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

MG – Beyond Me

Donwerth-Chikamatsu, Annie. Beyond Me. Antheneum Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-481-43789-9. 291 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

This novel written in verse is about eleven year old Maya who lives in Japan with her American mother and Japanese father. Follow Maya as she lives through the events of March 11, 2011, the day a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. Maya and her family are among the lucky ones who live outside of Tokyo, far enough away from the center of the earthquake, tsunamis, and subsequent radiation leaks. As Maya sits by and watches her family do things to help, Maya feels helpless.  Rescuing a cat that she finds out was abandoned after the quake, planting radiation absorbing sunflowers, and making 1,000 paper cranes with her friend Yuka help to give her a purpose as she waits for the next aftershock to hit.  

THOUGHTS: This book is told from an eleven year old’s point of view and really highlights the stress and worry kids feel when a natural disaster happens. I like that Maya’s mother helps her find ways she can help in a crisis. 

Historical Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Upper Dublin SD

Elem. – Flooded:  Requiem for Johnstown

Burg, Ann E. Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown. Scholastic Press, 2020. 978-1-338-54069-7. 313 p. $16.53. Grades 3-6.

Gertrude Quinn is a spirited young school girl, looking forward to singing at Decoration Day.  Daniel Fagan is planning a summer spent outdoors, maybe even sneaking a swim in at the private late at the top of King’s Mountain. Monica Fagan is looking forward to traveling the world, especially if it means she’ll leave Daniel and his pranks behind. Joe Dixon is waiting for the perfect moment–the perfect moment to tell his father he isn’t working at the company store but instead bought a newsstand, and the perfect moment to propose to his true love, Maggie. William James has been collecting words for a long time, and he’ll get a chance to use them when he reads an original poem at Decoration Day. George Hoffman wishes his pa would let him quit school so he can go to work to help his family of 10. In Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown, Ann E. Berg tells a tale of the lives that were being lived before the disaster on May 31, 1889, that took the lives of more than 2,200 people, including 99 entire families and 396 children. We follow six main characters as they prepare for the Decoration Day celebration, disappointed by the rain but oblivious to the calamity about to unfold. We see the flood as experienced by these characters, and we also witness the aftermath. The flood is the catalyst, but it is not the main character. Instead, Burg has chosen to tell a tale of lives lived, lost and saved.

THOUGHTS: The character development and storytelling will attract students who may not know about the Johnstown flood, and it will likely encourage students to read more about this catastrophe.

Historical Fiction        Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

MG – The Canyon’s Edge

Bowling, Dusti. The Canyon’s Edge. Little, Brown and Company, 2020. 978-0-316-49469-4. 301 p. $16.99. Grades 3-6.

Are you likely to die in this situation? is a question Nora asks herself often after surviving a shooting at a restaurant on her birthday which claimed her mother’s life. Nora and her dad trek into a canyon in the middle of the desert one day to get away from life for a few hours and spend time doing what their family loved to do – hike and explore. But when a flash flood suddenly strikes, Nora’s dad is swept away moments after saving her life. Nora is now left with absolutely nothing, not even her backpack, and must battle her inner demons and various canyon hazards to find her dad…. and a way out. Alone in the desert Nora must overcome her past in order to save her future.

THOUGHTS: A must have for your collection and for fans of Hatchet! Finally a story where a female protagonist overcomes the odds in a survival story. Bowling brings the emotion in this novel in verse and teaches us that we are more capable than we think. Bowling wrote this book to honor a family of nine that perished in a flash flood a day after she visited the same spot with her family.

Graphic Novel        Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh 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