YA – On the Subject of Unmentionable Things

Walton, Julia. On the Subject of Unmentionable Things. Random House, 2022. 978-0-593-31057-1. 320 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Phoebe knows what her peers need, and her unique – yet secret – research hobby is just the thing to help them. Though not in a serious relationship herself, Phoebe is somewhat of an expert when it comes to sex education, and she started The Circle in the Square, a blog where she posts information written for teens anonymously as Pom. Even her best friend Cora doesn’t know she’s Pom which is convenient when Cora asks for Phoebe’s advice regarding taking things to the next level with her boyfriend. A writer/researcher at heart, Phoebe does more research to find answers to questions she’s asked, and she presents her information in an honest, non-judgmental manner. When one of her blog posts goes viral and catches the attention of mayoral candidate Lydia Brookhurst, a conservative local politician, Phoebe fears her identity will be revealed. After all, Brookhurst’s mission is to shut down the blog and out the person causing an “assault on morality.” Gathering supporters from conservative parents and local business supporters, Brookhurst is determined to use her resources to uncover Pom’s identity. As Phoebe tries to maintain her two identities, readers will root for their side (Brookhurst or Phoebe) while learning factual details related to sex education.

THOUGHTS: With likeable Pom/Phoebe as her voice in this sex-positive read, Walton provides readers with plenty of useful information related to sex education. Loosely connected to the recent information challenge climate, this title is recommended for high school libraries.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

 

YA – Pretty Dead Queens

Donne, Alexa. Pretty Dead Queens. Crown, 2022. 978-0-593-47982-7. 336 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Moving to a new town to live with her estranged grandmother is not the senior year Cecelia Ellis had in mind. Her mother’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent passing have forced Cecelia on a new path, but her plan is to graduate and get out of town just like her mom did. In the meantime, she’s living at the top of creepy Victorian mansion with Maura Weston, her famous mystery writing grandmother. Though a small California coastal town, Seaview was put on the map years ago with Maura’s first book, a fictionalized version about the of death of one of Maura’s classmates. Later turned into a movie which was filmed in Seaview, the town now has its own unique traditions, like a murder tour given by two of Cecelia’s classmates and Weston-Con, a weekend retreat for fans of Maura’s thriller books. When one of Cecelia’s classmates is found dead under eerily similar circumstances to one of Maura’s books, Cecelia distracts herself from her grief by trying to solve the murder and determine if a copycat killer is loose in Seaview – or if someone was wrongly convicted years ago. As Cecelia learns about the history of Seaview and about animosity among her new friends, she’s convinced there’s more to the story. Will Cecelia make a connection before the police solve the case, or will she be the killer’s next victim?

THOUGHTS: Knowing all that Cecelia has overcome, readers will root for her to uncover the truth behind two crimes that are decades apart. Fans of fast-paced mystery/thrillers (like Donne’s The Ivies and Henry’s Two Truths and a Lie) will enjoy this whodunit.  

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – The Weight of Blood

Jackson, Tiffany D. The Weight of Blood. Katherine Tegen Books, 2022. 978-0-063-02914-9. 306 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Madison “Maddy” Washington, who lives with her controlling and abusive father in their small town of Springville, Georgia, has spent her whole life “passing” as white. She straightens her hair, dutifully applies sunscreen, and stays home if there’s any chance of rain. An unexpected spring shower curls her hair and reveals that she is black, closely followed by a racist incident of bullying that is captured on another student’s cell phone. As the students at Springville High attempt damage control to prove to the world that they are not a racist community, they consider ending the tradition of segregated proms for black and white students and holding the school’s first All-Together Prom. One of the popular black students asks Maddy to prom as part of a stunt to keep up appearances, and readers familiar with Stephen King’s Carrie will suspect where things are headed. Author Tiffany D. Jackson mixes Maddy’s point of view with transcripts of a podcast called “Maddy Did It,” press coverage of events in Springville, and the perspectives of several other students. The climactic prom chapters are gleefully, horrifically over the top.

THOUGHTS: Jackson’s second foray into horror (after last year’s White Smoke) is the work of an author at the top of her game. The Weight of Blood is a standout, from the cover image of a blood-soaked prom queen to the foreboding tagline: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the tiara.”

Horror          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD
Mystery

The town of Springville, Georgia still is recovering from a tragedy everyone knows Maddy Washington is responsible for causing. In fact, there’s now a podcast “Maddy Did It.” But before the climactic event that changed the town forever, Maddy Washington is a high school student who keeps to herself and generally is considered a loner. At home Maddy lives in fear of her father, who owns an antique shop and enjoys reruns of favorite classic movies. Maddy, who secretly is biracial, has passed for white her entire life. Under the glare of her father’s watchful eye, she can’t imagine anyone finding out her secret and works hard to hide the truth. Avoiding the sun, wearing long clothes – even in the summer – Maddy stays home on rainy days and has a strict beauty regimen. When Maddy’s gym class gets stuck outside in a sudden rain storm, she is devastated that her secret is out. Her peers are shocked, and Maddy’s father is furious. When racist bullying, played off as a “simple joke,” is caught on camera, Springville is labeled a racist community. Hoping to prove the world is wrong about them, student leaders attempt some damage control. But with a history of segregated proms, this small town seems to be stuck in the 1950s instead of modern day.

THOUGHTS: With masterful skill, Jackson gives an updated take on a Stephen King classic, incorporating racial tensions and teenage drama into a modern day setting. Highly recommended for high schools seeking to add new titles to their mystery/horror genre.

Horror          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD
Mystery

MG – Serwa Boateng’s Guide to Vampire Hunting

Brown, Roseanne A. Serwa Boateng’s Guide to Vampire Hunting. Disney Hyperion, 2022. 978-1-368-06636-5.  400pg. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Serwa knows that fireflies aren’t just harmless bugs; in her world they are vicious vampires known as adza that come from southeastern Ghana. Serwa and her family are slayers, and they are responsible for protecting the public from these creatures. When her parents get called on a special mission, Serwa knows this is her chance to shine but her parents have other plans and leave her with an aunt and cousin to keep her safe. Serwa now has to navigate the most difficult thing she’s ever had to deal with before… middle school! As things are settling down and Serwa is finding her footing, an adza attacks her school and it is up to her to figure out what is going on and protect the school and community. 

THOUGHTS: This is an amazing addition to the Rick Riordan presents books! This book is highly engaging, fast paced, and has wonderful character development throughout the pages. The ending will leave the reader wanting the next book in the series right away. This book is highly recommended for middle school collections. 

Fantasy             Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

MG – Winnie Zeng Unleashes a Legend

Zhao, Katie. Winnie Zeng Unleashes a Legend. 978-0-593-42657-9. Random House, 2022. 279 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Winnie Zeng has enough pressure: starting middle school, as well as her Chinese parents constantly nagging her to get better grades, practice the piano more, and to always beat her nemesis, David Zuo. She really doesn’t need her pet rabbit, Jade, to start talking to her. Not to worry, says the rabbit, it’s the overspirit of her dead grandmother, Lao Lao. When Winnie uses her grandmother’s old cookbook to bake mooncakes, she unknowingly activates her own shaman powers (which summons Lao Lao), as well as unleashes a class one spirit who promptly possesses her older sister’s boyfriend. Lao Lao explains to Winnie that shaman are responsible for protecting the human world from malevolent spirits that escape into the world. Great! Now she has a supernatural grandmother nagging her as well! What’s a good Chinese daughter to do? Practice the piano for the upcoming competition (and beat David) or practice her shaman skills with her grandmother? To make things even worse, Winnie discovers David is also a shaman-in-training (but doing better than her, of course.) With spirit activity increasing as the Mid-Autumn Festival approaches, Lao Lao and David pressure Winnie to step up her training, but even an obedient Chinese-American daughter can only do so much. Will Winnie choose to save the world or ace the piano competition once and for all? Zhao uses Chinese mythology to frame the plot, but the heart of the story is Winnie’s need to find herself amid the constant drive to please her parents. Winnie is an appealing, laugh-out-loud funny narrator. Students definitely will relate to her exasperation at being expected to do so much at a very high level, and the feeling of never being quite good enough.

THOUGHTS: Readers looking for a humorous book with a likable protagonist definitely will enjoy  Winnie Zeng. While they may not understand her (temporary) choice to focus on school and turn down being a spirit-catching, world-saving shaman, most will relate to her stressed-out feeling of being over-scheduled with activities and expectations, and look forward to the next book.

Fantasy (Mythology)                Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Why We Fly

Jones, Kimberly, and Gilly Segal. Why We Fly. Sourcebooks Fire, 2021. 978-1-492-67892-2. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

With a shared love for cheerleading, Eleanor (“Leni”) and Chanel (“Nelly”) have been long time best friends. Continuing to recover from a bad fall and concussion, Leni attends physical therapy in preparation for senior season. When Leni, a White, Jewish girl, is named captain over the more deserving Nelly, a Black girl who has stepped up during Leni’s injury, the friendship begins to splinter. Since she’s become interested in star quarterback Three, Leni doesn’t seem to notice how hurt Nelly feels. Nelly, meanwhile, has her own pressures to cope with and does so by making some questionable choices. Leni struggles to reign in the team and feel like a true captain. Then in support of a professional football player who is from their Atlanta, Georgia high school, Leni convinces the cheer team to take a knee during a game. The repercussions ripple through their community, impacting each character differently. Told in alternating voices by author team Jones and Segal (I’m Not Dying with You Tonight, 2019), this novel tackles social issues in a new perspective from those who are on the sidelines. 

THOUGHTS: This novel addresses how friends, despite similar interests and history, may grow apart. Told amongst a contemporary backdrop with racial justice at the center, Why We Fly will be popular where similar books are enjoyed.

Realistic Fiction           Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem. – Mighty Reader: Makes the Grade

Hillenbrand, Will. Mighty Reader: Makes the Grade. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-823-44499-1. 35 p. $18.99. Grades K-1. 

Lulu is beside herself and oh, so worried about the standardized test that is scheduled to happen in her class at school today. Formatted like a graphic novel, this picture book is full of evil villains like the scary test, pencils, books, and watchful eye but Might Reader comes to save the day with ‘partner power.’ Turns out, Lulu was just having a nightmare, but how was she going to be successful at school without Mighty Reader?

THOUGHTS: The graphic novel formatting may be a bit overwhelming for new readers, but this short story could break the ice for nervous students before big test days. Some of the techniques mentioned could even be tried out in class. Talk about a super power!

Picture Book          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

MG – Oh My Gods!

Cooke, Stephanie. Oh My Gods! Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021. 978-0-358-29952-3. $12.99. 202 p. Grades 4-8.

Being a teenager is tough enough, but when Karen’s mom gets the job offer of her dreams, Karen is obligated to move to Greece to live with her Dad, Zed, which means her life is about to get much more complicated. Soon after her arrival, it is clear that living on Mt. Olympus will be a lot different than the life she was used to in New Jersey! Karen quickly meets a group of friends at her new school, and to her they seem normal, but anyone familiar with Greek mythology will immediately realize that the references and similarities to Greek deities mean Karen’s new friends are more than the everyday teenagers they pretend to be. Together, the new friends discover a student turned into a statue in the library one night, and Karen realizes she must solve the mystery of who is turning kids to stone on campus!

THOUGHTS: Fans of fiction featuring Greek mythology, including Rick Riordan fans, will love the multitude of references to gods and goddesses in this book. Students who do not know much about the Ancient Greeks may be inspired to learn more; this would make a great pairing with nonfiction titles like those in the Mythlopedia series. The graphic illustrations are charming and enhance the mystery and quirky humor in the story. Strong themes of friendship and acceptance in this book leave the reader eager to see what the next installment (April 2022) of Karen’s adventures on Mt. Olympus will hold!

Graphic Novel          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – In the Wild Light

Zentner, Jeff. In the Wild Light. Crown Publishers, 2021. 978-1-524-72024-7 429 p. $17.99. Grades 9 and up.

Set in a small Tennessee town, two misfits from troubled families develop a strong bond after meeting at a Narateen meeting. Cash is struggling to come to terms with his mother’s death, the knowledge that his beloved grandfather is dying, and his fear that he has no special gift to offer anyone. Delaney is a brilliant, self-taught scientist who discovers a bacteria-destroying mold with potential medicinal benefits.  Because of this discovery, she is offered a full ride scholarship to an elite New England prep school and secures a spot for Cash as well.  Delaney is determined to start anew and pushes Cash to join her, though he believes he is not deserving of this opportunity and fears missing precious time with his grandfather. They both struggle to adjust to their new life so far removed from their roots but are fortunate to find a friendship with two other new students at Middleford Academy and to nurture their own interests and passions and the special bond between them.

THOUGHTS: A thoughtful, coming of age story with a strong focus on the value of friendship and family, with charming characters, beautiful descriptions, and some gorgeous poetry. Touching, emotional, and heartfelt, this book will be appreciated by fans of All the Bright Places and Looking for Alaska.

Realistic Fiction                Nancy Summers,   Abington SD

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