MG – Hazard

Dowell, Frances O’Roark. Hazard. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-1-481-42466-0. 146 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Hazard Pay Stokes, or Haz as he is known to his friends and family, has found himself temporarily suspended from football over an incident with a teammate. Haz’s coach believes he needs some help with managing his anger before he is allowed back on the team. At the same time, his father has returned home from Afghanistan, which should be a happy moment for Haz. However, the reason his father came home is a tough one for the entire family, especially for Haz’s dad who has to live with the consequences of what happened in Afghanistan. Even though Haz believes therapy isn’t going to help him work through his feelings, he decides to play along and complete the assignments anyway and does in fact start to work through all of the tough emotions brewing inside of him.

THOUGHTS: Told through a series of emails, texts, reports, and assignments, the reader gets a close look at the events through Haz’s point of view. Haz’s lyrical way with words will keep the reader engaged. The topic and the format of the writing will appeal to more reluctant middle grade readers, especially boys.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem./MG – The Lost Things Club

Puller, J. S. The Lost Things Club. Little, Brown and Company, 2021. 978-0-759-55613-3. $16.99. 219 p. Grades 4-7.

Leah is looking forward to spending summer vacation in Chicago with her aunt, uncle, and cousin, just like she does every year. When she arrives at their apartment, however, she notices something is different; her younger cousin, TJ, affectionately known as “hedgehog,” is not his normal self. He isn’t talking. As Leah spends time with her aunt and uncle and some kids from the neighborhood, she begins to realize the reason that TJ isn’t talking is the terrible shooting that happened in the spring at TJ’s elementary school. Even though Leah doesn’t completely understand why TJ is struggling, she vows to help him face his feelings and come back to himself and his family. Through Leah’s summer adventures with TJ, she begins to understand that stories can be much more than silly make-believe. Stories can be a way to heal after trauma, as well as a way to communicate the experiences of others and help everyone practice empathy and understanding.

THOUGHTS: This book deals with the sensitive topics of school shootings, survivor guilt, and PTSD in a way that older elementary and middle school students can understand. It illustrates the terrible toll that such events can take on young survivors, their families, and the surrounding school community, while also portraying those that are struggling with dignity and hopefulness. Ultimately, this book highlights the essential empathy-building benefits everyone can reap from coming together and sharing stories.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – On the Hook

Stork, Francisco X. On the Hook. Scholastic, 2021. 304 p. 978-1-338-69215-0. $17.99. Grades 7-12.

Hector is a decent, smart kid living in the projects since his father died of cancer. He excels at chess and thinks college may be a possibility, so he keeps his head down, desperate to be overlooked by Chavo’s local drug-dealing crew. But Joey, Chavo’s younger brother and a member of the crew, singles him out, carves a “C” on his chest (for coward) and declares, “I’m going to kill you.” Fear invades every space in Hector’s life. He can’t fathom how his father stayed strong, or how his older brother Fili can command respect in the neighborhood. His best friend Azi tries to help and keep him focused on chess and the future. But Hector’s fears overwhelm him daily. He wonders how to change himself and how to be fearless, and he longs to put his cowardly self behind him. But in failing to stand up for his brother when Fili is attacked by Chavo and Joey, Hector spirals downward into deep questioning and self-loathing. Hector is sentenced to six months in a juvenile probation academy, a friendlier place than most in the system, and encounters numerous guards and inmates seeking to teach him to give up the hate he feels. Hector is torn and the outcome is anything but clear. Can he recreate himself into someone he’s proud to be? And what does that look like?

THOUGHTS: This is a realistic look into dangers young people face, inside and out. Despite the numerous safeguards around him, Hector’s choices are anything but clear. Readers will be interested in what he decides to do.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – Playing with Fire

Henry, April. Playing with Fire. Henry Holt & Co., 2021. 978-1-250-23406-3. 225 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

A gorgeous day in Portland. An idyllic waterfall. A boy who is interested in you – what could possibly go wrong? Natalia and coworker Wyatt are just wrapping up an afternoon hike at Basin Falls when a loud pop shatters the peace. Shortly after a man goes running by, and the smell of smoke drifts in the air. In the blink of an eye Natalia’s worst fear is coming true, again. A fire is raging in the forest and now Natalia, Wyatt, and a dozen other people are trapped. Using Wyatt’s map and skills and Natalia’s medical training, the pair help navigate the motley crew through the forest as the fire chases them. As the night progresses, Natalia will face her fears while helping a burn victim, someone having a panic attack, and someone with a dislocated knee. But when a bridge prevents the troop from escape, will Natalia have the courage to overcome her demons and make up for past mistakes?

THOUGHTS: A fast paced read, Henry does not disappoint with this novel! The characters are well developed and the story follows a clear timeline. Readers get a glimpse into Natalia’s past and how her fear of fire plays such a critical role in helping others. Students who enjoy adventure stories like Hatchet will love Playing with Fire!

Adventure Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Grades 6-12.

Seventeen year old Natalia lives in Portland near beautiful hiking trails, but she’s never been hiking. She was sick – sedated in a hospital – the week of Outdoor School, where most fifth graders stay in cabins in the woods. Her Dairy Barn co-worker Wyatt is determined to right this wrong, and he takes Natalia on a hike up to see a beautiful waterfall overlook. At 6:24 pm they’re on the way down when they hear a loud pop, probably someone firing a rifle in the Gorge, Wyatt explains. Natalia notices the smell of smoke which Wyatt connects to the local Cougar Creek fire as he explains the dangers of the tinder dry woods. Thirty minutes later they approach the bottom of the trail where to their horror the very woods they need to pass through are engulfed in flames. Natalia has avoided even the smallest birthday candle for the past six years. With no cell service and few other options, Natalia and Wyatt begin to hike back up the trail to find a new exit. Warning people to return to the falls on their way back up, Natalia is reminded of her little brother. When a helicopter drops a rock with a note that says, “Fire spreading….Extreme danger.” the group needs to come together to survive. With a variety of personalities and skills and few supplies, will they make it to Sky Bridge before they’re rescued, or will the fire reach them first?

THOUGHTS: Taking a slightly different approach to her typical “missing girl” stories, Henry strikes gold with this fast-paced thriller. A must purchase for middle and high school libraries, especially where Henry books are popular, adventure/thriller fans will zip through and request another.

Adventure Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – The Canyon’s Edge

Bowling, Dusti. The Canyon’s Edge. Little, Brown and Company, 2020. 978-0-316-49469-4. 301 p. $16.99. Grades 3-6.

Are you likely to die in this situation? is a question Nora asks herself often after surviving a shooting at a restaurant on her birthday which claimed her mother’s life. Nora and her dad trek into a canyon in the middle of the desert one day to get away from life for a few hours and spend time doing what their family loved to do – hike and explore. But when a flash flood suddenly strikes, Nora’s dad is swept away moments after saving her life. Nora is now left with absolutely nothing, not even her backpack, and must battle her inner demons and various canyon hazards to find her dad…. and a way out. Alone in the desert Nora must overcome her past in order to save her future.

THOUGHTS: A must have for your collection and for fans of Hatchet! Finally a story where a female protagonist overcomes the odds in a survival story. Bowling brings the emotion in this novel in verse and teaches us that we are more capable than we think. Bowling wrote this book to honor a family of nine that perished in a flash flood a day after she visited the same spot with her family.

Graphic Novel        Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

YA Realistic Fiction (and a Thriller) – Either the Beginning…; Up From The Sea; Lies I Told


Farish, Terry. Either the Beginning or the End of the World. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Lab, 2015. 978-1-4677-7483-3. 191p. $18.99. Gr. 9 and up.

Sophie Grear, 16 years old, is her father’s daughter. She has, until now, shared all her secrets with her fisherman father, and they act as a well-oiled machine, living together since Sophie was a young child. Her relationship with her mother is almost non-existent, so when Sophie’s mother and grandmother come to live with her because her father is away for months fishing, the tension is palpable. Immigrants from Cambodia and survivors of the atrocities inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, mother and grandmother carry scars as well as traditions and superstitions that Sophie at first must endure. Relationships are further complicated by the fact that Sophie is involved in her first real relationship, with Luke, a former medic and veteran of the war in Afghanistan who suffers from PTSD. The beauty of this coming-of-age novel lies in Sophie’s recognition that both her Cambodian mother and grandmother and her boyfriend Luke suffer from similar psychological and emotional damage caused by experiences of war and suffering, and she evolves from being a typical self-centered teenager to being an empathetic young adult. THOUGHTS: Trauma comes in many forms, and certainly our students can relate to families struggling with mental and emotional challenges. This novel offers hope and optimism for seemingly impossible relationships.

Realistic Fiction      Annette Sirio, Barack Obama Academy




Lowitz, Lena.  Up From the Sea.  New York: Crown Books, 2016.  978-0-553-53474-0.  272 p. $17.99.  Grades 7 and up.

Up From the Sea is a novel-in-verse based on the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Honshu, Japan.  Kai is a 17 year-old who lives with his mother and grandparents in a small seaside community (his father abandoned the family years before the quake).  The quake hits while Kai is at school and even though he, and most of the school community get out safely, Kai’s family is lost in the earthquake/tsunami.  Later, the survivors take refuge at the school and wait.  They wait for family members to be found, they wait to be found, and they wait for life to get back to “normal”.  Kai is eventually nominated to go to America with other teenage earthquake victims.  The children of 3/11 will be meeting with people who survived 9/11 to talk, grieve, and learn to move on.  Kai goes on the trip.  He attempts to make contact with his estranged father (unsuccessfully) and he learns that the best way to move on from the disaster is to go back home and be part of the recovery.  Later, in Japan, Kai finds that passing his love of soccer on to younger students is the best way for him to aid the recovery.  When his father, newly out of rehab, comes to take Kai with him to America, Kai knows he has found his purpose and his home; he will not leave his beloved Japan.  THOUGHTS: Lowitz’s book, one of many recent novels-in-verse, lacks the grace and poetry of some books in this genre.  It does, though, capture what being a teenage boy must feel like.  This book is a good introduction to novels-in-verse for young men and should be included in junior and senior high book collections.

Up From the Sea is a powerful depiction of the 2011 Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami.  Kai is a relatable young man; in many cases he is fearful, angry, and childlike.  In other situations, we see hints of the adult Kai will become.  Although novels-in-verse are very popular with students, this is one book that I would like to have seen presented in traditional prose.  Kai goes through a great deal in this story.  He is the only member of his family to survive the horrible disaster.  He lives the complicated life of a biracial teenager in Japan.  He gives hope to a younger generation of Japanese children by forming a youth soccer league.  Finally, he learns to forgive the father who abandoned him when he was a young boy.  I would like to have seen these events addressed in a deeper way.  This book was not poorly done, by any means, but it could have been much more.

Realistic Fiction; Novel in Verse                         Susan Fox, Washington Jr./Sr. HS




Zink, Michelle. Lies I Told. New York, NY: HarperTeen, 2015.  978-0-06-232712-3. 341 p. $16.99. Gr. 9-12.

Grace was a child of the foster care system until being adopted by the Fontaines, a couple of thieves who use Grace and her brother, Parker, to accomplish their cons. They con the wealthy out of anything from money to art and jewelry. Grace is an expert at making friends, following the rules of the con, and completing any heist; however, when they move to Playa Hermosa, California, and Grace forges stronger friendships than she had in any previous location, she begins to break certain rules of the con. Her feelings for Logan, who is the son of the mark, complicate matters more. Grace is conflicted between her feelings for her new friends and the rules of the heist, which helps to build the suspense. With a twist ending, readers will be left wanting more.  THOUGHTS: Lies I Told is an excellent addition to any thriller/suspense collection. The blending of friendship, family, romance, and con make it appealing.

Realistic Fiction; Thriller     Graig Henshaw, Littlestown Senior HS/Maple Avenue MS

The Impossible Knife of Memory

Anderson, Laurie Halse. The Impossible Knife of Memory. New York: Viking, 2014. 978-0-670-01209-1.  $16.19. 391p. Gr. 9 and up.
Hayley and her dad, Andy, have decided to settle down and attempt to live a normal life.  No more traveling across the country in an 18-wheeler, moving every few months.  Now Hayley is enrolled in high school and living in her grandmother’s house.  While her best friend tries to help her remember their childhood romps and adventures, her memory refuses to recollect any of these occurrences.  School tends to be a little monotonous, but math is unfathomable until her teacher provides a tutor, the handsome and charming Finn.  Underneath snarky banter and coy flirting, Hayley begins to share truths with Finn.  Her tenuous stability is suddenly shaken when her father begins losing his grip with reality as his PTSD racks him with war-time memories.  In an attempt to cope, he indulges in drinking and recreational drugs.  In the guise of help, Hayley is suddenly confronted by an adversary from her childhood.  Even with help, how can she save someone who has relinquished his desire to live?


Hayley’s first person narration is harrowing and candid.  Her own demons have caused her to repress childhood memories as she takes on the role of parent and cares for her dad, a veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The horrors of war and what Andy witnessed are interspersed in italics between Hayley’s chapters and provide a ghastly insight to what he witnessed as a soldier.  A compelling story of trust, friendship, and extraordinary love between a daughter and her father.
Realistic Fiction     Christine Massey, JWP Middle School