YA – Punching Bag

Ogle, Rex. Punching Bag. Norton Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-324-01623-6. $17.95. 217 p. Grades 9-12.

As with his debut memoir, Free Lunch, Latinx author Rex Ogle is honest and sensitive in his recounting of his high school years with his volatile mother, Luciana, and abusive stepfather, Sam. At the book’s opening, Rex’s mother reveals that she has lost an infant girl, Marisa, while seven-year-old Rex was visiting his paternal grandparents. In front of her sensitive son, she is distraught with grief and places the blame at his feet. Ogle carries that guilt with him as he navigates his teen-age years protecting his half-brother, Ford, from the chaos erupting from domestic violence in their tiny Texas apartment. At times, this guilt is assuaged with the remembrance of Marisa, giving him the encouragement and strength not extended by other adults. Though his alcoholic stepfather beats his mother regularly, Rex’s mother refuses to press charges or escape. In fact, in a brief stint when Sam leaves her, she picks on Rex, goading him to hit her. Rex acts as the parent here. He has the maturity to see their household is toxic and to recognize his mother’s mental health issues. From conversations with family members, he gets an insight into the root causes of his mother’s and stepfather’s behaviors. However, he feels responsible for the safety of his younger brother and the financial stability of the family. He receives some emotional support from his grandmother and his mother’s sister; he is able to confess to his stepfather’s brother the physical abuse suffered in their family. Nevertheless,with little adult support from teachers or neighbors, young Ogle is out there on his own with the lone comfort of Marisa’s ghostly voice convincing him her death was not his fault. When Luciana and Sam repeatedly wind up together with little improvement, Ogle has to value his own life and aim for his own dreams to keep him resilient and hopeful. This memoir is an excellent example of bibliotherapy. Ogle does not gloss over the brutality and the bewildering reality of domestic violence and the devastating effect of a parent’s untreated mental health issues on her children. Ogle acknowledges this in the book’s preface with a disclaimer emphasizing his purpose for writing his story is to show that it is possible to survive. Students suffering the same trauma will appreciate his frankness. Contains an informative Q & A with author.

THOUGHTS: The account of domestic abuse as well as physical and emotional child abuse is constant, but Ogle is a talented narrator and compels the reader to endure it. Rex Ogle himself stands out as an exceedingly mature, resilient, compassionate person, despite a lifetime to being put down, parentified, terrified, neglected. It prompts the thought, where was this behavior learned. He records little resentment of being the person in charge of his younger brother. He willingly shoulders adult responsibilities around the house with hidden resentment and–mostly-controlled anger. The book delivers an important message to any students in similar circumstances.

Memoir          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
362.7 Child Abuse

YA – Blue

Delano, L.E. Blue. Gaze Publishing, 2021. 978-1-736-47310-8. 258 p. $9.99. Grades 9-12.

Blue Mancini is rather confident that her name has doomed her to a life of sadness. Just one year ago, her brother Jack was driving drunk and was in a car accident resulting in a fatality. Because Blue and Jack have rich parents with expensive lawyers, he avoids a manslaughter charge and instead is in a detention center for only a few months. Blue might be able to live with that fact… except that Maya is returning to school. A classmate in the same grade, Maya had been out of school for a while as her family adjusted to the death of her father, the man Jack killed the night he was driving drunk. Although Blue is not directly responsible for what happened to Maya’s dad, Maya seems to think she is also to blame. This becomes apparent when Maya picks fights with her in the classes they have together. With Maya taunting her in class and on social media, her mother’s constant nagging to visit Jack in the detention center, and the fact that her boyfriend is hiding a major secret from her, Blue succumbs to feeling sorry for herself, but she isn’t great at keeping it all inside. After one particularly physical fight between Maya and Blue, the principal and counselor decide they must attend after-school sessions and create a club together. As they meet, both of them have to work through their issues to find common ground.

THOUGHTS: Blue highlights the importance of what happens when one bad decision alters the course of a life. High school readers will relate to the mental health struggles Blue goes through. This book is an easy read and ends on a light note with a positive message despite the difficult events.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – Strong  Healthy Girls (Series NF)

Strong  Healthy Girls. ABDO Publishing, 2021. $25.95 ea. $312.00 set of 12. 112 p. Grades 8-12.

Emily, Lauren. Dealing with Drama. 978-1-532-19215-9.
Johnson, Anne E. Being a Leader. 978-1-532-19213-5.
Myers, Carrie. Coping with Stress and Pressure. 978-1-532-19214-2.
Allen, Rebecca J. Earning an Income. 978-1-532-19216-6.
Morrow, Kate. Finding your Identity. 978-1-532-19217-3.
Rowell, Rebecxa. Handling Family Challenges.   978-1-532-19218-0.
Huddleston, Emma. Healthy Friendships. 978-1-532-19219-7.
Burling, Alexis. Healthy Romantic Relationships. 978-1-532-19220-3.
Huddleston, Emma. Nutrition and Exercise. 978-1-532-19221-0.
Berg, Shannon. Surviving and Thriving at school.  978-1-532-19222-7 .
Ford, Jeanne Marie. Understanding Reproductive Health. 978-1-532-19223-4.
Huddleston, Emma. Using Social Media Responsibly. 978-1-532-19224-1.

The Strong Healthy Girls reference set focuses on positivity and wellness for a YA audience. Written in a conversational style, this set presents issues girls may find themselves facing during their teen years. Dealing with Drama focuses on navigating difficult relationships with peers and family. Realistic scenarios involving bullying, teasing, and other personal conflicts are described, and readers are presented with questions to consider about these difficult situations. Then an expert weighs in with effective strategies for handling these problems. Includes a glossary, a list of additional resources, and an index.

THOUGHTS: A solid resource for self help and mental health for young adults.

300s/600s          Nancy Summers, Abington SD

YA – The Castle School (for Troubled Girls)

Content warning: This book contains depictions of mental illness, including but not limited to addiction, anorexia, self-harm, and trichotillomania.

Moira (Moor-a, not Moy-ra) has been skipping school, meals, and leaving her apartment for hours at a time. Her parents stage an intervention where they share that they’re sending Moira to The Castle School, a school for girls going through a “rough patch” not a reform school. Though two bodyguard types look ready to spring into action should Moira bolt, she willingly packs her things and gets on a plane heading to a remote part of Maine. There she meets eleven other girls who like her are experiencing their own struggles, each unique and told in her own voice in a sporadic chapter throughout the novel. When asked why she’s at The Castle School, Moira reports it’s because she got a tattoo. She does not share that she lost her best friend. With a very regimented schedule which includes lights out and individual therapy sessions, Moira struggles to adjust at first. She has some time on her own, though, as her roommate Eleanor is staying in the infirmary. While reading by a secret flashlight, Moira hears music in the distance and notices that the padlock on her window’s security bars is broken. The next night Moira and Eleanor head out to investigate and discover a castle that seems a lot like theirs, only happier, warmer, and with twelve boys. The Castle Schools may not be what Moira thought. Moira notices that she feels more like herself than she has in a long time when she’s at the other Castle School (Castle South); it seems to have the same effect on Eleanor. What type of experiment is Dr. Prince conducting with two schools run so differently, and why – other than the fact that she’s a girl – is Moira at Castle North? Why does Dr. Prince’s son Randy live at Castle North instead of with the boys in Castle South? As Moira gets to know the girls and attends sessions with Dr. Prince, she struggles through her grief and begins to come to terms with why she’s at The Castle School.

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Moira as she adjusts to her new life at The Castle School and works through her grief. As an adult reader, I felt like Moira’s semester ended a bit too tidy (though she does work through a lot). I’m interested to talk to a student reader about their thoughts of authenticity. Purchase for high school collections where character driven, mental health titles are popular.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – White Smoke

Jackson, Tiffany D. White Smoke. Katherine Tegen Books, 2021. 978-0-063-02909-5. 373 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Marigold’s blended family has just relocated from the sunny California coast to the run-down midwestern town of Cedarville. Their historic house, still under renovation, is part of her mother’s Grow Where You’re Planted residency with the Sterling Foundation. As the artist-in-residence, Raquel and her family will live in the home for free. Free housing means less debt, which is important after Mari’s recent stay at Strawberry Pines Rehabilitation Center. From the first page, it’s clear that she is facing real mental health challenges: programming medication reminders on her phone, repeating calming mantras, and obsessing about bedbugs. Meanwhile, Mari observes unexplained noises and disturbances in the house, including strange smells and items disappearing. The desolate neighborhood adds to the spooky ambiance. Jackson, a prolific and versatile author, is known for her real-life inspiration and plot twists. Indeed, many episodes in this haunted house story are based on real reported ghostly incidents. She also brings elements of a psychological thriller to her first horror novel. 

THOUGHTS: Spooky book season is here, and Jackson’s latest novel is almost too much fun to booktalk with students who enjoy suspenseful, scary stories.

Horror          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – Thanks a Lot, Universe

Lucas, Chad. Thanks a Lot, Universe. Amulet, 2021. 978-1-419-75102-8. 279 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Brian and Ezra, both 13 years old, are classmates at school, and on the same basketball team. But that’s where the similarities end. Ezra, who is biracial, appears to Brian as cool, confident, and popular, while Brian, who is white, suffers from crippling social anxiety (or Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome, as he labels it). Ezra thinks Brian seems interesting, but doesn’t go out of his way to befriend the boy until the bottom drops out of Brian’s life. On his 13th birthday, Brian awakens to discover that his father has disappeared (to evade capture by police) and his mother is unconscious from a drug overdose. In the ensuing days, Brian tries to keep his life together, after he and his younger brother, Ritchie, are placed in foster care. But eventually Brian takes Ritchie and runs away. Ezra soon gets involved in the search for Brian, and after locating the brothers, makes it his mission to befriend the young man. Along the way, Ezra is trying to understand himself as well. His circle of friends is evolving, as some of the boys become interested in girls, while Ezra is coming to terms with the fact that he is gay, and has a crush on Brian. Two well adjusted high school students provide a sounding board for both boys as they attempt to navigate the life they have been given. While racial issues are touched upon, mental health takes center stage. Brian is terrified he will be labeled “crazy” since his mother suffers with mental health issues. While these seventh grade boys are far more comfortable discussing their feelings and expressing concern for each other’s emotional well-being than your average middle schooler, the book is a marvelous, feel-good display of masculine friendship. The story, alternating between Ezra’s and Brian’s point of view, grabs hold from the opening page, and doesn’t stop until the end. Brian and Ezra are both such sympathetic characters readers will wholeheartedly root for them to find happiness. And maybe all those really nice people are what make the book so heartwarming.

THOUGHTS: Highly recommended. While there may be too many unrealistically nice people in the story, including a helpful police officer, a teacher who takes in Brian and Richie, and a pair of high school teenagers who befriend Ezra and Brian, it is worth it for the good feelings it engenders. There is no perfect ending – dad goes to prison, Ezra loses a friend, mom is still unstable – but the book still leaves you smiling. With main characters that are 13-years-old and in 7th grade, this book should have wider appeal than just middle grade. The timely issues of race and mental health make this a great fit for 7th and 8th graders. Hopefully readers will take to heart the message to befriend and understand shy kids, and to look out for each other. Perfect to pair with The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Brian, who suffers from Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome (SAWS), as he calls it, is used to having a rough time in junior high; he is a good basketball player, but feels too shy to talk to his teammates off the court. He often deals with bullying, and his dad wants him to be tougher and stand up to those who make him even more socially miserable. Then, life gets much harder when his dad suddenly leaves the family. Suddenly, Brian is taking care of his younger brother, navigating foster care, and still dealing with his social anxiety, bullies, and every-day adolescent stress. Luckily, a support system shows up to help when Ezra, a teammate from basketball, and a group of caring adults step in. Meanwhile, Ezra is dealing with uncomfortable tension between his childhood best friends, his growing interest in music and playing the guitar, and his changing feelings about boys.

THOUGHTS: This is a beautiful story about supportive friends in times of struggle. The characters in the story experience the difficulties of growing up and demonstrate the positive influences that good people and good friends can have during a teen’s formative years. This book also portrays several positive coming-out experiences and sensitively handles the struggles of a LGBTQ+ teen.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet

Kemp, Laekan Zea. Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet. Little, Brown and Company, 2021. 978-0-316-46027-9, 343 p. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet hits all the right notes for a young person’s fantasy romance. In alternating narratives, the reader follows the growing romance between talented Mexican-American chef, Penelope (Pen) Parado, and undocumented restaurant worker, Xander Amaro. Nachos Tacos is Pen’s father’s restaurant in Austin, Texas, and the salvation of the neighborhood, providing a handout or employment to many, despite the glaring threat of a ruthless loan shark, J.P. Martello. The restaurant is dear to Pen’s heart–not only because it is there she can express her culinary skills–but also because of the sense of family it represents. She is devastated when she is banished from the restaurant after confessing to her parents that she has not attended a full semester of nursing school. Traditional Mr. Parado expects his older son, Angel, to carry on the business despite Angel’s disinterest. New employee, Xander, enters the wait staff on Pen’s last day, and though some point out her brash, bossy manner, he is smitten. Eighteen-year old, independent Pen finds a cheap apartment with the help of bff Chloe and a wretched job at a Taco Bell-like establishment. In spite of her take-charge personality, Pen suffers from self esteem issues and the narrative alludes to some self-harming; she does take medication for her low moods. In addition to being undocumented, Xander is actively searching for his father who left the family when Xander was a toddler and has never attempted contact with either Xander or his own father, Xander’s guardian. As the narration asserts, each has their own scars. The chapters develop with Pen dealing positively with her complicated love-hate relationship with her father and Xander’s appreciation of his feelings of belonging to the ragtag Nacho crew. Their days revolve around working in their respective restaurants, hanging out with the other Nacho workers, food, and their romance until the restaurant’s future is in jeopardy from the menacing loan shark. This antagonist brings the needed friction for the story, culminating in a predictable conclusion that leaves the reader with admiration for the resiliency of Pen and Xander and their Latinx neighborhood.

THOUGHTS: There is nothing too deep here or too risky (Pen and Xander have some deep kisses and smoldering feelings, but nothing more; some foul language and drinking). Latinx author Kemp tells an old-fashioned love story with the typical tropes but with more interesting words and the addition of some mental health and immigration issues. Her major and minor characters are likeable and developed. One unexpected relationship is Xander’s friendship with the local police officers, despite his undocumented status. Younger teens wanting a romance or older ones looking for an escape novel will be hooked.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – The Sea in Winter

Day, Christine. The Sea in Winter. Heartdrum, 2021. 978-0-062-87204-3. $16.99. Grades 3-7.

Seventh grader Maisie isn’t having a great day just before her school’s midwinter break. She’s tardy to homeroom, and she earned a 70 on her most recent math test. A break from school and a family trip back home will be good “heart medicine.” Maisie could use a distraction from eating lunch alone and getting text updates from her ballet friends who she no sees. Maisie isn’t sure how to respond, so she usually doesn’t. Things start to look up when her physical therapist suggests that Maisie’s recovery from a torn ACL and surgery might be moving faster than initially anticipated. This news gives Maisie hope; she’s missed ballet and her friends so much, and she might even be able to make a few spring auditions if she keeps progressing. With this news (and a green light for hiking) Maisie’s family heads to the Olympic Peninsula to explore some areas that are important to their Native family. Maisie’s stormy emotions seem to get the best of her at times, and she’s not sure why she says some of the things she does. When Maisie’s frustration reaches a peak, she’ll have to decide who she wants to be, even if that doesn’t include ballet.

THOUGHTS: Upper elementary and middle school students will adore Maisie and recognize the roller coaster of emotions she experiences. Maisie’s little brother provides comic relief to some of her emotional “funks,” and her parents are extremely supportive. #OwnVoices author Day addresses negative self talk and depression in an age appropriate way that will resonate with students. Highly recommended.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Maise Cannon is many things: a middle schooler, a sister, a daughter, a Native American descended from the Makah and Piscataway tribes, and a ballet dancer. Her favorite of all her identities is of a ballet dancer, but her knee injury that she is recovering from may prevent her from ever dancing again. Her physical therapy is going well, and she hopes that she will be able to audition for a summer program like her friends. When her family goes on a hiking trip, Maisie re-injures her knee dashing any hopes of dancing any time soon. Maisie’s anxiety and depression take hold of her, and she shuts out everyone and everything in her life. Her family encourages Maisie to go to therapy. After a few months, Maisie finds a life for herself without dancing, and finds that she can be happy with what she CAN do.

THOUGHTS: This is a story where the characters just happen to be Native Americans. This would be a great addition for readers who are struggling with an injury.

Realistic Fiction         Krista Fitzpatrick, PSLA Member

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

YA – Kent State; Parachutes; The Lucky Ones; The Dark Matter of Mona Starr; A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder

Wiles, Deborah. Kent State. Scholastic Press, 2020. 978-1-338-35628-1. 144 p. $17.99. Grades 7 and up.

May 4, 1970. Sandy Scheuer, Bill Schroeder, Jeff Miller, Allison Krause. “Four dead in Ohio.” (“Ohio” by Neil Young, Performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young). At a time when much of the nation was protesting the war in Vietnam and invasion of Cambodia, students at Kent State had had enough. Beginning with campus protests on Friday, May 1, 1970, and the burning of the ROTC building to the burning of buildings in the town of Kent on Saturday, May 2, 1970, the protests in Kent culminated with the killing of four students and wounding of nine others on Monday, May 4, 1970, by the Ohio National Guard. Where were the protectors? For a war being fought around the globe, the Kent State shootings “brought the war home to American soil” (145). Author Deborah Wiles relives this fateful time in American history in Kent State.  Shared through conversation by those who experienced this horrific event, Wiles explores the event from the perspective of student protestors, student bystanders, black students, townies, and National Guard members as they converse and share their memories of this fateful event. Each voice is unnamed and poignant as their memories and understanding of those fateful days is shared. Using different print types, readers are immersed into the conversation as a listener, another bystander, hearing history come alive by those who lived it. Wiles explains in “A Note about May 4 and This Story,” how she used primary source documents and oral histories from the archives at both Kent State University and Kent, Ohio, to create a conversation of memories, hardships, fear, and regret. “What might have happened? We have no answers for that. We have only this moment, now. We can make decisions to be informed as citizens, not accepting what we hear or see or read until we’ve dug deeper on our own, for context, for truth. We can listen. We can share. We can make commitments to the tenets of democracy that say we have freedom of speech, press, assembly, and petition in our public places” (146).

THOUGHTS: This is a must-have for all middle school and high school collections. Deborah Wiles brilliantly brings to life the tragedy of Kent State that not only engages readers in a turbulent time of American history but also forces readers to question what they know about history in order to better understand its application today. Wiles does not sugar-coat the violence of the period, nor does she ignore the various voices and experiences of those living in Kent as they experienced the protests. Much like her use of primary sources in The 60s Trilogy, Wiles’ use of primary sources to create a conversation of past experience leads to an understanding of the event while leaving the reader wanting more. This is a fabulous historical fiction novel to pair with informational texts about Vietnam and Kent State.

Historical Fiction        Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

After conducting extensive research, Wiles recreates the chaos of Kent State University‘s campus on May 4, 1970, with distinct narratives (protestor, Guardsman, townie, student) to share many perspectives. An anti-war demonstration turned violent and resulted in the killing of four students and wounding of nine others. The fear and confusion, anger and sadness of those involved is portrayed through short snippets of free verse which encourages readers to approach history by considering many viewpoints. Each narrator is unnamed, and readers feel connected to their stories. Narratives are displayed in various fonts to differentiate.

THOUGHTS: This historical fiction belongs in high school libraries and would pair well with an American history reading collection of major events, especially those that may not receive as much attention.

Historical Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD


Yang, Kelly. Parachutes. Katherine Tegen Books, 2020. 978-0-062-94108-4. 496 p. $18.99. Grades 9 and up.

Yang begins this “story of [her] heart” with a letter to readers and a trigger warning about the book’s content (sexual harassment and rape).

Due to her posh lifestyle in Shanghai, Claire Wang may seem oblivious to many of the typical woes of being a teenager. Claire holds a lot of pressure on her seventeen year old shoulders. Her father has a not so secret mistress – she actually reached out to Claire on WeChat – and her mother, hides her dissatisfaction by spending money on fancy clothes and trips to upscale restaurants. Family pressure and preparation for the gaokao (Chinese college entrance exam) drive Claire’s life; she doesn’t understand how teens in American movies seem to have so much free time, as her days are dictated by endless hours of homework and tutoring. Despite all of these outward pressures, Claire manages to spend time with her boyfriend and a group of friends. After an unfortunate assignment result and despite Claire’s wishes, her parents decide she should be foreign educated, attending American Preparatory school in LA, where she will live with a host family. Afterwards, Claire will “stand out” upon her return to China, and as an added bonus, she’ll avoid the gaokaos, having a better shot at getting into one of the UCs. Dani lives in East Covina, CA and is a student at American Preparatory, where she participates in band and shines on the Debate Team. Like her grandmother and great grandmother before her, Dani and her mom both work as maids, and Dani does not shy away from the hard work. This helps them afford living expenses and send $500 a month to family in the Philippines. It isn’t easy being a maid to the elite students of American Preparatory, but Dani needs the money to be able to travel to the Snider Tournament for debate and to afford Yale, the college of her dreams. To help the family with increasing expenses, Dani’s mom decides to rent out their spare room to a nice girl from China who will attend school with Dani: Claire. Told in alternating narratives, Dani and Claire don’t interact much; they are from entirely different worlds. Despite drastically different circumstances, Dani and Claire must learn to live together and even learn how to understand each other.

THOUGHTS: Parachutes is a beautiful YA novel that intertwines two painful narratives. This is a must have for all high school library collections. Be sure to read the author’s note too!

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD


Lawson, Liz. The Lucky Ones. Delacorte Press, 2020. 978-0-593-11849-8. 352 p. $18.99. Grades 9 and up. 

“The Lucky Ones is a book about what happens after the news cameras leave and the reporters stop calling.” May McGintee is a “lucky one,” though she feels like anything but lucky. Wracked by PTSD, May is also angry. She’s the only survivor to walk out of the band room on the day when her twin brother and closest friends are killed during a school shooting. Feeling guilt, an immense amount of loss, as well as constantly fearing for her safety, no one could possibly understand how May feels – even after eleven months and therapy sessions. She finds ways to process her anger, but others see them as destructive. Zach’s life hasn’t been the same for the last eleven months either but for a very different reason. Zach is angry too. As a result of his mom’s decision, he lost everything, and his home, the only place he can be himself, is being vandalized. It doesn’t help that his mom is never home, and his dad is an absent parent, barely able to get himself out of bed or even get dressed. Zach and May each have one friend that sticks with them through everything. With their support, Zach and May just might be able to find a way to move forward.

THOUGHTS: This book tackles a heavy topic, well-covered in the young adult genre, but the fresh approach of looking at the aftermath when news cameras have moved onto the next big story gives this debut a worthy spot in high school libraries.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD


Gulledge, Laura Lee. The Dark Matter of Mona Starr. Amulet Books. 2020. 978-1-419-73423-6. 192 p. $22.99. Grades 8+.

High schooler Mona Starr suffers from depression, which feels like an encompassing fog of “Dark Matter” that invades every crevice of her thoughts. It makes Mona feel overwhelmed, alone, and insignificant. Her best friend Nash has recently moved to Hawaii, but at his and her parents’ urging she begins seeing Dr. Vega, a therapist who helps Mona study her Matter and forge a path toward health. After emergency surgery to correct a rare condition, Mona also learns to embrace the support of her “Artners:” her partners in Art, though not without some additional growing pains. “Maybe art can help transform embarrassment and suffering into insight,” Mona realizes, “one heartbreak at a time.” Some readers will find Mona’s progress frustratingly halting, but depression is a very frustrating disorder and that is realistically portrayed here. Laura Lee Gulledge’s pencil-shaded illustrations, with golden spot color, are so stunningly evocative that readers will catch themselves just staring at the pages. Her portrayal of Mona’s internal world is brilliant, especially the panel that captures how it feels to be an introvert.

THOUGHTS: The Dark Matter of Mona Starr is an intimate, moving depiction of Mona’s journey toward emotional and physical wellness, embracing her unique self, and accepting the loving support of people who care most about her. Gulledge even includes a Self-Care Plan template at the close of the book so her readers can implement some of the practices that guide Mona in her journey.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD


Jackson, Holly. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. Delacorte Press. 2020. 978-1-984-89636-0. 400 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Pippa Fitz-Amobi is a good girl: high achiever, faithful friend, devoted daughter, and big sister. So it’s a bit out of character for her to solve a murder for her senior capstone project, especially because it’s one that’s already been solved. Five years ago, high school senior Andie Bell disappeared from their small town of Fairfield, Connecticut. Her body was never found, but the remains of her boyfriend, Salil “Sal” Singh, were discovered in the woods along with evidence that he had killed Andie and then committed suicide out of guilt. Pippa’s instincts, honed on true crime podcasts and documentaries, tell her that Sal is innocent. She aims to raise enough doubts about Sal’s guilt to convince the police to revisit the case. With the help of Sal’s younger brother, Ravi, Pippa susses out one lead after another, untangling clues and connections hidden within interview transcripts, journal entries, and text messages. Meanwhile someone with much to lose is watching their every move — and he (or she?) is unafraid to follow through on threats against what Pippa holds dearest when she refuses to stop digging. Holly Jackson skillfully weaves the elements of a solid mystery into her debut: suspense, red herrings, breathless amateur surveillance, and even a spooky dark alley. A huge twist, revealed just when the crimes have seemingly been solved, propels the pace right to the final page.

THOUGHTS: Mystery fans, take note: You’ll be hooked from the “Murder Map” that appears on page 29! This fast-paced whodunnit is perfect for fans of Karen M. McManus’ thrillers, especially Two Can Keep a Secret. Note that this novel’s potentially sensitive topics include suicide, sexual assault, and an animal in peril.

Mystery          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD