YA – Great or Nothing

McCullough, Joy, Caroline Tung Richmond, Tess Sharpe, Jessica Spotsword. Great or Nothing. Delacorte Press, 2022. 978-0-593-37259-3. $18.88. 393 p. Grades 7-10.

Louisa May Alcott’s four March sisters have entered the 20th century, circa 1943. Beth has died, and the family struggles to cope with the overwhelming sadness of this loss. Marmee distracts her grief with committees and charitable works; Father, next-door neighbor, Theodore Laurence, and teacher John Brooks go off to fight the war; and the three young women are split apart. Four talented authors take on the personas of the classic characters, and each chapter recounts that character’s experiences against the backdrop of World War II. Beth’s voice in verse reflects her omniscient view of each of her sisters. Meg decides to stay close to home, dedicated to teaching at her former high school, but is so lonely, she concedes to pal around with an insipid but wealthy former classmate which results in revelatory consequences. After rebuffing Laurie’s unexpected marriage proposal, Jo goes off to Hartford, Connecticut, to work in a munitions factory and live in a boarding house with other female workers and pursue her writing. When she meets Charlie–Charlotte–a war journalist, Jo starts to come to terms with her sexual identity. Under the pretense of studying art in Montreal, Amy instead takes on a false identity and ships off with the Red Cross to minister to the morale of soldiers with coffee and doughnuts in London, England. There, she encounters prejudice and discrimination foreign to her upbringing, as well as the promise of true love. This contemporary spin on the classic Little Women is an easy read with touches of romance, LBGTQ+, and slang from the forties. Grab yourself a cuppa, curl up in your favorite chair, and hunker down to meet these Little Women.

THOUGHTS: Though four authors take on each of the March sisters, the writing flows smoothly and the writing is fairly even. Beth’s perspective voiced by Joy McCullough was my least favorite.  Reading the prose, characters were more well developed and satisfying. Though the story begins with the March sisters going their separate ways, it ends with the promise of them reuniting. Suggest this novel to lovers of the classic, but those who have never read Little Women will still understand the closeknit March family and the dynamic among the sisters.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – Lines of Courage

Nielsen, Jennifer A. Lines of Courage. Scholastic Press, 2022. 978-1-338-62093-1. 388 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

This historical fiction novel takes place during World War I. The story is told through the voices of five children who are experiencing the war from different perspectives. The story starts with the voice of young Felix in Austia-Hungary as he witnesses the assassination of the Archduke which triggers the start of the war. The book is divided into five sections and is told in chronological order through the the voices of the children. Their stories become intertwined as they try to make sense of this war that they have been forced to grow in. The novel comes to a conclusion with Felix as the final storyteller.

THOUGHTS: This book is for students who are drawn to historical fiction. The characters are well-written, and the action is fast-paced. It is good to see a book focused on World War I which does not get as much attention as other historical time periods.

Historical Fiction          Victoria Dziewulski, Plum Borough SD

Elem./MG – Flight of the Puffin

Braden, Ann. Flight of the Puffin.  Penguin Random House, 2021. 978-1-984-81606-1  $17.99. 229 p. Grades 4-6.

This story follows 4 young lives as they struggle to find belonging and acceptance in each of their unique situations. Libby comes from a family that sees love as providing essentials. But all Libby wants to do is be accepted and understood for who she is and make a difference in the world. Living nearby is Jack, a boy who wants his rural school to stay just the way it is, as he struggles with the death of his younger brother. Across the country lives Vincent, a boy who loves triangles and wants to live by the beat of his own drum. If only his mother, and the kids at school, could understand this. Nearby is T, a runaway who left home and just wants to be accepted for who they are. The lives of these four young teens intersect in a way that makes each one realize that they matter.

THOUGHTS: This book is timely and so important in the quest to let all kids know that they matter, for who they are! It shows how little acts of kindness and understanding can make a huge difference.

Realistic Fiction         Krista Fitzpatrick, Abington SD

MG – Linked

Korman, Gordon. Linked. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-62911-8. 246 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Chokecherry, Colorado is a small town on the up and up – could even be the next Orlando! While paleontologists from a prestigious university are attempting to locate dinosaur fossils after dinosaur poop is discovered, a swastika appears painted on an atrium wall in the local school. The principal is determined to put an end to the hateful act by starting a unit on tolerance and after three weeks is confident that the event was a one time thing. But when a second and a third swastika appear, it looks as if the past of Chokecherry may be coming back into focus. The students of the school take it upon themselves to support one another and learn more about the Holocaust in order to fight back. An idea to start a paper chain that is six million links long, one link for each person who died during the Holocaust, becomes their primary focus. Lincoln Rowley, the popular athlete, helps round the troops and with the help of the student council and art club presidents, their huge undertaking begins. But when a local media star shows up, hoping to expose the town’s past while highlighting the paper chain, things get complicated. Told in different perspectives, this novel has twists and turns that will keep you reading!

THOUGHTS: Another hit by Korman, this title touches on a sensitive subject, antisemitism and the KKK. The characters each struggle with an inner demon which must be addressed before they can truly accept themselves and others. More somber than some of Korman’s other works, Linked has a balance of humor, hope, and sadness for how others treat people that are different from them. 

Realistic Fiction        Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Chokecherry, Colorado is not exactly a tourist destination. The small town does not have a whole lot going for it except for newly discovered dinosaur fossils which bring archeologists from a big city university to the area. Most people are content for the town to go unnoticed until an unfortunate event brings national press: Someone has drawn a swastika on the atrium wall at Chokecherry Middle School. Lincoln Rowley (Link as he is known to his friends and family) loves sports and pranks. He does not really think too much about the swastika until he learns a secret about his family, and he realizes that his ancestors are Jewish. He decides to complete a crash course in Judaism and have a bar mitzvah. Because of this decision, Link becomes the unofficial mascot of the newest middle school tolerance project: A paper chain with six million links to represent the six million Jews who perished during the Holocaust. With the help of his friends Caroline, Michael, and Dana, Link and the entire school work towards this phenomenal goal with the hope of erasing the bad press from the swastika. This plan goes awry when more swastikas appear around the school, and no one seems to know who is drawing them.

THOUGHTS: Gordon Korman has once again knocked it out of the park. Told in alternating points of view, Korman’s book explores the very relevant topic of when a hate crime happens in a “it couldn’t happen here” community. This book would be an excellent literature choice for ELA classes in conjunction with a Holocaust unit in social studies or a school-wide reading challenge. The topic can lead to rich discussions with powerful lessons.

Realistic Fiction           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – Your Heart, My Sky

Engle, Margarita. Your Heart, My Sky. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 208 pp. 978-1-5344-64964 $18.99 Grades 9-12.

Engle focuses on a difficult time in Cuba’s history lived through by her own relatives. Euphemistically named by the government as “the special period in times of peace,” the 1990s are in reality a time of starvation. Strict rules keep Cubans from growing their own food; U.S. embargo limits trade; and most recently, Russia has dropped its promised support of the Communist nation, leaving commoners struggling for daily food and afraid to speak out, knowing that retribution comes in the form of limited opportunities, fewer rations, prison or death. Two young people, Liana and Amado, find their hunger gives them strength to defy the government-required summer volunteer work, even as they dread the consequences. Amado’s older brother is in prison for speaking out against the government. Liana is befriended by a ‘singing dog’ Paz who becomes her daily companion in search of food, and the dog brings her and Amado together. The two fall in love and consider their limited future options. Leave the island for the dangerous attempt to reach Miami? Or remain in their homeland to share and fight the deprivation with loved ones? Engle’s beautiful verse, and switching between Liana, Amado, and Paz’s voices, gives this novel depth and richness. 

THOUGHTS: Moving words bring to life this time of desperation.       

Historical Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – Illegal

Stork, Francisco X. Illegal. Scholastic, 2020. 978-1-338-31055-9. 291 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12. (Book 2 in Disappeared series)

Brother and sister Emiliano and Sara Zapata must flee from Mexico and the nefarious unnamed boss pursuing them. They cross the border into the United States, then split up.  Sara requests asylum, and Emiliano nearly dies in the desert before being picked up by an American rancher, then reunited with his father in Chicago. Emiliano carries the cell phone of a member–perhaps the leader–of a human trafficking organization that Sara has worked so hard to bring to justice. Neither Emiliano or Sara is safe, and conditions only worsen as Sara is separated and threatened in the detention facility, and Emiliano is tracked down in Chicago. Neither Emiliano or Sara is able to trust anyone immediately, and each must trust that the other will do “the right thing”–but the right thing for the victims of the human trafficking organization could be exactly the wrong thing for Sara and Emiliano. Both realize repeatedly that their lives are expendable and meaningless to others. Sara and Emiliano share one phone call in which Sara (in code) urges him to remember what he learned from Brother Patricio. Through his work for a neighbor of his father’s, Emiliano learns of a retired policeman who may help him. But Sara is to be moved to another facility–code for ‘lost’ or ‘terminated’–and both realize that time is running out.

THOUGHTS: Stork continues Sara and Emiliano’s stories (from Book 1, Disappeared), this time in the US. The various characters show human strength and frailty, stereotypes, hopes, and hatred. A must-purchase where the first novel was popular, though this novel can stand on its own.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – Turtle Under Ice

Del Rosario, Juleah. Turtle Under Ice. Simon Pulse, 2020. 259 p. $18.99 978-15344-4295-5 Grades 9-12.

Teenage sisters Rowena and Ariana have drifted apart since the unexpected death of their mother several years ago. Rowena has thrown herself into soccer, becoming a respected top athlete on her team. Fearing change, Ariana has retreated into…nothing, and risks failing school. The sisters’ closeness has become a barrier as they both fear moving on, and as they both communicate less, and less honestly. Their father has remarried a woman they also love, and the family is incredibly hopeful about the arrival of their new half-sister. However, Maribel suffers a miscarriage, and the loss is too cruel for the sisters. “Our sister’s heart stopped beating/like our mother’s, unexpectedly/on a day that was otherwise/normal” (53).  Ariana vanishes, which leaves Rowena feeling angry and abandoned. This novel in verse is narrated by both sisters as they try to come to terms with this new grief, in addition to the unending grief of losing their mother. Slowly, both sisters discover that their grief has led them to close themselves off to others. Rowena tracks down Ariana at an art exhibit, where Ariana shows a painting “Turtle Under Ice” in memory of their mother. The relief comes very slowly as both girls see hope in Ariana’s art.

THOUGHTS: Del Rosario has a way with creating beautiful images with her words: “Our family…/is a frayed string of lights/that someone needs to fix/with electrical tape./It’s the electricity/that can’t get to us/because Mom’s bulb/has burned out,/so now the whole string is dark./But without the lights turned on/does anyone even notice/that we are broken?” (43-44). Ultimately, the insightful thoughts aren’t enough to save this novel from the monotonous weight of the crushing grief and depression, and the cover does little to draw in all but the most curious of readers. Recommended where novels in verse or multiple narrators are in heavy demand.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Novel in Verse