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

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 – Faith: Greater Heights

Murphy, Julie. Faith: Greater Heights. ‎ Balzer and Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-89968-2. 352 p. $18.99. Grades 8-12. 

Ever a fan of anything Julie Murphy writes, diving into a magical realism book gives pause to some readers. The authentic writing style is descriptive enough to make the reader feel like they’re flying. This  is part two of Faith’s story, and she is fully aware of her superpowers but still not super sure how to deal with her grandmother’s dementia or how to cope with exes. Murphy’s world building and origin story preparation make it pretty clear that we can expect more to come on Faith’s story, with action plugged into scenes when Faith isn’t just trying to figure out normal life.

THOUGHTS: For Julie Murphy fans in general, this book should make its way onto high school shelves as long as book one is already there. While you’re at it, you can make sure you have a few of her other series as well. Murphy has a knack for writing in an inclusive way that feels like how it should’ve always been (spoiler: it should’ve been). Her writing is trustworthy and representative. 

Fantasy           Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

MG – The Year I Flew Away

Arnold, Marie. The Year I Flew Away. Versify, 2021. 978-0-358-27275-5. 285 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Marie Arnold establishes herself as a gifted storyteller, weaving realistic setting with a magical tale involving a talking rat, wishes, and witches. Ten-year-old Gabrielle Jean’s Haitian family sends her to live with her uncle and aunt in Flatbush, a busy neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, until they can save enough funds to join her. She looks forward to the American Dream, but it doesn’t take long before it is shattered. Classmates make fun of her accent; she feels strange and left out. Though Carmen, a Mexican-American girl, is anxious to be her friend, Gabrielle still feels incredibly lonely and unmoored from her friends and immediate family in Haiti. These bleak feelings motivate her to make a deal with the witch, Lady Lydia, in Prospect Park. Lady Lydia gives Gabrielle three magic mango slices. Each one represents a wish; each wish granted brings Gabrielle closer to Lady Lydia capturing her essence. With the first mango slice, Gabrielle loses her accent, making her better understood and accepted by the other students. The second mango slice is even more powerful. After eating it, Gabrielle not only erases her memories of Haiti but also entails the added consequence of losing her entire Flatbush family. Seemingly, Gabrielle’s wishes have been fulfilled. Her classmates believe they have known Gabrielle forever and believe she was born in America, but, of course, she cannot be happy without her aunt, uncle, the toddler twins, and teen-age cousin. It troubles her that she can no longer communicate in Haitian Creole. Rocky, a rat Gabrielle encounters on the street, nicely translates for her and helps Gabrielle problem solve how she will outwit Lady Lydia (though Rocky has its own unfulfilled wish to be a rabbit). As the school looks forward to Culture Day, Gabrielle tries to resist the last mango and still save her family. She knows she needs the help of a good witch to counteract this bad witch who desires a homogenous Brooklyn where perfection is everyone is the same. Arnold whips up a twenty-first century fairy tale to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion that blends American patriotism, pride in and acceptance of differences, and appreciation of one’s heritage.

THOUGHTS: If Kate DiCamillo is an author who demonstrates the beauty of language, then Marie Arnold is an author who demonstrates the beauty of storytelling. Accessible, genuine, and creative, Ms. Arnold weaves an unusual tale (sometimes I had to stretch my believability especially when Gabrielle cozies up to vermin who wishes to be a rabbit) that builds to a crescendo of patriotism, pride in one’s culture and heritage. Realistically, most sixth grade students may not have the ability to wax eloquently about their backgrounds, yet Arnold has Gabrielle come to the realization that a person can be an immigrant loyal to the country of one’s birth and equally be an American, loyal to a new country. An added bonus is the character of Mrs. Bartell, the solicitous school librarian who happens to be Haitian-American and helps Gabrielle every step of the way.

Fantasy          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
Magic Realism

Elem./MG – A Glasshouse of Stars

Marr, Shirley. A Glasshouse of Stars. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-48883-0. 246 p.  $17.99. Grades 4-6.

Meixing has just arrived in a New Land to live in a New House with her parents. She and her mother and father have traveled from the Old Land to live with First Uncle, but he passed away only weeks before their arrival and now they are adrift in a strange place, not quite speaking the right language and not quite understanding the right customs. When tragedy strikes Meixing’s family, she retreats into the backyard of her new home and discovers a magical world hidden away in a broken down greenhouse where the ghost of First Uncle helps her discover her inner strength. Meixing displays incredible courage in the face of xenophobia in her new school as she tries to learn her place in this New Land, but new friends and an understanding new teacher also help her overcome her family’s difficulties as they begin to build a life in the New Land.

THOUGHTS: This story offers a unique glimpse into the struggles of immigrant children who deal with poverty, discrimination, and cultural miscommunication. The magical realism in this book provides Meixing with a symbolic escape from her troubles and a way to process her feelings with the help of her family, and adds a beautiful, lyrical layer to the storytelling. This story would be an excellent addition to studies about the immigrant experience, and should be added to collections with a focus on immigrant experiences and diverse voices.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – The Memory Thief

Anderson, Jodi Lynn. The Memory Thief. Thirteen Witches Book 1. Aladdin, 2021. 978-1-481-48021-5. 325 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Rosie finds great comfort in writing fantasy stories with happy endings, to compensate for her less-than-perfect life with a mother who cannot remember she has a daughter. But when Rosie’s best friend, Gemma, suggests the girls are getting too old for stories, Rosie, shocked and hurt, burns her writings. Later that night, the ghosts come. When a young boy ghost realizes Rosie and Gemma can see them, he takes it up himself to educate Rosie of her family’s heritage. Armed with The Witch-Hunter’s Guide to the Universe, Rosie learns of the existence of 13 witches, who steal the good from inside of people. Her mother, the last known witch hunter, was cursed by the Memory Thief. Now that Rosie has triggered her own sight, the witches will be aware of her existence and will come for her. Anderson, author of the ethereal Midnight at the Electric, creates an equally luminous fantasy for middle grade readers. The main characters are fully nuanced, and the evolution of friendship is a major theme in the story. The layering of the magical world over the ordinary world is an element sure to pull in readers, as they cheer for Rosie and Gemma to succeed in holding off the darkness. This is the first book of the series, and the ending will leave readers eagerly awaiting the next volume. The main characters are presumed white.

THOUGHTS: This is a top-notch fantasy with three dimensional characters to whom readers can relate. There should be a wide audience for the book, beyond fantasy readers.

Fantasy (Magical Realism)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD