MG – Paola Santiago and the River of Tears

Mejia, Tehlor Kay. Paola Santiago and the River of Tears. Disney-Hyperion, 2020. 978-1-368-04917-7. 350 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Scientific Paola just eyerolls when her superstitious mother talks of spells, wards, and evil beings like La Llorona, the creature who roams the river stealing children to replace those she lost. But Paola and her friends Emma and Dante do respect the Gila River near their Arizona home. Several local children have drowned in the waters. Not that that stops them from lying to their parents and hanging out on the banks of the river. But when Paola repeatedly has dreams of a creature reaching out of the waters and grabbing her, and Emma disappears one evening, Paola begins to reconsider whether her mother’s superstitions are as ridiculous as she always assumed them to be. When the police refuse to listen to Paola, she and Dante decide to take matters into their own hands. Armed with support and advice from a most surprising source, they venture into a world of legendary monsters battled by lost children, shocked to discover their own roles in this world that shouldn’t exist. Paola Santiago, part of the Rick Riordan imprint, is a page turner from the very beginning. Pao is a delightful protagonist, supported by her two best friends. Scientific-minded, fascinated by space, she is stunned by the existence of magic, myth, and monsters. Dante and Emma are strong characters as well (in every sense of the word), and the various creatures they encounter don’t stand a chance against the combined wiles of the trio. But Pao also learns that there is more to life than what the power of physics can prove and becomes closer to her mother through the ordeal. Paola and Dante are Hispanic; Emma is white.

THOUGHTS: Paola Santiago and the River of Tears is an exciting page turner that is hard to put down. Paola is a feisty heroine who is easy to love and is sure to gain legions of fans. Add this to your collection if other mythology-based books are popular.

Fantasy/Mythology          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Tristan Strong Destroys the World

Mbalia, Kwame. Tristan Strong Destroys the World. Disney, 2020. 978-1-368-04238-3. 390 p. $17.99. Grades 3-7.

There’s no rest for the weary. Tristan Strong may be the hero of the Battle of the Bay, having saved the mythical land of Alke, home to the West African gods and the legends of African-American folktales, but a battle means winners and losers, and it appears someone is not happy with Tristan. Barely a month has passed since Tristan returned from Alke when he’s alerted that a shadowy figure called the Shamble Man is coming after Tristan. When he comes, he destroys Tristan’s grandparents’ farm and kidnaps his grandmother. It’s time to return to Alke. Luckily Tristan has his SBP (Story Box Phone), inhabited by Anansi the spider, who is doing a little magical app development while cooped up in the SBP. Soon they are on their way to the mythical lands to try and discover the identity of the Shamble Man, rescue Nana and set Alke right again. As Tristan attempts to uncover the identity of the Shamble Man, friends old and new come to his assistance, but it looks like time might be running out on Tristan. Mbalia’s conversational narration (the audio book, read by Amir Abdullah, is sensational) grabs readers from the first words. Tristan is eminently likeable, as he struggles with fears and self doubt, but the surrounding cast of characters really brings the book to life. Once again, Tristan’s tiny, gooey sidekick, Gum Baby, steals the show, offering a steady stream of tongue-twisted patter and comic relief. Fortunately for readers, the ending leaves plenty of room for further sequels, because we all need more Gum Baby.

THOUGHTS: There is no sophomore slump for Mbalia. This second entry in the series is easily as good as the first, if not better. The characters from African American folk tales and West African gods may not be familiar to young readers, but they will have a very good time meeting them. Hand this series to readers who enjoy mythology based books, but also those who like to laugh.

Fantasy          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor 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

Elem./MG – Real-Life Ghost Stories

Real-Life Ghost Stories. Capstone, 2020. $21.49 ea. $171.92 set of 8. 32 p. Grades 3-6. 

Andrus, Aubrey. Bloody Mary. 978-1-543-57336-7.
Atwood, Megan. Popper the Poltergeist. 978-1-543-57342-8.
Peterson, Megan Cooley. The Bell Witch. 978-1-543-57335-0.
—. The Brown Lady. 978-1-543-57340-4.
—. The Flying Dutchman. 978-1-543-57338-1.
—. The Greenbrier Ghost. 978-1-543-57339-8.
—. La Llorona. 978-1-543-57337-4.
Wilkins, Ebony Joy. Perron Family Haunting. 978-1-543-57341-1.

Real-Life Ghost Stories features tales of spooky hauntings and happenings from around the world. Each volume focuses on an individual ghost story. The history behind the event or location is related and then readers learn about the subsequent claims of ghostly appearances. Fact boxes and skeptic’s notes offer readers background information as well as alternate explanations for the ghostly sightings. This reviewer had the opportunity to read The Brown Lady: The Ghost of Raynham Hall, a classic example of a haunted English manor house story. Raynham Hall not only has its own ghost (Lady Dorothy Walpole), but it was also the location of a famous photo that supposedly captured the ghost on film in the 1930s. The title features numerous illustrations, as well as photographs of the house, including the famous ghost photo. The cover illustration is also very appealing to potential browsers.

THOUGHTS: These spooky titles are sure to capture the interest of readers interested in haunted tales or mysterious happenings. They would also be a great addition to Halloween/October book displays. Libraries looking to add to their ghostly non-fiction shelves should consider this worthwhile series.
133.1  Ghost stories                Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg SD

Elem./MG – Hollow Dolls

Connolly, MarcyKate. Hollow Dolls. Sourcebooks, 2020. 978-1-492-68819-8. 259 p. $16.99. Grades 2-5.

After being trapped for years by the evil Lady Aisling, who held comet-blessed individuals captive to make use of their unique magical abilities, Simone is free. A mind-reader, Simone was particularly prized by Lady Aisling. But while all of her friends are eventually reclaimed by their families, Simone has no one. She is grateful that her best friend, Sebastian, has taken her in, but Simone restlessly pines for a family she cannot remember. When an opportunity arises for Simone to research her family, in hopes of locating them, Simone is ecstatic. However, she becomes concerned when she learns of the existence of a body walker, one who can take over another’s body and will. All too soon the body walker strikes close to home, and the young pair must unmask its identity before it controls them as well. This mildly creepy story is aimed at young readers ready for a slightly more complex story. The plot emphasizes the loyalty Simone and Sebastian have for each other, as well as their continued difficulties overcoming their horrific existence at the hands of Lady Aisling. Connolly brings an interestingly moral viewpoint to possessing magical abilities. While readers may think mind-reading would be a fascinating ability, Simone stresses how overwhelming it can be to hear so many thoughts, and she strives to not accidentally invade an individual’s mental privacy. But when she needs to locate her missing friends and save them from harm, she gladly uses all her abilities. Book one of a duology, readers will be looking for book two to see how Simone and Sebastian’s story ends.

THOUGHTS: Rather like a good bedtime story, Hollow Dolls is just creepy enough for young or more timid readers not ready to dive into Goosebumps-type horror. This is a delightful transition-level book for those readers who want the next step up from early chapter books.

Fantasy (Paranormal)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – How to Be a Girl in the World

Carter, Caela. How to Be a Girl in the World. Harper Collins Childrens, 2020. 294 p. $16.99 978-0-062-67270-4 Grades 5-8.

Lydia has spent the entire summer in pants, long sleeves, and turtlenecks, despite the heat, despite her single mom’s concerned comments, and despite friends’ odd looks. Lydia knows she’s not normal, and she doesn’t want to talk about it. Lydia, her biracial cousin Emma, and Lydia’s mom are proudly moving from an apartment to a dilapidated house of their own. Living in the house will require a huge amount of work (it’s chock full of dusty furniture left behind), but Lydia sees in it a chance to be safe. She would love to escape the nicknames, looks and comments of the boys at her private school. She shivers at men’s glances on the subway, or sitting too close. She feels extremely uncomfortable with her mom’s boyfriend Jeremy, whose hugs are just a little too long or too tight, and who assumes a greater friendliness with Lydia and Emma than Lydia would like. But no one else seems to notice any problem, so Lydia knows it’s her. She’s not normal, and if she can’t fix it, at least she can hide herself. Then maybe she’ll feel protected. In the new house, she finds a room full of herbs in jars and a book of spells. It’s exactly what she needs and even allows her to re-forge a connection with the best friend she’s ignored for the summer. They both try the spells, but the boys’ behavior and Jeremy’s behavior only becomes more troublesome, and an outburst from Lydia results in her being suspended from school. Lydia finally confides in her mother about the boys’ treatment of her, and her mother swiftly comes to her aid. When Lydia next explains Jeremy’s actions, her mother is devastated but resolute that Jeremy will never set foot in their house again. To Lydia, the revelatory message that she alone makes “the rules” concerning her body is freeing, and the new understanding and openness with those around her helps her to learn to own those rules.

THOUGHTS: This is a powerful, “ordinary” story that every middle school girl would benefit from reading. It’s for every girl who’s ever been told, “it’s no big deal,” “you’re such a baby,” “that’s part of being a girl,” etc. And it’s for every boy who’s ever been told, “she likes it,” “you’re just being a boy,” or “looking doesn’t hurt.”  Pair with Barbara Dee’s Maybe He Just Likes You.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – Beast: Face-to-Face with the Florida Bigfoot

Key, Watt. Beast: Face-to-Face with the Florida Bigfoot. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2020. 215 p. $16.99 978-0-374-31369-2 Grades 5-8. 

Adam survives the car crash that apparently killed his parents–at least, they have disappeared. When questioned by police, he speaks bewilderedly but honestly of what he saw in the wooded road near the Suwanee River: not a person or a bear, but something bigger than a bear, covered in hair, with a human face and huge black eyes. When the local paper runs a story about the accident including a “Sasquatch-like creature,” Adam regrets saying anything. The questions and the disbelief become overwhelming, especially from his Uncle John, who takes him in while the search for his parents continues. Adam can’t forget the creature, and due to disrupted sleep and nightmares, he begins searching online for information. He learns of a local Sasquatch appearance nearly 30 years ago, and sets out to question the man who reported it. He finds the near-hermit “Stanley” who reluctantly, then completely, tells Adam all he knows about the creatures, with a strong warning that the search for answers destroys your life. Adam decides he needs answers, and sets off on his own with some basic supplies.  What follows is a hard-core survival story wherein Adam becomes so attuned to the forest and animals that he lives as one of them, soon close to starving. Then he sees one of the creatures, then more. The scenes with the creatures shift from past tense to present tense, adding to the sense of unreality. Adam has found what he came for, but can he survive, can he find his parents, and can he get proof of the creatures’ existence?

THOUGHTS: With a likeable narrator, reasonable length (215 pages), and an attractive cover (see the creature in the trees?), Key has written a suspenseful survival story that will attract middle school readers curious about Bigfoot. Key includes helpful explanatory information about Sasquatch sightings.

Fantasy, Paranormal Fiction        Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – B*Witch

Ohlin, Nancy, and Paige McKenzie. B*Witch. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-368-02876-9. 336. $17.99. Grades 7-12.

All Iris wants is to get through the first day of school without a panic attack and to keep her magical abilities hidden. After all, being a witch in contemporary society is not easy due to the President’s resolve to prosecute all witches and a new bigot gang, Antima, who search for witches all across the United States. Used to hiding her witch identity, Iris is thrilled when she is befriended by Greta who is a coven leader and a witch like her. When Greta’s coven is sent a mysterious magical shadow message, they, and rival coven The Triad, must work together to protect themselves and solve a murder.

THOUGHTS: Lovers of fantasy will enjoy this mysterious novel about magic and friendship told in multiple perspectives. There are plenty of surprises and contemporary references which create excitement and leave the reader eager for a sequel.

Fantasy (Paranormal)    Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD

MG – When You Trap a Tiger

Keller, Tae. When You Trap a Tiger. Random House Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-524-71570-0. 287 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Lily, known as Lily Bean to her mom, and Eggi in her Halmoni’s stories, and her family suddenly pack up and move to Washington one rain soaked evening. They are moving in with her Halmoni, a storyteller, and the story she shares with Lily from many years ago is about how she stole the stars from the sky and bottled up the bad stories which angered a tiger. Lily is intrigued by her story, and when a tiger suddenly appears in the middle of the road one rainy night, Lily is convinced everything is real. But time is of the essence, as Halmoni is showing signs of illness – could it be a consequence of her stealing the stars? With the help of Ricky, a boy Lily meets at the library across the street, the two devise a “hypothetical” tiger trap. Little did Lily know that the Tiger would make her an offer that can help her Halmoni, but with consequences. Lily wants answers and to find a way to help her Halmoni before it’s too late. But can a QAG, short for quiet Asian girl, really find the truth? Can she rescue her family before it’s too late?

THOUGHTS: Readers will not be disappointed with the characters in this book – they are full of heart, determination, love, and curiosity, even if one of them is a tiger. This title is perfect to add to your collection of diverse books, as it shows the struggle of an Asian family and how their history and heritage affect their lives today. I truly enjoyed reading this story and believe it is the perfect story to capture how storytelling and reading books can truly be art.

Fantasy          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Change is happening in Lily’s life. With little notice, her mother has uprooted her daughters from their California home to their halmoni’s (grandmother’s) home in Sunbeam, Washington. Lily does her best to be the invisible, accommodating, “QAG” (quiet Asian girl) while her older sister, Sam, finds every reason to voice her displeasure to their mother and often rebukes Lily. Lily both chafes under and finds comfort in her invisibility. Lily’s many worries worsen when she (and only she) sees a tiger in the road as they approach their halmoni’s home. Her grandmother has shared countless Korean folktales with Lily and Sam, often with a dangerous tiger involved. When Lily discovers that her grandmother is ill and facing death, she’s determined to convince the tiger to use its magic to cure her grandmother, despite admonitions from her mother and sister that dissuade her from believing the “silly” stories have any power in their lives. The library across the street provides hope and friendship for Lily, who teams up with Ricky to build a tiger trap in her grandmother’s basement. Can she convince the tiger to help, and can she convince her family that the stories are real and useful?  Will the stories save her grandmother and her family?

THOUGHTS: This is a tale of a young girl growing up and deciding who she will be, while she comes to terms with death. The targeted age level seems to increase through the story as Lily matures, and this may not quite work for readers. The grief, anger at moving, and the sister difficulties between Lily and Sam smooth a bit too perfectly by the story’s end. I found myself wishing for more scenes with the interesting, enigmatic tiger.

Magical Realism          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Korean Folktales

MG – Elizabeth Webster and the Court of Uncommon Pleas; Twinchantment; A Talent for Trouble; Mean; The Friendship Lie

Lashner, William. Elizabeth Webster and the Court of Uncommon Pleas. Disney/Hyperion, 2019. 978-1-368-04128-7. 310 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

If Elizabeth Webster was unprepared when middle school celebrity Henry Harrison asked her to tutor him in math, she was thoroughly speechless when she discovers he really needs help dealing with a headless ghost who appears in his bedroom. Angry teenage spirit Beatrice Long has requested Lizzie’s help, telling her, “Save me, save him”. While Lizzie wants no part of exorcising Beatrice, she guesses her long absent father is somehow involved, and sets out to find him. When she learns he works for the law firm Webster & Son, Attorneys for the Damned, awkward pieces begin to fall into place. But with her father missing, Lizzie is on her own to placate Beatrice, solve the mystery of her death (and find her head), as well as rescue her father. And, apparently, take her place as a litigator before the Court of Uncommon Pleas. Lucky for Lizzie, she has the support of her best friend, Natalie, and her long despised stepfather (maybe she was wrong about him?), as well as several new friends who enthusiastically help her polish her litigation skills. How did Lizzie go from fly-under-the-radar middle schooler to Elizabeth Webster, barrister, facing down the fallen angel Abezethibou? Part mystery, part ghost story, and totally fun, Elizabeth Webster and the Court of Uncommon Pleas touches on family relationships as well as being willing to trust and to extend yourself.

THOUGHTS: Hand this rollicking good time to readers looking for a humorous book, as well as those who enjoy a light mystery or a spooky book.

Realistic Fantasy (Paranormal)           Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD


Allen, Elise. Twinchantment. Roaring Brook, 2019. 978-1-534-13288-7. 336 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

Being a princess means you can do whatever you want, and everyone has to listen to you, right? Normally in stories this is true, but for Flisarra her very existence is technically illegal. You see, the princess known as Flisarah is actually twins Sarah and Flissa, and in their kingdom being a twin is illegal as is anything else seen as magical. A long time ago magic was common and used everywhere. When one Mange tried to use dark magic to take over the kingdom, rules were created and only chosen mange are allowed magic for the protection of the kingdom. Flissa and Sarah must be very careful and never be seen together. That all changes when their mother is sick, and they believe it is because of a curse. The princesses now must sneak across their kingdom and enter the magical realm to bring back the very mange who tried to take over the kingdom. As they travel they discover life and what they have been taught may not always be what it seems.

THOUGHTS: This book would be great for students who like the fantasy genre and books like Harry Potter. The way the girls work together and build friendships throughout the book makes it a great middle grades read.

 Fantasy          Arryn Cumpston Crawford Central SD


Farrant, Natasha. A Talent for Trouble. Clarion, 2019 (US Edition).  978-1-328-58078-8. 258 p. $16.99. Gr. 5-7.

Alice Mistlethwaite has been sent off to Stormy Loch, a boarding school in Scotland, by her Aunt Patience and her father, Barney. Aunt Patience hopes that this will be a new start for the whole family who is grieving over the death of Alice’s mother. Naturally a shy child who loves to write fantasy stories, Alice is apprehensive and lonely, and despite evidence to the contrary, she is devoted to her father. On the train ride to school she meets Jesse, another lonely child who feels lost and is worried about living up to the reputation of his older brothers. Then there is Fergus Mackenzie, who is very bright, plays mean pranks, and doesn’t know how to focus his gifts. Major Fortescue, the headmaster is reminiscent of Dumbledore. Seemingly formidable he, as the reader will discover, knows just how to get his charges on the right path to self-understanding. The three students are assigned team for the Year Sevens’ orienteering challenge in the hills of Scotland. This leads to perilous adventures through the rough terrain. Not only must they survive the trek, but they also escape some villainous characters who are after Alice because of her father.

THOUGHTS: The unidentified narrator really involves the reader and draws us into the story. The ending is not what most would expect – a grand reunion of father and daughter. It is so very difficult to realize that your parent is not the hero and that you have misplaced trust in your dead-beat dad. Life’s lesson can be hard, but Alice is much stronger as are the others.

Realistic Fiction          Jeannie Bellavance, Retired


Sayre, Justin. Mean. Penguin Workshop, 2019. 978-1-524-78795-0. 232 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8. 

Set in the same world as his other novels, Husky and Pretty, Justin Sayre delivers a poignant look at what it means to find yourself when you don’t know where to start. Ellen was once told she gets one adjective to describe herself when she gets to high school, and it turns out she’s mean. She doesn’t try to be; she just has trouble holding back her opinions because why should she have to? Together with best friends Ducks and Sophie, Ellen experiences regular school and, on her own, Hebrew school while preparing for her bat mitzvah. At school, everything is changing. Girls are starting to become boy crazy and change who they are. At Hebrew school, is she starting to become boy crazy herself? And what does that mean? Does she now have to change who she is? Throughout the novel Ellen navigates life’s ups and downs with friends and family all while trying to answer the one essential question: on the day she becomes a woman, what kind of woman does she want to be?

THOUGHTS: Mean was a charming read about what it takes to grow into who you are meant to be and the people who help you along the way.

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD


Donnelly, Rebecca. The Friendship Lie. Capstone Editions, 2019. 978-1-684-46061-8. 267 p. $15.95. Grades 4-6.

Cora Davis’s parents know all about garbage, literally. They study where garbage goes after we toss it, and Cora has spent many an afternoon digging through garbage and sorting it. Lately, Cora feels like her life has been thrown in the trash when she and her best friend Sybella stop talking. 5th grade is not turning out the way that Cora wanted it to be. Woven throughout the book are also diary excerpts from a diary of a girl named Penny Ellen Chambord. The diary plays a large part in the friendship between the two girls and causes them to be able to see things from the other person’s perspective. There is also a family element, as Cora’s parents are separated, and that is causing tension in the family. Cora is a twin, and the relationship she has with her brother, who is the complete opposite of her, plays a rather large role. While Cora’s friendship is falling apart, her parents’ marriage is falling apart. Her mother is away for most of the book, and Cora ‘calls’ her and leaves her voicemails, which are a great insight into how Cora is feeling, both about her parents’ relationship as well as her former friendship with Sybella.

THOUGHTS: There is a major focus on garbage and the science of garbage, so that might turn some readers off. However, at the heart of the book is a sweet story about two friends who have to work at their friendship and learn that friendships change and grow. Overall, I think this book is a great representation of what it’s like for girls and boys to deal with friendships.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Academy