MG – Thanks a Lot, Universe

Lucas, Chad. Thanks a Lot, Universe. Amulet, 2021. 978-1-419-75102-8. 279 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Brian and Ezra, both 13 years old, are classmates at school, and on the same basketball team. But that’s where the similarities end. Ezra, who is biracial, appears to Brian as cool, confident, and popular, while Brian, who is white, suffers from crippling social anxiety (or Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome, as he labels it). Ezra thinks Brian seems interesting, but doesn’t go out of his way to befriend the boy until the bottom drops out of Brian’s life. On his 13th birthday, Brian awakens to discover that his father has disappeared (to evade capture by police) and his mother is unconscious from a drug overdose. In the ensuing days, Brian tries to keep his life together, after he and his younger brother, Ritchie, are placed in foster care. But eventually Brian takes Ritchie and runs away. Ezra soon gets involved in the search for Brian, and after locating the brothers, makes it his mission to befriend the young man. Along the way, Ezra is trying to understand himself as well. His circle of friends is evolving, as some of the boys become interested in girls, while Ezra is coming to terms with the fact that he is gay, and has a crush on Brian. Two well adjusted high school students provide a sounding board for both boys as they attempt to navigate the life they have been given. While racial issues are touched upon, mental health takes center stage. Brian is terrified he will be labeled “crazy” since his mother suffers with mental health issues. While these seventh grade boys are far more comfortable discussing their feelings and expressing concern for each other’s emotional well-being than your average middle schooler, the book is a marvelous, feel-good display of masculine friendship. The story, alternating between Ezra’s and Brian’s point of view, grabs hold from the opening page, and doesn’t stop until the end. Brian and Ezra are both such sympathetic characters readers will wholeheartedly root for them to find happiness. And maybe all those really nice people are what make the book so heartwarming.

THOUGHTS: Highly recommended. While there may be too many unrealistically nice people in the story, including a helpful police officer, a teacher who takes in Brian and Richie, and a pair of high school teenagers who befriend Ezra and Brian, it is worth it for the good feelings it engenders. There is no perfect ending – dad goes to prison, Ezra loses a friend, mom is still unstable – but the book still leaves you smiling. With main characters that are 13-years-old and in 7th grade, this book should have wider appeal than just middle grade. The timely issues of race and mental health make this a great fit for 7th and 8th graders. Hopefully readers will take to heart the message to befriend and understand shy kids, and to look out for each other. Perfect to pair with The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Brian, who suffers from Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome (SAWS), as he calls it, is used to having a rough time in junior high; he is a good basketball player, but feels too shy to talk to his teammates off the court. He often deals with bullying, and his dad wants him to be tougher and stand up to those who make him even more socially miserable. Then, life gets much harder when his dad suddenly leaves the family. Suddenly, Brian is taking care of his younger brother, navigating foster care, and still dealing with his social anxiety, bullies, and every-day adolescent stress. Luckily, a support system shows up to help when Ezra, a teammate from basketball, and a group of caring adults step in. Meanwhile, Ezra is dealing with uncomfortable tension between his childhood best friends, his growing interest in music and playing the guitar, and his changing feelings about boys.

THOUGHTS: This is a beautiful story about supportive friends in times of struggle. The characters in the story experience the difficulties of growing up and demonstrate the positive influences that good people and good friends can have during a teen’s formative years. This book also portrays several positive coming-out experiences and sensitively handles the struggles of a LGBTQ+ teen.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – The Girl from the Sea

Ostertag, Molly Knox. The Girl from the Sea. Graphix / Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-54058-1. 256 p. $24.99. Grades 7-10.

Morgan Kwon likes to keep her life tucked neatly into boxes: family, school, and friends. She also has a secret box, full of her plans for the future: moving to a city, going to college, and coming out. One night, seeking refuge on the cliffs of her family’s tiny island home, Morgan falls into the ocean. Just as the contents of her boxes seem to intermingle and slip away, she is rescued by a girl with large, expressive eyes. Believing she’s experiencing a near-death hallucination, Morgan decides it might as well be a romantic one and she kisses Keltie in the moonlight. The next morning, Keltie reappears. She’s a selkie, and a kiss from her true love has allowed her to transform from a seal into a human. Morgan requires some convincing, though she’s undeniably charmed by her freckle-faced new girlfriend. Meanwhile, Keltie is frustrated by Morgan’s unwillingness to reveal her true self to her family and friends. An environmental threat adds urgency and drama to this magical, fantastic first love story. The beautifully sunny artwork perfectly captures a fleeting but unforgettable season.

THOUGHTS: The Girl from the Sea, the latest graphic novel from Molly Knox Ostertag (author of the Witch Boy trilogy), is enjoyable on so many levels: as a queer romance, a story of transformation, and a version of selkie lore. The full-cast audiobook production, complete with scene-setting sound effects, complements and illuminates the source material.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Not My Problem

Smyth, Ciara. Not My Problem. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-062-95714-6. $17.99. 359 p. Grades 9 and up.

Aideen Cleary has problems. She’s not doing so well in school, her best friend Holly has been drifting from her for the last couple years, and her mom’s occasional drinking binges that make her unfit to parent have Aideen worrying that social services will come knocking on their door any day now. But when she catches her enemy, Meabh Kowalska, throwing an embarrassing hissy fit in the locker room at school, she sees an opportunity to focus on someone else’s problems for a change. Aideen thinks over-achieving Meabh’s problem of just finding more time in her schedule is an easy problem to fix, but Meabh insists on a fool-proof solution. So she asks Aideen to push her down a set of stairs in exchange for a favor she can call in at any time. Though Aideen hesitates at first, given their history, Meabh is pretty easily able to convince Aideen to give her a good shove. Meabh’s ankle effectively sprained, the problem seems solved. Except for the witness to it all, a classmate named Kavi, who swears to secrecy but sees potential in the exchange he just witnessed. The next day, he brings Aideen a friend of his in trouble and asks her to help solve the problem, much like she did for Meabh yesterday. Thus begins Aideen’s semester of stunts, shenanigans, and some new relationships. Aideen’s life might be spiraling out of control, but fixing others’ lives and collecting favors in return seems like a good deal for her. For now.

THOUGHTS: Aideen is foul-mouthed but laugh-out-loud funny in this sophomore novel from the author of last year’s The Falling in Love Montage. Some Irish colloquialisms might trip up teen readers here and there, but it’s part of the experience of reading this story set in Ireland. A story with romance though not necessarily a book I’d classify as romance, I highly recommend this book for YA collections looking to add  LGBTQ+ representation. Aside from a couple sentences mentioning Aideen’s coming out at a young age as difficult, the characters in this book are, as Aideen says, “super woke,” so this book is not about Aideen’s struggles coming out or dealing with bullying because she identifies as lesbian. Her fading friendship with Holly and budding new friendship with Kavi takes just as much (if not, more) of the narrative as her slow-burn enemies-to-lovers relationship with Meabh. Aideen’s complicated relationship with her mom and her mom’s alcoholism and poverty also dominate much of the narrative. While cliche, it’s definitely accurate to say this book has a bit of everything.

Realistic Fiction         Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Rise to the Sun

Johnson, Leah. Rise to the Sun. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-66223-8. 336 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Olivia is planning an epic best friend weekend at the Farmland Music and Arts Festival with Imani. Determined to leave a disastrous junior year behind her, self-proclaimed heartbreak expert Olivia has relied on Imani to get her through too many heartbreaks to count. Reluctant about the Festival, Imani – who always supports and goes along with Olivia – thinks Olivia’s mind should be on other things, like an upcoming judicial hearing. But Olivia can’t focus on that right now, even thought the white lie about a youth church retreat she told her mom does make her feel a little guilty. She wins Imani over because her favorite band is headlining the festival, and Olivia promises a hookup free best friend weekend with great music and a ride on the Ferris wheel. Toni is at the festival – like every summer she can remember – with her best friend Peter. Though nothing is the same as last year, Toni is hoping this year’s festival gives her some much needed clarity and life direction before she goes where she’s supposed to next week. When Toni spots a clear festival newbie, donning impractical attire and literally wrapped up by the tent she’s trying to setup, her weekend goes in a completely different direction. Olivia is determined to play matchmaker between Imani and Peter and can’t help but notice her feelings for Toni. She breaks through Toni’s Ice Queen exterior by offering to help Toni enter the Golden Apple in exchange for help with the #FoundAtFarmland contest. Without another option, Toni agrees, and each girl has a weekend like she couldn’t have imagined. Once the magic of the festival wears off, will Olivia be heartbroken, and what about her promises to Imani?

THOUGHTS: With a loveable, Black bisexual protagonist, readers will root for Olivia to find herself, without losing herself. This whirlwind romance is a must have for high school collections to add more romance or LGBTQ+ titles.

Romance          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – The Box in the Woods

Johnson, Maureen. The Box in the Woods. Katherine Tegen Books, 2021. 978-0-063-03260-6. 383 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12. 

In July of 1978, Sabrina Abbott was breaking the rules, something this too good girl had never done. She and her friends paid dearly. Student sleuth Stevie Bell, known for solving the unsolvable Ellingham Academy case is home for the summer, working the second shift at the deli counter of her town’s local grocery store in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Desperate for her next case – or something more interesting than thinly sliced meat and cheese – Stevie receives an email referencing Camp Wonder Falls, and Stevie being Stevie knows this is the Camp Wonder Falls with the box in the woods murders. The email’s sender, Carson Buchwald, knows of Stevie’s talent for crime solving, and he wants to give Stevie full access to the camp, now known as Camp Sunny Pines, in exchange for her help in creating a true-crime podcast/documentary. Stevie and her friends will be counselors at camp, but Stevie really will focus on the case. Of course, her parents never will let her go for a decades old murder investigation, so Stevie has to get creative. Once at camp, Stevie enjoys time with her friends and barely tolerates the outdoors, but having real life family members of victims is harder than Stevie thought. Then an eerie message appears on Stevie’s bedroom wall – much like the one at Ellingham – and Stevie realizes not everyone is happy with Carson’s plan to  drudge up buried memories. Someone definitely doesn’t want the truth to surface, but that’s never stopped Stevie before.

THOUGHTS: Fast-paced and twisty, this thriller/mystery works best if you have the context of the series, but it can be read as a stand alone. A must purchase for high schools where mysteries are in demand.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Stevie Bell is back. With the Ellingham mystery solved and summer in full swing, Stevie’s life has returned to “normal” until she receives an email from Carson Buchwald, owner of Camp Sunny Pines in Massachusetts. Previously Camp Wonder Falls, where four gruesome murders happened in July 1978, Carson wants Stevie’s help to solve the “Box in the Woods” murders for his podcast. Stevie is intrigued by the request and accepts a position at the camp, along with Nate and Janelle, so that she can investigate the murders further. As Stevie learns more about the murders, she realizes that the town, and those who were there in 1978, are not sharing the whole truth. While she delves into the details and ultimately figures everything out, Stevie must also deal with David and her relationship, whatever it may be, with him.

THOUGHTS: Told through alternating chapters of present day with Stevie and flashbacks to July 1978, Maureen Johnson adds another delightful mystery to her repertoire. The only downside to this stand-alone is that I wish it weren’t a stand-alone. Stevie Bell is a fantastic character who is the perfect 21st Century detective. Readers want (and need) more of Stevie, Nate, Janelle, and David.

Mystery          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

Fans of Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series will be delighted with this new stand-alone mystery featuring the cast of characters from Truly Devious. It’s summer break and real crime buff Stevie, fresh off solving the notorious Truly, Devious murders at her school, Ellingham Academy, is at loose ends at home. Then comes an offer too good to refuse. Wealthy, eccentric, entrepreneur Carson Buchwald purchased a summer camp that was the location of the notorious Box in the Wood murders over 40 years ago, and he offers Stevie and her friends summer jobs at the camp, with the expectation that Stevie will identify the killer of the four teen camp counselors. (So he can make a podcast on the murders.) Stevie, Nate, and Janelle head to camp, bringing their unique skill sets to help Stevie uncover what happened in the summer of 1978. A sprawling cast of characters past and present offers red herrings galore. But Johnson plays fair with the reader, offering enough clues for an astute reader to determine who-done-it, but the how and the why are largely revealed in the big, Agatha Christie inspired denouement. It is a gloriously fun book, which can be read as a stand-alone, but readers of the Truly Devious series will be delighted to reconnect with familiar characters, and hope for more books. While most characters are white, Janelle is black and queer. Stevie’s struggle with anxiety is well portrayed.

THOUGHTS: A sophisticated mystery with a dynamic, enjoyable cast of characters, this book has it all: action, danger, suspense, clues, red herring and good, loyal friends. Readers of The Box in the Woods who haven’t read Truly Devious will definitely seek the series out.

Mystery          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Fat Chance, Charlie Vega

Maldonado, Crystal. Fat Chance, Charlie Vega. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-823-44717-6. 343 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Fat Chance, Charlie Vega is an homage to every brown girl who has experienced fat shaming. The main character of Crystal Maldonado’s debut novel, sixteen-almost-seventeen Charlotte “Charlie” Vega struggles with self-acceptance. An unabashed nerd, the Connecticut teen excels at her studies, likes her after school job, and has a kind and loyal best friend, Amelia. On the down side, she still grieves for beloved Puerto Rican father, butts heads with her recently slimmed-down mother, and feels diminished next to the perfect Amelia. A striving idealist and aspiring writer, Charlie longs for the ever-allusive storybook romance. When popular, athletic Cal invites her to the homecoming dance, Charlie is on Cloud 9 and is humiliated when she discovers Cal expected her to deliver Amelia as his date. She finds a ready ear to share her troubles in her kind and understanding class and job mate, Brian Park, who is Korean-American. As her relationship with Brian develops and deepens, Charlie’s self esteem increases. She and Brian are sympatico; he is a thoughtful boyfriend and even his two moms like her. Bolstered with this newfound confidence, Charlie is able to feel secure about her appearance, despite her mother’s insistence on protein shakes and popularity. Talking (and making out) with Brian feels so good, Charlie neglects her bff who is also in a new relationship with a girl from the soccer team. In a rare argument, African American Amelia reveals Brian asked her out in the past. Charlie once again feels second best and takes steps to guarantee a miserable life and fulfill her belief that she just isn’t good enough. Through listening to the positive feedback from her supportive network of co-workers, family, and friends, Charlie comes to believe that she is deserving of love, no matter what her physical appearance. The casual, almost chummy, tone of the language, the inclusion of references to current celebrities and trends, and the relatable theme will make this novel a winner.

THOUGHTS: No matter what gender one identifies with, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega picks up the despair of rejection and invisibility and the thrill of feeling chosen and desired. Though skirting any graphic description of sex, Maldonado woos the teen reader with the building up of her feelings in the make out sessions with Brian. Charlie’s volatile relationship with her well-meaning but issue-ridden mother can be the script for many students dealing with a parent who mixes up wanting the best for one’s child and creating a safe, accepting space. In addition, Charlie’s devotion to writing and Brian’s interest in art make for interesting reading while the humor-infused narrative makes the serious theme smoother going down. Author Maldonado blends diverse gender roles and races seamlessly in an accessible book.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms

Frasier, Crystal, and Val Wise, illustrator. Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms. Oni Press, 2021. 978-1-620-10955-7. 128 p. $14.99. Grades 7-10.

Annie Ginter is a stand-out student, but her “lopsided” transcript lacks clubs, sports, and other extracurriculars. In an effort to improve Annie’s teamwork skills, her mom encourages her to go out for cheerleading. Beatrice (“Bebe”) is a very popular, people-pleasing trans girl. Her parents only will allow her to continue her transition if she maintains excellent grades. The two girls, who were close friends as children, become reluctant allies as they realize that they can help each other with their respective problems. Annie tutors Bebe in history, while Bebe assists with Annie’s physical conditioning and interpersonal skills. As they spend more time together, a romance blossoms. This impressive graphic novel delivers a fresh spin on an opposites-attract story arc, and illustrator Val Wise depicts each character in the diverse ensemble cast with unique details and a distinct personality. Cheer Up also addresses issues such as consent, boundaries, agency, and microaggressions organically within the storyline

THOUGHTS: A sports angle, a very Gen Z romance, and a Homecoming Day to remember make this a widely appealing graphic novel!

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – The Backups: A Summer of Stardom

De Campi, Alex, et al. The Backups: A Summer of Stardom. Imprint, 2021. 978-1-250-21259-7. 206 pp. $17.99. Gr. 7-10.

In this charming graphic novel, three rising seniors at the Brooklyn Performing Arts High School land the ultimate summer job: singing back-up on tour with pop superstar Nika Nitro. Jenni is a fierce vocalist, Lauren is a dedicated classical cellist, and Maggie is a tough-as-nails drummer. With their very different backgrounds and musical interests, the girls don’t exactly gel as a squad. But life on tour is tough when you’re twenty feet and a world away from fame, and they quickly learn to depend on each other for support and friendship. Add in an accidental beef with an underground punk band, a blossoming (but strictly forbidden) crush on Nika’s supporting act, and a secret that could end the star’s career, and you have all the backstage / onstage drama you need for summer!

THOUGHTS: The different body types represented on the cover of The Backups hint at the delightfully diverse story within, in which characters cope with anxiety, crushes, coming out, lip-syncing disasters, and so much more.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Follow Your Arrow

Verdi, Jessica. Follow Your Arrow. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-64046-5. $18.99. 308 p. Grades 9 and up.

Life seems perfect for Cece Ross. She’s only a junior in high school, but she’s a successful social media influencer with several sponsorships. She and her girlfriend, Sylvie (also a social media influencer), have been together for two and a half years; sure, they bicker sometimes, but that’s normal when you’re in a relationship that long, right? Apparently Sylvie doesn’t agree; out of nowhere, after they finish a live stream unboxing video together, Sylvie breaks up with her. Not only is this devastating as Sylvie is her first love, Cece also wonders how this will affect their commitment to speak as the Grand Marshals of the upcoming Cincinnati Pride parade in just a couple months. She’s also not used to doing the whole social media thing without Sylvie, and Cece constantly worries about how she is being perceived through the app. Not long after the break-up, Cece meets Josh, a sweet and friendly violin player who avoids social media entirely. Cece has always known she’s bisexual, and Josh definitely has boyfriend potential, but he doesn’t realize who Cece is or how famous she is. Josh has expressed disdain for social media influencers though, so she decides it’s best to keep him out of the loop for now. But how long can she keep this secret from Josh as he becomes more than just a friend and social media gossip starts running rampant?

THOUGHTS: This is a mostly light-hearted and fun romance, but it also tackles some important topics we cover in schools: bullying, homophobia, digital citizenship, and pressures of living life online, and most importantly, biphobia. Cece deals with a lot of the latter in the final third of the book as her relationship with Josh becomes public. A Junior Library Guild selection, this book is great addition to YA collections to expand bisexual representation.

Realistic Fiction         Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – The Sky Blues

Couch, Robbie. The Sky Blues. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 978-1-534-47785-8. $19.99. 325 p. Grades 9 and up.

Senior year for Sky Baker hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. He’s the only gay student out at his small-town northern Michigan high school. The looks and comments from homophobic classmates cause him to feel he can’t be himself – he has to walk “straight” and carry his books “straight.” His mom and brother don’t accept him for who he is either, so he is forced to move in with his best friend Bree and her family over the holidays. Then there’s the scar on his chest he calls “Mars” (because that’s what it looks like), a scar from a burn he got in a car accident when he was small, a car accident that killed his father. Not feeling comfortable taking his shirt off in front of anyone else is difficult when you live with someone else’s family in a house on the beach. Despite these struggles, Sky has Bree, yearbook, and his crush on Ali. Though he’s not sure if Ali is gay, Sky plans to make the most of his senior year by promposing to Ali in an extravagant way in 30 days at their senior beach bum party, and he and Bree are documenting their ideas on his dry erase wall in his bedroom. All his plans are dashed though when a hacker exposes Sky’s promposal plans in a homophobic and racist email message that goes out to the entire school community from the yearbook account. Priorities shift from promposal to revenge as Sky, Ali, and their friends hunt the hacker. But what about prom? Will Sky still pull off an epic promposal? Or has his entire senior year become about something more?

THOUGHTS: An excellent addition to any YA LGBTQ collection, this debut novel has it all – humor, friendship, family, and serious topics such as bullying and homophobia. Despite the “small-town” setting, there is diverse representation among Sky’s friend group. And Sky and Bree’s yearbook teacher Ms. Winter is a pleasantly surprising important supporting character that readers young and old will love.

Realistic Fiction         Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD