YA – Killing Time

Ehrlich, Brenna. Killing Time. Inkyard Press, 2022. 978-1-335-41867-8. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Natalie has lived a pretty sheltered life in Ferry, Connecticut, thanks to her mom’s overprotective rules. Working in their family diner, it’s always just been the two of them. When Natalie, who recently graduated from high school, learns that her favorite teacher died under suspicious circumstances she’s determined to honor Mrs. Halsey’s memory. Though their last conversation didn’t end well, Mrs. Halsey understood Natalie’s interest in true crime and supported her (and Nat’s best friend Katie) as the true crime club advisor. They even started their own podcast – Killing Time – where they evolve in their discussion of legendary killers. All of this “true crime stuff” is done, of course, without her mom’s knowledge or permission. But Nat, who wants to go to college to be a journalist, is determined to tell her teacher’s story and honor her life. When she finds a threatening note telling her to “Stay out of it. I’m warning you.” she’s even more motivated to piece together what happened to Mrs. Halsey. Between the conversations among customers at the diner, her internship at the paper, and some convenient friendships, Nat seems to be getting closer to the truth. But how likely is a teenager operating on her own to solve a crime, especially when someone doesn’t want the truth to come to light? Interspersed throughout the novel are “Then” chapters that flash back to Helen’s college days which shed some light onto the strained relationship between mother and daughter and some of Helen’s overprotective tendencies.

THOUGHTS: Fans of true crime will like this one. I especially enjoyed the Then chapters which seemed to have more suspense and keep the story moving. A supplemental purchase where mysteries are popular.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

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

MG – Answers in the Pages

Levithan, David. Answers in the Pages. Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2022. 176 p. 978-0-593-48468-5. Grades 4-8. $17.99.

“At that moment Rick knew just how deeply he loved Oliver, and Oliver knew just how deeply he loved Rick…” One’s interpretation of a single statement can make all the difference. The statement itself might be less noticeable depending on where it is seen or heard and the surrounding context. When the The Adventurers, a book being read by Donovan’s fifth grade class, is picked up at home by his mother, she decides it is inappropriate for him to read. It doesn’t take her long to get on the phone with Donovan’s friends’ moms either and schedule a meeting with the school. Donovan only read the first few pages in class but can’t see what his mom would think is wrong about a book where kids go on adventures. Before he returns to class without his copy of The Adventurers (because his mom hasn’t returned it), Donovan stops by the school library to get a copy so he can see what’s “so bad.” Because his mom drew so much attention to the book, several classmates have finished reading and the kids have honest, open discussions with each other and their teacher Mr. Howe who is openly gay. Told in short, alternating chapters, Donovan’s story unfolds; alongside Gideon’s, another elementary school-aged boy; and Rick and Oliver’s, the characters from the book being challenged. Readers will see what happens when a book’s content is challenged – how it impacts the teacher, the students, and families who may not agree with each other.

THOUGHTS: Timely and full of heart, Answers in the Pages is a book that should be in every upper elementary and middle school library! Highly recommended for readers who will be able to follow three separate narratives.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Donovan really enjoys his English class, mostly because of his teacher. When his teacher assigns a book called The Adventurers, Donovan is looking forward to reading it. However, after leaving it out on the kitchen counter one day, he discovers that his mother has read the book – and decides to launch a book challenge. Donovan’s mother interprets the last line of the book to mean that the two male main characters are gay, and she takes issue with this. Donovan finds himself in the middle of a fight that polarizes the school community and pits him against both his favorite English teacher and his mother. Donovan has to examine his own beliefs and decide what he thinks is right, even if it means upsetting someone he cares about. Aside from the main thread of this story, there are two other stories interwoven throughout the book. One is of Gideon and Roberto who are paired up for a school project and develop feelings for each other; the other is about Rick and Oliver, the main characters in the very book Donovan’s mom is challenging. All three stories connect together at the end.

THOUGHTS: With curricular book challenges at an all-time high, Leviathan’s timely book provides a window for students who might be facing the same complicated situations in their own homes.  Leviathan writes from experience as many of his own books have been challenged in schools across the country. All librarians, teachers, parents, politicians, and school board members should read this book. Answers in the Pages is a must-buy for all middle grade libraries.

Realistic Fiction           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – Rivals

McGee, Katharine. Rivals. Random House Books for Young Readers, 2022. 400 p. 978-0-593-42970-9. Grades 9-12. $19.99.

Returning from what would have been their honeymoon (had they gotten married), Beatrice and Teddy are back after spending a few blissful weeks in the Caribbean. Teddy hopes to define his role as king consort to give the unprecedented position meaning and purpose. Beatrice has a lot of work to do to prepare for the League of Kings conference. For the first time, Beatrice is hosting the conference as Queen of America, and she plans to bring her father’s climate accord to vote, despite the uphill battle she’ll face as a powerful woman. Princess Samantha went on the Royal tour at Beatrice’s request and convinced her best friend Nina to go along. In love for the first time, Sam is figuring out who she is and how to be the heir her family needs. And with the League of Kings taking place in Orange, Sam is looking forward to spending some time with Marshall. Meanwhile, Jeff filled as Regent (with Daphne by his side) in at the capital during his sisters’ absence. As the royals settle into their roles, friendships and old rivals are put to the test. No matter where the Washington family goes, drama seems to follow. Spoiler alert, the League of Kings conference will be no different.

THOUGHTS: Tackling some tough topics like gender roles, privilege, and racism, the characters take on more dimension in this title than the past two, and readers will find themselves rooting for each rival as they get to know them. They also desperately will hope for another title in this series!

Romance          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – Kind of Sort of Fine

Hall, Spencer. Kind of Sort of Fine. Atheneum, 2021. 978-1-534-48298-2. 276  p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Senior Hayley Mills is a straight-A student in her advanced classes and a star athlete on the tennis team. Or at least she was. Last year she had a mental breakdown in front of her high school and, thanks to some onlookers, it became a viral video. Now, at the start of what is supposed to be the best year of her life, Hayley’s parents and teachers want her to make some changes to ensure the breakdown doesn’t happen again. As a result, she ends up in a TV Production class instead of one of her advanced placement courses. In TV Production, she meets Lewis Holbrook. A long-time member of the TV Production crew, Lewis is looking to be his best self in 12th grade. This means getting in better shape and finally drumming up the courage to ask out his crush. When Hayley and Lewis are paired up in class, they decide to make documentaries about the little known talents of their fellow classmates. Together, the two of them get to know their classmates’ identities more deeply than ever. What they didn’t expect, however, was to discover new things about themselves along the way.

THOUGHTS: Hall’s first novel is a humorous, coming-of-age story in which high school students (and those who have experienced high school) can relate. Told in alternating chapters between Hayley and Lewis, each point of view brings senior year anxiety into sharp focus but in different ways. This book would be a solid choice for high school libraries.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – You’ll be the Death of Me

McManus, Karen M. You’ll be the Death of Me. Delacorte Press, 2021. 978-0-593-17586-6. 326 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.

Ivy, Cal, and Mateo used to be friends, but then high school happened.  Now in their senior year, things aren’t quite going as they had hoped.  After losing the senior class presidential election, Ivy doesn’t want to be at school to hear the winner’s speech. Cal was stood up for a breakfast date, so he’s not in the mood for school, and Mateo’s just in the right place at the right time. Cal suggests the three recreate “The Greatest Day Ever” when they skipped a class field trip in Boston, and they agree. Once in Boston, the three end up following another classmate, Boney Mahoney, into an abandoned warehouse where Ivy finds him dead. Caught up in a murder-mystery, with Ivy as the prime suspect (according to all of the gossip and “news” reports), the three try to figure out what happened and how to get out of this mess. Things only get worse as history is revealed and current situations are realized.

THOUGHTS: Although it started out slow, You’ll Be the Death of Me keeps the reader questioning what they know and don’t know. Ivy, Cal, and Mateo are all unreliable narrators who continually hide information from one another leading to more mystery beyond the death of Boney Mahoney. This title will fly off the shelves with all of McManus’s books.

Mystery          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

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 – What’s Not to Love

Wibberley, Emily, and Austin Siegemund-Broka. What’s Not to Love. Viking, 2021. 978-1-984-83586-4. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Straight-laced, straight-A student Alison competes for everything in high school – top grades, club and activity leadership, and even community service. As senior year comes to an end, Alison begins to realize she hasn’t really taken the time to enjoy anything, but it all is a means to her end goal: acceptance into Harvard. Pushing her at everything is fellow valedictorian competition Ethan Molloy. Alison and Ethan have a toxic competition, always checking to see who scores the highest grade and having crazy competitions called “blitzes” to see who finishes a test first. Then the principal assigns these top two the task of co-planning a previous class’s 10-year reunion and dangles a Harvard recommendation if they can pull off the reunion. Competition reaches a new high, and despite being completely annoyed at times, Alison realizes she might kind of like Ethan as more than a competitor and maybe even as more than and friend. But where does that leave their competition, and who will get the Harvard recommendation?

THOUGHTS: Written by husband and wife YA romance duo, readers will enjoy the banter of Alison and Ethan even if they can’t completely relate. Fans of opposites attract or enemies to lovers stories will enjoy this competitive, steamy romance. A purchase for high school libraries where realistic romance or other titles by these authors are popular.

Romance           Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – The Shape of Thunder

Warga, Jasmine. The Shape of Thunder. Balzar & Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-95667-5. $16.99. 275 p. Grades 5-8.

Cora Hamid and Quinn Macauley are next door neighbors and inseparable friends all their twelve years of life–until they are not. Quinn’s older brother, Parker, takes his father’s hunting guns to his high school one November morning and shoots Cora’s sister, Mabel, a teacher, another student, and himself. The two families’ approach to grief could not be more different. Abandoned as a baby by her mother (the reader never discovers why), Lebanese-American and Muslim Cora has the nurturing support of her biologist dad; thoughtful, maternal Gram; and the professional support of a trained therapist. Quinn’s family buries the issue. Told in alternating voices, the reticent and less academic Quinn has difficulty expressing her thoughts and guilty feelings. Her workaholic father is against any outside help to ease the family’s suffering, and her mother hides in the house cooking and baking. Longing to reconnect with Cora, Quinn delivers a box to her doorstep stuffed with articles about time travel and wormholes on Cora’s birthday. She knows Cora well enough to appeal to her scientific nature. Perhaps the two of them could find a wormhole and travel back in time to stop the tragedy of that fateful day. As the pair work through the logistics of approaching a huge tree in the forest for the site of their wormhole/time traveling, they each experience the pain of regret and the insistence on holding fast to the memory of a loved one. While Cora has made new friends on her Junior Quizbowl Team and excels in her studies, Quinn has felt shunned. She longs to be on the soccer team, but is too ashamed to try out. Her art gives her some pleasure, yet not even drawing can remove the heavy weight of a secret she knows about her brother, the possibility that she could have prevented the circumstances. After she confides in the school librarian her remorse, she resolves to confess this awful secret to Cora. Though the revelation breaks their renewed bond, Cora devotes more time to her plan to make the impossible possible. When she questions her father about time travel, she is encouraged and inspired by his answer. He tells her that her absent mother had a theory comparing the shape of time to the shape of thunder: “impossible to map” (p. 213). When both Cora and Quinn are coaxed by different people to attend the traditional Fall Festival at their middle school, the rumble of thunder pulls the two estranged girls to the woods to prove Cora’s theory. The hopeful resolution of the story, despite the sadness surrounding it, gives the reader relief. Quinn’s and Cora’s relationship see-saws throughout realistically. After all, Quinn reminds Cora of the unspeakable thing Parker did. Quinn’s strained home life with her parents who refuse any kind of self-reflection or examination of the devastating action of their son is painful.  Minor situations like the jealousy of Mia, another friend of Cora’s, toward Quinn; the snide remarks of Quinn’s former teammate and friend; the growing crush Cora has with her classmate, Owen (a Japanese-American character), will resonate genuinely with middle school readers. The Shape of Thunder is a tough read, but one that confirms that happiness can co-exist with grief, and friendships can be mended.

THOUGHTS: This novel is full of emotion and rich in language and characterization, but not so intense that a sensitive middle grade student would be put off. Cora is a thinker and an intellectual. Throughout the novel, students will find themselves entertained by the interesting facts Cora spouts (“…cows kill more people than sharks each year…”). The images Warga uses to describe different feelings are unique but spot on (the “fizziness” Cora feels in her tummy when talking to her crush, Owen, etc.). She also makes dialogue very interesting. Quinn has a hard time speaking; her brain freezes and she can’t say the words. When she finally gets angry enough to spill over her feelings to her buttoned up family, it is heartbreaking. The conversations between Cora and her father and grandmother also are authentic and tell the reader so much about the characters. What the reader must conjecture about are Parker’s reason for the shooting and the absence of Cora’s mother since her father seems to have no obvious vices. Ms. Euclid, the school librarian and art teacher, is a heroine for Quinn. This book should be issued with a box of tissues.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Tahira in Bloom

Heron, Faith. Tahira in Bloom. Skyscape, 2021. 9781542030373. 336 p. $16.99. Gr. 9-12.

A fresh YA novel that includes a ton of representation, friendship, romance, determination, and a whole lot of coming of age. Tahira is Toronto. Her dedication to her blooming (pun intended) fashion career is only second to her parents’ desire to see her succeed and get into FIT in New York City. After a fluke accident, her summer internship is canceled and she opts to work at her Aunt’s shop a few hours outside of Toronto in smalltown Canada for the summer. The town, Bakewell, is obsessed with flowers, which is definitely not Tahira’s aesthetic–but is it the next trend? Filled with current teen slang, Instagram posts, awkward relationships, broken friendships, and a lot of growth (another pun intended) all summer, Tahira comes to realize what matters most isn’t the branding and networking opportunities, but the art behind her passion–or the passion behind her art.

THOUGHTS: A great addition to all high school shelves! Indian-Canadian, POC, and LGBTQ+ representation is seamlessly woven into this coming of age story that has authentic and realistic experiences captured in an age appropriate manner.

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD