot, family dynamics, death, and not fitting in are heart-wrenching and too true.  Woodson masterfully shares real stories from a child’s perspective, a perspective that does not usually have a voice. This is a must-have for all school libraries. Although recommended for middle grades, it is a worthy read by all ages. Woodson puts it perfectly when she writes, “I know in my heart, Tiago whispered, the language we like to speak is music and poetry and even cold, sweet piraguas on hot, hot summer days. But it feels like this place wants to break my heart. It feels like every day it tries to make my mom feel tinier and tinier, like the size of Perrito’s head in my hands” (129). These kids will not be broken, and this novel gives everyone strength to persevere.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD


Guterson, Ben. Winterhouse. Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt, 2018. 978-1-250-12388-6. 370 p. $22.50. Gr. 4-6.

Elizabeth Somers is not happy when her aunt and uncle inform her that she must spend the Christmas holidays on her own at an old hotel called Winterhouse. To her surprise, Winterhouse is a beautiful rambling sort of place full of secrets. She makes a friend of her own age, a boy called Freddy, and the pair pass the time solving puzzles, exploring and competing in word ladder competitions. It soon becomes clear that not all is as it seems in the old hotel as they find the owner Norbridge Falls in the library searching through books as if looking for something in particular. Added to this mix of interesting characters is a helpful librarian and a scheming bookseller couple, who are also seeking this special book. Elizabeth believes she has found this sought after text, which appears to have magical qualities when a hidden message is revealed on its pages. This message is one that means life and death for one character and a new beginning for another. This book is part adventure, mystery, fantasy, and even ghost story all in one. While the initial pacing of the plot is slow, readers who persist with this title will be rewarded with an exciting climax and resolution. The whimsical illustrations by Chloe Bristol add an Edward Gorey-like atmosphere to this work. The attractive cover contains a drawing of the house with its windows cut out to reveal the book characters and a glimpse of the hotel’s interior. Guterson has penned a sequel called The Secrets of Winterhouse, which is scheduled for release in December, 2018.

THOUGHTS:  This book will appeal to middle grade readers who like a longer book. Those who enjoyed the Floors series by Patrick Carman will want to read this one. 

Mystery/Fantasy Fiction          Denise Medwick, West Allegheny SD


Yang, Kelly. Front Desk. Arthur A. Levine, 2018. 978-1-338-15779-6. 304 p. $16.99 Gr. 4-7.

The rollercoaster ride of hopes, dreams, and disappointments that characterizes the lives of so many immigrants is at the heart of Front Desk, a book informed by Yang’s own childhood. 10-year-old Mia Tang’s parents jump at the chance to manage a hotel in Southern California, only to find that they will be on call 24/7, and the job isn’t as lucrative as promised. Mia, who’s more than willing to help out at the front desk, is disappointed to learn she’s banned from the hotel pool and that her parents won’t earn enough for trips to Disneyland. Although the novel’s tone is breezy, neither the reader nor Mia is sheltered from learning the harsh realities of life for Chinese immigrants in the 1990s, which include racism, loan sharks, and homelessness. Mia dreams of being a writer, but her mother discourages her because she’s not a native English speaker. However, Mia’s talent becomes evident when she writes letters for family friends in desperate situations, saving the day with her boldness and ingenuity.

THOUGHTS: Mia is a funny, feisty heroine whom kids will love. Recommended for upper elementary and middle school libraries; the fact that it is an “own voices” book about the Chinese immigration experience is a bonus.

Realistic Fiction          Maggie Bokelman, Cumberland Valley SD


Holm, Jennifer. The Third Mushroom. Random House, 2018. 978-1-52471-980-7. 217 p. $16.99 Gr. 4-7.

Holm’s satisfying sequel to The Fourteenth Goldfish reunites Ellie with Grandpa Melvin, a cantankerous 77-year-old living in the body of a teenager, thanks to the miracles of science. This time around, Ellie talks Grandpa Melvin into entering the science fair with her, and the the duo work with fruit flies to pursue the possibility of growing new body parts. The project leads to a surprising (and welcome) development for Melvin. Meanwhile, Ellie deals with typical middle school friendship issues: She and Raj go on a date, and their easy relationships takes an awkward turn, but she also learns the value of shared memories and reconnects with an old friend. On a somber note, Ellie must come to terms with the fact that science cannot fix everything, as she deals with the loss of a beloved pet. Themes of taking chances, making mistakes, and reveling in the unexpected are woven throughout the novel and connected to STEM topics, but never in a didactic or preachy manner. Backmatter provides additional resources for students interested in further exploring the scientists and concepts introduced in the book.  

THOUGHTS:  Like its predecessor, this science fiction story will also appeal to fans of realistic fiction and can stand on its own. Highly recommended for late elementary and middle school libraries. The Third Mushroom is that rare book that is easy to read, easy to relate to, and highly thought-provoking.

Science Fiction          Maggie Bokelman, Cumberland Valley SD

Change is never easy or expected, even for Ellie who lives with her teenage grandfather! In the sequel to The Fourteenth Goldfish, we revisit the blended and ever interesting family as they try a new experiment and face many of life’s challenges. Melvin is the grandfather who is learning to adapt to his reverted age while also knowing the facts of life ahead. He and Ellie engage in a science experiment that could be the next great discovery for regeneration. Ellie also deals with changes to her mom’s world, her pet’s life, and her best friends’ relationships. Nothing is easy for a teenager, but trying new things (like the titular mushrooms) could lead to unexpected results!

THOUGHTS: Jennifer Holm hits the feelings of Ellie and her world with captivating ease. The bonus is her ability to bring in famous scientists and some scientific inquiry concepts. Though not plot-perfect or entirely plausible, The Third Mushroom makes a suitable sequel and gives resolution to some inevitable discoveries.

Realistic/ Science Fiction           Dustin Brackbill State College Area SD


Arce, Julissa. Someone Like Me: How One Undocumented Girl Fought for Her American Dream. Little, Brown and Company, 2018. 978-0-316-48174-8. 223 p. $16.99. Gr. 5 and up.

Having been born in Mexico in a bathroom stall two months early, Julissa’s indomitable spirit carries her throughout her life. She begins telling her story on her presentatcion de los tres años, the day she turned three years old. Throughout her childhood, Julissa’s parents travel to festivals all over Mexico, selling cantaritos. In the close knit town of Taxco, Julissa and her two older sisters have many relatives to help watch after them; though, they primarily are cared for by their beloved nanny Cande. Eventually, Julissa’s parents gain work visas and begin traveling to the States to sell their Taxco’s sterling silver. While Julissa’s parents spend most of their year in America, Julissa and her sisters visit for summers on tourist visas. When Julissa’s sisters return to Mexico at the end of the summer before she enters middle school, her mom informs Julissa that she’ll be staying in Texas with them. Thrilled to be with her parents and her baby brother Julio (born in America), Julissa is enrolled in a Catholic school, though there is no ESL program. With an understanding teacher and one classmate who speaks Spanish, Julissa begins her American education. Met with many challenges and frustrations over the next several years, Julissa perseveres with hopes of eventually achieving her American Dream. 

THOUGHTS:  Through descriptions of her life in Mexico and America, Julisssa’s story helps readers understand why families want to achieve an American Dream, even when they’re not born in America. This “own voices” story is an excellent addition for middle or high school libraries where heartfelt memoirs are popular. 

305.48 Memoir          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD