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

YA – Instructions for Dancing

Yoon, Nicola. Instructions for Dancing. Delacorte Press, 2021. 978-0-593-43494-9. 285 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.

Ever since her parents split up, Yvette (“Evie”) hasn’t found romance novels quite as magical anymore. She sees through the happily ever after to the true equation of every love story: “Heartbreak = love + time.” While donating a stack of previously beloved books to a Little Free Library near her L.A. apartment building, Evie finds a book called Instructions for Dancing. Returning home with the book, she sees her younger sister Danica and her boyfriend kissing on the stoop and has a vision of the couple’s love story, including how it began and how it will end. Later that night, Evie realizes that her premonition of Danica’s break-up came true, and it’s the first of many such visions. Pinning her new ability to the secondhand book in her backpack, Evie follows its instructions to return it to a dancing school in La Brea. There, she meets (charming, attractive, talented, and tall) Xavier, or X, whose grandparents own the studio. With a little nudge, in hopes of boosting business, the pair enter the L.A. Danceball competition, Amateur Under 21 category. Genuine feelings develop as Evie and X master elements of ballroom including footwork, artistry, showmanship, and chemistry. But can Evie truly open her heart to love when she knows that it will inevitably end?

THOUGHTS: Nicola Yoon’s latest promises (and skillfully delivers) romance, ballroom dancing, a hint of magic, and one girl’s quest to answer that age-old question: is love worth the risk?

Romance          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – Almost There and Almost Not

Urban, Linda. Almost There and Almost Not. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-47880-0. 211 p. $17.99. Grades 5-7.

Eleven year old California Poppy doesn’t know if she is coming or going. Her widowed father is heading to Alaska for a salmon fishing job and takes her to Minnesota to stay with Aunt Isabelle, who should know more about taking care of a “bra needing” child than he does. It turns out that Aunt Isabelle is not really the nurturing type and is too busy working on a meatloaf recipe for the Great Meatloaf Bake Off. So California finds herself traveling to Michigan to live with Great Aunt Monica. Her great aunt, still grieving for her late husband, broke her hand and needs help with her research on Eleanor Fontaine, an author of etiquette books from the 1920s. Aunt Monica wants to complete her husband’s planned biography of his author-ancestor and asks California to read Fontaine’s Proper Letters for Ladies and to practice writing letters to become familiar with the author. Callie soon realizes that there are two ghosts in the house: a dog who enjoys playing with her and a refined lady named Eleanor, who dissolves into a pile of dust when she gets upset. Aunt Monica is not aware of these guests, so her niece takes care when talking to them. Eleanor begins to share her story with the young girl, who notices that the ghost seems to be getting younger each time she appears.  California soon learns the truth about her father’s whereabouts and Eleanor’s secret. Just as Callie feels she has come to terms with her father’s absence, her struggles in school and having periods, she overhears a conversation that changes her life forever.

THOUGHTS: Urban has written a very engaging story about loss, grief, and resilience. Although the text is not lengthy, a lot happens and one cannot help but root for the likeable main character who narrates the story. Readers will enjoy California’s letters to Aunt Isabelle, her father, and the Playtex Company. This sensitive but humorous tale is a solid choice for upper elementary and middle school collections.

Fantasy          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

When California Poppy is 11 years old, she is dropped off at her Aunt Monica’s house while her father claims to look for work in Alaska. During her stay, she plays with the ghostly dog and talks to the ghostly woman who haunts her aunt’s home, a woman who turns out to be California’s Great-Aunt Eleanor. Eleanor teaches California about all the etiquette she thinks a proper lady should know, and California begins to unearth details about Eleanor’s past, which is not as simple as the old woman wants it to seem. As a relationship between the girl and the ghost develops, California also grows closer to her Aunt Monica by helping with research for Eleanor’s biography. Eventually, these relationships help California to confront the reality of her father’s abandonment and allow her to begin to heal in her new, more stable life.

THOUGHTS: This story, told in the first person by California herself, is about the life of two young girls who are trying to figure out who they are in a grown-up world. Magical realism, historical fiction, and a love of family and friends weave together in this book to create the story of a girl who has a lot to learn, but also a lot to offer the world. The ghosts in this book are friendly rather than scary. Kids and teens who are wise beyond their years, and those that deal with family troubles and long for a better, more stable life, will find it easy to relate to California.

Fantasy          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley 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

MG – Jukebox

Chanani, Nidhi. Jukebox. First Second. 2021. 978-1-250-15636-5. 224 p. $21.99. Grades 6-9.

Twelve-year old Shaheen and her father have always been connected through music, but lately his interest in record-collecting borders on obsession. When he doesn’t come home one evening, Shahi and her teenaged cousin Tannaz sneak into his favorite music shop to look for clues. In the attic, they discover a rare jukebox that plays whole records … and transports the listener to the album’s time period, for just as long as the side plays. A Bessie Smith record sends the girls to the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago. A Nina Simone album takes Tannaz on a solo trip to a women’s march in 1960s D.C. Shahi realizes that her dad may be trapped in another era, unable to return home. But traveling back and forth in their quest to find him has serious consequences, and the girls know they are running out of time to bring everyone home safely. The girls’ slight age difference provides an interesting dynamic, incorporating their unique strengths and insecurities. The author’s depiction of each era’s color palette and fashions are especially engaging. The abundant music references and iconic album covers are complemented by a Playlist at the book’s close, perfect inspiration for budding music lovers!

THOUGHTS: Nidhi Chanani’s Pashmina was well-received, and Jukebox displays even greater depth in portraying both adventure and family relationships.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Chanani, Nidhi. Jukebox. First Second. 2021. 978-1-250-15636-5. 224 p. $21.99. Grades 5-8.

Shaheen and her dad have a special bond through music. Her dad is an avid record collector, who is getting a little too lost in his music of late for Shahi. When her dad goes missing, Shahi and her cousin Naz go looking for her dad, starting at the last place he was seen, the record store. It is here that the cousins find a magical jukebox that transports listeners back to a concert of whatever record is playing. Musicians such as Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and James Brown are featured in these magical concerts. Can Shahi and Naz find her dad and bring him back to the present safely? The end includes a playlist of the music featured in the book and a section that shows an artistic exploration of the character sketches. The process of how the illustrations are colored is also shown.

THOUGHTS: This beautifully illustrated graphic novel is a must read for music lovers! This would be a great addition to any graphic novel section and includes diverse characters throughout the story.

Graphic Novel          Krista Fitzpatrick, Wissahickon Charter School

YA – Miss Meteor

Mejia, Tehlor Kay, and Anna-Marie McLemore. Miss Meteor. Harper Teen, 2020. 978-0-062-86991-3. $17.99. 392 p. Grades 9 and up.

Meteor, New Mexico is a cheesy tourist town known for three things: the regional cornhole tournament, the Miss Meteor Pageant, and, of course, the huge meteor that landed there fifty years ago. Everyone knows that’s why the town is named “Meteor,” but they don’t know Lita landed there with it. Lita lives her human life now in Meteor with Bruja Lupe, her “mom,” who may or may not have come from the same space rock. Being of Mexican descent and the daughter of the town witch does nothing to help Lita in the popularity department. That doesn’t stop her from fantasizing over and pretending to enter and win the Miss Meteor Pageant as a kid, her best friend Chicky playing along as her manager. Things don’t get better for her over the years, though. Chicky ends their friendship abruptly in middle school, and since then it seems as though Lita is turning back into the stardust from which she came; tiny patches of it are visible under her skin. Also of Mexican descent, flannel-and-combat-boot-wearing Chicky has harbored a secret and has had to deal with bullying for most of her life, Miss Meteor pageant legacy Kendra Kendall being her harshest and most frequent bully. When Lita decides to go for her dream of Miss Meteor because she’s running out of time and has nothing to lose, Chicky decides to resume her role as Lita’s manager. Kendra Kendall losing the crown everyone expects her to win to the weirdest girl in town would be fitting, so it’s worth it to Chicky to rekindle her friendship with Lita to make it happen. How long can Chicky continue to keep her secret from her friend though, since that’s why she ended their friendship in the first place? Will Lita even make it to the pageant, or will she turn to stardust before it even starts? Find out in this beautifully written poignant story of friendship and self-love.

THOUGHTS: Miss Meteor is adorable and imaginative, and Tehlor Kay Mejia is quickly becoming a must-read YA author for me, personally. This book is co-written with Anna-Marie McLemore, and each author writes one of the main characters’ point of view in alternating chapter format. Lita is particularly quirky and innocent (which makes sense, given she’s made of stardust), and I found myself smiling a lot while reading this book… and laughing. And I may have shed a tear or two. While there are several instances of harsh bullying including homophobia and transphobia, this book is heartwarming overall with a cast of extremely lovable and diverse characters. Chicky’s sisters are hilarious, and the girls themselves as well as their friends/love interests are of various sexual orientations including a trans character. Highly recommended addition for all high school collections.

Fantasy (Magical Realism)          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Never Look Back

Rivera, Lilliam. Never Look Back. Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020. 978-1-547-60373-2. 320 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Pheus is a young bachata singer, full of charm, confidence, and street smarts. Eury is an introverted girl who moves to the Bronx after Hurricane Maria rips apart her home in Puerto Rico – literally and figuratively. Eury is reserved and withdrawn around everyone, except her cousin Penelope, whom she has come to live with after her mother decides that she needs a change of scenery to improve her mental health. Unfortunately, Eury cannot tell anyone, not even Penelope, about what really haunts her – a spirit named Ato who seems like a friend at first but quickly turns into a sinister force. Eury believes he is the reason for the hurricane and is certain he has followed her to the Bronx. Of course, everyone thinks Ato is a creation of her mind, a figment created by the trauma she experienced from the hurricane. But with Pheus, Eury believes she has found a soulmate, someone she can completely confide in and trust. He can see Ato even when others in Eury’s life do not believe he really exists. Ato does not take kindly to Pheus moving in on his territory and does everything in his power to ruin their love. But Pheus is determined to destroy Eury’s demons and prove to her that he will go anywhere – even the Underworld – to fight for her life and her love. Told in alternating chapters between Pheus and Eury’s points of view, this novel combines Afro-Latinx characters and culture with Greek mythology to create a modern day tale of  “Orpheus and Eurydice.”

THOUGHTS: This modern retelling of  the Greek classic is an interesting twist on mythology. Many secondary ELA teachers teach Greek Mythology as part of the curriculum; this book is an exceptional text to pair with this unit. Themes and topics in the story are timely, and students will appreciate the diversity and realness of the characters.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG – When You Trap a Tiger

Keller, Tae. When You Trap a Tiger. Random House Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-524-71570-0. 287 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Lily, known as Lily Bean to her mom, and Eggi in her Halmoni’s stories, and her family suddenly pack up and move to Washington one rain soaked evening. They are moving in with her Halmoni, a storyteller, and the story she shares with Lily from many years ago is about how she stole the stars from the sky and bottled up the bad stories which angered a tiger. Lily is intrigued by her story, and when a tiger suddenly appears in the middle of the road one rainy night, Lily is convinced everything is real. But time is of the essence, as Halmoni is showing signs of illness – could it be a consequence of her stealing the stars? With the help of Ricky, a boy Lily meets at the library across the street, the two devise a “hypothetical” tiger trap. Little did Lily know that the Tiger would make her an offer that can help her Halmoni, but with consequences. Lily wants answers and to find a way to help her Halmoni before it’s too late. But can a QAG, short for quiet Asian girl, really find the truth? Can she rescue her family before it’s too late?

THOUGHTS: Readers will not be disappointed with the characters in this book – they are full of heart, determination, love, and curiosity, even if one of them is a tiger. This title is perfect to add to your collection of diverse books, as it shows the struggle of an Asian family and how their history and heritage affect their lives today. I truly enjoyed reading this story and believe it is the perfect story to capture how storytelling and reading books can truly be art.

Fantasy          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Change is happening in Lily’s life. With little notice, her mother has uprooted her daughters from their California home to their halmoni’s (grandmother’s) home in Sunbeam, Washington. Lily does her best to be the invisible, accommodating, “QAG” (quiet Asian girl) while her older sister, Sam, finds every reason to voice her displeasure to their mother and often rebukes Lily. Lily both chafes under and finds comfort in her invisibility. Lily’s many worries worsen when she (and only she) sees a tiger in the road as they approach their halmoni’s home. Her grandmother has shared countless Korean folktales with Lily and Sam, often with a dangerous tiger involved. When Lily discovers that her grandmother is ill and facing death, she’s determined to convince the tiger to use its magic to cure her grandmother, despite admonitions from her mother and sister that dissuade her from believing the “silly” stories have any power in their lives. The library across the street provides hope and friendship for Lily, who teams up with Ricky to build a tiger trap in her grandmother’s basement. Can she convince the tiger to help, and can she convince her family that the stories are real and useful?  Will the stories save her grandmother and her family?

THOUGHTS: This is a tale of a young girl growing up and deciding who she will be, while she comes to terms with death. The targeted age level seems to increase through the story as Lily matures, and this may not quite work for readers. The grief, anger at moving, and the sister difficulties between Lily and Sam smooth a bit too perfectly by the story’s end. I found myself wishing for more scenes with the interesting, enigmatic tiger.

Magical Realism          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Korean Folktales