MG – Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero

Faraqi, Saadi. Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero. Quill Tree Books, 2021. 978-0-062-94325-5. 357 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8. 

Yusuf lives in Texas with his family, and he has some big life changes coming up. He is starting middle school, hoping to enter a Robotics competition with his school’s Robotics team and is spending time helping his family build their community’s new mosque. However this is the 20th year anniversary of September 11th, and his community isn’t happy about the new mosque, or any of his family living in their small town anymore. Yusuf has to deal with bullies from many different directions, and he isn’t sure how to handle it. Will Yusuf be able to hold onto things that bring him such happiness in the face of so much hate and hostility?

THOUGHTS: This well told story touches on many things that today’s readers are either familiar with from their own personal experience, or they have seen it happen to their friends and community members. This book handles these topics with grace and compassion as well as feeling authentic to the situation. Highly recommend this for any middle school collection. 

Realistic Fiction          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Elem./MG – Set Me Free

LaZotte, Ann Clare. Set Me Free.  Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-74249-7  $18.99. 288 p. Grades 4-6.

Mary Lambert, a deaf girl living on Martha’s Vineyard in the late 1700’s, went through an unimaginable and traumatic ordeal when she was kidnapped years ago to be studied to determine the reason for her deafness. Settled back into her life on the Vineyard, Mary is longing for a more meaningful life. When a friend from years ago sends Mary a letter asking for her assistance helping a young deaf girl to learn to communicate, Mary is hesitant but excited for this new opportunity. However, when Mary arrives on the mainland to teach the girl, she finds that her new charge is imprisoned in the attic and treated horribly! Mary must muster up the courage and support to help free this girl from her circumstances. 

THOUGHTS: For those that loved Show Me a Sign, this is a must purchase. I did not love this installment as much as the first, but the history behind this time period is fascinating. Mary is truly a feminist and has no problem sharing her beliefs. She is a wonderful female literary icon.

Historical Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Abington SD

Mary Lambert, the deaf heroine from the fascinating early 1800’s island community of Martha’s Vineyard in Show Me A Sign, returns in this historical fiction book that is also rich with mystery and intrigue. Mary is eager to find her way in life and become a teacher, following in the footsteps of her own beloved teacher Mrs. Pye, but she is restless in her home community and feels as though she might have a calling in the wider world. Then, she receives a letter from Nora, a friend who helped her escape captors in her previous adventure, and decides to travel to Boston and help a young deaf girl who needs help learning to communicate through sign language. When she arrives, she finds the girl living in terribly cruel conditions and vows to help her not only learn to communicate, but also to return to her rightful family. With the help of friends both old and new, Mary bravely stands up for the rights of her young charge and demonstrates her conviction that people of all abilities deserve respect, dignity and opportunity in life.

THOUGHTS: This book is a wonderful testament to people with diverse abilities overcoming obstacles, especially those who deal with discrimination based on race, disability, gender, or for any other reason. Fans of Helen Keller’s story will also love this tale of a relationship that develops between a brave teacher and her bright but misunderstood student.

Historical Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Linked

Korman, Gordon. Linked. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-62911-8. 246 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Chokecherry, Colorado is a small town on the up and up – could even be the next Orlando! While paleontologists from a prestigious university are attempting to locate dinosaur fossils after dinosaur poop is discovered, a swastika appears painted on an atrium wall in the local school. The principal is determined to put an end to the hateful act by starting a unit on tolerance and after three weeks is confident that the event was a one time thing. But when a second and a third swastika appear, it looks as if the past of Chokecherry may be coming back into focus. The students of the school take it upon themselves to support one another and learn more about the Holocaust in order to fight back. An idea to start a paper chain that is six million links long, one link for each person who died during the Holocaust, becomes their primary focus. Lincoln Rowley, the popular athlete, helps round the troops and with the help of the student council and art club presidents, their huge undertaking begins. But when a local media star shows up, hoping to expose the town’s past while highlighting the paper chain, things get complicated. Told in different perspectives, this novel has twists and turns that will keep you reading!

THOUGHTS: Another hit by Korman, this title touches on a sensitive subject, antisemitism and the KKK. The characters each struggle with an inner demon which must be addressed before they can truly accept themselves and others. More somber than some of Korman’s other works, Linked has a balance of humor, hope, and sadness for how others treat people that are different from them. 

Realistic Fiction        Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Chokecherry, Colorado is not exactly a tourist destination. The small town does not have a whole lot going for it except for newly discovered dinosaur fossils which bring archeologists from a big city university to the area. Most people are content for the town to go unnoticed until an unfortunate event brings national press: Someone has drawn a swastika on the atrium wall at Chokecherry Middle School. Lincoln Rowley (Link as he is known to his friends and family) loves sports and pranks. He does not really think too much about the swastika until he learns a secret about his family, and he realizes that his ancestors are Jewish. He decides to complete a crash course in Judaism and have a bar mitzvah. Because of this decision, Link becomes the unofficial mascot of the newest middle school tolerance project: A paper chain with six million links to represent the six million Jews who perished during the Holocaust. With the help of his friends Caroline, Michael, and Dana, Link and the entire school work towards this phenomenal goal with the hope of erasing the bad press from the swastika. This plan goes awry when more swastikas appear around the school, and no one seems to know who is drawing them.

THOUGHTS: Gordon Korman has once again knocked it out of the park. Told in alternating points of view, Korman’s book explores the very relevant topic of when a hate crime happens in a “it couldn’t happen here” community. This book would be an excellent literature choice for ELA classes in conjunction with a Holocaust unit in social studies or a school-wide reading challenge. The topic can lead to rich discussions with powerful lessons.

Realistic Fiction           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG/YA – Huda F Are You?

Fahmy, Huda. Huda F Are You? Dial Books, 2021. 978-0-593-32430-1. 192 p. $22.99. Grades 6-9.

Huda F (a self-described “extension” of author-illustrator Huda Fahmy) is “just your friendly neighborhood Arab-Muslim hijab-wearing American whatever” entering the ninth grade in Dearborn, Michigan. Despite these labels, Huda isn’t sure who she really is or even who she wants to be. She tries to form a friend group while establishing her true personality, but discrimination and microaggressions take a toll on her well-being (and her transcript). Despite the seriousness of these issues, Fahmy brings a light touch and plenty of self-deprecating humor to Huda’s predicament. For example, she depicts Huda’s inner monologues through two mini-Hudas on her shoulders, one in a leather jacket, bickering over her decisions and delivering brutal honesty. Huda’s journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance is portrayed through simple drawings, uncluttered backgrounds, and a limited color palette. Narration boxes and Huda’s delightful facial expressions move the action along to a satisfying conclusion.

THOUGHTS: Huda F Are You is funny, unexpectedly universal, and an excellent choice for fans of Almost American Girl by Robin Ha.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Grades 8-11.

Huda Fahmey, along with her four sisters and her parents, have moved to Dearborn, Michigan, a town with a large Muslim population. This is a big change for Huda: in her old school, she was the only girl who wore a hijab, but that is not the case in Dearborn. While Huda is proud to wear her hijab, she is also aware of the prejudice she faces while wearing it, even from some of her high school teachers. Because of this, Huda sets out to learn more about her religion and figure out what it means to wear the hijab. Since she is no longer the only hijabi girl, Huda has absolutely no idea who she is. Huda tries to figure out who her friends are, what cliques she might belong to, and where she fits in. Academically, Huda is a stellar student, but that doesn’t seem like quite enough to encompass an entire identity. She categorizes herself as “miscellaneous,” a label that makes Huda feel as though she is a nobody. With the help of her friends and family, she begins her journey to find out Huda F. she is.

THOUGHTS: Huda Fahmey’s semi-biographical graphic novel is funny and relatable. This is an absolute must-buy for secondary libraries. Be aware that the title may raise some eyebrows, but there is no strong language in the content of the book.

Graphic Novel           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – Misfit in Love

Ali, S.K. Misfit in Love. Salaam Reads / Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-44275-7. 320 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12. 

It’s two days before her older brother Muhammad marries Sarah, the love of his life, and Janna is looking forward to the arrival of Nuah, who she finally is ready to tell “yes, I like you back.” They’re at her father’s Mystic Lake, IN estate, though Janna has had her own strained relationship with her dad. Due to Sarah finishing her Master’s degree and her family throwing their own official reception next year, wedding plans have been left up to Dad and Muhammad which means Janna has been there helping for weeks. It’s been nice to spend time away from home, even with stepmother Linda and the laddoos, Muhammad and Janna’s half siblings. Janna is excited to see her mom again, however awkward this huge family event may be, but she didn’t count on an attraction to Sarah’s gorgeous cousin, her mother’s distraction with an old friend, and a brooding sad guy who seems to get Janna. Still, she’s determined to reconnect with Nuah who, despite Janna’s best efforts, seems distracted himself. As friends and family arrive for the celebration, Janna experiences a whirlwind of emotions.

THOUGHTS: With appearances by beloved characters from other Ali books, this is a must have addition to high school romance collections.

Romance          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Rising college freshman Janna has sacrificed a summer internship to help her older brother, Muhammad, prepare for his big, fat Muslim wedding. What started off as a small nikah ceremony has morphed into a blue and gold monstrosity (especially since Sarah, the bride, wants tasteful matte grey and gold). But all of the stress will be worth it to spend time with Nuah, the boy whose friendship got Janna through the aftermath of being assaulted at the mosque last year (Saints and Misfits.) Now Janna is ready to return Nuah’s affection. Only nothing goes according to plan. Nuah seems distant, and keeps talking about a girl he met at college. Janna’s mom shows up for the wedding with an old “friend” with whom she seems very cozy. Muhammad seems determined to pair up Janna with Sarah’s hot cousin, Haytham, and then there’s dark, brooding Layth, who keeps storming in and out of the wedding festivities. What is a girl to do? Despite appearances, this book is more than a light-hearted romantic romp. While Janna’s divorced parents are both Muslim, her mother is Egyptian and her father Indian-American. When Janna confronts her father about his not-so-subtle attempts to caution her about getting involved with Nuah, who is Black, he defends his position by discussing the stress, potentially contributing to their divorce, on his relationship with Janna’s mother because of their culturally different backgrounds. Members of Sarah’s Syrian family constantly scorn Muhammad’s mixed heritage as not as “good” as being Syrian. The book explores various prejudices and racial tensions within what an outsider might consider a cohesive culture. Janna is angry and appalled at her beloved father’s attitudes and prejudices, but the book ends with the family planning to confront their biases and attend an anti-racism seminar. Adam and Zayneb, from Ali’s Love from A to Z make a cameo appearance at the wedding. All major characters are Muslim, of various ethnicities.

THOUGHTS: This romance, set in the American Muslin culture, highlights the varied shades of prejudice. Readers unfamiliar with Muslim customs should enjoy the introduction and may find themselves Googling pictures of burkinis to understand Janna’s embarrassment early in the book.

Romance          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem. – Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre

Weatherford, Carole Boston, and Floyd Cooper. Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre. Carolrhoda Books, 2021. 978-1-541-58120-3. unpaged. $17.99. Grades 3-6.

In 1921, the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a thriving Black community. A stretch of businesses known as “Black Wall Street” included restaurants, shops, salons, libraries, schools, and a hospital. But many white Tulsans resented these symbols of Black prosperity and wealth. When a nineteen-year old old shoeshine man was arrested for assaulting a white, female elevator operator, the simmering anger boiled over. Fearing that the young man would be lynched, thirty Black men clashed with two thousand white men outside the jail on May 31, 1921. The white mob then stormed Greenwood, looting and burning homes and businesses alike. Hundreds of Black people were killed and the neighborhood was completely destroyed. With spare, straightforward text, Carole Boston Weatherford presents the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre to a young audience. Floyd Cooper’s oil and erasure illustrations vividly portray the prosperity, hostility, devastation, and hope in turn. A combination of landscapes, bustling storefronts, fashions, and expressive body language indelibly portray a place in time. The Author’s and Illustrator’s Notes contain valuable insights into the events, including some information about the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in Tulsa.

THOUGHTS: Particularly with the one hundred year mark approaching in May, Unspeakable is an essential read about a too-little-known moment in U.S. history. For older readers who want to know more, Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham and The Tulsa Race Riot by Duchess Harris and A.R. Carser are recommended.

The John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Center in Tulsa has Curriculum Resources at https://www.jhfcenter.org/.

Picture Book          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Elem. – The Belonging Tree

Cocca-Leffler, Maryann. The Belonging Tree. Henry Holt and Company, 2020. Unpaged. 978-1-250-30513-8. $18.99.  Grades PreK-1.

A community of happy squirrels lives on Forest Lane.  The Gray squirrel family, Ma, Pa, and Little Zeke, love their old oak tree home and enjoy eating, working and playing with their squirrel neighbors. Then in summer, some blue jays arrive and their noise disturbs Ma and Pa, but Zeke enjoys their singing. In the fall, a chipmunk family with many babies appears and gets busy gathering acorns. Zeke loves feeding the babies, while his parents are concerned about a nut shortage. All is peaceful through the winter, but in spring some busy beavers move in and start building dams. Ma and Pa fear the beavers will down all the trees, but Zeke is amazed by what they have built. The parents decide to move across the river to get away from these other animals. That night, during a storm, the squirrel family’s new home is destroyed. They are rescued through the efforts of their former animal neighbors and quickly realize that the best neighborhood is one where everyone belongs. The author has created a book that shows the value of community and how it is important to include and accept our neighbors. Lombardi’s colorful drawings were created with watercolor and Adobe Photoshop. The full bleed illustrations are charming and the squirrels are drawn with large expressive eyes. Children will love the illustration of Zeke feeding the young chipmunks with a baby bottle.

THOUGHTS: This story is a wonderful discussion starter about communities and the importance of diversity and tolerance. It is a great read aloud and a worthwhile purchase for all elementary collections.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

MG – Black Brother, Black Brother

Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Black Brother, Black Brother. Little, Brown and Company, 2020. 978-0-316-49380-2. 239 p. $16.99. Grades 4-8.

Donte Ellison is a biracial 7th grader at the exclusive Middlefield Prep. Treated unjustly because of his skin color, he is suspended from school for something he did not do. His older brother Trey is beloved at the school, and many wish Donte could be more like his lighter skinned brother. Looking for a place to belong, Donte joins a local youth center where he meets a former Olympic fencer, Arden Jones, who runs the programs for the kids. Donte, who has never been an athlete, starts training with Jones, and soon finds his niche as a fencer. But when Donte and his team have to compete against his school’s team, and the racist captain of the team whose family is the school’s largest donor, Donte has to confront his emotions, his bully, and the racism that surrounds his sport.

THOUGHTS: This book addresses many tough issues in a way that is completely appropriate for middle grade readers.  At times I felt the book did not delve into the topics as much as I would have liked, but I think middle grade readers would not feel the same. Parker Rhodes is becoming a must purchase middle grade author!

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

Donte Ellison attends Middlefield Prep and when the book opens, Donte is getting in trouble for something he did not do. Donte is biracial (with one Black parent and one white parent), and he has a brother who is much lighter skinned compared to Donte. Trey has not had nearly as much trouble as Donte has, in dealing with classmates and teachers. Donte decides he wants to learn how to fence, so he can confront one of the bullies, the school’s fencing team captain.

THOUGHTS: This book weaves beautiful storytelling with lessons about racial justice as well as a commentary on the school to prison track that many young Black students face. A must own for every upper elementary through high school collection.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – Punching the Air

Zoboi, Ibi and Yusef Salaam. Punching the Air. Balzar + Bray, 2020. 978-0-062-99648-0. 400 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12. 

Punching the Air follows Amal Shahid, a talented art student who is seen as disruptive in a prestigious school based on the color of his skin. Early in the book, you learn that he has been caught up in an altercation with other boys, and he ends up being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to jail. Amal turns to words to convey what he’s feeling, even if he doesn’t understand what he’s feeling. This novel is told through poetry which makes it feel so much more powerful than if it was told in a regular novel format. Readers feel so much empathy for Amal and his situation, and there were many points where readers will want to reach through the book and hug him. The lyrical writing gives insight into how young people feel in our justice system: the hopelessness, the fear, as well as the anger. 

THOUGHTS: This is a must read and a must own for every upper middle and high school library. Just be aware of the themes of racism, as well as the descriptions and discussion of jail.  

Novel in verse          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Charter Academy

The name Amal means hope, and hope is exactly what Amal needs after he is convicted of aggravated assault and battery of a white boy. Although Amal knows the truth, that he might have thrown the first punch but not the last, his hope lies in Jeremy Mathis waking up from his coma and telling the truth. But, Amal is more than just anger or a black boy living up to the path laid out for him – for boys from his neighborhood. Amal is art and poetry; he is creative and spiritual; loving, a son, a cousin, a friend. But in prison, Amal must turn parts of himself off; he must be cold, quiet, and suspicious to survive the beatings and cruelty from guards and other inmates. He must contain his anger, so he can flourish in poetry and art and grow from his experiences to find the window back to the world that was and will be forever changed.

THOUGHTS:  Punching the Air is a phenomenal story about wrongful incarceration and the cruelty of the justice system.  Although Zoboi and Salaam share much hope through Amal, they also present the harsh realities of a broken system, a system that sent Salaam to prison as one of the now Exonerated Five. This novel-in-verse is eloquent and honest; it stabs the reader again and again, but then heals her over and over. Amal is a hero while the justice system is the villain.  He continually is beaten down, and yet he rises. This is a must have for all high school collections. On a final note, many of the poems and lines resonate with readers, but for me, this verse says it all.  “The bookshelves here / are not walls / They’re closed windows / and all I have to do / is pull out one book / to make these windows / wide open” (“Booked II”).

Novel-in-Verse        Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD
Realistic Fiction

MG – Clean Getaway

Stone, Nic. Clean Getaway. Crown Books for Children, 2020. 978-1-984-89297-3. $16.99. 240 p. Grades 6-8.

Nic Stone is typically a popular young adult writer (Dear Martin, Dear Justyce). Her debut in the middle school arena is the realistic, first-person narrative, Clean Getaway. William aka “Scoob” Lamar gets grounded when he shares a computer hack and plans to stay in his entire spring vacation. Until… his G’ma–grandmother–shows up in a RV she purchased with the profit from selling her house and asks him to accompany her on a road trip. Without telling his father, Will becomes G’ma’s wingman on this memorable ride retracing the route G’ma and his deceased grandfather Jimmy took from Georgia through the rest of the South during the segregated sixties. The pair follow the Green Book, a listing of acceptable accommodations for people of color. Will’s grandparents had the added burden of being a mixed race couple, against the law in many states at the time. Will experiences his African-American heritage firsthand, visiting important markers of the struggle for Civil Rights. At first, he is excited for the chance to share this adventure with his beloved grandmother, but then he notices G’ma’s strange behavior: she dines and dashes; switches license plates; steals jewelry. He discovers some things that make him suspect something else is afoot, but can’t quite connect the dots or even reach out to his father because G’ma keeps hiding or ditching their one cell phone. What keeps him going is the revealing conversations he has with his funny and candid G’ma. He realizes how much she loves her long incarcerated husband and suspects that his father may not be fair in his complete rejection of him. The pair’s joy ride comes to a halt when G’ma falls ill, but the experience prompts Will to question the absence of his own mother and the image of his grandfather and rejuvenates his relationship with his sometimes-distant father. Though not a difficult read lexile-wise, Clean Getaway does bring up serious issues of race, inequity, and discrimination. Nic Stone has proven she is a master storyteller for middle school students as well.

THOUGHTS: The intergenerational experience lends itself to history lessons of the Civil Rights era. The discrimination Will’s grandparents encountered in the sixties can be compared with the same displays of implicit bias Will and G’ma feel in their present-day travels. The reason for the grandfather’s imprisonment is also steeped in racial injustice and inequity. Will has little contact with his mother because she abandoned him as a baby–addiction is implied–but Will’s father is reluctant to have her re-enter twelve-year-old Will’s life just like he turned his back on Jimmy, his own father. This situation as well as the racism that necessitated the Green Book lays open talk about forgiving past wrongs, both personal and institutional. 

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Meet 11 year old William Lamar, aka Scoob. Unable to stay out of trouble at school, spring break is looking pretty boring. Until Scoob’s grandmother shows up and convinces Scoob to come along on an impromptu road trip across the American South in her RV. Scoob soon finds out that this trip is a re-creation of one his grandmother, who is white, and his African American grandfather took years ago. The South is changed since then, but G-ma’s crazy maps, her Traveler’s Greenbook (an African American guide to traveling safely in the 1960s), her changing of the license plate on the RV, and her refusal to take Scoob’s dad’s calls is adding up to some uneasy feelings the longer the trip continues. Add in the discovery that his G-ma may be a jewel thief, and Scoob is wishing he stayed home for that boring break!

THOUGHTS: Nic Stone’s first middle grade novel is an excellent read and one that readers will enjoy. There is enough historical fiction to peak the interest of the middle grade readers while satisfying the adventure reader as well.

Realistic Fiction                    Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy