YA – Firekeeper’s Daughter

Boulley, Angeline. Firekeeper’s Daughter. Henry, Holt, and Co. 2021. 978-1-250-76656-4. $18.99. 496 p. Grades 9-12.

Daunis Fontaine, a recent high school graduate and former hockey star, lives in two different worlds. Set in Michigan’s upper peninsula, her Fontaine world includes her mother, grandmother, and recently deceased uncle, but she’s also half Anishinaabe. Her father was a part of the nearby Ojibwe tribe, and although she’s not an official member, the family and friends she has there mean just as much to her. After witnessing the murder of her best friend, Daunis decides to go undercover and help with a criminal investigation in order to save her tribe members from any further corruption. As the mysteries of the investigation unfold, she discovers some awful truths about the people she thought she knew and trusted, and it will take all of her strength to persevere without ruining her own life and relationships in the process.

THOUGHTS:  This debut novel gives readers a glimpse into modern, Native American culture along with traditions and beliefs unique to the Anishinaabe people, specifically an Ojibwe tribe located in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The author shines light on both the positive and negative aspects of life among the tribe, specifically a methamphetamine problem and the effect the drug is having on their community. Firekeeper’s Daughter is a thrilling and intense story that touches on sensitive issues including murder, addiction, grief, and sexual assault and a complex, main character who must find the strength to overcome the many obstacles in her life.

Realistic Fiction          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

Elem. – One Girl

Beatty, Andrea. One Girl. Abrams, 2020. $16.99. 32 p. 978-1-419-71905-9. Grades K-3. 

One dejected looking little girl sits all alone on the steps of a remote porch underneath a starry sky when a glowing book falls to her feet like a comet. Immediately upon opening it, her world changes into a brightly colored  fantasyland where books grow on trees and pencils sprout from the earth. As the young girl travels through this wondrous land, she witnesses diverse women working independently as artists, scientists, and leaders. The next morning she races to school to share her treasure with an eager and diverse group of students. Shortly after, she picks up a pencil and begins writing while astonished classmates watch the magic spill from her hand. Next, boys and girls alike follow her lead and begin to read, write, and share their unique stories while elements of their stories: a tiger, a grand piano, a helicopter, and hot air balloons float overhead. Later, by the light of the moon another girl sits on the front steps and watches as several new glowing books fall from the sky. Lovely, repetitive prose “One girl glowing/shares her song” reinforces the beauty of a young girl finding her voice yet also allows the reader to be fully immersed in the opportunities she has opened with her love of books. The young girl protagonist along with her supportive teacher present as Asian with medium-beige skin and beautiful dark hair. Classmates all wear the same school uniform but represent a variety of ethnicities among skin and hair colors.

THOUGHTS: One Girl is a loving tribute to the power of reading, writing, and storytelling. In addition to being a lovely read aloud, this title would make a great introduction to a writing unit or a classroom conversation about how words and actions can affect others. Short and repetitive text surrounded by stunning art with some graphic elements make this a nice option for sharing with pre-readers or English language learners who may need a little nudge to find their reading groove. This book has a place in any school library collection, classroom libraries, and beyond.

Picture Book          Jackie Fulton, Mt. Lebanon SD

MG – The Sea in Winter

Day, Christine. The Sea in Winter. Heartdrum, 2021. 978-0-062-87204-3. $16.99. Grades 3-7.

Seventh grader Maisie isn’t having a great day just before her school’s midwinter break. She’s tardy to homeroom, and she earned a 70 on her most recent math test. A break from school and a family trip back home will be good “heart medicine.” Maisie could use a distraction from eating lunch alone and getting text updates from her ballet friends who she no sees. Maisie isn’t sure how to respond, so she usually doesn’t. Things start to look up when her physical therapist suggests that Maisie’s recovery from a torn ACL and surgery might be moving faster than initially anticipated. This news gives Maisie hope; she’s missed ballet and her friends so much, and she might even be able to make a few spring auditions if she keeps progressing. With this news (and a green light for hiking) Maisie’s family heads to the Olympic Peninsula to explore some areas that are important to their Native family. Maisie’s stormy emotions seem to get the best of her at times, and she’s not sure why she says some of the things she does. When Maisie’s frustration reaches a peak, she’ll have to decide who she wants to be, even if that doesn’t include ballet.

THOUGHTS: Upper elementary and middle school students will adore Maisie and recognize the roller coaster of emotions she experiences. Maisie’s little brother provides comic relief to some of her emotional “funks,” and her parents are extremely supportive. #OwnVoices author Day addresses negative self talk and depression in an age appropriate way that will resonate with students. Highly recommended.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Maise Cannon is many things: a middle schooler, a sister, a daughter, a Native American descended from the Makah and Piscataway tribes, and a ballet dancer. Her favorite of all her identities is of a ballet dancer, but her knee injury that she is recovering from may prevent her from ever dancing again. Her physical therapy is going well, and she hopes that she will be able to audition for a summer program like her friends. When her family goes on a hiking trip, Maisie re-injures her knee dashing any hopes of dancing any time soon. Maisie’s anxiety and depression take hold of her, and she shuts out everyone and everything in her life. Her family encourages Maisie to go to therapy. After a few months, Maisie finds a life for herself without dancing, and finds that she can be happy with what she CAN do.

THOUGHTS: This is a story where the characters just happen to be Native Americans. This would be a great addition for readers who are struggling with an injury.

Realistic Fiction         Krista Fitzpatrick, PSLA Member

YA – Cemetery Boys

Thomas, Aiden. Cemetery Boys. Swoon Reads, 2020. 978-1-250-25046-9. 344 p. $17.99. Grades 7-12. 

In the heart of LA lives a cemetery where the dead roam long after they’re gone. They’re welcome to stay as long as they stay themselves, but stay too long and a ghost risks turning maligno. Protected by the brujx, a line of guardians who roam the cemetery to keep the peace, the cemetery is home to the newly dead and those not quite ready to let go. Once they are ready, the brujos are there to release them into the afterlife. Yadriel comes from a long line of brujx and wants nothing more than to become one. However, even after coming out as trans, his family still tries to push him to be a bruja, a healer, and refuses to let him try to take the test meant for the men. When Yadriel takes matters into his own hands he ends up with a companion he didn’t expect, the ghost of a classmate who rarely attends school. If Yadriel can release him then he will prove himself as a real brujo. Julian, however, isn’t going to give up so easily.

THOUGHTS: A powerful story of Latinx heritage and the strength it takes to break with tradition and find your own place in the world. While not the same premise, readers of They Both Die At The End will love Cemetery Boys.

Fantasy (Paranormal)          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

YA – Elatsoe

Little Badger, Darcie. Elatsoe. Levine Querido, 2020. 978-1-646-14005-3. 368 p. $18.99. Grades 8-12.

In a world where paranormal activity is as normal as overpriced movie theatre popcorn, Ellie, who is able to summon the dead, is determined to solve the mystery of her cousin’s death. After Trevor appears in her dreams pleading her to keep his family safe from his murderer, Ellie and her friend Jay begin to investigate the strange town where he died and the circumstances surrounding his death. Using her mystical powers, passed on through generations of Lipan monarchs, Ellie uncovers the horrific truth of Willowbee’s origin and the connection between Willowbee’s founder and Trevor’s death.

THOUGHTS: A thrilling story for readers who love fantasy, mystery, and folklore. The story weaves elements of these three genres to create a unique and compelling story.

Fantasy     Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD

YA – Somebody Told Me

Siegert, Mia. Somebody Told Me. Carolrhoda Lab, 2020. 978-1-5415-7819-7. 272 p. $18.99. Grades 8-12.

Aleks/Alexis is bigender. Some days she is Alexis, and some days he is Aleks. There’s no telling when the switch will happen, and their parents are very supportive. Alexis/Aleks doesn’t always feel like they fit in, not within the world or within themself, except once upon a time among cosplay friends. But one day something happens, something big enough to ruin anime conventions forever, something big enough to make Alexis/Aleks run. And run they do, to live with Aunt Anne Marie and Uncle Brian, the uncle who just happens to be a Catholic priest, and lives in the rectory of his church. Faced with a choice between relatives who may never accept them or a life they can’t return to, Aleks/Alexis chooses the former, opting to hide half of their true self to fit into a community they don’t quite belong to. A community with its own secrets, some mild, some edging toward serious, and one that Aleks/Alexis just can’t ignore.

THOUGHTS: While parts of the story seemed rushed, the characters are real and raw and up against forces way bigger than themselves. 

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

MG – Stand Up, Yumi Chung!

Kim, Jessica. Stand Up, Yumi Chung! Kokila, 2020. 978-0-525-55497-4. 306 p. $14.81. Grades 3-6.

A sleek pixie cut is just the change Yumi Chung needs to start seventh grade. What she gets, instead, is the perm her mother wants. Such is the life of Yumi Chung–overruled by the adults in her life at every turn. So when she hears her family can no longer afford to send her to her private school, Yumi is elated. But her thoughts of freedom are short lived as her mother informs her that she will have to ace the Secondary School Admission Test in two weeks in order to get a scholarship. Instead of the summer Yumi had planned–watching Youtube videos of her favorite comedian, Jasmine Jasper, and writing jokes in her Super-Secret Comedy Notebook–she will now have to attend tutoring sessions in order to pass the test. One afternoon as she is leaving tutoring, she stumbles upon a new comedy club in her neighborhood, and it is offering a comedy camp for teens taught by none other than Jasmine Jasper. A case of mistaken identity finds Yumi attending the camp and having the time of her life. But when she is found out, how will Yumi explain to her parents, her fellow comedy campers, and Jasmine Jasper? Will shy Yumi Chung finally find her voice and stand up for herself?

THOUGHTS: Middle grade students will sympathize with Yumi. She is picked on at school, she has an older sister who is an actual genius who she is always being compared to, and her parents refuse to listen to what Yumi wants. Stand Up, Yumi Chung! is an Own Voices novel about family and friends that stands out in the crowd.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

Yumi Chung’s goal in life is to become a stand-up comedian. That vision does not fit with her traditional Korean-American family who value hard work (see their struggles to maintain their Korean barbeque restaurant in a gentrified neighborhood) and education (see their older, more perfect daughter who excelled at school and now is on track to becoming a doctor). Yumi sees her family’s financial difficulties as a way out of attending the posh private school where she has no friends and finally being able to reinvent herself. No such luck! Mrs. Chung persuades the principal of Winston Preparatory Academy to give Yumi a chance at winning a scholarship. She only has to cram for it at a Korean prep class with Mrs. Pak. Turns out the hogwon is right near a comedy class for young people hosted by Yumi’s Youtube  idol, Jasmine Jasper. Yumi inserts herself into the class through a case of mistaken identity. Author Jessica Kim blends just the right amount of pathos and humor to make Stand Up, Yumi Chung! a entertaining read. Drawn by her desire to make people laugh and perform, Yumi gets sucked into a web of lies that are difficult to unravel. While she is busy making a mess and cleaning up after herself, she forms a stronger bond with the sister she used to envy and a clearer understanding and appreciation of her parents’ sacrifices and efforts. She also is able to make her dreams come true by boosting the business at her parents’ failing restaurant with a series of schemes to promote it, including a comedy night. Lots of lessons threaded throughout this story make it endearing to a wide audience: self-identity, problem solving, appreciation of family, and the importance of trying after failing.

THOUGHTS: The hunt for a solid story that infuses humor­­­­­­­ is hard to find (Front Desk by Kelly Yang and It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel! by Firoozeh Dumas comes to mind). Stand Up, Yumi Chung! can be in that category. A reader doesn’t need to be Korean-American to appreciate the pressure to fulfill a parent’s dreams, but the Asian references will resonate with Asian-American students and educate non Asian-American ones. The rabbit hole Yumi falls down is relatable to any middle school student floundering with being impulsive and making decisions.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – A Thousand Questions

Faruqi, Saadia. A Thousand Questions. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2020. 978-0-062-94320-0. 225 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8. 

In this East meets West friendship story, A Thousand Questions shows the disparity in lifestyles between the United States and Pakistan told alternately by the two main characters. Eleven-year-old Mimi Scotts and her mother travel from Houston, Texas, for summer vacation to visit her wealthy grandparents, Begum Sahib and Sahiba Ji, in Karachi for the first time. She is awed by the wealth and luxury of her grandparents’ home compared with her tiny apartment and stretched budget back in the United States. While Mimi’s mother reconnects with her school chums, Mimi forms a friendship with the servant girl, Sakina Ejaz. Too poor to go to school, Sakina assists her diabetic father cooking in the Ji’s kitchen. The two girls become fast friends. With the backdrop of the campaign season for new elections, Sakina shows Mimi the sites of Karachi, and Mimi agrees to tutor to Sakina for her English examination so that she can win a school scholarship. Mimi’s narration includes secret letters she writes to Tom Scotts, the father she has never met. When Mimi discovers her freelance journalist father is living in Karachi, she is determined to meet him and Sakina is a willing accomplice. Author Saadia Faruqi captures the richness of the Asian city from the delicious dishes and its atmosphere to the inequity of the caste system as well as the authenticity of the fully-drawn main characters: Sakina, mature beyond her years, cognizant of her integral role in providing for the welfare of her family; Mimi, an ordinary American girl of modest means, getting to know her grandparents and also her own mother in her childhood home and longing to connect with father.

THOUGHTS: This book reminds the reader of When Heaven Fell  by Carolyn Marsden, a story that compares the life of  a struggling Vietnamese family with the life of an adult Vietnamese-American adoptee who visits her Vietnamese birth mother. There’s a part where Sakini asks Mimi if there are poor people in America and Mimi answers, “No,” at first until she remembers a homeless man and the kids at school who qualify for free lunch. Discussion of social justice issues, equity in education, and divorce can ensue.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

When Mimi and her mother arrive in Karachi, Pakistan for the summer, Mimi immediately misses air conditioning, soccer, and chicken nuggets, all staples of her American upbringing. Mimi is surprised to find that her grandparents live in luxury, employing servants and wearing fancy clothes, while Mimi and her mother can barely afford rent in their tiny Houston apartment. Mimi realizes there is so much she doesn’t know about her mother, her grandparents, and her father who left years ago without explanation. After learning that her father’s job brought him to Karachi, Mimi befriends a servant girl who agrees to help Mimi find him in exchange for English lessons. Sakina, a servant of Mimi’s grandparents, dreams of going to school like Mimi, but her servant status prohibits her from making her dreams a reality. After all, when would she find the time to go to school when she must keep her job to take care of her own family and ailing father? Going to school seems even more impossible when she takes a secret exam and fails the English portion, but when Sakina and Mimi strike up their deal, Sakina starts to hope for her future and a better life for her family. As their friendship blossoms, the inequities of the Pakistani class system are revealed, and the friends determine to make good in both of their worlds despite the challenges.

THOUGHTS: Instead of multiple perspectives from different time periods, this story highlights two contemporary perspectives in a country many readers will be unfamiliar with. Shining light on the class system that still exists today in Pakistan, readers may feel compelled to learn more about the living inequalities and hardships people face who live outside of the United States. This is a good #ownvoices addition to any library seeking to diversity their collection.

Realistic     Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD