YA – Once There Was

Monsef, Kiyash. Once There Was. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2023. 978-0-665-92850-2. 406 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Marjun is a sophomore in high school when her father suddenly dies. She also lost her mother to cancer when she was only eight years old. She finds herself now in charge of running her father’s veterinary business when a stranger approaches her with a seemingly impossible task. She is whisked away to help a sick animal, but this is not your average family pet – it is a magical creature! Marjun soon discovers secrets that her father has kept from her, and she now finds herself immersed in a magical world where she holds more power than she could ever imagine. At first, she believes she is helping these creatures, but she soon discovers that there are sinister motives of those in this new world where magical creatures are bought and sold. Marjun tries to make things right, but she discovers this is not something that she can do alone.  

THOUGHTS: This magical realism book is for serious readers of fantasy. It is not a light read, and there are some sad events. I am confident true lovers of magical creatures will love this story.

Fantasy

MG – The Storyteller

Hobson, Brandon. The Storyteller. Scholastic, 2023. 978-1-338-79726-8 224 p. $17.99. Grades 4-6. 

Sixth-grader Ziggy Echota is diagnosed with anxiety, likely stemming from his Cherokee mother’s disappearance ten years ago when Ziggy was just a baby. Despite efforts to locate his mother, his family has no leads, and Ziggy’s pretty sure his dad gave up hope when the police did. Ziggy’s grandmother and older sister Moon have shared with him stories of the Nunnehi, wise storytelling spirits who protect Cherokees. Ziggy asks an acquaintance Alice for help in searching the desert for Nunnehi caves, in hopes of finding answers to his mother’s disappearance. Soon Ziggy, Alice, and Moon have begun their nighttime journey, and their encounters range from a coyote and a buzzard to a Shakespearean actor and a fortune teller. In each chapter they meet a different spirit, with Ziggy learning something from each of their encounters, which he logs diligently in each chapter. By the end, he doesn’t have clear answers, but he has worked through some of his grief and finds he has community and strength to go on.

Realistic Fiction
Fantasy (Magical Realism)

THOUGHTS: This story is a helpful way to showcase realistic Cherokee beliefs–and realistic disappearances of Native American women.

MG – The Lost Library

Stead, Rebecca, and Wendy Mass. The Lost Library. Macmillan, 2023. 978-1-250-83881-0. 224 p. $18.99. Grades 4-7.

This well-narrated audiobook centers on Evan, an inquisitive boy who loves to read, as he approaches fifth-grade graduation. He lives in the sleepy town of Martinville, which lacks a library since the fire that burned down the old one twenty-five years ago. Two authors penned this delightful tale, ideal for any bibliophile to peruse. Multiple narrators flesh out the story: Mortimer the gold striped cat; AL, the assistant librarian who lives with the other library ghosts; and Evan. The town has just started a Little Library, and Evan nabbed some of the books from the box–all of them due the same day as the fire. As he gets deeper into one of his selections, How to Write a Mystery, checked out by M.C. Higgins, he tries to figure out who started the fire back in the 1980’s. He wonders if his father’s reticence and lack of communication has anything to do with the tragedy. With his best friend Rafe at his side, Evan follows the possible clues. In alternating chapters, AL reflects on her past, coming from the orphanage to serve as a fledgling librarian under the firm but kind head librarian, Ms. Skoggins, and conducting the book club for the local school children. The wise and attentive Mortimer, dear cat, provides the feline perspective on what it surveys: both the routine at History House where the ghosts reside and the movements of Evan as he puts together the puzzle pieces that point to his own dad. This book is a cozy homage to books, readers, libraries, and librarians.

THOUGHTS: A great read aloud. I hope this book can work its magic to entice listeners that libraries, books, and librarians are important. These two authors are some of the best, and this book will not disappoint. Pair it with the fine picture book about the beginnings of the Little Library or, if there are no Little Libraries in your neck of the woods, start a project to place them around town. If that isn’t possible, connect this book with a book drive for shelters. I just found out about a church food pantry that offers a book room for families. Or build a list of books where animals are key characters. At the very least, reading this book students will learn what a pseudonym is.

Fantasy (Magical Realism)

MG – Mixed Up

Korman, Gordon. Mixed Up. Scholastic Press, 2023. 978-1-338-82672-2. 256 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

Reef Moody has a lot to deal with. Not only is he still grieving the death of his mother, but he is also adjusting to a new house and a new family. Jen, his mother’s best friend, took him in after his mom’s death since he had nowhere else to go. Unfortunately, Jen’s son Declan is making his life a living nightmare. On top of that, Reef has been forgetting important memories of his mother which is particularly devastating. In their place are different memories, memories he doesn’t remember making. Across town, Theo Metzinger is having the same problem. His memory has been failing him lately. Theo cannot remember how to take care of the plants in his beloved garden. Some days, he has trouble finding his way home from school. Instead of his own memories, Theo keeps seeing memories of someone’s mother in a hospital bed. Reef and Theo meet each other one day after Reef sees the cupola of Theo’s school on TV. Reef has never been to that school, but he recognizes the cupola from his memories. They quickly realize they have been swapping memories with each other. The boys discover they were born on the same day at the same hospital, and that could be the key to why this phenomena is happening to them. Together they embark on a scientific adventure to regain their memories and stop the swap.

THOUGHTS: This is the first book I’ve read where a main character is grieving the loss of a parent to COVID-19, making it timely and relatable as many students are still reeling from the pandemic. The characters are likable and realistic; readers will be rooting for them. Like many of Korman’s books, the chapters are told in alternating points of view between Reef and Theo. This is a must-buy for middle grade libraries.

Fantasy

MG – The Edge of In Between

Savaryn, Lorelei. The Edge of In Between. Viking Books for Young Readers, 2022. ISBN 9780593202098. 304 p. $17.99 Grades 4-8.

Lottie enjoys an idyllic life with her parents in a city where almost everyone she knows has magical abilities. The Living Gray somehow exist without magic, but Lottie is sure that she will never suffer that depressing and magic-less fate. Then Lottie experiences a tremendous tragedy, and her magic slips away, leaving her feeling lost and hopeless. When Lottie’s uncle offers her a chance to live in the In Between and regain her magic and her family, she jumps at the chance, but the magic she is searching for seems permanently out of reach. Eventually, Lottie befriends a family who lives and works on her uncle’s estate and discovers that she can learn to coexist with loss, not as one of the Living Gray, but as a vivid character in a rich and rewarding life of her own.

THOUGHTS: Reminiscent of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, this book strikes all the right notes of tragic orphan storytelling and dreamy magical realism. Discussions about life, grief, letting go of lost family, and moving forward with joy are all part of this haunting story. The way Lottie and her new friends intertwine and support each other leaves the reader with a satisfyingly hopeful ending.

Fantasy Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – The Ghosts of Rose Hill

Romaro, R.M. The Ghosts of Rose Hill. Peachtree Teen, 2022. 978-1-682-63338-0. $18.99. 384 p. Grades 9-12.

“Maybe sixteen is a curse, a time when everyone is stuck between being a child and being something else.” Ilana is 16, and more than anything else, she wants to be a musician. Her parents, both refugees, want Ilana to pick a different career path, one that offers her more stability in her future. When she travels from her hometown of Miami to Prague to spend the summer with her aunt, she discovers an overgrown Jewish cemetery. As a member of the Jewish faith, she feels the need to uncover the forgotten headstones, and while she spends time clearing the cemetery, she meets a ghost named Benjamin and a mysterious man named Rudolph Wasserman. As she befriends Benjamin, Wasserman encourages her to play her music and follow her heart. As Ilana discovers the truth about Benjamin and his connection to the city, Wasserman offers her a place within his house where she can play music and live forever. Although the offer sounds like a dream, Benjamin reveals it’s really a nightmare, and Ilana must find a way to save him and the other children bound to Wasserman and his magic, even if it means risking everything.

THOUGHTS: The Ghosts of Rose Hill is written in prose and incorporates both Jewish and Prague history into this unique ghost story. In many ways, this story reminded me of Coraline. Rudolph Wasserman lures children into his home with promises of a perfect life away from their families before stealing and hiding their souls.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – A Far Wilder Magic

Saft, Allison. A Far Wilder Magic. Wednesday Books, 2022. 978-1250623652. $18.99. 384 p. Grades 9-12.

Margaret Welty spends most of her time living alone with her dog, Trouble. Her mother, a famous alchemist, spends most of her time traveling, away from home. Weston Winters is desperate to become an official alchemist, and when he arrives at the Welty house looking for the famous alchemist to become her apprentice, Margaret strikes a deal with him: she will allow him to stay until her mother returns if he agrees to join her in the annual hunt to kill the legendary Hala, a mythical and deadly fox that stalks the town until the hunt begins. Margaret knows she has a great shot, but she needs an alchemist as a part of her team in order to enter the competition. These two strangers soon find that they are drawn to each other and have more in common than they know. As the competition looms closer, so does danger, and together they must learn to trust each other in order to survive.

THOUGHTS: This unique, stand alone fantasy takes place in a made up world influenced by the culture and lifestyle of the 1920s. Although fantastical, the story also tackles more serious and relatable issues like prejudice and racism. Readers will be drawn into Saft’s world and the slow romance that builds between Margaret and Weston and the connection they have as outcasts in their communities.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

MG – Moonflower

Calendar, Kacen. Moonflower. Scholastic Press, 2022.  978-1-338-63659-8. 272 p. $17.99. Grades 3-7.

The dreamy scenes and atmospheric tone of this novel contrast sharply with the depression and anxiety that plague the main character, a child named Moon. Moon has trouble sleeping, speaking, and attending school with other kids, and instead they choose to get lost in a world of magical realism where they feel more “real” than they do in real life. Their mother is clearly distraught and although she tries to help, Moon’s mental health is not something she can cope with well on her own. Eventually, Moon’s therapist and a cast of metaphorical guides they find on their journeys to the spirit realm help them realize that all people are worthy of love, and that life is full of pain, but also of great beauty and joy.

THOUGHTS: Moon’s struggles throughout this book are highlighted by vivid descriptions of depression and suicidal thoughts that might be triggering for some people. Despite the pain that Moon endures, and the sometimes didactic internal dialogue we hear from them during their various encounters with antagonists, teachers and friends, the story ends on a tremendously hopeful note that centers around the idea that everyone deserves love.

Fantasy          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – The Lost Ryu

Cohen, Emi Watanabe. The Lost Ryu. Levine Querido, 2022. 978-1-646-14132-6. 200 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

This book explores an alternate history full of magical realism where dragons or “ryu” are real; some big ryu even helped Japan fight in WWII, but now most big dragons have disappeared. Even though they both care for small family dragons as pets and companions, Kohei and his new friend Isolde want to try to find a “big” dragon and bring back the majestic creatures who were lost after the war. Kohei is also trying to discover more about the father who passed away when he was three and reconnect with his mother and grandfather, who both seem stuck in the past. Will Kohei and Isodle ever discover where the big ryu have gone, and will that discovery help to heal all the terrible scars the war has left on the world?

THOUGHTS: Students who like historical fiction and fantasy will like this imaginative take on friendship, family, and Japanese dragon mythology. Kohei is Japanese, Isolde is Japanese-Jewish, and the story uses their mutual love of dragons to help them deal with the complicated history of Japan, World War II, and the Holocaust. The relationships in this book also show the struggles of children who cope with the trauma suffered by their parents and contain hopeful messages about learning how to move forward after tragedies have happened within a family.

Historical Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Freddie vs. the Family Curse

Badua, Tracy. Freddie vs. the Family Curse. Clarion, 2022. 978-0-358-61289-6. $16.99. 256 p. Grades 5-8.

Freddie Ruiz–AKA “Faceplant Freddie”–is plagued by the family curse in Freddie vs. the Family Curse. Unlike his talented, popular cousin next door, Sharlene (Sharkey) Mendoza, Freddie cannot bust a move on the Wylde Beast breakdance team, make friends with the other Robo-Warrior card players, or join any sports team because he risks injury or humiliation. His academic career is not filled with high grades and trophies but a collection of embarrassing moments and pratfalls. Just when it seems his luck cannot get much worse, he discovers an amulet while searching for glue to complete a last-minute school project on family trees. Great grandmother, Apong Rosing, calls the coin on a leather strap/cord an anting- anting and explains in a strange mix of spirituality and Filipino superstition that its magic can be unleashed through a priest and recognizes the coin as the one worn by Domingo Agustin (Ingo), her deceased older brother’s best friend. During Mass at Holy Redeemer Academy, the amulet becomes activated. Great Grand Uncle Ramon materializes, visual only to Freddie, Sharkey, and Apong Rosing.When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, seventeen-year-old Uncle Ramon went off to fight in World War II and died from an infected cut on the Bataan Death March. Through the warm and often humorous relationship Freddie develops with his newly found uncle, the seventh grader discovers the source of the curse was Uncle Ramon’s transgression, and the only way to banish the curse and keep Freddie alive is to return the amulet to its rightful owner–within a 13- day timeline! When Sharkey becomes collateral damage for the Ruiz curse, Freddy’s best solution to deliver the amulet is to master his dance moves and fill in at the breakdance championship in Las Vegas. In his chase against time, Uncle Ramon helps Freddie realize he has the talent and cleverness to make his own luck.

THOUGHTS: Author Tracy Badua involves some Filipino history in a heartfelt story of an underdog struggle to believe in himself. Story includes information about the Rescission Act, the unkept promise the U.S. government made to the Filipino soldiers to make monetary recompense. As Freddie works out how to break the curse, the reader finds a close knit Filipino-American family with their customs and folklore. The relationship between Freddie and his great grandmother and uncle forms an opportunity for an intergenerational perspective. In the beginning of the story, the author seems to include many descriptive details as though she were remembering her own family: grandmother wears a purple shawl when she goes for her dialysis, Freddie’s family observes the Filipino custom of not sweeping the floor at night for fear of “sweeping out the fortune.” Lead students who like this book to Erin Estrada Kelly’s Lalani of the Distant Seas for their next choice.

Fantasy (Magic Realism)          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia