YA – We Can Be Heroes

McCauley, Kyrie. We Can Be Heroes. Katherine Tegen Books, 2021. 978-0-062-88505-0. 368 p. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

The town of Bell is known for one thing – it’s firearms. When the heir to the company goes into his school and shoots his ex-girlfriend Cassie and then himself, the town moves on – just a bit too quickly. Beck, Cassie’s long time friend, is angered that people turned a blind eye to what happened. Beck decides to paint murals in and around the town to bring attention to the tragedy. After the first mural, Cassie (in ghost form) visits Beck in her VW van, determined to find closure. Along with Cassie’s other friend, Vivian, the trio set out to bring Cassie justice with just a touch of vengeance. Planning out the themes of their murals, gathering supplies, and finding the perfect location get harder as more attention is given to the art. Things get a bit complicated when a podcaster hears of the murals and starts investigating Cassie’s murder and the Bell family. But their time is running out as local law enforcement start closing in on who is responsible for the murals that depict Greek myths and the haunting connection to Cassie’s death. 

THOUGHTS: In McCauley’s second novel she chooses various writing styles to complement each character’s story. Cassie’s story is told in verse, Vivian and Beck in prose, and the podcaster in a script style. This was a heartbreaking story to read, but did a beautiful job of bringing attention to gun violence and domestic abuse. 

Realistic Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD
Fantasy (Paranormal)

MG -Down to Earth

Culley, Betty. Down to Earth. Crown Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-593-17573-6. 210 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

9-year-old Henry Bowers is worried about whether he will be a dowser. His family has worked the land, quarried for granite, and drilled for water in rural Maine for generations, and many of them have a unique talent for dowsing, or finding water through the use of a forked stick and instinct. While Henry worries about his upcoming 10th birthday, the birthday when dowsers find out if they have the knack for dowsing or not, he carries on with his quiet life, including taking care of his sister Birdie and recording his observations about rocks in his homeschooling journal. Then one night, Henry witnesses a very large meteorite fall into his backyard, and he feels an instant connection with the huge lump of space rock. The meteorite turns out to be both a problem and a blessing for Henry and his town, and ultimately, his connection to the meteorite helps him discover who he is and what he wants to do with his young life.

THOUGHTS: This is a heartwarming story about a thoughtful boy who finds himself and his unique gifts through acts of helping others. Henry and his family are loving people who endure hardships with grace, and the pace of the book matches the soothing pace with which they seem to live life. Vague allusions to the healing powers of water “called” by the meteorite are sprinkled throughout this book, but the emphasis on facts from encyclopedia and book entries, a visit from a scientist from the American Museum of Natural History, and Henry’s own journal of science questions keep the story believable and rooted in realism.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem./MG – The One Thing You’d Save

Park, Linda Sue. The One Thing You’d Save. Clarion Books. 978-1-328-51513-1. 65 p. $16.99. Grades 3-6. 

In this novel in verse, a teacher challenges her middle school students to think about the one thing they would save if their home was on fire. Their family and pets are already safe, but she wants to know what one thing inside their home is most important to them. It can be any size, any shape. Some students come up with answers immediately, and others ponder the assignment carefully. From cell phones and favorite books to wallets and trading cards, each student explains the reasoning behind his or her choice. Some students share sentimental stories, such as how they would save a hand-knit sweater from their grandmother or a collar from a pet who passed away. The many different voices reflect an inclusive classroom led by a caring teacher who reminds her students to always protect, affect, and respect one another as they are sharing. In her author’s note, Park shares that sijo, an ancient form of Korean poetry, was her inspiration for this book. Classic sijo have three lines of thirteen to seventeen syllables. While the poems in this collection use the sijo structure, many are longer than traditional sijo poems.

THOUGHTS: This novel in verse should spark engaging discussions between middle-grade readers. The question of what to save in a hypothetical emergency is a universal one, and students’ answers will be as varied as the ones presented in the book. This could be a valuable book to use during Morning Meetings to generate conversation and build relationships. It will provide insights into what students value most and will lead to discussions about sentimental value versus practical value. Share this title with guidance counselors as well.

Novel in Verse          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD

Elem. – Nina Soni: Master of the Garden

Sheth, Kashmira. Nina Soni: Master of the Garden.  Peachtree, 2021. 978-1-682-63226-0. $7.99. 179 p. Grades 2-4.

Fourth grader Nina is very excited to finally get a warm and sunny Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day in frigid Wisconsin.  This means she and her sister and friend will get to plant a garden with her Landscape Architect mom! Nina has dreams of starting her own business with all of the extra produce their garden will grow. But gardens take time to grow, and a lot of work as well.  Throughout this illustrated novel, challenging words are defined to help promote unfamiliar vocabulary words.

THOUGHTS: Kids who enjoy outdoor activities and gardening will enjoy this read.

Realistic Fiction           Krista Fitzpatrick, Wissahickon Charter School

MG/YA – Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids

Leitich Smith, Cynthia (Editor). Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids. Heartdrum, 2021. 978-0-062-86996-8. 320 p. $16.99. Grades 4-12.

A team of Native authors combine to create this collection of short stories that seamlessly flow from one to the next. With overlapping characters and/or events from each and dances, foods, and beautiful handmade creations, these stories celebrate Native traditions at a powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This collection demonstrates that those with differences (represented by the diverse tribes and ages at the powwow) can come together for a common goal.

THOUGHTS: A celebration of Native American identity, this collection is suitable for middle and high school libraries. Students will enjoy learning about the various traditions that make up a powwow.

Short Stories          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD
Realistic Fiction

YA – A Shot at Normal

Reichardt, Marisa. A Shot at Normal. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. 978-0-374-38095-3. 352 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Juniper Jade is the oldest child in a family that grows their own organic foods, homeschools their children, and goes without many of the everyday things others have (plastics, cell phones, and vaccinations). Often passing the local high school, Juniper longs to feel normal, but she respects her family’s values and doesn’t question them (too much) until she contracts the measles and unknowingly passes the virus to others. Then tragedy strikes, and suddenly, Juniper isn’t so sure about her family’s lifestyle. With the help of Nico, a friend who may be more than a friend, Juniper decides she’s going to be vaccinated. Despite her parent’s wishes. She isn’t quite prepared for their reaction, though, and Juniper really has to consider how much she’s willing to risk to get her vaccines.

THOUGHTS: Readers who are looking for a little more independence from the adults in their lives will connect with Juniper. With the vaccine debate at a pinnacle (though this book is not about COVID), A Shot at Normal deserves a place in high school collections.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – The Chance to Fly

Stroker, Ali, and Davidowitz, Stacy. The Chance to Fly. Amulet Books, 2021. 978-1-419-74393-1. 279 p. $16.99. Grades 3-7.

After moving across the country and leaving her best friend Chloe behind, Natalie Beacon feels a little lost. She finds some solace in belting Broadway showtunes and hanging with her dog, Warbucks. Her father believes that getting her back on a wheelchair racing team will make her feel better, and it might have…until Nat sees a flyer advertising open auditions for a teenage production of Wicked! Without her parents’ permission or knowledge, Nat auditions with the hope of playing Nessarose, the only Broadway character that is in a wheelchair. Yet even if she makes it into the show, Nat knows she will constantly worry about how her wheelchair might get in the way: what if backstage isn’t wheelchair accessible? What if the dance moves are too complicated for her? What if her parents don’t think she is capable of doing something on her own without their help? Determined and eager, Nat sets out to prove to everyone that she is not defined by her wheelchair.

THOUGHTS: Ali Stroker, co-author of this book, knows firsthand about Nat’s predicament. She is the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on a Broadway stage AND win a Tony Award, Broadway’s highest honor. This middle grade novel is packed with show tune lyrics and Broadway references. Readers will be charmed by (and also relate to) Nat and her friends. Her story is proof that no one should give up on their dreams.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG – Ground Zero

Gratz, Alan. Ground Zero. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-24575-2. 336 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

Brandon, 9 years old, suspended from school for fighting, is spending the day with his father, who works at the Windows on the World Restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. He sneaks away from his dad to run an errand when a plane flies into the building. It is September 11, 2001. Brandon’s life has changed forever. Decades later, and a world away, Reshmina, a young Afghan girl, also lives with the fallout of that horrific day. Life in rural Afghanistan changed drastically when the US armed forces came to push back the Taliban. While no one likes the American soldiers, most Afghans fear the Taliban as well. Alan Gratz’s take on the 9/11, attack follows the two young people, alternating between their stories. While Brandon fights for his life as he tries to escape the burning tower, Reshmina struggles with the burden of Pashtunwali, providing aid to those who request it. Reshmina comes across an American soldier injured during a Taliban ambush. Despite her hatred of the Americans, she cannot leave him to die after he asks for help. The move places her family in danger; her twin brother has begun working with the Taliban and threatens to notify them of the soldier’s presence at their home. It won’t surprise any reader that the soldier is Brandon, 18 years later. There is nothing subtle about this book. Gratz had a point to make, and he hammers it home. The two stories aren’t just parallel, but painfully structured to be identical stories – an event in one story is mirrored by a similar event in the other narrative. And Gratz does not couch his opinion that everything the US did in Afghanistan was wrong and hurtful. While the current generation of readers looks for books set around 9/11, Gratz, a master of historical fiction adventure, who single handedly has converted young readers to historical fiction fans, falls a bit flat with this story. Gratz fans will want to read it, but it will not replace gems like Refugee or Projekt 1065.

THOUGHTS: Purchase where Alan Gratz is popular, but readers may be disappointed.

Historical Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

Johnson, Varian. Playing the Cards You’re Dealt. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-34858-3 320 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Anthony “Ant” Joplin and his older brother Aaron have been schooled in the card game Spades by their father. In the Joplin family, Spades is serious business. There is a tradition of Joplin men winning their South Carolina town Spades tournament. Aaron has followed through, winning the teen tournament last year, but Ant, in his first year competing in the junior division, choked big-time. His father claims he just needs to “toughen up” and he’ll win this year. Ant and his best friend, and Spades partner, Jamal, have been practicing nonstop, but when Jamal gets suspended for fighting, Ant needs to find a new partner. Luckily there’s a new girl in Ant’s fifth grade class, and Shirley is as much of a card shark as Ant. But Ant is finding it tough to concentrate on cards when things are tense between his mom and dad, and Aaron, who attends boarding school, tasks Ant with keeping an eye on their father to see if he’s starting drinking again. But how does a 10-year-old even know what drinking looks like? Fortunately for Ant, Shirley turns out to be as good a friend as she is a card player, and helps him navigate through this challenging hand he’s holding. While the plot deftly explores the pressures put on young children by troubled adults, the narrative style keeps the tone light and comfortable. The book feels like a story being told by an older relative, sitting on a porch swing on a summer evening, including personal asides by the narrator. Johnson vividly portrays the damage toxic masculinity can wreak on families, particularly the younger men and boys who must pick up the pieces. Ant is a young man who discovers what it means to be tough, in the most difficult situation imaginable, and readers will be cheering for him to win the hand he’s dealt. All main characters are Black.

THOUGHTS: A well-developed story that hooks you from the very beginning. This should fly off the shelf.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG/YA – Simone Breaks All the Rules

Rigaud, Debbie. Simone Breaks All the Rules. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-68172-1. 320 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Simone Thibodeaux is tired of her overprotective Haitian parents, and when they arrange her prom date with a son of a suitable Haitian family, it is the last straw. She decides the end of her senior year at St. Clare Academy, a largely white, all-girls school, is the perfect time to start experiencing life. She enlists two classmates with similar parental issues, Indian-American Amite and Kira, the white daughter of a notorious lawyer. The trio dub themselves HomeGirls, and create a Senior Playlist of challenges and accomplishments, including going to a house party, cutting class, and changing up their style. And then there is prom. Simone works feverishly to keep her parents thinking she is going to prom with Ben, the polite Haitian boy, while lining up her own date with Gavin, a hot guy from the affiliated boys school. But why is it so hard to be herself around Gavin, and so comfortable to be with Ben? Readers will fall for Simone from the first pages. Her voice is fresh, humorous, and authentic. Anyone with parents will relate and sympathize with Simone and her girlfriends. However, along the way to ditching her parents, Simone comes to appreciate her Haitian heritage and culture, and realize how much she does love her mom, as trying as she may be. The book celebrates the value of good friends (and how not to lose them) and the families who love us. Haitian culture and Haitian Creole language are sprinkled throughout the book, deftly adding to the depiction of the New York area Haitian-American community.

THOUGHTS:  This delightful rom-com is perfect for middle school as well as high school, with nothing more dangerous than a few chaste kisses, and clubbing occurs as a teen venue serving “mocktails.”

Romance          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD