MG/YA – Abuela, Don’t Forget Me

Ogle, Rex. Abuela, Don’t Forget Me. Norton Young Readers, 2022. $18.95 978-1-324-01995-4. Grades 7-12. 

Ogle continues his autobiographical journey begun with Free Lunch and Punching Bag, this time using a novel in verse format to focus on the enormous importance of his grandmother (Abuela) who provided selflessly throughout his life and enabled him to succeed. Ogle shares memories of her involvement in his life, from preschool to college. Readers will remember, or easily recognize, the antagonistic relationship between his abuela and his mother, and how any gift was seen as an insult: “I can pay for my own groceries!” Ogle learned early to love Abuela’s visits for the food, the gifts (of many things, including Ogle’s first bed), but most of all, he loved her visits for the obvious, stated, unconditional support of Ogle. In a world of poverty and abuse, Ogle was accustomed to sneers or physical violence and hopelessness, but Abuela repeatedly gave him the messages that she believed in him, education was the key out of poverty, and don’t give up. Ogle successfully shows Abuela’s life-saving presence in his life, while acknowledging shortcomings, like her desire to overspend her hard-earned money to give to others.  Readers will be amazed by the abuse and poverty Ogle endured by necessity and amazed by Abuela’s constancy and positivity. Ogle pushes for change and endures hard-earned miracles (free college tuition) as well as enraging setbacks (his mother ‘steals’ his own car for herself).

THOUGHTS: This is a book for all middle and high school readers, who will learn strength from Ogle’s journey. Ogle may just inspire readers to thank the “Abuelas” in their lives.

Biography          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Memoir, Autobiography

MG – The Lucky Ones

Jackson, Linda Williams. The Lucky Ones. Candlewick Press, 2022. 978-1-536-22255-5. 304 p. $18.99. Grades 5-8.

Sixth grader, Ellis Earl Brown, loves school, learning, and his family–all ten of them. Living in rural Wilsonville, Mississippi, in 1960’s, money is tight, work is scarce, and living quarters are crowded and dilapidated for this African American family. Ellis cherishes his time in Mr. Foster’s class where he is nourished with the knowledge of a world outside of his small town and with the teacher’s shared lunches. A dedicated student, Ellis Earl’s greatest fear is that Mama may be forced to make him quit school and relinquish his dream to become a lawyer or teacher or both. In the spring of 1967, Ellis is reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and compares himself to Willy Wonka whose family is also cramped into a small space and hoping for something lucky to happen. Earnest and thoughtful, Ellis Earl sacrifices for his family; worries about his sick brother, Oscar; and frets over his Mama’s exhaustion. Still, he is a real person. He corrects –mentally–his siblings’ grammar errors, whines when the rains flood the roads making going to school impossible, and is jealous of his class rival, Philip, who appears financially comfortable. Mr. Foster tells Ellis about the influence of civil rights lawyer, Marian Wright, on the presidential hopeful, Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy. When Kennedy comes to visit the Delta to witness the devastating poverty himself, Ellis is part of the entourage the teacher brings to the airport in Jackson. The highly-anticipated trip is marred by racism, however, when the group stops to eat at a diner, supposedly integrated by law. The Brown family is also one of the lucky ones who get a visit from Senator Kennedy. In a series of connected events, Ellis’s family has the chance to better their lives through the assistance of Mr. Foster and Ms. Wright. Like Willy, Ellis has been given the “golden ticket,” the opportunity to build a life for him and his family through education and social services. Overall, he learns to appreciate the invaluable gift of having the support and encouragement of loved ones over material objects. In The Lucky Ones, Linda Williams Jackson presents a memorable character in Ellis Earl Brown and a realistic picture of a large family handling well what little life brings them. With not a speck of condescension, Jackson describes the bareness of the Brown’s household furnishings, the lack of food, and the struggle to find work. She conveys the rigor of the school and intelligence of its students, despite the hardships surrounding their education: no electricity, no transportation other than the teacher’s kindness, and no medical benefits. Most importantly, she places the reader in the midst of a big family who holler, goad, tease, and boss each other while also watching out and caring for one another. All the positives that sew up the story’s ending may seem too good to be true, but one thing is certain, the closeness of the Brown family makes them the lucky ones.

THOUGHTS: Linda Williams Jackson writes in a forthright way about a time in history I don’t see covered in children’s literature and fleshes out what it is/was like to grow up poor. In the context of the Brown family, being poor is difficult and unfair but respectable. Jackson emphasizes the important roles of government social welfare organizations and the church in supplying the basic necessities of life to needy people. Ellis Earl’s family are not church goers, not because they are non believers, but because Mama thinks they have no appropriate clothes in which to attend a service. Ellis’s desire to go to church has more to do with the free breakfast than devotion. The portrayal of the teachers at Ellis’s school–particularly Mr. Foster–is one of dedication and humility. He drives the students to school in his lime green station wagon, he brings them drumsticks to eat for lunch, he buys Ellis a suit to wear when he is chosen to give a recitation–and all of this dispatched with the conviction and impression that these children deserve such services and more.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Punching Bag

Ogle, Rex. Punching Bag. Norton Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-324-01623-6. $17.95. 217 p. Grades 9-12.

As with his debut memoir, Free Lunch, Latinx author Rex Ogle is honest and sensitive in his recounting of his high school years with his volatile mother, Luciana, and abusive stepfather, Sam. At the book’s opening, Rex’s mother reveals that she has lost an infant girl, Marisa, while seven-year-old Rex was visiting his paternal grandparents. In front of her sensitive son, she is distraught with grief and places the blame at his feet. Ogle carries that guilt with him as he navigates his teen-age years protecting his half-brother, Ford, from the chaos erupting from domestic violence in their tiny Texas apartment. At times, this guilt is assuaged with the remembrance of Marisa, giving him the encouragement and strength not extended by other adults. Though his alcoholic stepfather beats his mother regularly, Rex’s mother refuses to press charges or escape. In fact, in a brief stint when Sam leaves her, she picks on Rex, goading him to hit her. Rex acts as the parent here. He has the maturity to see their household is toxic and to recognize his mother’s mental health issues. From conversations with family members, he gets an insight into the root causes of his mother’s and stepfather’s behaviors. However, he feels responsible for the safety of his younger brother and the financial stability of the family. He receives some emotional support from his grandmother and his mother’s sister; he is able to confess to his stepfather’s brother the physical abuse suffered in their family. Nevertheless,with little adult support from teachers or neighbors, young Ogle is out there on his own with the lone comfort of Marisa’s ghostly voice convincing him her death was not his fault. When Luciana and Sam repeatedly wind up together with little improvement, Ogle has to value his own life and aim for his own dreams to keep him resilient and hopeful. This memoir is an excellent example of bibliotherapy. Ogle does not gloss over the brutality and the bewildering reality of domestic violence and the devastating effect of a parent’s untreated mental health issues on her children. Ogle acknowledges this in the book’s preface with a disclaimer emphasizing his purpose for writing his story is to show that it is possible to survive. Students suffering the same trauma will appreciate his frankness. Contains an informative Q & A with author.

THOUGHTS: The account of domestic abuse as well as physical and emotional child abuse is constant, but Ogle is a talented narrator and compels the reader to endure it. Rex Ogle himself stands out as an exceedingly mature, resilient, compassionate person, despite a lifetime to being put down, parentified, terrified, neglected. It prompts the thought, where was this behavior learned. He records little resentment of being the person in charge of his younger brother. He willingly shoulders adult responsibilities around the house with hidden resentment and–mostly-controlled anger. The book delivers an important message to any students in similar circumstances.

Memoir          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
362.7 Child Abuse

YA – Your Heart, My Sky

Engle, Margarita. Your Heart, My Sky. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 208 pp. 978-1-5344-64964 $18.99 Grades 9-12.

Engle focuses on a difficult time in Cuba’s history lived through by her own relatives. Euphemistically named by the government as “the special period in times of peace,” the 1990s are in reality a time of starvation. Strict rules keep Cubans from growing their own food; U.S. embargo limits trade; and most recently, Russia has dropped its promised support of the Communist nation, leaving commoners struggling for daily food and afraid to speak out, knowing that retribution comes in the form of limited opportunities, fewer rations, prison or death. Two young people, Liana and Amado, find their hunger gives them strength to defy the government-required summer volunteer work, even as they dread the consequences. Amado’s older brother is in prison for speaking out against the government. Liana is befriended by a ‘singing dog’ Paz who becomes her daily companion in search of food, and the dog brings her and Amado together. The two fall in love and consider their limited future options. Leave the island for the dangerous attempt to reach Miami? Or remain in their homeland to share and fight the deprivation with loved ones? Engle’s beautiful verse, and switching between Liana, Amado, and Paz’s voices, gives this novel depth and richness. 

THOUGHTS: Moving words bring to life this time of desperation.       

Historical Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Elem./MG – A Glasshouse of Stars

Marr, Shirley. A Glasshouse of Stars. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-48883-0. 246 p.  $17.99. Grades 4-6.

Meixing has just arrived in a New Land to live in a New House with her parents. She and her mother and father have traveled from the Old Land to live with First Uncle, but he passed away only weeks before their arrival and now they are adrift in a strange place, not quite speaking the right language and not quite understanding the right customs. When tragedy strikes Meixing’s family, she retreats into the backyard of her new home and discovers a magical world hidden away in a broken down greenhouse where the ghost of First Uncle helps her discover her inner strength. Meixing displays incredible courage in the face of xenophobia in her new school as she tries to learn her place in this New Land, but new friends and an understanding new teacher also help her overcome her family’s difficulties as they begin to build a life in the New Land.

THOUGHTS: This story offers a unique glimpse into the struggles of immigrant children who deal with poverty, discrimination, and cultural miscommunication. The magical realism in this book provides Meixing with a symbolic escape from her troubles and a way to process her feelings with the help of her family, and adds a beautiful, lyrical layer to the storytelling. This story would be an excellent addition to studies about the immigrant experience, and should be added to collections with a focus on immigrant experiences and diverse voices.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – Not My Problem

Smyth, Ciara. Not My Problem. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-062-95714-6. $17.99. 359 p. Grades 9 and up.

Aideen Cleary has problems. She’s not doing so well in school, her best friend Holly has been drifting from her for the last couple years, and her mom’s occasional drinking binges that make her unfit to parent have Aideen worrying that social services will come knocking on their door any day now. But when she catches her enemy, Meabh Kowalska, throwing an embarrassing hissy fit in the locker room at school, she sees an opportunity to focus on someone else’s problems for a change. Aideen thinks over-achieving Meabh’s problem of just finding more time in her schedule is an easy problem to fix, but Meabh insists on a fool-proof solution. So she asks Aideen to push her down a set of stairs in exchange for a favor she can call in at any time. Though Aideen hesitates at first, given their history, Meabh is pretty easily able to convince Aideen to give her a good shove. Meabh’s ankle effectively sprained, the problem seems solved. Except for the witness to it all, a classmate named Kavi, who swears to secrecy but sees potential in the exchange he just witnessed. The next day, he brings Aideen a friend of his in trouble and asks her to help solve the problem, much like she did for Meabh yesterday. Thus begins Aideen’s semester of stunts, shenanigans, and some new relationships. Aideen’s life might be spiraling out of control, but fixing others’ lives and collecting favors in return seems like a good deal for her. For now.

THOUGHTS: Aideen is foul-mouthed but laugh-out-loud funny in this sophomore novel from the author of last year’s The Falling in Love Montage. Some Irish colloquialisms might trip up teen readers here and there, but it’s part of the experience of reading this story set in Ireland. A story with romance though not necessarily a book I’d classify as romance, I highly recommend this book for YA collections looking to add  LGBTQ+ representation. Aside from a couple sentences mentioning Aideen’s coming out at a young age as difficult, the characters in this book are, as Aideen says, “super woke,” so this book is not about Aideen’s struggles coming out or dealing with bullying because she identifies as lesbian. Her fading friendship with Holly and budding new friendship with Kavi takes just as much (if not, more) of the narrative as her slow-burn enemies-to-lovers relationship with Meabh. Aideen’s complicated relationship with her mom and her mom’s alcoholism and poverty also dominate much of the narrative. While cliche, it’s definitely accurate to say this book has a bit of everything.

Realistic Fiction         Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – The Life I’m In

Flake, Sharon G. The Life I’m In. Scholastic Press, 2021. $18.99. 978-1-338-57317-6. Grades 9-12.

In Sharon G. Flake’s best selling novel, The Skin I’m In, Charlese–Char–Jones is the confident bully wreaking havoc on the life of the diffident and vulnerable Maleeka. In The Life I’m In, African-American Char appears as the main character, still inwardly grieving for the loss of her beloved parents, and continuing to make bad decisions. Her older sister and guardian, Juju, has begun to get her life together–stopping the house parties and securing a job in a bank–and needs Char–sixteen and a seventh-grade drop out–to live with their grandparents in Alabama. At the start of this reluctant bus trip, Char is flippant and rude, comical and outspoken. The passengers are alternately annoyed and amused by her unself- conscious antics. When young, white mother, April gets on the bus with her three-month old biracial baby, Char’s maternal instincts urge her to assist April. Bound for a job, April shows the distressed signs of living rough on the streets. To provide for her child, she sells narcotics and sexual favors to truck drivers; she suppresses suspicion about this new employment that requires she pay for the position. When April disembarks the bus with baby Cricket in tow, naive Char decides she will go out on her own and not continue to Alabama. Thinking it is temporary, she volunteers to take care of Cricket when April’s aunt never shows up at the bus station and well-dressed and smooth talking Anthony arrives as April’s ride to Florida. Char enlists all her resources to persuade a hotel proprietor to rent her a suite; she figures out and procures the necessary baby supplies with the money from Juju; she contacts Juju and even the newly reconciled Maleeka to tell them of her actions if not her whereabouts. Char may talk a good game, but she is young, inexperienced, and a virgin. When Char’s funds dwindle and her efforts to find work are hindered by her motherly duties, she runs into Anthony again and, in an attempt to save Cricket, finds herself a victim of sex trafficking. Author Flake describes the depravity of Char’s existence during this time delicately, but does not stint on the truth. Char receives some solace in the community of other girls in Anthony’s pack, who seem to be of different races and backgrounds. When she eventually escapes and is reunited with Juju, Char needs the help of not only her sister, but also Maleeka, her former teacher, Ms. Saunders, and professionals to survive the trauma and feel truly free. The fluid text reflects Char’s actual voice, and her first-person narration gives an intense look into her complex feelings and her maturity as she tries to survive under egregious conditions. Although the stress and suffering Char conveys is painful to read about, readers will find this a compelling book.

THOUGHTS: This is a harsh story to tell, and Sharon Flake tells it well. The book serves as a mirror for those who have suffered sexual abuse or trauma of any kind as well as a window into the lives of people who have experienced homelessness and poverty. The reader leaves feeling not pity but understanding and an admiration for the resilience and effort exerted by trauma victims. It acts as a call for all to refrain from rash judgements and to be kind. Char’s second escape from Anthony seems contrived (would the driver wait for Char as she says good-bye to Maleeka?); however, readers will be rooting for the happy ending.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – Santiago’s Road Home

Diaz, Alexandra. Santiago’s Road Home. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-534-44623-6. $17.99. 325 p. Grades 5-8.

Once more author Alexandra Diaz raises our consciousness about the plight of Central American immigrants in our country at this critical time. As she did in The Only Road and Crossroads, Diaz gives a fact-based novel of Santiago Garcia Reyes’s escape from domestic abuse in Mexico through the desert to the detention centers of New Mexico. She does not pull any punches describing the sacrifices and suffering Santiago endures as he makes his way to America with newfound “family” Maria Dolores and her five-year-old daughter, Alegria. After being thrown out once again from a relative’s home where he worked as a free babysitter, Santiago refuses to return to his abusive, neglectful grandmother. Instead, he makes the acquaintance of the kind and generous Maria Dolores and her young daughter and convinces her to take him as they migrate to the United States where Maria Dolores’s sister owns a restaurant. For the first time since his Mami died when he was five-years-old, Santiago feels loved and cared for; and he reciprocates by being the protective big brother. By working in the cheap tavern at the crossroads, he discovers Dominquez, the best coyote to help them cross. Unfortunately, rival coyotes kill Dominquez, leaving the refugees abandoned just shy of the border. Diaz describes the arduous and dangerous journey through the desert, dodging border patrol officers and experiencing dehydration and hunger under a blistering sun. Their efforts end in hospitalization and detention. Again, Diaz intertwines facts and realistic representation about the conditions children suffer in the detention centers, yet maintains both the negative and positive aspects. Some of the detention center guards are kind; some are arrogant brutes. Minor characters like an interested teacher and volunteering lawyers give the story balance. The distress and maltreatment of Santiago as he lingers in detention as well as his brave struggle to belong to a loving family is heart wrenching and sure to instill empathy and compassion toward a timely situation. Includes a glossary of Spanish terms and extensive resources.

THOUGHTS: Diaz’s writing has a way of creating a fully developed character and a well-rounded setting that arouses true sympathy in readers. This book can provide a reference point to discussions of undocumented immigrants, refugees, migration to America as well as current events around asylum seekers and their reasons for immigration.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story)

Nayeri, Daniel. Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story). Levine Querido, 2020. 346 p. 978-1-646-14000-8. $17.99.  Grades 7-12.

When Khosrou’s (Daniel’s) physician mother converts to Christianity in the 1980’s, she endangers her life because of the Iranian government’s restrictions on religion. His father, a jovial, loquacious dentist covertly obtains the proper paperwork for escape, then drops off his eight-year-old son and twelve-year-old daughter, Dina, at the airport as his wife starts a journey that will take the threesome to Dubai, Italy, and finally, Oklahoma. Daniel Nayeri’s Printz Award-winning book, Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story), telling how his family turned from comfortable, wealthy land owners to battered, poor refugees can be summed up in these few sentences; but the flow of the chapter-less pages weaves a tale likened to the much admired, Scheherazade of 1,001 Nights. The paragraphs describing memories of Daniel’s (no one in America can pronounce Khosrou!) grandparents’ home and his parents’ relationship spin into beloved Persian legends and myths and wind up next to pages relating the harsher daily existence he experiences in Oklahoma. Daniel is at the center of a maelstrom as the cover depicts, a twelve-year-old boy with different tastes in foods and specific hygienic customs, wanting to fit in yet also wanting to hold on to the Persian culture he cherishes. A son with vivid recollections who longs for the warmth of his biological father, but is resigned to live with his stern, abusive Farsi- speaking step-father whom his mother marries and keeps remarrying for companionship and convenience, despite the beatings she suffers. As Daniel narrates his life tale with casual familiarity, the reader learns of the ancient heritage of Iran and its reverence and love of story, his difficulties adjusting to each stage of the refugee journey, and his impressions of Americans and life here. Most of all, the story is a tribute to the perseverance and unconditional love of his mother, Sima. In the refugee hotel of Italy instead of lolling around all day waiting for the call to emigrate, she makes a connection with a Texan woman living in Rome who home schools her own children and arranges for Daniel and Dina to share in the lessons even though Sima has to spend hours erasing the answers from the host children’s cast-off notebooks so that Daniel and Dina can use them. Her determination and dignity to make life good for her son and daughter are evident in that scene. Told not as a memoir, but as a work of fiction—for as the narrator tells us, it is not so simple to sort out fact from fiction when dealing with one’s memories—Daniel delivers the truth of his life as he remembers it with humor and charm and not a bit of self-pity. Shifting from present to far past to recent past, he shares his varied observations, thus preserving his precious legacy of storytelling, made up or real, or a mixture of both.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: Like the coveted cream puffs described in one of Nayeri’s tales, this book is a treat for those who appreciate a different writing style and matchless imagery. There are bits of scatological references—the unhappy affect of a first-time encounter with Sloppy Joes and negotiating a toilet with a bidet—but the targeted audience may appreciate and even empathize with Daniel’s situations. Written with a truly inimitable voice, this work is unlike any book for middle grade or young adult this reader has encountered. Recommend to students who love words or like to write, to those new to a place, or those needing to understand another perspective.

YA – Concrete Rose

Thomas, Angie. Concrete Rose. Balzer + Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-84671-6. 368 p. $19.99. Grades 9 and up.

Maverick Carter is trying to get by. As a 17-year old single father, he realizes that he must put his gang and drug dealing days behind him in order to care for his son and future child. But, working for Mr. Wyatt isn’t paying enough to take care of Seven and help his mother out, and he is “Little Don,” son of Adonis, a King Lords legend. After the death of his cousin and best friend, Dre, Maverick tries to keep Dre’s wishes of laying low and getting away from gang life, but Maverick lost his brother; he is ready to seek revenge. He returns to dealing for King and goes after Dre’s assumed killer. When King provides him with the means to remain in the game and get his revenge, Maverick must decide if Seven, Lisa, and their unborn child are more important to him than his need for  revenge and the gang.

THOUGHTS:  This prequel to The Hate You Give is a glimpse into the struggles and early life of Starr’s father, Maverick Carter. He wrestles with wanting to provide for his son and mother in a legitimate way while also feeling a need to follow in his father’s footsteps as a King Lord and make “easy money.” These struggles are very real to readers because they are universal: Do what is right or do what is “easy.” This novel also deals with many social issues: teenage pregnancy, gang life, drug dealing, imprisonment of a parent, being a high school dropout, sexual orientation, and more, but it never seems preachy or frivolous.  Readers will also enjoy connecting Maverick’s story to Starr’s story and seeing how and why he is who he is. Highly recommended to all who loved The Hate You Give.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

Real men take care of their family and even though he’s 17 years old, that’s what Maverick plans on doing when he finds out he’s a father. The way Maverick helps his family at the beginning of the novel is by dealing with the King Lords. That career choice doesn’t bother Maverick too much until he becomes a father to a baby boy he names Seven, then Maverick decides it’s time to straighten up. However, walking away from the King Lords is easier said than done, and it will take everything in him to do so.

THOUGHTS: If you read and loved The Hate U Give, this is a must read, and I feel you can read them in any order. It definitely gives the reader a better understanding of Starr’s father, and you empathize with him throughout the novel. Highly recommended for any high school collection!

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy