Elem./MG – Across the Pond

McCullough, Joy.  Across the Pond. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021.  978-5344-7121-4. 276 p. Grades 4-6. $17.99.

Twelve year old Calliope is excited to move from sunny San Diego to not so sunny Scotland. Her parents inherited a castle from Lady Whittington-Spence, who knew her parents as students. Callie sees this move as an opportunity to have a fresh start, after dealing with friend issues back home. Sid, a girl her age living on the estate with her grandfather, the caretaker, does not seem interested in becoming friends. Callie’s parents insist that she join a club where she can socialize with others her age. So Callie joins a birdwatching (“twitching”) club, but is kicked out when she disagrees with the adult leader. Sid and Callie become tentative friends and go bird watching together. During a twitching competition on the estate, alarming events help both girls realize how to be a true friend while staying true to themselves. The author uses flashback to tell the parallel story of Lady Whittington-Spence as a young war evacuee. Her letters disclose the same feelings of loneliness and interest in birdwatching as Callie. Another flashback toward the end reveals the peer pressure incident in San Diego that shattered Callie’s self-esteem. The unique setting, based on McCullough’s own experience, takes this narrative of young adolescent struggles to a different level. As the book comes to an end, the author has one more surprise to share.

THOUGHTS: Although the story gets off to a slow start, readers who stick with it will be rewarded. Preteen and young teenagers will be able to relate to the issues of facing peer pressure and developing friendships.  An excellent choice for elementary and middle school collections.

Realistic Fiction          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem. – Ten Beautiful Things

Griffin, Molly Beth. Ten Beautiful Things. Charlesbridge, 2021. Unpaged. 978-1-580-89936-9. $16.99. Grades K-2.

Lily and her grandmother are driving to Iowa, which now will be the young girl’s home. As Lily sits in the back of the car watching the scenery, she feels an empty place and an anxious feeling in her stomach. Seeing her granddaughter’s sadness, Gram suggests they play a game and look for ten beautiful things during their journey.  Their trip begins in darkness and then suddenly an amazing sunrise comes into view and becomes the first beautiful thing. As they travel on, Gram and Lily find other marvelous things, like a windmill farm, a red-winged blackbird, the sound of a gurgling creek and the earthy smell of mud. When they are nearly at their destination, a powerful thunderstorm appears with lightning, winds, and heavy rain. Lily realizes that just as this storm seemed to fill up the whole world, the empty places within her are now filled by Gram and her new home. The downpour has stopped, the sun is shining, and all will be well. Lechuga’s digital illustrations are charming, and she skillfully depicts the young girl’s anxiety in the drawings.

THOUGHTS: Children experiencing a life changing event will find a connection with Lily. By not revealing the reasons, the author has created a touching story that will apply to a number of situations, such as death, deployment, imprisonment, abuse, or custody issues. Guidance counselors and caretakers will find this book a valuable tool to promote discussion. A worthwhile purchase for all elementary libraries.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem. – The Chicken House

In this early reader adventure, The Chicken Squad is back for another adventure. Sugar, Dirt, Sweetie, and Poppy live in the triangle chicken house with their mother. Dirt likes to read by the window, Sweetie likes to draw on the walls, Poppy likes to rest in a big shoe, and mother Moosh likes when everyone is home. Home is a bit crowded though. J.J. lives in a doghouse that has a bathtub; a big, soft bed; and a table for massages. Sugar invites her siblings to the more spacious dog house, and each enjoys having a little elbow room. But Moosh misses her chicks, and J.J. notices his dog house isn’t like it used to be. Will everyone find a way to be comfortable and feel at home? This text has longer sentences with simple chapters and high-interest vocabulary words. 

THOUGHTS: A fun twist on Goldilocks and the Three Bears, this chicken adventure will garner laughs of emerging readers.

Early Reader          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – The Chance to Fly

Stroker, Ali, and Davidowitz, Stacy. The Chance to Fly. Amulet Books, 2021. 978-1-419-74393-1. 279 p. $16.99. Grades 3-7.

After moving across the country and leaving her best friend Chloe behind, Natalie Beacon feels a little lost. She finds some solace in belting Broadway showtunes and hanging with her dog, Warbucks. Her father believes that getting her back on a wheelchair racing team will make her feel better, and it might have…until Nat sees a flyer advertising open auditions for a teenage production of Wicked! Without her parents’ permission or knowledge, Nat auditions with the hope of playing Nessarose, the only Broadway character that is in a wheelchair. Yet even if she makes it into the show, Nat knows she will constantly worry about how her wheelchair might get in the way: what if backstage isn’t wheelchair accessible? What if the dance moves are too complicated for her? What if her parents don’t think she is capable of doing something on her own without their help? Determined and eager, Nat sets out to prove to everyone that she is not defined by her wheelchair.

THOUGHTS: Ali Stroker, co-author of this book, knows firsthand about Nat’s predicament. She is the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on a Broadway stage AND win a Tony Award, Broadway’s highest honor. This middle grade novel is packed with show tune lyrics and Broadway references. Readers will be charmed by (and also relate to) Nat and her friends. Her story is proof that no one should give up on their dreams.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

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 

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