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

Elem. – Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z

Latham, Irene, and Charles Waters. Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z. Carolrhoda Books, 2020. 978-1-541-55775-8. 120 p. $19.99. Grades 2-6.

Words have power, and learning how to use, absorb, and value them is one of the most important skills of adolescence. Indeed, relating words like ACCEPTANCE, GRATITUDE, JUSTICE, and VULNERABLE could help classes and young readers make a better world. Irene and Charles, the poets behind the thoughtful Can I Touch Your Hair? poetry story about race and friendship, have compiled a gorgeous collection of words that are illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini. Each page features a poem to match the word, and a description of the form of poetry as well. Accompanying the poem are quotations from writers or famous personalities, then a personal message from the author that children can connect with, and finally an action step to take to demonstrate the valuable word. In all, there are 50 poems from A to Z, and they should be digested and discussed thoughtfully rather than quickly. Discussions of race and friendship and hope for a brighter future should make this book an essential tool for home and classrooms.

THOUGHTS: At a time when teachers and parents are seeking ways to share inclusive, diverse, and equitable literature that leads to discussion and action, we can’t do much better than this wonderful book! Consider this for a One Book, One School selection or for a small group of empowered advocates. Highly recommended for grade 2 – 6 (though potentially useful for younger and older grades as well).

811 Poetry          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

Elem. – The Box Turtle

Roeder, Vanessa. The Box Turtle.  Dial Books, 2020. Unpaged. $17.99 978-07352-3050-7  Grades K-2.

When Terrance the turtle is born without a shell, his parents provide a shell and a name, “both of which fit just right.”  Terrance grows and finds his shell keeps him dry, safe, and able to share space with a friendly hermit crab. But one day, three turtles pronounce his shell “weird,” and Terrance begins a search for a substitute. He finds–and discards–a mailbox (it “showed to much cheek”), a hat box, a jack-in-the-box, a boom box, a lunch box, a flower box, a treasure chest, and a kitty litter box (which “stunk”). It is then that his unnamed crab friend offers his own shell, and Terrance realizes that the crab is “so much more than just a shell,” and a turtle is, too! He seeks out his original shell and after refurbishing it, walks proudly once more, this time easily dismissing the bully turtles’ “weird” claim.

THOUGHTS: This title works for social-emotional learning about the concepts of friendship and accepting oneself (and others) for who they are.

Picture Book          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – It Sounded Better in My Head

Kenwood, Nina. It Sounded Better in My Head. Flatiron Books, 2020. 978-1-250-21926-8. 260 p. $18.99. Grade. 8-12.

Natalie had a good grip on her life until her parents jovially announce they’re getting a divorce. They’ve known this for months but waited until the Christmas holidays and high school graduation (which coincide in Australia, where the book was first published). A rarity for literature, Natalie has a great relationship with her parents and is devastated by the news and hurt by their deceit. She turns to her support network, her best friends Lucy and Zach. But since they started dating, Natalie sometimes feels like a third wheel. Having suffered through severe, scarring acne during puberty, Natalie has a shattered self image and has not dated. At a party, she connects with Alex, Zach’s older brother, but quickly convinces herself Alex’s interest was an act of kindness perpetrated by Zach. But an accidental case of musical bedrooms at a beach house over New Year’s brings Natalie and Alex back into close proximity, and as they talk they again feel a positive connection. However, Natalie’s lack of confidence and poor self image quickly threaten to sabotage the burgeoning relationship. This engaging book covers a topic not discussed in YA literature, the trauma of severe teen acne, and the scars it leaves, both physical and psychological. Natalie is a bright teen with caring parents and friends, but the long term effects of her acne are evident in her image, (styling her hair to cover which side of her face looks worse) confidence, and self-worth. American readers will need to translate Australian terms and references but will recognize themselves in the three friends as they shakily navigate through the next phase in their lives.

THOUGHTS: A welcome addition to YA realistic fiction collections. While some characters have sex off-page, Natalie and Alex discuss the issue and decide they are not ready.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Echo Mountain

Wolk, Lauren. Echo Mountain. Dutton Children’s Books, 2020. 978-0-525-55556-8. 356 p. $17.99. Grades 6-8.

Like her award-winning novel, Wolf Hollow, Lauren Wolk repeats her lyrical style in the historical fiction work, Echo Mountain. Ellie, the twelve-year-old narrator, and her family have moved to a remote part of Maine when the Great Depression hits. With his able middle child at his side, Ellie’s father builds their cabin. Her mother, a music teacher, puts down her mandolin and picks up the ceaseless household chores that come from being poor and living off the land–tasks older sister Esther endures but detests. The little brother, Sam, is impetuous and lively; the mountain is the only home he remembers. When the novel opens, Ellie’s father has been in a coma for months. While clearing land, he is felled by a tree. The details of this accident form Ellie’s dilemma and burden. A thoughtful girl, Ellie keeps still and accepts the blame for her father’s injury while always searching for natural remedies that will jolt him from his oh too silent sleep. While on these scavenger hunts, Ellie is surprised by tiny carvings of animals where she walks and believes someone is leaving them for her. These tokens are more meaningful for Ellie because they make her feel noticed, something she needs since her father’s accident. Of necessity, she’s a loner on the edge of childhood, and the story that ensues brings her to the brink of young adulthood. One day, a matted-haired dog appears at the edge of Ellie’s property, and she follows it to the other side of the mountain where the more established folks live. There she discovers the cabin of Echo Mountain’s legendary “hag,” feverish in her bed, in a room with carving tools and jars of herbs and medicinal cures. With the guidance of the hag–who is a healer– and the help of Larkin, the woman’s grandson, Ellie shows extraordinary resourcefulness in doctoring the old woman and her own father. The situation weaves the threads of the story tightly together with the kind of coincidences that deliver a wondrous tale. This quiet story of resilience during difficult times tells of a family who, in Ellie’s words, “…went looking for a way to survive until the world tipped back to well.”

THOUGHTS: This book concentrates on personal issues, rather than global ideas. Sensitive middle school students who like to wrap themselves in multi-faceted characters will gravitate to Ellie. It also provides a study of the dynamics of relationships: how Ellie relates to her mother and sister; how the different neighbors either share or refrain from sharing; how rumor feeds the negative attitude of the mountain people toward the hag; how humans deal with guilt and remorse. Similar to books like The Line Tender by Kate Allen and The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bryant.

Historical Fiction (Great Depression, 1930’s)          Bernadette Cooke, SD Philadelphia