YA – Almost American Girl

Ha, Robin. Almost American Girl. Balzar and Bray, 2020. 978-0-062-68509-4. 228 p. $12.99. Grades 7 – 12.

Almost American Girl is a graphic memoir that follows the author’s real life journey from Seoul, South Korea to America when she is fourteen years old. At the beginning of the book, you learn that Robin is moving with her mother to Alabama, with Robins’ mother not really telling her all the details about the move. Throughout the graphic memoir, you learn more about Robin’s life when she was living in Seoul, her family and friends who still live in Seoul, as well as how she found a way to fit into this new life that her mother basically dropped her into. On the surface, the book feels like it’s just recounting Robin’s life; however, there are moments of racial slurs that Robin deals with at school which were difficult to read about. The illustrations throughout are beautifully done and add the right touch of emotions to the different scenes through the use of color.

THOUGHTS: This graphic memoir is a must have book for any high school library. The themes that are woven throughout are extremely relevant for a wide audience. I loved the ending of this book, and the glossary found at the end was extremely helpful for terms with which I was unfamiliar.

Graphic Memoir          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Charter Academy 

MG – When Stars are Scattered

Jamieson, Victoria, and Omar Mohamed. When Stars are Scattered. Dial, 2020. 978-0-525-55391-5. 257 p. + notes. $20.99. Grades 3-8.

Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have been living in a Kenyan refugee camp since fleeing Somalia at the age of 4. Omar’s life consists of taking care of Hassan, with the assistance of Fatuma, an elderly woman who has been appointed the boys’ guardian. UN supplied food rations are meager and entertainment is what can be manufactured, such as playing soccer with a ball created from plastic bags. Omar has not gone to school, feeling responsible for Hassan. But a camp community leader encourages Omar to begin attending school, and a new world  opens to Omar. But it can be a painful world, of crushed dreams and disappointments. Brilliant student Maryam who dreams of going to university in Canada, is forced to quit school and get married. The system of choosing people for possible relocation to the United States seems random, and when Omar and Hassan are finally chosen for an emigration interview, nothing comes of it. But Omar continues to study and dream. When Omar is 18 the brothers are finally selected for resettlement. This stunning autobiography portrays, in beautiful color palettes, the reality of life in a refugee camp. Living conditions are horrific, but there are also close bonds of people who care for and support each other. Omar’s horrific backstory is revealed during his first resettlement interview, explaining how he and Hassan came to be in the  camp alone at such a young age. Author notes at the end of the story update the reader on the brothers’ story after reaching the United States, including the delightful surprise that Omar is currently living in Lancaster, PA.

THOUGHTS: This important story is a must purchase for most libraries. It carries the gravitas of Jarrett Krosocka’s Hey Kiddo, but appropriate for a younger audience.

Autobiography          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

As Omar so succinctly states in the word bubble on the back cover: “Refugee Camps are supposed to be a temporary place to stay until it’s safe to go back home. I guess no one expected the war to last so long, though, because Hassan and I have been here for 7 years.” With gorgeous colors and interesting characters, Jamieson and Mohamed take us through childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya. The monotony of daily essential routines for survival are mixed with increasing odds against finding their mother or going back home to Somalia. What remains is the effort to take care of one another, the opportunity to get schooling and seek a future, and the slightest chance to immigrate to another country for a new beginning. All of these seem unlikely for Omar, who faces tragic memories, current realities, and future possibilities with truth and sincerity that will bring young readers into his world and into their hearts. When the Stars Are Scattered is a remarkable light in the night sky which guides hope home.

THOUGHTS: Both Pennsylvania residents do an excellent job bringing the refugee experience to children. The sibling relationship with Hassan, who is nonverbal except for one word, is truly touching and real. The afterword and authors’ notes bring the story up to date, and help realize the many other refugee stories that need to be heard. Highly recommended.

Graphic Novel          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

This beautifully drawn graphic novel tells the story of Omar Mohamed, a young Somalian boy who was forced out of his country and into a refugee camp in Kenya with his young brother at the age of 4.  Omar’s younger brother, Hassan, is special needs and only says one word, Hooyo, the Somalian word for Mama. Omar and Hassan saw their father killed and were separated from their mother as the Civil War in Somalia started. With the kindness of a new foster mother, Omar and Hassan survive and grow up in the Dadaab refugee camp. Omar’s life changes when he starts school and excels, earning the right to continue to attend school as he grows up. Omar and Hassan never give up looking for their real mother, and in the Afterword we see real photos of Omar and Hassan, and learn that, years later, they are reunited with her.

THOUGHTS: A must purchase for any middle grade library collection.

Graphic Novel          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

YA – Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In

Tran, Phuc. Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In. Flatiron Books. 2020. 978-1-250-19471-8. 306 pp. $27.99. Gr. 11+.

In 1975, during the fall of Saigon, Vietnam, Phuc Tran’s family immigrated to the United States with a two-year old Phuc in tow. They landed in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where they struggled to assimilate into small town life. Sigh, Gone explores Phuc’s childhood and teenage years. Against the indelible backdrop of the 1980s, he finds comfort and connection in punk rock music, the wisdom of classic books, skateboarding with his friends, and indulging in some minor hooliganism. This memoir describes his journey of self-discovery as well as many experiences of isolation, racism, and even abuse. Although firmly rooted in time and place, Phuc’s quest to develop his own identity (and avoid the timeless pitfall of being a poser) will resonate with today’s teen readers. “I contemplated what exactly was authentic for me, a Vietnamese teenager in small-town PA,” Tran writes. “What part of me was the real me and what was the façade?”

THOUGHTS: Sigh, Gone is an uncommonly good memoir: moving, universal, and profound. Readers will laugh out loud in every chapter, look up Phuc’s many music (and hopefully literature) references online, and also look up a higher-than-average number of new words in the dictionary.

Memoir (Crossover)          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – All Boys Aren’t Blue

Johnson, George M. All Boys Aren’t Blue. Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-0-374-31271-8. 320 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

George Matthew Johnson’s first memory is having his teeth kicked out by a white boy, seemingly for no reason other than his race. His first identity crisis happens in elementary school when he learns that his first name was actually George, not Matthew. From that point on, the author struggles with his identity and how he fits into a world that did not accept Black people or queer people and definitely not a young boy who was both. Johnson realizes at a young age that boys are supposed to be masculine, which means being tough, playing football, and conforming to these ideas without question. But he prefers to jump Double Dutch with the girls and wear cowboy boots to Disneyland. For his own mental and physical survival, he learns to code-switch in elementary school – he can impress the boys with his athletic ability when necessary but also gossip with the girls. While Johnson has a fantastic support system in his family, he knows that not all Black queer teens do – and so he wrote this book to serve as guidance. Each chapter is entwined with the lessons Johnson learned along the way in the hopes that Black queer teens will not have to figure them out the hard way.

THOUGHTS: This memoir manifesto is incredibly timely in light of current events. Johnson’s experiences in his life have made him extremely insightful about society, and his insights should (and do) make the reader think about what behaviors are expected of boys practically from birth. This memoir is a critically essential book to have in a high school library as it can provide two things: a window in which to see how those who are different struggle to find acceptance and a mirror for teenagers who are struggling under the weight of the labels society forces upon them.

306.76 Memoir          Danielle Corrao, Ephrata Area SD

MG – Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey

Newman, Magdalena, and Nathaniel Newman. Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-1-328-63183-1. 327 p. $16.99. Grades 7-8.

Nathaniel has always felt normal despite living with Treacher Collins syndrome (TC), a condition diagnosed at birth which causes bones in his face to grow and others not to grow, causing breathing and hearing difficulties. Nathaniel and Magda, Nathaniel’s mother, recount the story of his life from infancy to his teenage years. Throughout his life, Nathaniel had over sixty procedures to correct craniofacial differences caused by TC. Despite the challenges, Magda and her family were determined to give Nathaniel a normal childhood, full of video games, pets, bike riding, and sibling rivalries. When he turned 11, Nathaniel chose to have his largest procedure yet which would eventually allow him to reach a lifetime goal, to swim submerged in water for the first time. Each chapter begins with a black and white cartoon which entices readers to finish the chapter. The story is told from two perspectives, as indicated by different font styles for each narrator, and includes flashbacks to Magda’s life growing up in Poland. Both Nathaniel and Magda teach all children to separate “who someone is from what he looks like.”

THOUGHTS: Readers of R.J Palacio’s Wonder will easily recognize this story and will enjoy learning how the book and movie positively affected the lives of “Wonder Kids” around the world. Middle Grade readers interested in digging deeper into Teachers Collins syndrome or those who enjoy reading books about diverse kids, will enjoy Nathaniel’s and Magda’s story.

617.5 Medicine and Health            Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD
Biography

Elem – My Wild Life: Adventures of a Wildlife Photographer

Eszterhas, Suzi. My Wild Life: Adventures of a Wildlife Photographer. Owlkids Books, 2020. 978-1-771-47407-8. 31 p. $17.95. Grades 2-5.

Suzi Eszterhas always knew that she wanted to be a wildlife photographer. All of the hours she spent taking pictures of her cats in the backyard, observing squirrels and birds, and taking notes in her field book were great preparation for fulfilling that dream. Now, in a follow-up to her acclaimed 2017 release Moto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom, Eszterhas shares stories from over twenty years as a professional wildlife photographer. Two-page chapters on topics including “Prepping for Shoots,” “Living in the Field,” “Mothers and Babies,” and “Giving Back to Animals” feature plentiful full-color photographs. Meaningful captions add context and special behind-the-scenes information. In the final chapter, “Ask Suzi,” the author answers questions about the best part of her job, how to become a wildlife photographer, and her most memorable wildlife experiences. She also shouts out her organization, Girls Who Click, which helps girls fulfill their dreams of becoming wildlife photographers themselves. Moto and Me chronicled the year that Eszterhas spent fostering an orphaned serval and his growth from helpless kitten to independent cat. My Wild Life casts a wider net, featuring images of many different species and parts of the world.

THOUGHTS: With an eye toward conservation, Eszterhas presents a candid memoir of her wild life and career, acknowledging the challenges as well as the rewards. Young readers will love her story, and they will love her photographs even more!

770, Wildlife Photography          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – Mañanaland; Nat Enough; Black Brother, Black Brother; On the Horizon

Ryan, Pam Muñoz. Mañanaland. Scholastic Press, 2020. 978-1-338-15786-4.  251 p. $16.53. Grades 3-6.

Maximiliano Córdoba has a lot. He has his hard-working, bridge builder father and his loving Buelo who cooks delicious dinners and tells fantastic stories. He has a best friend, Chuy, and a group of neighborhood boys with whom he plays soccer. He even has a playful dog named Lola. But it is what Max doesn’t have that occupies his thoughts. He doesn’t have the strength that Ortiz has when he throws the fútbol out of the goal, and he doesn’t have a pair of Volantes, which would ensure his success at tryouts. He doesn’t have the freedom to attend a summer clinic in Santa Inés with his friends. And most of all, he does not have a mother. He doesn’t know where she is or why she left, and his Papá will not tell Max anything about her. “When you’re older, I’ll explain more,” is what he hears from his Papá, but he wants answers now, and he may just get them sooner rather than later. The new soccer coach expects all players to have a birth certificate to try out for the team, and Max learns his mother took his documents with her when she left. With Papà out of town in search of Max’s documents, Max finds himself thrust into an adventure of a lifetime. Will the legend his Buelo has been telling him his whole life lead Max to the answers he seeks? And will Papà finally accept that he can be trusted?

THOUGHTS:  Middle school is a time for students to explore their strengths and weaknesses and also to test the boundaries of the freedoms that come with growing up. Many middle schoolers will see themselves in Max and their parents in his Papà. The folklore adds interest to this coming of age story. Pam Muñoz Ryan’s fantasy novel is a self-discovery tale for every upper elementary and middle school library.

Fantasy          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD


Scrivan, Maria. Nat Enough. Graphix, 2020. 978-1-338-53821-2. 235 p. $21.59. Grades 3-6.

Natalie Mariano is not enough. She is not cool enough, not athletic enough, not talented enough. Whatever you need to make you enough for middle school, Natalie doesn’t have it–at all. And to make matters worse, her best friend, Lily, seems to have changed her mind about wanting to be friends with Natalie, so now she is not enough for Lily either.  Add in a disastrous first day of gym class; bully Shawn Dreary, who barks at Natalie every chance he gets; and a Jell-o frog dissection debacle, and Natalie is sure that she will never have what it takes to make it in middle school. But maybe Natalie has it all wrong. Instead of focusing on what she isn’t, maybe Natalie should focus on what she is. With the help of some new friends and some old hobbies, a story contest and some new-found confidence, maybe Natalie will discover that who she is, in fact, is exactly enough.

THOUGHTS: Every middle school student has been in Natalie’s shoes at one point, whether it is a falling out with a friend, that awkward feeling when trying something new, or an embarrassing moment that everyone sees. Her epiphany is gradual, but the progression is logical, and even the bullies have evolved by the end. Maria Scrivan’s debut graphic novel is a perfect fit for upper elementary and middle school libraries.

Graphic Novel    Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD


Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Black Brother, Black Brother. Little, Brown and Company, 2020. 978-0-316-49380-2. 239 p. $14.81. Grades 3-6.

Donte Ellison fit in in New York, in his multiracial neighborhood. He fit in at his old school. He does not fit in in his new white neighborhood, and he certainly does not fit in at his new school, Middlefield Prep. His brother, Trey, fits in, and everyone wants to know why Donte can’t be more like Trey. But Trey has light hair and blue eyes like their father, and Donte has dark hair and brown eyes like their mother, and this makes all the difference at Middlefield Prep, and makes Donte a target of bullies, especially Alan. When Alan throws a pencil at another student, Donte is immediately blamed. Frustration turns to anger, and Donte finds himself in handcuffs in the back of a police car. No one in his school sees him. They only see the color of his skin, and Alan has made sure that Middlefield Prep is a miserable place for Donte to be. A week of suspension gives Donte time to plan his revenge on Alan, but is revenge really what Donte needs? A mentor, some new friends, and an athletic outlet provide Donte with support, purpose, and a goal that goes far beyond Alan and revenge.

THOUGHTS:  Middle grade students, regardless of race, will understand Donte’s anger and frustration with not being seen or heard, but his story will resonate most with BIPOC students. White students will benefit from reading this novel as a window into the experiences of their BIPOC classmates.  A must-read for students and teachers alike.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD


Lowry, Lois. On the Horizon: World War II Reflections. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-12940-0. 75 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Inspired by her own personal memories, Lowry has created a wonderful contemplative work about two major events that occurred during World War II. The text, told mostly in verse, contains a single reflection per page concerning specific incidents or individuals during the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the bombing of Hiroshima. These short remembrances are about some who perished and some who survived. In Hawaii, one of the Anderson twins survives the attack on the Arizona, and his ashes are buried with his brother years later. Frank Cabiness saves his watch that is stopped at 8:15, the time of the attack. The author deftly contrasts this story with Hiroshima. Four year old Shinichi Tetsutani is riding his red tricycle when the bomb falls and is buried with his bicycle. Shinji Mikamo survives the bombing, while his father does not. All he can find in the ruins is his father’s watch that is stopped at 8:15.  It is details like this that make these stories come alive for the reader. The illustrations by Kenard Pak are done in pencil and add to the thoughtful tone. Part of the story is autobiographical. Lowry was born in Honolulu in 1937 and remembers playing on the beach with her grandmother while a giant ship passed by on the horizon. As an adult, she later realized this was the Arizona. As a child, she returned to Japan after the war and while riding her bicycle, sees a young boy that will become a famous author.

THOUGHTS: Lowry’s work is a masterpiece made powerful by the stories of real people who were impacted by these historical events. These poignant tales will linger in the reader’s mind for a long time. This is an essential purchase for all elementary and middle school libraries.

940.54 World War II          Denise Medwick, Retired, West Allegheny SD

MG – Cub; Stepping Stones; From the Desk of Zoe Washington

Copeland, Cynthia L. Cub. Algonquin Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-616-20848-6. 240 p. $12.95. Grades 4-7.

Cynthia Copeland delivers a fantastic middle grade graphic memoir! In the fall of 1972, the halls of Litchfield Junior High have something in common with Wild Kingdom: every kid is either predator or prey. Cindy has perfected the art of playing dead to get the “predators” to lose interest in her. She doesn’t have to play dead in art or English class, though, where she shines. Beloved English teacher Mrs. Schulz recommends Cindy for an internship with a female reporter at the local paper. Attending local events with Leslie, Cindy learns the ropes of recording facts, gathering quotes, and crafting an informative story with an attention-grabbing lede. “To make it into the paper,” Leslie advises her, “a story has to be great: accurate, fair, complete, concise.” The same could be said for a successful memoir! It is a joy to watch Cindy’s confidence blossom as she finds her voice through journalism. Full-color panels with a variety of layouts depict her journey of empowerment in bright, tween-friendly colors with just a tinge of nostalgia. Despite the time period specifics, Cindy’s seventh grade year – spent juggling friend drama, a nice boy who almost looks like John Denver when the lights are dim, and her new job as a “cub” reporter – is one that every preteen girl will relate to.

THOUGHTS: This heartfelt, engaging graphic memoir, complete with lovingly depicted growing pains, is a surefire recommendation for fans of Raina Telgemeier.

Graphic Memoir          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD


Knisley, Lucy. Stepping Stones. Random House Graphic, 2020. 978-1-984-89684-1. 224 p. $12.99. Grades 3-7.

After her parents’ divorce, Jen and her mom relocate to rustic Peapod Farm in upstate New York. Jen misses her dad, her old apartment, and the delicious food in the city. She’s also disillusioned with the farm’s constant chores, nasty geese, and especially her mom’s annoying new boyfriend Walter. Things look up with the discovery of barn kittens and mail-order chicks, but the weekend addition of Walter’s daughters, Andy and Reese, puts a damper on the fun. Andy, an insufferable know-it-all, seems to thrive on one-upping Jen and calling out her weak math skills when the girls work the Peapod table at the local Farmer’s Market. But with a little luck and extra effort, there’s hope for these part-time sisters to find their common ground. Lucy Knisley lovingly depicts Peapod Farm and the market with lush green foliage, colorful flowers, and aqua skies. Jen’s unspoken emotions are conveyed through her body language and flushed cheeks. Many readers will expect more growth (and definitely a much-needed apology or three) from bossy Walter, but they will also identify with Jen’s frustration when she feels unheard, and her perspective that the adults always (however unfairly) get the last word.

THOUGHTS: With Stepping Stones, graphic memoirist extraordinaire Lucy Knisley has created a standout middle grade graphic novel. As mentioned in the Author’s note, Knisley’s own story closely aligns with Jen’s, and we readers can only hope that she has more stories in store for this age group!

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD


Marks, Janae. From the Desk of Zoe Washington. Katherine Tegen Books, 2020. 978-0-062-87585-3. 291 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Zoe has just had the best twelfth birthday party ever, making cupcakes with her besties at a real bakery. She’s now one step closer to fulfilling her dream of competing on the Kids Bake Challenge and becoming a professional pastry chef. She returns home to the surprise of her life: a letter from her father, Curtis, who Zoe has never met in person because he has been incarcerated for her entire life. Zoe is intrigued, but confused; after all, her father is a convicted criminal, guilty of murder. But in his letters, Curtis sounds … Nice. Supportive. Caring. With the assistance of her grandmother (and unbeknownst to her mom and stepdad), Zoe begins exchanging letters with her father. When Curtis claims his innocence, Zoe decides to investigate. With the help of her best friend, Trevor, she begins a quest to find Curtis’s alibi witness. She also awakens to the occasional injustices of our criminal justice system.

THOUGHTS:  In her debut novel, Janae Marks balances the serious with the sweet. Zoe (who is part of an upper-middle class, mixed-race family) is sometimes mature well beyond her twelve years. Still, she is an endearing heroine on a life-changing quest for the truth. Readers with an interest in the criminal justice plotline may want to pick up Just Mercy: Adapted for Young Adults by Bryan Stevenson to learn about the real people whose lives mirror Curtis’s story.

Realistic Fiction          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – 10 Blind Dates; Brave Face; The Institute; Let Me Hear a Rhyme; Lucky Caller

Elston, Ashley. 10 Blind Dates. Hyperion, 2019. 978-1-368-02749-6. 327 p. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

With the Christmas holiday fast approaching, Louisiana senior Sophie finds herself unexpectedly (and unhappily) single after her boyfriend, Griffin, breaks up with her. Her parents are away, tending to Sophie’s very pregnant older sister, so she heads to Shreveport to nurse her broken heart in the company of her grandparents and large, boisterous extended family. Nonna decides to cheer up her granddaughter by organizing family members to set Sophie up on ten blind dates. Each chapter in this delightful rom-com covers a day and a date; they range from sweet (a Festival of Lights) to embarrassing (a Nativity scene with Sophie and her date in the roles of Mary and Joseph) to very public (a Kiss Cam!) as Sophie navigates ten days and ten dudes. In the meantime, Sophie’s sister delivers her baby prematurely, Griffin wants her back, and Sophie realizes that the one date she really wants is the one she will never have … or will she? With plenty of holiday cheer and a loving, eccentric family that always provides a soft place to fall, this ultra-fresh romance will look perfect under the tree!

THOUGHTS: I fell head over heels for Ashley Elston’s remarkable (and under-rated) The Lying Woods, and I highly recommend a date with her newest novel!

Realistic Fiction          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD


Hutchinson, Shaun David. Brave Face: A Memoir. Simon Pulse, 2019. 978-1-534-43151-5. 356 p. $18.99. Grades 9+.

In his compelling memoir, Brave Face, prolific young adult author Shaun David Hutchinson recounts his teenage years and his experiences with identifying as queer, coming out, and depression. Growing up in Florida in the 1990s, Hutchinson internalized many of the stereotypes and misconceptions about gay people that were common at the time. He despised and dreaded every future he could envision for himself, all involving a terrifying combination of risky sex, AIDS, drugs, hate crimes, and a flamboyant persona. In his own words, “I was trying to see a future for myself where I could be gay without being a fag.” Lonely, frustrated, and angry, he punched walls, cut, and burned himself to vent his pain as his depression deepened, accompanied by a sharp fear of abandonment by his friends and family and he began to come out to them. As his depression whispered that this bleak existence was the one he deserved, he became suicidal. Brave Face is, indeed, a brave book. Hutchinson openly reveals the “shape and texture” of his pain. It’s also a great time capsule of a 1990s adolescence: Tori Amos CDs, dial-up, and a part-time job at Waldenbooks in the mall. 

THOUGHTS: The author deftly meshes journal entries, a frank depiction of his self-hatred, and his sly sense of humor with his vantage point “from the light at the other end of the tunnel” to create a most worthwhile read.

Memoir          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD


King, Stephen. The Institute. Scribner, 2019. 978-1-982-11056-7. 561 p. $30.00. Grades 10+.

Luke Ellis is a smart kid, a really smart kid. The 12-year old student at the Broderick School for Exceptional Children in Minneapolis is ready to start two college programs … and he can move objects with his mind. This telekinetic ability brings him, through a violent turn of events, to the Institute in rural Maine, where special children like Luke are subjected to weeks of tests in Front Half before being moved to Back Half. There a mysterious but dire fate awaits the residents. No one has ever escaped the Institute; no one is quite as smart as Luke, either. Stephen King’s harrowing depiction of Luke’s and his fellow captives’ experiences, complete with sadistic medical treatments, taps into a classic horror vein. The parallel story of erstwhile police officer Tim Jamieson and his arrival in DuPray, South Carolina, eventually intertwines with Luke’s, leading to a literally ground-shaking showdown between the forces of good and evil (or so they seem).

THOUGHTS: What could make a Stephen King book even more appealing to young adults? A cast of characters made up mostly of pre-teens and adolescents! With plenty of Stephen King’s trademark self-referential Easter eggs, The Institute is a great read for budding horror fans of all ages who have the patience for a slow but highly satisfying boil.

Fiction (Crossover / Horror)          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley


Jackson, Tiffany D. Let Me Hear a Rhyme. Katherine Tegen Books, 2019. 978-0-062-84032-5. 376 p. $17.99. Grades 9+.

Late 1990s. Bed-Stuy, Brooklynn, New York. Tupac is dead. Biggie Smalls is dead. Stephon Davis is dead. After the murder of their best friend, Quadir and Jarrell are determined to immortalize Steph through his music. With the help of Steph’s sister, Jasmine, the three create a rap album to promote Steph’s previously recorded songs. When a major record label contacts “The Architect,” Steph’s rap name, to set up a meeting, Quadir and Jarrell formulate a plan to promote Steph’s music without him or Jasmine. As their lies and deceit grow bigger and bigger, the two friends must face the truth and the possibility that fighting to immortalize Steph might just be what kills him again. With the continued secrets and lies, Quadir, Jarrell, and Jasmine must face their own stories and come to terms with the Steph’s murder and their possible involvement. 

THOUGHTS: Tiffany D. Jackson once again crafts a beautiful novel of friendship, love, and what-ifs.  Each friend must grapple with their own actions and interactions that led to Steph’s death while trying to come to terms with his murder and their need for their friend. This is a must-have for all high school collections as are all of Jackson’s novels.  

Realistic Fiction          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD


Mills, Emma. Lucky Caller. Henry Holt and Company, 2020. 978-1-250-17965-4. $17.99. 336 p. Grades 8+. 

Nina took the radio broadcasting class for a fun “A” in her final semester at her Indianapolis-area high school. Whether she consciously realizes it or not, she is going to need something positive to keep her mind off her changing family dynamics – her mom is getting remarried, and as a result, she and her sisters will probably move to a new house with their mom and future stepdad, Dan the dentist (who they jokingly call “the Dantist”). But when childhood family friend Jamie ends up in the radio broadcasting class as well, he turns what was supposed to be a fun class into a complicated minefield of awkward interactions and bittersweet memories resurfacing. And that does not even take into consideration their group’s squabbling over everything from their show’s format to its name and their individual roles. In a desperate attempt to solve their problems and increase their listeners – and thus their grades – the group hatches a brilliant plan that involves Nina and her sort-of famous DJ dad out on the west coast. He’ll have to actually follow through for a change in order for it to work. 

THOUGHTS: When it comes to YA contemporary, Emma Mills never fails. Lucky Caller tackles all the typical coming-of-age themes and does it while evoking both emotional tears and knee-slapping laughter. Her narrator’s voice is authentic and contains the biting sometimes dark wit her readers know and love. Mills’ novels always do justice to intimate teen friendships, and this one in particular is full of nostalgia that will take readers back to their tween years when it was still ok to play and imagine, yet it also explores how difficult it is to navigate changing relationships as one moves into high school and eventual adulthood. And the 90’s music is the icing on the cake.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

MG – Wildheart; Soaring Earth; A Circle of Elephants; Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse; Lizzy Legend; The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA; Searching for Lottie

Bertagna, Julie, and William Goldsmith, Illustrator. Wildheart: The Daring Adventures of John Muir. Yosemite Conservancy, 2019. 978-1-930-23893-0. 128 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

As a boy in Dunbar, Scotland, John Muir was sent to school in 1841 when he was just three years old, but he longed to be outside, playing and learning amongst the wild things that he loved. Years later, after a family move to Wisconsin, an eye injury nearly robbed John of his sight but inspired his true calling: exploring and preserving nature. As part of his campaign to protect America’s forests and natural features, he co-founded the Sierra Club and helped to create our National Parks. He also went camping with President Theodore Roosevelt in Yosemite for four days in 1903, inspiring “Teddy” to preserve 148 million acres of land! William Goldsmith’s rough, energetic sketches are appropriately tinted in natural shades of rust, moss green, berry, and ice-blue. The characters’ body postures imply the mood and action more distinctly than any detailed facial expressions (which are generally lacking). A handful of Scottish expressions may confuse readers (e.g., “Ta” for thanks) but ample context clues and a helpful Glossary will assist in deciphering them. 

THOUGHTS: This middle-grade graphic biography of the first modern environmentalist, told in a first-person voice, will inspire readers to cherish our precious planet, and to take action to protect it! John Muir’s legacy is a treasured reminder that “We are part of nature, and its wild heart is part of us.” Additional information for interested readers is available at the webpage for the John Muir National Historic Site

Graphic Novel / Biography          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD


Engle, Margarita. Soaring Earth. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2019. 978-1-534-42953-6. $18.99. 192 p. Grades 7+.

Margarita’s idealism and longing to see the world are described beautifully in verse in this companion memoir to Enchanted Air. In this book Margarita is now a young adult in high school and beyond. It is set during the tumultuous Vietnam War Era, and the war and protests, Civil Rights movement, moon landing, and the Grape boycott and strike are described. Although younger readers might not have the knowledge to fully appreciate those historic events, Margarita’s struggle with fitting in and finding out who she is will resonate with everyone. Margarita finds herself at ground-zero of the hippie/free speech movement when she enrolls at UC Berkeley for college. She struggles with her fears of not being perfect, especially with her writing, and she finds out that the prestigious university turns out not to be a great fit for her which leads to her dropping out and drifting around CA and NY on a path of self-discovery. Her longing to travel the world, especially her beloved Cuba, which has been closed to her due to the Cold War, and the prejudices she experiences due to her Cuban heritage are also examined. Margarita Engle is the 2017-2019 Young People’s Poet Laureate.

THOUGHTS: It isn’t necessary to have read Enchanted Air to appreciate this beautifully written novel in verse. It would be perfect to use for a social studies book club during a 1960s unit.

Memoir; Verse          Bridget Fox, Central Bucks SD


Dinerstein, Eric. A Circle of Elephants. Disney Hyperion, 2019. 978-1-368-01658-2. $16.99. 260 p. Grades 4-8.

13-year old Nandu, a Tibetan, was found as a two-year old orphaned in the jungle being guarded by a pack of dhole (a type of wild dog). He was adopted by Subba-Sahib, the good man who runs the Royal Elephant Breeding Center at the edge of the Borderlands in Nepal. Nandu has a special relationship and empathy with the animals of the jungle but he considers the tusker, Hira Prishad, the bull elephant he oversees, his brother. The story of Nandu and the horrors of the Ivory Trade is described in such a beautiful and realistic way that it is easy to forget that this is a work of fiction. The earthquake at the beginning of the book is a bad omen: the harbinger of drought and the return of Maroons (poachers) who are looking for ivory in the tusks and horns of the elephants and rhinos. In addition to the mutilation of animals for their ivory, there is a side story about young girls being sold into slavery (it is not explicit sex slavery, but it is implied) which may be difficult for younger middle grade readers. The book examines the relationship between humans and other animals and as Nandu believes “that our purpose in life is to look out for each other.”

THOUGHTS: This book will enlighten the reader about the evils of poaching and how it is possible for people to have meaningful relationships with animals, especially elephants. A Circle of Elephants is the sequel to What Elephants Know but it wasn’t necessary to have read that story to enjoy this book. This beautifully written story would be a great addition to any library.

Realistic Fiction          Bridget Fox, Central Bucks SD


Vaught, Susan.  Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2019. 978-1-534-42501-9. 309 p. $17.99. Grades 5 and up.

Jesse is not like the other kids in her middle school – she’s extremely temperamental, with a proclivity towards hitting people she dislikes; she doesn’t always bathe on a regular basis; she’s “on the spectrum”; and her mother is a Master Sergeant stationed overseas in Iraq. Needless to say, she’s not the most popular girl in school, which doesn’t bother her in the least. What does bother her, however, is the group of bullies – Rykyer (aka: Jerkface), Chris, and Trisha (aka: the cockroaches) – who harass her on a daily basis and never seem to get in trouble for it. When Jesse’s father, a teacher at the high school, is arrested and accused of stealing money for the library fund, Jesse, along with new kid, Springer, take it upon themselves to investigate. Springer is Jesse’s foil – a big, non-confrontational, soft-spoken boy who doesn’t believe in violence. They share a love of puzzles, outside the box thinking, and Sam-Sam, Jesse’s beloved Pomeranian. Jesse pushes Springer to fight for what he believes in, and Springer grounds Jesse when she goes into a panic spiral; in fact, he’s one of the only people in her life that truly seems to accept her exactly as she is. Vaught has created two very different, yet equally compelling, protagonists; it is easy to feel Jesse’s anger and frustration towards her bullies, as well as Springer’s kindness and compassion when he stands up for Jesse. Equally well-drawn are Jesse’s mother, who instills in Jesse a deep well of inner strength, and Jesse’s great-aunt Gus, who spends the majority of the book exasperating Jesse’s father. Though Jesse’s bullies come off more as caricatures than three-dimensional characters, and their antics become disturbingly malevolent in tone and action, they serve to further Jesse and Springer’s resolve, as well as their bond; their friendship is truly the grounding force in this middle-grade novel, and readers will find themselves rooting heartily for both of them.

THOUGHTS: A perfect novel for outside the box thinkers, lovers of mysteries, and literally kick-butt female protagonists. With absolutely no romance, and a beautifully crafted platonic friendship between members of the opposite sex, this is a book that you can comfortably hand to a 9 year old, as well as a 14 year old.

Realistic Fiction         Lauren Friedman-Way, The Baldwin School


Smith, Matthew Ross. Lizzy Legend. Aladdin, 2019. 978-1-534-42024-3. 236 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

13-year-old Lizzy Trudeaux loves basketball and spends hours each day practicing her ball-handling and shooting skills. One day, she receives a mysterious phone call from a robot asking her what her wish is, and she wishes to never miss another shot. When this dream surprisingly comes true, she finds herself signing a contract to play for the Philadelphia Bells, a nearby professional basketball team. It’s not long before she becomes a media sensation. Will she, however, be able to continue her dominant performance when her wish is reversed? A fast-paced sports fantasy, this title will resonate particularly with young female athletes.

THOUGHTS: While the premise of this story is a bit unbelievable, the relatable characters, encouraging message, and fast pace of the story make this a solid selection for middle school collections. Lizzy may have gotten to where she is with a little help from her wish, but she is an extremely hard worker regardless. She’s also tough and courageous, putting her heart and soul out on the court even after her wish is reversed. Lizzy is definitely a role model for young girls, showing that with a little hard work and determination, they can do anything they set their minds to. The short chapters are broken up by interviews and imaginative social media posts throughout the story, making the book very accessible to young readers.

Fantasy Fiction (Sports)           Julie Ritter, PSLA


Woods, Brenda. The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2019. 978-1-524-73709-2. 194 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Twelve-year-old Gabriel Haberlin, white resident of the small, post-WWII town of Birdsong, South Carolina, is ecstatic when he receives a brand new Schwinn bicycle for his birthday. On his very first ride, however, he runs a red light and is nearly struck by a car and killed. Luckily, Meriwether Hunter, an African American veteran, pushes him out of the way just in time. Feeling indebted to Meriwether, Gabriel convinces his father to offer Meriwether a job at his auto shop. The two soon become friends, and Meriwether teaches Gabriel to view the world through the eyes of others.  In doing so, Gabriel witnesses the unfairness and powerlessness experienced by African Americans living under Jim Crow laws in the segregated South, and for the first time in his life, he begins to question the way of the world. A realistic and thought-provoking coming-of-age story, this book has a lot to teach young readers about the post-WWII South.

THOUGHTS: Use this book in a history class to reinforce topics like segregation,  Jim Crow laws, the 761st Tank Battalion, and the KKK. History buffs will also enjoy simply comparing post-WWII life to life today, as there are plenty of references to prized possessions of the past, including a Buick Roadmaster and a Kodak camera with film. Additionally, this story will appeal to fans of Rita Williams-Garcia. Definitely consider purchasing this authentic, eye-opening work of historical fiction.

Historical Fiction          Julie Ritter, PSLA


Ross, Susan L. Searching for Lottie. Holiday House, 2019. 978-0-823-44166-2. 170 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

When twelve-year-old Charlie must research a family member for a school project, she decides to focus on her namesake, her great aunt Lottie (short for Charlotte). Lottie disappeared during the Holocaust, and because she was Jewish, her family presumes that she was killed. Through her research, Charlie discovers that she and Lottie have a lot in common. They are both sensational violin players, and they could both be described as brave and determined. The more she learns, the more adamant she is to figure out what exactly happened to Lottie. Did she perish during the Holocaust as her family always thought, or did she miraculously survive? Readers will be just as curious as Charlie to solve this puzzle and won’t be able to stop turning the pages until all of their questions are answered.

THOUGHTS: This is a wonderful selection for middle school readers.  Charlie is an extremely relatable character who experiences many young adolescent norms throughout the story, including sibling rivalry, close friendships, a crush on a boy, and nerves during a musical audition. This would be a great complement to any Holocaust unit, or it could be used to introduce a project on genealogical research. References to Jewish culture present even more opportunities for learning. The short chapters and fast-moving narrative make it easily accessible, and the level of suspense will most certainly make readers want to finish the book. Give this to mystery lovers, history buffs, or students who want to learn more about genealogical research or Jewish culture.

Historical Fiction          Julie Ritter, PSLA