MG – Moonflower

Calendar, Kacen. Moonflower. Scholastic Press, 2022.  978-1-338-63659-8. 272 p. $17.99. Grades 3-7.

The dreamy scenes and atmospheric tone of this novel contrast sharply with the depression and anxiety that plague the main character, a child named Moon. Moon has trouble sleeping, speaking, and attending school with other kids, and instead they choose to get lost in a world of magical realism where they feel more “real” than they do in real life. Their mother is clearly distraught and although she tries to help, Moon’s mental health is not something she can cope with well on her own. Eventually, Moon’s therapist and a cast of metaphorical guides they find on their journeys to the spirit realm help them realize that all people are worthy of love, and that life is full of pain, but also of great beauty and joy.

THOUGHTS: Moon’s struggles throughout this book are highlighted by vivid descriptions of depression and suicidal thoughts that might be triggering for some people. Despite the pain that Moon endures, and the sometimes didactic internal dialogue we hear from them during their various encounters with antagonists, teachers and friends, the story ends on a tremendously hopeful note that centers around the idea that everyone deserves love.

Fantasy          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman

Lee, Kristen R. Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman. Crown, 2022. 978-0-593-30915-5. $18.99. 326 p. Grades 9-12.

Savannah Howard is the golden girl of her poor Memphis neighborhood. Through hard work and focus, she earned a full scholarship to Wooddale, a prestigious Ivy League college. As one of the few Black students on campus, she makes friends quickly with upperclass students Natasha (Tasha) Carmichael, a light-skinned, well to do fashionista and aspiring lawyer; and Benjamin (Benji) Harrington, a local wealthy “high yellow” young man. Benji is a childhood friend of fellow student, Lucas Cunningham, a walking epitome of white privilege. One of the first incidents on campus Savannah witnesses is the vandalism of a statue of the only African American past presidents of the college. The non reaction of the university leaders to the blatant act of racism motivates Savannah to put in motion a campaign on social media, the school newspaper, and student forums to bring down the instigator and perpetrator of this racist behavior, Lucas Cunningham. Though she enlists the support of one of her African American professors as well as Tasha and Benji, the daily grind of uncovering the truth, being harassed – and even assaulted – by Lucas and his crew, and being snubbed by other classmates is exhausting. She grapples with Benji’s romantic attentions and his sometimes ambivalent actions toward her nemesis and, perhaps more importantly, with her decision to go to a predominantly white institution. The novel by Kristen R. Lee spans Savannah’s freshman year recounted with her own authentic voice. After she gives an interview on her professor’s podcast relating the injustices prevalent on campus and accusing the Cunninghams of manipulating the college admission process, she moves off campus to a toney neighborhood to board with the elderly widow, Mrs. Flowers, a self made entrepreneur. Lured back by students from a historically Black college to lead a peaceful protest, Savannah comes full circle, confident that she has stood for what is important and acknowledged by the university’s African American woman president. Her goal being reached, Savannah makes a critical decision for her future.

THOUGHTS: This novel takes on white privilege, racism, and microaggressions with which students of color can identify and white students can gain perspective. Author Kristen R. Lee has created a strong, female character who speaks her mind because she sees no alternative. She is ambitious and savvy, yet vulnerable and often scared. Her friends and the people who support her are all African American, but it is a small circle. The white students she forms acquaintances with turn out to be druggies, self-serving, deceitful, or racist (or any combination of those negative qualities). Save for Dr. Santos (the African American professor), the college’s administrators are weak, not enough, or oblivious. At the end of the book, Savannah gets called to Wooddale College president’s Architectural Digest-worthy home. The president is a Black woman; she informs Savannah she will be honored, and all the racist and unjust acts that happened during the year will be properly addressed. Savannah asks why the president didn’t come out earlier and confides her desire to leave Wooddale to attend a historically Black college. The president tells her that she has had to make some concessions to achieve what she has. That answer falls flat with the idealistic Savannah. Reading this book as a white person is uncomfortable–not a bad thing. To quote an old phrase, Lee “tells it like it is,” a truth to be embraced by every reader.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke School District of Philadelphia

MG – Aviva vs. the Dybbuk

Lowe, Mari. Aviva vs. the Dybbuk. Levine Querido, 2022. 978-1-646-14125-8. $17.99. 176 p. Grades 5-8.

Aviva vs. the Dybbuk takes on an unusual theme in a not frequently used setting. Sixth grader Aviva Jacobs is an orthodox Jewish girl plagued by a dybbuk (“a ghost of a deceased person who returns to complete a certain task”). Aviva’s family unit–she and her mother–is not doing well. The reader knows that Abba has died in an unnamed accident five years prior. Since then, Aviva’s life is off kilter. Through the kindness of their close knit community, her mother manages the mikvah (“pool used for religious immersion”) and lives in the apartment above it. The reader also sees that Ema is depressed, but Aviva just views the disappearance of her vibrant, soft-spoken mother into a scared, nervous agoraphob. Aviva, too, has become an outsider from her classmates and estranged from her best friend, Kayla. Instead, her constant companion is the mischievous dybbuk who only she can see. The dybbuk soaps the floor in the mikvah, unplugs the refrigerator, rips up checks, and generally haunts Aviva. Moreover, the mikvah and the shul are under attack: A swastika is on the sidewalk outside the shul. In the midst of this disruption, Aviva and Kayla–both talented players– get into an altercation at the machanayim, “a ball game played in some Jewish schools and camps.” The consequence of their action is having to plan the annual Bas Mitzvah Bash at the arcade. The planning sessions reignite Aviva’s and Kayla’s friendship in the weeks before the event and seem to have a positive effect on Ema as well. The dybbuk, also, is in high gear with wild shenanigans that Aviva attempts to stop. As Kayla and Aviva grow closer, and the caring community rallies around Ema, anti-semitism rears its ugly head, forcing Aviva to recall her father’s death and recognize the effect of that trauma. Lowe’s fluidity with language makes this compact story a smooth read. The emotions displayed in Aviva vs. the Dybbuk coupled with the engaging story give it universal appeal. Includes glossary (excerpted definitions in quotes above).

THOUGHTS: You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate Aviva’s situation. Lowe presents the story through Aviva’s eyes which may make it more relatable to students: The distant mother, the struggle to be independent and act like everything is fine, the alienation from classmates. Lead readers who like this book to Lilliam Rivera’s young adult novel, Never Look Back. The dybbuk goading Aviva parallels the mysterious creature named Ato who haunts the main character. This well-written, compelling story offers an opportunity for non-Jewish readers to learn about different aspects of the Jewish religion in a non-polemic way. Any way books can open us up to be more tolerant, understanding people is a good thing. 

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – Alice Austen Lived Here

Gino, Alex. Alice Austen Lived Here. Scholastic Books, 2022. 978-1-338-73389-1. 162 p. $17.99. Grades 4-12.

Seventh graders Sam and TJ are nonbinary students who come from supportive and loving homes on Staten Island. Sam lives in an apartment complex along with several other supportive friends and members of the LGBTQ community. Sam and TJ’s history teacher assigned them a project to nominate an individual in history that lived on Staten Island and contributed to the community. The winning entry will have a statue commissioned to face New York Harbor.  This is when the pair discovers Alice Austen who was a photographer and an important queer figure that lived and worked on Staten Island.

THOUGHTS: I read this book quickly and really enjoyed the character development. I love that Sam and TJ acted like middle schoolers. Their emotions and reactions felt genuine. I also enjoy reading about Alice Austen who was a new name to me.

Realistic Fiction          Victoria Dziewulski, Plum Borough SD

Sam is a nonbianary teen with a nonbianry best friend, TJ, and they often hang out with a lesbian couple, babysitting the couple’s new baby, in the same building. When Sam and TJ are challenged by a teacher to propose building a new statue to honor an important figure in Staten Island history, they immediately begin looking for someone that will represent their LGBTQ+ community. They find the perfect person in Alice Austen, a photographer who lived and worked in Staten Island in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sam and TJ also befriend an older woman who lives in their building, a former teacher, who helps them contextualize what they learn about Alice Austen during the course of their project. This story ultimately illustrates the value of studying the past, especially important issues and events in the LGBTQ+ community, while also moving forward in the present. 

THOUGHTS: Issues of queer identity and nonbinary identity are central to the book, but Sam and TJ also struggle with typical adolescent issues and friendships to which almost anyone will be able to relate. These thoughtful teens use the power of their voices and the support of their community to bring about positive change and highlight important people from the past who deserve recognition, especially since those historical figures lived in a time when the freedom to choose how you lived and who you loved was much more limited.

Realistic Fiction        Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – Killing Time

Ehrlich, Brenna. Killing Time. Inkyard Press, 2022. 978-1-335-41867-8. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Natalie has lived a pretty sheltered life in Ferry, Connecticut, thanks to her mom’s overprotective rules. Working in their family diner, it’s always just been the two of them. When Natalie, who recently graduated from high school, learns that her favorite teacher died under suspicious circumstances she’s determined to honor Mrs. Halsey’s memory. Though their last conversation didn’t end well, Mrs. Halsey understood Natalie’s interest in true crime and supported her (and Nat’s best friend Katie) as the true crime club advisor. They even started their own podcast – Killing Time – where they evolve in their discussion of legendary killers. All of this “true crime stuff” is done, of course, without her mom’s knowledge or permission. But Nat, who wants to go to college to be a journalist, is determined to tell her teacher’s story and honor her life. When she finds a threatening note telling her to “Stay out of it. I’m warning you.” she’s even more motivated to piece together what happened to Mrs. Halsey. Between the conversations among customers at the diner, her internship at the paper, and some convenient friendships, Nat seems to be getting closer to the truth. But how likely is a teenager operating on her own to solve a crime, especially when someone doesn’t want the truth to come to light? Interspersed throughout the novel are “Then” chapters that flash back to Helen’s college days which shed some light onto the strained relationship between mother and daughter and some of Helen’s overprotective tendencies.

THOUGHTS: Fans of true crime will like this one. I especially enjoyed the Then chapters which seemed to have more suspense and keep the story moving. A supplemental purchase where mysteries are popular.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst

Moriarty, Jaclyn. The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst. Levine Querido, 2021. 978-1-646-14076-3. $17.99. 448 p. Grades 5-8.

This book, the third in Jaclyn Moriarty’s Kingdoms and Empires series, is a delightful fantasy romp of magic, mystery, and adventure. Ester, the main character, is a strong-willed and independent girl who perseveres in difficult situations, including the heart-breaking bullying she encounters from her own teacher at school. As Ester deals with threats to her school and her country, she eventually comes to a painful realization about her mother that threatens to tear her and her family apart. The bravery she displays as she chooses a path that will help save everything she holds dear is inspiring, and the book comes to a very satisfying conclusion. 

THOUGHTS: Students who love magic-soaked series like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Fablehaven will be delighted with this book as well. It is easy to root for Ester and her family as they race to overcome problems in their magical world, and the book works well as a stand-alone even though it is part of a larger series.

Fantasy          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem./MG – The Beatryce Prophecy

DiCamillo, Kate. The Beatryce Prophecy.Illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Candlewick Press, 2021. 978-1-536-21361-4. $19.99. 247 p. Grades 3-8.

“There will one day come a girl child who will unseat a king and bring about a great change,” reads the fearsome prophecy which the reader soon discovers is The Beatryce Prophecy. This magical story involves a bald, brave girl in monk’s robes; a gentle monk named Brother Edik who hands out maple candies; a slip of a boy, Jack Dory, orphaned by thieves and nurtured by an old woman—now deceased—Granny Bibspeak; a laughing, runaway king, Cannoc; and a wayward, stubborn but loyal goat, Answelica. Brother Edik comes upon a sickly Beatryce with her goat companion and nurses the girl back to health. He well knows the prophecy and when he discovers Beatryce can read and write, thanks to the foresight of her parents, he protects her by shaving her locks and disguising her as a monk. Twelve-year-old Jack Dory gets dispensed to the Brothers of the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing to fetch a monk who can record the last words of a dying soldier and returns with Beatryce and Answelica with the strong directive from the monastery’s abbot not to return. Beatryce, though, cannot stomach the soldier’s confession and abandons the task. She and Jack Dory find themselves in the dangerous dark forest where they meet the jovial Cannoc who eventually tells them he once walked away from the gruesome responsibility of being the king. They seek safety from the king who threatens Beatryce’s life in Cannoc’s cozy tree- trunk home and are soon joined by Brother Edik. When Beatryce is abducted, the remaining four (the goat is included) vow to rescue her. A proverb comes to mind, Pride goes before a fall. The foolish king and his sinister counselor choose murder and lies to soothe their fragile pride: They cannot accept that a girl can read and write at a time when, as Brother Edik tell her, “Only men of God can read, and the king. And tutors and counselors. The people do not know their letters” (140). At its root, The Beatryce Prophecy is a simple good vs. evil story. But simply written it is not. Can any other author repeat a phrase or line with more meaning than Kate DiCamillo? DiCamillo illuminates this unenlightened world with characters who radiate kindness, goodness, and joy. They also turn out to be the strong ones. Perhaps The Beatryce Prophecy is a feminist story, but it is also a story of courage and friendship. In the capable hands of this author, the reader is ever more convinced that what makes the difference in people’s lives is love. . .and stories.

THOUGHTS: As a vehicle for teaching language and imagery, an example of characterization and plot development, The Beatryce Prophecy is a key tool. The story sweeps you up and the words envelope you. A good read aloud.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke  SD Philadelphia

Elem. – Starting Over in Sunset Park

Pelaez, Jose & Lynn McGee. Starting Over in Sunset Park. Tilbury House Publishers, 2021. 978-0-884-48844-6 p. 40. $17.95. Grades 1-5. 

Brooklyn, New York, can be a lonely and intimidating place for an eight-year-old girl. Especially a girl that moves to the United States for the first time and speaks very little English. Starting Over in Sunset Park is the story of an immigrant girl finding her place in a vastly different environment than what she had previously known. Jessica and her mother Camila moved from the Dominican Republic into a crowded apartment in Brooklyn to live with cousins. With the apartment feeling a bit crowded, Jessica’s mother finds work making holiday decorations in a factory so that they can afford their own place to live. Jessica also feels isolated in her new school, the playground is challenging to play in, and she cannot understand the English she hears all day long. Throughout the story, the reader feels Jessica’s intense longing for her previous home and the desire to feel accepted and comfortable in this new place. Little by little, Jessica and her mother adapt to their new home, and thanks to an incredible experience, mother and daughter are inspired to make the best of their situation. Starting Over in Sunset Park will resonate with any reader who has experienced change and begun anew.

THOUGHTS: Starting Over in Sunset Park is a lovely picture book that embraces immigration, change, and overcoming obstacles. Jessica and Camilia’s journey is compassionate and full of hope. With the inclusion of the Spanish Language, this picture book would resonate strongly with anyone who has ever made a home in a new country and learned a new language.

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

A Dominican girl shares her experience moving to New York City with her mother. After her first airplane ride, the young girl is homesick and nervous about settling into their new neighborhood. Feeling at home isn’t easy while staying with family but Mama soon gets a job in a factory making seasonal decorations and a new apartment just for the two of them. Once school starts, the girl is frustrated trying to keep up with the lessons in English but makes progress thanks to help from Mama and an understanding teacher. Cat-sitting for neighbors provides the duo with a side income and a steady stream of feline friends who are also adjusting to new surroundings. Before long, she and Mama begin to settle in, make friends and start to feel at home in the city. Mother, daughter, and their immediate family are portrayed as having brown skin and dark hair. The girl wears her hair in beaded braids while mother’s is long and naturally curly. Background scenes featuring diverse individuals are included throughout detailed, brightly colored illustrations of their day-to-day lives. Spanish phrases followed by English translations are sprinkled throughout the first-person narrative text. Graphic style illustrations paired with text bubbles are scattered among immersive full page illustrations teeming with details. Although the timeline appears to be approximately a year, Halloween and Christmas decorations are featured heavily within the illustrations.

THOUGHTS: A relatable read about one family’s experience immigrating from the Dominican Republic to Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Picture Book          Jackie Fulton, Mt. Lebanon SD 

YA – Fat Chance, Charlie Vega

Maldonado, Crystal. Fat Chance, Charlie Vega. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-823-44717-6. 343 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Fat Chance, Charlie Vega is an homage to every brown girl who has experienced fat shaming. The main character of Crystal Maldonado’s debut novel, sixteen-almost-seventeen Charlotte “Charlie” Vega struggles with self-acceptance. An unabashed nerd, the Connecticut teen excels at her studies, likes her after school job, and has a kind and loyal best friend, Amelia. On the down side, she still grieves for beloved Puerto Rican father, butts heads with her recently slimmed-down mother, and feels diminished next to the perfect Amelia. A striving idealist and aspiring writer, Charlie longs for the ever-allusive storybook romance. When popular, athletic Cal invites her to the homecoming dance, Charlie is on Cloud 9 and is humiliated when she discovers Cal expected her to deliver Amelia as his date. She finds a ready ear to share her troubles in her kind and understanding class and job mate, Brian Park, who is Korean-American. As her relationship with Brian develops and deepens, Charlie’s self esteem increases. She and Brian are sympatico; he is a thoughtful boyfriend and even his two moms like her. Bolstered with this newfound confidence, Charlie is able to feel secure about her appearance, despite her mother’s insistence on protein shakes and popularity. Talking (and making out) with Brian feels so good, Charlie neglects her bff who is also in a new relationship with a girl from the soccer team. In a rare argument, African American Amelia reveals Brian asked her out in the past. Charlie once again feels second best and takes steps to guarantee a miserable life and fulfill her belief that she just isn’t good enough. Through listening to the positive feedback from her supportive network of co-workers, family, and friends, Charlie comes to believe that she is deserving of love, no matter what her physical appearance. The casual, almost chummy, tone of the language, the inclusion of references to current celebrities and trends, and the relatable theme will make this novel a winner.

THOUGHTS: No matter what gender one identifies with, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega picks up the despair of rejection and invisibility and the thrill of feeling chosen and desired. Though skirting any graphic description of sex, Maldonado woos the teen reader with the building up of her feelings in the make out sessions with Brian. Charlie’s volatile relationship with her well-meaning but issue-ridden mother can be the script for many students dealing with a parent who mixes up wanting the best for one’s child and creating a safe, accepting space. In addition, Charlie’s devotion to writing and Brian’s interest in art make for interesting reading while the humor-infused narrative makes the serious theme smoother going down. Author Maldonado blends diverse gender roles and races seamlessly in an accessible book.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Aftershocks

Reichardt, Marisa. Aftershocks. Amulet, 2020. 978-1-419-73917-0. 318 p. $18.99. Grades 8+.

Ruby thought her world ended when her mom informed her she was dating Ruby’s high school water polo coach. But she soon finds out what the end of the world, or her world, really looks like. Skipping practice because she’s too embarrassed to face her coach, Ruby is hanging out at a laundromat, looking for someone to buy beer for her, when an earthquake hits. As a native Californian, Ruby is used to earthquakes, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is no minor tremor. “The ground shakes, the walls fall”, and Ruby is trapped under the rubble of the laundromat, with a young man named Charlie, with whom she had just started talking. The ‘Big One’ has hit. A 7.8 magnitude. She and Charlie can’t see each other, but they work desperately to bolster each other’s spirits. Minutes turn to hours as the pair assess their physical condition and tell each other stories and bits of their lives. Hours roll over into another day, and another, and Ruby and Charlie face the very real possibility of not being rescued in time, before their injuries overwhelm them. Unusually, the eventual rescue occurs halfway through the book and, true to the title, the second half deals with the aftershocks of the rescue and the earthquake. The pain and trauma. Ruby desperately needing her mother, but having no way to locate her in a world twisted and ravaged by the quake, bereft of cell service and internet. Ruby needing to make amends to the people she loves. The book is both edge-of-your-seat compelling and lyrically thoughtful. Reichardt’s writing deftly changes from gripping, gruesome descriptions of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, to heartbreaking, poetic passages as Ruby drifts in and out of consciousness, ready to embrace death. While character descriptions throughout the book are minimal, context clues imply that Ruby and Charlie are white.

THOUGHTS: This can’t-put-down book delivers it all: a compelling disaster story, with a satisfying ‘after’ that most books neglect. It was lovely to close the book knowing “the rest of the story.”

Action/Adventure          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD