MG – A Thousand Questions

Faruqi, Saadia. A Thousand Questions. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2020. 978-0-062-94320-0. 225 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8. 

In this East meets West friendship story, A Thousand Questions shows the disparity in lifestyles between the United States and Pakistan told alternately by the two main characters. Eleven-year-old Mimi Scotts and her mother travel from Houston, Texas, for summer vacation to visit her wealthy grandparents, Begum Sahib and Sahiba Ji, in Karachi for the first time. She is awed by the wealth and luxury of her grandparents’ home compared with her tiny apartment and stretched budget back in the United States. While Mimi’s mother reconnects with her school chums, Mimi forms a friendship with the servant girl, Sakina Ejaz. Too poor to go to school, Sakina assists her diabetic father cooking in the Ji’s kitchen. The two girls become fast friends. With the backdrop of the campaign season for new elections, Sakina shows Mimi the sites of Karachi, and Mimi agrees to tutor to Sakina for her English examination so that she can win a school scholarship. Mimi’s narration includes secret letters she writes to Tom Scotts, the father she has never met. When Mimi discovers her freelance journalist father is living in Karachi, she is determined to meet him and Sakina is a willing accomplice. Author Saadia Faruqi captures the richness of the Asian city from the delicious dishes and its atmosphere to the inequity of the caste system as well as the authenticity of the fully-drawn main characters: Sakina, mature beyond her years, cognizant of her integral role in providing for the welfare of her family; Mimi, an ordinary American girl of modest means, getting to know her grandparents and also her own mother in her childhood home and longing to connect with father.

THOUGHTS: This book reminds the reader of When Heaven Fell  by Carolyn Marsden, a story that compares the life of  a struggling Vietnamese family with the life of an adult Vietnamese-American adoptee who visits her Vietnamese birth mother. There’s a part where Sakini asks Mimi if there are poor people in America and Mimi answers, “No,” at first until she remembers a homeless man and the kids at school who qualify for free lunch. Discussion of social justice issues, equity in education, and divorce can ensue.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

When Mimi and her mother arrive in Karachi, Pakistan for the summer, Mimi immediately misses air conditioning, soccer, and chicken nuggets, all staples of her American upbringing. Mimi is surprised to find that her grandparents live in luxury, employing servants and wearing fancy clothes, while Mimi and her mother can barely afford rent in their tiny Houston apartment. Mimi realizes there is so much she doesn’t know about her mother, her grandparents, and her father who left years ago without explanation. After learning that her father’s job brought him to Karachi, Mimi befriends a servant girl who agrees to help Mimi find him in exchange for English lessons. Sakina, a servant of Mimi’s grandparents, dreams of going to school like Mimi, but her servant status prohibits her from making her dreams a reality. After all, when would she find the time to go to school when she must keep her job to take care of her own family and ailing father? Going to school seems even more impossible when she takes a secret exam and fails the English portion, but when Sakina and Mimi strike up their deal, Sakina starts to hope for her future and a better life for her family. As their friendship blossoms, the inequities of the Pakistani class system are revealed, and the friends determine to make good in both of their worlds despite the challenges.

THOUGHTS: Instead of multiple perspectives from different time periods, this story highlights two contemporary perspectives in a country many readers will be unfamiliar with. Shining light on the class system that still exists today in Pakistan, readers may feel compelled to learn more about the living inequalities and hardships people face who live outside of the United States. This is a good #ownvoices addition to any library seeking to diversity their collection.

Realistic     Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD

MG – The Campaign

Sales, Leila. The Campaign. Amulet Books, 2020. 978-1-419-73974-3. 304 p. $16.99. Grades 3-7.

Seventh grader Maddie Polansky loves school for one reason, art class. A bit of an outcast and troublemaker with the other students and most teachers, Maddie shines when participating in art. When she finds out that the only candidate for mayor of her town wants to slash the art budget, Maddie decides to get political and recruit her 23 year old babysitter, Janet, to run for mayor. Since Janet just graduated from college and has never had a job other than babysitting, the campaign is facing an uphill battle! But campaign manager Maddie recruits her classmates and runs a campaign that winds up beating her former Olympian, experienced town council competitor. In today’s day and age, this book shows that being a troublemaker is exactly what Maddie’s town and school needs.

THOUGHTS: I loved this book! This illustrated novel is perfect for an election year.  It brings just enough of a political vibe for middle schoolers, while addressing issues such as educational funding, homelessness, and community issues such as understaffed Public Works Departments. Issues are brought to light through the eyes of voters, highlighting the fact that everyone votes for the issues that they care about.

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick- Waldron Mercy Academy

MG – The Prettiest

Young, Brigit. The Prettiest. Roaring Brook Press, 2020. 978-1-626-72923-0. 301 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8.

Eve Hoffman writes poetry, wears her high-school aged brother’s oversized shirts to distract from her curves, and buries her head in a book so as to not be noticed. She is the most surprised of all her eighth grade classmates to find herself in the top slot on the Prettiest List at Ford Middle School in suburban Michigan. As the principal and teachers try to root out the list’s instigator, both girls on the list and off suffer backlash. Prettiest by Brigit Young is told through the perspectives of the main characters: Eve, a well-developed, shy girl from a conservative Jewish family; Nessa Flores-Brady, her best friend, a theater junkie and a large, Latinx girl; and Sophie Kane, a determined blonde-haired girl whose bossiness and make-up mask the shame she feels about her family’s economic situation. When the ringleader of the mean girls, Sophie, gets knocked off her pedestal and relegated to number two on the list, she realizes the pretense of her groupies and reluctantly joins forces with Nessa and Eve to take down the person who they believe compiled the list. Aided by Winston Byrd, a lone renegade from the popular boys, their chief suspect is Brody Dalton, a wealthy, handsome, and entitled young man who has verbally abused or offended many of his classmates with no remorse. The trio enlist other wronged girls calling themselves Shieldmaidens. They bond in genuine friendship and sisterhood as they plot to expose Dalton’s crime in a public way at the finale of the school play. What starts off as a 21st Century equivalent to a simple slam book story becomes a feminist’s rallying cry for girls to be judged on their merits, not their looks, and for all middle school students to resist fitting into a mold to gain acceptance. It also uncovers the nuances of each person’s story. For example, the arrogant Dalton is the sole student whose parent never attends school events. Young’s talent for echoing the authenticity and humor of preadolescent dialogue enables her to tackle important issues with a light touch. This highly readable work reveals the insecurities embedded in a middle school student’s life: not being cool enough, popular enough, and the pain caused by too much attention and not enough.

THOUGHTS: Though there is some show of diversity here (an African-American girl, a girl in a wheelchair), the emphasis is on the pressure middle school students—especially girls—feel to look and behave a certain way. Lots of discussion points in this book: from the insults the girls receive and their collective show of power to the students’ bandwagon attitude and the sympathetic– but mostly ineffectual– response of the teachers and principal. Prettiest may present as a “girl” book because of its feminine cover and title, but it is definitely a book for all genders to read. For more tales of positive girl power: read Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu in high school.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – Don’t Stand So Close to Me

Walters, Eric. Don’t Stand So Close to Me. Orca Book Publishers, 2020. 978-1-459-82787-5. 128 p. $10.95. Grades 6-8.

Eighth Grader Quinn and her friends are surprised when their school principal holds an emergency assembly two days before spring break, announcing that their vacation is extended due to COVID-19. Although she has heard her dad, an emergency room doctor, talk about the virus, she didn’t think it would actually disrupt school. At first Quinn and her friends, Isaac and Reese, look forward to watching Netflix and playing video games all day, but the free time and social distancing gets old quickly, school is closed indefinitely, and the virus gets closer to home. Isaac’s police officer mother is working all day leaving him home alone for hours, Reese’s grandmother is in isolation at the local nursing home, and Quinn’s Dad is living in the basement when not working endless hours treating record amounts of patients. Quinn, Isaac, and Reese realize that although the virus has changed everything about their lives, from the way they go to school to how they hang out with friends, they can still feel connected by supporting themselves and their community.

THOUGHTS: A timely story that many readers will relate to, although it does not depict how the pandemic affected low-income families and those with difficult family conditions. Perhaps a companion novel or sequel can show how the pandemic has affected those in different socioeconomic situations and what life will be like after a vaccine is created.

Realistic Fiction          Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD

MS Fiction – The Gauntlet; Making Bombs for Hitler; Stef Soto, Taco Queen; You May Already be a Winner

Raizi, Karuna. The Gauntlet. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017. 978-1-4814-8696-5. $16.99.  Gr. 5-8.

Twelve year old Farah Mirza recently moved from Queens to the Upper East Side in New York City. Though she never had any problems in her last school, the kids here don’t understand her hijaab or her younger brother Ahmad’s issues. At her birthday party, Farah is excited to see her two closest friends from Queens, Essie and Alex. They decide to open a mysterious gift from Farah’s aunt and are elated to see it’s a board game called The Gauntlet. What they don’t know is that Farah’s aunt did not mean to gift this game – and that the game is alive! Soon they are sucked into the world of The Gauntlet, and must work against a game that doesn’t play fair. When Farah sees that Ahmad is in the game, too, she is determined to find him and free herself and her friends. THOUGHTS:  It’s refreshing to see a strong Muslim lead character in a middle grade novel! Farah is a clever and fierce protagonist whose faith in her friends and family never waivers. While the book is an adventure, Riazi also adds in some subtle social commentary that reflects the world outside the book.

Fantasy    Vicki Schwoebel, Friends’ Central School


Skrypuch, Marsha Forchuck. Making Bombs for Hitler. Scholastic, 2017. 9781338170757. 232 pp.  $6.99. Gr. 6-8.

In this absorbing novel, Skrypuch makes the reader aware of a lesser known aspect of World War II – that of the enslavement of Ukrainian and other Eastern Europeans by Nazi Germany.  Lida is a 10 year old Ukrainian girl who has known tragedy in her short life.  First, her mother is killed by German soldiers, and then Lida and her younger sister Larissa are captured by the Nazis.  Separated from her sister, Lida is sent on a train to an abysmal work camp in Germany.  The author does not shy away for describing the horrors of the train ride and life in the camp.  While not discussed in detail, the author leaves no doubt about the fate of the younger children in the camp, who are taken to the “hospital” for medical experimentation   At first, she works with the laundress and has a relatively clean and safe job.  This changes as the Allies continue to push forward into Germany. Lida is taken to factory to fit together bombs, a place where one wrong move or a tiny piece of metal will cause the factory to explode. Facing meager rations and lice-ridden condition, Lida and her friends know what they need to do in order to survive.   THOUGHTS: This text provides another perspective of the war and is a valuable addition to World War II juvenile literature.

Historical Fiction            Denise Medwick, West Allegheny School District


Torres, Jennifer. Stef Soto, Taco Queen. Little, Brown, 2017. 978-0-316-30686-7 166 p. $16.99. Gr. 4-7.

Mexican-American Stef Soto is the daughter of immigrants, and while she loves her parents and is proud of their success, she wishes they would leave her alone sometimes. She’s horrified when her father comes to pick her up at school in his taco food truck, especially when she overhears popular girl Julia refer to her as the “Taco Queen.”  Stef decides to show her parents how responsible she is so they give her more freedom, a plan that doesn’t work out the way she hopes it will. Meanwhile, she gets involved in a school fundraiser, finds herself paired up with Julia, and winds up alienating her two best friends.  Spanish words are skillfully woven throughout the book, either defined or easily understood in context. THOUGHTS:  This debut novel is a light-hearted, fun read, and Stef is a likeable, relatable heroine.  Highly recommended for elementary and middle school libraries.

Realistic Fiction        Maggie Bokelman, Cumberland Valley SD

Stef Soto is embarrassed. She just wants to be an average seventh grader. But it’s hard to be anonymous when your dad picks you up after school every day driving the family’s taco food truck, Tia Perla. Her immigrant parents are working hard to make a good life for the Soto family, and they’re a little too protective of their only child (at least that’s how Stef feels). When Stef wins concert tickets, she tries to convince her parents to let her attend, but she knows it will ultimately prove unsuccessful. A talented artist, Stef is also working with her classmates to try and raise funds for art supplies for their school. When proposed changes to city regulations threaten the future of her family’s food truck business, Stef must reevaluate her feelings for Tia Perla. Maybe the food truck is worth standing up and fighting for, after all. THOUGHTS: This family-centric story is a solid addition to upper elementary/middle school shelves. Readers will find themselves rooting for the Stef and her friends as well as the Soto family. Spanish words and phrases are integrated within the storyline; non-Spanish speakers will have no trouble understanding their meaning.
Realistic Fiction    Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg SD


Ellis, Ann Dee. You May Already Be a Winner. Dial Books, 2017. 978-1-101-99385-9. 352 p. $19.99. Gr. 5-8.

Twelve year old Olivia has the responsibility of someone much older. With her mom working overtime to make ends meet and her dad “away” in Bryce Canyon, Liv tries to keep her little sister, Berkeley, entertained. Since Berk can’t go to daycare anymore, Liv stays home from school and looks after her, making sure they take time to practice various subjects in their workbooks.  Life in Sunny Pines Trailer Park isn’t always sunny and happy. Olivia’s former best friend has moved on, and Olivia begins to wonder about feelings she might have for a boy. Trying to distract Berk from their misfortune further, Olivia comes up with a circus spectacular, so they have something to plan and look forward to. As her mother’s resolve begins to crack, Liv has to take on even more responsibility. Determined to change their luck, Olivia follows a very strict routine of entering online contests, that is until their computer dies and the librarian asks questions about why the girls aren’t in school.  THOUGHTS: This is a heartbreaking look at family dynamics and being honest with oneself and each other. With Olivia’s wild imagination, there are parts of her story that are fabricated, and those may confuse young readers, but it is a beautiful story of sisterhood, hope, and not giving up on those you love.

Realistic Fiction       Maryalice Bond, South Middleton School District

Upper Elementary/MS Series Fiction – Curious Cat Spy Club; The Quirks; Dance Divas


Singleton, Linda Joy. The Curious Cat Spy Club. Chicago: Albert Whitman, 2015. 978-0-8075-13767. 245 p. $14.99. Gr. 3-6.

Becca lives at the Wild Oaks Animal Sanctuary and has a group of friends known as Sparklers. When Becca is chasing their zorse, Kelsey helps to stop the creature from fleeing by sharing her father’s homemade cookies. Becca is grateful for her help and makes sure that her mother calls Kelsey’s parents so they understand why the cookies did not make it to the Veteran’s Hall.  It is the unlikely sound of cats in a dumpster that ties the crew of Kelsey, Becca and then Leo, an aloof boy from their class that loves robots, together. It seems that too many pets are missing. Their club meets in secret at the Skunk Shack. Their friendship will be challenged and also grow as the mystery becomes more intense. Thoughts: This book is the perfect start to a series for upper elementary and middle school readers in need of a detective story that is not overly scary.

Realistic Fiction; Mystery   Beth McGuire, Wendover Middle School




Soderberg, Erin. The Quirks and the Quirkalicious Birthday. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. 978-1-61963-370-4. 199 p. $13.99. Gr. 3-6.

Join the next installment in the series as the twins prepare for their tenth birthday. For the first time, they will have a party and can each invite ten guests since they have been living in Normal, Michigan, for a few weeks. Who will they invite and how will they agree on the location and special events for the party? In their quest to solve the Quikalicius Birthday Hunt from their grandfather, the two will learn how to work together and  when to tell  a joke.  In a way, the series reminds you of Savvy by Ingrid Law as most of the family members have certain powers. Full page and smaller black and white illustrations advance the narrative. Thoughts: With a family and mixed special abilities, I think of this book as a perfect read for students who have older sibling devouring Ingrid Law’s Savvy. With powerful abilities, students could also relate the characters to various comic book characters.

Realistic Fiction       Beth McGuire, Wendover Middle School




Berk, Sheryl. Dance Divas: Showstopper. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. 127 p. 978-1-61963-575-3. $15.99. Gr. 3-6.

Enter the sixth novel in the series as Miss Toni decided that the dancers will have time off during the week of President’s Day. While used to having the finest costumes available, this time the dancers will have to make their own costumes based upon the card they select. Gracie selected the joker card and has difficulty narrowing down her costume. To fuel her dream, Anya and her mother live thousands of miles away from her father and brother. Rochelle and her family invited them over for Christmas, but it  wasn’t the same. They are preparing for the dance competition in Las Vegas. Anya and her mother fly out to LAX and learn that her brother passed his driver’s test. During her week, the teacher is practicing merging ballet and hip-hop. At what could be her last performance in Las Vegas with her dance troupe, she learns that her brother was seriously injured when driving. What will happen next? Thoughts: While a sixth in the series, I think a student could read the books in any order and take delight reading the books.

Realistic Fiction    Beth McGuire, Wendover Middle School

The Crossover


Alexander, Kwame. The Crossover. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 978-0544107717  238 p. $16.99 Gr. 5-8
Twelve-year-old twins Jordan (JB) and Josh (Filthy McNasty) Bell are opposites except for their love of basketball.  Fueled by talent and their once-pro father’s support and example, they exhibit early skill in the game.  Josh is the only middle schooler who can slam dunk, and JB owns a fabulous three-point shot.  But change is brewing, in the form of a girlfriend for JB and health problems for Dad, and Josh, the narrator, captures the highs and lows of basketball and life.  Dad and assistant principal mom provide a family unit strong on love and discipline.  When Josh’s jealousy leads him to an in-game fight with JB, his parents suspend him from the game.  Avoiding doctors and his wife’s attempts at a better diet, their dad is hospitalized in a coma from high blood pressure.  The amazing free-verse poetry novel soars in Alexander’s hands; the rhythm and joy of playing on the court shines through, as does the weightiness and confusion faced by the Bell family.  A story of family, basketball, and endurance, bound to delight fans of basketball, jazz, and wordplay.  A fantastic book talk or read-aloud, this story could be used for examinations of novels in verse, rhythmic writing, sibling love and rivalry, family struggles, and character growth.
Realistic Fiction; Verse                     Melissa Scott, Shenango High School

Surrounded by Sharks…new from Michael Northrop


Northrop, Michael. Surrounded by Sharks. New York: Scholastic, 2014. 978-0-545-61545-7. 208p. $17.99. Gr. 5-8.

Davey feels trapped; he’s stuck sleeping on a cot in a hotel room shared with his parents and younger brother while on a family vacation to an island resort.  So, when he awakens early, he decides to slip out to explore the island.  Finding a secluded beach posted with a “No Swimming” sign, he relaxes with his favorite book. Tempted by the waves rolling ashore, he decides to walk along the beach.  Wading isn’t swimming, he rationalizes.  However, as he walks through the waves, Davey wades too far, is captured by a rip current and is swept out to sea.  Clinging to an empty water cooler bottle, Davey strategizes about how to return to shore or attract the attention of passersby.  Soon, he has a bigger problem—a much bigger problem.  He has attracted the attention of several sharks.  Meanwhile back on shore, his family, resort officials, fellow vacationers and the police are all engaged in a search for Davey.  Will they realize where he is?  And if they do, will they reach Davey before the sharks make their move?

Realistic Fiction; Adventure      Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg HS/MS

Surrounded by Sharks is more than just a pulse-pounding suspenseful story pitting boy vs. shark.  Chapters alternate among several points of view:  Davey, Brando (Davey’s younger brother), Drew (a British teen staying at the resort with her family), and the tiger shark stalking Davey.  This narrative technique increases the tension and suspense as readers experience Davey’s stress and fear, Brando’s growing worry for his brother, and Drew’s increasing interest in locating Davey.  Northrup uses the chapters told from the point of view of the tiger shark not only invoke a sense of danger closing in on Davey, but also to impart knowledge and scientific facts about species.  The chapters are short and easily keep the attention of the reader, making this an appealing choice for reluctant readers.

Life in the Fast Lane…New Transportation Books for Middle School

Life in the Fast Lane (series).  New York: Cavendish Square, 2015. 48 p. $22.00 ea. Gr. 5-8
   Inside a Drag Racer.  978-1-62713-049-3.
   Inside a Formula 1 Car.  978-1-62713-034-9.
   Inside a High-Speed Train.  978-1-62713-043-1.
   Inside a Speedboat.  978-1-62713-037-0.
   Inside a Sprint Car.  978-1-62713-052-3.
   Inside a Stock Car.  978-1-62713-040-0.
   On a Jet Ski.  978-1-62713-046-2.

Each of the books in this series takes a look at a fast-moving, action-packed vehicle and discusses both the history and mechanic aspects of each.  They also contain colorful pictures of modern and historical vehicles.  The writing style encourages students to put themselves in the driver’s seat, and throughout the text, difficult vocabulary words are printed in bold and defined at the end of the book.  The topics themselves will garner high interest, though a student could use these books as part of a research project.  The size and amount of text is geared toward a younger audience, but all who read these books will certainly learn something new!

629s, 790s  Transportation          Nicole Starner  Biglerville HS/Upper Adams MS

Heaven is Paved…With Oreos


Murdock, Catherine Gilbert. Heaven is Paved with Oreos. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 978-0-547-62538-6. 201 p. $14.49. Gr. 5-9.

In this companion to Murdock’s YA novel Dairy Queen, Sarah Zorn is a science-loving, fourteen year-old, who just wants to spend her summer working with her best friend, Curtis, on their ninth grade science project, Boris, a decaying calf.  But instead of full-science-fair-focus, Sarah and Curtis must continue their “Brilliant Outflanking Strategy,” their appearance to others, especially awful Emily Friend (or as Sarah likes to call her Emily Enemy), as dating for it’s the only way Sarah and Curtis have figured out to not be made fun of for being best friends. In addition to keeping up appearances, Sarah’s grandmother, Z, wants to take Sarah to Rome with her to celebrate her 64th birthday and re-visit a pilgrimage she took many years ago.  While in Rome, Sarah learns the truth about her grandmother, and her family, and realizes that perhaps the “Brilliant Outflanking Strategy” isn’t so brilliant at all.  As Sarah deals with many teen realities of liking someone, friendship, enemies, and family, Murdock also provides a real outlet for students to consider-journaling, the format of the novel.  D.J. Schwenk (Dairy Queen) returns in this novel, but in a much smaller role.

Realistic         Erin Parkinson, Lincoln JSHS, Ellwood City

Having never read Dairy Queen, but knowing that it was a YA novel, I expected more from Heaven is Paved with Oreos.  Instead, I feel like a got a great middle school novel but wanted more.  This novel is a great portrayal of friendship, familial relationships, and the development of more romantic feelings as people grow up, but it lacked a bit of development with the story.  I liked the notion of Rome and why Z wanted to go and share her experience with Sarah, but I felt like it dropped the story as soon as they returned to Wisconsin.  I wanted more from this storyline because I felt that it was very important, but perhaps for the target audience it is not important.

This would be a wonderful novel for literature circles or independent reading because of the use of a journal.  The format allows readers to explore their own use of journaling to “figure stuff out” and share parts of them that they may not share with others.