Elem. – I Forgive Alex: A Simple Story About Understanding

Kerascoët. I Forgive Alex: A Simple Story About Understanding. Random House Studio, 2022. 978-0-593-38150-2. $17.99. 32 p. Grades PK-3.

This is a wordless picture book with a simple, but powerful message. As the story begins, a school age child eagerly approaches the school yard, excited to show his friends something in his backpack. An art portfolio is revealed, and several friends spread the pages across a bench to admire the artwork. Alex, with a splash of bright red hair, dashes past the bench. Alex is taunting two students, playing keep-away with a basketball. When Alex tosses the basketball high over the heads of his dismayed schoolmates, the ball lands on the bench covered in artwork. The artwork falls in a puddle and is ruined. Classmates are incensed and rally behind the young artist, quickly trying to comfort him. Their sense of righteous indignation is palpable as they march en masse toward an adult standing at the door to the school. The next several pages depict scenes alternating between friends comforting the artist, and intentionally ostracizing Alex. At the end of the school day Alex offers a simple wave to the artist across the playground. The artist accepts this invitation to talk, and the two boys eventually shake hands. Alex tosses the basketball to the artist, and everyone joins in the game. The next day Alex makes amends, offering the artist a piece of art showing the artist dunking a basket while Alex cheers. End notes include questions for discussion, vocabulary words, and lesson suggestions.

THOUGHTS: A delightfully illustrated story that does not need words to convey the plot and meaning. School age children will immediately recognize this situation. The discussion questions and lesson suggestions make this a perfect book for social-emotional learning.

Picture Book          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD

MG – Air

Roe, Monica. Air. Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-0-374-38865-2. 267 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8.

Air is about a fiercely independent girl who finds confidence, independence, and friendship while living in a community that needs serious upgrades to handicapped accessibility and efforts at inclusion. Emmie and her best friend Alejandra are lively, interesting characters who both have big dreams and work together to help make those dreams a reality; Emmie’s dream is to participate in the WCMX games for wheelchair athletes, and Alejandra aspires to be a master beekeeper. Unfortunately, after an accident at school with her wheelchair, Emmie discovers that not everyone who wants to help her achieve her athletic dreams has pure intentions, and she needs to make a hard decision about who she is, what she wants, and what she must sacrifice to accomplish her goals.

THOUGHTS: Emmie is surrounded by so many supportive people in this book; her friends, her family, and even the wheelchair-bound customer she corresponds with online really help her understand what she needs to do to be successful, and they allow her to explore and make mistakes in a way that is touching and inspiring. This story is definitely a wonderful example to illustrate the idea that disability is not the only way to define a person while simultaneously showing that accessibility, accommodation and understanding are crucial pieces to the success of students and of whole communities. Fans of Wonder, Fish in a Tree and Out of My Mind will love this book too!

Realistic Fiction        Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Omar Rising

Saeed, Aisha. Omar Rising. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2022. 978-0-593-10858-1. 224 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

This book follows Omar, childhood friend of Amal from Aisha Saeed’s Amal Unbound, in a new story about a poor student going away to an expensive boarding school. Amal and the rest of Omar’s community is overjoyed that his hard work has given him the opportunity to receive such an exclusive education, but Omar quickly realizes that many inequities exist for “scholarship” students. Even though Omar is a thoughtful, hardworking student who does everything he is asked to do at his new school, he and the other scholarship students can’t seem to get ahead in a system that is stacked against them. Eventually, the entire student body must come together to support Omar in a system that was never designed to allow people to move beyond their socioeconomic status. With the support of his home family, his school friends, and even the unexpected support of some of his teachers, Omar eventually discovers who he really is and all the things he can do with his opportunities in life. 

THOUGHTS: Omar is easy to root for, and his growth and hard work throughout the book are very inspiring. The way his friends support him at the end of the story was heartwarming, and the power of community is on full display in this book. Glimpses into the life of servants and people who work hard but cannot advance in society are sure to make students think about parallels they see to similar situations in their own life. 

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – The Supernatural Society

Ogle, Rex. The Supernatural Society. Inkyard Press, 2022. 978-1-335-42487-7. 281 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Will moves with his mom and his dog, Fitz, from New York City to a new school in East Emerson because his parents have recently divorced, and he is not pleased. Will deals with quite a bit of culture shock as he acclimates to small-town life and realizes that East Emerson isn’t just a sleepy, boring town; his new home is also overrun with monsters! Eventually, though, he befriends Linus and Ivy, two siblings from his neighborhood who help him deal with the monsters and make him feel as though he has found a “tribe” among all the upheaval and heartbreak in his life.

THOUGHTS: Good for students who want more scary stories, those who are fans of Stranger Things and groups of smart, multicultural kids finding monsters and solving mysteries. Linus is unapologetically smart, Ivy is strong, and Will is the glue that holds the band together. Students will be waiting with excitement for future books as well! This story will also serve as an unusual but interesting way to lead students to Free Lunch, Rex Ogle’s gritty and fascinating memoir.

Mystery Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD
Supernatural Fiction

Elem. – In Our Garden

Miller, Pat Zietlow. In Our Garden. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 978-1-9848-1210-0. 32 p. $17.99. Grades K-3. 

Millie is homesick for her old apartment, now an ocean away, where she and her family tended a rooftop garden and grew fresh vegetables with their neighbors. Her new apartment building doesn’t have the right kind of roof for a garden, but her school has a large flat one! When she shares her idea about a garden in the sky with her classmates, they are initially hesitant, but soon everyone has ideas about how the garden might look. Over the course of a few months, the students plan, measure, build, plant, and wait to see if their hard work pays off. Vibrant illustrations, composed from both traditional and digital mediums, change with Millie’s mood. Initially, the grays and tans reflect a rainy morning, the city’s cold hardscape, and Millie’s homesickness. However, once she starts believing in her urban garden idea and her classmates and teacher buy in too, the colors shift to shades of green, blue, and yellow. Millie’s classmates and neighbors reflect racial diversity as well as a variety of physical abilities. 

THOUGHTS: This title will be a welcome addition to science curriculum centering on gardening since it presents a nontraditional option that some students may not be familiar with. Additionally, it will fit well with units about neighborhoods working together and with lessons about immigrants settling into a new community. 

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD

MG – Alice Austen Lived Here

Gino, Alex. Alice Austen Lived Here. Scholastic Books, 2022. 978-1-338-73389-1. 162 p. $17.99. Grades 4-12.

Seventh graders Sam and TJ are nonbinary students who come from supportive and loving homes on Staten Island. Sam lives in an apartment complex along with several other supportive friends and members of the LGBTQ community. Sam and TJ’s history teacher assigned them a project to nominate an individual in history that lived on Staten Island and contributed to the community. The winning entry will have a statue commissioned to face New York Harbor.  This is when the pair discovers Alice Austen who was a photographer and an important queer figure that lived and worked on Staten Island.

THOUGHTS: I read this book quickly and really enjoyed the character development. I love that Sam and TJ acted like middle schoolers. Their emotions and reactions felt genuine. I also enjoy reading about Alice Austen who was a new name to me.

Realistic Fiction          Victoria Dziewulski, Plum Borough SD

Sam is a nonbianary teen with a nonbianry best friend, TJ, and they often hang out with a lesbian couple, babysitting the couple’s new baby, in the same building. When Sam and TJ are challenged by a teacher to propose building a new statue to honor an important figure in Staten Island history, they immediately begin looking for someone that will represent their LGBTQ+ community. They find the perfect person in Alice Austen, a photographer who lived and worked in Staten Island in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sam and TJ also befriend an older woman who lives in their building, a former teacher, who helps them contextualize what they learn about Alice Austen during the course of their project. This story ultimately illustrates the value of studying the past, especially important issues and events in the LGBTQ+ community, while also moving forward in the present. 

THOUGHTS: Issues of queer identity and nonbinary identity are central to the book, but Sam and TJ also struggle with typical adolescent issues and friendships to which almost anyone will be able to relate. These thoughtful teens use the power of their voices and the support of their community to bring about positive change and highlight important people from the past who deserve recognition, especially since those historical figures lived in a time when the freedom to choose how you lived and who you loved was much more limited.

Realistic Fiction        Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Caprice

Booth, Coe. Caprice. Scholastic, 2022. 978-0-545-93334-6. $17.99. 243 p. Grades 6-8.

Sensitive, poetical Caprice is a rising eighth grader with a big decision: should she grab the opportunity of attending a prestigious boarding school or stick with her friends in Newark, New Jersey? Though she loved her seven-week stint at summer camp at Ainsley School for Girls, she is torn because of her closeness to her best friend, Nicole, a budding romance with Jarrett, and her commitment to the Center, the community place that fosters fun and leadership in her neighborhood. Through her poems and flashbacks, the reader learns of sexual abuse that Caprice keeps buried and secreted from her family. She is considerate of her parents’ precarious financial situation because of their faltering business and is scared that her need to be in Newark keeps her mother and father apart. Her return home a week before school starts corresponds with a call from Baltimore informing the family of her maternal grandmother’s serious illness. Caprice’s mother and grandmother have been estranged since Caprice was four-years-old when her grandmother sent Caprice and her mother away from the family home after a dangerous incident. Only Caprice and her grandmother know the real reason for their banishment, but her mother has lived all these years with hurt and resentment, alienated from her mother and brother, Raymond. The reader meets Caprice over an important week when school, friendships, and soul-searching come to a head. Her sporadic panic attacks increase, and she waffles between closing herself off and speaking up for herself in new ways. In Caprice, Coe Booth tackles a difficult topic by mining the memories and feelings of Caprice as she faces her demons and challenges herself to esteem who she is. Caprice’s immediate family is loving and communicative. Her friendships with both adults and kids at the Center are genuine and nicely developed. Though the confrontation with her abuser at story’s end avoids any expected messiness and description, the emotions Caprice experiences throughout the novel will resonate with many readers dealing with changes in their lives. The students at Ainsley are international: New Zealand, Ghana, Toronto. Race is not mentioned directly in the book; however, Caprice gets her locs done and the book’s cover art displays an African American girl, so there are implications that the other characters are African American.

THOUGHTS: Coe Booth lets Caprice’s voice come through in the narration and the typical middle school dialogue with which readers will relate. The thriving Center Caprice attends is core to the community and helps to shape the kids who participate in the different activities it affords, from a Women’s Club, to film making, to dance. Caprice takes part in some neat poetry activities that readers can replicate. Her leadership qualities come out in her refusal to be treated less than boys and to tolerate snide remarks about her body. The adults surrounding Caprice–even though they know nothing about her abuse at the time–are nurturing and say the right things. Caprice’s pride in her neighborhood and loyalty to her friends are good discussion points.

Realistic Fiction   Bernadette Cooke   School District of Philadelphia

Twelve-year-old Caprice should be having the time of her life. She just finished a seven week summer program at a prestigious school in upstate New York, and she has now been offered a full scholarship through high school. She has a week to make the decision to accept the scholarship. She returns to her home in Newark, NJ and learns that her grandmother is seriously ill. This brings back the memories of the abuse that she endured while living there with her grandmother and uncle. She has remained quiet about this abuse and has told no one. The deadline to commit to Ainsley is coming closer and closer, and Caprice is struggling with her past while trying to make a decision about her future. 

THOUGHTS: This book is a powerful read for a middle schooler. It addresses the issue of child abuse – sexual and emotional. It could have some triggers for some readers.    

Realistic Fiction          Victoria Dziewulski, Plum Borough SD

Sometimes it’s hard for kids to decide what they want from life, and what they are willing to let go of, until they are faced with some life-changing events. This is certainly true for Caprice, a smart, motivated, and mature 7th grade girl who has just finished an exclusive summer leadership experience at a private school in an affluent part of Washington, D.C. She loved that school, but she also loves her home and friends in urban New Jersey. After she is offered a full scholarship to return to the private school for her 8th grade year, she quickly must decide whether she is willing to give up her familiar home and her best friend in favor of the school opportunity of her dreams. In addition to the stress of her impending education decisions, past childhood trauma and the declining health of a grandmother she hasn’t seen in years add to her troubles. Will Caprice be able to navigate her painful past, her complicated family, and her new and old friendships to see her way to a brighter future?

THOUGHTS: Caprice and her family are warmly drawn, and her friendships feel so real! This book deals with difficult topics including childhood abuse, family secrets, divorce, adolescent feelings, and confusion about the direction and meaning of one’s life, but everything is dealt with a sensitive and graceful hand that still makes the book a pleasure to read and recommend to students.

Realistic Fiction        Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Muddle School

Whamond, Dave. Muddle School. Kids Can Press, 2021. 978-1-525-30486-6. $15.99. 144 p. Grades 5-8.

This semi-autobiographical graphic novel follows Dave, a self-proclaimed nerd, through an eventful year of his “Muddle School” journey. Dave’s school experiences swing from the lowest lows, including getting pushed into mud by bullies on the first day of school, to the highest highs, as he kisses his crush at the end-of-the-year dance. He and his lab partner Chad even design a time machine for the science fair, which Daniel tries to use to go back and redo his disastrous first few months of typical middle school blunders. Throughout the book, Dave learns that being authentic, standing up for others and taking risks are the best ways to survive Muddle School.

THOUGHTS: The illustrations, jokes and silly situations that appear in this book are a wonderful glimpse into the mind of a middle school boy. Dave shows true fondness for his family, hates bullies but feels helpless against them, and uses his love of drawing to help himself process his feelings; everything feels authentic, if a little sanitized, to the school experiences of teen and tween-agers today. In the brief back-matter pages, it is delightful to find out that many of the things the author includes in the story actually happened! Many middle school students will be able to relate to this book and find humor and comfort in the life of another awkward boy just trying to make his way through Muddle School.

Graphic Novel          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Violet and the Pie of Life

Green, Debra. Violet and the Pie of Life. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-823-44755-8. $18.99. 279 p. Grades 5-8.

Violet is a quiet kid who loves math, pie, and her best friend McKenzie. Violet and McKenzie try to navigate seventh grade together, as they always have, but they begin to grow apart as Violet’s parents separate, and Violet begins to spend more time with Ally, a friend from the school play that McKenzie does not like. As Violet struggles with her parents’ problems and with her perception that some people have a “perfect life,” she begins to realize that all families are more complicated than they seem on the surface, and all aspects of life cannot be easily distilled into the mathematical equations, flow charts, and logical lists that she uses to try to make sense of the changes she is experiencing.

THOUGHTS: This novel brings the struggles and friendships of middle school students to life in an authentic way, and the story uses humor, math, and the arts to show that people are flawed, but still deserving of love and opportunity.  The understanding that grows between Violet and her mother is a heartwarming and hopeful presentation of adolescent-parent relationships, and Violet’s relationship with her father experiences a closure that is poignant if not satisfying. 

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem. – 1, 2, 3 Off to School

Dubuc, Marianne. 1, 2, 3 Off to School. Kids Can Press, 2021. 978-1-525-30656-3. $17.99  unpaged. PreK-3.

This whimsical picture book conveys the excitement of the first day of school. Pom, a young girl, wants so badly to start kindergarten, though she will not be a student herself until next school year. Off she goes to explore how the school day goes for different animals in the forest including the frogs for their music lessons and the wolves in library class. Early elementary students will find much to pore over as dozens of animals on each page are engaged in observations and conversations about their school day activities. The detailed illustrations are reminiscent of Richard Scarry’s children’s books.

THOUGHTS : A good choice for first read aloud of the school year. 

Picture Book          Nancy Summers, Abington SD