MG – The Boys in the Back Row

Jung, Mike. The Boys in the Back Row. Levine Querido, 2020. 978-1-646-14011-4. 264 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Matt and Eric have been best friends forever. They are both marching band nerds, both fans of comics by artist Jonah Burns, and both are targets of bully Kenny and his side-kick Sean. When Eric learns his family will be moving at the end of the school year, the pair plan one epic last adventure. While the school marching band is on a trip to World of Amazement amusement park, Eric and Matt will sneak out to nearby DefenderCon and meet their idol, Jonah Burns. But when Sean gets wind of their plans, and inexplicably wants to join the friends, they are confounded as to how to proceed. The book uniquely highlights friendship between tween boys. The pair are openly fond of each other, but are tired being labeled gay. Matt is also called gay for playing the flute. (Neither is gay, but they do not consider it an insult). A secondary theme involves racism against Asian students such as Matt. Kenny, the chief proponent of both racism and homophobia, seems to harbor an attraction for a male, Asian band member, providing some insight into his troubled personality. While the racist theme can become heavy-handed, the exuberant friendship of the boys more than carries the book. Matt is Asian, Eric and Kenny are white, with minor characters who are a variety of ethnicities, particularly Asian.

THOUGHTS: This book should be a first purchase for middle grade collections. Stories showing kind, thoughtful male relationships are too rare.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – The Girls I’ve Been

Sharpe, Tess. The Girls I’ve Been. Putnam, 2021. 9780593353806. $18.99. 356 p. Grades 9 and up.

Two armed men enter a bank in a sleepy rural California town assuming they’ll find the bank manager and easily coerce him into taking them to their target – a safe deposit box. The manager hasn’t arrived yet though, and who they DO find is teenager Nora O’Malley. She’s not just any teenage girl. She’s not even Nora O’Malley – depending on how you look at it. Nora spent most of her life playing the roles of different girls with her con-artist mother until her half-sister extracted her from the situation four years ago. As she tries to adjust to a “normal” life and put her past behind her, her biggest problem has been the current awkwardness between her and her ex-boyfriend but now best friend Wes because she’d been lying to him about her new relationship with their other friend, Iris. Thrust into a serious hostage situation with her friends, Nora is forced to resurrect her old identities if she wants any chance of getting them out of this alive.

THOUGHTS: A wild page-turner for fans of the thriller genre. The well-crafted plot alternates from Nora’s past to the present, and it all ties together in the end. It also tackles domestic abuse from multiple angles as all of the three teenage main characters have struggled with it in some form.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Love Is a Revolution

Watson, Renee. Love Is a Revolution. Bloomsbury YA, 2021. 978-1-547-60060-1. 304 p. $18.99. Grades 9 and up. 

Nala agrees to attend an open mic night with her cousin, not really expecting to find love. She meets Tye Brown, an activist and Nala is… not; Tye wants to spend his summer doing community service, and Nala wants to hang out and try new ice cream flavors. Nala makes the decision to tell a couple white lies to Tye, and that ends up spiraling into something she did not expect. Will Nala come clean to the guy of her dreams or keep the lies going? The best part about this novel is the body positivity and Nala’s friend group. While this is a YA romance, there is a larger message about being true to yourself and loving yourself for who you are.

THOUGHTS: I adored everything about this book and these characters. I loved the way Renee Watson develops her characters, and her writing style makes this book so easy to read. Highly recommended for any high school collection.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – The Gravity of Us

Stamper, Phil. The Gravity of Us. Bloomsbury YA, 2020. 978-1-547-60014-4. 320 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Everyone’s lives are more visible to others than they used to be. Cal Lewis knows that best because he is always live streaming news and weekend updates from his homebase in Brooklyn. His life gets viewed from a different angle when his dad is selected as the final candidate for NASA’s Mars exploration project that is highly covered by a reality television company. From leaving his best friend at a critical time to meeting other AstroKids while continuing to cultivate media communication plans for his own content and others, this sweet story is representative and hits on woes of being a 21st century teen. Stamper does a fantastic job of illustrating why Mars exploration is an important endeavor, whether publicly or privately funded.

THOUGHTS: If you have room on your coming of age shelf, this is a great addition for your space nerds, LBGTQ+ community, and anyone who is looking for a fresh take on being a teen in the roaring 2020s.

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

MG – The True Definition of Neva Beane

Kendall, Christine. The True Definition of Neva Beane. Scholastic, 2020. 978-1-338-32489-1. $17.99. Grades 3-7.

While Neva Beane’s parents are on a summer singing tour abroad, she and her sixteen-year-old brother, Clay, are staying with their grandparents in West Philadelphia. The new girl across the street, Michelle Overton, is only a year older than Neva, but Michelle’s full figure and bikini outfits has Neva feeling inexperienced and babyish. In addition, Clay is preoccupied with the community organizing Michelle’s father is spearheading, and Neva’s best friend Jamila is busy preparing for her family vacation in Ghana. It’s a hot time in the city this summer, though. People are protesting unfair practices in housing and wages.  Against his grandparents’ orders, Clay is surreptitiously leading the youth branch of the protests. Although they were activists when they were younger, Nana and Grandpa now believe their duty is to protect their grandchildren which means keeping them away from the protests. Neva feels left out, but so does her grandmother—especially when her grandson forges her signature on the permission slip for a protest. Twelve-years-old and on the cusp of being a teen, Neva grapples with many conflicting feelings: she’s intimidated by Michelle but admires her, too; she values her friendship with Jamila, but they seem out of step; she’s homesick for her parents but doesn’t want her selfishness to stop their success; she’s wants to support the good cause but is anxious about protesting. Christine Kendall has produced a middle grade novel that recreates a Black American neighborhood against the backdrop of a tumultuous summer. Not only is the appealing character of Neva well-developed and identifiable to other readers her age, but the other characters are equally as genuine. Neva’s fascination with words is an added bonus to the book. This page-turning book will be a favorite and also boost the reader’s vocabulary!

Realistic Fiction    Bernadette Cooke  School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: With the mention of familiar street names and places and the extremely relatable main character and timely setting, this book will fly off the shelves at my library. This book is an incentive to learn how to use the dictionary and improve one’s vocabulary and spelling. Food for thought in classroom social/emotional discussions is Neva’s processing of social activism.

MG – We Dream of Space

Kelly, Erin Entrada. We Dream of Space. Greenwillow Books, 2020. 978-0-062-74730-3. 391 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

This story, told in multiple points of view, follows the Nelson Thomas kids (Cash, Fitch, and Bird) as they navigate life through 7th grade in the mid 1980s. Cash, the oldest sibling, is repeating 7th grade and is in danger of having to repeat it again if he doesn’t get his act together! Fitch spends all day trying to keep his temper in check and every afternoon in the arcade, and Bird, Fitch’s twin, just wants to be an astronaut. With their parents constantly arguing and emotionally distant from their children, Bird just wants someone to notice her. Spending her days dreaming of becoming the first shuttle commander, while following every step of the coming Challenger launch, has left Bird wanting. Wanting to be noticed, wanting to belong, and wanting to be in space. This book contains a section about the Challenger Disaster and a page of resources to learn more.

THOUGHTS: A must purchase for any middle grade library collection. Kelly does it again with her captivating writing. Will be in my Top 5 for 2020.

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick- Waldron Mercy Academy

Elem. – Saucy

Kadohata, Cynthia. Saucy. Atheneum Books, 2020. 978-1-534-47597-7. 304 p. $17.99. Grades 3-6. 

As one of a set of quadruplets, Becca frequently worries about who she is, and what is her “thing.” Her brother Jammer is an obsessive ice hockey player. Her brother K.C. is a math and science genius, who theorizes our existence is actually a simulation designed by another life form. And other brother, Bailey, composes music. But Becca just can’t figure out what makes her unique. So when she finds a dying piglet while on a family walk one evening, she believes she has found her calling: saving Saucy, so dubbed because of her obvious attitude. But Becca quickly learns that sickly pigs require expensive veterinary care, and healthy pigs are rambunctious and destructive. And grow rapidly. But Becca, having spent her 12 years trying not to take up time and money, because Jammer’s hockey and Bailey’s medical needs (he is in a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy) take up so much of the family’s resources, feels she’s owed some leeway. Besides, everyone in the family is falling in love with Saucy. Eventually, the siblings determine Saucy escaped from a large commercial pig farm, and Saucy is sent to live at a nearby pig sanctuary. The story is lovely, slice-of-life Kadohata writing (she shows off her hockey-mom chops again), and the relationship between the four siblings is sweet and caring. As different as the four are, they support each other, a revelation that seems to surprise Becca, who is used to feeling outside and overlooked. The conditions of large pig farms are detailed when Becca and her brothers sneak into a building one night to see where Saucy came from. While the transition from sweet animal story to commercial meat producing exposé is a bit awkward, readers will no doubt be properly appalled.

THOUGHTS: A sweet story perfect for readers who love animals, or are realistic fiction fans. Any reader with siblings will sympathize with how Becca feels out-of-step with her brothers. A first choice for most libraries.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem. – Danger on the Reef

Maddox, Jake. Danger on the Reef. Stone Arch Books, 2020. 978-1-496-58700-8. 72 p. $5.95. Grades 2-4.

Jasmine is already a certified scuba diver, and she loves diving with her parents who are marine biologists. She knows how far she is allowed to dive, how to check her diving buddy for safety, and how to calmly react in any situation. Her younger brother Arjun, however, has not been a good diving buddy. He tries to swim farther than he is allowed, interact with the wildlife, and doesn’t listen to his diving buddy. Jasmine is frustrated with him…how can he learn to be a marine biologist if he isn’t safe? Things can take a deadly turn when you are deep in the water, and they just might if Arjun doesn’t learn to be a good diving buddy!

THOUGHTS: An enjoyable Jake Maddox adventure story! Fans of Jake Maddox’s sport series will love reading his adventure books.

Realistic Fiction          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

YA -Under Shifting Stars

Lotas, Alexandra. Under Shifting Stars. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-06775-7. 262. $15.69. Grades 9-12.

After their brother’s tragic death, twins Audrey and Clare struggle to cope with their grief and changed circumstances. Audrey attends Peak, a school for neurodivergent students like herself, after being ostracized by her twin and other bullies at her public school. Clare begins a transformation herself, standing up to her friends who have treated her sister badly and becoming comfortable with her gender identity. The twins and their parents learn to communicate and comfort each other as they live their new life as a family of four.

THOUGHTS: Told by the perspectives of each twin, this story is a great addition to any YA collection as it explores difficult topics many teenagers are facing today.

Realistic Fiction     Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD

MG – Here in the Real World

Pennypacker, Sara. Here in the Real World. HarperCollins, 2020. 978-0-062-69895-7. $17.99. 320 p. Grades 3-6.

“Everything was something else before, and will be something else after.” Ware is an only child, and he’s perfectly happy spending his summer alone with his grandmother, whom he refers to as Big Deal, but when she falls and needs a hip replacement, Ware’s parents sign him up for Summer Rec where they hope he can have “meaningful social interactions” with other kids his age. To Ware, this is the worst case scenario, until he meets a girl named Jolene who is planting a garden in a half torn down, abandoned church right next to the rec center. Ware sees the potential in this church, and instead of going to rec, he spends his days with Jolene pretending the church is a castle and that he is a knight, living by their code of chivalry. For the first time in Ware’s life, he doesn’t feel ashamed about spending time off in his own world, and with the help of Jolene, his uncle, and others he meets throughout the summer, he realizes that it’s okay to be himself, and he doesn’t want to turn into someone else after all. “He had changed this summer. He was spending more time off in his own world. And it turned out, he didn’t feel ashamed about it. Turned out, he really liked it there.”

THOUGHTS:  Here in the Real World is perfect for readers who feel like they just don’t belong. Your heart will break for Ware and Jolene as they try to navigate through the real world in this moving and touching novel. Middle school can be such a hard time, and hopefully readers will realize, like Ware does, that it’s okay to be yourself, even when you feel pressure from parents and classmates to be someone else entirely. This realistic fiction book is about finding not only yourself, but your people, and being able to see them just as they are too.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD