Elem. – A Blue Kind of Day

Tomlinson, Rachel. A Blue Kind of Day. Penguin Random House, 2022. 978-0-593-32401-1. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PK-2.

Childhood mental health is the focus of this sympathetic story. Coen wakes up feeling blue; he doesn’t want to get out of bed. He can’t be enticed by dad or mom to get up, he has no interest in going out to play, laughing or cuddling with his teddy bear. But his loving family does not get frustrated or give up on Coen. Instead, they support him and wait with him until he is ready to accept their warmth and care and slowly begin to crawl out of the dark cave of blueness. Tomlinson, a registered psychologist, deftly describes the physical feeling of depression in terms a child will recognize: heavy, prickly, angry, while Tori-Jay Mordey’s soft, digital illustrations add emphasis to the story. Coen is shown restlessly trying to deal with his emotions, while his anxious family hovers nearby, attempting to determine the best course of action, which ends up being snuggles and patience. Tomlinson includes an author’s note with additional information on childhood depression. While the book is an important tool dealing with an under-represented topic, many children will recognize the experience of simply  feeling out of sorts, and be reassured that they are not unique. Coen and his family are represented as multiracial. 

THOUGHTS: This book hits a perfect note in approaching the topic of childhood depression and will serve as an excellent conversation starter with young children. 

Picture Book          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – The Road to After

Lowell, Rebekah. The Road to After. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2022. 978-0-593-10961-8. 180 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

This middle grade novel is a powerful story of a young mother and her two daughters who have been kept hostages in their own home unaware of the reality outside their walls. Their father has monitored their activities, interests, and movements their entire lives so that the girls know nothing else. Their mother gains the courage to leave the home and everything behind to start a better life for the three of them. The oldest daughter, Lacey, discovers her love for nature, animals, and freedom. The story is about hope and survival.

THOUGHTS: This debut novel is beautifully written. It flows so smoothly that students will keep reading to find out what happens to Lacey and her sister. It is written appropriately for a middle grade audience and is filled with hope.

Realistic Fiction  Victoria Dziewulski, Plum Borough SD
Novel in Verse

MG – Smaller Sister

Willis, Maggie Edkins. Smaller Sister. Roaring Brook Press, 2022. 978-1-250-76741-7. 312 p. $22.99. Grades 4-7.

Lucy and her older sister, Olivia, are just twenty months apart. While close as can be in their youngest years, the sisters grow apart when Olivia becomes more concerned with her looks and her weight than spending time with Lucy. Things keep changing when Olivia is diagnosed with an eating disorder, followed by a family move from Indiana to Massachusetts. As Lucy moves into middle school and deals with some (really) mean girls, she too becomes excessively focused on her appearance. She needs her sister’s guidance more than ever, but Olivia – and their parents – remain focused on her fragile recovery. Will Olivia be able to reprise her role as supportive big sister when Lucy needs her most? Author/illustrator Maggie Edkins Willis portrays this story of a serious topic with plenty of humor and heart. Her digital artwork and gentle color palette wonderfully depict how the sisters grow and mature over the course of several indelible years. The book’s back matter includes a note on how Willis’s own preteen years inspired this story and resources for readers who struggle with disordered eating.

THOUGHTS: Smaller Sister is an excellent choice for fans of middle grade graphic novels, sibling stories, and the fabulous works of Lucy Knisley!

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Full Flight

Schumacher, Ashley. Full Flight. Wednesday Books, 2022. 978-1-250-77978-6. $18.99. 309 p. Grades 9-12.

In the provincial town of Enfield, Texas, Weston Ryan seems a rebel with his leather jacket and motorcycle and his bad reputation for cutting down the sapling Memorial Tree on the high school campus. His vulnerability is what shy, curvy, sixteen-year old Anna James sees. Both are members of the school’s marching band, and when they are paired for a duet, sparks fly. Perpetually obedient Anna tells lies to carve out time with Weston as their sweet romance builds. Her tight-knit family–strict but nurturing parents and 12 year old sister, Jenny–keep tabs on her every move and don’t approve of Weston. While Weston, reeling from his parents’ recent divorce, bounces back and forth between his depressed father and his distant mother. As the band competition approaches, Anna and Weston have ironed out the bumps in their duet and displayed their mutual love confidently to friends and classmates. Weston’s joy in life is Anna, and Anna is an expert in plunging Weston’s depths and revealing his goodness. Only the hurdle of Anna’s parents needs to be vaulted. All seems in proper alignment for these star-crossed lovers until tragedy strikes. Told in alternating voices, this well-written love story offers two teens masking insecurities and depression who learn to understand each other and themselves. All characters seem to be white. 

THOUGHTS: Though no evidence is present, this book seems to be reflective of an experience in the author’s life. Perhaps because of this, little diversity appears. It does deal with body image, judgment, and depression. The boyfriend dies in an accident in the end; but Anna lives through it, a stronger person for having been loved. The story may appeal to those longing for a romance; students who come from small towns may identify with having one’s life in view of everyone. A strong Christian element runs through  this book: One example, one of Anna’s and Weston’s successful ruses is going to the Church youth group. Schumacher writes well and the dialogue between Anna and Weston is unique and meaningful, thus raising this novel to a higher level. After a long prelude, Anna and Weston eventually have intercourse, but with no graphic details. I did not like the cover. Though well-written, the story was not compelling to me, but may appeal to a niche audience. 

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke  School District of Philadelphia

MG – The Summer of June

Sumner, Jamie. The Summer of June.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-1-53448-602-7. 188 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

June Delancey decides that this summer is going to be a season of change. Her goals include conquering her extreme anxiety and becoming a fierce, independent female along with her single mother.  Now that they are free from her mother’s boyfriend (to June’s relief), the two of them can tackle summer together. June’s anxiety can be overwhelming at times; to cope, she pulls whole chunks of hair from her scalp, leaving bloody, scabby patches. Her first order of business for the summer is shaving her head, and her mother follows suit in support of her daughter. At the public library, where her mother works as a librarian, June finds comfort. She meets a boy named Homer Juarez who also likes to hang out at the library. But June knows that it is only a matter of time before Homer realizes her anxiety makes her unworthy of a friendship and so she keeps her distance. June also finds comfort in starting a community garden on library property. When an event causes her anxiety to completely spin out of control and the cranky head librarian threatens to destroy her beautiful garden, June has to face her anxiety head-on before everything falls apart.

THOUGHTS: This moving story about family, friendship, and mental health is perfect for any middle grade student who worries. A sweet note from the author in the back encourages anxious students to embrace themselves as they are and know that they deserve to be seen. Sumner’s book would be a solid purchase for upper elementary and middle grade libraries.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG – Jennifer Chan is Not Alone

Keller, Tae. Jennifer Chan is Not Alone. Random House, 2022. 978-0-593-31053-3. 277 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

When Jennifer Chan goes missing, the entire community of Norwell, Florida is worried. But no one is more worried than her Korean-American classmate Mallory Moss, who knows of two possible reasons why Jennifer ran away. One of those reasons involves aliens. When Jennifer moved across the street from Mallory before school started, she confided in Mallory about her space research. According to Jennifer, aliens exist and they are trying to make contact with humans on earth. Jennifer knows that she has the code needed to help these aliens make contact, and she wrote all of her research down in her notebooks, which she lets Mallory take home to read. Unfortunately, Mallory knows that her friends Reagan and Tess will think Jennifer is absolutely crazy, so she distances herself from Jennifer as soon as school starts. But Reagan and Tess immediately start teasing Jennifer, and Mallory has no choice but to join in or she will lose her hard-earned popular status at school. This leads to reason number two of why Jennifer is missing: The Incident. Mallory believes that aliens may have taken Jennifer and realizes that Jennifer’s notebooks might hold the clues for how to reach her. However, Mallory knows that if she searches for Jennifer, her part in The Incident might be revealed and make her the most hated girl in school. Mallory must figure out what is more important: what other people think about her or finding Jennifer before it’s too late.

THOUGHTS: This is the first novel for Tae Keller since winning the Newbery Award for When You Trap a Tiger, and it does not disappoint. Keller tackles serious issues tweens and teens face in a compelling and gentle way, the most prominent being the cost of being popular at the expense of others. This book is a must-read and a must-buy for middle grade students.

Realistic Fiction            Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG – The Fort

Korman, Gordon. The Fort. Scholastic Press, 2022. 978-1-338-62914-9. 239 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

After a violent hurricane rips through their town, Evan and his friends decide to explore the destruction and see if their fort in the woods has survived. Unfortunately, the fort is destroyed, but the weather has unearthed something even better not too far away. The boys discover an underground bomb shelter, complete with canned goods, a record player, a TV – basically everything they need to make the ultimate clubhouse! The group decides to keep the fort a secret between the five of them. They hang out at the fort quite often, spending a lot of time with each other; however, each of them is hiding another secret besides the fort. Evan is worrying about his older brother and hoping he doesn’t succumb to drugs like their parents. Jason is trying hard not to reveal the fort to his girlfriend and her police officer father. Mitchell is trying to get his OCD under control. And CJ is sleeping at the fort every night to escape physical abuse from his stepdad. Ricky, who has not known these guys as long as they have known each other, knows something is amiss and begins to put the pieces together, determined to help them out. When some older boys get suspicious about where the friends are spending their time and an investigation begins, Ricky knows he has to work quickly to keep his friend group (and the fort) safe.

THOUGHTS: Gordon Korman’s 100th book does not disappoint. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character to get everyone’s perspectives. The friendship between the boys is heartwarming and supportive, especially in the face of the obstacles they all have in their lives. This book is a must-purchase for middle grade libraries.

Realistic Fiction            Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG – Hazard

Dowell, Frances O’Roark. Hazard. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-1-481-42466-0. 146 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Hazard Pay Stokes, or Haz as he is known to his friends and family, has found himself temporarily suspended from football over an incident with a teammate. Haz’s coach believes he needs some help with managing his anger before he is allowed back on the team. At the same time, his father has returned home from Afghanistan, which should be a happy moment for Haz. However, the reason his father came home is a tough one for the entire family, especially for Haz’s dad who has to live with the consequences of what happened in Afghanistan. Even though Haz believes therapy isn’t going to help him work through his feelings, he decides to play along and complete the assignments anyway and does in fact start to work through all of the tough emotions brewing inside of him.

THOUGHTS: Told through a series of emails, texts, reports, and assignments, the reader gets a close look at the events through Haz’s point of view. Haz’s lyrical way with words will keep the reader engaged. The topic and the format of the writing will appeal to more reluctant middle grade readers, especially boys.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG – Growing Pangs

Ormsbee, Kathryn. Growing Pangs. Random House, 2022. 978-0-593-30129-6. 249 p. $20.99. Grades 4-7.

As a homeschooled kid with bright red hair, freckles, and crooked teeth, Katie knows she is a little different from most kids her age. But as long as she has her best friend Kacey, none of that matters. The pair head off to spend their summer at Camp Aldridge, and that’s when things begin to change. Katie notices that Kacey gets very jealous when Katie hangs out with other people at camp. When they both start at their homeschool co-op for the year, Katie’s circle of friends continues to grow while Kacey shrinks back into the sidelines of Katie’s life. One aspect of Katie’s life that hasn’t gotten smaller is the “buzzing” in her mind. The buzzing orders her to accomplish tasks like turning a faucet on and off ten times. If she completes the task, nothing bad will happen to Katie or the people in her life. When Katie finds out she needs oral surgery and that Kacey is moving away before their friendship can be repaired, the buzzing gets louder and louder. Katie realizes she needs help from her parents to take control of her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

THOUGHTS: Katie is insightful for her age yet also relatable. Her struggles mirror the pressure and anxiety tweens face every day. This semi-autobiographical graphic novel will most definitely appeal to fans of Raina Telgemeier and the Sunny series.

Graphic Novel           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Sixth-grader Katie Ormsbee has a lot going for her. She’s homeschooled and enjoys a busy schedule full of theater, music lessons, gymnastics, church, and weekly homeschool co-op. She’s very close with her bestie, Kacee, though there’s tension when Katie expands her circle to include some new friends. In addition to some typical preteen drama (braces! a bad haircut!), Katie experiences “buzzing thoughts,” which artist Molly Brooks depicts through bees buzzing around Katie’s head. “They told me what to do like a big, buzzing bully,” Ormsbee writes. These intrusive thoughts, which are outlined in thick lines resembling storm clouds, manifest in compulsions such as tying and retying her shoelaces, or turning the faucet on and off ten times. The thoughts tell Katie that these actions will prevent bad things from happening, and repeating them does make her feel better … but only for a little while. As the thoughts become more difficult to live with, Katie’s parents realize that she needs professional counseling to help her cope. As Katie begins to understand her anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, she also discovers that she isn’t as alone or “weird” as the thoughts have made her feel. This absorbing graphic novel is divided into four seasons, with color palettes and early-2000s clothing to match. Katie is an appealing protagonist throughout; even when she’s hurting, she’s thoughtful and kind.

THOUGHTS: Growing Pangs (inspired by Katie Ormsbee’s own childhood) really captures the tween years, especially the role of friendship and feelings of isolation, with the additional layer of mental health issues. 

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Kind of Sort of Fine

Hall, Spencer. Kind of Sort of Fine. Atheneum, 2021. 978-1-534-48298-2. 276  p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Senior Hayley Mills is a straight-A student in her advanced classes and a star athlete on the tennis team. Or at least she was. Last year she had a mental breakdown in front of her high school and, thanks to some onlookers, it became a viral video. Now, at the start of what is supposed to be the best year of her life, Hayley’s parents and teachers want her to make some changes to ensure the breakdown doesn’t happen again. As a result, she ends up in a TV Production class instead of one of her advanced placement courses. In TV Production, she meets Lewis Holbrook. A long-time member of the TV Production crew, Lewis is looking to be his best self in 12th grade. This means getting in better shape and finally drumming up the courage to ask out his crush. When Hayley and Lewis are paired up in class, they decide to make documentaries about the little known talents of their fellow classmates. Together, the two of them get to know their classmates’ identities more deeply than ever. What they didn’t expect, however, was to discover new things about themselves along the way.

THOUGHTS: Hall’s first novel is a humorous, coming-of-age story in which high school students (and those who have experienced high school) can relate. Told in alternating chapters between Hayley and Lewis, each point of view brings senior year anxiety into sharp focus but in different ways. This book would be a solid choice for high school libraries.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD