MG/YA – Abuela, Don’t Forget Me

Ogle, Rex. Abuela, Don’t Forget Me. Norton Young Readers, 2022. $18.95 978-1-324-01995-4. Grades 7-12. 

Ogle continues his autobiographical journey begun with Free Lunch and Punching Bag, this time using a novel in verse format to focus on the enormous importance of his grandmother (Abuela) who provided selflessly throughout his life and enabled him to succeed. Ogle shares memories of her involvement in his life, from preschool to college. Readers will remember, or easily recognize, the antagonistic relationship between his abuela and his mother, and how any gift was seen as an insult: “I can pay for my own groceries!” Ogle learned early to love Abuela’s visits for the food, the gifts (of many things, including Ogle’s first bed), but most of all, he loved her visits for the obvious, stated, unconditional support of Ogle. In a world of poverty and abuse, Ogle was accustomed to sneers or physical violence and hopelessness, but Abuela repeatedly gave him the messages that she believed in him, education was the key out of poverty, and don’t give up. Ogle successfully shows Abuela’s life-saving presence in his life, while acknowledging shortcomings, like her desire to overspend her hard-earned money to give to others.  Readers will be amazed by the abuse and poverty Ogle endured by necessity and amazed by Abuela’s constancy and positivity. Ogle pushes for change and endures hard-earned miracles (free college tuition) as well as enraging setbacks (his mother ‘steals’ his own car for herself).

THOUGHTS: This is a book for all middle and high school readers, who will learn strength from Ogle’s journey. Ogle may just inspire readers to thank the “Abuelas” in their lives.

Biography          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Memoir, Autobiography

YA – A Million Quiet Revolutions

Gow, Robin. A Million Quiet Revolutions. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2022. 978-0-374-38841-6. 319 p. $18.99. Grades 11+.

A Million Quiet Revolutions is a novel in verse told from the perspectives of two young trans men, Aaron and Oliver, as they explore themselves, each other, and their relationship. In the first third of the book, Aaron moves away, and this causes a shift in their relationship as well as in Aaron’s life. The reader is not told explicitly; however, it is implied that the family moved due to a scandal involving Aaron’s older brother and the priest at the local church. Oliver has a fascination with history, and he decides that when Aaron moves away they should write letters to each other like soldiers did during the Revolutionary War. The novel in verse follows the two characters as they write letters and decide to meet up at a Revolutionary War reenactment and what that means for their relationship with each other, as well as their families. 

THOUGHTS: This is a powerful, hard hitting novel in verse that will move anyone who reads it. There are so many beautiful moments between these two characters, and there is so much growth with these them as well. Also, the plot of this book is Kutztown, PA which is fun to see local attractions mentioned throughout the story. This is a must have for any high school.

Realistic Fiction          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Elem. – Odder

Applegate, Katherine. Odder. Fiewel and Friends, 2022. 978-1-250-14742-4. $16.99. 288 p. Grades 3-6.

Odder is a southern sea otter with a whole lot of spunk. Scared of nothing, and always on the move, Odder loves to play. She especially loves to seek out human connection. Separated from her mother as a pup, Odder was rescued and rehabilitated by humans who taught her how to be an otter and returned her to the ocean. When her daring personality endangers a friend, Odder attempts to challenge a young shark. Severely injured, Odder is once again rescued by humans, who fear that their intense interaction with Odder from a young age has bonded her to humans. Odder’s endless fascination with humans has endangered her ability to survive in the wild. The rescue center decides she cannot be returned to the ocean. Once hunted for their fur, these adorable creatures are endangered. The humans realize they need to find a new way to rehabilitate abandoned and lost otter pups in order to save the species. Instead of having humans teach otters how to live in the wild, the center attempts to try to get Odder to adopt a newly abandoned otter pup. Though unwilling to mother the pup at first, Odder eventually befriends her young charge and teaches the baby otter how to be an otter and function in the wild. Based on the real-life stories of rescued sea otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. This is a beautiful story told in verse with delightfully detailed illustrations by Charles Santoso.

THOUGHTS: Applegate’s story-telling is absolutely gorgeous. This is a very moving story of love, family, and the effect of humans on the creatures in our environment. Many opportunities for further learning about endangered species and marine biology. Includes a glossary and author’s notes with suggestions for further study. Fans of Applegate’s books will devour this selection! The release date for this book is September 20, 2022.

Animal Fiction          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD

MG -Moonwalking

Elliott, Zetta, and Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Moonwalking. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2022. 978-0-374-31437-8. $16.99. 216 p. Grades 6-8.

The title of the verse novel, Moonwalking, refers not so much to Michael Jackson’s signature dance move, but to a certain time period–the 1980’s–when punk rock was popular, Ronald Reagan was president, the infamous air traffic controller strike raged, and Brooklyn neighborhoods were largely broken and poor. Two eighth-grade characters inhabit this book: John Joseph (JP) Pandowski whose family has to give up their house on Long Island because his father loses his job as one of those ill-fated air traffic controllers; and they move in with his Polish grandmother in a basement apartment in Greenpoint. Biracial Pie feels acutely the abandonment of his African father and the need to protect his mentally fragile Puerto Rican mother. The pair cannot be more different. JP is shy and has difficulty making friends; Pie knows the ins and outs of his neighborhood and is a creative tagger. Still, they share classes together and JP is drawn to the more confident Pie. One thing they have in common is the arts. JP yearns to learn how to play the guitar his father’s friend gave him. The kindly school art teacher takes Pie under her wing and exposes him to the art of Jean Michel Basquiat and encourages Pie to enter an art contest. Though JP lacks the words to forge a friendship with Pie, the latter shares a night of tagging with him and accepts him. While Pie is parentified and JP is ignored by their respective families, the boys are drawn to each other by their personal troubles and their artistic endeavors. The joint authors spare no words to describe the harsh and unfair rules of Reagan’s actions and include episodes that smack of blatant racism: the unfairness and harsh treatment Pie experiences at school and at the hands of the police. The conclusion of the novel is not tidy, but it is satisfactory giving a realistic view of boyhoods that come up short because of unfortunate family situations. The authors experiment with different types of poetry throughout, alternating between the two boys, making this novel a quick and compelling read for students who may opt for more believable tales.

THOUGHTS: Several threads run throughout this verse novel with some sections scripted almost like prose; some in shapes. First, the home lives of both boys is dismal but realistic and perhaps relatable to some readers. Frustrated and angry, JP’s father is verbally abusive to his son. Pie’s mother is mentally fragile. Second, the explanation of Reagan’s response contrasted with Lech Walesa’s leadership in the Solidarity movement reveals a period in history not known to many students. Last, the strong parallel of Pie’s life with the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat can be discussed and coupled with the picture book, Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe. Two incidentals: JP surprises his sister kissing her friend, Claire, but otherwise there are no other LBGTQ+ elements. The dust jacket states that JP is autistic, but this characterization is not distinct throughout the story.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Ain’t Burned All the Bright

Reynolds, Jason, and Jason Griffin, illustrator. Ain’t Burned All the Bright. A Caitlin Dlouhy Book, 2022. 978-1-534-43946-7. unpaged. $19.99. Grades 7-12.

In a three-part poem using breath as a metaphor, Jason Reynolds depicts what it’s like to be a young Black person in America, in the present moment. Breath One addresses the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, as the speaker’s mother watches a repetitive news cycle that “won’t change into something new.” Breath Two relates his father’s struggles to breathe without coughing, a clear reference to COVID-19; the cough is a “blues trumpet in his throat.” Breath Three alludes to climate change, pollution, wildfires, and rising sea levels through a futile search for an oxygen mask. In a pivot, seeing a hint of a smile on his mother’s face, he looks for oxygen not in a box but in his family’s lovable idiosyncrasies, “seeing each other’s mess as a breath of fresh air.” Jason Griffin’s illustrations are as essential to this book as the text. Rendered on moleskine notebook pages with paint markers, sharpies, spray paint, and various kinds of tape, the images are intermittently abstract, suggestive, and realistic. All are thematically linked to Reynolds’ poems, which are cut into lines, words, and letters and incorporated into each page’s collage.

THOUGHTS: Ain’t Burned All the Bright is a work of art that readers will want to pick up again and again to fully engage with its meaning.

Novel in Verse          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD
Graphic Novel

Through three metaphorical breaths, readers are taken on a journey through one of the most difficult times in recent history. In Breath One, readers are introduced to a narrator who wonders “why the story won’t / change into something new” as he describes how his mother won’t change the television channel and his brother won’t look away from a video game. Stunning artwork depicts cities burning as smoke billows out of windows, a NYPD van in flames, and blacked out images. The story transitions to protests over the murder of George Floyd and the back and forth fight to breathe – to have “freedom to walk / and shout / and cry / and scream / and scroll / and post / and pray.” In Breath Two, the speaker still wonders why his mom is glued to the same channel as his father “keeps coughing / from the other room.” Artwork depicts masks and isolation as COVID ravages around the world much like a tornado destroying a town. In Breath Three, the speaker searches relentlessly for an oxygen mask “but couldn’t find / a saving grace.” Clearly painted, taped, drawn, and written on the pages of a moleskine notebook, these two powerhouse creators give readers a lot to digest. The “is anyone still here?” that follows the poem describes their process in an interview style that is not to be missed.

THOUGHTS: Ain’t Burned All the Bright is a beautiful combination of poetry and art that is best enjoyed in one sitting then returned to again and again.

Poetry          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – The Seventh Raven

Elliot, David. The Seventh Raven. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 978-0-358-25211-5. 177 p. $17.99. Grades 8-11.

Jack and Jane have prayed and prayed for a daughter but to no avail. Their six sons, all named Jack, are rough-and-tumble boys while Robyn, their seventh son, is a gentler soul. When Jane finally gives birth to a daughter, they realize quickly she is sick and will not survive the night. The father in his anger curses aloud that all of his sons are no better than birds. The universe magically heeds his words, and all seven boys are transformed into ravens, and in exchange, the little girl, later named April, lives. While the eldest six sons are infuriated over their new fate, Robyn feels as if he has finally found where he belongs. Fifteen years later, April feels as if a dark shadow lurks over her and has for her entire life. Upon discovering the truth about her brother from her parents, she sets out to find her feathered family members and release them from the curse, no matter the cost. 

THOUGHTS: In this interpretation of the Grimm Brothers’ “The Seven Ravens,” David Elliot delights readers with his poetic writing. Each character in the book is narrated through a different form of complex poetry which adds a lyrical element to this complicated story of human emotion and moral dilemmas. Although this book is recommended for grades 6 and up, the complexity of poetry would lend itself better to older, more advanced readers.

Fantasy                Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD
Verse Novel

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

Elem./MG – The One Thing You’d Save

Park, Linda Sue. The One Thing You’d Save. Clarion Books. 978-1-328-51513-1. 65 p. $16.99. Grades 3-6. 

In this novel in verse, a teacher challenges her middle school students to think about the one thing they would save if their home was on fire. Their family and pets are already safe, but she wants to know what one thing inside their home is most important to them. It can be any size, any shape. Some students come up with answers immediately, and others ponder the assignment carefully. From cell phones and favorite books to wallets and trading cards, each student explains the reasoning behind his or her choice. Some students share sentimental stories, such as how they would save a hand-knit sweater from their grandmother or a collar from a pet who passed away. The many different voices reflect an inclusive classroom led by a caring teacher who reminds her students to always protect, affect, and respect one another as they are sharing. In her author’s note, Park shares that sijo, an ancient form of Korean poetry, was her inspiration for this book. Classic sijo have three lines of thirteen to seventeen syllables. While the poems in this collection use the sijo structure, many are longer than traditional sijo poems.

THOUGHTS: This novel in verse should spark engaging discussions between middle-grade readers. The question of what to save in a hypothetical emergency is a universal one, and students’ answers will be as varied as the ones presented in the book. This could be a valuable book to use during Morning Meetings to generate conversation and build relationships. It will provide insights into what students value most and will lead to discussions about sentimental value versus practical value. Share this title with guidance counselors as well.

Novel in Verse          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County 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

MG – Starfish

Fipps, Lisa. Starfish. Nancy Paulson Books, 2021. 978-1-9848-1450-0. 256 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

Starfish follows the story of Ellie, who has been bullied her whole life for her weight. In order to deal with these issues, she creates “Fat Girl Rules” to live by; however, the reader can tell that these “rules” aren’t working for her. Ellie’s favorite thing is to swim and she can forget about her weight issues and take up all the space that she wants. This novel is told in verse, which really adds to the overall plot, and I feel makes this a more impactful book versus if it were told in regular novel form.

THOUGHTS: I loved Ellie and her journey throughout this book, and it felt so authentic to me. The only part that frustrated me was her mom; however, I can also imagine there are parents out there who are like that with their children who struggle with weight issues so I kept that in mind while reading.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Ellie’s nickname Splash has been with her since she was five years old. She did a cannonball into the pool in her whale-print bathing suit, and Splash was born. Now she is in middle school, and her classmates constantly tease her about her weight. Even worse, so does her family: her brother is downright mean, her sister never sticks up for her, and her mother is constantly putting her on crazy diets and weighing her at the start of every week. Her only allies are her father and her new best friend Catalina, whose family only see how wonderful Ellie really is. Ellie doesn’t understand why no one else can see what they see, especially her own family. She tries to take up less space living by the Fat Girl Rules she creates, especially one that states you don’t deserve to be seen or heard or noticed. She lives by these rules everywhere except the pool; the pool is one place where she can be weightless in a world that is obsessed with body image. With help from Catalina, her dad, and her new therapist, Ellie embarks on the difficult journey of learning to love herself despite what others think.

THOUGHTS: This middle grade novel is equal parts heart-wrenching and heart-warming. Written in verse, Lisa Fipps’ beautiful writing will resonate with anyone who has ever had body image issues or struggled to love themselves. Starfish is a must-have for middle grade libraries.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD