YA – Late to the Party

Quindlen, Kelly. Late to the Party. Roaring Brook Press, 2020. 978-1-250-20913-9. 297 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Codi is comfortable in her bubble, content to do her own thing with the same friends she’s had since elementary school, Maritza and JaKory. That is until her little brother almost has his first kiss before she does. Realizing that she is already seventeen and about to enter her senior year of high school, Codi fears her chance to be a ‘normal’ teenager is slipping away. Hesitant at first, she begins to break out of her comfort zone little by little, meeting new friends, going new places, and even experiencing her first party. All the while tensions with Maritza and JaKory continue to rise. Can Codi be the friend she once was while still discovering new things? Can she be two people, the quiet artistic girl and the social teenager, at once? Will there be room enough in her life for life?

THOUGHTS: Late to the Party is a satisfying exploration of what it means for interests and relationships to grow as you get older, a reflection of an utterly relatable internal conflict.

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

YA – How to Speak Boy

Smith, Tiana. How to Speak Boy. Feiwel and Friends, 2020. 978-1-250-24221-1. $17.99. 245 p. Grades 7-12.

Quinn Edwards and Grayson Hawks have been rivals on their speech and debate team for years. As seniors, they have been chosen as co-captains, and have no choice but to spend time with each other. While Quinn tries to juggle debate practices and schoolwork, one of her AP Government assignments gets mixed up with another student. Her ID number is 15511, but she received 15211’s paper. When she returns the assignment to the cubby of 15211, explaining the mix up in a note, she receives her assignment back, along with a message, beginning a series of notes exchanged between Quinn and this mystery student. Meanwhile, her relationship with Grayson remains a mystery also. One moment, they’re arguing, and the next, he asks to take her to the formal. As Quinn tries to puzzle out her relationships, she begins to wonder about 15211’s identity. Could it be Grayson? Does she want it to be? Or, could it be Carter, one of her best friends? Quinn feels like she can talk to 15211 about anything, but when he asks to meet in person, she panics. If he finds out who she is, will it ruin the relationship and trust they’ve built through their letter writing, and will it ruin any chance of being in a relationship with Grayson?

THOUGHTS: If you read the summary of this book on the inside of the dust jacket, you know that Quinn is actually writing to Grayson. It’s one of those books where, as the reader, you know more than the characters in the story. Throughout the story, Quinn’s friends try to give her advice about her relationship with Grayson and 15211. Quinn learns that sometimes the people who you are closest with might not always have your best interests at heart, and others turn out to be completely different if you just take the chance to get to know them. I think readers will also connect with the theme of anonymity, especially in today’s world. Although Quinn and Grayson hide behind letters, only signing their communications with their ID numbers, many young people today hide behind social media accounts where they may not share their identity yet connect with people that have the same interests as themselves. This is a sweet, romantic novel perfect for any reader looking for a love story.

Romance          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Bookish and the Beast

Poston, Ashley. Bookish and the Beast. Quirk, 2020. 978-6-836-9193-8. 283 p. $18.99. Grades 6-10. 

Poston continues her delightful, fairy tale based Once Upon a Con series with a reworking of Beauty and the Beast to which Belle would give her stamp of approval. In the “no good deed goes unpunished” category, high school senior Rosie Thorne attempts to return a run-away dog with disastrous results. Following the dog into an apparently vacant house, she discovers a swoon–worthy library, filled with the books of the Starfield space saga universe, the very books her recently deceased mother read to her growing up. When Rosie is startled by another individual in the house she attempts to flee, accidentally dropping a rare first-edition in the pool. Sopping wet, Rosie learns the house is currently occupied by Starfield bad-boy actor Vance Reigns, serving a parental imposed timeout from his celebrity antics. She is now on the hook to organize the library, with the assistance of the self-absorbed star, to work off her debt. As if Vance Reigns would deign to dirty his hands working with books. But as any bibliophile knows, books have a magic all their own, and surely some magic will happen between the book-loving beauty with the mousy brown hair and the gorgeous guy hiding behind a beastly bad-boy persona. The book is populated with an appealing supporting cast of diverse characters, including Rosie’s bisexual librarian father and a gender-fluid best friend, and in a sop to series fans, Poston offers a few brief appearances by characters from the previous two novels. The Gaston plotline does double duty emphasizing that in the relationship world No should always mean No. While the plot is grounded in the Starfield Excelsi-Con world of the previous two books, the Con plays only a minor role this time, which should open the book to a wider romance audience.

THOUGHTS:  A thoroughly delightfully romp through Beauty and the Beast. Rosie is independent, feisty, and sweet, and while she deserves her happily-ever-after, she would have been OK without it. A solid purchase for collections where romance and fairy tale rewrites are popular, as well as an addition to LGBTQ+ collections.

Romance          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – What I Like About You

Kanter, Marisa. What I Like About You. Simon & Schuster, 2020. 978-1-534-44577-2. $18.99. 409 p. Grades 7-12.

Halle Levitt and her brother Ollie have just moved in with their grandpa. She will spend her senior year in a new small town and new school while her parents jet off to another country to film their newest documentary. Halle struggles, along with her Gramps, to be in the house without her Grams who passed away just a few years ago. It was her Grams that inspired her love of reading and baking, and when Halle isn’t studying for her SATs or applying for college at NYU, she connects with her online best friend, Nash, and updates her online blog called One True Pastry. Online, Halle is known as Kels, and she’s famous for her YA book reviews and her cupcake book cover creations. When Halle meets Nash in real life and discovers he lives in the same town as her Gramps, she decides not to tell him that she’s also his online best friend, Kels. Halle and Nash grow closer, but Halle needs to find the courage to tell him who she really is and hopes that he’ll like real-life, awkward Halle as much as he likes online, confident Kels.

THOUGHTS: What I Like About You reminds me of a YA version of the movie You’ve Got Mail. Halle’s decision to keep her Kels identity from Nash is frustrating, especially when he feels guilty about liking Halle while also keeping his crush on Kels. This book not only focuses on romantic relationships, but on family relationships as well. I love how close Halle is to her brother Ollie, and together they help their Gramps overcome the loss of their beloved Grams, and although Halle and Ollie are Jewish, their busy parents never had much time for their family to be a part of a Jewish community, like they can be with Gramps. Anyone that loves books will connect with Halle, Nash, and their online friends, and after finishing this sweet, romantic story, you might be inspired to whip a batch of cupcakes for yourself. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Turtle Under Ice

Del Rosario, Juleah. Turtle Under Ice. Simon Pulse, 2020. 259 p. $18.99 978-15344-4295-5 Grades 9-12.

Teenage sisters Rowena and Ariana have drifted apart since the unexpected death of their mother several years ago. Rowena has thrown herself into soccer, becoming a respected top athlete on her team. Fearing change, Ariana has retreated into…nothing, and risks failing school. The sisters’ closeness has become a barrier as they both fear moving on, and as they both communicate less, and less honestly. Their father has remarried a woman they also love, and the family is incredibly hopeful about the arrival of their new half-sister. However, Maribel suffers a miscarriage, and the loss is too cruel for the sisters. “Our sister’s heart stopped beating/like our mother’s, unexpectedly/on a day that was otherwise/normal” (53).  Ariana vanishes, which leaves Rowena feeling angry and abandoned. This novel in verse is narrated by both sisters as they try to come to terms with this new grief, in addition to the unending grief of losing their mother. Slowly, both sisters discover that their grief has led them to close themselves off to others. Rowena tracks down Ariana at an art exhibit, where Ariana shows a painting “Turtle Under Ice” in memory of their mother. The relief comes very slowly as both girls see hope in Ariana’s art.

THOUGHTS: Del Rosario has a way with creating beautiful images with her words: “Our family…/is a frayed string of lights/that someone needs to fix/with electrical tape./It’s the electricity/that can’t get to us/because Mom’s bulb/has burned out,/so now the whole string is dark./But without the lights turned on/does anyone even notice/that we are broken?” (43-44). Ultimately, the insightful thoughts aren’t enough to save this novel from the monotonous weight of the crushing grief and depression, and the cover does little to draw in all but the most curious of readers. Recommended where novels in verse or multiple narrators are in heavy demand.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Novel in Verse

YA – Rules for Being a Girl

Bushnell, Candace, and Katie Cotugno. Rules for Being a Girl. Balzer & Bray. 2020. 304 p. $19.99 978-0-062-80337-5. Grades 10-12.

For Marin and best friend Chloe, life is going well. They co-edit the school paper together, they’re top students, and they have family support to head for the colleges of their dreams.  Their English teacher, Mr. Beckett, “Bex,” is seriously intelligent and cool, and treats students as equals with funny stories and insightful classes. Bex goes too far and comes on to Marin (he kisses her), leaving Marin shocked into silence. Had she encouraged him?  Why didn’t she anticipate that? What should she do now? She tries to act as though nothing happened, and Bex attempts a “re-set” of their relationship, saying it was an accident, and blaming her. When Marin finally tells Chloe, Chloe believes Marin is either lying or at fault.  Next, when Marin tells her principal, she is told she must have misunderstood and a full investigation will have to be done, since it’s her word against Mr. Beckett. Quickly, everyone’s talking, joking, or blaming Marin, her English grades dive, and the worst knife of all is that Marin fails to gain acceptance to her dream university due to the incident (and alumnus Mr. Beckett’s tip-off to university staff). Her world has exploded, and Marin is struggling against demeaning comments and, suddenly, it seems, all of the ridiculous assumptions people make about girls and women. Finally, Chloe reveals that Mr. Beckett had pulled her into a relationship in the fall, and Marin’s truth devastated her. Together, they publish an open letter to staff and students in the school newspaper, asking for any others to come forward. They do, the girls are finally believed, and Mr. Beckett is dismissed without investigation.

THOUGHTS: The characterization of Marin seems contradictory–she is both incredibly intelligent and mature, unbothered by peer reactions, yet initially unaware of–or unbothered by–even the simplest of girl stereotypes. As long as the stereotypes didn’t ‘hurt’ her, she was living a golden life. Bushnell and Cotugno present only a semi-realistic version of a school setting (the school’s actions on the allegations are poorly researched), and she gives a far-too-tidy, happy ending–including enlightened boyfriend–for Marin.  This book would be stronger if Mr. Beckett had not been a teacher, but a family friend or a boss, and if Marin’s cultural and social awareness matched her intelligence.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – Havenfall

Holland, Sara. Havenfall. Bloomsbury,  2020. 978-1-547-60379-4. $18.99. 305 p. Grades 7-12.

“To everyone who’s ever felt like they don’t have a place.” Maddie is an ordinary teenager who lives extraordinary summers at Havenfall, a Colorado inn that connects different realms: Earth (Haven), Bryn, Fiordenkill, and formerly, Solaria. The inn is run by her Uncle Marcus, and someday, Maddie hopes to take over as the innkeeper. Still traumatized by the unsolved death of her brother, which was blamed on her mother, Maddie is looking forward to her summer escape in Havenfall. However, after briefly reuniting with her uncle and beloved Fiordian soldier, Brekken, things start to go horribly wrong. Maddie awakens on her first morning to chaos: Marcus has been hurt, Brekken has disappeared, and someone has been murdered by a Solarian creature, although the door to that realm is supposed to be sealed. Suddenly, Maddie finds herself in the position she’s always wanted, but without the guidance of her uncle or best friend. On her own, Maddie must untangle the secrets and betrayals lurking around every corner and decide who she can really trust: a mysterious newcomer, or the powerful delegates of the realms she’s known for years?

THOUGHTS:  This was a refreshing, new fantasy read for me! Although it’s mainly described as a contemporary fantasy, it’s also a mystery which helps to draw the reader into the story. By the end of the novel, there are still many questions that have not been answered, which left me feeling like I needed to know more. Holland also gives her readers a glimpse into three fantastical worlds, and I’m hoping she expands upon these realms in her follow up novels to Havenfall. There is still so much of this magical story left to tell.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Love & Olives

Welch, Jenna Evans. Love & Olives. Simon Pulse, 2020. 978-1-534-44883-4. $18.99. 352 p. Grades 7-12. 

On the outside it appears that Liv has everything figured out, but inside she’s struggling with a few things. For one, her long time high school boyfriend Dax just graduated, and he wants Liv to follow him to Stanford. She hasn’t found the right way to tell him that her heart is set on RISD, and anyway she might not even get in (and still has one more year). When a beat-up postcard for Liv arrives days before Dax’s senior trip – which Liv is supposed to go on – Liv feels her perfect outside begin to crumble. Dax doesn’t know this side of Liv. At her mom’s insistence, Liv is headed to Santorini, Greece to spend some time with her father, whom Liv hasn’t seen since she was 8. Since she hasn’t heard from him in years, Liv has many conflicted emotions about seeing her father again. Why after all this time does he think they can have a relationship. But Liv’s father’s love of Atlantis was a connection the two of them shared during her childhood, and an exciting special project helps them begin to reconnect after all those years. His persistent assistant Theo is a great buffer between the awkward moments, and Theo helps Liv experience Santorini. His good looks are a great distraction too, and as they work together and become friends Liv begins to question some of the choices she’s made in her own life. The clock on her visit is ticking, though, and Liv isn’t sure she can count on her father. Is their relationship beyond repair, and can Liv move on beyond her childhood broken heart?

THOUGHTS: Set among a gorgeous backdrop with detailed descriptions of Santorini, readers will fall in love with Greece. Liv/Olive/Kalamata/Indiana Olive has a lot to learn about herself, and readers will be rooting for her from the beginning. With a strong cast of characters and a little bit of mystery and romance, this book will be a hit among middle and high school students.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – Midnight Sun

Meyer, Stephenie. Midnight Sun. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-0-316-70704-6. $27.99. 672 p. Grades 7-12.

Stephenie Meyer puts a twist on her bestselling novel, Twilight, by giving us Edward’s side of the story. Edward Cullen is a vampire living with his family in the rainy town of Forks, WA, trying to blend in with humans as much as he can. However, the arrival of the new girl, Isabella Swan, changes everything. Edward and his family do not hunt humans and exist instead on a diet of animal blood, but when Edward smells Bella, he has an overwhelming desire to kill her, fearing he will lose control for the first time in decades, causing his family to move to a new location yet again. When staying away from Forks doesn’t work, he returns to school and attempts to ignore her presence, but when Bella faces danger, he unintentionally becomes her protector. Against his better judgement, Edward decides to get to know this intriguing and closed off  human but struggles to control his conflicting feelings of falling in love and pushing her away to protect her from himself. With Edward’s immortal ability to read the minds of those around him, readers are able to examine the thoughts of the majority of the characters within the novel, opening up the world of Forks, WA, and the minds of the vampires that have chosen the town as their home.

THOUGHTS:  I love that Midnight Sun gave readers more information about Edward’s past, as well as the rest of the Cullens, and it was interesting to read about Edward’s struggles with Bella from his perspective. I don’t think readers realized just how dangerous he was to her by simply reading Twilight. Readers trust Bella’s perception that he would never really hurt her, but there were many close calls when reading each scenario and interaction from Edward’s side of things. The pomegranate on the front of the novel can be a great discussion topic since it  resembles a human heart, and the juicy pomegranate also looks as if it’s dripping blood. However, it also has a more symbolic presence throughout the story because Edward compares himself to Hades and Bella to Persephone. As she grows closer to him and accepts him for who he is, it’s as if she’s eating the seeds of the pomegranate, making it so much harder for her to go back to her world. Both old and new fans of Twilight will love this darker side of the story!

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

Elem. – Bike & Trike

Verdick, Elizabeth, and Brian Biggs. Bike & Trike. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-534-41517-1. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-2.

Switching to a “big kid bike” is a rite of passage for children, but what about the emotions that the vehicles go through?? Bike is new and shiny and ready to roll, while still having lots to learn. Trike is trusty and experienced, though a bit beat up and too small. When the two first meet in anthropomorphic fashion, they go through some initial reactions. Then a race challenge brings out further emotions, and eventually a Bike & Trike find mutual respect and come to a satisfying conclusion. Verdick and Biggs have hit on an emotional ride that will have reader’s ready to hop on and enjoy!

THOUGHTS: As a social emotional discussion book, there is plenty to unpack here. However, it is just as useful as an entertaining read for bike lovers. Perhaps my favorite extension would be a writing lesson to imagine what stories the rest of the things in any child’s garage (or basement or closet…) might tell if they could share and grow like Bike & Trike.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill    State College Area SD