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

Elem. – Time for School, Little Blue Truck

Schertle, Alice. Time for School, Little Blue Truck. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021. 978-0-358-41224-3. Unpaged. $16.91. Grades PreK-2. 

Little Blue Truck envies the big yellow school bus when he sees it carry his friends to school. The school bus kindly reminds Little Blue Truck that he’s not big enough for the job, but Little Blue Truck decides to prove the school bus wrong when he sees Piggy distraught on the side of the road. Little Blue offers to help since Piggy overslept, and they take a bumpy shortcut that ends up beating the school bus. Good job, Little Blue! Another fun tale about Little Blue Truck whose adventures never take him too far from home but prove that he’s always there for a friend. A great back-to-school story!

THOUGHTS: A fun rhyming read aloud at back to school time.

Picture Book          Lindsey Long, Lower Dauphin SD

Elem./MG – Clash

Miller, Kayla. Clash (Click). Etch, 2021. 978-1-713-75808-2. 209 p. $22.19. Grades 3-6.

To know Olive is to be her friend, but new girl Natasha doesn’t seem to understand. Olive tries hard to befriend Natasha and introduces her to lots of kids in middle school, but Natasha seems content to push Olive away and be friends with her best pals instead. Olive can’t help but wonder…what’s she doing wrong? When Olive decides to plan a fun Halloween party, all her friends are very excited and she reluctantly invites Nat too, trying to be kind. When Nat appears and tries to steal her friends away (and egg Olive’s house), things get hairy and everyone chooses sides. Nat’s dad comes to pick her up, and Olive learns that Nat’s parents are going through a rough divorce. She realizes that Nat has a lot going on in her life…she could use a little compassion, even when she’s not being the best friend in return. Kayla Miller’s Click series expertly dives into middle school friendships and helps readers see both sides of tough situations. Miller’s signature graphic style is fun and easy to read and young readers will love Olive and her school adventures.

THOUGHTS: Another winning entry in the Click series. Suggest to fans of realistic graphic novels.  

Graphic Novel          Lindsey Long, Lower Dauphin SD

MG – Linked

Korman, Gordon. Linked. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-62911-8. 246 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Chokecherry, Colorado is a small town on the up and up – could even be the next Orlando! While paleontologists from a prestigious university are attempting to locate dinosaur fossils after dinosaur poop is discovered, a swastika appears painted on an atrium wall in the local school. The principal is determined to put an end to the hateful act by starting a unit on tolerance and after three weeks is confident that the event was a one time thing. But when a second and a third swastika appear, it looks as if the past of Chokecherry may be coming back into focus. The students of the school take it upon themselves to support one another and learn more about the Holocaust in order to fight back. An idea to start a paper chain that is six million links long, one link for each person who died during the Holocaust, becomes their primary focus. Lincoln Rowley, the popular athlete, helps round the troops and with the help of the student council and art club presidents, their huge undertaking begins. But when a local media star shows up, hoping to expose the town’s past while highlighting the paper chain, things get complicated. Told in different perspectives, this novel has twists and turns that will keep you reading!

THOUGHTS: Another hit by Korman, this title touches on a sensitive subject, antisemitism and the KKK. The characters each struggle with an inner demon which must be addressed before they can truly accept themselves and others. More somber than some of Korman’s other works, Linked has a balance of humor, hope, and sadness for how others treat people that are different from them. 

Realistic Fiction        Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Chokecherry, Colorado is not exactly a tourist destination. The small town does not have a whole lot going for it except for newly discovered dinosaur fossils which bring archeologists from a big city university to the area. Most people are content for the town to go unnoticed until an unfortunate event brings national press: Someone has drawn a swastika on the atrium wall at Chokecherry Middle School. Lincoln Rowley (Link as he is known to his friends and family) loves sports and pranks. He does not really think too much about the swastika until he learns a secret about his family, and he realizes that his ancestors are Jewish. He decides to complete a crash course in Judaism and have a bar mitzvah. Because of this decision, Link becomes the unofficial mascot of the newest middle school tolerance project: A paper chain with six million links to represent the six million Jews who perished during the Holocaust. With the help of his friends Caroline, Michael, and Dana, Link and the entire school work towards this phenomenal goal with the hope of erasing the bad press from the swastika. This plan goes awry when more swastikas appear around the school, and no one seems to know who is drawing them.

THOUGHTS: Gordon Korman has once again knocked it out of the park. Told in alternating points of view, Korman’s book explores the very relevant topic of when a hate crime happens in a “it couldn’t happen here” community. This book would be an excellent literature choice for ELA classes in conjunction with a Holocaust unit in social studies or a school-wide reading challenge. The topic can lead to rich discussions with powerful lessons.

Realistic Fiction           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG -Dead Wednesday

Spinelli, Jerry. Dead Wednesday. Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 978-0-593-30667-3. 227 p. $17.99. Grades 6-8.

Every year in Ambler Springs there comes a day, Dead Wednesday, when students are given the name of a high school teenager who lost their life due to something that was preventable. On this day 8th grade students are given a black t-shirt to wear and are ignored by everyone in the town for the day. While Robbie, also known as Worm, is anxious for this day, his friend Eddie can’t wait for the chaos that will ensue. Students are given a random card with a name and a brief bio of the deceased in the hopes that they understand that this could happen to them if they do not make smart choices. What Worm didn’t expect to happen was that Becca, his assigned dead 17 year old student, would actually come back and pester Worm to come out of his shell. As Worm learns of Becca’s story, he also discovers that sometimes you have to use your voice and be true to yourself. The two use the day to explore what it means to be a teenager in a warm, coming of age story. 

THOUGHTS: For a Spinelli book, it was not what I expected! Filled with teenage awkwardness and a ghost who flirts with a human, this book was different from his others. A perfect novel for those who hang in the shadows and would rather not be seen, but can learn that being who you are is more important. 

Fantasy (Paranormal)          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

YA -Under Shifting Stars

Lotas, Alexandra. Under Shifting Stars. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-06775-7. 262. $15.69. Grades 9-12.

After their brother’s tragic death, twins Audrey and Clare struggle to cope with their grief and changed circumstances. Audrey attends Peak, a school for neurodivergent students like herself, after being ostracized by her twin and other bullies at her public school. Clare begins a transformation herself, standing up to her friends who have treated her sister badly and becoming comfortable with her gender identity. The twins and their parents learn to communicate and comfort each other as they live their new life as a family of four.

THOUGHTS: Told by the perspectives of each twin, this story is a great addition to any YA collection as it explores difficult topics many teenagers are facing today.

Realistic Fiction     Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD

MG – My Life in the Fish Tank

Dee, Barbara. My Life In the Fish Tank. Aladdin, 2020. 978-1-534-43233-8. $17.99. Grades 6-8.

Zinny Manning’s family is known for being noisy and tightknit. She has a nurturing older brother, Gabriel; a moody sister in high school, Scarlett; and a younger, inquisitive brother, Aiden; and two longtime best friends, Kailani and Maisie. At the beginning of seventh grade, though, her world comes crashing down when Gabe steals and crashes his college roommate’s car. His impulsive behavior and hospitalization uncover Gabe’s bipolar disease. Now, a cloud hangs over the whole family as they strive to keep Gabe’s mental illness a secret from classmates, teachers, and neighbors. Zinny’s voice alternates from the present to the recent past. While she drifts further and further away from her concerned friends, Zinny recalls the fun times she has had with Gabe and dissects occasions when signs of his mental illness appeared. Zinny finds some solace in the predictable, controlled world of science. Her favorite teacher, Ms. Molina, has recommended her for a coveted spot as part of a middle school research team for the summer. Zinny gets respite from her friends’ constant questioning by helping Ms. Molina set up the crayfish tanks for the class’s animal unit. Zinny proves herself a resilient girl, helping her younger brother with his “how-to” project, shopping for groceries for the family, and sparking her beleaguered mother’s interest with an herb garden. When Zinny receives an invitation to the counselor’s Lunch Club, she at first throws it in the trash; but eventually, she starts to appreciate the opportunity to align with others who are also suffering from family concerns: divorce, stepfamilies, grief, or sick parents. Although it takes quite a while for Zinny to feel comfortable sharing, the group supports her and makes her feel she is not alone. At a therapy session at Gabe’s residential treatment center, Zinny confesses the anger she feels keeping the family secret. That small confession spurs a huge release that eases Gabe’s return home and allows the family to accept Gabe with a chronic illness just like cancer or diabetes. My Life in the Fish Tank is a story of a family in crisis and the shame and guilt they struggle with trying to deal with insurance, disruption, and worry. Author Barbara Dee has excelled in presenting an important topic with sensitivity and honesty. The Manning family seems to be white; the author integrates the diversity of other characters organically into the plot.

THOUGHTS: Though there are some fine books dealing with mental illness (Crazy by Han Nolan and All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker), My Life in the Fish Tank is a welcome addition. The dialogue captures the main character’s frame of mind well and depicts a likeable, relatable person. Zinny’s love of science and the crayfish experiment act as metaphors for her family situation Even though the plot flipped back and forth, the chapters were short and the writing fluent, making the story easy to follow. I could not put down this book.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – Rescuing Mrs. Birdley

Reynolds, Aaron. Rescuing Mrs. Birdley. Simon and Schuster. 978-1-534-42704-4. 32 p. $17.99. Grades K-3. 

Young Miranda Montgomery is an animal expert. She’s learned everything she knows from the Nature Joe Animal Show on television. Nature Joe is a whizz at rescuing animals and returning them to their natural habitats. So, when Miranda spots her teacher at the grocery store – out of the natural habitat of her classroom – she springs into action. Capturing Mrs. Birdley proves to be more challenging than Miranda initially anticipates. The teacher evades a leaf-covered pit and a blueberry yogurt-baited trap before Miranda ultimately captures her and returns her to the classroom where she belongs. After locking Mrs. Birdley in for the weekend, Miranda is feeling pretty proud of herself….until she spots her principal eyeing up lawn mowers at the home improvement store the next day. Vibrant digital artwork, featuring lots of jungle green, brings this story to life while also celebrating Miranda’s vivid imagination. 

THOUGHTS: This book will hook students during read-aloud time. Pair it with Peter Brown’s My Teacher is a Monster for a story time featuring titles about teachers who do not belong outside their classrooms. 

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD