Elem. – You Matter

Robinson, Christian. You Matter. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-5344-2169-1. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K – 2.

Christian Robinson’s newest picture book has a straightforward message, even while delivering it through a roundabout story: You Matter! In fact, we are all matter, connected from the formation of the earth to the smallest living creatures. The flow of the story goes from a girl looking into a microscope and then off to several prehistoric creatures, before taking a galactic turn from a space station parent to a cityscape child. However, the message all along is meant to apply to all of us – despite hardships or worries or feelings of loneliness – you matter! The illustrations and their progression are delightful to connect and discuss, while the text hopefully hits home for those young readers who need those two reassuring words in a time of uncertainty.

THOUGHTS: The natural connection with this book would be for students to list things that matter to them, or ways that they matter to the world, and then share it with others. This would make for a great opportunity for building friendships and class identity at the start of a school year. Recommended for grades K – 2.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill    State College Area SD

MG – The Prettiest

Young, Brigit. The Prettiest. Roaring Brook Press, 2020. 978-1-626-72923-0. 301 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8.

Eve Hoffman writes poetry, wears her high-school aged brother’s oversized shirts to distract from her curves, and buries her head in a book so as to not be noticed. She is the most surprised of all her eighth grade classmates to find herself in the top slot on the Prettiest List at Ford Middle School in suburban Michigan. As the principal and teachers try to root out the list’s instigator, both girls on the list and off suffer backlash. Prettiest by Brigit Young is told through the perspectives of the main characters: Eve, a well-developed, shy girl from a conservative Jewish family; Nessa Flores-Brady, her best friend, a theater junkie and a large, Latinx girl; and Sophie Kane, a determined blonde-haired girl whose bossiness and make-up mask the shame she feels about her family’s economic situation. When the ringleader of the mean girls, Sophie, gets knocked off her pedestal and relegated to number two on the list, she realizes the pretense of her groupies and reluctantly joins forces with Nessa and Eve to take down the person who they believe compiled the list. Aided by Winston Byrd, a lone renegade from the popular boys, their chief suspect is Brody Dalton, a wealthy, handsome, and entitled young man who has verbally abused or offended many of his classmates with no remorse. The trio enlist other wronged girls calling themselves Shieldmaidens. They bond in genuine friendship and sisterhood as they plot to expose Dalton’s crime in a public way at the finale of the school play. What starts off as a 21st Century equivalent to a simple slam book story becomes a feminist’s rallying cry for girls to be judged on their merits, not their looks, and for all middle school students to resist fitting into a mold to gain acceptance. It also uncovers the nuances of each person’s story. For example, the arrogant Dalton is the sole student whose parent never attends school events. Young’s talent for echoing the authenticity and humor of preadolescent dialogue enables her to tackle important issues with a light touch. This highly readable work reveals the insecurities embedded in a middle school student’s life: not being cool enough, popular enough, and the pain caused by too much attention and not enough.

THOUGHTS: Though there is some show of diversity here (an African-American girl, a girl in a wheelchair), the emphasis is on the pressure middle school students—especially girls—feel to look and behave a certain way. Lots of discussion points in this book: from the insults the girls receive and their collective show of power to the students’ bandwagon attitude and the sympathetic– but mostly ineffectual– response of the teachers and principal. Prettiest may present as a “girl” book because of its feminine cover and title, but it is definitely a book for all genders to read. For more tales of positive girl power: read Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu in high school.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Picture Books – Nerdy Birdy Tweets; Where Oliver Fits; Town is by the Sea

Reynolds, Aaron. Nerdy Birdy Tweets. Ill. Matt Davies, Roaring Brook Press, 2017. 978-1-62672-128-9. Unpaged. $17.99. Gr. K-2.

“One real live you is worth a thousand Tweetster friends.” and so is the lesson of Nerdy Birdy Tweets, a humourous look at how society manages friendship and what true friendship truly means.  Nerdy Birdy and Vulture are best friends, but when Nerdy Birdy joins Tweetser he ignores Vulture for his hundreds of “friends”, many of whom Nerdy Birdy has never met.  When Vulture joins Tweetster everything seems okay until Nerdy Birdy shares a picture and comment about Vulture that hurts her feelings.  Now, Nerdy Birdy must figure out what to do, but none of his “friends” on Tweetster are helpful.  It’s up to Nerdy Birdy to find Vulture and make things right again because “One real live you is worth a thousand Tweetster friends.”  Thoughts:  This is a wonderful book about friendship and what true friendship is.  It teaches young children to think about your actions before putting them out there for everyone to see.  Many adults could learn from this picture book.  The illustrations, as always, are fabulous.  They are colorful and fun to interact with through both the spoken text and written text.

Picture Book      Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

 

Atkinson, Cale. Where Oliver Fits. Tundra Books, 2017. 978-1-101-91907-1. Unpaged. $17.99. Gr. K-2.

Oliver doesn’t seem to fit in.  He’s too short or not square enough; his color isn’t right, or he’s too round.  He just doesn’t fit in, but Oliver wants to fit in, so he decides to change himself in order to fit in.  He’s accepted by the purple puzzle, but he wonders, “If I have to hide and pretend I’m someone else, am I really still me?”  Then he questions, “And if I can’t be me, then what fun is it to fit in?”  When Oliver decides to just be himself, he realizes that other puzzle pieces have changed their appearances to try to fit in.  He realizes that being oneself is better than trying to fit in because in time one will find his fit.  THOUGHTS:  This is a beautifully, brightly illustrated text about staying true to one’s own character and self.  This is a lesson that everyone needs throughout life and is especially important for students developing their own personalities and character.  The symbolism of Oliver as a puzzle piece is also a great way of introducing symbolism to elementary students.  This is a great picture book not only for elementary students but for character lessons in middle and high school.

Picture Book    Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

 

Schwartz, Joanne. Town Is By the Sea. Ill.  Sydney Smith. Groundwood Books, 2017.  978-15549-8716. $19.95. 52 pp. Gr. K-2.

This picture book follows one day in the life of a Cape Breton boy in the 1950s as he plays by the sea, visits a friend, runs an errand for his mother, and thinks of his father working in the mines deep beneath the sea.  Beautifully illustrated, this is a well-crafted mix of light and dark, seen in the sunshine on the sea vs. the deep dark of the mines and in the freedom of childhood vs. the dirt and weightiness of adulthood.  The boy loves his family and town, and his family loves him.  There is no sadness over their lives or of the change that will come from growing up.  The book matter-of-factly ends, “One day, it will be my turn. I’m a miner’s son. In my town, that’s the way it goes.” THOUGHTS: This is a frank and respectful look at hard expectations, well-written and well-illustrated.  

Picture Book      Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA Fiction – Girl on a Plane; Into White; The Underground Railroad; Noteworthy

Moss, Miriam. Girl on a Plane. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2016. 978-0544783997. $17.99. 288 p. Gr. 8 and up.

Miriam Moss’s fictional account of her own experience as a hostage is truly captivating. Set in 1970, the plot centers around teenager Anna’s flight to her boarding school in England after visiting her family in Bahrain. Due to recent events involving planes being taken hostage by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Anna worries that her plane could face the same fate. Sadly, her premonition comes to pass and her plane is taken hostage and rerouted to an airstrip in Jordan. Passengers are kept on the plane with limited food and water, used for propaganda photos, and told that their plane will be blown up if the British government does not release a Palestinian hostage. Anna’s friendship with another teen and a younger child are sweet and realistic, and Moss gives Anna strength but also moments of vulnerability. The story moves quickly and will easily keep the attention of young teens looking for an exciting read, but it has the added bonus of highlighting and describing a period in history that might not be well-known to today’s teens. THOUGHTS: Highly recommend this title for middle school and high school libraries as an engaging and memorable historical fiction.

Historical Fiction  (1970s Middle East)   Lindsey Myers, Shady Side Academy Senior School

This was a fast and interesting read, and did make me want to research more about this time period and what was going on with Palestine and Israel in the early 1970s. This is an excellent title to pair with a nonfiction piece or account of the hostage situations. Miriam Moss includes a short chapter at the end describing her own personal memories of her time as a hostage, and this adds an important layer to a student’s understanding of the story. This is also a good read for reluctant readers, as it is short and plot-driven.

 

Pink, Randi. Into White. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2016. 978-1-250-07021-0. $17.99. Gr. 9-12.

Latoya Williams is one of the few black students in her Montgomery, Alabama, high school. After a bullying incident with another black student, devout Toya prays to be white, assuming it will fix all of her problems. As she says, “Black skin was filled with so many barriers, so many restrictions…” (77).  The next day, Toya wakes up changed with glittering blonde hair and ivory skin. With a new attitude, Toya is ready to conquer everything from the popular crowd to her bickering parents. With the help of her gifted brother Alex, Toya enters school as Katarina and begins living day to day as a white girl. At first she feels powerful in her new skin, but soon she learns that the life she desires is far from perfect. Soon, Toya finds that the time she’s focused on herself has alienated her from the people that matter most to  her, especially Alex. THOUGHTS: While at times somewhat predictable and generalized, Into White explores very important themes on race, gender, and consent that could lead to larger important discussions in the classroom.

Contemporary Fantasy      Vicki Schwoebel, Friends’ Central School

 

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. New York: Doubleday, 2016.  978-0385542364. 320 p. $26.95. Gr. 11 and up.

Colson Whitehead’s latest novel is a dramatic and innovative reimagining of the underground railroad system in place in the American South, leading to the North, in the 1800s. In Whitehead’s world, the underground railroad was not only an elaborate communication system between abolitionists and slavery opponents; it was an actual railroad, a mishmash of cars and locomotives rushing slaves to new points along the route and safe havens for runaways. The novel follows Cora, who escapes along with a male slave from her plantation. The novel is graphic and raw, and Cora’s story is fraught with peril and setbacks. Cora eventually comes in contact with Ridgeway, an infamous slave catcher, intent on returning as many runaways as possible. This novel will haunt readers, but hopefully also assist with understanding the many ideologies and structures in place during this awful period in American history. THOUGHTS: Give this to mature students seeking to understand more about slavery and racism in America’s past.

Historical Fiction    Lindsey Myers, Shady Side Academy Senior School

Though this is marketed as a book for adults, I thought it important to include the title in our list of books reviewed for young adults. Not only will it attract interest because it is a National Book Award Winner, but it is also a great counterpart to the much-often read and discussed book in high schools, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Some might find it a better representation of the black experience in America, much above that of the hapless Jim.  Indeed, many of the characters in Whitehead’s novel portray attitudes still in place in our society today, and can spark great conversation or discussion about race and racism in order for students to draw parallels to today’s world and events.

 

Redgate, Riley. Noteworthy. New York: Amulet Books, 2017. 978-1419723735. 400 p. $17.95. Gr. 9 and up.

After reading and loving Seven Ways We Lie, I was excited to receive an advanced copy of Riley Redgate’s newest novel, Noteworthy. While a strong follow-up, it is not nearly as captivating and lacks some of the spark and uniqueness of her first novel. The story follows Jordan Sun, a scholarship student attending the prestigious Kensington-Blaine boarding school for the performing arts. Her focus is theatre, but after three years she still has yet to earn a part in the musical, mainly due to her lower, more masculine range. At the beginning of her junior year she’s recovering from a breakup and again fails to get a musical spot. When she learns that the legendary Sharpshooters, an all-male acappela group, is looking for a new member, she decides that she has nothing to lose by dressing up as a boy and trying out for the group. “Julian” earns a spot, and begins rehearsals, masquerading as a boy whenever she is around the group members. Jordan is an interesting character, and her inner monologues are valuable and thought provoking (if a little too frequent towards the end of the story). Some willing suspension of disbelief is necessary (how is Jordan continually able to sneak out of her dorm room and into a boys’ dorm, how do more teachers not notice what is going on, etc.), but her relationships with the boys highlight and question numerous gender stereotypes. Redgate also does a commendable job of incorporating the musical side of things into her story; it would have been awesome to have a soundtrack with this one! THOUGHTS: Musically-inclined students as well as those interested in pushing gender stereotypes and boundaries will enjoy this title. Recommended for all high schools.

Realistic Fiction    Lindsey Myers, Shady Side Academy Senior School

As noted in the review above, this was a title that I was looking forward to reading and did, for the most part, enjoy. It does drag a bit at the end, but the climax is exciting and will keep readers on the edge of their seats. I did expect Redgate to bust out of the typical boy-girl relationship, and I feel like she failed a bit on this front. Following the general format of YA romances does, however, make this title more approachable for a greater number of teens. I look forward to having my students read this and hear their responses to it.

YA Realistic Fiction – Wink Poppy Midnight; Nice Girls Endure

Tucholke, April Genevieve. Wink Poppy Midnight. New York: Dial Books, 2016. 978-0-8037-4048-8. $17.99. 247 pp. Gr. 9 and up.

A bit of fairy tale, lots of character study, and twists readers may not see coming, Wink Poppy Midnight looks at the interconnectedness of three very different characters.  Wink, lost in fairytales and caring for others, seems naive; lost to the world around her.  Midnight, a true teenage boy with teenage boy things on his mind, is torn between lust for one and growing love for another.  Poppy is cruel; the “mean girl” who leads a crew of followers to complete her bully status.  One is a hero; one a villain, and one a liar, but who can tell which is which.  With fairy tale associations and cruelty abound, Wink Poppy Midnight is reminiscent of J.K. Rowling’s character study, A Casual Vacancy, and e. Lockhart’s storytelling in We Were Liars.  THOUGHTS:  Not for the plot-driven reader, this novel is for the mature reader who understands the intricacies of character development and the importance of understanding a character in order to tell a story.

Realistic Fiction     Erin Parkinson, Beaver Area MS/HS

Much like when I read J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy, I hated and understood the purpose of this novel while reading.  It took me forever to actually read the novel because I couldn’t get into it.  I hated all of the characters and had no clue what Tucholke was trying to accomplish while reading it; yet, I couldn’t actually stop reading it (even though it took almost two months to finish).  I truly don’t know who I would recommend this title to, but it got starred reviews, so it must have an audience.  It is being compared to We Were Liars by e. Lockhart, and I understand why based on the writing style, but I got We Were Liars and understood what Lockhart was trying to do with the intersection of life, fairy tale, and loss.  I don’t understand Tucholke here except to comment on the cruelty of human character and the idea that cruelty and kindness live in all of us.  

 

Struyk-Bonn, Chris. Nice Girls Endure.  North Mankato, MN; Switch Press, 2016. 978-1630790479. $16.95. 256 p. Gr. 9 and up.

Struyk-Bonn has succeeded in telling a realistic yet engaging and meaningful story about a young girl looking to find her place in a world that does not seem to want her. Chelsea Duvey has always been overweight, but, as usual, life seems worse now that she is in high school. She struggles to make friends because of her social anxiety and deals with constant bullying. She spends most of her time at home watching musicals with her father, singing along with all of the songs and forgetting her life for awhile. Her mother is not so understanding and tries to sign her up for weight-loss classes. One classmate in particular targets her for constant bullying, and after he assaults her at a dance and posts photos online, Chelsea becomes despondent and struggles to overcome depression and anxiety. She slowly makes friends in her film as literature class, and one girl in particular befriends her and shows that Chelsea can be who she is and still be loved. The inclusion of a therapist is helpful, but the use of anxiety medication could have been better employed and resolved at the end. The depiction of the adults is fairly realistic, as they are given their own flaws and faults to manage. THOUGHTS: This is a good read for teenagers needing a story of strength and resilience. Highly recommended for high school libraries.

Realistic Fiction     Lindsey Myers, Shady Side Academy Senior School Library

I did truly enjoy this book, and am excited to recommend it to my students. Chelsea does seem to give up at one point, but her friends and family rally around her to help her move on, and teens need to know that there are so many individuals around them who will help and support them. And, Chelsea is not the only one fighting demons in this story, and this fact illustrates how so many of us are fighting our own negative thoughts and emotions. I look forward to possibly using this title in a book club as well!

New YA Realistic Fiction…Dumplin’; Delicate Monsters; Twisted Fate

dumplin

Murphy, Julie. Dumplin’. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2015. 978-0-06-232718-5. 384p. $17.99. Gr. 8 and up.

Willowdean Dickson is a typical teenager; she has a best friend, works in a fast-food restaurant, likes a boy, and doesn’t always agree with her mother.  Her mother, a past winner of the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant, a Texas tradition, doesn’t understand Willowdean, her “Dumplin’”, and her lack of concern with her weight and appearance.  It isn’t until Bo, Will’s crush, shows interest in her, and they being making out regularly, that Willowdean becomes self conscious about her size.  Meanwhile, Will and her best friend, Ellen, are growing apart.  As Ellen and Will try to figure out what’s happening, it’s time for the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant, and both girls enter, along with a few other “misfits” that follow Willowdean and view her as a leader for them.  As the girls befriend one another, they also learn about themselves and their own abilities, while also developing and changing relationships with their families.  With the help of a cross-dressing Dolly Parton impersonator, the memory of her aunt, Lucy, and Dolly Parton, Willowdean is able to realize that her insecurities should not keep her from living up to the expectations her aunt Lucy had for her and she had for herself.  THOUGHTS: This is a charming novel about perseverance, fear, accomplishment, and the importance of self-esteem, in all aspects of life.

Realistic Fiction     Erin Parkinson, Lincoln JSHS, Ellwood City

Dumplin’ is a nice novel, but I did not feel that it lived up to all of the hype.  I understand the importance of Southern beauty pageants, but perhaps even I lost some of the focus because I’m not a Texan; I don’t know.  It is worth adding to a high school and teen collection because of its message to stay true to yourself, no matter what.

 

 

delicatemonsters

Kuehn, Stephanie. Delicate Monsters: A Novel. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015. 978-1-25006384-7. 234 p. $17.04. Gr. 9 and up.

This is a strange, unique, compelling story that you just have to keep reading.  The main characters, none of them likeable, are each deeply disturbed in different ways.  Sadie Su, born into wealth, but sent from boarding school to boarding school because she is violent and shows no remorse, finally is sent home to attend the local public school.  There, she meets a childhood friend.  It seems she tormented Emerson and his brother Miles when they were young.  Now she’s set her sights on Emerson.  Emerson carries scars from childhood and is not dealing with his past in a healthy way.   His father committed suicide; his distant mother works a lot, and his brother, Miles, is sick all the time.  In a strange twist, Sadie ends up looking out for Miles, as he seems more and more mad, seeing visions of destruction in their future.  THOUGHTS: This book is so strange.  It’s hard to even call it “Realistic” because every character is so damaged.  I personally love unreliable narrators and would recommend it to students who like books like We Were Liars.  

Realistic Fiction     Rachel Gutzler, Wilson High School

 

 

twistedfate

Olson, Norah. Twisted Fate. New York: Katherine Tegen Books, 2015. 978-0062272041. 272p. $17.99. Gr. 10 & up.

Allyson is intrigued when new bad boy, Graham moves in next door. For Allyson, who is shy and awkward around people, she feels as though she has found someone to finally share her life. With little friends, Ally struggles socially and with her grades. Sydney, Ally’s sister, is the complete opposite – smoking marijuana, skateboarding in school, getting good grades without studying, and keeping only close friends.  She sees Graham as mysterious and dangerous, hoping her sister, Ally, does not fall for the new neighbor.  The sisters begin to uncover Graham’s secrets and …

Told in alternating voices from Syd to Ally, and again from the police officers who are reporting on the “incident”, the book is full of plot twists, leaving the reader saying “What? I have to read that again!” Readers intrigued by mental disorders and dark emotions will be pulled into this novel. Because the novel deals in detail with sex and drugs, it is recommended for upper grades 9 through 12.

Realistic Fiction        Brooke Gerlach, Manheim Central MS

New YA Realistic Fiction – Faking Perfect; Sugar; Everything, Everything

FakingPerfect

Phillips, Rebecca. Faking Perfect. New York: Kensington, 2015. 978-1-61773-881-4. 250p. $9.95. Gr. 9 and up.

Lexi is a high school girl hiding her real self, flaws and all, behind the perfect facade.  Her home life isn’t so great, and she’s figured out how to fit in, even if it means hiding her feelings from her “friends”.  As much as she tries not to, she follows in her mother’s footsteps and chooses high school “bad boy”, Tyler Flynn, to secretly date.  Even that seems perfect, since he doesn’t want much more than a good time.  Tyler begins to break their agreement and develops feelings for Lexi.   As Tyler is falling for Lexi, she starts dating Ben, the high school golden boy, perfect in every way. Lexi eventually learns that true friends are your greatest asset, and even though relationships with your parents can be complicated, it’s okay to take risks and reveal the true you.   THOUGHTS: This story was enjoyable.  I love the premise that being fake is too hard to manage, and it’s better to accept who you are and stop trying to fit in.  Lexi discovers that the people you need aren’t always the people you think you want.  I also like that this book deals with other high school struggles and teen issues: popularity, teen pregnancy, drinking, sex, and complicated relationships with parents.

Realistic Fiction       Rachel Gutzler, Wilson High School

 

sugar

Hall, Deirdre Riordan. Sugar. New York: Skyscape, 2015. 978-1477829387. 266 p. $9.99. Gr. 9+.

Sugar is one of those wonderful books that you pick up and never want to put down. I was mesmerized from the beginning. Mercy, aka Sugar, faces difficulties in all sectors of her life. Her mother is obese (and, incidentally, gave her daughter the nickname Sugar), and remains in bed day in and day out, expecting Sugar to be her nurse, cook, and housemaid. Sugar has two older brothers: one who lives at home and makes her life miserable, and one who has escaped and lives with his girlfriend. Sugar has always loved sweets, but her relationship with food and her body has been tarnished by repeated bullying at home and at school. Her mother, brother, schoolmates, etc., all make fun of her size, which only causes her to eat more to attempt to drown out her feelings. Her life is miserable. That is, until she meets the new boy, Even. Even is sweet (no pun intended), and begins to draw Sugar out of her shell, and show her what life can be like when people show compassion. With Even’s guidance, she slowly begins to show kindness to herself and, subsequently, to her body. The two bond over motorcycle rides and commiserate about their difficult home lives. Hall’s writing is fluid and authentic, and she clearly shows how Sugar evolves as a person and how empathy and understanding are truly important in human relationships. I hope that this updated coming-of-age tale gains more notoriety and is widely read by teens and adults alike. I look forward to reading more books by this great new author.

Realistic Fiction      Lindsey Myers, Shady Side Academy Senior School

Some of the best books that I have read have been student recommendations. It is important not only because it assures students that I actually do read and enjoy what they like, but also because it is necessary and helpful for me to stay up to date with some of the best books in YA fiction. Sugar was recommended to me by a discerning student who is very particular about what she reads, so I knew that if she loved it enough to recommend it, it must be a great novel. I have to admit that she was right: it is truly one of the best books for young adults that I have read in recent months. I have already shared this title during bullying book talks, and hope that many students and faculty read it. It can truly open up discussions on bullying, coping, and surviving difficult environments. It would also be a great selection for a book club, and I hope to recommend it for one, soon.

 

Everything

Yoon, Nicola.  Everything, Everything.  New York: Delacorte Press.  2015.  978-0-553-49664-2. 310p.  $18.99. Gr. 9+. 

Madeline Whittier has spent her entire life inside her house thanks to Sever Combined Immunodeficiency or SCID, a rare disease that compromises the immune system.  She has spent every day of her eighteen years with her mom and her nurse, Carla.  Her only visitors must undergo a one hour decontamination process before visiting with her.  This life has been enough for Madeline, that is  until a moving truck pulls up next door.  The moment Madeline lays eyes on Olly Bright, everything changes.  She begins to see the world in a whole new way.  Olly’s life isn’t perfect, but it’s enough to show Madeline that there is a whole world out there for her to live in.  Maddy has to choose the life she’s always lived or the one with endless possibilities. THOUGHTS: This is a cute story.  I had a feeling how it would turn out, and I was right.

Realistic Fiction       Laura Ward, Fox Chapel Area High School