MG – Dark Waters

Arden, Katherine. Dark Waters. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021. 978-0-593-10915-1. $16.99. 198 p. Grades 4-7.

Best friends Brian, Ollie and Coco are back in this third book of Katherine Arden’s spooky Small Spaces series. This time, the three friends, Ollie’s dad, Coco’s mom, and school acquaintance Phil are on a quest to find Champ, the legendary monster that supposedly lives in Lake Champlain. The group sets sail on the tour boat Cassandra with Phil’s uncle, Dane Dimmonds, so that Coco’s mom can write an article about Champ for the local paper, but the trip quickly turns deadly when a real lake monster sinks the boat, kills a member of the tour group, and strands the survivors on a remote island on Lake Champlain. Brian recognizes similarities in their plight to a story he read about a smuggler’s ship that disappeared over 200 years ago on the same lake, and he also worries that The Smiling Man that tried to trap the friends during previous adventures is involved in this newest disaster as well. Phil, Ollie, Coco, and Brian must work together with their knowledge of the Smiling Man and his evil tricks if they want to get off the island alive!

THOUGHTS: This book would appeal to a wide range of middle school readers; it combines ghost stories, paranormal activities, adventure, and survival into one thrilling story! The dynamics of this friend group are realistic and engaging, and the chilling presence of The Smiling Man provides a consistent thread throughout this series that will keep readers coming back for many future adventures.

Horror Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – Kingdom of the Cursed

Maniscalco, Kerri. Kingdom of the Cursed. Hodder & Stoughton, 2021. 978-0-316-42847-7. $18.99. Grades 12+.

Kingdom of the Cursed picks up with Emilia selling her soul in order to figure out what happened to her sister, Vittoria. Some of the decisions that Emilia made have helped to unlock some secrets and cause her to ask more questions. As this book progresses, the reader sees Emilia trying to figure out if she should trust Wrath as she learns that she can’t trust anyone. Kingdom of the Cursed delves more into the world building of this fantasy world, as well as more character development of Emilia. 

THOUGHTS: Overall, this is a great addition to this series that continues to build on the characters and plot that was laid out in the first book. There are some scenes that are a little more on the explicit side, hence the higher grade level rating. However, this would be a great recommendation for fans of the first book, or fans of the author’s other work. 

Fantasy           Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Grades 10-12+.

After making a deal with the devil, Emilia travels to the seven circles in the Kingdom of the Wicked with Prince Wrath. As the betrothed of Prince Pride, her plan is to infiltrate his court and make it one step closer to avenging the death of her twin sister Vittoria. However, the journey is not easy, and before she meets Pride, she becomes a resident of House Wrath. From Wrath, she learns just how dangerous and deceptive his brothers can be, and he advises her to trust no one. When Emilia slowly begins to unravel the secrets of the past, she realizes that she’ll need the help of magical objects to discover who she really is and if she can really trust Wrath.

THOUGHTS: Kingdom of the Cursed is listed as a young adult title and can be found in the YA section of book stores; however, the romantic scenes between Emilia and Wrath are very descriptive, and I’d go as far to classify this one as new adult for that reason alone. Although it’s heavy on romance that doesn’t always advance the plot, I still enjoyed the book and cannot wait to see how it all ends. I’ll be impatiently waiting for the next installment. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Afterlove

Byrne, Tanya. Afterlove. Hodder Children’s Books, 2021. 978-1-444-95595-8. 400 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

The last thing that Ash hears is breaking glass, followed by confusion. Is she still alive? Is she dead? She is met by a group of girls who tell her she has been chosen to be a Reaper, and she has to start over with this new “life.” However, all Ash wants is to see her girlfriend Poppy again no matter what. This is a unique LGBTQIA+ story, with a splash of paranormal thrown in.

THOUGHTS: The characters felt very unique and relatable, and the plot was extremely well crafted and thought out. The ending was gut wrenching but felt true to the plot and didn’t feel rushed at all. I would highly recommend this book for every high school and public library. 

Romance          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – Red Wolf

Vincent, Rachel. Red Wolf. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-062-41162-4. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

Adele always has been surrounded by the dark forest around her village Oakvale. It seems that the dark forest continues to creep closer and closer to her small village, despite the watchmen and guardians trying to protect the town. Adele always has felt a small calling to the woods, even though it is filled with terrifying monsters and many don’t make it out alive. Little does she know, there are other protectors of the forest, and she is one of them. Adele will need to make hard decisions between doing what is right for her or for her entire village in order to keep everyone safe.

THOUGHTS: This novel is a fun spin on the idea of Little Red Riding Hood. A charming story that will make you want more!

Fantasy         Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

YA – The Cost of Knowing

Morris, Brittney. The Cost of Knowing. Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-44545-1. 336 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Despite trying his best to hold things together, sixteen year old Alex Rufus is struggling. Since the death of their parents, he and his little brother Isaiah have grown apart, barely interacting with each other in their Aunt Mackie’s house. Alex has his girlfriend Talia but constantly worries that he’ll do something wrong to ruin their relationship. At work Alex would prefer to remain in the back washing dishes while wearing rubber gloves than be out front scooping ice cream and interacting with customers. At the same time, Alex and Isaiah’s neighbor Mrs. Zaccari makes initially subtle and increasingly frustrating comments about neighborhood crime and what the Shiv concert coming to the area will mean for their safety. Alex is one touch from losing his carefully constructed exterior. Since the death of his parents, Alex gets a glimpse of the future when he touches anything. Usually something simple and easily dismissed, things become complicated when Alex visualizes an unreadable expression on Talia’s face – the sign of a breakup – and unbearable when he has a vision of his brother’s death. Burdened with the knowledge that he he can’t stop the inevitable, but determined to fix his relationship with Isaiah, Alex races to reconnect with his brother and learns that the two may not be as different as he thought.

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Alex from the beginning as he works against “his curse.” Many readers will be able to suspend reality enough to believe this mostly realistic fantasy. Recommended for high school collections where compelling, character driven titles are in demand.

Fantasy (Paranormal)          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD
Magical Realism
Realistic Fiction

MG – The Ghoul Next Door

Bunn, Cullen. The Ghoul Next Door. Harper Alley, 2021. 978-0-062-89610-0. 192 p. $21.99. Grades 4-8.

In Ander’s Landing, eleven year old Grey is excited to bring his scale model of the local cemetery to school for a project. Grey and his friend Marshall head off when Grey has the idea to take a shortcut through the cemetery. Marshall disagrees, and when Grey heads out by himself, he trips and his model drops into a giant hole where a creepy hand snatches it. Given a second chance by his teacher, Grey stays up to make a new model when a scratching at his window distracts him and causes him to stay up all night. The next day when Grey displays his model, his teacher finds real bones inside the coffins and mausoleums. Then night after night “gifts from the dead” appear in Grey’s room – a doll, a brush made out of bones, and more. When Grey takes the gifts back to the cemetery, he meets the gifter, a ghoul named Lavinia. Lavinia visits Grey and takes him on a tour of the haunted places of Ander’s Landing to teach him history and make him more aware of the dangers that lurk in the cemetery. However, when his friend Marshall is taken to the underworld as punishment for seeing Lavinia, the pair must work together to rescue him from the other ghouls, also known as the “eaters of the dead.’. 

THOUGHTS: The perfect amount of creepy and spooky for middle level readers. The panels are easy to follow and beautifully drawn – even for ghouls! The story flows from page to page and will leave readers on the edge of their seat.

Graphic Novel        Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

MG -Dead Wednesday

Spinelli, Jerry. Dead Wednesday. Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 978-0-593-30667-3. 227 p. $17.99. Grades 6-8.

Every year in Ambler Springs there comes a day, Dead Wednesday, when students are given the name of a high school teenager who lost their life due to something that was preventable. On this day 8th grade students are given a black t-shirt to wear and are ignored by everyone in the town for the day. While Robbie, also known as Worm, is anxious for this day, his friend Eddie can’t wait for the chaos that will ensue. Students are given a random card with a name and a brief bio of the deceased in the hopes that they understand that this could happen to them if they do not make smart choices. What Worm didn’t expect to happen was that Becca, his assigned dead 17 year old student, would actually come back and pester Worm to come out of his shell. As Worm learns of Becca’s story, he also discovers that sometimes you have to use your voice and be true to yourself. The two use the day to explore what it means to be a teenager in a warm, coming of age story. 

THOUGHTS: For a Spinelli book, it was not what I expected! Filled with teenage awkwardness and a ghost who flirts with a human, this book was different from his others. A perfect novel for those who hang in the shadows and would rather not be seen, but can learn that being who you are is more important. 

Fantasy (Paranormal)          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

MG – City of the Plague God

Chadda, Sarwat. City of the Plague God. Disney-Hyperion, 2021. 978-1-368-05150-7. 400 p. $16.99. Grades 3-7. 

Sik, a thirteen-year-old Iraqi-American, lives with his mother and father in New York City, running a family deli specializing in middle-eastern food. He and his parents mourn his older brother, Mo, who was killed while traveling in Iraq. Alone in the deli one night, Sik encounters two scary guys in the back alley, eating rats and talking in rhyming couplets. Then Sik meets their boss, an insect infested, maggot producing 10-foot monster who proceeds to demolish the deli looking for something he says Mo stole from Iraq. If that wasn’t weird enough, Sik is saved by a pint-sized ninja, who turns out to be Belet, the new girl in his class at school. And if THAT isn’t weird enough, Belet is the daughter of Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. Ishtar explains to Sik that his nighttime visitor was Nergal, the Mesopotamian god of war and plague, and New York City has just become an immortal battle zone. Another entry from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint introduces middle grade readers to really ancient mythology – stories from the Fertile Crescent. The original super hero, Gilgamesh, appears in the story, having renounced his former violent ways. This story is not for the faint of heart. Bugs, blood, and bile dominate in this action-packed adventure. Characters come back from the dead, and Sik must visit the underworld in his pursuit of Mo’s mysterious treasure. Learning about Sumaria was never so much fun! Sik is a charming character who cares deeply about his family, and resents his brother for dying, while Belet desperately wants a family like the one Sik treasures.

THOUGHTS: Those students who may have previously eschewed the RRP family of books will be drawn in by the delightful grossness of this story. Readers may not run for a translation of Gilgamesh, but they will undoubtedly be more receptive to learning about Mesopotamia in history class.

Fantasy (Mythology)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Last Fallen Star

Kim, Grace. Last Fallen Star. Disney-Hyperion, 2021. 978-1-368-05963-3. 336 p. $16.99. Grades 3-7.

Riley loves her Korean family and community. Her parents are healers, part of the Gom clan, and Riley longs for the day she can join them, with her almost-twin sister, Hattie. Unfortunately, Riley, an adopted daughter, has failed to show an affinity with any of the five magical witch clans, let alone an indication she is a Gom. However, an offhand comment shows the girls an option, albeit a dangerous one: once Hattie is initiated into the clan, she can cast a spell to share her magic with Riley. But when the girls attempt the spell, truths are revealed that Riley and Hattie never imagined. An appeal to the clan goddess ends with Hattie’s life in peril and Riley pledged to locate the Last Fallen Star. Only she has no idea what it is, let alone where to find it. Luckily, Riley is blessed with a great friend in Emmett, a non-magical member of the Korean community who undertakes the quest with Riley. Along the way, Riley and Emmett locate the sixth witch clan, long outlawed from the other clans, and uncover the truth of the rift between them. This first book in a new series from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint delves into the fascinating world of Korean mythology. All characters are members of the Korean community in Los Angeles. Readers will love the intricacies of the witch clans, their associated skills, and patron goddesses. Riley is a spunky protagonist whose adventurous spirit and deep love for her sister keep the story moving. Kim writes with wit, and the story is often laugh-out-loud funny (the Gostr app to locate spirits is quite humorous). Riley discovers she has more friends than she realized, which is a comfort when she makes a startling sacrifice to save Hattie.

THOUGHTS: This enjoyable action adventure will please readers who cannot get enough of mythology-based series. Purchase where RRP books are popular. Delightfully, the main characters are thirteen years old, making the book potentially attractive for middle school collections.

Fantasy (Mythology)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Almost There and Almost Not

Urban, Linda. Almost There and Almost Not. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-47880-0. 211 p. $17.99. Grades 5-7.

Eleven year old California Poppy doesn’t know if she is coming or going. Her widowed father is heading to Alaska for a salmon fishing job and takes her to Minnesota to stay with Aunt Isabelle, who should know more about taking care of a “bra needing” child than he does. It turns out that Aunt Isabelle is not really the nurturing type and is too busy working on a meatloaf recipe for the Great Meatloaf Bake Off. So California finds herself traveling to Michigan to live with Great Aunt Monica. Her great aunt, still grieving for her late husband, broke her hand and needs help with her research on Eleanor Fontaine, an author of etiquette books from the 1920s. Aunt Monica wants to complete her husband’s planned biography of his author-ancestor and asks California to read Fontaine’s Proper Letters for Ladies and to practice writing letters to become familiar with the author. Callie soon realizes that there are two ghosts in the house: a dog who enjoys playing with her and a refined lady named Eleanor, who dissolves into a pile of dust when she gets upset. Aunt Monica is not aware of these guests, so her niece takes care when talking to them. Eleanor begins to share her story with the young girl, who notices that the ghost seems to be getting younger each time she appears.  California soon learns the truth about her father’s whereabouts and Eleanor’s secret. Just as Callie feels she has come to terms with her father’s absence, her struggles in school and having periods, she overhears a conversation that changes her life forever.

THOUGHTS: Urban has written a very engaging story about loss, grief, and resilience. Although the text is not lengthy, a lot happens and one cannot help but root for the likeable main character who narrates the story. Readers will enjoy California’s letters to Aunt Isabelle, her father, and the Playtex Company. This sensitive but humorous tale is a solid choice for upper elementary and middle school collections.

Fantasy          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

When California Poppy is 11 years old, she is dropped off at her Aunt Monica’s house while her father claims to look for work in Alaska. During her stay, she plays with the ghostly dog and talks to the ghostly woman who haunts her aunt’s home, a woman who turns out to be California’s Great-Aunt Eleanor. Eleanor teaches California about all the etiquette she thinks a proper lady should know, and California begins to unearth details about Eleanor’s past, which is not as simple as the old woman wants it to seem. As a relationship between the girl and the ghost develops, California also grows closer to her Aunt Monica by helping with research for Eleanor’s biography. Eventually, these relationships help California to confront the reality of her father’s abandonment and allow her to begin to heal in her new, more stable life.

THOUGHTS: This story, told in the first person by California herself, is about the life of two young girls who are trying to figure out who they are in a grown-up world. Magical realism, historical fiction, and a love of family and friends weave together in this book to create the story of a girl who has a lot to learn, but also a lot to offer the world. The ghosts in this book are friendly rather than scary. Kids and teens who are wise beyond their years, and those that deal with family troubles and long for a better, more stable life, will find it easy to relate to California.

Fantasy          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD