MG – Amber & Clay

Schlitz, Laura Amy. Amber & Clay. Candlewick Press, 2021. 978-1-536-20122-2. 532 p. $22.99. Grades 5-9.

Told in the alternating voices of Rhaskos and Melisto, this book transports readers to the richness of life in Ancient Greece. Rhaskos is a Thracian slave, serving his masters and making his way through the world with his wits, his passion for art, and his camaraderie with donkeys. Melisto is the daughter of wealthy Greek parents who, try as they might, cannot stifle her wild spirit within the confines of a weaving room. They lead incredibly different lives, but their paths cross when Rhasko’s mother appears in Melisto’s house as a slave. Brightly drawn and multi-dimensional, these two Greek youths are easy to like, even if they are not always easy to understand, and readers will cheer for them when they finally meet and work together to fulfill their destinies.

THOUGHTS: This is the latest offering from Newbery-prize-winning author Laura Amy Schlitz, and it does not disappoint with its lyrical prose and abundant historical details. Full of ancient Greek culture, references to gods, goddesses, and the philosopher Socrates himself, fans of Greek mythology will be happy to immerse themselves in the time and place of this story.

Fantasy Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – The Magical Imperfect

Baron, Chris. The Magical Imperfect. Feiwel & Friends, 2021. 978-1-250-76782-0. 232 p. $15.15. Grades 5-8.

Etan has not always been an outcast. He used to play baseball with the other boys during recess. He used to hang out with his best friend. He used to talk in class and interact with classmates. But that was before his mother checked into a mental hospital. Now suffering from selective mutism, Etan has pulled away from everyone in his life except for his father and grandfather, with whom he shares a very strong bond. While visiting his grandfather at his jewelry shop, Etan is asked by the grocer next door to deliver a package. It is only after his brief, mysterious, and interesting encounter with the family’s daughter, Malia, that he finds out she is known to his classmates as “The Creature.” Etan, however, doesn’t see her that way, and as he makes more trips to her house, their friendship grows. Etan wishes he could help Malia find a cure for her eczema so she can return to school. Malia wishes she could help Etan find his voice. Perhaps finding someone who accepts them for who they are will be the key for Etan and Malia to shed that outcast label.

THOUGHTS:  There is so much to unpack here–Mental illness, prejudice, immigration, bullying, friendship—the list goes on. Chris Baron knows exactly which issues face middle grade readers and writes about them in an accessible, heartfelt, and beautiful way. This book is a perfect fit for middle school libraries.

Fantasy            Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

YA – Say Her Name

Elliott, Zetta. Say Her Name. Little, 2020. 978-1-368-04524-7. 96 p. $18.99. Grades 8+.

A beautiful collection of poetry that celebrates the voices of Black women and girls throughout the ages. The colorful pages call the reader to reflect and act in the world in which we live. Four poems are tributes to and inspired by strong Black women’s voices of the past including Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, and Phillis Wheatley. The collection is clearly meant for Black women and girls, but can be enjoyed by all readers, regardless of their identity. Each page is empowering and can be a solid springboard for discussion.

THOUGHTS: Although stunning, this remarkable collection is recommended for high school libraries who need to revitalize their print poetry material or who have readers interested in reflection, self-care, and individual insight.

811 Poetry          Samantha Hull, Ephrata

MG – Before the Ever After

Woodson, Jacqueline. Before the Ever After. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2020. 978-0-399-54543-6. 176 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Known for her powerful verse, Jacqueline Woodson takes on a topic that many fiction pieces haven’t touched: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Admittedly, as a recent discovery in neuroscience, the condition may not be prevalent in large numbers of readers, but the awareness is beginning to spread. Middle readers who pick up this book, especially young athletes, will likely recognize some of ZJ’s dad’s symptoms throughout his story as having to do with his professional football career. Although awareness of CTE is important, the story ZJ tells in this book can be applied to any adolescent dealing with change and identity. It begs the question: What is the value of family traditions and memories?

THOUGHTS: Buy this book immediately, and hand it out to all seventh grade football players. In all seriousness, this short verse-novel can be the hook a lot of reluctant readers need into using literature to help explain trauma in their own lives.

Realistic/Verse Novel          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

YA – Punching the Air

Zoboi, Ibi and Yusef Salaam. Punching the Air. Balzar + Bray, 2020. 978-0-062-99648-0. 400 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12. 

Punching the Air follows Amal Shahid, a talented art student who is seen as disruptive in a prestigious school based on the color of his skin. Early in the book, you learn that he has been caught up in an altercation with other boys, and he ends up being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to jail. Amal turns to words to convey what he’s feeling, even if he doesn’t understand what he’s feeling. This novel is told through poetry which makes it feel so much more powerful than if it was told in a regular novel format. Readers feel so much empathy for Amal and his situation, and there were many points where readers will want to reach through the book and hug him. The lyrical writing gives insight into how young people feel in our justice system: the hopelessness, the fear, as well as the anger. 

THOUGHTS: This is a must read and a must own for every upper middle and high school library. Just be aware of the themes of racism, as well as the descriptions and discussion of jail.  

Novel in verse          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Charter Academy

The name Amal means hope, and hope is exactly what Amal needs after he is convicted of aggravated assault and battery of a white boy. Although Amal knows the truth, that he might have thrown the first punch but not the last, his hope lies in Jeremy Mathis waking up from his coma and telling the truth. But, Amal is more than just anger or a black boy living up to the path laid out for him – for boys from his neighborhood. Amal is art and poetry; he is creative and spiritual; loving, a son, a cousin, a friend. But in prison, Amal must turn parts of himself off; he must be cold, quiet, and suspicious to survive the beatings and cruelty from guards and other inmates. He must contain his anger, so he can flourish in poetry and art and grow from his experiences to find the window back to the world that was and will be forever changed.

THOUGHTS:  Punching the Air is a phenomenal story about wrongful incarceration and the cruelty of the justice system.  Although Zoboi and Salaam share much hope through Amal, they also present the harsh realities of a broken system, a system that sent Salaam to prison as one of the now Exonerated Five. This novel-in-verse is eloquent and honest; it stabs the reader again and again, but then heals her over and over. Amal is a hero while the justice system is the villain.  He continually is beaten down, and yet he rises. This is a must have for all high school collections. On a final note, many of the poems and lines resonate with readers, but for me, this verse says it all.  “The bookshelves here / are not walls / They’re closed windows / and all I have to do / is pull out one book / to make these windows / wide open” (“Booked II”).

Novel-in-Verse        Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD
Realistic Fiction

YA – With a Star in My Hand: Rubén Darío, Poetry Hero

Engle, Margarita. With a Star in My Hand: Rubén Darío, Poetry Hero. Atheneum, 2020. 978-1-534-42493-7. 144 p. $17.99. Grades 7-12. 

Based on the life of Rubén Darío, Margarita Engle’s With a Star in My Hand depicts a fictionalized account of the poet’s rise to fame. Coming from humble origins, a mother who abandoned him to a poor working aunt who encouraged his love of literature, Rubén Darío rose to become the father of a literary movement. From a young age his poems inspired and awed those around him as he took chance after chance offered to him. However, his road to fame wasn’t all gold; there were many hiccups along the way that added texture to his poems. Traveling helped to color his world and determine the kind of poet, and person, he wanted to be.

THOUGHTS: A delightful and inspiring novel-in-verse account of a young boy striving against almost insurmountable odds to find his place in a world that frequently rejected him. 

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

MG – Becoming Muhammad Ali

Patterson, James, and Alexander, Kwame. Becoming Muhammad Ali. Jimmy Patterson Books, 2020. 978-0-316-49816-6. 310 p. $16.99. Grades 4-8.

We all know about the legend that is Muhammad Ali, but few know about the boy called Cassius Clay. This book, written partly in verse and partly in prose is a must read for any sports loving reader. Told in ten rounds, like a boxing match, Clay’s friend Lucky tells part of the story (written by Patterson) while Cassius’ voice is told in verse (written by Alexander). Learn how the events of the day shaped Clay into Ali and how sheer determination and self belief led to Clay’s success. A bibliography is included.

THOUGHTS: A first purchase for any middle grade library collection.

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

YA – Tess of the Road, Not the Girls You’re Looking For, My Plain Jane, Illegal, The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Graphic Novel, The Poet X, Hooper, After the Shot Drops

Hartman, Rachel.  Tess of the Road. New York: Random House, 2018. 978-1-101-93128-8. 536 p. $18.99. Gr. 8 and up.

Rachel Hartman’s latest epic tome (it’s a whopping 536 pages), Tess of the Road, follows Tess Dombegh on her road to self-discovery and self-reflection.  Tess feels trapped: trapped by her past and her future; trapped by her upbringing; trapped by family obligations.  After nearly ruining her twin sister Jeanne’s wedding by drunkenly confessing a family secret to her new brother-in-law, Tess, without much forethought, runs away.  The novel takes place in the same world as Seraphina; indeed, Tess is Seraphina’s half-sister, but only grudgingly.  Unlike Seraphina, however, which focuses mainly on court and Dragon politics, Tess of the Road is a much more introspective novel, and puts the focus squarely on Tess herself. Quickly, Tess realizes that a woman traveling alone is a dangerous prospect, so she disguises herself as a boy, adopting the persona of her loathsome brother-in-law, Jacomo, a burgeoning monk.  She serendipitously finds her long lost childhood friend, Pathka, a Quigutl (not quite a dragon, not quite a human, not quite a lizard), and the two set off together on something like a pilgrimage to find a World Serpent named Anathuthia, a legendary snake like creature who helped shaped the world. As she travels, the reader gets glimpses into Tess’s heartbreaking past, which involve a rake named Will, and her reasons for wanting to be on the road become ever clearer. The people she meets along the way reframe her idea of herself – she was raised to hate her own body, to believe that a woman is the embodiment of sin, and that her only duty is to her husband and family; Tess’s realization that she can be more than her mother has always suggested she is (which isn’t much) is one of the joys of this book. Tess is not always a sympathetic character, and she makes plenty of missteps, but her intentions are almost always honorable, and she does her best to make up for those she wrongs.  This is not a fast-paced, action-packed novel – it is a slow, cathartic, reflective journey, but those who reach the end will be well-rewarded.

THOUGHTS: Rachel Hartman’s secondary characters are supremely well-rounded, and Tess’s interactions with each of them, especially her sister, Jeanne, with whom she has a not so healthy relationship, Tess’s brief, enlightening encounter with Frai Moldi, an angry, depressed, and brilliant young monk, gives this novel such depth. Just when you think you know exactly who each character is, and how they’ll react in certain situations, they throw you for a loop, and defy expectations.

Fantasy          Lauren Friedman-Way, The Baldwin School

Safi, Aminah Mae. Not the Girls You’re Looking For. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2018. 978-1-250-15181-0. 331 p. $17.99. Gr. 9 and up.

Aminah Mae Safi’s Not the Girls You’re Looking For reads like an angrier, edgier cross between Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and E. Lockhart’s The Boyfriend List. While this isn’t the most sophisticated novel, it is an important one, as it celebrates female sexuality; each of the female characters actively and unabashedly experience sexual desires and are intimately involved with others. That being said, it also doesn’t beat around the bush about how others perceive female sexuality, and the word “slut” is bandied about quite a bit here. Our protagonist, Lulu, is in the midst of something of an existential crisis: she is half White and half Persian, and feels like she doesn’t truly belong anywhere – her mother’s family has rejected her father and his family, and her father’s family will not fully embrace her mother, or Lulu.  She has experienced racism and Islamophobia at the hands of her classmates, and it drives her decision to stay under the radar socially (which hasn’t actually seemed to work too well). Despite this, Lulu has a loyal and fierce group of friends – Lo, beautiful, intimidating, and smart as a whip; Audrey, posh, wealthy, and polished; and Emma, the reserved peacekeeper of the group. They are not always a likeable or sympathetic bunch, but they truly love each other, even when they’re horrible to each other. When Lulu’s friendships begin to splinter for various reasons, she has to come up with a plan to bring them all back together again. In the meantime, she also has to navigate a somewhat tempestuous new romance, an obnoxious male classmate who won’t stop making unwanted advances towards her, birth control, and Ramadan. While the writing here can be disjointed and awkward at times, readers will instantly find themselves enraptured with Lulu and her world.

THOUGHTS: This is definitely a book for more mature readers. However, this novel realistically portrays burgeoning teenage sexuality; the discussion Lulu has with her mom about sex is particularly affecting, and will be helpful for teens looking for a way to open up a dialogue with their own parent, or with a trusted adult, about the topic.

Realistic Fiction          Lauren Friedman-Way, The Baldwin School

Hand, Cynthia, et al. My Plain Jane. New York: Harper Teen, 2018. 978-0-062-65277-5. 450 p. $17.99. Gr. 8 and up.

My Plain Jane is a charming, effervescent, and witty retelling(ish) of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In this reimagining, Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, Bronte and Jane Eyre are close friends at Lowood School, where Jane Eyre is a teacher.  In this version of the story, Jane Eyre is a “seer,” which means she can see, and communicate, with ghosts. Indeed, Helen Burns, her best friend who passed away from “graveyard disease” at the age of fourteen, is her constant ghostly companion. Jane keeps this a closely guarded secret, however, as it has only caused her grief when she’s tried to tell people about it. Enter Alexander Blackwell, a member of the Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits (SRWS), an organization run by the Duke of Wellington that has fallen out of favor with the king, who does not believe in ghosts.  When he comes to a pub close to Lowood to “relocate” a troublesome ghost, Jane witnesses this event, which entails Alexander “bopping” the ghost on the head with a pocket watch. When Alexander discovers that Jane is a seer, he sets out to recruit her for the SRWS. She wants nothing to do with it, as she has decided that it’s an evil organization who imprisons ghosts for nefarious purposes; instead, she takes a position as governess at Thornfield Hall. Not one to give up so easily, Alexander, with the help of Charlotte, who would give her left foot to join the SRWS, and Branwell, Charlotte’s brother, and the newest, albeit bumbling, member of the SRWS, pursue Jane to Thornfield to attempt to persuade her to join up.  Jane, however, has fallen hard for the mysterious, erratic, and shifty Mr. Rochester, whom nobody trusts, least of all Helen, who is convinced there is something terribly wrong at Thornfield, and with Rochester. We all know what happens next, right? Actually, no – the story deviates quite a bit here, with a truly supernatural twist. It turns out there’s more to everyone’s story here, Rochester most of all, and Hand, Ashton, and Meadows do a wonderful job creating a clever alternate ending. While it helps to have some knowledge of Jane Eyre, and Charlotte Bronte, just to understand some of the references, it’s not necessary to enjoy and appreciate this rolicking ghost story.

THOUGHTS: This is the second “Jane” novel that these three authors – they have dubbed themeselves The Lady Janies –  have co-penned; the first, My Lady Jane, was an alternate take on Lady Jane Grey’s story.  Sadly, readers will have to wait at least two years for the next Jane story – My Calamity Jane. Be sure to have copies of Jane Eyre, and other Bronte novels, on hand for readers of this book!

Historical Fantasy          Lauren Friedman-Way, The Baldwin School

Colfer, Eoin, and Andrew Donkin. Illustrated by Giovanni Rigano. Illegal. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2018. 978-1-492-66214-3. 128 pp. $19.99. Grades 6-12.

Illegal follows the perilous journey of Ebo, a twelve-year old boy from a small village in Ghana, to a potentially brighter future in Europe. Realizing that his older brother Kwame has already fled their village, Ebo follows him to Agadez, Niger. Reunited, the brothers travel across the Saharan Desert to the city of Tripoli, Libya, where they work tirelessly to save enough money for an ocean crossing to Italy. The boys are continuously confronted with harsh elements, unsympathetic authorities, and unscrupulous traffickers, but Ebo’s ingenuity and drive may see them safely through. Authors Eoin Colfer (of Artemis Fowl fame) and Andrew Donkin employ a dual timeline, depicting the hazardous boat voyage across the Mediterranean (“Now”) in alternating chapters with the nineteen months Ebo spent getting there (“Then”). This effective structure illustrates how Ebo’s path involves not just one dangerous crossing, but many months of risk, fear, and luck – sometimes good and sometimes bad.

THOUGHTS: Ebo’s story is fictional, but each element of his journey is based in fact. Brilliantly colored artwork and an emotionally gripping storyline bring the humanity of an “illegal” to life for readers of all ages. Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab is another excellent graphic novel about the refugee experience for readers seeking a comparable title.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Morhain, Jorge, Martin Tunica, and Pablo Tunica. The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Graphic Novel. Stone Arch Books, 2018. 80 p. 978-1-496-56409-2. $27.32. Grades 7-12.

The strength of this book is Oscar Wilde’s thought-inspiring story wherein the virtuous, wealthy, and handsome Dorian Gray is painted by Basil Hallward, and so showered with praise that Dorian impetuously wishes to sell his soul if he can always appear as he does in the painting.  Soon, under the tutelage of the amoral Henry Wotten, Dorian is making one cruel choice after another and realizing that while he does not age, his (now hidden) portrait shows the true ugliness of his soul. In an era where beauty is believed by some to show the purity of the soul within, everyone loves Dorian.  But his reputation is slowly being sullied by rumors. Worse yet, Dorian struggles inside himself to make sense of his own desires. Who is he? Why is he loved? Can he truly do anything he wishes? By believing something, can he make it so, or change the truth?

THOUGHTS: This slim graphic novel is scripted by writer Jorge Morhain, with illustrations by Martin Tunica and coloring by Pablo Tunica.  Glossary, discussion questions, and writing prompts enrich the reading. It is true that the twists and beauty of the original language are missing, but Wilde’s story stands the test of time and change.

Graphic Novel          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Acevedo, Elizabeth. The Poet X. Harper Teen, 2018.  361 p. 978-006-266280-4  $17.99 Grades 9-12.

Xiomara is a fiery Dominican, full of questions that do not fit with her Catholic mother’s strict parenting style, nor her devout and quieter best friend Caridad or even her own twin Xavier.  She finds the treatment of females demeaning (especially one so developed as she is), and her entire community’s expectations (or lack thereof) for her to be restricting and bland. Xiomara has a voice, but using it is proving problematic.  Xiomara also has a temper and fists which she uses to fight back, for herself or her smaller, cautious brother. But Xavier sees through his sister, and his gift of a leather-bound notebook to Xiomara on their birthday starts Xiomara to writing.  Xiomara writes poetry, expressing the frustration, anger, and confusion she feels about her family, her community and her future. Her English teacher encourages her to attend her new performance poetry club, but it conflicts with scheduled confirmation classes with Father Sean.  Refreshingly, Father Sean tells her that questions are allowed and necessary. At school, she begins a relationship with Aman, which fills her poetry with more questions, especially since Mami would undoubtedly rejoice if Xiomara chose the life of a nun that Mami herself was denied at Xiomara’s age. Xiomara disobeys her mother to be with Aman, and to attend the poetry club. Both cause her to grow, but only poetry does not disappoint. “I can’t remember/the last time people were silent/while I spoke, actually listening” (259). Xiomara is hiding her explosive self, and it’s about to unravel. Can she find peace with her family and be true to herself?  “If my body was a Country Club soda bottle/it’s one that has been shaken and dropped/and at any moment it’s gonna pop open/and surprise the whole damn world” (105).

THOUGHTS: This is a strongly written first novel, completely in verse, and reveals a complicated young woman seemingly at odds with the world. To witness her transformation–and her family’s–aided by Father Sean, is rewarding.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Herbach, Geoff. Hooper. Katherine Tegen Books, 2018. 323 p. 978-0-062-45311-2 $17.99 Grades 9-12.

“Basketball is my passport.”  So believes Adam (Sobieski) Reed, since he moved from orphaned poverty in Poland to Minnesota with his adoptive mom (angel) Renata.  Soon enough he discovered basketball and a talent for it. “Oh, I love being on the court even if I’m not playing….Everything makes sense to me with basketball….Man, I just want to play” (86-7).   He also found his only friend, outsider Barry Roland, and self-centered nemesis Kase Kinshaw, who calls Adam “Duh” or “the Refugee.” Adam’s still-growing understanding of the English language and (especially) American culture places him in some awkward and hilarious situations, which Kase is glad to showcase.  Basketball brings Adam hope and, importantly, a friendship with Carli Anderson, who has drive and talent beyond Adam’s, despite tackling a severe knee injury. When Adam joins a select AAU team, he takes Carli’s advice to “talk more” to people, and finds himself a family in which he’s the only white kid. But every family has pressures, and off-court problems threaten this new family, as well as Barry.  How Adam seeks to respond to the problems will determine the trajectory of his life and friendships, even his career, for some time to come. Herbach has crafted a likeable, multi-faceted narrator in Adam, and readers will root for him as he learns to navigate America, the “inky black nightmares” from his past, and relationships in a new place.

THOUGHTS: A well-built cast of characters with unique interactions gives truth to the credo, “every person you meet has a story to tell.”  

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Ribay, Randy. After the Shot Drops. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018. 325 p. 978-1-328-70227-2  $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Bunny Thompson and Nasir have been best friends for years, but now in their sophomore year of high school, Bunny transfers to St. Sebastian’s, an elite prep school.  He has the basketball talent, and they have the opportunities. But Nasir is left behind at Whitman High, and since Bunny never discussed the change with him, he is feeling more than a little resentful of Bunny’s abandonment.  “You’re looking out for yourself so hard you forget that everyone else exists. So it’s nothing to you to leave us behind” (125). Nasir is also concerned about his cousin Wallace, who is about to be evicted and whose bad choices have led him into bad places before.  Nasir is disappointed that “[Bunny]’s got the world looking out for him. I’m the only one in Wallace’s corner” (139). So Nasir tries to help, but Wallace’s attempts to make some fast cash by betting on Bunny’s games leads him to severe desperation, so much that Nasir asks Bunny to throw a championship game.  Nasir realizes, “I don’t know how to help one without hurting the other” (169) and “Maybe it’s time for me to do right by both my friends, not just one” (243). But how to do that is the challenge.  Told alternately from Nasir’s and Bunny’s point of view, Ribay allows us to see the challenges each of the three young men face and swallow the frustration each one feels about the limits of their lives.  Bunny opens the novel by considering the impact of words in a memorial, and Nasir ends the book wishing he’d have been able to find the words to make more of a difference. This power of words, and the question of personal vs. collective responsibility, drive the book.  

THOUGHTS: This is a compelling look at limits, perspective, loyalty and compassion, strengthened by the use of dual points of view. A must-have for high school collections.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD