YA – Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet

Kemp, Laekan Zea. Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet. Little, Brown and Company, 2021. 978-0-316-46027-9, 343 p. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet hits all the right notes for a young person’s fantasy romance. In alternating narratives, the reader follows the growing romance between talented Mexican-American chef, Penelope (Pen) Parado, and undocumented restaurant worker, Xander Amaro. Nachos Tacos is Pen’s father’s restaurant in Austin, Texas, and the salvation of the neighborhood, providing a handout or employment to many, despite the glaring threat of a ruthless loan shark, J.P. Martello. The restaurant is dear to Pen’s heart–not only because it is there she can express her culinary skills–but also because of the sense of family it represents. She is devastated when she is banished from the restaurant after confessing to her parents that she has not attended a full semester of nursing school. Traditional Mr. Parado expects his older son, Angel, to carry on the business despite Angel’s disinterest. New employee, Xander, enters the wait staff on Pen’s last day, and though some point out her brash, bossy manner, he is smitten. Eighteen-year old, independent Pen finds a cheap apartment with the help of bff Chloe and a wretched job at a Taco Bell-like establishment. In spite of her take-charge personality, Pen suffers from self esteem issues and the narrative alludes to some self-harming; she does take medication for her low moods. In addition to being undocumented, Xander is actively searching for his father who left the family when Xander was a toddler and has never attempted contact with either Xander or his own father, Xander’s guardian. As the narration asserts, each has their own scars. The chapters develop with Pen dealing positively with her complicated love-hate relationship with her father and Xander’s appreciation of his feelings of belonging to the ragtag Nacho crew. Their days revolve around working in their respective restaurants, hanging out with the other Nacho workers, food, and their romance until the restaurant’s future is in jeopardy from the menacing loan shark. This antagonist brings the needed friction for the story, culminating in a predictable conclusion that leaves the reader with admiration for the resiliency of Pen and Xander and their Latinx neighborhood.

THOUGHTS: There is nothing too deep here or too risky (Pen and Xander have some deep kisses and smoldering feelings, but nothing more; some foul language and drinking). Latinx author Kemp tells an old-fashioned love story with the typical tropes but with more interesting words and the addition of some mental health and immigration issues. Her major and minor characters are likeable and developed. One unexpected relationship is Xander’s friendship with the local police officers, despite his undocumented status. Younger teens wanting a romance or older ones looking for an escape novel will be hooked.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – The Life I’m In

Flake, Sharon G. The Life I’m In. Scholastic Press, 2021. $18.99. 978-1-338-57317-6. Grades 9-12.

In Sharon G. Flake’s best selling novel, The Skin I’m In, Charlese–Char–Jones is the confident bully wreaking havoc on the life of the diffident and vulnerable Maleeka. In The Life I’m In, African-American Char appears as the main character, still inwardly grieving for the loss of her beloved parents, and continuing to make bad decisions. Her older sister and guardian, Juju, has begun to get her life together–stopping the house parties and securing a job in a bank–and needs Char–sixteen and a seventh-grade drop out–to live with their grandparents in Alabama. At the start of this reluctant bus trip, Char is flippant and rude, comical and outspoken. The passengers are alternately annoyed and amused by her unself- conscious antics. When young, white mother, April gets on the bus with her three-month old biracial baby, Char’s maternal instincts urge her to assist April. Bound for a job, April shows the distressed signs of living rough on the streets. To provide for her child, she sells narcotics and sexual favors to truck drivers; she suppresses suspicion about this new employment that requires she pay for the position. When April disembarks the bus with baby Cricket in tow, naive Char decides she will go out on her own and not continue to Alabama. Thinking it is temporary, she volunteers to take care of Cricket when April’s aunt never shows up at the bus station and well-dressed and smooth talking Anthony arrives as April’s ride to Florida. Char enlists all her resources to persuade a hotel proprietor to rent her a suite; she figures out and procures the necessary baby supplies with the money from Juju; she contacts Juju and even the newly reconciled Maleeka to tell them of her actions if not her whereabouts. Char may talk a good game, but she is young, inexperienced, and a virgin. When Char’s funds dwindle and her efforts to find work are hindered by her motherly duties, she runs into Anthony again and, in an attempt to save Cricket, finds herself a victim of sex trafficking. Author Flake describes the depravity of Char’s existence during this time delicately, but does not stint on the truth. Char receives some solace in the community of other girls in Anthony’s pack, who seem to be of different races and backgrounds. When she eventually escapes and is reunited with Juju, Char needs the help of not only her sister, but also Maleeka, her former teacher, Ms. Saunders, and professionals to survive the trauma and feel truly free. The fluid text reflects Char’s actual voice, and her first-person narration gives an intense look into her complex feelings and her maturity as she tries to survive under egregious conditions. Although the stress and suffering Char conveys is painful to read about, readers will find this a compelling book.

THOUGHTS: This is a harsh story to tell, and Sharon Flake tells it well. The book serves as a mirror for those who have suffered sexual abuse or trauma of any kind as well as a window into the lives of people who have experienced homelessness and poverty. The reader leaves feeling not pity but understanding and an admiration for the resilience and effort exerted by trauma victims. It acts as a call for all to refrain from rash judgements and to be kind. Char’s second escape from Anthony seems contrived (would the driver wait for Char as she says good-bye to Maleeka?); however, readers will be rooting for the happy ending.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – Daisy

Bagley, Jessixa. Daisy. Neal Porter Books/Holiday House, 2021. Unpaged. 978-0-823-44650-6. $18.99. Grades K-1.

Daisy is a young warthog named after her mother’s favorite flower. Her mother often comments that “They seem plain, but when you look closer you see their beauty.” At school, the other animals laugh at her name, saying she looks more like a thistle. This teasing makes her sad and she finds herself often looking down at her feet. One day, the young warthog realizes that there are marvelous objects to be found when looking at the ground and begins to collect them. Among her treasures are a chipped teacup, buttons, old glasses, and other discarded and overlooked items, which she keeps in a secret place. While her classmates see her collection as junk, Daisy finds beauty in every object. Then, new pieces suddenly appear in her path and on returning to her special place, Daisy finds the most important gift of all- friendship. The full bleed illustrations by the author are done in watercolor and pencil. The endpapers reflect the theme, picturing unopened daisies in the front, but in full bloom in the back. It may be a little puzzling to the reader why Daisy is called “Thistle” when a porcupine is also in the class. This and a retrospective examination of the animals’ facial expressions would be good discussion starters. Readers will enjoy the clever way that the author reveals the animals’ names.

THOUGHTS: This story works as a great read aloud for anti-bullying and character lessons and to help students understand that all individuals are special in their own way.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem. – All Because You Matter

Charles, Tami. All Because You Matter. Scholastic, 2020. 978-1-338-57485-2. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PreK-2.

Charles and illustrator Bryan Collier create a loving ode to children of color, gently reassuring them that they matter. Collier’s rich, exuberant pages give life and emphasis to Charles’ text, showing young parents dreaming of their child to come. Their hopes and expectations spiral through a dreamy, quilt-inspired landscape. While the story espouses hopes and confidences applicable for all children, the intent is clearly to address current events, to bolster young black and brown children against a world that may be unwelcoming. Charles’ writing is gentle and powerful, but Collier and his stunning visuals should have been on the Caldecott shortlist.

THOUGHTS: A necessary purchase for all libraries serving young patrons.

Picture Book          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work

Jewell, Tiffany. This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2020. 978-0-711-24521-1. 160 p. $13.09. Grades 5-8.

This handbook provides readers with the answers about racism in America that young people seek but many adults do not have the answers to. Readers will explore more about themselves, how racism came to be, why it has yet to disappear, and how to actively work against racism. A glossary of terms will help beginners understand novel vocabulary words like complicity, assimilate, neurodiverse, and  BIPoC. Graphic art colors every few pages, and activities are provided at natural stopping points to help the reader fully understand and reflect on difficult concepts. The author writes about their own experience so that those who have experienced racism feel heard and others learn about a real person’s experience with racism. Although this book teaches readers about social activism, its main purpose is for readers to help dismantle and work toward ending racism.

THOUGHTS: This book can be used as a workbook to help discover more about oneself or used in book clubs to encourage conversation with others. I recommend this book to every educator seeking to better support their students. I personally like that it is small enough to be carried in a purse, backpack, or back pocket. Any person troubled by current events will benefit from reading this book, especially the section about Taking Action and Responding to Racism.

305.8 Racism          Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD

Elem. – I Am Every Good Thing

Barnes, Derrick. I Am Every Good Thing. Nancy Paulson Books, 2020. 978-0-525-51877-8. 32p. $17.99. Grades K-3.

I Am Every Good Thing is a poem that talks about the resilience, challenge, and beauty of being a child. It demonstrates children doing different activities such as making snowballs, riding a skateboard, swimming, and many other activities that children might do throughout their life. The narrator of this book adds to the feeling of “I can do anything I set my mind to” which is carried over with the illustrations. The illustrations done by Gordon James showcase the poetry beautifully and contribute to the feeling the narrator gives throughout the poem.

THOUGHTS: This is a beautiful book that is a vital addition to every school library collection.

Picture Book          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Elem. – Bo the Brave

Woollvin, Bethan. Bo the Brave. Peachtree Publishing, . 978-1-682-63182-9. 32 p. $17.99. Grades K-3. 

When Bo’s older brothers set off on a monster hunt, she wants to accompany them, but they refuse, telling her she’s too little. Instead of accepting their words, Bo begins her own quest. Each monster she encounters makes her pause, and she takes time to look past first impressions and gets to know each creature’s true nature. This insightfulness ultimately leads her back to her castle where she pulls off her final, most heroic act. A tight palette of orange, pink, teal, and gray provide the inspiration for this alpine world, dotted with mountains, lakes, forests, and seas. Sharp-eyed readers will notice the foreshadowing of each monster from one spread to the next. 

THOUGHTS: Instead of accepting peoples’ opinions, Bo sets out to prove she’s smart and brave and strong. Her self-confidence is refreshing and will inspire readers, particularly girls, to follow their own dreams and set off on their own adventures instead of remaining on the sidelines. Themes of acceptance and not judging based solely on appearance also shine through in this medieval remix. 

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD

YA – Six Angry Girls

Kisner, Adrienne. Six Angry Girls. Feiwel and Friends. 2020. 978-1-250-25342-2. $17.99. 262 p. Grades 9-12.

Raina Petree got dumped by big crush boyfriend, Brandon. Emilia Goodwin got dumped by the pompous all-male Mock Trial Team. They join forces to salvage their senior year by forming an all-female Mock Trial Team in their Pittsburgh suburban high school of Steelton drawing on Raina’s drama skills and Millie’s knowledge of the law and research. Adapting the title of the 1950’s movie, Twelve Angry Men, these six angry girls (all but one Caucasian)–overcome heartbreak and self-esteem issues to create a strong challenge to their male counterparts and a serious threat to other Mock Trial Teams as they compete for Nationals. Told in alternating chapters narrated by either Raina or Millie, the book develops a girl power story with the message that people need to stand up for what is right and, especially, stand up for oneself. Author Adrienne Kisner also manages to weave in a subplot involving knitting. Raina searches for an outlet for her grief and joins the knitting group at The Dropped Stitch, a local yarn store. Not only does she learn to cast on and purl, she finds herself involved with activists trying to stop the election of a local magistrate because of his history letting off misogynists and blocking legislation for reproductive rights. Their rebellion manifests itself in yarn-bombing the courthouse with knitted female genitalia. In a twist, the targeted judge turns up volunteering in Mock Trial. At the knitting shop, Raina meets new student Grace who is happy to join an extracurricular activity. Millie falls for Grace and begins to value herself and her time, separating her needs from her helpless father who expects Millie to be chief cook and bottlewasher after her mother moves to Ohio. Though told in a light-hearted manner, the book addresses serious topics, contains a full-range of LBGTQ+ characters, and models the strengths and weaknesses of adults in young people’s lives. What begins as a revenge against the boys story builds with each club meeting, practice, and competition to a triumph of self-identity and self-worth.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: The cover illustration depicts a diverse group of girls, but the two main characters are white. Author Adrienne Kisner is emphasizing gender identity: Millie and Grace form a romantic relationship; Izzy, a minor character, is transgender; the Mock Trial court case for the win centers on gender discrimination. Some parts to be aware of: The Dropped Stitch crew are not shy about using anatomically correct terms, and a smattering of curses appear throughout the dialogue, making it more a high school choice than middle grade. This book has the same feminist fight tone of Moxie by Jennifer Matthieu; and if this suburban, western Pennsylvanian high school resembles yours, Six Angry Girls is an attractive purchase.

Elem. – The World Needs More Purple People

Bell, Kristen & Hart, Benjamin. The World Needs More Purple People. Random House Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-0-593-12196-2. 40 p. $17.99. Grades PreK-2.

You can hear Kristen Bell’s voice on every page in this adorable story about the importance of being an everyday hero. The moral of the story is to work hard, bring the community together, and use your voice. This book does not offer answers to some of the world’s toughest current issues, but it does offer a primer in recognizing that the world isn’t perfect and it’s hard to be angry if you’re laughing.

THOUGHTS: Although the book isn’t explicitly political, I do wonder if purple comes from combining red and blue (political party colors). A quick, silly read that can keep the attention of the youngest readers.

Picture Book          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

MG – Forget Me Nat

Scrivan, Maria. Forget Me Nat.  Graphix, an Imprint of Scholastic, 2020.  978-1-338-53825-0. 234 p. $21.69. Grades 3-6.

Natalie is in love with Derek, and she is sure he is in love with her. He wrote her a cute note right before winter break, and he asked her if she wanted to read his comic book. Soon, they were spending a lot of time together, but Natalie spending time with Derek means she’s not spending time with Zoe and Flo, and it also means she’s doing things she doesn’t really like to do, like eating pineapple pizza and joining math club. Natalie’s obsession with Derek could mean the end of her best friendships, and when her feelings aren’t reciprocated, it sends Natalie into a spiral of unhappiness and self-doubt. Natalie will have to learn that self-confidence does not come from a relationship–it comes from within.

THOUGHTS:  Maria Scrivan picks up where she left off with Nat Enough. Fans of Raina Telgemeier and Svetlana Chmakova will enjoy this series.

Graphic Novel          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD