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

MG – Real

Cuject, Carol, and Peyton Goddard. Real. Shadow Mountain, 2021. 978-1-629-72789-9. 304 p. $16.99. Grades 4-8.

Charity can clap, jump, kick, shrug, and make movements just like everyone else – except she can’t control WHEN her body makes these movements. This also means she can’t talk – while she can solve complicated math problems and memorize passages from literature, Charity cannot communicate. Her diagnosis is autism, which means her brain is wired differently than other neurotypical students her age. Charity goes to a special school for students with different challenges and abilities. However, when her mother realizes just how badly the adults are treating Charity in that school, she fights to get her into a regular public school. The principal, however, is not supportive; he thinks Charity’s uncontrollable movements will disrupt the other students in the school. But the special education teacher and Charity’s mom believe that she can do it. The problem is, Charity isn’t sure she can. She hopes that she can prove to everyone in the school that she is a capable, intelligent young lady – even if she can’t always make her body cooperate.

THOUGHTS: Real gives a picture into the mind of a student who is not neurotypical. Peyton Goddard, one of the authors, writes this book based on personal experiences she had as a teenager in the hopes of showing readers that inclusion and protection of this vulnerable population is a necessity in schools and in society. This book is a must-have for middle grade libraries and would be an excellent book club pick.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG/YA – Huda F Are You?

Fahmy, Huda. Huda F Are You? Dial Books, 2021. 978-0-593-32430-1. 192 p. $22.99. Grades 6-9.

Huda F (a self-described “extension” of author-illustrator Huda Fahmy) is “just your friendly neighborhood Arab-Muslim hijab-wearing American whatever” entering the ninth grade in Dearborn, Michigan. Despite these labels, Huda isn’t sure who she really is or even who she wants to be. She tries to form a friend group while establishing her true personality, but discrimination and microaggressions take a toll on her well-being (and her transcript). Despite the seriousness of these issues, Fahmy brings a light touch and plenty of self-deprecating humor to Huda’s predicament. For example, she depicts Huda’s inner monologues through two mini-Hudas on her shoulders, one in a leather jacket, bickering over her decisions and delivering brutal honesty. Huda’s journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance is portrayed through simple drawings, uncluttered backgrounds, and a limited color palette. Narration boxes and Huda’s delightful facial expressions move the action along to a satisfying conclusion.

THOUGHTS: Huda F Are You is funny, unexpectedly universal, and an excellent choice for fans of Almost American Girl by Robin Ha.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Grades 8-11.

Huda Fahmey, along with her four sisters and her parents, have moved to Dearborn, Michigan, a town with a large Muslim population. This is a big change for Huda: in her old school, she was the only girl who wore a hijab, but that is not the case in Dearborn. While Huda is proud to wear her hijab, she is also aware of the prejudice she faces while wearing it, even from some of her high school teachers. Because of this, Huda sets out to learn more about her religion and figure out what it means to wear the hijab. Since she is no longer the only hijabi girl, Huda has absolutely no idea who she is. Huda tries to figure out who her friends are, what cliques she might belong to, and where she fits in. Academically, Huda is a stellar student, but that doesn’t seem like quite enough to encompass an entire identity. She categorizes herself as “miscellaneous,” a label that makes Huda feel as though she is a nobody. With the help of her friends and family, she begins her journey to find out Huda F. she is.

THOUGHTS: Huda Fahmey’s semi-biographical graphic novel is funny and relatable. This is an absolute must-buy for secondary libraries. Be aware that the title may raise some eyebrows, but there is no strong language in the content of the book.

Graphic Novel           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – Kneel

Buford, Candace. Kneel. Inkyard Press, 2021. 978-1-335-40251-6. 320 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Kneel follows Russell who is a talented football player from a small town looking for a full ride scholarship to escape. However, Russell’s teammate and best friend, Marion is unfairly arrested and then benched for the rest of the season, Russell decides to take a stand.  In doing so, Russell sets off a chain of events that he never saw coming and refuses to back down from. In the end, will Russell be able to enact the social change that his community desperately needs, or will he have to pick between social justice and football?

THOUGHTS: This was amazingly written, and felt extremely realistic. I enjoyed that each character felt unique to me, in how they dealt with racism as well as how they interacted with each other. This wasn’t too technical with football, which I appreciated as someone who isn’t familiar with football.  I would highly recommend this for a high school collection, and feel this would also make a great book to teach in a high school literature class.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

When practice runs late, Russell and Marion know that breaking down on the parish line between Monroe (their side of town) and Westmond (the wealthier side of town) is not the best spot to be. A few weeks ago the untimely death of teen Dante Maynard, who was killed by a white police officer for “looking suspicious,” rocked the local black community. The fact that Russell’s car could draw unwanted attention for its condition doesn’t add to his limited options as darkness approaches. Instead of the cops, though, Bradley Simmons, a varsity football player from Westmond, pulls up in a shiny BMW, and he taunts Russell and Marion about last year’s playoff whipping which ended with Marion being seriously injured and jeopardizing his football future. The pent up frustration doesn’t end, and animosity explodes when Monroe meets Westmond at center field for the coin toss. Unfair, one-sided refereeing leaves Russell injured. To make matters even worse, the cop that killed Dante Maynard is on game security, and he takes Marion off the field in cuffs. Though Russell promises Marion he’ll “handle this,” the deck is stacked against the boys, their team, and their community. Due to his pending charges, Marion is benched and barred from the team until his situation is resolved. In an instant, his only way out disappears. Russell realizes the only way to take a stand is to take a knee, and the repercussions of his action are more than he imagined. If the only way out of his situation is through a Division I football scholarship, what lengths will Russell go to in order to earn his spot, and will he have to give up his beliefs to make it happen?

THOUGHTS: Timely and thoughtful, Kneel transports readers right into the racial tensions. Readers will feel for Russell and be angered by the actions and the lack of action from local authorities. A must have for high school collections, this title also would pair well with classics and other contemporary titles dealing with similar topics.

Realistic Fiction         Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – Almost There and Almost Not

Urban, Linda. Almost There and Almost Not. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-47880-0. 211 p. $17.99. Grades 5-7.

Eleven year old California Poppy doesn’t know if she is coming or going. Her widowed father is heading to Alaska for a salmon fishing job and takes her to Minnesota to stay with Aunt Isabelle, who should know more about taking care of a “bra needing” child than he does. It turns out that Aunt Isabelle is not really the nurturing type and is too busy working on a meatloaf recipe for the Great Meatloaf Bake Off. So California finds herself traveling to Michigan to live with Great Aunt Monica. Her great aunt, still grieving for her late husband, broke her hand and needs help with her research on Eleanor Fontaine, an author of etiquette books from the 1920s. Aunt Monica wants to complete her husband’s planned biography of his author-ancestor and asks California to read Fontaine’s Proper Letters for Ladies and to practice writing letters to become familiar with the author. Callie soon realizes that there are two ghosts in the house: a dog who enjoys playing with her and a refined lady named Eleanor, who dissolves into a pile of dust when she gets upset. Aunt Monica is not aware of these guests, so her niece takes care when talking to them. Eleanor begins to share her story with the young girl, who notices that the ghost seems to be getting younger each time she appears.  California soon learns the truth about her father’s whereabouts and Eleanor’s secret. Just as Callie feels she has come to terms with her father’s absence, her struggles in school and having periods, she overhears a conversation that changes her life forever.

THOUGHTS: Urban has written a very engaging story about loss, grief, and resilience. Although the text is not lengthy, a lot happens and one cannot help but root for the likeable main character who narrates the story. Readers will enjoy California’s letters to Aunt Isabelle, her father, and the Playtex Company. This sensitive but humorous tale is a solid choice for upper elementary and middle school collections.

Fantasy          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

When California Poppy is 11 years old, she is dropped off at her Aunt Monica’s house while her father claims to look for work in Alaska. During her stay, she plays with the ghostly dog and talks to the ghostly woman who haunts her aunt’s home, a woman who turns out to be California’s Great-Aunt Eleanor. Eleanor teaches California about all the etiquette she thinks a proper lady should know, and California begins to unearth details about Eleanor’s past, which is not as simple as the old woman wants it to seem. As a relationship between the girl and the ghost develops, California also grows closer to her Aunt Monica by helping with research for Eleanor’s biography. Eventually, these relationships help California to confront the reality of her father’s abandonment and allow her to begin to heal in her new, more stable life.

THOUGHTS: This story, told in the first person by California herself, is about the life of two young girls who are trying to figure out who they are in a grown-up world. Magical realism, historical fiction, and a love of family and friends weave together in this book to create the story of a girl who has a lot to learn, but also a lot to offer the world. The ghosts in this book are friendly rather than scary. Kids and teens who are wise beyond their years, and those that deal with family troubles and long for a better, more stable life, will find it easy to relate to California.

Fantasy          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – The Ivies

Donne, Alexa. The Ivies. Crown, 2021. 978-0-593-30370-2. 320 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Olivia and her four best friends rule Claflin Academy and loving refer the themselves as The Ivies. Together they work to edge out their classmates for every opportunity to improve their chances at one of the coveted Ivy League spaces. Olivia, a scholarship student, is Penn, even though she had her heart set on Harvard and The Harvard Crimson. She’s accepted her role as Penn for friendship, though, since Avery, a triple legacy student has her sights set on Harvard. Each friend represents a different Ivy: Emma, Brown; Sierra, Yale; Margot, Princeton. By cataloging their classmates, The Ivies know exactly whom to target to make sure they each have ideal class ranks, club leadership positions, summer internships, academic competitions, and athletic/musical auditions. Teamwork only works when everyone plays by the same rules, and as Olivia discovers she doesn’t know everything – or everyone – she thought she did. Beginning with ED (early decision) day, this thriller will leave readers wondering who the Ivies crossed one too many times, and who’s next?

THOUGHTS: Readers will want to unravel the mystery behind The Ivies and all that they’ve done. They’ll root for Olivia even when her role in The Ivies doesn’t paint her in the best light. Recommended for high school collections where fast-paced mysteries/thrillers are in demand.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – Game Changer

Shusterman, Neal. Game Changer. Quill Tree Books, 2021. 978-0-061-99867-6. 386 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Ash lives a pretty normal life as far as teenagers go. He has a younger brother, a crush on a girl, and a starting spot on the school’s football team. Unlike his best friend Leo, he really doesn’t think too hard about things like race or equality because he doesn’t have to – the world is laid out in front of him and he just has to live it. Unfortunately, that world is altered when Ash takes a hard hit during a football game. A rush of ice through his veins accompanies a universe shift as Ash jumps into another dimension; while many aspects of Ash’s life are the same, many things have changed! Stop signs are blue, his parents are rich, and… segregation in schools is the norm. Leo is Black, which means in this universe, Ash and Leo never became friends. In this universe, Ash’s life is significantly better yet also significantly worse, so Ash wants to get back to his original dimension…or perhaps, an even better one. As Ash tries to figure out how to put his world back together, he questions what he has always known and realizes he needs to shift his thinking.

THOUGHTS: Neal Shusterman has always been a young adult favorite, and this book is no exception. With an engaging plot line, relatable characters, and funny quips in dialogue, students will enjoy this book immensely. This is a fantastic purchase for high school libraries.

Science Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD