MG – All You Knead is Love

Guerrero, Tanya. All You Knead is Love. Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-374-31423-1 375 p. $16.99. Grades 4-6. 

Twelve-year-old Alba does not want to leave New York City and move to Barcelona to live with a grandmother she barely knows or remembers. But her mother, a native from Spain herself, is not moving with her, nor is her alcoholic, abusive father. Alba is leaving behind a school she does not like, very few friends, and a home full of secrets and trauma. All You Knead is Love by Tanya Guerrero is a heartfelt story about finding one’s chosen family and discovering the passions stirring inside us. After arriving in a new country, Alba is surprised to find that she not only loves Barcelona but feels her most authentic self in this foreign land. She forms a close relationship with her grandmother, finds her first proper group of friends, and even experiences her first crush. Alba befriends a neighborhood baker who opens his kitchen as a haven to her; she begins to not only heal but thrive as his apprentice. Just as Alba discovers that she has a real passion and talent for baking bread, her beloved bakery faces an unexpected closure. Even more heartbreaking, her mother arrives in Barcelona after finally leaving her abusive relationship with Alba’s father. Alba becomes determined to save the bakery- and mend and heal the strained relationship with her mother.

THOUGHTS: All You Knead is Love seamlessly blends the right amount of culture, music, cooking, and the Spanish language into a vibrant setting that charms and delights. This story transported me to the streets of Barcelona and made me laugh and cheer for Alba and her chosen family. Tanya Guerrero writes with such sensitivity, and her authentic tone created a story with characters that will stick with me for a long time. This story was a gem!

Realistic Fiction          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

MG – Here in the Real World

Pennypacker, Sara. Here in the Real World. HarperCollins, 2020. 978-0-062-69895-7. $17.99. 320 p. Grades 3-6.

“Everything was something else before, and will be something else after.” Ware is an only child, and he’s perfectly happy spending his summer alone with his grandmother, whom he refers to as Big Deal, but when she falls and needs a hip replacement, Ware’s parents sign him up for Summer Rec where they hope he can have “meaningful social interactions” with other kids his age. To Ware, this is the worst case scenario, until he meets a girl named Jolene who is planting a garden in a half torn down, abandoned church right next to the rec center. Ware sees the potential in this church, and instead of going to rec, he spends his days with Jolene pretending the church is a castle and that he is a knight, living by their code of chivalry. For the first time in Ware’s life, he doesn’t feel ashamed about spending time off in his own world, and with the help of Jolene, his uncle, and others he meets throughout the summer, he realizes that it’s okay to be himself, and he doesn’t want to turn into someone else after all. “He had changed this summer. He was spending more time off in his own world. And it turned out, he didn’t feel ashamed about it. Turned out, he really liked it there.”

THOUGHTS:  Here in the Real World is perfect for readers who feel like they just don’t belong. Your heart will break for Ware and Jolene as they try to navigate through the real world in this moving and touching novel. Middle school can be such a hard time, and hopefully readers will realize, like Ware does, that it’s okay to be yourself, even when you feel pressure from parents and classmates to be someone else entirely. This realistic fiction book is about finding not only yourself, but your people, and being able to see them just as they are too.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

MG – The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez

Cuevas, Adrianna. The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez. Farras, Straus and Giroux, 2020. 978-0-374-31360-9. 278. $16.99. Grades 3-7.

After nine “first-days” at nine different schools, Nestor Lopez knows the drill. Only unpack enough to get himself through a few months until his mother decides to move again, all while his father is deployed in Afghanistan. When Nestor moves for the tenth time, it is to his father’s hometown of New Haven, Texas to live with his Abuela. Not long after, Nestor is intrigued by rumors of a beast that roams the woods and has killed neighboring animals. Fortunately, his secret ability to talk to animals helps Nestor find out what, or who, is behind the killings. After the town starts to suspect his Abuela, Nestor longs to talk with his dad who could help him make sense of the strange town that is starting to feel like home. Can Nestor reveal his secret to his new friends in order to save the animals and his Abuela from whatever is lurking in the woods? And will his mom decide to move again, or will Nestor finally be able to put down roots in his father’s hometown?

THOUGHTS: Middle grade readers will enjoy this action packed fantasy novel about a brave, hispanic american boy who uses supernatural powers to save his family. Readers of Rick Riordan Presents books will appreciate the story as well as educators adding stories with diverse characters to their collections.

Fantasy (Mythology)          Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD

MG – 96 Miles

Esplin, J.L. 96 Miles. Starscape, 2020. 978-1-250-19230-1. 266 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8.

96 Miles by J. L. Esplin has the look and feel of an apocalyptic novel. Twelve-year-old John and eleven-year-old Stewart Lockwood are the offspring of single-parent and survivalist, Jim Lockwood. Their father is away on a business trip when a massive power outage strikes their area of the Nevada desert. The boys are unfazed because they have six months’ worth of water and supplies, plus a generator. What they don’t anticipate is the ruthlessness of people as materials grow scarce and the situation drags on. Forced at gunpoint to abandon their property, the narrator John immediately assumes the role of protector, a position his younger brother sometimes resents. He sets out to walk to Brighton Ranch, the home of a close family friend, 96 miles down the highway, in three days. Before long, the brothers are accompanied by two other children, Cleverly Iverson and her little brother, Will. John reluctantly accepts them on their journey at Stew’s urging, and he soon realizes the benefit of their presence, especially Cleverly, a selfless, intelligent girl who is mature beyond her twelve years. Newcomer J. L. Esplin unpacks the plot gradually, feeding the reader a bit of information to put together the puzzle. She transcends the expected blisters, sunburn, and dehydration to make 96 Miles a page-turner full of surprise and suspense that made this reader gasp aloud at least twice. Though the narrative is dire, the author provides the deftly drawn characters with senses of humor and sufficient depth to deem them worthy of their self-named tag, Battle Born. This moniker takes on a significant meaning when it becomes apparent that “survival of the fittest” is an innate impulse even in these likeable characters.

THOUGHTS: This book gives lots of survivalist tips that teachers may be able to incorporate into science lessons. Critical thinking skills are also relevant because John is challenged to make important decisions that effect his life and the lives of his companions. Different times in the story “survival of the fittest” is put to the test causing discomfort or generating discussion. Is there evidence at the end that the Battle Born are willing to let bygones be bygones? Stew and the family friend have diabetes, a factor that lends to the urgency of the quartet’s travels. Reminiscent of Susan Beth Pfieffer’s Last Survivor series and Mike Mullin’s Ashfall.

Action/Adventure          Bernadette Cooke, SD Philadelphia

MG – Echo Mountain

Wolk, Lauren. Echo Mountain. Dutton Children’s Books, 2020. 978-0-525-55556-8. 356 p. $17.99. Grades 6-8.

Like her award-winning novel, Wolf Hollow, Lauren Wolk repeats her lyrical style in the historical fiction work, Echo Mountain. Ellie, the twelve-year-old narrator, and her family have moved to a remote part of Maine when the Great Depression hits. With his able middle child at his side, Ellie’s father builds their cabin. Her mother, a music teacher, puts down her mandolin and picks up the ceaseless household chores that come from being poor and living off the land–tasks older sister Esther endures but detests. The little brother, Sam, is impetuous and lively; the mountain is the only home he remembers. When the novel opens, Ellie’s father has been in a coma for months. While clearing land, he is felled by a tree. The details of this accident form Ellie’s dilemma and burden. A thoughtful girl, Ellie keeps still and accepts the blame for her father’s injury while always searching for natural remedies that will jolt him from his oh too silent sleep. While on these scavenger hunts, Ellie is surprised by tiny carvings of animals where she walks and believes someone is leaving them for her. These tokens are more meaningful for Ellie because they make her feel noticed, something she needs since her father’s accident. Of necessity, she’s a loner on the edge of childhood, and the story that ensues brings her to the brink of young adulthood. One day, a matted-haired dog appears at the edge of Ellie’s property, and she follows it to the other side of the mountain where the more established folks live. There she discovers the cabin of Echo Mountain’s legendary “hag,” feverish in her bed, in a room with carving tools and jars of herbs and medicinal cures. With the guidance of the hag–who is a healer– and the help of Larkin, the woman’s grandson, Ellie shows extraordinary resourcefulness in doctoring the old woman and her own father. The situation weaves the threads of the story tightly together with the kind of coincidences that deliver a wondrous tale. This quiet story of resilience during difficult times tells of a family who, in Ellie’s words, “…went looking for a way to survive until the world tipped back to well.”

THOUGHTS: This book concentrates on personal issues, rather than global ideas. Sensitive middle school students who like to wrap themselves in multi-faceted characters will gravitate to Ellie. It also provides a study of the dynamics of relationships: how Ellie relates to her mother and sister; how the different neighbors either share or refrain from sharing; how rumor feeds the negative attitude of the mountain people toward the hag; how humans deal with guilt and remorse. Similar to books like The Line Tender by Kate Allen and The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bryant.

Historical Fiction (Great Depression, 1930’s)          Bernadette Cooke, SD Philadelphia

MG – Summer and July

Moiser, Paul. Summer and July. Harper, 2020. 978-0-062-84936-6. 320 p. $16.99. Grades 3-7.

12 year old Julliet is afraid. She is afraid of turbulence on the airplane ride to LA, afraid of the premonitions given by a fortune teller back home, and afraid of telling the truth about why she missed her piano recital. While in Ocean View, where she and her mom are staying for a month, Julliet meets Summer, a free spirited surfer, who teaches her to live beyond her fears. As summer days filled with ice cream and “ignoring alien orders” pass by, Julliet realizes that Summer is hiding a difficult reality in her own life. With Summer’s help she is not only able to confront many of her physical fears, but Julliet is also able to share how her parent’s divorce has contributed to her fears. As feelings grow and summer comes to an end, Julliet helps Summer find joy after a family tragedy and she becomes the strong, fearless surfer girl she is meant to be.

THOUGHTS: This sweet novel set in an ocean town will be a perfect middle grade read for students nostalgic for summer. Students who are struggling with divorce or feelings related to LGBTQ+ identity will appreciate and connect with these characters.

Realistic Fiction          Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD