Elem./MG – Swim Team

Christmas, Johnnie. Swim Team. HarperAlley, 2022. 978-0-063-05677-0. 256 p. $6.99. Grades 3-6.

Bree and her single dad, Ralph, move from Brooklyn to Palmetto Shores, Florida, where he has both an IT training program and a job as a delivery driver lined up. To calm her nerves about moving and starting at a new school, Bree focuses on her favorite things (doing homework with her dad, cooking, and the library), but sometimes intrusive negative thoughts make her doubt herself. Bree, who can’t swim and hates pools, is crestfallen to be placed in the only open elective at Enith Brigitha Middle School: Swim 101. Now her anxious internal dialogue, depicted as heavily outlined, grayscale thought bubbles that are in stark contrast to her sun-drenched surroundings, really run wild. When Bree accidentally falls into the condominium pool and is rescued by her neighbor, Ms. Etta (who happens to be an outstanding swimmer), Bree realizes that she’s found the perfect swimming instructor. Ms. Etta agrees to give Bree lessons – and an informal mini-history of Black people and swimming. Bree surprises everyone, including herself, by winning her first race. Despite some botched flipturns and belly flops, Bree develops into a strong member of Enith Brigitha’s team, which suddenly has a shot at the state championship. Meanwhile, the school district plans to sell the land where the pool is located to Smoothie Palace, but if the swim team starts winning, maybe the plans will change. A rival-to-“swim sister” subplot reinforces the theme of teamwork and adds a layer of drama that middle grade readers will love. 

THOUGHTS: Swimming is often under-represented among sports stories, and this one works on every level: an endearing protagonist, bright artwork (including gorgeous underwater panels), representation of young Black swimmers, and exciting races. Readers of Living With Viola by Rosena Fung and New Kid by Jerry Craft will adore it!

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – Muddle School

Whamond, Dave. Muddle School. Kids Can Press, 2021. 978-1-525-30486-6. $15.99. 144 p. Grades 5-8.

This semi-autobiographical graphic novel follows Dave, a self-proclaimed nerd, through an eventful year of his “Muddle School” journey. Dave’s school experiences swing from the lowest lows, including getting pushed into mud by bullies on the first day of school, to the highest highs, as he kisses his crush at the end-of-the-year dance. He and his lab partner Chad even design a time machine for the science fair, which Daniel tries to use to go back and redo his disastrous first few months of typical middle school blunders. Throughout the book, Dave learns that being authentic, standing up for others and taking risks are the best ways to survive Muddle School.

THOUGHTS: The illustrations, jokes and silly situations that appear in this book are a wonderful glimpse into the mind of a middle school boy. Dave shows true fondness for his family, hates bullies but feels helpless against them, and uses his love of drawing to help himself process his feelings; everything feels authentic, if a little sanitized, to the school experiences of teen and tween-agers today. In the brief back-matter pages, it is delightful to find out that many of the things the author includes in the story actually happened! Many middle school students will be able to relate to this book and find humor and comfort in the life of another awkward boy just trying to make his way through Muddle School.

Graphic Novel          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – The Shape of Thunder

Warga, Jasmine. The Shape of Thunder. Balzar & Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-95667-5. $16.99. 275 p. Grades 5-8.

Cora Hamid and Quinn Macauley are next door neighbors and inseparable friends all their twelve years of life–until they are not. Quinn’s older brother, Parker, takes his father’s hunting guns to his high school one November morning and shoots Cora’s sister, Mabel, a teacher, another student, and himself. The two families’ approach to grief could not be more different. Abandoned as a baby by her mother (the reader never discovers why), Lebanese-American and Muslim Cora has the nurturing support of her biologist dad; thoughtful, maternal Gram; and the professional support of a trained therapist. Quinn’s family buries the issue. Told in alternating voices, the reticent and less academic Quinn has difficulty expressing her thoughts and guilty feelings. Her workaholic father is against any outside help to ease the family’s suffering, and her mother hides in the house cooking and baking. Longing to reconnect with Cora, Quinn delivers a box to her doorstep stuffed with articles about time travel and wormholes on Cora’s birthday. She knows Cora well enough to appeal to her scientific nature. Perhaps the two of them could find a wormhole and travel back in time to stop the tragedy of that fateful day. As the pair work through the logistics of approaching a huge tree in the forest for the site of their wormhole/time traveling, they each experience the pain of regret and the insistence on holding fast to the memory of a loved one. While Cora has made new friends on her Junior Quizbowl Team and excels in her studies, Quinn has felt shunned. She longs to be on the soccer team, but is too ashamed to try out. Her art gives her some pleasure, yet not even drawing can remove the heavy weight of a secret she knows about her brother, the possibility that she could have prevented the circumstances. After she confides in the school librarian her remorse, she resolves to confess this awful secret to Cora. Though the revelation breaks their renewed bond, Cora devotes more time to her plan to make the impossible possible. When she questions her father about time travel, she is encouraged and inspired by his answer. He tells her that her absent mother had a theory comparing the shape of time to the shape of thunder: “impossible to map” (p. 213). When both Cora and Quinn are coaxed by different people to attend the traditional Fall Festival at their middle school, the rumble of thunder pulls the two estranged girls to the woods to prove Cora’s theory. The hopeful resolution of the story, despite the sadness surrounding it, gives the reader relief. Quinn’s and Cora’s relationship see-saws throughout realistically. After all, Quinn reminds Cora of the unspeakable thing Parker did. Quinn’s strained home life with her parents who refuse any kind of self-reflection or examination of the devastating action of their son is painful.  Minor situations like the jealousy of Mia, another friend of Cora’s, toward Quinn; the snide remarks of Quinn’s former teammate and friend; the growing crush Cora has with her classmate, Owen (a Japanese-American character), will resonate genuinely with middle school readers. The Shape of Thunder is a tough read, but one that confirms that happiness can co-exist with grief, and friendships can be mended.

THOUGHTS: This novel is full of emotion and rich in language and characterization, but not so intense that a sensitive middle grade student would be put off. Cora is a thinker and an intellectual. Throughout the novel, students will find themselves entertained by the interesting facts Cora spouts (“…cows kill more people than sharks each year…”). The images Warga uses to describe different feelings are unique but spot on (the “fizziness” Cora feels in her tummy when talking to her crush, Owen, etc.). She also makes dialogue very interesting. Quinn has a hard time speaking; her brain freezes and she can’t say the words. When she finally gets angry enough to spill over her feelings to her buttoned up family, it is heartbreaking. The conversations between Cora and her father and grandmother also are authentic and tell the reader so much about the characters. What the reader must conjecture about are Parker’s reason for the shooting and the absence of Cora’s mother since her father seems to have no obvious vices. Ms. Euclid, the school librarian and art teacher, is a heroine for Quinn. This book should be issued with a box of tissues.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – Violet and the Pie of Life

Green, Debra. Violet and the Pie of Life. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-823-44755-8. $18.99. 279 p. Grades 5-8.

Violet is a quiet kid who loves math, pie, and her best friend McKenzie. Violet and McKenzie try to navigate seventh grade together, as they always have, but they begin to grow apart as Violet’s parents separate, and Violet begins to spend more time with Ally, a friend from the school play that McKenzie does not like. As Violet struggles with her parents’ problems and with her perception that some people have a “perfect life,” she begins to realize that all families are more complicated than they seem on the surface, and all aspects of life cannot be easily distilled into the mathematical equations, flow charts, and logical lists that she uses to try to make sense of the changes she is experiencing.

THOUGHTS: This novel brings the struggles and friendships of middle school students to life in an authentic way, and the story uses humor, math, and the arts to show that people are flawed, but still deserving of love and opportunity.  The understanding that grows between Violet and her mother is a heartwarming and hopeful presentation of adolescent-parent relationships, and Violet’s relationship with her father experiences a closure that is poignant if not satisfying. 

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero

Faraqi, Saadi. Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero. Quill Tree Books, 2021. 978-0-062-94325-5. 357 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8. 

Yusuf lives in Texas with his family, and he has some big life changes coming up. He is starting middle school, hoping to enter a Robotics competition with his school’s Robotics team and is spending time helping his family build their community’s new mosque. However this is the 20th year anniversary of September 11th, and his community isn’t happy about the new mosque, or any of his family living in their small town anymore. Yusuf has to deal with bullies from many different directions, and he isn’t sure how to handle it. Will Yusuf be able to hold onto things that bring him such happiness in the face of so much hate and hostility?

THOUGHTS: This well told story touches on many things that today’s readers are either familiar with from their own personal experience, or they have seen it happen to their friends and community members. This book handles these topics with grace and compassion as well as feeling authentic to the situation. Highly recommend this for any middle school collection. 

Realistic Fiction          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

MG – Deadman’s Castle

Lawrence, Iain. Deadman’s Castle. Margaret Ferguson Books, 978-0-823-44655-1. 247 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Igor Andrew Watson does not remember his original name because he has had so many. In fact, no one in his family has their original name because every so often, they are assigned new names and a new home by The Protectors, an organization that helps keep Igor’s family safe. All Igor knows is that when he was a child, his father witnessed a horrific crime. When his father testified in court, the criminal was put in jail, and Igor’s dad made an enemy that Igor only knows as “The Lizard Man.” After their next move to escape the Lizard Man and his vengeance, twelve-year-old Igor grows frustrated with having such an odd life. He longs to go to a regular school and have real friends. After much bargaining and begging, his parents finally agree that he can attend the local middle school as long as he does not tell anyone anything about his identity or lifestyle. Igor makes two close friends and starts to live a somewhat normal life. As he explores his new neighborhood with his friends, Igor has flashbacks of memories. He thinks he has lived in this place before… and he starts to doubt that the Lizard Man even exists.

THOUGHTS: This novel’s interesting plot and cliffhanger chapters will be appealing to middle grade readers looking for a suspenseful thriller. I believe this will be a fan favorite in libraries where mysteries/thrillers are often requested.

Mystery          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Kyle’s Little Sister

Jeong, BonHyung. Kyle’s Little Sister. JY, 2021. 978-1-975-33589-2. $24.00. 207 p. Grades 4-7.

6th grader Grace and 8th grader Kyle just started a new year of middle school. Grace, an avid gamer who often feels awkward in social situations, has always struggled in her role as Kyle’s younger sister, since he is one of the most popular and athletic kids at school. Grace’s best friends, Amy and Jay, try to help her forget about living in her big brother’s shadow by organizing game nights and sleepovers, but soon boy-crazy Amy devises a match-making scheme that breaks up the three girls’ friendship in a devastating way. As Grace and her friends struggle to navigate school gossip, popularity contests, and the difficulties of growing up, Kyle begins to reach out to his sister and repair their tumultuous sibling relationship in a way that is realistic and heartwarming. A brief autobiographical sketch at the end of the book also introduces readers to the author/illustrator of the book and to her artistic writing process.

THOUGHTS: This graphic novel is perfect for fans of Reina Telgemar and Svetlana Chmakova.  Middle schoolers, especially kids that are dealing with all the struggles of young adult friendships, will have no difficulty relating to Grace’s feelings and eagerly will devour this book to find out if the story’s characters find resolutions to their problems.

Graphic Novel          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Soul Lanterns

Kuzki, Shaw. Soul Lanterns. Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-593-17434-0. 162 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Each August, Nozomi and her family release lanterns on the river to guide the souls of lost loved ones. The year she turns twelve, an unsettling encounter with a stranger at the ceremony makes Nozomi wonder about her mother’s past, and about the stories of other adults who lived through the Hiroshima bombing of 1945.  Nozomi likes art, and for an upcoming art showcase, she and three school friends ask relatives and community members to relate heartbreaking stories from “the flash” that they lived through before the children were born. This school project prompts the friends to create moving works of art to remember those that were lost. Ultimately, their works of art help the children to better understand the significance of the lantern ceremony. As Nozomi’s art teacher says at the end of the book, releasing the lanterns helps those in the community not only remember lost loved ones from the tragedy of the bomb, but also “remember the question of why such an awful thing happened.”

THOUGHTS: This story is told from the fascinating perspective of Hiroshima children who do not fully grasp the significance of the Hiroshima bombing because it occurred before they were born, and considerable character growth occurs when they find out through stories and family members what really happened on that terrible day. Many cultural references and Japanese words throughout the book make for a rich reading experience. Although there are descriptions of death and suffering which sensitive students may find disturbing, the author does an excellent job of describing the tragedy of the Hiroshima bomb with sensitivity and respect. This book will inspire readers to look more deeply into the history and ethics of nuclear warfare. Translated from Japanese.

Historical Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem./MG – The Magical Reality of Nadia

Youssef, Bassam. The Magical Reality of Nadia. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-67481-1. 176 p. $14.99. Grades 3-6.

The Magical Reality of Nadia is a realistic fiction that follows Nadia, a 6th grade student who loves facts, and loves sharing them with her friends and classmates. Some fun facts about her: her family moved from Egypt when she was 6 years old, she collects bobbleheads, and she has a hippo amulet she wears that is actually from Ancient Egypt. One day there is a new student that comes to Nadia’s school who teases her about her heritage which causes some issues with her friends and throws Nadia for a loop. The other thing that throws her for a loop? The amulet around Nadia’s neck starts glowing! She finds that her amulet was holding a secret, which is hilarious and helpful at the same time!

THOUGHTS: This is an amazing transition novel, for a student who isn’t ready for longer chapter books. There are black and white illustrations found throughout the novel, which break up the book. This is a great book to have in any upper elementary/middle school collection.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

MG – The Kate in Between

Swinarski, Claire. The Kate in Between. Quill Tree Books, 2021. 978-0-062-91270-1. 289 p. $15.15. Grades 5-8.

Kate and Haddie are best friends and have been since first grade. But Kate needs a change, and she’s not exactly sure where Haddie fits in the new life she is trying to fashion for herself.  Kate’s mother has left town to pursue her dream of becoming a True Diamond in the world of True Cosmetics, and Kate is left to move into the guest room of her police officer father’s apartment where she doesn’t even have a bed. It’s embarrassing for Kate, and it’s sometimes difficult when you have a friend who knows your truth. She hopes seventh grade will be different, and when Kate finds herself in popular mean girl Taylor’s orbit, there just isn’t room for Haddie. When a near tragedy involving Haddie and some bullies who may or may not be Kate’s friends turns Kate into a hero, she begins to question exactly what it means to be Taylor’s friend and why it is harder than it should be. But when a video of the incident goes viral, her status as a hero also goes viral. Kate knows what really happened, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone else does too. Will Kate be able to figure out just who she is with her life in the spotlight?

THOUGHTS: Claire Swinarski takes a familiar middle grade theme of friends growing apart and makes it fresh. I would recommend this book to upper middle school students.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD