YA – With a Star in My Hand: Rubén Darío, Poetry Hero

Engle, Margarita. With a Star in My Hand: Rubén Darío, Poetry Hero. Atheneum, 2020. 978-1-534-42493-7. 144 p. $17.99. Grades 7-12. 

Based on the life of Rubén Darío, Margarita Engle’s With a Star in My Hand depicts a fictionalized account of the poet’s rise to fame. Coming from humble origins, a mother who abandoned him to a poor working aunt who encouraged his love of literature, Rubén Darío rose to become the father of a literary movement. From a young age his poems inspired and awed those around him as he took chance after chance offered to him. However, his road to fame wasn’t all gold; there were many hiccups along the way that added texture to his poems. Traveling helped to color his world and determine the kind of poet, and person, he wanted to be.

THOUGHTS: A delightful and inspiring novel-in-verse account of a young boy striving against almost insurmountable odds to find his place in a world that frequently rejected him. 

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

MG – Gloom Town

Smith, Ronald. L. Gloom Town.  Clarion Books, 2020. 978-1-328-84161-2. 269 p. $16.99. Grades 5-7.

Smith’s latest work is a mixture of horror and fantasy. Twelve year old Rory lives with his mother in the town of Gloom in Europica. In this seafaring town, the flowers are wilted, and it is always overcast. To help with the family’s dire financial situation, Rory takes a job as a valet in the spooky Foxglove Mansion. He quickly learns that something sinister is going on there after meeting the unfriendly butler Malvonius and the eccentric Lord Foxglove. After hearing mysterious sounds coming from behind a red door in the mansion, Rory begins having dreams about a strange woman’s voice coming from a dark mist, who hungers and thirsts. When the butler learns that Rory has discovered a human heart buried in the garden, he barely escapes from the mansion with his life.  With the help of his friend Izzy, a tarot card reading witch, Rory uncovers the dark secrets that are hidden in the mansion and learns about the diabolical plans that are being devised. And when a huge brigantine ship docks in the harbor, Rory learns something about himself that changes his life forever.

THOUGHTS: This book is a bit of a chameleon. The benign looking cover and the likeable main characters seem to put it in the fantasy genre. However, there are some horrific plot elements in the book, such as two murders, including that of a child, that appear to be out of balance with a fantasy and make the story more creepy. The reader may think that these macabre incidents will all be explained away like a Scooby Doo cartoon, but they are not. The book would benefit from better development of the background of the evil supernatural creatures and their effect on the town, as well as that of a mythic figure named Goldenrod. This is a Junior Library Guild selection. Purchase for middle school libraries where horror stories or books by the author are popular.

Horror, Fantasy          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

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

MG – Golden Arm

Deuker, Carl. Golden Arm. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. $17.99. 978-0-358-01242-9 . Grades 5-8.

Sixteen-year-old Laz Weathers may be slow, but he sees his future baseball prospects pretty clearly. His solid pitching gets no real training and won’t get noticed in his small, poor district. His own weak academics, his stutter, and his ‘tics’ in response to anxiety don’t do him any favors, either. It’s Laz’s younger half-brother, Alberto, who people respond to, and who will speak up when Laz can’t or won’t. But this summer, Alberto’s father has returned and moved in with their mom in their trailer park, causing initial resentment and adjustment by both boys. Laz convinces Alberto to stick with the scrappy baseball team led by Coach L—, who coaxes and cajoles thirteen youths to join the team, then badgers coaches of established teams to compete. Thanks to Laz’s pitching, they often win, which gets him noticed. Laz learns that his family must move (the trailer park will be razed for a high-rise) and that his district will eliminate baseball for his senior year. This allows Laz to join another team, if they’ll have him. A coach who noticed his “golden arm” will give Laz a chance, but can he leave when Alberto is being drawn into drug dealing? Just when Laz has the perfect chance to shine in a championship game, Laz learns his brother is in serious danger from his drug-abusing friends, and it doesn’t matter if Alberto has used, sold, or not–he’s the immediate target. Laz’s choices show his character and alter everything for his future.

THOUGHTS: Deuker shines with baseball scenes and infuses each interaction with tension and a sense of doom. This is hard to put down and will pull in baseball fans and non-fans (the sports writing is that superb). Readers will root for Laz, even as they see everything stacked against him. When the novel ends, I found myself wondering about a sequel showing Laz’s choices in a tough environment over the next 5-10 years, and how his integrity will be tested. This powerful, timeless novel melds baseball with the pressures of class status, mixes dreams with hard reality, and the result is a first-choice novel not to be missed.

Sports Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – Saving Savannah

Bolden, Tonya. Saving Savannah. Bloomsbury, 2020. 978-1-681-19804-0. $17.99. Grades 6-8.

A prolific writer of nonfiction, Tonya Bolden (Maritcha, Cause: Reconstruction America 1863-1877, Take-Off: American All-Girl Bands During World War II to name a few) integrates her skill for facts into an interesting, less explored, narrative in Saving Savannah. Set in post-World War I Washington, D.C., the book focuses on Savannah Riddle, a fourteen-year-old Black girl whose family is part of the elite Black society. The story opens frivolously at a gala opulent with fashion and food and gradually builds to important period events and issues. This eye-opening ascent mirrors Savannah’s maturation from a popular, pampered schoolgirl to a woke young woman of substance. At a pivotal time, Savannah is searching for a more meaningful life connected to the world outside her social strata. She learns about Nannie Helen Burroughs’s School for Girls, a training school; and while volunteering there meets Lloyd, a young Black immigrant with socialist leanings. Lloyd introduces Savannah to the poverty and inequality suffered by some in her own city. She eventually gains the support and respect of her parents after the revelation of a family secret. Throughout Bolden’s book, her intense research is evident. Many of the locales and persons Savannah encounters are real or have a counterpart in reality. Saving Savannah shows the Black perspective during a tumultuous time that underscores discrimination in politics and society and culminates in the brutal riots of the Red Summer of 1919. Besides being a valuable history lesson about a period that resonates with the present, the main character’s transformation from a position of comfort to one of an invested citizen of the world and member of her race is a desire many of us hold today.

THOUGHTS: Like Harlem, Walter Dean Myers’s period piece, Saving Savannah allows students to experience the sights and people of a different time through the eyes of a likeable character. In a sizable appendix, the author supplies background with some photos on the significant movements and personages of the early 20th century Washington, D. C. Bolden touches on multiple issues: Woodrow Wilson’s color lines; the returning Black World War I veterans; the New Negro Movement spearheaded by Dr. Carter Woodson, Hubert Henry Harrison, and Marcus Garvey; the controversy around the Anthony Bill and women’s suffrage; colorism; and even cosmetics. Ideal companion piece for grade 8 American History classes. Teachers may want to use this book to approach discussions on racism and compare the historical perspective with current incidents.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, SD of Philadelphia

YA – Dear Justyce

Stone, Nic. Dear Justyce. Crown Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-984829-67-2. 288 p. $21.99. Grade 8+.

In a sequel to the Morris Award winning Dear Martin, Vernell Laquan Banks Jr., is writing letters to Justyce McAllister from his cell in juvenile detention while he awaits his sentencing for the murder of a police officer. Quan and Justyce, two bright boys from the same rough Atlanta neighborhood and just two years apart in age, have had drastically different trajectories for their lives. Justyce had the life changing benefits of a supportive family that pushed him towards excellence, while Quan’s family was mired in the cycle of poverty, domestic abuse, and incarceration. Reading  through the scenes of Quan’s experiences,  it is clear how crucial a support system is, and lacking that, how Quan made the choices he did which landed him in his current position. Justyce and Quan, who met on a playground as children, reconnect when Justyce hears of Quan’s incarceration and decides to visit his friend in jail. Justyce, who is now a pre-law student at Yale, hears Quan’s story and marshals the help of a lawyer, his girlfriend’s mother, to re-examine the case in the hopes of setting Quan free. This novel looks at the unjust treatment that African Americans deal with daily, shedding light on the harsh realities of life for inner city children and families with no safety net, particularly the educational and legal systems that fail to support or serve the communities they are supposed to.

THOUGHTS: Highly recommended for libraries serving teens, an extremely relevant and topical read.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Summers, Abington SD

Vernell Laquan Banks Jr. (Quan) writes letters from a detention center to Justyce McAllister (Dear Martin) while awaiting his trial for a police officer’s murder. Quan and Justyce both held promise as young students in Atlanta, but Justyce now is off at a fancy college and Quan took quite a different path. While both were good young students, Justyce had support at home while Quan lacked a present male role model (one flashback depicts the arrest of his father while Quan watches). Quan’s path is presented to readers though a series of alternating chapters about his childhood and letters he sends to Justyce, the only person on the outside that he feels will listen to him. To his credit, Justyce reads those letters and is firmly by Quan’s side. On the outside, people will judge Quan for one bad decision after another. Many would say there is no hope for a kid like him. A closer look reveals that Quan’s decisions, however, are made in an effort to support his young siblings and a mother who is stuck in a violent relationship. Is the deck so stacked against Quan that he has no hope?

THOUGHTS: Stone’s novel carefully examines the inequities, especially for minorities, of the education and legal systems that are in place. A must have for secondary libraries and fans of Stone’s other books as well as books by Tiffany Jackson, Jason Reynolds, and Angie Thomas.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA FIC – Piecing Me Together; Lost Girl of Astor Street; No Tomorrow

Watson, Renée.  Piecing Me Together.  Bloomsbury, 2017.  978-1-68119-105-8. 264 p. $17.99. Gr. 8 and up.

Jade, an African American teenager, has spent her high school career torn between two worlds. She lives with her mother and uncle in a poor neighborhood in Portland, where she has many close friends she has known since childhood.  However, she rides the bus across town every weekday to attend a prestigious private high school on a scholarship. When the guidance counselor offers her the opportunity to participate in a “Woman to Woman” mentoring program, Jade jumps at the opportunity to attend outings and establish connections with other successful black women.  She soon finds, however, that her mentor treats Jade as though she is a charity case rather than teaching her anything relevant and useful. If she hopes to get anything out of the mentoring program, Jade must learn to speak up and advocate for herself. The power of friendship and art (which Jade uses as an outlet to express her feelings) shine through in this thought-provoking novel about race, privilege, and finding one’s voice. THOUGHTS: Race, gender, class, privilege, and police brutality all seem to be common themes in young adult literature this year.  This title, a 2018 Newbery Honor book and Coretta Scott King Author Award winner, includes all of these themes and is not to be overlooked.  Not only would the book spark insightful discussions about these relevant issues, but it would also stir readers to fight for the change they wish to see in the world.  Short chapters and a lovable protagonist who readers will want to see succeed make this a quick and inspiring read.

Realistic Fiction      Julie Ritter, Montoursville Area High School

 

Morrill, Stephanie. The Lost Girl of Astor Street. Blink, 2017. 978-0-310-75838-9. $17.99. 349p. Gr. 7-12.
Eighteen year old Piper Sail is living a life of privilege in 1920s Chicago, her life seemingly unaffected by the criminal element (mobsters, speakeasies, etc.) present in the city. Her biggest problem is being considered a bit of a rebel and a non-conformist by those around her. All that changes one spring day when Lydia, Piper’s best friend and next-door neighbor, disappears one day when walking home. Piper is convinced that Lydia did not leave willingly; she didn’t leave a letter or say goodbye. Dissatisfied with the investigation into Lydia’s disappearance, Piper decides to do some sleuthing on her own. Working with police Detective Mariano Cassano, Piper begins to look into her neighbors, their servants, and even her own family in order to find out the truth. What she discovers is everyone is harboring secrets, even Detective Cassano. Will Piper be able to solve the crime or have her actions placed her own life in peril? THOUGHTS: Readers will quickly find themselves caught up in this engaging whodunit set in the evocative atmosphere of Prohibition Chicago. Piper must face down numerous misdirections as she pursues the reasons for Lydia’s disappearance–keeping her (and the reader) guessing. A touch of romance enters the storyline with the appearance of the smart and talented Detective Cassano. Hand this one to fans of history and mystery.
Historical Mystery (1920s)       Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg School District

 

Armentrout, Jennifer L. If There’s No Tomorrow. Harlequin Teen, 2017. 978-0-373-21222-4. 384 p. $18.99. Gr. 9 and up.

One decision, one split second choice changes Lena’s life forever. Before she was carefree. She was looking forward to volleyball season, applying to college, and enjoying her senior year. Now, Lena hides from everyone, herself included, and she can’t forgive herself for what happened. Unable to move on, Lena withdraws from everyone who cares about her – from everyone trying to help. THOUGHTS: Readers will be haunted by Lena’s isolation, but they will root for her as she tries to find herself in her new reality. It is difficult to describe too much without giving the story away, but this is a book every teen should read. It covers so many weighty issues and insecurities that many teens manage and does so beautifully as the narrator struggles to accept her choices. This book will stay with readers long after they read it and will (hopefully) make them think twice before making the same choice as Lena.

Realistic Fiction       Maryalice Bond, South Middleton School District

 

West, Kasie. Love, Life, and the List. Harper Teen, 2018. 978-0062675774. 384 p. $17.99. Gr. 9 and up.

This story, while at times predictable, does offer an interesting perspective into the life of one teenager. Though two of her best friends are traveling or working over the summer, Abby is staying in her hometown with her best friend (and secret crush) Cooper. An aspiring painter, she is devastated when the curator at the museum where she works rejects her pieces, stating that they “have no heart.” Abby, taking the advice of her mom and grandfather, comes up with a list of experiences that she hopes will enhance and enliven her art. Her list includes, for example: face a fear, fall in love, and learn a stranger’s story. Abby’s interactions with Cooper prevail throughout the novel (and can be annoying at times), but the self-awareness that she develops as a result of the list is inspirational. Abby also must deal with her mother’s debilitating anxiety and a father who is stationed abroad. THOUGHTS: While not my top pick for YA novels, this title does encourage teens to think about their lives, and how they can go beyond their everyday existence to discover new parts of the world.

Realistic Fiction      Lindsey Myers, Shady Side Academy Senior School