Elem. – Home is Where the Birds Sing

Rylant, Cynthia. Home is Where the Birds Sing. Beach Lane Books. 2022. 978-1-534-44957-2. $18.99. Grades K-2.

Home means many things to many different people. Home is where the birds are singing, or where you take a nap. Home can be the place where you are called “Sweetie” or “dear” or where there are stories to listen to and stories to tell. The sweet part of home is when you are gone, home is the place you return to and finally feel… at home.

THOUGHTS: A sweet book about the deep feeling of being home. In the diverse world we live in, home can be a lot of different things for different people. Home, no matter what it may look like or sound like, is the place where you simply feel at home.

Picture Book            Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

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. – My Life Begins!

MacLachlan, Patricia. My Life Begins! Katherine Tegen Books, 2022. 978-0-063-11601-6. $16.99. 119 p. Grades 3-6.

Jacob is 9 years old. His greatest wish is to have a puppy, perhaps even a whole litter of puppies. Puppies are not in Jacob’s immediate future, however. Jacob’s mother is having triplets. Jacob refers to his newborn siblings as The Trips. The Trips don’t do much at first. The family must dress them each in different colors to keep track of which is which. Jacob watches his exhausted parents as they feed, dress, and rock the triplets to sleep. When a school research project is assigned, Jacob decides to study the changes in the lives of the newborns as they grow and mature. He titles the project “A Litter of Trips – from Birth On” and begins to keep notes on their development. The early journal entries claim The Trips do nothing and are all the same. Then, one night Jacob is awakened by a crying baby. Knowing his parents could use a rest, Jacob realizes he can change and feed her himself. As he comforts Lizzie, he is rewarded with her first smile. Suddenly Jacob realizes that his newborn sisters each have a distinct personality. The Trips all have favorite ways to get attention. Char, the quiet one, will wave her hands excitedly when Jacob passes, Kath, the bold one, will make vocal noises, and Lizzie will smile and take Jacob’s hand. As The Trips grow, so too does Jacob. He begins to realize he no longer thinks of the triplets as The Trips, but he is not sure exactly what to call them. When Mom returns to work, the family hires Mimi, an experienced mother of five, to help out. Mimi, who is adored by the entire family, sees Jacob’s kind, caring nature. Mimi helps Jacob to understand “the girls” and himself. Jacob finishes his school report with an in class visit by the triplets, who he now refers to as his “sisters.” Jacob comes to realize that as we mature our lives begin again and again with new experiences, new people, new skills and interests. Told partly in journal entries, and partly through narrative, this is a delightful look at the first year of life through the eyes of an older brother. Illustrated with great care by Daniel Miyares. 

THOUGHTS: An utterly delightful read that will resonate with children and adults alike. 

Picture Book          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD

YA – Full Flight

Schumacher, Ashley. Full Flight. Wednesday Books, 2022. 978-1-250-77978-6. $18.99. 309 p. Grades 9-12.

In the provincial town of Enfield, Texas, Weston Ryan seems a rebel with his leather jacket and motorcycle and his bad reputation for cutting down the sapling Memorial Tree on the high school campus. His vulnerability is what shy, curvy, sixteen-year old Anna James sees. Both are members of the school’s marching band, and when they are paired for a duet, sparks fly. Perpetually obedient Anna tells lies to carve out time with Weston as their sweet romance builds. Her tight-knit family–strict but nurturing parents and 12 year old sister, Jenny–keep tabs on her every move and don’t approve of Weston. While Weston, reeling from his parents’ recent divorce, bounces back and forth between his depressed father and his distant mother. As the band competition approaches, Anna and Weston have ironed out the bumps in their duet and displayed their mutual love confidently to friends and classmates. Weston’s joy in life is Anna, and Anna is an expert in plunging Weston’s depths and revealing his goodness. Only the hurdle of Anna’s parents needs to be vaulted. All seems in proper alignment for these star-crossed lovers until tragedy strikes. Told in alternating voices, this well-written love story offers two teens masking insecurities and depression who learn to understand each other and themselves. All characters seem to be white. 

THOUGHTS: Though no evidence is present, this book seems to be reflective of an experience in the author’s life. Perhaps because of this, little diversity appears. It does deal with body image, judgment, and depression. The boyfriend dies in an accident in the end; but Anna lives through it, a stronger person for having been loved. The story may appeal to those longing for a romance; students who come from small towns may identify with having one’s life in view of everyone. A strong Christian element runs through  this book: One example, one of Anna’s and Weston’s successful ruses is going to the Church youth group. Schumacher writes well and the dialogue between Anna and Weston is unique and meaningful, thus raising this novel to a higher level. After a long prelude, Anna and Weston eventually have intercourse, but with no graphic details. I did not like the cover. Though well-written, the story was not compelling to me, but may appeal to a niche audience. 

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke  School District of Philadelphia

YA – Love Radio

LaDelle, Ebony. Love Radio. Simon & Schuster, 2022. 978-1-665-90815-3. $19.99. 310 p. Grades 9-12.

Danielle Ford’s romantic mother has a big wish for her only child, to experience a great love story. That wish struggles to come true in Ebony LaDelle’s, Love Radio, a debut novel that is as much a homage to the great city of Detroit as it is to first love. High-achieving senior, Dani has been shut off from her friends and dating after a traumatizing sexual encounter with a college boy the previous summer. Keeping this secret from her besties and devoted parents, she buries herself in writing the perfect college essay to get into her dream school, New York University (NYU). When she has an awkward meeting in the library with classmate, Prince Jones, a popular teen disc jockey and local radio personality (DJLove Jones) who mixes love advice with music, she makes an assumption she regrets and wants to rectify. Told in alternating voices, the romance between Prince and Dani is enchanting. Prince shows a maturity beyond his years, perhaps because he has accepted much of the responsibility of taking care of his seven-year-old brother Mookie and household duties since his single mother received her diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Prince has fallen hard for the guarded Dani and is determined to make her fall in love with him in five dates. After inviting himself over to her comfortable home to take out her braids, he plans two movie-worthy dates to a roller rink and bookstore. Dani starts to open up, reconnect with her friends, and dissolve her writer’s block. When she reciprocates with one equally perfect date to the Motown Museum, though, their intimacy triggers bad memories and she breaks it off with Prince. As Dani faces her trauma, she has the support of loving parents and patient friends as well as the therapy of writing unsent letters to her literary idols, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Prince, too, acknowledges his need to suppress his dreams because of his home obligations and, with help, makes a plan for his future. Both characters come to realize that they are surrounded by a network of loving people who will support and help them achieve their goals. Characters are African-American.

THOUGHTS: Students in the mood for a dreamy romance will eat up this book. The author has an ear for teen dialogue and is from Michigan. Any readers familiar with Detroit will recognize the branding of different places (if I am ever in Detroit, I’m heading for that Dutch Girl Donuts) and the description of the neighborhoods. Dani and Prince are so wise; the thoughtful dates are out of this world; the child to parent relationships are so close. Though the romance doesn’t play out physically much, Dani’s traumatic encounter occurs when she a friend takes her to a frat house where she barely escapes date rape. After several dates, Dani leads Prince to her bedroom and encourages a sexual encounter, but Prince is reluctant to proceed. The portrayal of family is warm and loving, especially the way Prince helps out his sick mother. Though the letters to literary idols seem to be a critical link to Dani’s recovery from trauma, the book names Dani’s idols as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Roxane Gay, Jesmyn Ward in the beginning chapter, but she only focuses on Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. One of Dani’s friends is sick of appropriation and plans a hair fashion show. Lots of references to music. Some bad language. For those who are sticklers, the timeline is a little wonky: would college kids be on campus in the summer? (maybe).

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – A Grandma’s Magic

Offsay, Charlotte. A Grandma’s Magic. Illustrated by Asa Gilland. Doubleday Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-0-593-37600-3. $17.99. Unpaged. Grades K-3.

This large picture book opens with the tender lines, “When a child is born. . .a grandma is born, too.” Bathed in shades of pinks, teals, and apricots, A Grandma’s Magic shows a diverse array of grandmothers and their grandbabies doing what stereotypical grandmas do: baking, gardening, playing, hugging, comforting in both urban and rural settings. Popping in vivid colors from the white background are intergenerational pairs engaging in activities that teach and enchant. With simple strokes, illustrator Asa Gilland conveys the characters’ surprise, delight, sadness, and warmth. These poignant drawings convince the reader of author Charlotte Offsay’s words that grandmothers do indeed conjure magical times that linger long after their visits are over. The book is ideal for a reading aloud on Grandparents’ Day or as a story starter to describe one’s grandmother. However, the story only reflects the families where grandmothers are living independently and can come to visit. Other situations where grandmothers are raising their grandchildren or where grandmothers live with the family are not considered. If reading or shelf-talking this pretty book, know your audience.

THOUGHTS: This feel-good book is so delightful to look at and emanates a real warmth in pictures and words. It lends itself to intergenerational units (perhaps coupled with Mem Fox’s Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge, if you can get your hands on it–it is not out of print), and character description–maybe even people poems. Grandmothers of all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities show up in this book, but the author still focuses on the healthy grandmother whom the child will visit or be visited by. In some communities, that vision of a grandmother may not be the one the young child actually has. A book early with diversity on a similar theme is the late, great Vera B. Williams’s More, More, More Said the Baby.( I guess I am dating myself with the mention of two old –and perhaps better-books.)

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – An Arrow to the Moon

Pan, Emily R. X. An Arrow to the Moon. Little, Brown, and Company, 2022. 978-0-316-46405-5. $18.99. 400. Grades 9-12.

Luna Chang and Hunter Yee each come from a family that hates the other, and although they are forbidden to see each other and try to keep their distance, they become friends and then more. As they begin to spend more time together, they notice that each has special, almost supernatural abilities: Luna is followed by a group of fireflies, and her breath can heal Hunter when he’s hurt or having an asthma attack. Hunter has a special relationship with the wind, and when he aims, especially with his bow and arrow, he never misses. As graduation nears, Luna realizes her life is not as perfect as it seems, and Hunter continues to feel trapped within his. Each family has secrets, and as the lies unravel and some dangerous truths are revealed, their world begins to crack and their lives fall apart. Will their love be enough to save them, or will it destroy them?

THOUGHTS: An Arrow to the Moon has been described as a “Romeo and Juliet retelling” mixed with Chinese mythology, specifically the Chinese legend of Chang’e and Houyi. The families are Taiwanese immigrants, although Hunter’s family consider themselves to be simply Chinese. This brings up a conversation between the characters about cultural identities and the struggles of immigration. Readers also may make connections to the characters as they experience family struggles and the realities of growing up. This title falls into the fantasy genre as magical realism, and it would be a perfect suggestion for readers looking for a love story with just a touch of magic.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

An Arrow To The Moon is a dual perspective young adult novel that follows Luna and Hunter, who both attend the same high school and at the beginning of the novel don’t interact with each other due to their parents being enemies. As the novel unfolds, Hunter and Luna become closer and closer, until they can no longer deny that they are in love with each other. They are able to keep this a secret from their parents, but there are other weird things happening in their town. Luna has fireflies that seem to follow her around, Hunter can aim perfectly with a bow and arrow, and the town has a massive crack going through the middle of it. As the reader follows the characters, the reasons become clear and Hunter and Luna are going to have some hard choices to make that will not only affect them but their families.

THOUGHTS: This is a unique take on a young adult Romeo and Juliet retelling, especially with the addition of Chinese mythology. This book will have the reader rooting for Luna and Hunter from the beginning until the very end. This is a great addition to any high school collection.

Romance          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – Rivals

McGee, Katharine. Rivals. Random House Books for Young Readers, 2022. 400 p. 978-0-593-42970-9. Grades 9-12. $19.99.

Returning from what would have been their honeymoon (had they gotten married), Beatrice and Teddy are back after spending a few blissful weeks in the Caribbean. Teddy hopes to define his role as king consort to give the unprecedented position meaning and purpose. Beatrice has a lot of work to do to prepare for the League of Kings conference. For the first time, Beatrice is hosting the conference as Queen of America, and she plans to bring her father’s climate accord to vote, despite the uphill battle she’ll face as a powerful woman. Princess Samantha went on the Royal tour at Beatrice’s request and convinced her best friend Nina to go along. In love for the first time, Sam is figuring out who she is and how to be the heir her family needs. And with the League of Kings taking place in Orange, Sam is looking forward to spending some time with Marshall. Meanwhile, Jeff filled as Regent (with Daphne by his side) in at the capital during his sisters’ absence. As the royals settle into their roles, friendships and old rivals are put to the test. No matter where the Washington family goes, drama seems to follow. Spoiler alert, the League of Kings conference will be no different.

THOUGHTS: Tackling some tough topics like gender roles, privilege, and racism, the characters take on more dimension in this title than the past two, and readers will find themselves rooting for each rival as they get to know them. They also desperately will hope for another title in this series!

Romance          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem. – Love in the Library

Tokuda-Hall, Maggie. Love in the Library. Candlewick Press, 2022. Unpaged. 978-1-5362-0430-8. Grades 2-4.  $18.99.

In 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which “relocated” Japanese-American citizens to internment camps. Inspired by a true family story, Tokuda-Hall has written a fictionalized account of her grandparents’ experience in such a camp. Tama was in college when she was abruptly placed in Minidoka Camp in Idaho. The conditions were harsh, with very cold winters and very hot summers, and an entire family was forced to live in one room. Tama’s only solace was working in the library. She loved the way books magically took her to other worlds. A camp resident named George became a daily library visitor, checking out several books and returning them the next day. One day, Tama is overwhelmed by the injustice and begins to cry. George comforts her, and Tama realizes why George comes to the library so frequently. The couple marries and has their first child in the camp, demonstrating the power of love and resilience in overcoming prejudice and hate.  The author’s note includes more of Tama and George Tokuda’s story along with a photo. Imamura’s gouache and watercolor drawings help readers understand more about this unjust time in American history. 

THOUGHTS: This text can be used as an introduction to World War II units about the home front.  Like Say’s Music for Alice or Mochizuki’s Baseball Saved Us, Love in the Library promotes discussion about prejudice, racism, and stereotyping. Highly recommended for elementary collections.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member
Historical Fiction

Elem. – What is Love?

Barnett, Mac. What is Love? Chronicle Books, 2021. 978-1-452-17640-6. 44 p. $17.99. Grades 2-5. 

When a young person asks their grandmother, “What is love?” she simply responds that she cannot answer that question. The narrator (the young man) must go out into the world to find the answer. The young man encounters a fisherman, an actor, a cat, a carpenter, a farmer, and a soldier just to name a few, and asks the very same question to each of them. They all answer individually, but their responses do not quite satisfy the young man. In the end, the narrator is frustrated and exhausted and heads home from his journey where he finds his grandmother. It is only then that he discovers the answer to his hard asked question. Written as a fable but reads like meditation, What is Love? by Mac Barnett is a gentle and rhythmic tale that is clever and insightful. Made for a read-aloud experience, the beautifully illustrated picture book (by Carson Ellis) will raise questions and spark conversations. The tale becomes personal, and the lesson could be interpreted in multiple ways. 

THOUGHTS: Written as a fable, this picture book is a great story filled with figurative language and metaphors. Definitely a book for upper elementary or even middle school readers, understanding the text is a journey and would most likely spark many interpretations and heavy conversations. Or maybe, the lesson in this tale is quite simple. 

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD