YA – Ace of Spades

Abike-Iyimide, Faridah. Ace of Spades. Feiwel & Friends, 2021. 978-1-250-83488-1. 440 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

In Ace of Spades readers enter the private world of Niveus Academy where everything is expensive and perfect, until it isn’t. This YA thriller follows two characters, Chiamaka and Devon, who could not be more different; however, they are both struggling with the same issue. They both are being harassed by a mysterious person known only as Aces. Chiamaka and Devon are worried about what this person could reveal for different reasons, but they decide to team up to figure out who is behind all of the text messages.

THOUGHTS: This is an amazing, well told thriller that will keep the reader hooked from the beginning to the end. The set up for the reveals throughout the book are so well crafted, and the ending just leaves the reader wanting more. Highly recommended for any YA reader, or any thriller fan!

Thriller/Mystery          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

MG – Thanks a Lot, Universe

Lucas, Chad. Thanks a Lot, Universe. Amulet, 2021. 978-1-419-75102-8. 279 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Brian and Ezra, both 13 years old, are classmates at school, and on the same basketball team. But that’s where the similarities end. Ezra, who is biracial, appears to Brian as cool, confident, and popular, while Brian, who is white, suffers from crippling social anxiety (or Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome, as he labels it). Ezra thinks Brian seems interesting, but doesn’t go out of his way to befriend the boy until the bottom drops out of Brian’s life. On his 13th birthday, Brian awakens to discover that his father has disappeared (to evade capture by police) and his mother is unconscious from a drug overdose. In the ensuing days, Brian tries to keep his life together, after he and his younger brother, Ritchie, are placed in foster care. But eventually Brian takes Ritchie and runs away. Ezra soon gets involved in the search for Brian, and after locating the brothers, makes it his mission to befriend the young man. Along the way, Ezra is trying to understand himself as well. His circle of friends is evolving, as some of the boys become interested in girls, while Ezra is coming to terms with the fact that he is gay, and has a crush on Brian. Two well adjusted high school students provide a sounding board for both boys as they attempt to navigate the life they have been given. While racial issues are touched upon, mental health takes center stage. Brian is terrified he will be labeled “crazy” since his mother suffers with mental health issues. While these seventh grade boys are far more comfortable discussing their feelings and expressing concern for each other’s emotional well-being than your average middle schooler, the book is a marvelous, feel-good display of masculine friendship. The story, alternating between Ezra’s and Brian’s point of view, grabs hold from the opening page, and doesn’t stop until the end. Brian and Ezra are both such sympathetic characters readers will wholeheartedly root for them to find happiness. And maybe all those really nice people are what make the book so heartwarming.

THOUGHTS: Highly recommended. While there may be too many unrealistically nice people in the story, including a helpful police officer, a teacher who takes in Brian and Richie, and a pair of high school teenagers who befriend Ezra and Brian, it is worth it for the good feelings it engenders. There is no perfect ending – dad goes to prison, Ezra loses a friend, mom is still unstable – but the book still leaves you smiling. With main characters that are 13-years-old and in 7th grade, this book should have wider appeal than just middle grade. The timely issues of race and mental health make this a great fit for 7th and 8th graders. Hopefully readers will take to heart the message to befriend and understand shy kids, and to look out for each other. Perfect to pair with The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Brian, who suffers from Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome (SAWS), as he calls it, is used to having a rough time in junior high; he is a good basketball player, but feels too shy to talk to his teammates off the court. He often deals with bullying, and his dad wants him to be tougher and stand up to those who make him even more socially miserable. Then, life gets much harder when his dad suddenly leaves the family. Suddenly, Brian is taking care of his younger brother, navigating foster care, and still dealing with his social anxiety, bullies, and every-day adolescent stress. Luckily, a support system shows up to help when Ezra, a teammate from basketball, and a group of caring adults step in. Meanwhile, Ezra is dealing with uncomfortable tension between his childhood best friends, his growing interest in music and playing the guitar, and his changing feelings about boys.

THOUGHTS: This is a beautiful story about supportive friends in times of struggle. The characters in the story experience the difficulties of growing up and demonstrate the positive influences that good people and good friends can have during a teen’s formative years. This book also portrays several positive coming-out experiences and sensitively handles the struggles of a LGBTQ+ teen.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – Muted: A Novel in Verse

Charles, Tami. Muted: A Novel in Verse. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-67352-4. $18.99. 386 p. Grades 9-12.

Author Tami Charles, who once belonged to rhythm and blues girl group, relates a compelling story reminiscent of the R. Kelly scandal. She chooses a real-life small town between the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania and the Catskills in New York. Drawn to each other because they are the few persons of color in their predominantly white high school, three talented girls are overwhelmed and overjoyed to get the notice of a leading recording artist and record producer, Sean “Mercury” Ellis. Denver LaFleur, a curvy, African American with a powerhouse voice, her talented friends Dalisay Gomez and Shakira Brown, sneak behind their parents’ backs to meet with Merc. When Shak drops out because she has suspicions about Merc’s intentions, Merc whisks Denver and Dali to Atlanta where he grooms them to be performers separately in his mansion on Pristine Road. Gradually, Denver takes center stage, while Merc tells Dali she is not ready. Though Denver finds Merc’s methods stringent and mercurial (he limits her calories and takes away her cell phone and internet) and he adapts and takes credit for her original songs, she does get the chance to cut a demo record and make money. Both girls stay with Merc with their parents’ permission (they are only seventeen when he takes them under his wing) because of the possibility of fame and fortune. However, not long into the novel, Denver has difficulty sorting out the rigor becoming a lead singer requires from the torture of being blocked from her family and true love, Dali. Thinking Dali has returned home to Sholola, their hometown, Denver makes clandestine phone call to Shak and discovers Dali is not back in Pennsylvania. Where is she? Using her wiles, Denver explores Merc’s mansion, uncovering a maze of rooms, each one holding captive girls Merc kidnapped. Told in verse, the book is not graphic, but it is brutal. The ending brings some resolution, although not happy ones. The realistic subject matter conveys successful people get away with incorrigible acts is troubling, yet highly readable.

THOUGHTS: Students will draw parallels between this verse novel and R. Kelly, the R & B singer, and similar allegations of captive girls and sexual misconduct. Denver is a sympathetic, authentic character and her involvement in the glittering world of celebrity makes for an interesting, if depressing, read. The setting in Sholola, Pennsylvania, too, is a draw for local readers. The print in the book is extra tiny; hopefully, the published version will be standard size font. Some cursing and descriptions of sexual activity.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Best friends Denver LaFleur, Dalisay (Dali) Gomez, and Shakira (Shak) Brown are the trio that make up Angelic Voices, a singing group with hopes of making it big and getting out of their small town Sholola, Pennsylvania. When Denver sees their opportunity to get noticed in front of Sean “Mercury” Ellis (Merc), she grabs her friends’ hands and presses play on a cell phone to cue up the music. Time stands still as the group beautifully blends harmonies, and they begin to see their dreams within reach. Denver is ready to do whatever it takes to make it. But Shak has doubts about Merc who creeps her out, and she has other obligations with her family, church, and basketball. Shak isn’t ready to sneak around and lie to her family to get her big break, so the trio becomes a duo under Merc’s guidance. Denver and Dali leave their families and move into Merc’s Atlanta mansion. Despite small doubts, Denver is mostly okay as long as Dali is by her side (no one else knows of their secret relationship). Merc has rules, though, to keep his legacy safe and keep the creative juices flowing. The girls hand over their cell phones, have no internet access, sleep in separate parts of the house, and only come out of their rooms when permitted, all in the name of getting into the zone. The next time Denver sees Dali, though, Dali has been on a trip with Merc to have a complete makeover including having work done on her teeth so she no longer needs braces. Denver feels a hint of jealousy with the attention Dali’s been getting while she’s been stuck at home with a personal trainer and very limited food. And there’s Merc’s ever present old school camcorder. Fame isn’t quite what Denver thought it would be, and not being in contact with her family starts to get hard. In a few short months Denver’s life looks entirely different, but is it all worth losing herself and everyone she loves in the process?

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Denver and cringe at the warning signs she misses. This one would pair well with Tiffany D. Jackson’s Grown and is a must have for high school collections.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – The Backups: A Summer of Stardom

De Campi, Alex, et al. The Backups: A Summer of Stardom. Imprint, 2021. 978-1-250-21259-7. 206 pp. $17.99. Gr. 7-10.

In this charming graphic novel, three rising seniors at the Brooklyn Performing Arts High School land the ultimate summer job: singing back-up on tour with pop superstar Nika Nitro. Jenni is a fierce vocalist, Lauren is a dedicated classical cellist, and Maggie is a tough-as-nails drummer. With their very different backgrounds and musical interests, the girls don’t exactly gel as a squad. But life on tour is tough when you’re twenty feet and a world away from fame, and they quickly learn to depend on each other for support and friendship. Add in an accidental beef with an underground punk band, a blossoming (but strictly forbidden) crush on Nika’s supporting act, and a secret that could end the star’s career, and you have all the backstage / onstage drama you need for summer!

THOUGHTS: The different body types represented on the cover of The Backups hint at the delightfully diverse story within, in which characters cope with anxiety, crushes, coming out, lip-syncing disasters, and so much more.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – A Soft Place to Land

Marks, Janae. A Soft Place to Land. Harper Collins, 2021. 978-0-062-87587-7. $16.99. 288 p. Grades 4-7.

The Taylor family is going through a rough patch. Twelve-year old Joy’s father was laid off, they had to sell their beloved house and move to a small apartment, cut out all non-essential expenses like Joy’s piano lessons, and change Joy’s middle school. Bad enough her dream to be a film composer has to be put on hold and her old friends are not reaching out to her, but her parents are arguing now, and Joy feels she has to keep her feelings hidden to shield her little sister, Malia. The silver lining is the friendliness and kindness of the residents of her apartment building, from next-door neighbor, elderly Mae Willoughby and her French bulldog, Ziggy, to aspiring film-maker Nora, Joy finds a warm welcome and a ready ear that softens the edge of her disappointment and anxiety over losing her house and fearing her parents will get a divorce. Other perks of apartment living are the secret hideout where Joy and her new-found friends can get away to draw, listen to music, read, or play board games, and the dog walking business Joy starts with Nora to earn money to purchase a piano. When Joy’s parents tell the girls that her father is moving in with Uncle Spencer for a bit, though, a distraught Joy runs away to the Hideout and falls asleep, leading to the breaking of the one Hideout rule: don’t tell the adults. Though the other kids are angry that their Hideout is now off limits, Nora remains a loyal friend until Joy’s curiosity about a poignant poem and messages on the Hideout’s walls leads to a rift between them. When Nora ditches the dog walking session, Joy finds out too late she cannot handle the task solo and loses Ziggy. Despite her loneliness and sense of failure, Joy works to come up with a way to find Ziggy, mend her friendship with Nora, and remedy the loss of the special Hideout. Janae Marks’s new novel abounds with positivity while recognizing life does not go perfectly. Joy and her family are African American; most of the other characters are people of color also.

THOUGHTS: A comforting, relatable middle school read. No high drama here, just an enjoyable story showing people bonding together and helping each other, and middle school students being kind and friendly to newcomers. Although there are some difficult issues at play here, all the adults are experts at problem solving and dealing with hard things respectfully. The children follow suit. Joy and Nora show a lot of responsibility and initiative, and the other characters display other positive traits.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Weatherford, Carole Boston. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Atheneum, 2020. 978-1-534-45228-2. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-3. 

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, is introduced to a new generation in this vibrant picture book. While this biography is brief, it succeeds in conveying the essence of Franklin’s life. The oil paint illustrations by Frank Morrison draw readers into the story, their richness implying the importance of her family, faith, community and music. The rhyming couplets on each two-page spread succinctly summarize aspects of Franklin’s history, the rhyme scheme unifying the book. Understandably, the abbreviated format does not allow for deeper exploration of her life, and no mention is made of darker events such as her parents’ separation, her mother’s death before Aretha was 10 years old, or the children she bore at age 12 and 14. (The information about her parents is mentioned in the Author’s Note following the story text.) The book accomplishes its intended purpose beautifully, celebrating the life of a revered talent. Hopefully a nearby adult will pair a reading of the book with an introduction to Franklin’s glorious music.

THOUGHTS: A lush, inspiring introduction to a musical icon and activist. With a motion picture biography slated for release in August 2021, this could be a timely purchase.

Picture Book          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Super Fake Love Song

Yoon, David. Super Fake Love Song. G.P. Putnam & Sons, 2020. 978-1-984-81223-0. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Asian-American Sunny Dae is a nerd, into Dungeons and Dragons with his best buddies, Jamal and Milo and anticipating multiple followers when they broadcast an interview with the much admired Lady Lashblade. Then he meets Cirrus Soh, the daughter of a Japanese couple who do business with his own workaholic parents. To impress Cirrus, he takes on the persona of his rocker-brother, Gray. His older brother has returned from his Hollywood pursuit for fame with his tail between his legs. Depressed and disillusioned, Gray succumbs himself to his basement room only to be drawn out to mentor the fledgling band Sunny and his pals have formed as they rehearse for the annual high school talent show. As Sunny’s feelings for Cirrus deepen, he becomes more conflicted about his duplicity: he is pretending to be a rocker and gaining Cirrus’s admiration and the longer he pretends, the more he likes the confidence and attention he is getting from others, including Gunner, his former bully.  When the day for the show comes, the Immortals pull it off, until a drunk Gray interferes. Author David Yoon has a knack for clever dialogue. His narrator, Sunny, weaves DnD references with contemporary situations that are fun for teens. Sunny is wealthy and lives in a posh area of Rancho Ruby in California. Though he is intelligent and good-looking, he still deals with insecurities and feelings of being a loser. However, the charmed life he leads refutes that claim. For those looking for a light romance enhanced by good writing, Super Fake Love Song may be just the thing.

THOUGHTS: Dungeons and Dragons fans will appreciate Sunny’s obsession. Romance fans will like the different male perspective. Though the genre is realistic fiction, the circumstances and events that occur in this book are fantasy to many of the teens who may pick up this book. In one section Sunny gives his take on the extravagant party Cirrus throws when her parents leave her home alone: “Such phenomena occurred solely on insipid television shows written by middle-aged hacks eager to cash in on the young adult demographic” (224). This comment may be a prediction for Super Fake Love Song.

Realistic Fiction/Romance          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – Jukebox

Chanani, Nidhi. Jukebox. First Second. 2021. 978-1-250-15636-5. 224 p. $21.99. Grades 6-9.

Twelve-year old Shaheen and her father have always been connected through music, but lately his interest in record-collecting borders on obsession. When he doesn’t come home one evening, Shahi and her teenaged cousin Tannaz sneak into his favorite music shop to look for clues. In the attic, they discover a rare jukebox that plays whole records … and transports the listener to the album’s time period, for just as long as the side plays. A Bessie Smith record sends the girls to the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago. A Nina Simone album takes Tannaz on a solo trip to a women’s march in 1960s D.C. Shahi realizes that her dad may be trapped in another era, unable to return home. But traveling back and forth in their quest to find him has serious consequences, and the girls know they are running out of time to bring everyone home safely. The girls’ slight age difference provides an interesting dynamic, incorporating their unique strengths and insecurities. The author’s depiction of each era’s color palette and fashions are especially engaging. The abundant music references and iconic album covers are complemented by a Playlist at the book’s close, perfect inspiration for budding music lovers!

THOUGHTS: Nidhi Chanani’s Pashmina was well-received, and Jukebox displays even greater depth in portraying both adventure and family relationships.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Chanani, Nidhi. Jukebox. First Second. 2021. 978-1-250-15636-5. 224 p. $21.99. Grades 5-8.

Shaheen and her dad have a special bond through music. Her dad is an avid record collector, who is getting a little too lost in his music of late for Shahi. When her dad goes missing, Shahi and her cousin Naz go looking for her dad, starting at the last place he was seen, the record store. It is here that the cousins find a magical jukebox that transports listeners back to a concert of whatever record is playing. Musicians such as Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and James Brown are featured in these magical concerts. Can Shahi and Naz find her dad and bring him back to the present safely? The end includes a playlist of the music featured in the book and a section that shows an artistic exploration of the character sketches. The process of how the illustrations are colored is also shown.

THOUGHTS: This beautifully illustrated graphic novel is a must read for music lovers! This would be a great addition to any graphic novel section and includes diverse characters throughout the story.

Graphic Novel          Krista Fitzpatrick, Wissahickon Charter School

MG/YA – Music Is My Life

Tanzer, Myles. Music Is My Life: Soundtrack Your Mood with 80 Artists for Every Occasion. Wide Eyed Editions, 2020. 978-0-711-24918-9. $19.97. 111 p. Grades 6-12.

Music is my Life was created to help music lovers find more artists to love. Artists are grouped together within chapters titled Get Pumped Up With, Focus With, Fall in Love to, and more. Each artist is featured in a full page spread with biographical information, song suggestions, and information about how each artist’s music will make the listener feel. Every artist is colorfully illustrated in a way that makes the person or band feel accessible and exciting regardless of age or the style of music they produce. Artists include Ariana Grande, Carole King, Prince, Chance the Rapper, and ABBA.

THOUGHTS: A fresh addition to any school library collection seeking to update their music and biography collections. Music is my Life achieves its purpose and those who read it will feel more connected to music than ever before.

781.1 Music          Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD

YA – More Than Maybe

Hahn, Erin. More Than Maybe. Wednesday Books, 2020. 978-1-250-23164-2. $17.99. 308 p. Grades 9 and up.

Luke has been reading Vada’s music blog, secretly commenting on it (and crushing on her) for three years. Vada’s also been falling asleep listening to Luke’s “deep, lyrical, and crisp” voice on the podcast he records with his brother… in the studio above the Loud Lizard, the bar where Vada works, which happens to be owned by her mom’s boyfriend and former drummer, Phil. Of course neither of these introverted music nerds have the guts to talk to each other even though they go to the same school and see each other regularly at the Loud Lizard. That is, until Vada’s dance class and Luke’s music composition class get paired together for the end-of-the-year spring showcase. Luke finally takes a risk and offers to partner up with Vada to compose a song for her dance performance, which seems like it might be the end of the story. They’re going to fall in love now, right? It’s not that simple when Luke is hiding his love for composing music from his dad, a former British punk rock star who wants Luke to follow in his footsteps. Luke has no interest in performing – just composing – and to avoid the pressure from his dad entirely, he hides the fact that he even plays music at all. Vada has obstacles of her own. Her mostly absent (also former musician) father only shows up to drink himself stupid at the Loud Lizard, and when he says he’s not helping her pay for college, Vada has to figure out a way to make her music journalism dreams come true on her own. Working at the Loud Lizard and having easy access to concerts helps, but the Loud Lizard is just barely surviving financially. Enter the power of music.

THOUGHTS: Flirting via lyrics? Yes, please! While I think anyone can appreciate this adorable love story whether you know the bands mentioned or not, contemporary music lovers will find themselves swooning over this book. There’s even a user-created playlist on Spotify made up of all the songs mentioned! Highly recommended for any YA collection. Put it in the hands of anyone who loves music.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD