YA – Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman

Lee, Kristen R. Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman. Crown, 2022. 978-0-593-30915-5. $18.99. 326 p. Grades 9-12.

Savannah Howard is the golden girl of her poor Memphis neighborhood. Through hard work and focus, she earned a full scholarship to Wooddale, a prestigious Ivy League college. As one of the few Black students on campus, she makes friends quickly with upperclass students Natasha (Tasha) Carmichael, a light-skinned, well to do fashionista and aspiring lawyer; and Benjamin (Benji) Harrington, a local wealthy “high yellow” young man. Benji is a childhood friend of fellow student, Lucas Cunningham, a walking epitome of white privilege. One of the first incidents on campus Savannah witnesses is the vandalism of a statue of the only African American past presidents of the college. The non reaction of the university leaders to the blatant act of racism motivates Savannah to put in motion a campaign on social media, the school newspaper, and student forums to bring down the instigator and perpetrator of this racist behavior, Lucas Cunningham. Though she enlists the support of one of her African American professors as well as Tasha and Benji, the daily grind of uncovering the truth, being harassed – and even assaulted – by Lucas and his crew, and being snubbed by other classmates is exhausting. She grapples with Benji’s romantic attentions and his sometimes ambivalent actions toward her nemesis and, perhaps more importantly, with her decision to go to a predominantly white institution. The novel by Kristen R. Lee spans Savannah’s freshman year recounted with her own authentic voice. After she gives an interview on her professor’s podcast relating the injustices prevalent on campus and accusing the Cunninghams of manipulating the college admission process, she moves off campus to a toney neighborhood to board with the elderly widow, Mrs. Flowers, a self made entrepreneur. Lured back by students from a historically Black college to lead a peaceful protest, Savannah comes full circle, confident that she has stood for what is important and acknowledged by the university’s African American woman president. Her goal being reached, Savannah makes a critical decision for her future.

THOUGHTS: This novel takes on white privilege, racism, and microaggressions with which students of color can identify and white students can gain perspective. Author Kristen R. Lee has created a strong, female character who speaks her mind because she sees no alternative. She is ambitious and savvy, yet vulnerable and often scared. Her friends and the people who support her are all African American, but it is a small circle. The white students she forms acquaintances with turn out to be druggies, self-serving, deceitful, or racist (or any combination of those negative qualities). Save for Dr. Santos (the African American professor), the college’s administrators are weak, not enough, or oblivious. At the end of the book, Savannah gets called to Wooddale College president’s Architectural Digest-worthy home. The president is a Black woman; she informs Savannah she will be honored, and all the racist and unjust acts that happened during the year will be properly addressed. Savannah asks why the president didn’t come out earlier and confides her desire to leave Wooddale to attend a historically Black college. The president tells her that she has had to make some concessions to achieve what she has. That answer falls flat with the idealistic Savannah. Reading this book as a white person is uncomfortable–not a bad thing. To quote an old phrase, Lee “tells it like it is,” a truth to be embraced by every reader.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke School District of Philadelphia

Elem./MG – Troublemaker

Cho, John. Troublemaker. Little, Brown and Company, 2022. 978-0-759-55447-4. 214 p. $16.99. Grades 3-6.

Jordan feels like he can never compete with his older sister, especially when he is suspended for cheating. Jordan tries to hide this fact from his family, they are preoccupied with worrying about the family’s business. In the background of this novel, which takes place in Los Angeles during the Rodney King trial as well as the shooting of Latasha Harlins, the tensions are high not only with the characters but also with the setting of the novel. Jordan’s father decides to go check on the family store, and Jordan makes a decision to sneak out to try to prove himself to his father. As Jordan and his friend Mike are going through Los Angeles trying to get to his father, they can see how dangerous things have become in the city. Will Jordan and Mike make it to Jordan’s dad, or will they end up needing to be rescued themselves?

THOUGHTS: This is an edge of your seat type read as you follow Jordan through the night as he is trying to get to his dad. This novel does not shy away from important topics either, such as racism, family dynamics, or guns. This is a great middle grade novel!

Realistic Fiction          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

MG – Maizy Chen’s Last Chance

Yee, Lisa. Maizy Chen’s Last Chance. Random House, 2022.  978-1-984-83025-8. 276 p. $16.99. Grades 3-6.

Maizy and her mother decide to return to Last Chance, Minnesota for a couple of weeks while Maizy’s grandfather gets better. However, things don’t go as planned, and they end up spending more time in Last Chance. At the family restaurant Golden Palace, Maizy learns a lot about her family history and the people that frequent the Golden Palace. As the story progresses, Maizy and her family deal with support from the community as well as racism, added onto the family struggles that Maizy’s mother and grandmother are dealing with. When a family treasure is stolen, the community rallies around Maizy and her family to help them.

THOUGHTS: This is a heartwarming story that deals with many different issues so easily the reader doesn’t feel that those issues are the prominent part of the story. The relationship with Maizy’s mother and grandmother was hard to read at times as they clearly do not have a great relationship, but the overarching theme in their relationship is their love for each other and Maizy’s grandfather.  This is a great addition to any middle school collection.

Realistic Fiction          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

MG – Jennifer Chan is Not Alone

Keller, Tae. Jennifer Chan is Not Alone. Random House, 2022. 978-0-593-31053-3. 277 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

When Jennifer Chan goes missing, the entire community of Norwell, Florida is worried. But no one is more worried than her Korean-American classmate Mallory Moss, who knows of two possible reasons why Jennifer ran away. One of those reasons involves aliens. When Jennifer moved across the street from Mallory before school started, she confided in Mallory about her space research. According to Jennifer, aliens exist and they are trying to make contact with humans on earth. Jennifer knows that she has the code needed to help these aliens make contact, and she wrote all of her research down in her notebooks, which she lets Mallory take home to read. Unfortunately, Mallory knows that her friends Reagan and Tess will think Jennifer is absolutely crazy, so she distances herself from Jennifer as soon as school starts. But Reagan and Tess immediately start teasing Jennifer, and Mallory has no choice but to join in or she will lose her hard-earned popular status at school. This leads to reason number two of why Jennifer is missing: The Incident. Mallory believes that aliens may have taken Jennifer and realizes that Jennifer’s notebooks might hold the clues for how to reach her. However, Mallory knows that if she searches for Jennifer, her part in The Incident might be revealed and make her the most hated girl in school. Mallory must figure out what is more important: what other people think about her or finding Jennifer before it’s too late.

THOUGHTS: This is the first novel for Tae Keller since winning the Newbery Award for When You Trap a Tiger, and it does not disappoint. Keller tackles serious issues tweens and teens face in a compelling and gentle way, the most prominent being the cost of being popular at the expense of others. This book is a must-read and a must-buy for middle grade students.

Realistic Fiction            Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem. – Love in the Library

Tokuda-Hall, Maggie. Love in the Library. Candlewick Press, 2022. Unpaged. 978-1-5362-0430-8. Grades 2-4.  $18.99.

In 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which “relocated” Japanese-American citizens to internment camps. Inspired by a true family story, Tokuda-Hall has written a fictionalized account of her grandparents’ experience in such a camp. Tama was in college when she was abruptly placed in Minidoka Camp in Idaho. The conditions were harsh, with very cold winters and very hot summers, and an entire family was forced to live in one room. Tama’s only solace was working in the library. She loved the way books magically took her to other worlds. A camp resident named George became a daily library visitor, checking out several books and returning them the next day. One day, Tama is overwhelmed by the injustice and begins to cry. George comforts her, and Tama realizes why George comes to the library so frequently. The couple marries and has their first child in the camp, demonstrating the power of love and resilience in overcoming prejudice and hate.  The author’s note includes more of Tama and George Tokuda’s story along with a photo. Imamura’s gouache and watercolor drawings help readers understand more about this unjust time in American history. 

THOUGHTS: This text can be used as an introduction to World War II units about the home front.  Like Say’s Music for Alice or Mochizuki’s Baseball Saved Us, Love in the Library promotes discussion about prejudice, racism, and stereotyping. Highly recommended for elementary collections.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member
Historical Fiction

YA – Why We Fly

Jones, Kimberly, and Gilly Segal. Why We Fly. Sourcebooks Fire, 2021. 978-1-492-67892-2. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

With a shared love for cheerleading, Eleanor (“Leni”) and Chanel (“Nelly”) have been long time best friends. Continuing to recover from a bad fall and concussion, Leni attends physical therapy in preparation for senior season. When Leni, a White, Jewish girl, is named captain over the more deserving Nelly, a Black girl who has stepped up during Leni’s injury, the friendship begins to splinter. Since she’s become interested in star quarterback Three, Leni doesn’t seem to notice how hurt Nelly feels. Nelly, meanwhile, has her own pressures to cope with and does so by making some questionable choices. Leni struggles to reign in the team and feel like a true captain. Then in support of a professional football player who is from their Atlanta, Georgia high school, Leni convinces the cheer team to take a knee during a game. The repercussions ripple through their community, impacting each character differently. Told in alternating voices by author team Jones and Segal (I’m Not Dying with You Tonight, 2019), this novel tackles social issues in a new perspective from those who are on the sidelines. 

THOUGHTS: This novel addresses how friends, despite similar interests and history, may grow apart. Told amongst a contemporary backdrop with racial justice at the center, Why We Fly will be popular where similar books are enjoyed.

Realistic Fiction           Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – Zara Hossain Is Here

Khan, Sabina. Zara Hossain Is Here. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-58087-7. 256 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Moving through Tae Kwon Do patterns is the calm after the storm Zara can’t seem to find anywhere else in her life. Constant microaggressions leave her feeling frustrated and alone. Despite living in Corpus Christi, Texas since she was a baby, Zara is the only Muslim girl in her private Catholic school. Though her father is a respected physician, Islamaphobia isn’t anything new to Zara. Her family still is waiting for their green card approval (nine years later), so she tries to remain under the radar. While presenting her US history paper (on the inequities and indignities of the US immigration system), Zara faces questions from her classmates like “why do we have to take care of everyone else in the world?” and “What about all the illegals that are flooding our country?” Zara actually was talking about legal immigration – like her own family’s – but no one seems to care. When things go too far, and Zara’s dad reacts to defend their family, the Hossain’s immigration status is put in jeopardy. Zara’s family is ready to move back to Pakistan but recognizes that Zara, who really doesn’t remember their home country, will not have the same educational and life opportunities. And Zara may face just as much prejudice in Pakistan, since she identifies as a bisexual female.

THOUGHTS: In Zara, Khan presents a character who is sick of accepting the ignorance of others and who fights for what she believes. Readers will adore and root for Zara and her family. A must have for high school libraries.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, SD

YA – Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

Colbert, Brandy. Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Balzer + Bray, 2021. 978-0-063-05666-4. 216 p. $19.99. Grades 7-12.

Brandy Colbert, acclaimed author of teen fiction, turns her seamless storytelling skills to the “story and legacy” of Tulsa’s thriving Greenwood District, a.k.a. America’s Black Wall Street, and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Colbert opens with a chapter on Oklahoma’s history, focusing on the Indian Removal Act, Trail of Tears, discovery of oil, and all-Black freedmen’s towns that were established after the end of slavery. This history sets the stage for the ways Black Oklahomans found to “not only survive but also thrive” as Reconstruction transitioned into the era of Jim Crow laws, the KKK, and lynchings. Colbert cleverly interweaves these chapters with a day-by-day account of May 30 to June 1, 1921, so that readers understand the events in Tulsa within a broader historical context. For example, the “Red Summer” of 1919 saw more than three dozen “race riots,” an indicator of escalating racial violence and white fear that spread to Tulsa and planted the seeds for the Greenwood massacre. Colbert also argues that, along with an alleged assault of a white woman by a young Black man on May 30, “jealousy and resentment cannot be overlooked as significant motivators” leading to the destruction of Greenwood and the deaths of dozens of its residents. Well-placed, pertinent sidebars add depth to Colbert’s coverage of people and events (e.g., Ida B. Wells-Barnett), especially as they relate to the history of violence against Black Americans. 

THOUGHTS: June 1, 2021, marked the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and a number of books for young readers have been released to commemorate the too-little-known event. Among the best is Black Birds in the Sky by Brandy Colbert. 

976 American History          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – The Cost of Knowing

Morris, Brittney. The Cost of Knowing. Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-44545-1. 336 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Despite trying his best to hold things together, sixteen year old Alex Rufus is struggling. Since the death of their parents, he and his little brother Isaiah have grown apart, barely interacting with each other in their Aunt Mackie’s house. Alex has his girlfriend Talia but constantly worries that he’ll do something wrong to ruin their relationship. At work Alex would prefer to remain in the back washing dishes while wearing rubber gloves than be out front scooping ice cream and interacting with customers. At the same time, Alex and Isaiah’s neighbor Mrs. Zaccari makes initially subtle and increasingly frustrating comments about neighborhood crime and what the Shiv concert coming to the area will mean for their safety. Alex is one touch from losing his carefully constructed exterior. Since the death of his parents, Alex gets a glimpse of the future when he touches anything. Usually something simple and easily dismissed, things become complicated when Alex visualizes an unreadable expression on Talia’s face – the sign of a breakup – and unbearable when he has a vision of his brother’s death. Burdened with the knowledge that he he can’t stop the inevitable, but determined to fix his relationship with Isaiah, Alex races to reconnect with his brother and learns that the two may not be as different as he thought.

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Alex from the beginning as he works against “his curse.” Many readers will be able to suspend reality enough to believe this mostly realistic fantasy. Recommended for high school collections where compelling, character driven titles are in demand.

Fantasy (Paranormal)          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD
Magical Realism
Realistic Fiction

YA – Ace of Spades

Abike-Iyimide, Faridah. Ace of Spades. Feiwel & Friends, 2021. 978-1-250-83488-1. 440 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

In Ace of Spades readers enter the private world of Niveus Academy where everything is expensive and perfect, until it isn’t. This YA thriller follows two characters, Chiamaka and Devon, who could not be more different; however, they are both struggling with the same issue. They both are being harassed by a mysterious person known only as Aces. Chiamaka and Devon are worried about what this person could reveal for different reasons, but they decide to team up to figure out who is behind all of the text messages.

THOUGHTS: This is an amazing, well told thriller that will keep the reader hooked from the beginning to the end. The set up for the reveals throughout the book are so well crafted, and the ending just leaves the reader wanting more. Highly recommended for any YA reader, or any thriller fan!

Thriller/Mystery          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy