YA – Tin Man

Madson, Justin. Tin Man. Amulet Books, 2022. 978-1-419-75104-2. 219 p. $17.99. Grades 7-10.

Solar is a senior but instead of feeling like her whole life is ahead of her, she feels scared and uncertain. The death of her grandmother, who was also her best friend and mentor, has shaken Solar to her core. Fenn, her little brother, is confused and saddened by her change in personality. The two of them used to work on building a rocket together, but now Solar has little interest in much of anything, especially if it involves Fenn. Campbell is a tin man, a woodsman who wants more in his life than just chopping down trees. Against his father’s wishes, Campbell receives a heart and leaves home to work through all of the feelings he suddenly has. Fenn, Solar, and Campbell become unlikely friends and together, they work through all of their difficult feelings to understand what life has to offer them.

THOUGHTS: This graphic novel is a heart-warming story of how friendship can help heal feelings of loss and confusion. Read closely to see other objects and symbols from The Wizard of Oz peppered throughout Tin Man. 

Graphic Novel                Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem. – Big Dog, Little Dog

Rippin, Sally. Big Dog, Little Dog. Illustrated by Lucinda Gifford. Kane Miller Publishing, 2022. Unpaged. 978-1-684-64383-7. Grades K-3. $17.95.

With a great friend and a lot of attention, Big Dog enjoys a great life with his person. But sometimes the days can be long and lonely. One day while on a walk, Big Dog and his friend meet another person with a little dog. Then things begin to change. Little Dog and her person move in with Big Dog and his person, and Little Dog doesn’t seem to understand how anything works. Big Dog decides Little Dog needs to go, so he begins to sabotage Little Dog to show their people just how annoying Little Dog is. When Big Dog goes too far and is sent outside for the night, Big Dog realizes he and Little Dog may not be so different. Beautiful watercolor illustrations enhance this story of dealing with life’s changes. Children will adore the dogs and root for them to learn to like each other.

THOUGHTS: Big Dog, Little Dog is great for a lesson on how friends can have big differences. Hand this title to a child who is getting a new sibling or going through a change in family situation. Highly recommended for elementary collections. Note: This title originally was published in Australia in 2021.

Picture Book          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – These Deadly Games

Urban, Diana. These Deadly Games. Wednesday Books, 2022. 978-1-250-79719-3. $18.99. 416 p. Grades 9-12.

Crystal loves getting lost in the world of multiplayer game Mortal Dusk. Her team is so skilled that they could even overtake a local gaming celebrity in an upcoming tournament. Crystal hopes to do well in the individual contest, as the prize money would go a long way in helping her single mother pay the mortgage. The team of six basically lives in the game world to increase their scores and determine which five players will earn a spot in the team competition. But they all have to go to school too… During class Crystal gets an odd text with a video of Caelyn, her younger sister (who is supposed to be away for a weekend field trip), gagged and bound. The message is clear: “You have 24 hours to win. If you break my rules, she dies. If you call the police, she dies. If you tell your parents or anyone else, she dies.” Initially, filled with shock and disbelief, Crystal flees her classroom to make sure she read the message right. But each new message replaces the last, and she quickly realizes she will go to any lengths, will do anything to rescue her sister. Besides, the game seems fairly harmless at first. When Crystal realizes she has to choose saving her sister or her friends, her desperation increases. Told over a rapid, deadly game with brief flashbacks to a hidden secret, Crystal races against the clock to win what seems like an unwinable game.

THOUGHTS: Thriller and gamer fans will devour this mystery, desperate to uncover who is behind the anonymous messages. If you have April Henry and Karen McManus fans in your library, you’ll want to add Urban’s titles (All Your Twisted Secrets, 2020) too.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – The Shape of Thunder

Warga, Jasmine. The Shape of Thunder. Balzar & Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-95667-5. $16.99. 275 p. Grades 5-8.

Cora Hamid and Quinn Macauley are next door neighbors and inseparable friends all their twelve years of life–until they are not. Quinn’s older brother, Parker, takes his father’s hunting guns to his high school one November morning and shoots Cora’s sister, Mabel, a teacher, another student, and himself. The two families’ approach to grief could not be more different. Abandoned as a baby by her mother (the reader never discovers why), Lebanese-American and Muslim Cora has the nurturing support of her biologist dad; thoughtful, maternal Gram; and the professional support of a trained therapist. Quinn’s family buries the issue. Told in alternating voices, the reticent and less academic Quinn has difficulty expressing her thoughts and guilty feelings. Her workaholic father is against any outside help to ease the family’s suffering, and her mother hides in the house cooking and baking. Longing to reconnect with Cora, Quinn delivers a box to her doorstep stuffed with articles about time travel and wormholes on Cora’s birthday. She knows Cora well enough to appeal to her scientific nature. Perhaps the two of them could find a wormhole and travel back in time to stop the tragedy of that fateful day. As the pair work through the logistics of approaching a huge tree in the forest for the site of their wormhole/time traveling, they each experience the pain of regret and the insistence on holding fast to the memory of a loved one. While Cora has made new friends on her Junior Quizbowl Team and excels in her studies, Quinn has felt shunned. She longs to be on the soccer team, but is too ashamed to try out. Her art gives her some pleasure, yet not even drawing can remove the heavy weight of a secret she knows about her brother, the possibility that she could have prevented the circumstances. After she confides in the school librarian her remorse, she resolves to confess this awful secret to Cora. Though the revelation breaks their renewed bond, Cora devotes more time to her plan to make the impossible possible. When she questions her father about time travel, she is encouraged and inspired by his answer. He tells her that her absent mother had a theory comparing the shape of time to the shape of thunder: “impossible to map” (p. 213). When both Cora and Quinn are coaxed by different people to attend the traditional Fall Festival at their middle school, the rumble of thunder pulls the two estranged girls to the woods to prove Cora’s theory. The hopeful resolution of the story, despite the sadness surrounding it, gives the reader relief. Quinn’s and Cora’s relationship see-saws throughout realistically. After all, Quinn reminds Cora of the unspeakable thing Parker did. Quinn’s strained home life with her parents who refuse any kind of self-reflection or examination of the devastating action of their son is painful.  Minor situations like the jealousy of Mia, another friend of Cora’s, toward Quinn; the snide remarks of Quinn’s former teammate and friend; the growing crush Cora has with her classmate, Owen (a Japanese-American character), will resonate genuinely with middle school readers. The Shape of Thunder is a tough read, but one that confirms that happiness can co-exist with grief, and friendships can be mended.

THOUGHTS: This novel is full of emotion and rich in language and characterization, but not so intense that a sensitive middle grade student would be put off. Cora is a thinker and an intellectual. Throughout the novel, students will find themselves entertained by the interesting facts Cora spouts (“…cows kill more people than sharks each year…”). The images Warga uses to describe different feelings are unique but spot on (the “fizziness” Cora feels in her tummy when talking to her crush, Owen, etc.). She also makes dialogue very interesting. Quinn has a hard time speaking; her brain freezes and she can’t say the words. When she finally gets angry enough to spill over her feelings to her buttoned up family, it is heartbreaking. The conversations between Cora and her father and grandmother also are authentic and tell the reader so much about the characters. What the reader must conjecture about are Parker’s reason for the shooting and the absence of Cora’s mother since her father seems to have no obvious vices. Ms. Euclid, the school librarian and art teacher, is a heroine for Quinn. This book should be issued with a box of tissues.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst

Moriarty, Jaclyn. The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst. Levine Querido, 2021. 978-1-646-14076-3. $17.99. 448 p. Grades 5-8.

This book, the third in Jaclyn Moriarty’s Kingdoms and Empires series, is a delightful fantasy romp of magic, mystery, and adventure. Ester, the main character, is a strong-willed and independent girl who perseveres in difficult situations, including the heart-breaking bullying she encounters from her own teacher at school. As Ester deals with threats to her school and her country, she eventually comes to a painful realization about her mother that threatens to tear her and her family apart. The bravery she displays as she chooses a path that will help save everything she holds dear is inspiring, and the book comes to a very satisfying conclusion. 

THOUGHTS: Students who love magic-soaked series like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Fablehaven will be delighted with this book as well. It is easy to root for Ester and her family as they race to overcome problems in their magical world, and the book works well as a stand-alone even though it is part of a larger series.

Fantasy          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – You’d Be Home Now

Glasgow, Kathleen. You’d Be Home Now. Delacorte Press, 2021. 978-0-525-70804-9. 400 p. $18.99. Grades 8-12.

For her whole life Emory’s family has been well-known in the town of Mill Haven. Her great great grandfather founded the mill that employed many of the town’s families for generations. But the mill has been abandoned for some time, and people have very different opinions about what should become of the space. Emory also is the little sister of Joey who overdosed and passed out while his best friend Leonard caused a life altering car accident, one that devastated their small town and Emory’s family. Now Emory is known as someone who was in the car when Candy died. Joey is on his way back from rehab, and their older sister Maddie is away at college. With workaholic parents who aren’t always around, Emory is tasked with keeping an eye on Joey who has been given some pretty serious restrictions to keep him “on the right path.” Always feeling invisible in the shadow of her perfect sister and self-destructive brother, Emory has been a good girl, a rule follower. But Emory needs someone to see her. Next door neighbor Gage, who Emory has had a crush on, shows her attention, though secretly, and it feels good for someone finally to notice her even if not out in the open. Despite some questionable choices, Emory is managing and keeping an eye on Joey. Until she isn’t. Secrets are brought to light, Joey disappears, and Emory loses herself. Will she pick up the pieces and figure out who she wants to be before it’s too late?

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Emory and Joey while cringing at some obvious warning signs. Glasgow writes a compelling, character driven novel that shines light on addiction’s impact on family, friends, and community. Teens will appreciate the authentic portrayal of serious issues.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, SD

YA – Punching Bag

Ogle, Rex. Punching Bag. Norton Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-324-01623-6. $17.95. 217 p. Grades 9-12.

As with his debut memoir, Free Lunch, Latinx author Rex Ogle is honest and sensitive in his recounting of his high school years with his volatile mother, Luciana, and abusive stepfather, Sam. At the book’s opening, Rex’s mother reveals that she has lost an infant girl, Marisa, while seven-year-old Rex was visiting his paternal grandparents. In front of her sensitive son, she is distraught with grief and places the blame at his feet. Ogle carries that guilt with him as he navigates his teen-age years protecting his half-brother, Ford, from the chaos erupting from domestic violence in their tiny Texas apartment. At times, this guilt is assuaged with the remembrance of Marisa, giving him the encouragement and strength not extended by other adults. Though his alcoholic stepfather beats his mother regularly, Rex’s mother refuses to press charges or escape. In fact, in a brief stint when Sam leaves her, she picks on Rex, goading him to hit her. Rex acts as the parent here. He has the maturity to see their household is toxic and to recognize his mother’s mental health issues. From conversations with family members, he gets an insight into the root causes of his mother’s and stepfather’s behaviors. However, he feels responsible for the safety of his younger brother and the financial stability of the family. He receives some emotional support from his grandmother and his mother’s sister; he is able to confess to his stepfather’s brother the physical abuse suffered in their family. Nevertheless,with little adult support from teachers or neighbors, young Ogle is out there on his own with the lone comfort of Marisa’s ghostly voice convincing him her death was not his fault. When Luciana and Sam repeatedly wind up together with little improvement, Ogle has to value his own life and aim for his own dreams to keep him resilient and hopeful. This memoir is an excellent example of bibliotherapy. Ogle does not gloss over the brutality and the bewildering reality of domestic violence and the devastating effect of a parent’s untreated mental health issues on her children. Ogle acknowledges this in the book’s preface with a disclaimer emphasizing his purpose for writing his story is to show that it is possible to survive. Students suffering the same trauma will appreciate his frankness. Contains an informative Q & A with author.

THOUGHTS: The account of domestic abuse as well as physical and emotional child abuse is constant, but Ogle is a talented narrator and compels the reader to endure it. Rex Ogle himself stands out as an exceedingly mature, resilient, compassionate person, despite a lifetime to being put down, parentified, terrified, neglected. It prompts the thought, where was this behavior learned. He records little resentment of being the person in charge of his younger brother. He willingly shoulders adult responsibilities around the house with hidden resentment and–mostly-controlled anger. The book delivers an important message to any students in similar circumstances.

Memoir          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
362.7 Child Abuse

Elem. – Milo Imagines the World

de la Pena, Matt. Milo Imagines the World. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021. 978-0-399-54908-3. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-3.

While riding the subway with his sister, Milo observes the people around him and imagines their lives outside of the train. Then, he draws pictures of these people going about the lives he has envisioned for them. However, when a well-dressed boy ends up at the same destination as Milo – a correctional facility to visit his mother – Milo begins to reconsider all of the assumptions he made just by looking at people. An eye-opening and thought-provoking story, this book will encourage young readers to look past first impressions and preconceived notions and instead see individuals for who they really are.

THOUGHTS: I love how cleverly and subtly this story conveys the timeless message that one should never judge a book by its cover. Not only is it relatable for children with parents who are incarcerated, but it is an excellent conversation-starter for others who want to understand these children and their families. Art lovers will also love critiquing Milo’s drawings–and may even be inspired to create some drawings of their own to portray their individual views of the world. This should be a definite consideration for purchase! 

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

YA – Luck of the Titanic

Lee, Stacey.  Luck of the Titanic. G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-524-74098-6. 368 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Luck of the Titanic begins as Valora Luck is getting ready to get on the most luxurious ocean liner in the world, or at least that’s her plan. She is looking to find her twin brother and start a new life as a circus performer in New York City. However, her twin brother Jamie has other plans, and they do not involve being a circus performer. They both have different versions of their childhood, growing up with their parents, and while Valora is desperately trying to rekindle the flame that she recalls, her twin has a very different recollection of their childhood. All of that gets set aside, however, when the Titanic hits the iceberg that seals the ship’s fate. Will Valora escape with her brother to start her new life that she dreamed of?

THOUGHTS: This is a wonderfully written historical fiction novel that deals with family dynamics in a very real and authentic way. The relationship between Valora and Jamie felt very authentic, and the reader will be able to picture them doing their circus acts on the ship. 

Historical Fiction          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – The Cost of Knowing

Morris, Brittney. The Cost of Knowing. Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-44545-1. 336 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Despite trying his best to hold things together, sixteen year old Alex Rufus is struggling. Since the death of their parents, he and his little brother Isaiah have grown apart, barely interacting with each other in their Aunt Mackie’s house. Alex has his girlfriend Talia but constantly worries that he’ll do something wrong to ruin their relationship. At work Alex would prefer to remain in the back washing dishes while wearing rubber gloves than be out front scooping ice cream and interacting with customers. At the same time, Alex and Isaiah’s neighbor Mrs. Zaccari makes initially subtle and increasingly frustrating comments about neighborhood crime and what the Shiv concert coming to the area will mean for their safety. Alex is one touch from losing his carefully constructed exterior. Since the death of his parents, Alex gets a glimpse of the future when he touches anything. Usually something simple and easily dismissed, things become complicated when Alex visualizes an unreadable expression on Talia’s face – the sign of a breakup – and unbearable when he has a vision of his brother’s death. Burdened with the knowledge that he he can’t stop the inevitable, but determined to fix his relationship with Isaiah, Alex races to reconnect with his brother and learns that the two may not be as different as he thought.

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Alex from the beginning as he works against “his curse.” Many readers will be able to suspend reality enough to believe this mostly realistic fantasy. Recommended for high school collections where compelling, character driven titles are in demand.

Fantasy (Paranormal)          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD
Magical Realism
Realistic Fiction