Elem. – My Two Border Towns

Bowles, David and Erik Meza. My Two Border Towns. Illustrated by Erika Meza. Kokila, 2021. 978-0-593-11104-8. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-2.

Life along the U.S. – Mexico border can be more similar than different, especially for a small Hispanic boy who makes weekend trips back and forth with his father. “Vamos a la otra lado.” (Let’s go to the other side.) Once they pass through customs into the Mexican town, they run chores, visit family, and eat at their favorite places. The boy is proud of the gifts and supplies that they are collecting along the way. Erik Maza illustrates the town with friendly people, peaceful streets, and colorful tones. David Bowles brings in Spanish terms and phrases with mostly English narrative to tell their routine journey. The trip ends with an important and realistic stop near the border bridge, where a large group of refugees are camped out and waiting. “The US says there’s no room, and Mexico says it can barely look after it’s own gente.” The boy seeks out his friend who is waiting, and hands over the collected toys, comics, medicine and supplies to the grateful family. The dilemma of crossing the border freely as citizens leaves the boy, and perhaps the readers, wishing for a future of compassion and friendship.

THOUGHTS: Making a complex and never ending issue such as immigration and border control work through the eyes of a child is always a lesson in empathy. In this case, the author chooses to show the connections rather than the divisions between the two countries with a stunning effect. Discussions comparing similarities and differences between students’ towns and the story may continue the conversation. Recommended.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

YA – Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story)

Nayeri, Daniel. Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story). Levine Querido, 2020. 346 p. 978-1-646-14000-8. $17.99.  Grades 7-12.

When Khosrou’s (Daniel’s) physician mother converts to Christianity in the 1980’s, she endangers her life because of the Iranian government’s restrictions on religion. His father, a jovial, loquacious dentist covertly obtains the proper paperwork for escape, then drops off his eight-year-old son and twelve-year-old daughter, Dina, at the airport as his wife starts a journey that will take the threesome to Dubai, Italy, and finally, Oklahoma. Daniel Nayeri’s Printz Award-winning book, Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story), telling how his family turned from comfortable, wealthy land owners to battered, poor refugees can be summed up in these few sentences; but the flow of the chapter-less pages weaves a tale likened to the much admired, Scheherazade of 1,001 Nights. The paragraphs describing memories of Daniel’s (no one in America can pronounce Khosrou!) grandparents’ home and his parents’ relationship spin into beloved Persian legends and myths and wind up next to pages relating the harsher daily existence he experiences in Oklahoma. Daniel is at the center of a maelstrom as the cover depicts, a twelve-year-old boy with different tastes in foods and specific hygienic customs, wanting to fit in yet also wanting to hold on to the Persian culture he cherishes. A son with vivid recollections who longs for the warmth of his biological father, but is resigned to live with his stern, abusive Farsi- speaking step-father whom his mother marries and keeps remarrying for companionship and convenience, despite the beatings she suffers. As Daniel narrates his life tale with casual familiarity, the reader learns of the ancient heritage of Iran and its reverence and love of story, his difficulties adjusting to each stage of the refugee journey, and his impressions of Americans and life here. Most of all, the story is a tribute to the perseverance and unconditional love of his mother, Sima. In the refugee hotel of Italy instead of lolling around all day waiting for the call to emigrate, she makes a connection with a Texan woman living in Rome who home schools her own children and arranges for Daniel and Dina to share in the lessons even though Sima has to spend hours erasing the answers from the host children’s cast-off notebooks so that Daniel and Dina can use them. Her determination and dignity to make life good for her son and daughter are evident in that scene. Told not as a memoir, but as a work of fiction—for as the narrator tells us, it is not so simple to sort out fact from fiction when dealing with one’s memories—Daniel delivers the truth of his life as he remembers it with humor and charm and not a bit of self-pity. Shifting from present to far past to recent past, he shares his varied observations, thus preserving his precious legacy of storytelling, made up or real, or a mixture of both.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: Like the coveted cream puffs described in one of Nayeri’s tales, this book is a treat for those who appreciate a different writing style and matchless imagery. There are bits of scatological references—the unhappy affect of a first-time encounter with Sloppy Joes and negotiating a toilet with a bidet—but the targeted audience may appreciate and even empathize with Daniel’s situations. Written with a truly inimitable voice, this work is unlike any book for middle grade or young adult this reader has encountered. Recommend to students who love words or like to write, to those new to a place, or those needing to understand another perspective.

MG – When Stars are Scattered

Jamieson, Victoria, and Omar Mohamed. When Stars are Scattered. Dial, 2020. 978-0-525-55391-5. 257 p. + notes. $20.99. Grades 3-8.

Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have been living in a Kenyan refugee camp since fleeing Somalia at the age of 4. Omar’s life consists of taking care of Hassan, with the assistance of Fatuma, an elderly woman who has been appointed the boys’ guardian. UN supplied food rations are meager and entertainment is what can be manufactured, such as playing soccer with a ball created from plastic bags. Omar has not gone to school, feeling responsible for Hassan. But a camp community leader encourages Omar to begin attending school, and a new world  opens to Omar. But it can be a painful world, of crushed dreams and disappointments. Brilliant student Maryam who dreams of going to university in Canada, is forced to quit school and get married. The system of choosing people for possible relocation to the United States seems random, and when Omar and Hassan are finally chosen for an emigration interview, nothing comes of it. But Omar continues to study and dream. When Omar is 18 the brothers are finally selected for resettlement. This stunning autobiography portrays, in beautiful color palettes, the reality of life in a refugee camp. Living conditions are horrific, but there are also close bonds of people who care for and support each other. Omar’s horrific backstory is revealed during his first resettlement interview, explaining how he and Hassan came to be in the  camp alone at such a young age. Author notes at the end of the story update the reader on the brothers’ story after reaching the United States, including the delightful surprise that Omar is currently living in Lancaster, PA.

THOUGHTS: This important story is a must purchase for most libraries. It carries the gravitas of Jarrett Krosocka’s Hey Kiddo, but appropriate for a younger audience.

Autobiography          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

As Omar so succinctly states in the word bubble on the back cover: “Refugee Camps are supposed to be a temporary place to stay until it’s safe to go back home. I guess no one expected the war to last so long, though, because Hassan and I have been here for 7 years.” With gorgeous colors and interesting characters, Jamieson and Mohamed take us through childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya. The monotony of daily essential routines for survival are mixed with increasing odds against finding their mother or going back home to Somalia. What remains is the effort to take care of one another, the opportunity to get schooling and seek a future, and the slightest chance to immigrate to another country for a new beginning. All of these seem unlikely for Omar, who faces tragic memories, current realities, and future possibilities with truth and sincerity that will bring young readers into his world and into their hearts. When the Stars Are Scattered is a remarkable light in the night sky which guides hope home.

THOUGHTS: Both Pennsylvania residents do an excellent job bringing the refugee experience to children. The sibling relationship with Hassan, who is nonverbal except for one word, is truly touching and real. The afterword and authors’ notes bring the story up to date, and help realize the many other refugee stories that need to be heard. Highly recommended.

Graphic Novel          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

This beautifully drawn graphic novel tells the story of Omar Mohamed, a young Somalian boy who was forced out of his country and into a refugee camp in Kenya with his young brother at the age of 4.  Omar’s younger brother, Hassan, is special needs and only says one word, Hooyo, the Somalian word for Mama. Omar and Hassan saw their father killed and were separated from their mother as the Civil War in Somalia started. With the kindness of a new foster mother, Omar and Hassan survive and grow up in the Dadaab refugee camp. Omar’s life changes when he starts school and excels, earning the right to continue to attend school as he grows up. Omar and Hassan never give up looking for their real mother, and in the Afterword we see real photos of Omar and Hassan, and learn that, years later, they are reunited with her.

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

Graphic Novel          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

YA – Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In

Tran, Phuc. Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In. Flatiron Books. 2020. 978-1-250-19471-8. 306 pp. $27.99. Gr. 11+.

In 1975, during the fall of Saigon, Vietnam, Phuc Tran’s family immigrated to the United States with a two-year old Phuc in tow. They landed in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where they struggled to assimilate into small town life. Sigh, Gone explores Phuc’s childhood and teenage years. Against the indelible backdrop of the 1980s, he finds comfort and connection in punk rock music, the wisdom of classic books, skateboarding with his friends, and indulging in some minor hooliganism. This memoir describes his journey of self-discovery as well as many experiences of isolation, racism, and even abuse. Although firmly rooted in time and place, Phuc’s quest to develop his own identity (and avoid the timeless pitfall of being a poser) will resonate with today’s teen readers. “I contemplated what exactly was authentic for me, a Vietnamese teenager in small-town PA,” Tran writes. “What part of me was the real me and what was the façade?”

THOUGHTS: Sigh, Gone is an uncommonly good memoir: moving, universal, and profound. Readers will laugh out loud in every chapter, look up Phuc’s many music (and hopefully literature) references online, and also look up a higher-than-average number of new words in the dictionary.

Memoir (Crossover)          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – In Focus (Series Nonfiction)

In Focus. BrightPoint Press, 2020. $31.05 ea. $155.25 set of 5. 80 p. Grades 7-12.

Barton, Jen. School Shootings. 978-1-68282-721-5.
Cornell, Kari A. Fake News. 978-1-68282-715-4.
Erikson, Marty. The #MeToo Movement.  978-1-68282-717-8.
—. Refugees. 978-1-68282-719-2.
—. Transgender Rights. 978-1-68282-723-9.

The publisher declares this imprint as young adult nonfiction for struggling and ELL readers. The packaging works for young adults, who will find the physical packaging to visually blend with other on-level resources and may need to be encouraged to use these resources (if they have come to believe they cannot tackle typical young adult nonfiction).  Examples shared in the books cover current issues from worldwide perspectives. The monotony of the writing (subject-verb-complement) to suit the 4th grade reading level stunts the text and at times even deadens or disjoints the issue. For example, “Some colonists wanted to overthrow British rule. They wanted to be independent. This led to the Revolutionary War. Some colonists wrote exaggerated stories. These stories spread rumors about the government. John and Samuel Adams were cousins. They lived in Massachusetts. They wrote anti-government stories” (20). The most helpful chapters come at the end of the books, where tips to see through fake news, or how to support the #MeToo Movement, are shared.  Additional resources are few but useful.

THOUGHTS: Useful where there is a definite need for hi-lo nonfiction for young adults. (Titles reviewed were: Fake News and The #MeToo Movement.)

300s: Social Issues                Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – Village of Scoundrels

Preus, Margi. Village of Scoundrels. Amulet Books, 2020. 978-1-419-70897-8. 295 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

To the people of Nazi ocupied France, every step must be calculated and every risk weighed carefully. In this powerful novel, Preus explores how the young people of France band together in order to smuggle refugees across the border into neutral Switzerland. Henni, a Jewish girl in hiding, helps to protect children by hiding them in the woods during Nazi raids on their hiding spot. Celeste bravely travels across the country to procure items necessary to continue bringing people to safety. Although these girls are brilliant in their work, they also need someone who can provide legal documents and safe travel. Jean Paul is an expert at forgery, and Philippe is knowledgeable with the terrain and how to arrange passage. This group of children will assist the extrication of hundreds of people and stand up for what is right no matter the risk and danger associated with their tasks.

THOUGHTS: This novel is based on a true story and is thoughtfully written. The pages are filled with accurate details and French and German words. The author provides a Cast of Characters (almost like a Playbill) and a pronunciation guide at the start of the book. This proves useful because there are a variety of characters to keep up with, which at times is overwhelming as they jump from person to person within a chapter. A great read for those who enjoy reading historical fiction and the World War II time period.

Historical Fiction        Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

YA – Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed

Anderson, Laurie Halse, and Leila Del Duca, Illustrator. Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed. DC Comics. 2020. 978-1-4012-8645-3. 207 pp. $16.99. Grades 7-10.

Themyscira, the secret island home of the Amazons, is protected by a barrier that shelters them from the outside world, although global conflict and human suffering weaken the barrier. On Princess Diana’s 16th “Born Day,” she breaks the rules to help refugees stranded at sea, and is trapped beyond the barrier. Days later, she washes ashore in Greece, now a refugee herself. Her skill with languages earns her a student visa to the United States. In New York city, “Diana Prince” learns about social justice issues (racism, income inequality, gentrification) through her feisty foster sister, Raissa. She also discovers that the square where Raissa and her friends practice parkour is an excellent makeshift training facility for an erstwhile Amazon. Through a free lunch program where the girls volunteer, Diana learns of a possible human trafficking ring, and she discovers her true purpose: protecting the most vulnerable. Sunny, high-contrast artwork in shades of turquoise, terra cotta, and blue-black perfectly frame a diverse cast, and especially Diana’s expressive face and body language.

THOUGHTS: Themes of preparing to be a warrior, fighting for what’s right, and forging a “found family” are always appealing to teen readers, and Wonder Woman finds an audience generation after generation. With Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed, Laurie Halse Anderson joins Leigh Bardugo, Marie Lu, Matt de la Peña, and more top YA authors who are reinventing the superhero origin story. The title is a wink to Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus,” and its famous line: “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – Maybe He Just Likes You; Good Enough; Klawde; Viewpoints on the Sinking of the Titanic; The Okay Witch; Over the Moon; Other Words for Home; Last Meeting of the Gorilla Club; Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky; The Story Web; Dragon Pearl

Dee, Barbara. Maybe He Just Likes You. Aladdin, 2019. 978-1-534-43237-6. 283 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

When do you decide enough is enough? Seventh grade Mila is excited to celebrate her friend Omi’s birthday after lunch with a thoughtful gift and a group hug with her other friends Max and Zara. This moment between friends is perfect – that is until the basketball boys come over and hug them too, lingering on Mila. This small moment makes Mila uncomfortable, and it doesn’t stop there. The boys find ways to bump into Mila, make comments, and invade her personal space. Afraid to tell her mom, the principal (who is also the boys basketball coach), or her guidance counselor, Mila’s emotions spiral out of control. Mila tries to tell her friends what is going on, but they shrug it off, saying that’s just how boys are. But when a friend comes to Mila with information about a “scorecard” and another friend steps forward and says it happened to her too, Mila finds the strength to speak up for herself and stop the unwanted attention.

THOUGHTS: This middle grade novel does a perfect job of exploring the #metoo movement and how harassment and innocent “jokes” can end up affecting others. The story will bring you all the feels – joy, anger, shock – and leave you feeling like you may know someone this book is perfect for. The book also explores different relationships between characters and the strength a person has to stand up for themselves.

Realistic Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Petro-Roy, Jen. Good Enough. Feiwel and Friends, 2019. 978-1-250-12351-0. 261 p. $16.99. Grades 7-9.

Twelve year old Riley doesn’t think she’s good enough, fast enough, talented enough…the list goes on and on. Tired of being compared to her “golden” younger sister Julia, Riley starts running excessively, skipping meals, and having a bad attitude. And it gets worse! At school she is being picked on for what she looks like and how she eats, which leads Riley down the path to an eating disorder. Riley’s parents decide she needs to be hospitalized in order to find the path to recovery. The story is presented as a journal of Riley’s experiences while hospitalized – her struggle with anxiety, food issues, and her parents’ constant judging and disappointment. The program requires strict meal planning, therapy sessions, group activities, and even counting out loud while you go to the bathroom. Riley meets several girls in the program all while dealing with the loss of her best friend and discovers that she is more than the voice in her head telling her she’s “not enough.” Will Riley’s parents accept her for who she is and not just as someone with a problem? Does Riley have the power to be in control of herself? A must read!

THOUGHTS: Perfection. Petro-Roy does a fantastic job of approaching a delicate subject as she is someone who battled an eating disorder. The journal style of writing allows readers to feel as if they are taking the journey with Riley day by day and makes for a fast read. The story deals with so much more than recovering from an eating disorder and allows readers to see that we all have flaws that make us who we are.

Realistic Fiction         Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Marciano, Johnny, & Emily Chenoweth. Klawde: Evil Alien Warlord Cat: The Spacedog Cometh. Book 3. Penguin Workshop, 2019. 978-1-524-78724-0. $14.99. Grades 4-8.

The third epic adventure of Klawde: Evil Alien Warlord Cat! As Klawde continues to plot his return to his home planet and take over from the tiny evil kitten who has taken command, he is unaware that there are others looking for him: the most loyal beasts of all…dogs! Barx has been given the mission to capture and return Klawde to his home plant to pay dues for blowing up one of their most amazing plants! As Barx travels to Earth, he realizes just how wonderful it is, especially Klawde’s master Raj. While the animals fight and attempt their vengeful missions, Raj is suffering with his own problems. His parents are out of town for a few weeks for a conference vacation, so his Ajji, grandmother, is staying with him. All she cooks is weird, un-American food and decides to throw him a birthday party. How will Raj deal with Ajji, as well as dealing with Klade being…Klawde!

THOUGHTS: I was so excited to see the third book to this hilarious series! The addition of the dog characters brought forth more excitement and perspective to the “dog vs. cat” personality stereotypes. A great third book for the Klawde lovers!

Adventure/Action/Fantasy          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

Russo, Kristin J. Viewpoints on the Sinking of the Titanic. Orchard Books, 2019. 978-1-228-18736-6. 48 p. $25.95. Grades 5-8.

In a subseries of Part of the Perspectives Library, Viewpoints and Perspectives takes a look at how various people may have different views about some of the most known events in history. In Viewpoints on the Sinking of the Titanic readers get a look inside the Titanic through the eyes of three very different passengers. Using first person stories inset with facts about the ship and a timeline of the events, this title takes readers through what the sinking of the Titanic was like for a first, second, and third class passenger. This book is a nice mixture of pictures and stories, allowing for students not to be overwhelmed by the amount of text to read. With a mixture of historical black and white, recreated color, and pencil drawings readers get a look back in time. The simplicity of the pages and clear nonfiction text structure lends this book to be a great introduction to text structures including table of context, index, timeline, and captions. The book includes ideas for teachers in the sidebars to help lead research or a lesson on the Titanic.  

THOUGHTS: The unique look into different classes on the Titanic would allow students to see how classes were separated and the prejudice against the lower classes even while evacuating the boat. A book like this could, and others in this series, be used in middle schools to see how prejudices have changed throughout history.

910.9 History, general          Arryn Cumpston, Crawford Central SD

Steinkellner, Emma. The Okay Witch. Aladdin, 2019. 978-1-534-43146-1. 271 p. $20.99. Grades 4-8.

Moth believes she is a typical Halloween loving teenager, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. After studying the history surrounding Founder’s Bluff and the persecution of witches, Moth suddenly discovers that she may have special “powers.” After an incident with the school bullies and a talking cat at home, Moth confronts her mother for the truth. Yes, Moth is from a long line of witches, and with her mother’s diary and her new found powers, she is about to discover the truth. The witches of Founder’s Bluff were real…and they are still alive. Moth learns to navigate middle school (including a new boy who keeps bumping into her), harness her powers against her mother’s wishes, and meet her very ancient grandma. Travel with Moth through past and present as she discovers her heritage and becomes an “okay” witch.

THOUGHTS: This debut graphic novel will delight middle schoolers as Moth discovers who she truly is. The illustrations are whimsical and eye-catching, while the story just flows across the frames through a series of chapters. Graphic novel readers will want to pick this novel up, especially if they enjoy the element of magic.

Graphic Novel            Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Lloyd, Natalie. Over the Moon. Scholastic Press, 2019. 978-1-338-11849-0. 291 p. $14.95. Gr. 4-8.

The Dust has taken away the light from the stars in Coal Top, made the villagers feel hopeless, and forced children to work for measly wages. Mallie cleans the home of a well to do family in the “Down Below.” The work is hard and does not pay enough to help protect her brother from being taken by the Guardians and sent to the mines to work. When a mysterious flyer appears and offers an opportunity for orphan boys to earn riches, Mallie knows this is her chance to save her family. Mallie quickly discovers that the task is to tame and ride a Starbird into the Dust above in order to retrieve gold dust. Up for the challenge, she doesn’t back down and struggles with her disability as well as the others who wish she wasn’t there. With the help of her friend Adam, and her loyal Starbird Leo, Mallie finds she can be successful. But when she discovers the leader, Mortimer, is up to something dark and sinister, Mallie decides she must expose the truth. Risking her life and her family’s, Mallie races against the Dust and Mortimer to prove that the stars really do exist.

THOUGHTS: You can’t help but cheer for Mallie as she struggles to protect her family, discover the truth, and overcome obstacle after obstacle. The characters are well developed and the whimsy of flying horses and dust puppets make the story come to life. Fans of Lloyd will not be disappointed with this title that pulls at your heart strings and reminds you to shoot for the stars.

Science Fiction            Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Warga, Jasmine. Other Words for Home. Balzer and Bray, 2019. 978-0-062-74780-8. $16.99. 352 p. Grades. 4-8.

Jude, young immigrant from Syria adjusts to her new life in Ohio. She had to flee with her pregnant mother, leaving behind her father and older brother. There is so much change living with her uncle, aunt, and cousin who is in the same grade. Although her aunt and uncle are accommodating, her cousin Sarah is a bit jealous of the attention and practically ignores Jude at school. School is a challenge. She thought her English was good in Syria, but in the United States pace of life is so much faster, including the language! Life is definitely not like the American movies she used to watch with her friends. Jude is a resilient girl. She makes friends with others in ESL (English as a Second Language) and meets Layla who is also Muslim. She wants to fit in, and one of her real motivations is the musical. She works really hard to try out, perfecting her English and learning about drama. This annoys Sarah and her friends who Jude thinks of as “SarahMinaHarperStone” (They seem to lack individuality.). Jude is concerned for Amal, her new baby sister. Amal, whose name means Hope, will be an American, not an immigrant. Jude realizes that home is where the people you love and those who love you are. It is where you feel you belong, and Jude works very hard to create a place for herself.

THOUGHTS: Jude voices very real concerns about fitting in, prejudices against Muslims, and the safety of her father and older brother who are still in Syria. The reaction to a bombing in the Middle East and subsequent vandalism of Layla’s family property is both upsetting to the community and an opportunity to bond. Warga’s use of verse to tell the story makes it accessible and poignant as the succinct wording and rhythm evoke emotions and meaning.

Realistic Fiction          Jeannie Bellavance, Retired

Nicherson, Sara. Last Meeting of the Gorilla Club. Dutton Children’s Books, 2019. 978-1-101-99442-9. 240 p. $17.99. Grades 3-7.

Josh is starting fifth grade at a new school, a fresh start, where no one knows of Josh’s multiple invisible friends. Only Josh’s friends are not imaginary; they just can’t be seen by anyone else. But the friends are all gone, buried at his old house. Until Big Brother shows up again on Josh’s first day of school. Big Brother dispenses advice, comfort, and companionship. But Josh is not the only student in his class with an awkward friend. Lucas has an invisible friend, Maxie, and Josh can see her too. While Big Brother gently guides and encourages Josh to be brave and try new experiences, Maxie seems a bit more malevolent. When she engineers a meeting between the two boys, she may be dangerously replaying her sad history. But Lucas and Josh discover real friends are powerful also.

THOUGHTS: A unique look at processing death and maturing. Readers who feel they see the world differently than those around them will definitely relate to Josh and Lucas.

Fantasy          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Mbalia, Kwame. Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky. Rick Riordan Presents, 2019. 978-1-368-03993-2. 482 p. $17.99. Grades 3-7.

Tristan is having a difficult time recovering from the school bus accident that left his best friend Eddie dead. Frustrated, his mother sends him to spend some time with his grandparents down south in Alabama. Grandma warns Tristan to stay away from the bottle tree, a traditional structure to capture haints, or spirits, at the edge of the forest. Tristan would have gladly done so, but that night he is awoken by a small, sticky figure sneaking in his room. Gum Baby has come to steal Eddie’s journal, and Tristan chases her into the forest, attempting to reclaim his cherished memento. When Tristan punches the bottle tree in frustration, he inadvertently creates a hole in the sky and is pulled into another world, where the stories his grandma used to tell him and Eddie come alive. Another mythology/folklore based adventure from Rick Riordan’s imprint, Tristan Strong brings alive the tales of the deep south, featuring Brer Rabbit, John Henry and, of course, Tristan’s reluctant sidekick Gum Baby. Tristan is sent on a quest to find the trickster god, Anansi, who can weave the sky back together. While Tristan is convinced he cannot save anyone (he broods that he failed to save Eddie), he discovers heroes do not necessarily have to be strong, or even brave, and he is more than capable of saving the world of his new friends from destruction.

THOUGHTS: This lightning fast, rollicking tale will win many fans, as well as introduce them to Black American folklore. Tristan and Gum Baby are a new dynamic duo that provide constant laughs as they attempt to save the day.

Fantasy (Mythology)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Blakemore, Megan Frazer. The Story Web. Bloomsbury, 2019. 978-1-681-19525-4. 321 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7. 

When Alice was little, her magical father would regale her with wondrous stories. But now Alice’s world is broken in so many ways. She no longer socializes with friends, she quit her ice hockey team, and even nature seems out of whack, with forest creatures making their way into town. She believes everything stems back to that something she did that made her father go away. But Alice can no longer maintain her invisible persona. The animals know; Alice’s classmate, frequently bullied Melanie, knows; and her best friend, Lewis, knows. The story web, a fragile creation of spiders, spun to record the stories of man, is broken. If it is not fixed soon, the world will be in peril. Alice’s father had explained the story web to her when she was young, and now Alice must look past her grief and fear to work with Melanie, Lewis, and many caring individuals, to repair it. But when the stories Alice remembers from her father don’t rebuild the web, the children realize they must find their own stories, as painful as they may be. The plot unfolds at a leisurely pace, through various viewpoints, including several animals. Much like spinning a web, individual threads eventually weave together in a breathtaking finale. The storyline of Alice’s father, who is eventually revealed to be suffering from PTSD, also takes time to uncover, and is never explained directly, but rather through oblique comments, reminiscences, and finally a conversation between Alice and her father.

THOUGHTS:  While the climax is riveting, it will take a patient reader to navigate to that point. Hand this lovely, heartwarming story to a reader who enjoys the journey as well as the destination.  

Fantasy          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Lee, Yoon Ha. Dragon Pearl. Rick Riordan Presents, 2019. 978-1-368-01335-2. 320 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl, one of the first titles published under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, will delight young readers who like their fantasy informed by the trappings and tropes of science fiction. Lee imagines a world—a thousand worlds, actually—inspired by Korean mythology, and then sends it – them – spinning off into outer space. The young protagonist, Min, is a shape-shifting fox disguised as a human to avoid the persecution her species has long suffered. When her brother disappears, she sets off in search of him, planet-hopping through the universe on a grand and dangerous adventure. The plot moves at a breathless, breakneck pace as Min pilots a rocket ship and has run-ins with ghosts, dragons, and pirates.  

THOUGHTS: A top-notch #own voices entry in the sci-fi/fantasy genre that subtly addresses issues of identity and acceptance.  Highly recommended for middle schools.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Fiction          Maggie Bokelman, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – Tess of the Road, Not the Girls You’re Looking For, My Plain Jane, Illegal, The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Graphic Novel, The Poet X, Hooper, After the Shot Drops

Hartman, Rachel.  Tess of the Road. New York: Random House, 2018. 978-1-101-93128-8. 536 p. $18.99. Gr. 8 and up.

Rachel Hartman’s latest epic tome (it’s a whopping 536 pages), Tess of the Road, follows Tess Dombegh on her road to self-discovery and self-reflection.  Tess feels trapped: trapped by her past and her future; trapped by her upbringing; trapped by family obligations.  After nearly ruining her twin sister Jeanne’s wedding by drunkenly confessing a family secret to her new brother-in-law, Tess, without much forethought, runs away.  The novel takes place in the same world as Seraphina; indeed, Tess is Seraphina’s half-sister, but only grudgingly.  Unlike Seraphina, however, which focuses mainly on court and Dragon politics, Tess of the Road is a much more introspective novel, and puts the focus squarely on Tess herself. Quickly, Tess realizes that a woman traveling alone is a dangerous prospect, so she disguises herself as a boy, adopting the persona of her loathsome brother-in-law, Jacomo, a burgeoning monk.  She serendipitously finds her long lost childhood friend, Pathka, a Quigutl (not quite a dragon, not quite a human, not quite a lizard), and the two set off together on something like a pilgrimage to find a World Serpent named Anathuthia, a legendary snake like creature who helped shaped the world. As she travels, the reader gets glimpses into Tess’s heartbreaking past, which involve a rake named Will, and her reasons for wanting to be on the road become ever clearer. The people she meets along the way reframe her idea of herself – she was raised to hate her own body, to believe that a woman is the embodiment of sin, and that her only duty is to her husband and family; Tess’s realization that she can be more than her mother has always suggested she is (which isn’t much) is one of the joys of this book. Tess is not always a sympathetic character, and she makes plenty of missteps, but her intentions are almost always honorable, and she does her best to make up for those she wrongs.  This is not a fast-paced, action-packed novel – it is a slow, cathartic, reflective journey, but those who reach the end will be well-rewarded.

THOUGHTS: Rachel Hartman’s secondary characters are supremely well-rounded, and Tess’s interactions with each of them, especially her sister, Jeanne, with whom she has a not so healthy relationship, Tess’s brief, enlightening encounter with Frai Moldi, an angry, depressed, and brilliant young monk, gives this novel such depth. Just when you think you know exactly who each character is, and how they’ll react in certain situations, they throw you for a loop, and defy expectations.

Fantasy          Lauren Friedman-Way, The Baldwin School

Safi, Aminah Mae. Not the Girls You’re Looking For. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2018. 978-1-250-15181-0. 331 p. $17.99. Gr. 9 and up.

Aminah Mae Safi’s Not the Girls You’re Looking For reads like an angrier, edgier cross between Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and E. Lockhart’s The Boyfriend List. While this isn’t the most sophisticated novel, it is an important one, as it celebrates female sexuality; each of the female characters actively and unabashedly experience sexual desires and are intimately involved with others. That being said, it also doesn’t beat around the bush about how others perceive female sexuality, and the word “slut” is bandied about quite a bit here. Our protagonist, Lulu, is in the midst of something of an existential crisis: she is half White and half Persian, and feels like she doesn’t truly belong anywhere – her mother’s family has rejected her father and his family, and her father’s family will not fully embrace her mother, or Lulu.  She has experienced racism and Islamophobia at the hands of her classmates, and it drives her decision to stay under the radar socially (which hasn’t actually seemed to work too well). Despite this, Lulu has a loyal and fierce group of friends – Lo, beautiful, intimidating, and smart as a whip; Audrey, posh, wealthy, and polished; and Emma, the reserved peacekeeper of the group. They are not always a likeable or sympathetic bunch, but they truly love each other, even when they’re horrible to each other. When Lulu’s friendships begin to splinter for various reasons, she has to come up with a plan to bring them all back together again. In the meantime, she also has to navigate a somewhat tempestuous new romance, an obnoxious male classmate who won’t stop making unwanted advances towards her, birth control, and Ramadan. While the writing here can be disjointed and awkward at times, readers will instantly find themselves enraptured with Lulu and her world.

THOUGHTS: This is definitely a book for more mature readers. However, this novel realistically portrays burgeoning teenage sexuality; the discussion Lulu has with her mom about sex is particularly affecting, and will be helpful for teens looking for a way to open up a dialogue with their own parent, or with a trusted adult, about the topic.

Realistic Fiction          Lauren Friedman-Way, The Baldwin School

Hand, Cynthia, et al. My Plain Jane. New York: Harper Teen, 2018. 978-0-062-65277-5. 450 p. $17.99. Gr. 8 and up.

My Plain Jane is a charming, effervescent, and witty retelling(ish) of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In this reimagining, Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, Bronte and Jane Eyre are close friends at Lowood School, where Jane Eyre is a teacher.  In this version of the story, Jane Eyre is a “seer,” which means she can see, and communicate, with ghosts. Indeed, Helen Burns, her best friend who passed away from “graveyard disease” at the age of fourteen, is her constant ghostly companion. Jane keeps this a closely guarded secret, however, as it has only caused her grief when she’s tried to tell people about it. Enter Alexander Blackwell, a member of the Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits (SRWS), an organization run by the Duke of Wellington that has fallen out of favor with the king, who does not believe in ghosts.  When he comes to a pub close to Lowood to “relocate” a troublesome ghost, Jane witnesses this event, which entails Alexander “bopping” the ghost on the head with a pocket watch. When Alexander discovers that Jane is a seer, he sets out to recruit her for the SRWS. She wants nothing to do with it, as she has decided that it’s an evil organization who imprisons ghosts for nefarious purposes; instead, she takes a position as governess at Thornfield Hall. Not one to give up so easily, Alexander, with the help of Charlotte, who would give her left foot to join the SRWS, and Branwell, Charlotte’s brother, and the newest, albeit bumbling, member of the SRWS, pursue Jane to Thornfield to attempt to persuade her to join up.  Jane, however, has fallen hard for the mysterious, erratic, and shifty Mr. Rochester, whom nobody trusts, least of all Helen, who is convinced there is something terribly wrong at Thornfield, and with Rochester. We all know what happens next, right? Actually, no – the story deviates quite a bit here, with a truly supernatural twist. It turns out there’s more to everyone’s story here, Rochester most of all, and Hand, Ashton, and Meadows do a wonderful job creating a clever alternate ending. While it helps to have some knowledge of Jane Eyre, and Charlotte Bronte, just to understand some of the references, it’s not necessary to enjoy and appreciate this rolicking ghost story.

THOUGHTS: This is the second “Jane” novel that these three authors – they have dubbed themeselves The Lady Janies –  have co-penned; the first, My Lady Jane, was an alternate take on Lady Jane Grey’s story.  Sadly, readers will have to wait at least two years for the next Jane story – My Calamity Jane. Be sure to have copies of Jane Eyre, and other Bronte novels, on hand for readers of this book!

Historical Fantasy          Lauren Friedman-Way, The Baldwin School

Colfer, Eoin, and Andrew Donkin. Illustrated by Giovanni Rigano. Illegal. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2018. 978-1-492-66214-3. 128 pp. $19.99. Grades 6-12.

Illegal follows the perilous journey of Ebo, a twelve-year old boy from a small village in Ghana, to a potentially brighter future in Europe. Realizing that his older brother Kwame has already fled their village, Ebo follows him to Agadez, Niger. Reunited, the brothers travel across the Saharan Desert to the city of Tripoli, Libya, where they work tirelessly to save enough money for an ocean crossing to Italy. The boys are continuously confronted with harsh elements, unsympathetic authorities, and unscrupulous traffickers, but Ebo’s ingenuity and drive may see them safely through. Authors Eoin Colfer (of Artemis Fowl fame) and Andrew Donkin employ a dual timeline, depicting the hazardous boat voyage across the Mediterranean (“Now”) in alternating chapters with the nineteen months Ebo spent getting there (“Then”). This effective structure illustrates how Ebo’s path involves not just one dangerous crossing, but many months of risk, fear, and luck – sometimes good and sometimes bad.

THOUGHTS: Ebo’s story is fictional, but each element of his journey is based in fact. Brilliantly colored artwork and an emotionally gripping storyline bring the humanity of an “illegal” to life for readers of all ages. Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab is another excellent graphic novel about the refugee experience for readers seeking a comparable title.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Morhain, Jorge, Martin Tunica, and Pablo Tunica. The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Graphic Novel. Stone Arch Books, 2018. 80 p. 978-1-496-56409-2. $27.32. Grades 7-12.

The strength of this book is Oscar Wilde’s thought-inspiring story wherein the virtuous, wealthy, and handsome Dorian Gray is painted by Basil Hallward, and so showered with praise that Dorian impetuously wishes to sell his soul if he can always appear as he does in the painting.  Soon, under the tutelage of the amoral Henry Wotten, Dorian is making one cruel choice after another and realizing that while he does not age, his (now hidden) portrait shows the true ugliness of his soul. In an era where beauty is believed by some to show the purity of the soul within, everyone loves Dorian.  But his reputation is slowly being sullied by rumors. Worse yet, Dorian struggles inside himself to make sense of his own desires. Who is he? Why is he loved? Can he truly do anything he wishes? By believing something, can he make it so, or change the truth?

THOUGHTS: This slim graphic novel is scripted by writer Jorge Morhain, with illustrations by Martin Tunica and coloring by Pablo Tunica.  Glossary, discussion questions, and writing prompts enrich the reading. It is true that the twists and beauty of the original language are missing, but Wilde’s story stands the test of time and change.

Graphic Novel          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Acevedo, Elizabeth. The Poet X. Harper Teen, 2018.  361 p. 978-006-266280-4  $17.99 Grades 9-12.

Xiomara is a fiery Dominican, full of questions that do not fit with her Catholic mother’s strict parenting style, nor her devout and quieter best friend Caridad or even her own twin Xavier.  She finds the treatment of females demeaning (especially one so developed as she is), and her entire community’s expectations (or lack thereof) for her to be restricting and bland. Xiomara has a voice, but using it is proving problematic.  Xiomara also has a temper and fists which she uses to fight back, for herself or her smaller, cautious brother. But Xavier sees through his sister, and his gift of a leather-bound notebook to Xiomara on their birthday starts Xiomara to writing.  Xiomara writes poetry, expressing the frustration, anger, and confusion she feels about her family, her community and her future. Her English teacher encourages her to attend her new performance poetry club, but it conflicts with scheduled confirmation classes with Father Sean.  Refreshingly, Father Sean tells her that questions are allowed and necessary. At school, she begins a relationship with Aman, which fills her poetry with more questions, especially since Mami would undoubtedly rejoice if Xiomara chose the life of a nun that Mami herself was denied at Xiomara’s age. Xiomara disobeys her mother to be with Aman, and to attend the poetry club. Both cause her to grow, but only poetry does not disappoint. “I can’t remember/the last time people were silent/while I spoke, actually listening” (259). Xiomara is hiding her explosive self, and it’s about to unravel. Can she find peace with her family and be true to herself?  “If my body was a Country Club soda bottle/it’s one that has been shaken and dropped/and at any moment it’s gonna pop open/and surprise the whole damn world” (105).

THOUGHTS: This is a strongly written first novel, completely in verse, and reveals a complicated young woman seemingly at odds with the world. To witness her transformation–and her family’s–aided by Father Sean, is rewarding.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Herbach, Geoff. Hooper. Katherine Tegen Books, 2018. 323 p. 978-0-062-45311-2 $17.99 Grades 9-12.

“Basketball is my passport.”  So believes Adam (Sobieski) Reed, since he moved from orphaned poverty in Poland to Minnesota with his adoptive mom (angel) Renata.  Soon enough he discovered basketball and a talent for it. “Oh, I love being on the court even if I’m not playing….Everything makes sense to me with basketball….Man, I just want to play” (86-7).   He also found his only friend, outsider Barry Roland, and self-centered nemesis Kase Kinshaw, who calls Adam “Duh” or “the Refugee.” Adam’s still-growing understanding of the English language and (especially) American culture places him in some awkward and hilarious situations, which Kase is glad to showcase.  Basketball brings Adam hope and, importantly, a friendship with Carli Anderson, who has drive and talent beyond Adam’s, despite tackling a severe knee injury. When Adam joins a select AAU team, he takes Carli’s advice to “talk more” to people, and finds himself a family in which he’s the only white kid. But every family has pressures, and off-court problems threaten this new family, as well as Barry.  How Adam seeks to respond to the problems will determine the trajectory of his life and friendships, even his career, for some time to come. Herbach has crafted a likeable, multi-faceted narrator in Adam, and readers will root for him as he learns to navigate America, the “inky black nightmares” from his past, and relationships in a new place.

THOUGHTS: A well-built cast of characters with unique interactions gives truth to the credo, “every person you meet has a story to tell.”  

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Ribay, Randy. After the Shot Drops. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018. 325 p. 978-1-328-70227-2  $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Bunny Thompson and Nasir have been best friends for years, but now in their sophomore year of high school, Bunny transfers to St. Sebastian’s, an elite prep school.  He has the basketball talent, and they have the opportunities. But Nasir is left behind at Whitman High, and since Bunny never discussed the change with him, he is feeling more than a little resentful of Bunny’s abandonment.  “You’re looking out for yourself so hard you forget that everyone else exists. So it’s nothing to you to leave us behind” (125). Nasir is also concerned about his cousin Wallace, who is about to be evicted and whose bad choices have led him into bad places before.  Nasir is disappointed that “[Bunny]’s got the world looking out for him. I’m the only one in Wallace’s corner” (139). So Nasir tries to help, but Wallace’s attempts to make some fast cash by betting on Bunny’s games leads him to severe desperation, so much that Nasir asks Bunny to throw a championship game.  Nasir realizes, “I don’t know how to help one without hurting the other” (169) and “Maybe it’s time for me to do right by both my friends, not just one” (243). But how to do that is the challenge.  Told alternately from Nasir’s and Bunny’s point of view, Ribay allows us to see the challenges each of the three young men face and swallow the frustration each one feels about the limits of their lives.  Bunny opens the novel by considering the impact of words in a memorial, and Nasir ends the book wishing he’d have been able to find the words to make more of a difference. This power of words, and the question of personal vs. collective responsibility, drive the book.  

THOUGHTS: This is a compelling look at limits, perspective, loyalty and compassion, strengthened by the use of dual points of view. A must-have for high school collections.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Upper Elem/MS FIC – Emma Moves In; Matylda; Watchdog; One Good Thing…

Hutton, Clare. Emma Moves In (American Girl: Like Sisters #1). Scholastic, 2017. 978-1-338-11499-7. $6.99. 188 p. Gr. 3-5.

Emma, an only child, adores the time she spends with her twin cousins, Natalia and Zoe. When her parents decide to leave their Seattle home and move across the country into her mother’s family homestead, Emily’s secret dream comes true: she will be living in the same town as her cousins. However, the transition is more difficult than Emily could have imagined. When school starts, she realizes her cousins have different personalities, different groups of friends, and finds herself awkwardly pulled between the sisters. Additionally, Emily’s father is still in Seattle, and the extended separation is adding to the stress Emily and her mom are experiencing. Was this move a huge mistake? THOUGHTS:  An exploration of the anxieties involved with moving and starting a new school. The secondary plotline concerning the escalating anger between Emily’s parents is also well portrayed. Emily exhibits good problem-solving skills in dealing with her cousins and hostile classmates but makes age-appropriate mistakes in dealing with the fear her parents are divorcing.   

Realistic Fiction     Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor School District


McGhee, Holly M. Matylda, Bright and Tender. Candlewick, 2017. 978-0-7636-895-1-3. $16.99. 210 p. Gr. 3-6.

Sussy and Guy have been friends since kindergarten. The pair bonded over Mr. Potato Head and never looked back. The two know they just belong together, bringing out the best in each other. Towards the end of fourth grade, the pair decide they need a pet, something of their own for which to be responsible. Guy adores leopard geckos, so they purchase Matylda and go to work figuring out how to make her happy. But in a moment of pure Guy, tragedy strikes as the pair are riding their bikes to the pet store. Now Sussy channels her grief on to Matylda, becoming increasingly desperate and reckless in her need to hold on to Guy through the gecko.   THOUGHTS:  Sussy and Guy are memorable characters, and Sussy’s grief is tangible. Readers will root for her to find her way back into the world.  

Realistic Fiction       Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor School District


McIntosh, Will.  Watchdog. Delacort, 2017.  978-1-5247-1384-3. $16.99. 192 p. Gr. 4-7.

Orphans Vick and Tara eke out a living by scavenging electronics parts to sell. The 13-year-old twins have been on their own since their mom died after being replaced at her job by a hairstyling robot. Although Tara is autistic, she is also a mechanical genius and tinkers with making a watchdog bot named Daisy. Unfortunately, the clever mechanical dog attracts the attention of Ms. Alba, who quickly puts the Vick and Tara to work in her bot-building sweatshop. After they manage to pull off an escape, Vick and Tara are on the run, with a price on their heads. However, a shadowy groups of teens who run a chop shop, stealing domestic robots to take apart and make watchdogs, come to the twins’ aid in their fight against the evil Ms. Alba. THOUGHTS:  A slightly dystopian setting with lots of action, sure to please those not ready to plunge into The Maze Runner or Hunger Games.  

Science Fiction     Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor School District


Freeman, Ruth. One Good Thing About America. Holiday House, 2017. 978-0-8234-3695-8. $16.95. 152 p. Gr. 3-7.

Nine-year-old Anais, her mother and brother Jean-Claud have recently arrived in the United States from Congo, escaping the violent, corrupt mining officials from whom her father and older brother are on the run. The book is a series of letters Anais writes her grandmother back in Congo. In each letter Anais attempts to find one good thing about America. Some days are easier than others to be positive, as the young girl battles a new language, new culture, new school and friends. Her missives reflect frustration when students at school laugh at her language mistakes, and a heart-wrenching moment when a friend’s parents exhibit blatant prejudice. The book is an insight into the struggles of the many immigrant students in our schools, highlighting the difficulties Anais’s mother experiences trying to find employment and housing, while maintaining stability for Anais and Jean-Claud. THOUGHTS:  A sweet book that thoughtfully illustrates a timely topic. Pair this book with Alan Gratz’s Refugee. While the afterward provides guidance to Anais’s broken English, a French-English pronunciation guide would have been extremely helpful. (She complains that her teacher can’t pronounce her name, but we are never given any guidance as to how her name would be pronounced.)

Realistic Fiction       Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor School District