Elem. – My Words Flew Away Like Birds

Pearson, Debora. My Words Flew Away Like Birds. Kids Can Press, 2021. 978-1-525-30318-0. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PreK-2. 

My Words Flew Away Like Birds follows the unnamed main character as she and her family move from one country to another. She talks about how she knew certain things when she lived in her home and now, going to a new place, she has some new words to learn. She talks about how those new words felt weird to her, and the reader follows her journey as she learns to adjust to living in a new place. The illustrations are beautiful light colors with the dark colors of the characters and buildings make a very interesting illustration to the reader as they are going through the book.

THOUGHTS: This was a very enjoyable book to read, and many readers will empathize with the main character and her journey of moving to a new place. 

Picture Book                Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Elem./MG – Across the Pond

McCullough, Joy.  Across the Pond. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021.  978-5344-7121-4. 276 p. Grades 4-6. $17.99.

Twelve year old Calliope is excited to move from sunny San Diego to not so sunny Scotland. Her parents inherited a castle from Lady Whittington-Spence, who knew her parents as students. Callie sees this move as an opportunity to have a fresh start, after dealing with friend issues back home. Sid, a girl her age living on the estate with her grandfather, the caretaker, does not seem interested in becoming friends. Callie’s parents insist that she join a club where she can socialize with others her age. So Callie joins a birdwatching (“twitching”) club, but is kicked out when she disagrees with the adult leader. Sid and Callie become tentative friends and go bird watching together. During a twitching competition on the estate, alarming events help both girls realize how to be a true friend while staying true to themselves. The author uses flashback to tell the parallel story of Lady Whittington-Spence as a young war evacuee. Her letters disclose the same feelings of loneliness and interest in birdwatching as Callie. Another flashback toward the end reveals the peer pressure incident in San Diego that shattered Callie’s self-esteem. The unique setting, based on McCullough’s own experience, takes this narrative of young adolescent struggles to a different level. As the book comes to an end, the author has one more surprise to share.

THOUGHTS: Although the story gets off to a slow start, readers who stick with it will be rewarded. Preteen and young teenagers will be able to relate to the issues of facing peer pressure and developing friendships.  An excellent choice for elementary and middle school collections.

Realistic Fiction          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

YA – Blue

Delano, L.E. Blue. Gaze Publishing, 2021. 978-1-736-47310-8. 258 p. $9.99. Grades 9-12.

Blue Mancini is rather confident that her name has doomed her to a life of sadness. Just one year ago, her brother Jack was driving drunk and was in a car accident resulting in a fatality. Because Blue and Jack have rich parents with expensive lawyers, he avoids a manslaughter charge and instead is in a detention center for only a few months. Blue might be able to live with that fact… except that Maya is returning to school. A classmate in the same grade, Maya had been out of school for a while as her family adjusted to the death of her father, the man Jack killed the night he was driving drunk. Although Blue is not directly responsible for what happened to Maya’s dad, Maya seems to think she is also to blame. This becomes apparent when Maya picks fights with her in the classes they have together. With Maya taunting her in class and on social media, her mother’s constant nagging to visit Jack in the detention center, and the fact that her boyfriend is hiding a major secret from her, Blue succumbs to feeling sorry for herself, but she isn’t great at keeping it all inside. After one particularly physical fight between Maya and Blue, the principal and counselor decide they must attend after-school sessions and create a club together. As they meet, both of them have to work through their issues to find common ground.

THOUGHTS: Blue highlights the importance of what happens when one bad decision alters the course of a life. High school readers will relate to the mental health struggles Blue goes through. This book is an easy read and ends on a light note with a positive message despite the difficult events.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem. – How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodbye?

Yolen, Jane and Mark Teague. How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodbye? Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-36335-7. 40 p. $17.99. PreK-2.

How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodbye is the latest book in the How Do Dinosaurs companion series, and it has all the laughter and lessons of the other books in the series. This one shows how dinosaurs react to either their loved ones leaving, or when they have to leave to go somewhere. It shows how the dinosaurs face their fears of goodbyes and are able to tell the adults in their life how they feel.

THOUGHTS: A great addition to the How Do Dinosaurs series. The illustrations are really well done throughout the book and give the reader a lot to look at while reading. 

Picture Book          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – The Holiday Switch

Marcelo, Tif. The Holiday Switch. Underlined, 2021. 978-0-593-37955-4. 272 p. $9.99. Gr 9-12.

Sounds like it belongs on a Hallmark Channel countdown? It does. Just like the main character’s, Lila, holiday book blog Tinsel and Tropes, supports the existence of so many subgenres of holiday books, it’s still a rare occurrence to locate YA holiday focused novels, with Filipino American main and supporting characters nonetheless. While Lila navigates through her last year of high school in an almost perpetual Christmas town, there’s a constant air of gingerbread lattes and candy canes that make college decisions, secrets from parents, and romance seem sugar coated. Even in her most frustrated moments, she finds a cutesy-Christmasy way to convey her feelings (a la jumping jingle bells). Despite being a relatively light read, Marcelo is able to weave family, life decisions, and relationships into the plot that give the book enough weight to carry through the holiday season, like when Lila’s younger sister points out that “no one really knows what they’re doing, but I think you might know what the next step is.”

THOUGHTS: The Filipino American main character and various supporting characters who are also Filipino American make this #ownvoices novel an easy purchase for most high school libraries. Though there isn’t a ton of depth to the story, it’s a nice easy read that will broaden most reader’s experiences.

Romance          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD
Realistic Fiction

YA – If the Shoe Fits

Murphy, Julie. If the Shoe Fits. Disney-Hyperion, 2021. 978-1-368-05337-2. 304 p. $15.99. Grades 9-12.

In this charming and modern re-telling of Cinderella, Julie Murphy hits the mark again with a body positive novel that makes everyone feel included (shout out to correct nonbinary pronoun usage!). Filled to the brim with one-liners will make teens and adults alike laugh out loud (or a least grunt in appreciation), readers of all types will almost immediately feel like they are friends with Cindy, the orphaned-recent-fashion-school-grad-turned-reality-TV-star and a mutual hatred for the mean girl, Addison. In classic reality TV fashion, there are tons of side-eye glances and catty situations that mostly make the suitor, Henry, shine even brighter. The lens of fashion as art gives the book a broader reader audience as Crow mindfully says, “life feeds art and art feeds into life.”

THOUGHTS: An atypical family dynamic, with a widowed stepmom, step sisters and half-sibling triplets seems complicated, but seamlessly comes together, pun intended. If the Shoe Fits has a lot more depth than a typical love story, from fashion references to art and questions about fate, this novel can be added to the shelves of high school and public libraries with fans of Dumplin‘, reality TV, or fashion.

Romance          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Senior High School
Realistic Fiction

YA – Blackout

Clayton, Dhonielle, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon. Blackout.  Harper Collins, 2021. 978-0-063-08809-2. 256 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12

Blackout, a young adult novel for teens, is comprised of six interlinked stories that celebrate Black love and friendship during a citywide power outage. The citywide blackout causes the characters to go into a tailspin. Their friendships and relationships are tested and changed- and in some cases, begin anew. These six short stories are beautifully interconnected, and readers will fall in love with every character in the novel. The reader meets Jacorey (a gay athlete who has yet to come out), Tammi and Kareem (exes who run into each other at a job interview), Nella (who gets a boost of self-confidence from her Grandfather and a new acquaintance), Lana and Tristian (who are lost in the public library), Kayla (who already is in a relationship but may want something different), and Seymour and Grace (who share a ride through the city). All six stories celebrate young love and friendship and are written with authenticity and heart.  

THOUGHTS: What an anthology! Not only is the novel’s premise beautiful, but the characters are so well developed that their voices are shining through on every page. With the collaboration of six of the most influential women in current YA literature, the novel celebrates coming of age in one of the most vibrant cities in the world: New York City! Blackout is also available as an audiobook, which is just fantastic! The only downfall is that the anthology ended. It leaves the reader craving more stories from each of these characters. 

Short Stories          Marie Mengel, Reading SD
Realistic Fiction

A collection of short stories written by acclaimed authors are woven together as each story is set during a blackout during the summer in New York City. Some stories are not completed in one section, but bounce back and forth which could be challenging for some readers to comprehend. Although the flow of some stories isn’t constant, it helps connect all the stories and characters as experiencing something universal: love and a summer night in NYC when the lights are bizarrely out. All stories celebrate love in many diverse ways. The stories almost took on the feel of novellas, as some stories stretched a bit longer with characters that were easy to relate to or to cheer on from the sidelines. The details about New York City are highlighted artfully throughout each story that isn’t often seen in YA fiction. The book ends with bonus content from all six authors that provides further context into their work. 

THOUGHTS: If you already have YA short story collections like Let it Snow on your shelves (or always off your shelves), this is a great addition for high school libraries looking for fiction that tells stories of Black love and LGBTQ+ love without a focus of oppression. 

Short Stories          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD
Realistic Fiction

YA – Any Way the Wind Blows

Rowell, Rainbow. Any Way the Wind Blows. Wednesday Books, 2021. 978-1-250-25433-7. $19.99. 592 p. Grades 9-12.

“Carry On was conceived as a book about Chosen One stories; Any Way the Wind Blows is an ending about endings.”

Simon Snow, a chosen one no longer, struggles to adapt to life after Watford without his magic. Now that Simon, Baz, Penelope, and Agatha are back in England, they each face their own challenges. Does Simon still want to be a part of the World of Mages, and can the new chosen one give him his magic back? Can Baz fix his family issues along with supporting Simon? Why did Penelope agree to let Shepherd, a normal, accompany her back to England, and can she help him break his curse? What does Agatha want to do with her life, and is there a place for her to thrive on her own? Any Way the Wind Blows answers all of these questions and brings each of the characters back to Watford where their adventures began. 

THOUGHTS: Rainbow Rowell gives her fictional, fan-fiction story a fitting end. First introduced in her novel, Fangirl, Simon Snow represents the “chosen one” character that shows up in many YA fictional series, but Rowell chooses to tell the story of what happens after they save the world (of mages). Fans of Harry Potter will appreciate the similarities between Hogwarts and Watford, and I highly recommend the audiobook for all three books in this entertaining and heartwarming series. Readers will feel for both Simon and Baz, and root for them as they discover their place in the world together. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Chain of Iron

Clare, Cassandra. Chain of Iron. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021. 978-1-481-43190-3. $24.99. 688 p. Grades 9-12.

Chain of Iron, book two in The Last Hours series, continues the story of James Herondale and Cordelia Carstairs who find themselves engaged to one another to avoid ruining Cordelia’s reputation. However, James is still in love with the elusive Grace Blackthorn, much to Cordelia’s dismay. Meanwhile, James and his friends, The Merry Thieves, are trying to discover who is responsible for murdering Shadowhunters during the night while Lucie Herondale plans to raise Jesse Blackthorn from the dead, and Cordelia wonders why she can no longer hold her beloved sword, Cortana, without getting burned. Together these friends uncover dark secrets while they attempt to protect their fellow Shadowhunters from harm.

THOUGHTS: Cassandra Clare is a unique, fantasy author. She has never “left” the world of Shadowhunters that she first created with The Mortal Instruments, but instead continues the story both before and after the events of the original series. In my opinion, each series gets better and better and should be included in every young adult library collection. If you can get a student hooked on one series, they’ll want to read them all!

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

MG – Kaleidoscope

Selznick, Brian. Kaleidoscope. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-77724-6. 208 p. $19.99. Grades 5-8.

Have you ever woken up from a dream and only remembered bits and pieces, like a blur in the back of your memory? Have you ever felt that stories are all loosely connected but not sure exactly how the thread begins or ends? Have you spun a kaleidoscope and wondered about the tiny pieces that get reflected and refracted and turned again and again into patterns of endless combinations? Brian Selznick brings some of those ideas to print in his latest genre twisting novel. Using his classic black and white illustrations, he offers one picture that is in kaleidoscope vision, then a focused image accompanying a short vignette depicting mainly scenes from a narrator’s first person view. Often a character named James shows up for comfort or reminiscing or the narrator is grieving his passing; however, there is not a linear narrative or consistent plot. Instead, the reader is invited to take in each snapshot and interpret for themselves. Themes and objects repeat through the book, much like gems in a kaleidoscope tumble and change focus. The view at the end may surprise and delight some readers and will certainly encourage repeated readings for further meaning.

THOUGHTS: The short stories stand well on their own, but may not help younger readers to keep focused on the arching story. However, classes could easily study literary examples such as setting, narrative, theme, allegory, and allusion throughout. Recommended.

Fantasy          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

A thirteen-year-old narrator wants to find out more about the world around him, so he sets sail with his friend James. The journey takes them to the moon. They find that the moon is at war with the sun because the sun believes no one needs the darkness the moon brings. But James defends the moon’s side, arguing that people need to have the dreams that come about when the moon is high. James is crowned king, and he defends the moon’s honor for years and years to come. In the subsequent chapters, the narrator and James have a bunch of different adventures that transcend time and space. Although the stories are different, there are common threads running throughout, including references to biblical and mythological items that tie the stories together. Much like a kaleidoscope itself, each scene (or in this case, story) is unique but made up of a different combination of the same bits and pieces.

THOUGHTS: Brian Selznick has once again written a fascinating book that children will enjoy. Each chapter is accompanied by his signature black and white drawings, this time of kaleidoscope scenes. This would be a great pick for a book club or class novel as it might be a bit confusing for readers to understand how the stories connect. Overall, Selznick’s story collection should definitely be included in middle grade libraries.

Fantasy/Short Story Collection           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD