As a young black man in Tallahassee, Florida, in the early 1960s, Elwood Curtis has a vision for his life. The album Martin Luther King at Zion Hill (the best gift he ever received from his grandmother and guardian, Harriet) instilled his belief in King’s message of progress through peace, and he plans to join the Civil Rights movement. An ambitious high school student, Elwood enrolls in a college course, but in an almost absurdly tragic turn of events, he hitches a ride in a stolen car. Thus begins his time at Nickel Academy, a Florida reform school. Though he endures terrible abuse at Nickel, the friendship of another boy named Turner sustains him. Likewise, Turner trusts and confides in Elwood. Interspersed chapters from Elwood’s adult life in New York City provide glimpses of the lasting impact of the trauma suffered all those years before. Just as Elwood tries “without success to figure out why his life had bent to this wretched avenue,” so will readers of this virtuosic novel.
THOUGHTS: It’s difficult to find words that haven’t already been used to praise Colson Whitehead’s unique body of work, but The Nickel Boys is truly something special. An author of rare caliber, telling an essential story in spare and chilling prose. It’s adolescent characters make it a fine crossover selection. Elizabeth A. Murray’s recently published nonfiction title, The Dozier School for Boys, would be a fitting companion piece.
The Dozier School, which closed in 2011, inspired this story. For more information and footage of the school grounds, watch a YouTube video or two, starting with https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cY2Oh9fRSn4&t=4s.
Historical Fiction (Crossover) Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD
In the middle of the 1900s, there was not a lot of equality, especially in the south. The Nickel Boys is set both in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and in modern day. Based on true events, the tale centers around Elwood and Turner’s stay at Nickel Academy, a reformatory center for boys of all races in Florida. Although both boys ended up at the academy for different reasons, they become friends and supports for each other in a place that is brimming with abuse, racism, and corruption. Just as Elwood strived to participate in the Civil Rights movement before his placement, he tries to find a way to follow in Dr. King’s footsteps from afar, despite Turner’s hesitance. There are flashforwards to present day featuring a former student at the academy.
THOUGHTS: This book did not read as fast as I thought it would, but the ending shocked the foundation of what I thought I understood about this horrible piece of history. It’s worth reading until the end, just for that feeling. The Nickel Boys is a good addition to any library looking to enhance their collection with a fictionalized specific story during the Civil Rights movement in 20th century America.
Historical Fiction. Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD
The Santos women are cursed… or at least that’s what they and their community of Port Coral, FL believes based on their pasts. The curse? Any man they love will perish in the sea. Rosa’s grandfather died at sea in a storm as he and her pregnant grandmother escaped Cuba, and Rosa’s father who also loved the sea perished in a storm when Rosa’s mother was pregnant with her. For this reason, as Rosa explains in the book’s opening line, “The Santos women never go to the sea.” But as Rosa prepares to graduate high school and tries to make a college decision, the curse is the least of her worries… at least until she meets Alex, a super cute and mysterious boy who – of course – is a sailor. Avoiding Alex is difficult as Rosa is paired with him on a mission to save the port and its annual Spring Festival. While Rosa works on projects for the Spring Festival – and navigates her feelings for Alex – her college decision deadline looms in the back of her mind. She longs to take advantage of one school’s study abroad program to see her family’s homeland in Cuba, but she knows that would upset her grandmother who left Cuba for a reason and does not want to see her granddaughter go back. As Rosa’s primary parental caretaker (since her photographer mother is constantly traveling the country), her grandmother’s opinion matters a lot. Throw in a missing golden turtle that’s part of a school tradition, and that rounds out this novel’s array of conflicts.
THOUGHTS: A cute tattooed sailor boy who bakes? (Can you say “unicorn?”) Still, Don’t Date Rosa Santos manages to be fluffy and feel-good yet complex and even surprising with a satisfying ending. The conflicts between these three Santos women become primary for most of the book, and female readers of any age can relate to their familial relationship struggles. Readers may find the characters’ Cuban culture and history engaging, though there are many times when the characters speak a line or two in Spanish, and readers who have any less than rudimentary knowledge of the Spanish language might find they need to look up words. Overall, highly recommended for fans of YA Contemporary.
Realistic Fiction Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD
Esme Pearl has a babysitter’s club. Okay, so it’s not like THE Babysitter’s Club, it only has two members, but it still counts. Together with her friend Janis, the club offers babysitting services around town. One night, things start to get weird, and someone that resembles The Goblin King from Labyrinth shows up and attempts to kidnap the child Esme is watching. Deciding that can’t possibly have actually happened, Esme resolves to put the event behind her and tries not to let it freak her out of a job. Events begin to snowball when a new girl appears at school and wants to join the club right around the same time Esme begins to notice that she is able to move things with her mind. The two find they have supernatural powers in common and work to learn their abilities while trying to keep the kids safe. But when an inter-dimensional demon shows up, who’s going to do the same for them?
THOUGHTS: This was an exciting new take on a classic club. Author Kate Williams wrote a book that is not only imaginative but also culturally relevant by including many references that today’s teens will automatically understand and enjoy.
Fantasy (Paranormal) Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD
At 16 girls become dangerous. They are told they have magic, magic that turns them into sirens disrupting the very fabric of society. In order to continue to live in Garner County, 16 year old girls must be sent away for that year, the grace year. They must rid themselves of their magic in order to return as non-disruptive members of society, young women ready for marriage. Tierney James knows her grace year is coming but knows almost nothing about it given that women are forbidden to speak about what happens during that year. All she knows is that each year fewer and fewer girls return. Banished to an encampment, preyed upon by poachers, the girls must attempt to survive a whole year exposed to the elements with a finite food supply and powerful magic that threatens the sanity of every girl involved. All she has to go on are the few words she was warned with “Trust no one… Not even yourself” (Liggett 56).
THOUGHTS: Nothing is what it seems in this extraordinary tale. This is an incredible story of fantasy, adventure, and survival with underlying currents of feminism. The Grace Year kept me engrossed from cover to cover.
Action/Adventure, Fantasy (survival) Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD
This book makes my heart hurt for Biz, the main character who often talks to her late father as she struggles through life as a teenager. Set in Australia, this novel deals with grief, mental illness, and sexuality all written by someone who lives with mental illness. Biz doesn’t feel particularly attached to anyone or anything after a mis-kiss with her best friend and a sexual assault incident on the beach. A new, mysterious boy at school saves her in so many ways by the end of this book.
THOUGHTS: This is a strong representation of so much of what young adults are going through in today’s world. The clear truth of Biz’s situation make her easy to relate to and the writing flows so effortlessly and beautifully. Another must have on any contemporary school library shelf.
Realistic Fiction Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD
What do fleas, a shovel, pot, cancer, and a freak have in common? You won’t know until the end of this twisty family saga. King makes weird choices throughout this book that constantly make you question what you just read and then make you question what you believe in your soul. Dig is told from the point of view of five teenagers that don’t seem to have much in common, and they really don’t have much in common except potatoes.
THOUGHTS: This book made me squirm and made me think about things in a way that books haven’t done in a long time. It’s gritty and difficult to keep characters straight at times, but well worth the brilliance of what it will do to your soul. Recommended for hearty readers who can handle multiple points of view and difficult subjects including racism, murder, and abuse.
Realistic Fiction Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD
A.S. King has written another interesting, metaphor-filled story about a multi-generational family trying to understand themselves, the choices they’ve made, life, and how they fit in their families and the wider world. The surrealistic elements King includes add to the feelings of confusion and despair that the teen protagonists and their parents and grandparents wrestle with. Although the story seems to focus on five teens it also examines the grandparents, Marla and Gottfried, and how their choices affected not only their children, but also their grandchildren. (The middle generation only plays a supporting role in the story.) Some of the teens go by labels like: The Shoveler, CanIHelpYou, The Freak (who is the most surreal), and The Ring Mistress (who takes delight in her Flea Circus). This story addresses many topics, like sexual assault, drug use, dysfunctional families, mental illness, cancer, and white privilege/racism and how each of those things can reverberate through generations. Every generation needs to dig their way out of the toxic blight caused by the generations that proceeded them. The overarching message is to love each other more.
THOUGHTS: I have read every book A.S. King has written and have enjoyed almost every one, but I really enjoyed reading Dig. Because it was told from so many points-of-view, I found it more challenging to get to know the characters initially, but I found myself still thinking about them days after finishing the story. I read it over the course of two days, and I didn’t want to put it down. I can’t wait to book talk this to my 9th grade students.
Realistic Fiction Bridget Fox, Central Bucks SD
Pennsylvania author Marjorie Maddox’s ingenious little book of poems is chock-full of mentor texts that will not only educate, but also delight, budding tween and teen poets. Most of the poems explain a poetic form or concept while at the same time serving as an example of it. “Couplet,” for instance, is a couplet describing a couplet: “Poet twins all dressed in rhymes / stroll side-by-side in two straight lines.” Maddox’s poetry is easy to understand and yet full of clever wordplay and delightful images. Also included in the book are creative and fun poetry exercises with clear, detailed instructions, as well as a glossary of poetic terms.
THOUGHTS: This is a unique, useful, and flat-out charming book. Aspiring young poets will love it, and so will teachers looking for resources for poetry units in middle and high school language arts classes. Highly recommended for middle and high school libraries.
811 Poetry Maggie Bokelman, Cumberland Valley SD
“It’s a long story, but I’m a poet, / I can cut it short,” Nikki Grimes promises in the prologue of her memoir-in-verse, Ordinary Hazards. She’s not kidding. In this heartrending but ultimately hopeful story of her formative years, Grimes evokes in a few words what would take most writers paragraphs to explain. Her story is not always easy to read. The daughter of a schizophrenic mother, Grimes endured abusive babysitters, horrific foster homes, and sexual assault. The memoir also has a meta-biographic aspect, as Grimes addresses the damage trauma does to memory: she is left with “scraps of knowing / wedged between blank spaces.” Grimes shares how she reaches out to old friends and family members to fill in some of the gaps, and reconstructs her childhood journal as she imagines the rest. Despite the tough subject matter, the book is sprinkled with wry wit that will appeal to teen readers. Ultimately, a portrait of a talented young woman who learns to rely primarily on her faith, a few trusted friends, and her own ingenuity, and eager to give back to a world that has given little to her, emerges. The book ends on a hopeful note, with Grimes meeting her soon-to-be first mentor, James Baldwin.
THOUGHTS: The subject matter of the book lends itself to more mature readers; however, Grimes writes sensitively and with as much decorum as ugly topics allow, with the result that the book is accessible to middle as well as high school students. The writing here is really unparalleled. Grimes, the 2017 winner of the Children’s Legacy Award, may have just published her best work to date. An essential purchase, as important a work as Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.
Biography Maggie Bokelman, Cumberland Valley