YA – Wild is the Witch

Griffin, Rachel. Wild is the Witch. Sourcebooks Fire, 2022. 978-1-728-22945-4. 320 p. $18.99. Grades & up.

Iris Gray knows witches aren’t welcome in most towns after being involved in a severe magical explosion and being forced to leave her last town. While the Witches’ Council was lenient in their punishment, Iris knows they’re keeping tabs on her. Now settled in Washington, Iris never lets anyone see who she really is; instead, she vents her frustrations by writing curses she never intends to cast. Then, she meets Pike Alder, the witch-hating aspiring ornithologist who interns with her at a wildlife refuge. She creates the perfect curse for Pike – to turn him into a witch. Just as she is about to disperse it, an owl swoops in and steals the curse. If the bird dies, the curse is unleashed, and with the bird being a powerful amplifier, the entire region is in danger of being turned into witches. With the possibility of her magic being stripped from her if her secret is found out, Iris begs Pike to help her track the bird through the Pacific Northwest. Along the way, Iris learns much about Pike and about herself that has her rethinking her coping mechanisms and Pike himself. Griffin’s language is lyrical and cozy, perfectly matching the setting of the Pacific Northwest forests in which Pike and Iris hike to find the bird and save everything.

THOUGHTS: Readers of paranormal fiction with an interest in hedgewitch/nature-focused practice will enjoy this thoughtful take on magic. The dynamic of Iris’ family is refreshing as they recover from events prior to the book. Of course as the tense situation with the owl builds, so does the journey toward truths that Pike and Iris keep from one another. A solid standalone YA paranormal romance pick for 8th grade and up.

Fantasy          Natasha Lewis, Whitehall-Coplay SD

Elem. – I Forgive Alex: A Simple Story About Understanding

Kerascoët. I Forgive Alex: A Simple Story About Understanding. Random House Studio, 2022. 978-0-593-38150-2. $17.99. 32 p. Grades PK-3.

This is a wordless picture book with a simple, but powerful message. As the story begins, a school age child eagerly approaches the school yard, excited to show his friends something in his backpack. An art portfolio is revealed, and several friends spread the pages across a bench to admire the artwork. Alex, with a splash of bright red hair, dashes past the bench. Alex is taunting two students, playing keep-away with a basketball. When Alex tosses the basketball high over the heads of his dismayed schoolmates, the ball lands on the bench covered in artwork. The artwork falls in a puddle and is ruined. Classmates are incensed and rally behind the young artist, quickly trying to comfort him. Their sense of righteous indignation is palpable as they march en masse toward an adult standing at the door to the school. The next several pages depict scenes alternating between friends comforting the artist, and intentionally ostracizing Alex. At the end of the school day Alex offers a simple wave to the artist across the playground. The artist accepts this invitation to talk, and the two boys eventually shake hands. Alex tosses the basketball to the artist, and everyone joins in the game. The next day Alex makes amends, offering the artist a piece of art showing the artist dunking a basket while Alex cheers. End notes include questions for discussion, vocabulary words, and lesson suggestions.

THOUGHTS: A delightfully illustrated story that does not need words to convey the plot and meaning. School age children will immediately recognize this situation. The discussion questions and lesson suggestions make this a perfect book for social-emotional learning.

Picture Book          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD

YA – Blackout

Clayton, Dhonielle, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon. Blackout.  Harper Collins, 2021. 978-0-063-08809-2. 256 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12

Blackout, a young adult novel for teens, is comprised of six interlinked stories that celebrate Black love and friendship during a citywide power outage. The citywide blackout causes the characters to go into a tailspin. Their friendships and relationships are tested and changed- and in some cases, begin anew. These six short stories are beautifully interconnected, and readers will fall in love with every character in the novel. The reader meets Jacorey (a gay athlete who has yet to come out), Tammi and Kareem (exes who run into each other at a job interview), Nella (who gets a boost of self-confidence from her Grandfather and a new acquaintance), Lana and Tristian (who are lost in the public library), Kayla (who already is in a relationship but may want something different), and Seymour and Grace (who share a ride through the city). All six stories celebrate young love and friendship and are written with authenticity and heart.  

THOUGHTS: What an anthology! Not only is the novel’s premise beautiful, but the characters are so well developed that their voices are shining through on every page. With the collaboration of six of the most influential women in current YA literature, the novel celebrates coming of age in one of the most vibrant cities in the world: New York City! Blackout is also available as an audiobook, which is just fantastic! The only downfall is that the anthology ended. It leaves the reader craving more stories from each of these characters. 

Short Stories          Marie Mengel, Reading SD
Realistic Fiction

A collection of short stories written by acclaimed authors are woven together as each story is set during a blackout during the summer in New York City. Some stories are not completed in one section, but bounce back and forth which could be challenging for some readers to comprehend. Although the flow of some stories isn’t constant, it helps connect all the stories and characters as experiencing something universal: love and a summer night in NYC when the lights are bizarrely out. All stories celebrate love in many diverse ways. The stories almost took on the feel of novellas, as some stories stretched a bit longer with characters that were easy to relate to or to cheer on from the sidelines. The details about New York City are highlighted artfully throughout each story that isn’t often seen in YA fiction. The book ends with bonus content from all six authors that provides further context into their work. 

THOUGHTS: If you already have YA short story collections like Let it Snow on your shelves (or always off your shelves), this is a great addition for high school libraries looking for fiction that tells stories of Black love and LGBTQ+ love without a focus of oppression. 

Short Stories          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD
Realistic Fiction

MG – Summer of Brave

Parks, Amy Noelle. Summer of Brave. Albert Whitman & Co., 2021. 978-0-807-57660-1. 232 p. $16.99. Grades 4-8.

Lilla likes to make everyone happy, even if it means not speaking her mind. The Summer Wish is a tradition between friends Knox, Vivi, and Lilla – whoever blows off the most seeds of the dandelion gets to make a Summer Wish that the other two must do. When Vivi wins (again), she decides to make her wish for a summer of brave, where everyone is honest and shares their feelings in order to overcome a fear. For Lilla this will be a challenge at home since she spends half her time living on the second floor with her mother, a scientist, and the other half on the first floor with her father, an artist. When the trio apply for summer camp counselors, tensions mount when Vivi doesn’t get chosen and Lilla can’t tell her the truth (which equals not being brave). Add to that the decision on which school to attend in the fall (the private school for science or art? Or the public school for a more well rounded education?), Lilla struggles with finding her voice to tell both her parents and friends her true wish. Will the Summer of Brave truly work?

THOUGHTS: A great coming of age story about being honest with yourself and others while finding out who you are. These middle school students are relatable and each bring a special connection to the story. Lilla struggles with self doubt, and readers at this level will connect with her in more ways than one. A wonderfully written and brave story of finding the courage to speak up for what you believe in.

Realistic Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

MG – One Jar of Magic

Haydu, Corey Ann. One Jar of Magic. Harper Collins, 2021. $16.99 978-0-062-68985-6. Grades 5-8.

Rose Alice Anders isn’t just Rose. She is “Little Luck,” so nicknamed by her father, the luckiest man in Belling Bright, the most magical place in the world. Her father has the most knowledge of magic in this town where magic is revered and frequently used for everything from improving hair quality to crafting a rainbow (though her father cautions Rose and her brother Lyle that interfering with weather is too dangerous). All her life Rose has been striving to live up to her father’s belief that she will be the most magical in their family. Her status–and her father’s–brings ‘honor’ but also trouble into her friendships. So when the new year arrives in her twelfth year, Rose both longs for the day and dreads it for the pressure. Yes, she is magical, yes, her father has answers, but something doesn’t feel right, though she’d never admit it. The town’s New Year’s Day comes, and everyone is out to capture magic in jars of any color or size. Some magic sparkles, some changes colors, some seems to enchant just by being. Rose goes straight to Too Blue Lake, where she’s certain she, of all people, will manage to fill jar after jar after jar. But as the day goes on and her friends gather jars, and her brother tries to help her (should she be grateful or insulted?), Rose is fearful to come to the feast with just one jar of magic. She can feel her father’s anger. To appease his anger, her mother takes Rose and Lyle home, stopping at a store run by “not-meant-for-magic’ people. Though the store is nearby, Rose has never been there and never met these people. Her shame at failing to live up to her name and her heritage mixes with her curiosity in these people, who seem so….free. She wants to see Zelda–the daughter of the family–again, but knows her father (and the town) forbids it. What is going on in her family and in her town?  Where does Rose belong and how can she take a stand when she’s not sure of anything?

THOUGHTS: Haydu crafts a very real town full of questions, possibilities and dangers.  She presents the confusing family dynamics well, as Rose struggles to reconcile her hesitations and doubts with her father’s certainty, her mother’s acquiescence, her brother’s kindness, and the town’s solidarity. Who is she, if she’s not Little Luck?

Magical Realism Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – Be More Chill: The Graphic Novel

Levithan, David. Be More Chill: The Graphic Novel. Hyperion, 2021. 978-1-368-05786-8. 138 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.

High school is hard. Jeremy finds it especially hard being an awkward nerd who can’t seem to say the right thing to anyone. He really wants to catch the eye of Christine, a pretty girl he sees every day at play rehearsal. When Jeremy tries to talk to her, he bumbles through his words, and that’s when he realizes he will never be able to charm her… until he hears about the squip. The squip is a supercomputer, compressed into a pill-sized capsule and swallowed. After that, it takes over your brain and helps awkward teens navigate through the complex social hierarchy of high school. Don’t know what cool clothes to buy at the mall? The squip will guide you. Not sure what to say to the most popular girl in school? The squip will tell you. When Jeremy buys one on the black market, he thinks he has squashed his awkward behavior for good. But he very quickly realizes the dark consequences that can come from trying to alter his own biology.

THOUGHTS: This graphic novel, adapted from the hit Broadway musical of the same name, will resonate with any high schooler who struggles to fit in. The art, done mostly in black, white, and blue, shows the differences between dialogue and the squip’s commands, making it easy to follow. High school librarians should add this to their graphic novel collections.

Graphic Novel          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Collins, Suzanne. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Scholastic Press, 2020.  978-1-338-63517-1. $24.99. 528 p. Grades 9-12.

The much-anticipated prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy begins 64 years before Katniss Everdeen enters the arena to fight for her life. The Hunger Games are only ten years old and are not yet the spectacle they go on to become. Coriolanus Snow, future president of Panem, along with his cousin and grandmother, have sold almost all of their possessions after the war drains their finances. The Snow name is synonymous with wealth, and they struggle to maintain a wealthy facade. The Snow family motto demands it: snow lands on top. Head gamemaker Dr. Gaul pairs each tribute with a Capitol Academy mentor. Coriolanus is paired with District 12’s Lucy Gray Baird, who immediately becomes a fan favorite due to her songbird voice. Coriolanus falls for her and, upon seeing the horrific conditions where the tributes are kept before the games, arranges for her to have food and medical care, a precursor to tribute treatment in the later books. But he still has strong loyalty to the Capitol. This is much different from his peer, Sejanus. He views The Hunger Games as unjust, and at times, Coriolanus sees his point. As his love for Lucy Gray deepens, he is conflicted. He believes in her but also in the Capitol. Most of all, he believes he needs to make something of himself in order to keep proving that snow always indeed lands on top.

Thoughts: Readers will want to simultaneously empathize and loathe Coriolanus. He wants to make the right decisions, but there are already glimpses of what he will become in later books. Fans of The Hunger Games will love discovering the origins of the trilogy’s most important symbols, such as the mockingjay and Victors’ Village. For those who have never read The Hunger Games, it serves as a good start. Similar to its predecessors’, the book does have a fair amount of blood and violence and is better suited for high school readers who are sure to enjoy this action-packed origin story.

Dystopian Fiction     Danielle Corrao, Ephrata Area SD