YA – The Castle School (for Troubled Girls)

Content warning: This book contains depictions of mental illness, including but not limited to addiction, anorexia, self-harm, and trichotillomania.

Moira (Moor-a, not Moy-ra) has been skipping school, meals, and leaving her apartment for hours at a time. Her parents stage an intervention where they share that they’re sending Moira to The Castle School, a school for girls going through a “rough patch” not a reform school. Though two bodyguard types look ready to spring into action should Moira bolt, she willingly packs her things and gets on a plane heading to a remote part of Maine. There she meets eleven other girls who like her are experiencing their own struggles, each unique and told in her own voice in a sporadic chapter throughout the novel. When asked why she’s at The Castle School, Moira reports it’s because she got a tattoo. She does not share that she lost her best friend. With a very regimented schedule which includes lights out and individual therapy sessions, Moira struggles to adjust at first. She has some time on her own, though, as her roommate Eleanor is staying in the infirmary. While reading by a secret flashlight, Moira hears music in the distance and notices that the padlock on her window’s security bars is broken. The next night Moira and Eleanor head out to investigate and discover a castle that seems a lot like theirs, only happier, warmer, and with twelve boys. The Castle Schools may not be what Moira thought. Moira notices that she feels more like herself than she has in a long time when she’s at the other Castle School (Castle South); it seems to have the same effect on Eleanor. What type of experiment is Dr. Prince conducting with two schools run so differently, and why – other than the fact that she’s a girl – is Moira at Castle North? Why does Dr. Prince’s son Randy live at Castle North instead of with the boys in Castle South? As Moira gets to know the girls and attends sessions with Dr. Prince, she struggles through her grief and begins to come to terms with why she’s at The Castle School.

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Moira as she adjusts to her new life at The Castle School and works through her grief. As an adult reader, I felt like Moira’s semester ended a bit too tidy (though she does work through a lot). I’m interested to talk to a student reader about their thoughts of authenticity. Purchase for high school collections where character driven, mental health titles are popular.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton 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

Elem./MG – The One Thing You’d Save

Park, Linda Sue. The One Thing You’d Save. Clarion Books. 978-1-328-51513-1. 65 p. $16.99. Grades 3-6. 

In this novel in verse, a teacher challenges her middle school students to think about the one thing they would save if their home was on fire. Their family and pets are already safe, but she wants to know what one thing inside their home is most important to them. It can be any size, any shape. Some students come up with answers immediately, and others ponder the assignment carefully. From cell phones and favorite books to wallets and trading cards, each student explains the reasoning behind his or her choice. Some students share sentimental stories, such as how they would save a hand-knit sweater from their grandmother or a collar from a pet who passed away. The many different voices reflect an inclusive classroom led by a caring teacher who reminds her students to always protect, affect, and respect one another as they are sharing. In her author’s note, Park shares that sijo, an ancient form of Korean poetry, was her inspiration for this book. Classic sijo have three lines of thirteen to seventeen syllables. While the poems in this collection use the sijo structure, many are longer than traditional sijo poems.

THOUGHTS: This novel in verse should spark engaging discussions between middle-grade readers. The question of what to save in a hypothetical emergency is a universal one, and students’ answers will be as varied as the ones presented in the book. This could be a valuable book to use during Morning Meetings to generate conversation and build relationships. It will provide insights into what students value most and will lead to discussions about sentimental value versus practical value. Share this title with guidance counselors as well.

Novel in Verse          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD

Elem. – Total Mayhem #1 Monday: Into the Cave of Thieves

Lazar, Ralph. Total Mayhem #1 Monday – Into the Cave of Thieves. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-77037-7. 208 p. $6.99. Grades 2-5

In Dash Candoo’s world, boring days do not happen. Before he even eats his breakfast on Monday he is attacked by “combat-ready scallywags and the two tailed Devil Cat.” When Dash gets to school he has other hilarious situations to deal with, which are shown off in funny illustrations. At the back of the book, there is an almanac which gives you more information about all the things that Dash and his friend use throughout the book.

THOUGHTS: This book is great for fans of Captain Underpants and will definitely be a favorite in any elementary library.

Humorous Fiction            Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

MG – The Kate in Between

Swinarski, Claire. The Kate in Between. Quill Tree Books, 2021. 978-0-062-91270-1. 289 p. $15.15. Grades 5-8.

Kate and Haddie are best friends and have been since first grade. But Kate needs a change, and she’s not exactly sure where Haddie fits in the new life she is trying to fashion for herself.  Kate’s mother has left town to pursue her dream of becoming a True Diamond in the world of True Cosmetics, and Kate is left to move into the guest room of her police officer father’s apartment where she doesn’t even have a bed. It’s embarrassing for Kate, and it’s sometimes difficult when you have a friend who knows your truth. She hopes seventh grade will be different, and when Kate finds herself in popular mean girl Taylor’s orbit, there just isn’t room for Haddie. When a near tragedy involving Haddie and some bullies who may or may not be Kate’s friends turns Kate into a hero, she begins to question exactly what it means to be Taylor’s friend and why it is harder than it should be. But when a video of the incident goes viral, her status as a hero also goes viral. Kate knows what really happened, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone else does too. Will Kate be able to figure out just who she is with her life in the spotlight?

THOUGHTS: Claire Swinarski takes a familiar middle grade theme of friends growing apart and makes it fresh. I would recommend this book to upper middle school students.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

YA – Be More Chill: The Graphic Novel

Levithan, David. Be More Chill: The Graphic Novel. Hyperion, 2021. 978-1-368-05786-8. 138 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.

High school is hard. Jeremy finds it especially hard being an awkward nerd who can’t seem to say the right thing to anyone. He really wants to catch the eye of Christine, a pretty girl he sees every day at play rehearsal. When Jeremy tries to talk to her, he bumbles through his words, and that’s when he realizes he will never be able to charm her… until he hears about the squip. The squip is a supercomputer, compressed into a pill-sized capsule and swallowed. After that, it takes over your brain and helps awkward teens navigate through the complex social hierarchy of high school. Don’t know what cool clothes to buy at the mall? The squip will guide you. Not sure what to say to the most popular girl in school? The squip will tell you. When Jeremy buys one on the black market, he thinks he has squashed his awkward behavior for good. But he very quickly realizes the dark consequences that can come from trying to alter his own biology.

THOUGHTS: This graphic novel, adapted from the hit Broadway musical of the same name, will resonate with any high schooler who struggles to fit in. The art, done mostly in black, white, and blue, shows the differences between dialogue and the squip’s commands, making it easy to follow. High school librarians should add this to their graphic novel collections.

Graphic Novel          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem. – Sticks and Stones

Polacco, Patricia. Sticks and Stones. Simon & Schuster, 2020. Unpaged. 978-1-534-42622-1. $18.99. Grades 2-4.

In another story based on her childhood, Polacco has created a heartwarming tale about the school year she spent with her father in Michigan. Trisha is eager to start middle school with her summer friends, but they desert her at the front door. She is on her own until a skinny boy with glasses called Thom helps her find her first class. The pair sits with a quiet girl named Ravanne, who is artistic and another outsider. A bully named Billy calls Trisha “Cootie” because of a nervous rash on her face and gives Thom and Ravanne the cruel nicknames “Sissy Boy” and “Her Ugliness.” The trio become fast friends as they deal with taunts from Billy and his gang. The three friends go kite flying with hand painted silk kites made by Ravanne and have a great time on Halloween, until Billy steals their candy. Trisha learns that she and Thom share a love of ballet and that he takes ballet lessons.  His secret is revealed to the other students when Thom easily clears the high jump bar, which Billy just failed to do. Thom shouts out, “See what ballet can do for you!” which is overheard by Billy and the coach. The bully is furious that the coach wants Thom to try out for the team and confronts him on his way home, breaking his glasses. Sick of the bullying, Thom announces that he is going to perform a dance in the talent show. Because he cannot see well with the broken glasses, Ravanne and Trisha help their friend with stage blocking. At the talent show, Thom dances the part of Prince Siegfried from Swan Lake and his classmates are amazed at his “high and powerful” leaps and other athletic moves. Thom’s brave performance earns him respect from his classmates. Polanco’s signature illustrations are done with pencil and acetone markers. The kite flying drawings contain so much movement that the reader can almost feel the wind. In the author’s note, the reader learns what her Michigan friends are doing today.

THOUGHTS: This is a powerful story of bullying and resilience. Although the text is wordy, it will still hold interest as a read aloud, because of the dialogue and pictures. It is a good choice for guidance counselors or classroom teachers for character lessons.  A worthwhile purchase and one of Polacco’s better works.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

YA – The Game

Miller, Linsey. The Game. Underlined, 2020. 978-0-593-17978-9. 240 p. $9.99. Grades 9-12. 

Lia Prince has lived her life in the background; She isn’t good at anything her parents value. To make matters worse, Lia’s older brother, now off at college, was good at everything. Determined to make a name for herself by besting his third place finish in her Lincoln High’s senior class game of assassin, Lia’s been planning for a year. Carefully noting and observing patterns of her peers, Lia is ready for the game to begin. No one appreciates her skills, but Lia is good at games. Ready to lead her team and get their target, the game begins. As they get more into the game, it becomes deadly. Someone is playing dirty, but Lia is determined not to miss this opportunity to be good at something. Against advice of her parents, her school, and her friends, and determined to keep the fun of the game going Lia keeps playing. Can she win, and what does winning mean?

THOUGHTS: Mystery fans will love this brief, action-packed, stand alone and may overlook some of its flaws. Grief and fear are brushed aside to make room for the game, but would the game really continue with a killer on the loose? Purchase in high school libraries where mysteries are in high demand.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem. – Act (Click)

Miller, Kayla. Act (Click). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-24218-5. $21.69. 203 p. Grades 3-6. 

When Olive realizes that some friends are excluded from the class field trip, she decides to run for an open spot in student government and make some changes. Olive enlists the help of friends and family to help campaign, make posters, and research protests, but relationships are strained when some friends aren’t loyal to her cause. Her friends Sawyer and Trent decide to run against her on a “Pudding for all!” ticket. Ultimately, Olive loses the election but still gets to serve as a rep when Sawyer steps down and offers Olive, third in line for one of the two open spots, his position. He and Trent realize that Olive will make an excellent rep, and they want to give her a chance to do some good. I love Olive’s diverse friendships–her middle school experience helps so many readers identify with some part of the “Click” series.

THOUGHTS: If your students already know Olive and friends, they’ll love the new offering–very timely in 2020. If you and your students don’t know Olive, you must meet her. Start with Click and enjoy!

741.5 Graphic Novel          Lindsey Long, Lower Dauphin SD

YA – Charming as a Verb

Philippe, Ben. Charming as a Verb. Balzar + Bray, 2020. 978-0-062-82414-1. 336 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Ben Philippe has yet to write something that I don’t fall in love with almost immediately. Henri Haltiwanger in Charming as a Verb is no exception to the rule. Henri attends a prestigious private school in New York City, on scholarship, and is surrounded by classmates who have more money and connections than he does. Henri’s positive attitude, charm, and hustle drive him to be a star debater, friendly with just about all the students, and manages and works his own dog walking empire. When it’s time to apply for colleges, his dream school, Columbia, seems just out of reach, despite being blocks away. Along the way Henri makes a friendship he didn’t think he would, and a decision or two that seem out of character, but Philippe maintains a realistic pulse on teenage life.

THOUGHTS: High school libraries looking to enhance their realistic collection with a story told through the lens of someone who fits in from an observer’s perspective but really doesn’t feel a sense of belonging should add this book to their collection. A relatively light read with a happy ending can go a long way after a year like 2020.

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD