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

MG – Concealed

Gonzalez, Christina Diaz. Concealed. Scholastic, 2021. 320 pp. 978-1-338-64720-4 $17.99 Grades 5-8.

Katrina has been on the move with her parents for the past three years, and those three years are the extent of her memories. She cannot remember her early years or even her real name. Her amnesia after an accident convinced her parents of the danger and led them to flee. Her parents, who call themselves “B” and “L,” have explained that it is better she doesn’t remember, and their task now is to keep her safe. With the help of their contact, Agent X, her family has moved at least eleven times in the Witness Protection Program because Katrina’s father angered some influential business partners. But since Katrina is pressing for more answers, her father makes a choice to get passports without Agent X’s help, in an effort for more freedom to tell Katrina the truth.  Their latest location is fairly remote, and Katrina tentatively becomes friends with Parker, a foster kid with few personal connections but exceptional hacking skills. Soon, Katrina’s father and mother are captured separately, and Parker willingly accompanies Katrina to the safe house in Atlanta. And all the facts that don’t add up really begin to topple down. At the safe house, Agent X whisks them to Miami (en route to safety?) as Katrina and Parker doubt him and her parents. The surprising truth comes out as X retrieves Katrina’s father, everyone is in grave danger, and everyone is saved.

THOUGHTS: While not predictable, the surprises are life-changing and resolved too easily, resulting in a lost opportunity to examine major themes of genetic engineering, twins, memory loss, trauma, and the effects of secrecy and lies. Supplemental purchase.

Realistic Fiction            Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – Glitter Gets Everywhere

Clark, Yvette. Glitter Gets Everywhere. Harper, 2021. 978-0-063-03448-8. 308 p. $15.15. Grades 5-8.

Kitty has barely had time to process her mother’s illness and death from cancer. Her dad can’t possibly be serious about taking her and her older sister, Imogen, from their home in London to New York City for four months. Everything that reminds her of her mum is in London. If they leave, will she be leaving her mother’s memory also? And as if it isn’t already awkward being the new kid with the funny accent, how is she supposed to explain to the PTA moms that her own mum will not be joining them on the committee for the Halloween dance? New York City seems destined to be a disaster, but just because so much is new doesn’t mean Kitty has to say goodbye to the old. Maybe some distance is just what Kitty needs to start the healing process.

THOUGHTS: It can hit a school hard when a student loses a parent, and unfortunately, it happens all too often. Glitter Gets Everywhere is an excellent book to have on your shelves for that student who needs to read about grief in a way that does not tie it up in a neat bow, but rather shows that it is messy, ongoing, and devastating, and like glitter thrown into the air, reminders are everywhere. But like Kitty, they too can find a way to make their new reality the new normal.

Realistic Fiction                            Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

Elem. – Home is in Between

Perkins, Mitali, and Lavanya Naidu. Home is in Between. Farrar, Straus, Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-374-30367-9. unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-3.

Shanti is a sweet girl who says goodbye to her village in Bengal and moves with her parents to America. She keeps a curious and positive attitude through the cultural shifts of home and school and town and activities while trying to help her parents and keep their cultural identities intact. But all of this code switching takes a toll on Shanti, as she finds herself occasionally worn down and exhausted trying to keep up. The resolution of a social gathering to share the space between cultures is perhaps a simplified ending to what is surely an ongoing process for adapting and adopting to a new home, but readers will feel and empathize with Shanti’s dilemma. Mitali Perkins keeps the story relatable and mixed with personal experience and plenty of Hindi words and Indian customs. Lavanya Naidu shines as the illustrator who creates the family dynamics and emotional changes through the story with colorful expressions and emotional details. While the journey to a new home is not easy, this tale will help readers see that the ‘in between’ brings needed value to feeling at home.

THOUGHTS: The idea of code switching for young children from other countries and cultures has rarely been illustrated as well as this book. Perfect for classrooms who are welcoming ELL students or libraries looking for demonstrations of social emotional skills. Highly recommended.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill    State College Area SD

Elem. – The Color Collector

Solis, Nicholas. The Color Collector. Sleeping Bear Press, 2021. 978-1-534-11105-9 32 p. $14.99. Grades K-3. 

Violet is quiet and keeps to herself; yet, there is a bit of mystery that surrounds the new girl at school. A young boy notices that the new girl collects colorful pieces of debris and trash and places them in her backpack on her walk home from school. A red candy wrapper, bright blue cookie wrappers, yellow pieces of paper, green bottle caps, and red leaves disappear into her backpack every day. Full of curiosity, the young boy gently asks the new girl what she does with her collection of trash. Violet takes her new friend home and proudly shows him the mural in her bedroom. Each piece of trash and each colorful piece of debris has found a home in her artwork displayed on the wall. The mural shines bright and depicts the home that Violet misses so dearly. A friendship ensues as the children talk and confide in each other about the stories and the people that mean so much to them. Renia Metallinou’s beautiful art tells the story as much as the author’s words. As the friendship between the two children develops throughout the story, the artwork changes from gray tones to vibrant and bright colors. The beautiful illustrations compliment the author’s gentle and endearing text.

THOUGHTS: The Color Collector would make for a great read aloud for any grade level in the elementary school setting and would encourage conversations about friendship, empathy, and kindness. The story of Violet and her new friend is relatable to anyone that may have moved a short distance, immigrated from a far away county, or even simply longed to belong. It may also hold a special place in the hearts of elementary art teachers, as the book pays homage to self expression and identity.

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

Elem. – In a Jar

Marcero, Deborah. In a Jar. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2020. 978-0-525-51459-6. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PrK-2.

Llewellyn likes to collect things in jars. He collects leaves and feathers and stones to help him remember his experiences.  Then, one night Llewellyn collects the sunset in a jar and meets Evelyn. He give Evelyn a jar of the sunset and soon they become best friends. They collect all kinds of things together to remember their experiences. When Evelyn moves away, Llewellyn feels empty until he realizes that she can mail Evelyn new jars of memories. She then sends Llewellyn jars of her new home and city to share her new experiences with him. As autumn returns, Llewellyn sets out to collect leaves to share with Evelyn and meets a new friend with whom he can share his extra jar. Marcero’s artwork is beautiful. She mixes watercolors, ink, and pencil to explore Llewellyn and Evelyn’s experiences together as friends. Although this picture book highlights the beauty of the natural world, it is also about friendship and the importance of sharing experiences with others even when we experience something without our best friend.

THOUGHTS: I truly enjoyed this picture book. Not only does it have a great appreciation for slowing down and enjoying nature, but it also encourages readers to share their experiences with others. It highlights friendship and loss (a friend moving away) through minimal words and beautiful illustrations. I loved the image of Llewellyn and Evelyn drawing together surrounded by the jars. As an adult, I realize that they were creating their memories to put in the jars, but as a child hearing this story, they can still imagine catching the world around them and keeping it in a jar. This is a fabulous addition to all elementary libraries.

Picture Book          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

MG – The Dream Weaver

Alegre, Reina Luz. The Dream Weaver. Simon & Schuster Publishers, 2020. $17.99. 978-1-534-46231-1. Grades 5-8.

After drifting around the country following her father’s next big idea her whole life, twelve-year-old Zoey Finolio and her college-bound brother, Jose, land at the Jersey shore living with their maternal Cuban grandfather—one of the most stable homes since their mother’s death. Though Zoey loves her father, she revels in a summer at the beach, doing things most kids her age do and embraces the dream of saving Gonzo’s, her grandfather’s rundown bowling alley, from a developer. When she gets a chance to fill in as a bowler on a local team headed for a championship, Zoey sees it as an opportunity to not only savor friendship but also rejuvenate the boardwalk business. The familial relationships and friendships are nurturing and supportive throughout the book, but this book doesn’t resort to past solutions. Even after the valiant efforts of Zoey and her new friends, Pappy decides to unload the bowling alley and just manage it; Jose still wants to pursue his dream of being an engineer at college; and Zoey’s father continues to try his luck at a different job despite sacrificing his children’s stability. Zoey shows strength of character in expressing her feelings to her father and finds solace in her supportive brother, her new friends, and her new home with her beloved Pappy.

THOUGHTS: The close familial relationships and kind friend relationships are a delight to read. Zoey’s father’s behavior is abysmal and may be a form of bibliotherapy for some readers. In Chapter One, Zoey gets her period for the first time and the narrative explains her distress and how she deals with it, so using the book as a read aloud—at least the first chapter—may be uncomfortable.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away

Medina, Meg. Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away. Candlewick, 2020. 978-1-536-20704-0. 32 p. $17.99. Grades PreK-2.

A short, sweet tale of a friendship changing because of a move. Evelyn and Daniela are best friends who have twin apartments across the street from each other. Both welcome in each other’s home as a bonus child, and the girls play up until it’s time for the moving truck to pull away. The Spanish that is sprinkled in the story, along with beautiful illustrations of an urban neighborhood make the sing-song story about difficult change digestible for even the youngest of readers.

THOUGHTS: An #ownvoices book that encourages adolescents to celebrate change, even if it’s not easy, is always a great addition to elementary libraries. The Spanish language exposure and vibrant illustrations of city life are an added bonus for urban and rural libraries alike.

Picture Book          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

MG – Quintessence

Redman, Jess. Quintessence. Farrar, Straus, Giroux,  2020. 978-0-374-30976-3. $16.99. 384 p. Grades 3-6.

Twelve year old Alma, a once curious girl, hasn’t felt like herself since moving to the town of Four Points. Shortly after moving, Alma began having panic attacks, and though she’s managed to convince her parents that they stopped, they really haven’t. Instead of going out to explore like she used to love doing, Alma spends afternoons after school in her parents’ new law office. When she meets the reclusive shopkeeper of the Fifth Point, a local junk store with a legendary lookout on its roof, he gives Alma a quintescope. It seems like a sign when – while running out of school – Alma spots an astronomy club flyer on the door. Her curiosity piqued, Alma decides to stop by to see what the club is like. There she meets Hugo, a brilliant young mind who lacks some awareness of himself socially; Shirin, a girl who seems to be part of the popular crowd but doesn’t feel like she fits there; and Dustin, a boy who has more to himself than the bully like he seems. With a shared interest of helping the Starling, this group of misfits learns about each other while learning about more themselves.

THOUGHTS: With a lovable cast of characters, each with his or her own insecurities, Quintessence captures what it means to find oneself at a time in life where many struggle. Give this book to fans of the inexplicable, those who recently moved or are looking for a new friend, or those who need a little magic in their lives. This book deserves a place in all middle school library collections.

Fantasy          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton 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