MG – Black Brother, Black Brother

Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Black Brother, Black Brother. Little, Brown and Company, 2020. 978-0-316-49380-2. 239 p. $16.99. Grades 4-8.

Donte Ellison is a biracial 7th grader at the exclusive Middlefield Prep. Treated unjustly because of his skin color, he is suspended from school for something he did not do. His older brother Trey is beloved at the school, and many wish Donte could be more like his lighter skinned brother. Looking for a place to belong, Donte joins a local youth center where he meets a former Olympic fencer, Arden Jones, who runs the programs for the kids. Donte, who has never been an athlete, starts training with Jones, and soon finds his niche as a fencer. But when Donte and his team have to compete against his school’s team, and the racist captain of the team whose family is the school’s largest donor, Donte has to confront his emotions, his bully, and the racism that surrounds his sport.

THOUGHTS: This book addresses many tough issues in a way that is completely appropriate for middle grade readers.  At times I felt the book did not delve into the topics as much as I would have liked, but I think middle grade readers would not feel the same. Parker Rhodes is becoming a must purchase middle grade author!

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

MG – The Queen Bee and Me

McDunn, Gillian. The Queen Bee and Me. Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020. 978-1-681-19751-7. 279 p. $16.99. Grades 5-7

Meg has always been joined at the hip of best friend Beatrix, except for the times when Beatrix freezes her out. Afraid of angering Beatrix and losing the benefits of being her friend, Meg decides to follow along while Beatrix plots to bully new student Hazel and her mom out of town. When Meg and Hazel get partnered up for a bee project in a science elective, Meg struggles between following her passion for science and doing whatever it takes to keep Beatrix from getting angry. It turns out Meg and Hazel have a lot in common, and they have fun together. Can Meg stand up to Beatrix even if it means risking years of friendship and the comfort of having a best friend? By the end of the story, Meg faces many of her fears, including a fear of bees, oral reports, and standing up to Beatrix which makes a sweet, but predictable, ending. 

THOUGHTS: As an adult reader, I had trouble finishing the book due to the predictable storyline. I anticipate young readers enjoying and relating to this story once they have the book in their hands and time to read.

Realistic Fiction          Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD

YA – With a Star in My Hand: Rubén Darío, Poetry Hero

Engle, Margarita. With a Star in My Hand: Rubén Darío, Poetry Hero. Atheneum, 2020. 978-1-534-42493-7. 144 p. $17.99. Grades 7-12. 

Based on the life of Rubén Darío, Margarita Engle’s With a Star in My Hand depicts a fictionalized account of the poet’s rise to fame. Coming from humble origins, a mother who abandoned him to a poor working aunt who encouraged his love of literature, Rubén Darío rose to become the father of a literary movement. From a young age his poems inspired and awed those around him as he took chance after chance offered to him. However, his road to fame wasn’t all gold; there were many hiccups along the way that added texture to his poems. Traveling helped to color his world and determine the kind of poet, and person, he wanted to be.

THOUGHTS: A delightful and inspiring novel-in-verse account of a young boy striving against almost insurmountable odds to find his place in a world that frequently rejected him. 

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

YA – Summer of Everything

Winters, Julian. Summer of Everything. Interlude Press, 2020. 978-1-945-05391-7. $17.99. 293 p. Grades 9 and up. 

Wesley Hudson (named after Wesley Crusher from Star Trek) has just returned from spending the first part of his summer in Italy with his parents. His dad, Calvin, is a world-class chef and his mom, Savannah, is a best-selling novelist of Horrmance, which Wes describes as “books about werewolves fighting a blood feud while trying to find a date to the prom.” He’s not exactly a fan of her books. He is a fan of comic books though, and aside from his parents and his friends, one of the things he loves most in this world is Once Upon a Page, the bookstore where he works just a few steps away from the Santa Monica pier. Wes knows that he should enjoy this last summer before college just working at Once Upon a Page and hanging out with his friends, but he also knows he has a LOT going on. For starters, he must figure out what to study at UCLA. His brother, with whom he has a somewhat strained relationship, is getting married. He also needs to come up with a plan to finally do something about the crush he’s had on his best friend Nico since sophomore year. At first, Wes’s approach is just to sit back and assume it’ll all work out at some point because in his eyes, “Life owes [him] so hard for giving him nerdy genes, a pain-in-the-ass older brother, uncooperative curly hair, and the inability to skateboard.” But then Wes and his friends discover that Once Upon a Page is in trouble of being sold, and he can no longer just sit back and wait for things to happen. 

THOUGHTS: Wes and his loveable, geeky friends come from various racial and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations making this a story where many readers can see themselves represented. It’s also full of nerdy comic book and 90’s music references. His relationship with Mrs. Rossi, the older owner of Once Upon a Page, is particularly endearing. Quite a bit of cursing, discussions about sex, and instances of underage drinking do make appearances in this book which may be worth warning sensitive readers. Ultimately though, The Summer of Everything is a look at a queer black young man’s coming of age as he starts to figure out his future and take on adult responsibilities. 

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

MG – Clean Getaway

Stone, Nic. Clean Getaway. Crown Books for Children, 2020. 978-1-984-89297-3. $16.99. 240 p. Grades 6-8.

Nic Stone is typically a popular young adult writer (Dear Martin, Dear Justyce). Her debut in the middle school arena is the realistic, first-person narrative, Clean Getaway. William aka “Scoob” Lamar gets grounded when he shares a computer hack and plans to stay in his entire spring vacation. Until… his G’ma–grandmother–shows up in a RV she purchased with the profit from selling her house and asks him to accompany her on a road trip. Without telling his father, Will becomes G’ma’s wingman on this memorable ride retracing the route G’ma and his deceased grandfather Jimmy took from Georgia through the rest of the South during the segregated sixties. The pair follow the Green Book, a listing of acceptable accommodations for people of color. Will’s grandparents had the added burden of being a mixed race couple, against the law in many states at the time. Will experiences his African-American heritage firsthand, visiting important markers of the struggle for Civil Rights. At first, he is excited for the chance to share this adventure with his beloved grandmother, but then he notices G’ma’s strange behavior: she dines and dashes; switches license plates; steals jewelry. He discovers some things that make him suspect something else is afoot, but can’t quite connect the dots or even reach out to his father because G’ma keeps hiding or ditching their one cell phone. What keeps him going is the revealing conversations he has with his funny and candid G’ma. He realizes how much she loves her long incarcerated husband and suspects that his father may not be fair in his complete rejection of him. The pair’s joy ride comes to a halt when G’ma falls ill, but the experience prompts Will to question the absence of his own mother and the image of his grandfather and rejuvenates his relationship with his sometimes-distant father. Though not a difficult read lexile-wise, Clean Getaway does bring up serious issues of race, inequity, and discrimination. Nic Stone has proven she is a master storyteller for middle school students as well.

THOUGHTS: The intergenerational experience lends itself to history lessons of the Civil Rights era. The discrimination Will’s grandparents encountered in the sixties can be compared with the same displays of implicit bias Will and G’ma feel in their present-day travels. The reason for the grandfather’s imprisonment is also steeped in racial injustice and inequity. Will has little contact with his mother because she abandoned him as a baby–addiction is implied–but Will’s father is reluctant to have her re-enter twelve-year-old Will’s life just like he turned his back on Jimmy, his own father. This situation as well as the racism that necessitated the Green Book lays open talk about forgiving past wrongs, both personal and institutional. 

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – Becoming Muhammad Ali

Patterson, James, and Alexander, Kwame. Becoming Muhammad Ali. Jimmy Patterson Books, 2020. 978-0-316-49816-6. 310 p. $16.99. Grades 4-8.

We all know about the legend that is Muhammad Ali, but few know about the boy called Cassius Clay. This book, written partly in verse and partly in prose is a must read for any sports loving reader. Told in ten rounds, like a boxing match, Clay’s friend Lucky tells part of the story (written by Patterson) while Cassius’ voice is told in verse (written by Alexander). Learn how the events of the day shaped Clay into Ali and how sheer determination and self belief led to Clay’s success. A bibliography is included.

THOUGHTS: A first purchase for any middle grade library collection.

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

MG – Keep It Together, Keiko Carter

Florence, Debbi Michiko. Keep It Together, Keiko Carter. Scholastic Press, 2020. 978-1-338-60752-9. 293 p. $15.67. Grades 3-6.

Keiko Carter likes her friendships like she likes her chocolate—high quality, sweet, and smooth.  Unfortunately, as Keiko and her two best friends start seventh grade, their friendship is anything but. Audrey joins the Fall Ball committee and declares that they need to find boyfriends, so they can all go to the dance together. The problem is, the boy Audrey has set her sights on is the boy Jenna has been texting all summer. Plus, Jenna is not sure she wants to continue letting Audrey always get her way, and now they aren’t talking to each other. Keiko finds herself caught in the middle between her feuding friends, and she has no idea how to keep the peace. Tensions at home add to her problems, not to mention her feelings for a boy that Audrey will never approve of and a new boy who gets between Keiko and Audrey. Should Keiko compromise her needs to bring her friends back together, or will Keiko find that standing up for herself is the sweetest treat of all?

THOUGHTS: Middle school girls will recognize Keiko’s friendship struggles, but there are lessons about relationships and knowing yourself that are appropriate for boys as well. This is a good story about finding your voice.

Realistic Fiction        Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

MG – The List of Things that Will Not Change

Staed, Rebecca. The List of Things that Will Not Change. Wendy Lamb Books, 2020. 978-1-101-93810-2. 218 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Bea was eight when her parents divorced and gave her a green notebook with a list of “Things that will not change” written into it.  The first two items on the list are that her mom and dad will always love her and each other. Bea has been adding to that list ever since getting her notebook. The thing is, lots of things in Bea’s life are changing, and being the worrier that she is, it’s not always easy to adjust. Seeing her therapist helps, as does having both parents love and support her. When her dad tells her that he and his boyfriend are getting married, Bea is filled with excitement, for her father and his boyfriend, and for herself as Jesse has a daughter that is her age.  Bea has always wanted a sister, but things aren’t as easy as Bea wishes. As the wedding gets closer, Bea comes to terms with her past secrets and the fact that things don’t always have to be perfect to be perfect for her.

THOUGHTS: A must purchase for any middle grade library collection.

Realistic Fiction                   Krista Fitzpatrick- Waldron Mercy Academy

YA – Just Our Luck

Walton, Julia. Just Our Luck. Random House. 2020,  978-0-399-55092-8. $17.99. 272 p. Grades 9-12.

Leonidas –Leo- quirky knitter and sensitive photographer, has been successful staying under the radar for most of his high school years. Then Drake Gibbons a wise-cracking, hyperactive jock punches him, and their consequences are enduring each others’ company in the counselor’s office until they become amicable. Leo’s mother died years ago and now with his Greek grandmother Yia Yia’s death, the silence in their Greek household is deafening and the relationship between him and his father even more distant. When his father insists his gentle son take a martial arts course to improve his pugilistic skills, Leo gets scared off and signs up for a yoga master certification course. Turns out, the person taking his registration is Evey Paros, from another Greek family who just happened to have cursed Leo’s many generations ago. Though she seems aloof, Evey has her own agenda. She’s been wronged by the biggest, richest, most popular dude at school, Jordan Swansea. After their breakup, Jordan sent out nude pictures of Evey over social media. She enlists Leo as her assistant in wreaking revenge. What ensues is a light romance with a touch of humor. Leo unexpectedly finds love, friends, and self confidence. A bonus is that Evey, too, finds a powerful alternative to thwarting Jordan besides sophomoric pranks.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, SD Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: Librarians should be aware this quick read has a lot of curses and little diversity (Drake’s girlfriend Jenn seems to be Latinx). However, the characters are humorous, and the plot discusses generalized anxiety, a condition today’s teens may recognize. Both Leo and Evey also have an interest in writing, and Leo delivers his first-person narrative in journal format. Pull for reluctant readers.

YA – Heartstopper #1

Oseman, Alice. Heartstopper # 1. Graphix, 2020. 978-1-338-61743-6. 288 p. $14.99. Grades 8-12.

Fans of romance and coming of age stories, go no further. Oseman’s volume one of the Heartstopper series will do just that: stop your heart. This light take on a young man coming out to his school before he was really ready, dives into male friendships and more within a school setting. The story is set in England and revolves around a rugby team so there is slang that might be lost on some readers. This is a great story of male friendship that broadens into something more. Although school isn’t always a safe place, Oseman reminds us that there are people to be safe with. It’s important to note that this is a story revolving around gay high school students and that includes the abuse, both physical and verbal that still occurs, especially for individuals who are trying to figure themselves out. Oseman leaves the reader hanging and ready for volume two.

THOUGHTS: This is a great addition to high school libraries who are looking to make their graphic novel collection more realistic. In addition, this is a great mirror into the thoughts and feelings adolescents may have while discovering their sexual preferences and navigating the rough seas of high school.

Graphic Novel          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD