YA – Muted: A Novel in Verse

Charles, Tami. Muted: A Novel in Verse. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-67352-4. $18.99. 386 p. Grades 9-12.

Author Tami Charles, who once belonged to rhythm and blues girl group, relates a compelling story reminiscent of the R. Kelly scandal. She chooses a real-life small town between the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania and the Catskills in New York. Drawn to each other because they are the few persons of color in their predominantly white high school, three talented girls are overwhelmed and overjoyed to get the notice of a leading recording artist and record producer, Sean “Mercury” Ellis. Denver LaFleur, a curvy, African American with a powerhouse voice, her talented friends Dalisay Gomez and Shakira Brown, sneak behind their parents’ backs to meet with Merc. When Shak drops out because she has suspicions about Merc’s intentions, Merc whisks Denver and Dali to Atlanta where he grooms them to be performers separately in his mansion on Pristine Road. Gradually, Denver takes center stage, while Merc tells Dali she is not ready. Though Denver finds Merc’s methods stringent and mercurial (he limits her calories and takes away her cell phone and internet) and he adapts and takes credit for her original songs, she does get the chance to cut a demo record and make money. Both girls stay with Merc with their parents’ permission (they are only seventeen when he takes them under his wing) because of the possibility of fame and fortune. However, not long into the novel, Denver has difficulty sorting out the rigor becoming a lead singer requires from the torture of being blocked from her family and true love, Dali. Thinking Dali has returned home to Sholola, their hometown, Denver makes clandestine phone call to Shak and discovers Dali is not back in Pennsylvania. Where is she? Using her wiles, Denver explores Merc’s mansion, uncovering a maze of rooms, each one holding captive girls Merc kidnapped. Told in verse, the book is not graphic, but it is brutal. The ending brings some resolution, although not happy ones. The realistic subject matter conveys successful people get away with incorrigible acts is troubling, yet highly readable.

THOUGHTS: Students will draw parallels between this verse novel and R. Kelly, the R & B singer, and similar allegations of captive girls and sexual misconduct. Denver is a sympathetic, authentic character and her involvement in the glittering world of celebrity makes for an interesting, if depressing, read. The setting in Sholola, Pennsylvania, too, is a draw for local readers. The print in the book is extra tiny; hopefully, the published version will be standard size font. Some cursing and descriptions of sexual activity.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Best friends Denver LaFleur, Dalisay (Dali) Gomez, and Shakira (Shak) Brown are the trio that make up Angelic Voices, a singing group with hopes of making it big and getting out of their small town Sholola, Pennsylvania. When Denver sees their opportunity to get noticed in front of Sean “Mercury” Ellis (Merc), she grabs her friends’ hands and presses play on a cell phone to cue up the music. Time stands still as the group beautifully blends harmonies, and they begin to see their dreams within reach. Denver is ready to do whatever it takes to make it. But Shak has doubts about Merc who creeps her out, and she has other obligations with her family, church, and basketball. Shak isn’t ready to sneak around and lie to her family to get her big break, so the trio becomes a duo under Merc’s guidance. Denver and Dali leave their families and move into Merc’s Atlanta mansion. Despite small doubts, Denver is mostly okay as long as Dali is by her side (no one else knows of their secret relationship). Merc has rules, though, to keep his legacy safe and keep the creative juices flowing. The girls hand over their cell phones, have no internet access, sleep in separate parts of the house, and only come out of their rooms when permitted, all in the name of getting into the zone. The next time Denver sees Dali, though, Dali has been on a trip with Merc to have a complete makeover including having work done on her teeth so she no longer needs braces. Denver feels a hint of jealousy with the attention Dali’s been getting while she’s been stuck at home with a personal trainer and very limited food. And there’s Merc’s ever present old school camcorder. Fame isn’t quite what Denver thought it would be, and not being in contact with her family starts to get hard. In a few short months Denver’s life looks entirely different, but is it all worth losing herself and everyone she loves in the process?

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Denver and cringe at the warning signs she misses. This one would pair well with Tiffany D. Jackson’s Grown and is a must have for high school collections.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem. – Flooded:  Requiem for Johnstown

Burg, Ann E. Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown. Scholastic Press, 2020. 978-1-338-54069-7. 313 p. $16.53. Grades 3-6.

Gertrude Quinn is a spirited young school girl, looking forward to singing at Decoration Day.  Daniel Fagan is planning a summer spent outdoors, maybe even sneaking a swim in at the private late at the top of King’s Mountain. Monica Fagan is looking forward to traveling the world, especially if it means she’ll leave Daniel and his pranks behind. Joe Dixon is waiting for the perfect moment–the perfect moment to tell his father he isn’t working at the company store but instead bought a newsstand, and the perfect moment to propose to his true love, Maggie. William James has been collecting words for a long time, and he’ll get a chance to use them when he reads an original poem at Decoration Day. George Hoffman wishes his pa would let him quit school so he can go to work to help his family of 10. In Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown, Ann E. Berg tells a tale of the lives that were being lived before the disaster on May 31, 1889, that took the lives of more than 2,200 people, including 99 entire families and 396 children. We follow six main characters as they prepare for the Decoration Day celebration, disappointed by the rain but oblivious to the calamity about to unfold. We see the flood as experienced by these characters, and we also witness the aftermath. The flood is the catalyst, but it is not the main character. Instead, Burg has chosen to tell a tale of lives lived, lost and saved.

THOUGHTS: The character development and storytelling will attract students who may not know about the Johnstown flood, and it will likely encourage students to read more about this catastrophe.

Historical Fiction        Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

YA – Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In

Tran, Phuc. Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In. Flatiron Books. 2020. 978-1-250-19471-8. 306 pp. $27.99. Gr. 11+.

In 1975, during the fall of Saigon, Vietnam, Phuc Tran’s family immigrated to the United States with a two-year old Phuc in tow. They landed in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where they struggled to assimilate into small town life. Sigh, Gone explores Phuc’s childhood and teenage years. Against the indelible backdrop of the 1980s, he finds comfort and connection in punk rock music, the wisdom of classic books, skateboarding with his friends, and indulging in some minor hooliganism. This memoir describes his journey of self-discovery as well as many experiences of isolation, racism, and even abuse. Although firmly rooted in time and place, Phuc’s quest to develop his own identity (and avoid the timeless pitfall of being a poser) will resonate with today’s teen readers. “I contemplated what exactly was authentic for me, a Vietnamese teenager in small-town PA,” Tran writes. “What part of me was the real me and what was the façade?”

THOUGHTS: Sigh, Gone is an uncommonly good memoir: moving, universal, and profound. Readers will laugh out loud in every chapter, look up Phuc’s many music (and hopefully literature) references online, and also look up a higher-than-average number of new words in the dictionary.

Memoir (Crossover)          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

As the Wolf Loves Winter…New YA Mystery by a PA author

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Poyer, David.  As the Wolf Loves Winter. Charleston: Northampton House Press, 2014. 978-1-56895-379-3. $26.00. 323p. Grades 9 and up.

W.T. “Racks” Halvorsen knows the Kinningmahontawany, the most remote and isolated section of the forest, better than anyone else in town.  At a young age, he hunted and trapped in the forest and pumped oil from the ground as a grown man.  Now retired, he ventures into the forest for one last hike.  Some would call it closure, but Halvorsen senses an inexplicable mystery lurking somewhere in the deep, melancholy woods.  What he discovers will change lives forever, but only if he manages to escape from the ominous predators and live long enough to share his new-found discovery.  

Interwoven around Halvorsen’s story is Becky’s.  It’s hard to make friends when you move around, but practically impossible when a click of mean kids ostracize you.  Sometimes her stepdad appears indifferent, and her mother is preoccupied with Jammy’s illness. When Becky recalls a fairytale she used to tell Jammy at night, she ventures into the same woods looking for answers sometimes only found in fantasy.

The adventure and mystery are brought to life through captivating similes, and the raw beauty of the woods is reflected in the powerful figurative language.  Wolves have lived in the sinister woods of fairytales and haunted our nightmares since the dawn of time, but what if there was more to their story?

Mystery                       Christine Massey, JW Parker Middle School

As the Wolf Loves Winter is the third book in the Hemlock County series by David Poyer, a Pennsylvania native.  The series is set in Northwestern Pennsylvania.  It is a great PA author book to add to your collection.