Elem. – Marley and the Family Band

Marley, Cedella, with Tracey Baptiste. Marley and the Family Band. Illustrated by Tiffany Rose. Random House Kids, 2022. Unpaged. $17.99  978-0-593-30111-1. Grades PK-2.

Marley and her family are newcomers from Jamaica to their Delaware town. To feel more at home and get to know neighbors, Marley plans a concert (in the park) by her family band. However, the day of the concert dawns wet and stormy. The concert is canceled, most would say, but Marley keeps looking for a way to outshine the rain. She knows rain and how it intrudes on people’s lives–and she also knows that “rain never lasts.” Marley and her siblings think of covering the concert area with umbrellas, which they’ll get from helping their neighbors with rain problems. They retrieve a cat from a roof, bail water from a basement and help with indoor gardening. At the last house, Marley uses all her umbrellas given from grateful neighbors (and intended for the concert) to cover a neighbor’s upset animals who are getting wet. At home, Marley finds her family preparing for the concert, because, “your friends helped.” The final pages show Marley and her musical family performing indoors at the neighbor’s house, letting the rain add its own rhythmic beats. 

THOUGHTS: Marley has written an upbeat and hopeful tale about coming together to help and celebrate communities. The colorful illustrations fit well with the optimistic and hopeful message.  

Picture Book          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – Love Radio

LaDelle, Ebony. Love Radio. Simon & Schuster, 2022. 978-1-665-90815-3. $19.99. 310 p. Grades 9-12.

Danielle Ford’s romantic mother has a big wish for her only child, to experience a great love story. That wish struggles to come true in Ebony LaDelle’s, Love Radio, a debut novel that is as much a homage to the great city of Detroit as it is to first love. High-achieving senior, Dani has been shut off from her friends and dating after a traumatizing sexual encounter with a college boy the previous summer. Keeping this secret from her besties and devoted parents, she buries herself in writing the perfect college essay to get into her dream school, New York University (NYU). When she has an awkward meeting in the library with classmate, Prince Jones, a popular teen disc jockey and local radio personality (DJLove Jones) who mixes love advice with music, she makes an assumption she regrets and wants to rectify. Told in alternating voices, the romance between Prince and Dani is enchanting. Prince shows a maturity beyond his years, perhaps because he has accepted much of the responsibility of taking care of his seven-year-old brother Mookie and household duties since his single mother received her diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Prince has fallen hard for the guarded Dani and is determined to make her fall in love with him in five dates. After inviting himself over to her comfortable home to take out her braids, he plans two movie-worthy dates to a roller rink and bookstore. Dani starts to open up, reconnect with her friends, and dissolve her writer’s block. When she reciprocates with one equally perfect date to the Motown Museum, though, their intimacy triggers bad memories and she breaks it off with Prince. As Dani faces her trauma, she has the support of loving parents and patient friends as well as the therapy of writing unsent letters to her literary idols, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Prince, too, acknowledges his need to suppress his dreams because of his home obligations and, with help, makes a plan for his future. Both characters come to realize that they are surrounded by a network of loving people who will support and help them achieve their goals. Characters are African-American.

THOUGHTS: Students in the mood for a dreamy romance will eat up this book. The author has an ear for teen dialogue and is from Michigan. Any readers familiar with Detroit will recognize the branding of different places (if I am ever in Detroit, I’m heading for that Dutch Girl Donuts) and the description of the neighborhoods. Dani and Prince are so wise; the thoughtful dates are out of this world; the child to parent relationships are so close. Though the romance doesn’t play out physically much, Dani’s traumatic encounter occurs when she a friend takes her to a frat house where she barely escapes date rape. After several dates, Dani leads Prince to her bedroom and encourages a sexual encounter, but Prince is reluctant to proceed. The portrayal of family is warm and loving, especially the way Prince helps out his sick mother. Though the letters to literary idols seem to be a critical link to Dani’s recovery from trauma, the book names Dani’s idols as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Roxane Gay, Jesmyn Ward in the beginning chapter, but she only focuses on Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. One of Dani’s friends is sick of appropriation and plans a hair fashion show. Lots of references to music. Some bad language. For those who are sticklers, the timeline is a little wonky: would college kids be on campus in the summer? (maybe).

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – Nina: A Story of Nina Simone

Todd, Traci N. Nina: A Story of Nina Simone. Christian Robinson, illustrator. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021. 978-1-524-73728-3 p. 56 p. $18.99. Grades 2-5. 

The world knew her as Nina Simone, but she was born Eunice Katherine Waymon. Born in North Carolina to a family that surrounded themselves with music, Eunice learned to play the piano very early. She was a musical child that would find rhythm in all aspects of her life, playing piano at the church where her Mama preached or playing Jazz music with her Papa at home. Author Traci N. Todd and illustrator Christian Robinson have created a gorgeous picture book biography about the life of Nina Simone. With a supportive family and community and an influential piano teacher, Nina started playing and singing in bars and concert halls. Audiences were enthralled with her sweet and soulful voice. But as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, Nina’s voice took on a powerful tone, almost booming, and her music became a powerful protest against racial inequities. She was known not only as a brilliant musician but an influential activist. Amplifying Nina’s humanity with direct and straightforward text and bold and brilliant artwork, Todd and Robinson created a compelling and masterful piece of art. The ending is powerful, perfect, and hopeful. 

THOUGHTS: This picture book is so attractive, and it pulls the reader into each page with the story and the illustrations. Learning about Nina and her life from childhood to adulthood was a joy! From the dedication at the beginning of the book to the author’s note in the back of the book, there is much to absorb! I was sad to see it end! This book is recognized as a 2022 ALA Notable Children’s Book and has received several other accolades and praises. Nina should not be missed! 

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

Elem./MG – The Science of Song: How and Why We Make Music

Cross, Alan, Emme Cross, and Nicole Mortillaro. The Science of Song: How and Why We Make Music. Kids Can Press, 2021. 978-1-771-38787-3. 48 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

A concise and colorful historical and psychological foundation of sound that starts with the origin of music over 40,000 years ago and how we hear to digital and artificial music makes this book a great addition to intermediate and middle school libraries. The content is broken into 19 one page chapters that summarizes the topic at hand. Each section also has engaging images and a three song playlist to accompany it. The book ends with a timeline, glossary, and index that can be helpful for curious young minds. 

THOUGHTS: A fun and low stakes way to introduce younger minds to the psychology and importance behind the music we all hear on a daily basis. This title would be a great addition to an elementary, intermediate, or middle school library looking to refresh their nonfiction collection.

780 Music          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

Elem. – Jazz for Lunch!

Dapier, Jarrett. Jazz for Lunch! Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 978-1-534-45408-8. 40 p. $17.99. Grades K-3.

Built on the foundations of jazz music and creative cooking, this rhyming story vividly depicts the power both music and food have to bring people together. A young boy and his aunt set out to have lunch at a jazz club where his aunt is a regular. In the club, the sounds from the kitchen mix with the sounds from the stage, creating a vibrant, animated atmosphere. But, the club is so crowded that the boy and his aunt can’t get close enough to see the performers or place an order. They leave early, stop by a produce stand, and the next day, they cook up their own jazzy lunch at home. Each dish is inspired by jazz greats, including Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, John Coltrane, and Ella Fitzgerald. End papers feature brief biographies of 20 jazz greats mentioned in the story as well one of their album titles. The lively digital illustrations capture the movement and the emotions the food and the music inspire.

THOUGHTS: Share this title with music teachers who can make curricular connections with the featured jazz musicians and the music vocabulary sprinkled in the text. Music and ELA teachers will also appreciate the use of onomatopoeia as the boy and his aunt cook up their feast. This exuberant book captures the joy of coming together to enjoy great food and great music.

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD

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