Newbery Award winning author, Erin Entrada Kelly, delivers the first in a new series with character Marisol Rainey. Marisol is a Filipino American living in Louisiana with her family. She and her best friend Jade are enjoying the start to the summer vacation by playing lots of games, using their imagination to create their own fun, and climbing the tree in Marisol’s backyard. Except, Marisol is petrified to climb the tree. Not being brave enough to climb the tree in her backyard is just one of Marisol’s many fears. There are plentiful illustrations throughout the book, drawn by Kelly herself.
THOUGHTS: This engaging book has everything a popular series needs to be a hit with readers. Marisol’s anxieties make her very relatable and the humor laced through Kelly’s writing will entertain even the most reluctant readers.
Swinarski, Claire. The Kate in Between. Quill Tree Books, 2021. 978-0-062-91270-1. 289 p. $15.15. Grades 5-8.
Kate and Haddie are best friends and have been since first grade. But Kate needs a change, and she’s not exactly sure where Haddie fits in the new life she is trying to fashion for herself. Kate’s mother has left town to pursue her dream of becoming a True Diamond in the world of True Cosmetics, and Kate is left to move into the guest room of her police officer father’s apartment where she doesn’t even have a bed. It’s embarrassing for Kate, and it’s sometimes difficult when you have a friend who knows your truth. She hopes seventh grade will be different, and when Kate finds herself in popular mean girl Taylor’s orbit, there just isn’t room for Haddie. When a near tragedy involving Haddie and some bullies who may or may not be Kate’s friends turns Kate into a hero, she begins to question exactly what it means to be Taylor’s friend and why it is harder than it should be. But when a video of the incident goes viral, her status as a hero also goes viral. Kate knows what really happened, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone else does too. Will Kate be able to figure out just who she is with her life in the spotlight?
THOUGHTS: Claire Swinarski takes a familiar middle grade theme of friends growing apart and makes it fresh. I would recommend this book to upper middle school students.
Realistic FictionMelissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD
Parks, Amy Noelle. Summer of Brave. Albert Whitman & Co., 2021. 978-0-807-57660-1. 232 p. $16.99. Grades 4-8.
Lilla likes to make everyone happy, even if it means not speaking her mind. The Summer Wish is a tradition between friends Knox, Vivi, and Lilla – whoever blows off the most seeds of the dandelion gets to make a Summer Wish that the other two must do. When Vivi wins (again), she decides to make her wish for a summer of brave, where everyone is honest and shares their feelings in order to overcome a fear. For Lilla this will be a challenge at home since she spends half her time living on the second floor with her mother, a scientist, and the other half on the first floor with her father, an artist. When the trio apply for summer camp counselors, tensions mount when Vivi doesn’t get chosen and Lilla can’t tell her the truth (which equals not being brave). Add to that the decision on which school to attend in the fall (the private school for science or art? Or the public school for a more well rounded education?), Lilla struggles with finding her voice to tell both her parents and friends her true wish. Will the Summer of Brave truly work?
THOUGHTS: A great coming of age story about being honest with yourself and others while finding out who you are. These middle school students are relatable and each bring a special connection to the story. Lilla struggles with self doubt, and readers at this level will connect with her in more ways than one. A wonderfully written and brave story of finding the courage to speak up for what you believe in.
Meet Jett Baranov, bratty son of a super rich tech billionaire. Jett can’t help but get himself in lots of trouble! His father has had it, and decides to send Jett to a “resort” in the middle of Arkansas called The Oasis. Thinking The Oasis will be like any other upscale camp he’s been to, Jett is stunned when he has to turn in ALL his tech devices. Another shock comes when he hits the cafeteria; it’s all vegetarian! Finding a pet “lizard” with the other kids at the camp, Jett thinks his experience is finally turning around. They can’t figure out what kind of lizard Needles is, but they are in for the shock of their lives when they figure out the mystery of where Needles came from and the truth about the head counselor at the camp.
THOUGHTS: A must purchase for fans of Gordon Korman. His stories have the best hooks, and Unplugged does not disappoint.
Stork, Francisco X. On the Hook. Scholastic, 2021. 304 p. 978-1-338-69215-0. $17.99. Grades 7-12.
Hector is a decent, smart kid living in the projects since his father died of cancer. He excels at chess and thinks college may be a possibility, so he keeps his head down, desperate to be overlooked by Chavo’s local drug-dealing crew. But Joey, Chavo’s younger brother and a member of the crew, singles him out, carves a “C” on his chest (for coward) and declares, “I’m going to kill you.” Fear invades every space in Hector’s life. He can’t fathom how his father stayed strong, or how his older brother Fili can command respect in the neighborhood. His best friend Azi tries to help and keep him focused on chess and the future. But Hector’s fears overwhelm him daily. He wonders how to change himself and how to be fearless, and he longs to put his cowardly self behind him. But in failing to stand up for his brother when Fili is attacked by Chavo and Joey, Hector spirals downward into deep questioning and self-loathing. Hector is sentenced to six months in a juvenile probation academy, a friendlier place than most in the system, and encounters numerous guards and inmates seeking to teach him to give up the hate he feels. Hector is torn and the outcome is anything but clear. Can he recreate himself into someone he’s proud to be? And what does that look like?
THOUGHTS: This is a realistic look into dangers young people face, inside and out. Despite the numerous safeguards around him, Hector’s choices are anything but clear. Readers will be interested in what he decides to do.
Couch, Robbie. The Sky Blues. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 978-1-534-47785-8. $19.99. 325 p. Grades 9 and up.
Senior year for Sky Baker hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. He’s the only gay student out at his small-town northern Michigan high school. The looks and comments from homophobic classmates cause him to feel he can’t be himself – he has to walk “straight” and carry his books “straight.” His mom and brother don’t accept him for who he is either, so he is forced to move in with his best friend Bree and her family over the holidays. Then there’s the scar on his chest he calls “Mars” (because that’s what it looks like), a scar from a burn he got in a car accident when he was small, a car accident that killed his father. Not feeling comfortable taking his shirt off in front of anyone else is difficult when you live with someone else’s family in a house on the beach. Despite these struggles, Sky has Bree, yearbook, and his crush on Ali. Though he’s not sure if Ali is gay, Sky plans to make the most of his senior year by promposing to Ali in an extravagant way in 30 days at their senior beach bum party, and he and Bree are documenting their ideas on his dry erase wall in his bedroom. All his plans are dashed though when a hacker exposes Sky’s promposal plans in a homophobic and racist email message that goes out to the entire school community from the yearbook account. Priorities shift from promposal to revenge as Sky, Ali, and their friends hunt the hacker. But what about prom? Will Sky still pull off an epic promposal? Or has his entire senior year become about something more?
THOUGHTS: An excellent addition to any YA LGBTQ collection, this debut novel has it all – humor, friendship, family, and serious topics such as bullying and homophobia. Despite the “small-town” setting, there is diverse representation among Sky’s friend group. And Sky and Bree’s yearbook teacher Ms. Winter is a pleasantly surprising important supporting character that readers young and old will love.
Matson, Morgan. Take Me Home Tonight. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 978-1-481-49898-2. $18.99. 405 p. Grades 9 and up.
Dubbed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off meets The Babysitter’s Club by the author herself, Take Me Home Tonight is a 12-hour romp through New York City filled with mishaps around every corner. Best friends and theater kids Kat and Stevie just want theater director Mr. Campbell to post the cast list for the first production of their senior year when he unexpectedly decides he needs another weekend to finalize the cast. Then, Stevie’s dad predictably backs out of her birthday dinner plans. Kat tries to cheer up her disappointed best friend and fix this frustrating Friday (in more ways than one, unbeknownst to Stevie) by deciding that she and Stevie sneak into New York City and take the dinner reservation instead of Stevie taking her mom like her dad suggested. (They’ll also go see Mr. Campbell’s play while they’re there, though Kat doesn’t tell Stevie about that part at first). The girls devise an elaborate plan, using their friend Teri as a cover, and leave their suburban Connecticut town for an adventure in the Big Apple. Secrets, step siblings, a destroyed cell phone, and a really charismatic dog get in the way though. Will their friendship survive the night?
THOUGHTS: There is something – which I can’t put into words – about a Morgan Matson book that just feels a notch above the rest. Readers can always count on certain elements in her books, and this one is no different – there is a trip, a dog, some romance, and of course, the “Easter Egg” characters that pop in from her previous books (mini-spoiler alert: there are SEVERAL previous characters in this one, and they play slightly bigger roles than usual!). And there’s some surprisingly fun action in this one, too, a bit of a departure from the author’s norm. This comedy of errors is a must-have for your YA contemporary collection, especially if you have any other Matson books.
Guerrero, Tanya. All You Knead is Love. Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-374-31423-1 375 p. $16.99. Grades 4-6.
Twelve-year-old Alba does not want to leave New York City and move to Barcelona to live with a grandmother she barely knows or remembers. But her mother, a native from Spain herself, is not moving with her, nor is her alcoholic, abusive father. Alba is leaving behind a school she does not like, very few friends, and a home full of secrets and trauma. All You Knead is Love by Tanya Guerrero is a heartfelt story about finding one’s chosen family and discovering the passions stirring inside us. After arriving in a new country, Alba is surprised to find that she not only loves Barcelona but feels her most authentic self in this foreign land. She forms a close relationship with her grandmother, finds her first proper group of friends, and even experiences her first crush. Alba befriends a neighborhood baker who opens his kitchen as a haven to her; she begins to not only heal but thrive as his apprentice. Just as Alba discovers that she has a real passion and talent for baking bread, her beloved bakery faces an unexpected closure. Even more heartbreaking, her mother arrives in Barcelona after finally leaving her abusive relationship with Alba’s father. Alba becomes determined to save the bakery- and mend and heal the strained relationship with her mother.
THOUGHTS:All You Knead is Love seamlessly blends the right amount of culture, music, cooking, and the Spanish language into a vibrant setting that charms and delights. This story transported me to the streets of Barcelona and made me laugh and cheer for Alba and her chosen family. Tanya Guerrero writes with such sensitivity, and her authentic tone created a story with characters that will stick with me for a long time. This story was a gem!
Boulley, Angeline. Firekeeper’s Daughter. Henry, Holt, and Co. 2021. 978-1-250-76656-4. $18.99. 496 p. Grades 9-12.
Daunis Fontaine, a recent high school graduate and former hockey star, lives in two different worlds. Set in Michigan’s upper peninsula, her Fontaine world includes her mother, grandmother, and recently deceased uncle, but she’s also half Anishinaabe. Her father was a part of the nearby Ojibwe tribe, and although she’s not an official member, the family and friends she has there mean just as much to her. After witnessing the murder of her best friend, Daunis decides to go undercover and help with a criminal investigation in order to save her tribe members from any further corruption. As the mysteries of the investigation unfold, she discovers some awful truths about the people she thought she knew and trusted, and it will take all of her strength to persevere without ruining her own life and relationships in the process.
THOUGHTS: This debut novel gives readers a glimpse into modern, Native American culture along with traditions and beliefs unique to the Anishinaabe people, specifically an Ojibwe tribe located in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The author shines light on both the positive and negative aspects of life among the tribe, specifically a methamphetamine problem and the effect the drug is having on their community. Firekeeper’s Daughter is a thrilling and intense story that touches on sensitive issues including murder, addiction, grief, and sexual assault and a complex, main character who must find the strength to overcome the many obstacles in her life.
Realistic Fiction Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD
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.