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

Elem./MG – The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. as Told to His Brother

Levithan, David. The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. as Told to His Brother. Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 978-1-984-84859-8. 215 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

It has been six days since Lucas’s brother Aidan went missing, and of course, everyone is frantic. Police, search-and-rescue teams, friends, and family members are searching everywhere for him, not daring to consider the worst. On the sixth night, Lucas hears a noise above the bedroom he shares with his brother and goes up to the attic to investigate. He finds Aidan face down on the floor in front of a dresser as if he had fallen out of it. Disheveled and disoriented, Aidan lifts himself from the floor and looks inside the dresser, seemingly dismayed. After Lucas alerts his family to Aidan’s reappearance, everyone wants to know where he was for those six harrowing days. A fantastic world called “Aveinieu” is his reply. No one believes that Aidan actually went to a magical world that only exists through the dresser doors. But Lucas does believe him because he remembers something. He remembers that when his brother was lying on the floor of the attic, there was something in his hair: a blue leaf in the shape of a diamond, unlike anything Lucas had seen in this world.

THOUGHTS: Students will read this book to find out if Aveinieu really exists and end up discovering that the bond between brothers can be stronger than anything in the world (this world or any others that exist). At its surface, this book is a fantastical tale of getting lost in another world, but deep down, it is a heartwarming story about family. This is definitely a must-have book for upper elementary and middle grade libraries. 

Fantasy Fiction           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Aidan, twelve years old, has gone missing. Lucas awakes one morning to find the room he shares with his older brother Aidan, empty. The boys’ parents start a frantic search alongside members of the community to find Aidan that lasts for 6 days. By this time the local police are hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. But when Lucas hears a thump from the attic, everything changes. Aidan appears in the attic looking confused with a blue diamond leaf in his hair. When Lucas asks Aidan where he was, he replies, “Aveinieu.” Everyone is happy that Aidan has returned, but there are big questions about where Aidan was for those six days. Aidan attempts to tell his story, but the adults do not believe him at all. Lucas talks to Aidan at night and over the course of a few days learns about Aveinieu and gains Aidan’s trust. While Lucas accepts Aidan’s story, the town does not and the students at school turn against Aidan and start making fun of him. The brothers stick together and in the end Lucas (who narrates the story) says, “Like all honest stories, it lives within us.”

THOUGHTS: Leviathan’s first middle grade novel does not disappoint. The story will tug at your heart strings and has a Narnia-esque quality to it. Aveinieu is a magical place with green skies, blue trees, and strange creatures. The struggle Aidan faces in wanting to return to this magical place while not being believed by the adults is heartbreaking. This book was a quick read because I couldn’t wait to find out if Aidan would be allowed back in Aveinieu.

Fantasy Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Kyle’s Little Sister

Jeong, BonHyung. Kyle’s Little Sister. JY, 2021. 978-1-975-33589-2. $24.00. 207 p. Grades 4-7.

6th grader Grace and 8th grader Kyle just started a new year of middle school. Grace, an avid gamer who often feels awkward in social situations, has always struggled in her role as Kyle’s younger sister, since he is one of the most popular and athletic kids at school. Grace’s best friends, Amy and Jay, try to help her forget about living in her big brother’s shadow by organizing game nights and sleepovers, but soon boy-crazy Amy devises a match-making scheme that breaks up the three girls’ friendship in a devastating way. As Grace and her friends struggle to navigate school gossip, popularity contests, and the difficulties of growing up, Kyle begins to reach out to his sister and repair their tumultuous sibling relationship in a way that is realistic and heartwarming. A brief autobiographical sketch at the end of the book also introduces readers to the author/illustrator of the book and to her artistic writing process.

THOUGHTS: This graphic novel is perfect for fans of Reina Telgemar and Svetlana Chmakova.  Middle schoolers, especially kids that are dealing with all the struggles of young adult friendships, will have no difficulty relating to Grace’s feelings and eagerly will devour this book to find out if the story’s characters find resolutions to their problems.

Graphic Novel          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Thanks a Lot, Universe

Lucas, Chad. Thanks a Lot, Universe. Amulet, 2021. 978-1-419-75102-8. 279 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Brian and Ezra, both 13 years old, are classmates at school, and on the same basketball team. But that’s where the similarities end. Ezra, who is biracial, appears to Brian as cool, confident, and popular, while Brian, who is white, suffers from crippling social anxiety (or Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome, as he labels it). Ezra thinks Brian seems interesting, but doesn’t go out of his way to befriend the boy until the bottom drops out of Brian’s life. On his 13th birthday, Brian awakens to discover that his father has disappeared (to evade capture by police) and his mother is unconscious from a drug overdose. In the ensuing days, Brian tries to keep his life together, after he and his younger brother, Ritchie, are placed in foster care. But eventually Brian takes Ritchie and runs away. Ezra soon gets involved in the search for Brian, and after locating the brothers, makes it his mission to befriend the young man. Along the way, Ezra is trying to understand himself as well. His circle of friends is evolving, as some of the boys become interested in girls, while Ezra is coming to terms with the fact that he is gay, and has a crush on Brian. Two well adjusted high school students provide a sounding board for both boys as they attempt to navigate the life they have been given. While racial issues are touched upon, mental health takes center stage. Brian is terrified he will be labeled “crazy” since his mother suffers with mental health issues. While these seventh grade boys are far more comfortable discussing their feelings and expressing concern for each other’s emotional well-being than your average middle schooler, the book is a marvelous, feel-good display of masculine friendship. The story, alternating between Ezra’s and Brian’s point of view, grabs hold from the opening page, and doesn’t stop until the end. Brian and Ezra are both such sympathetic characters readers will wholeheartedly root for them to find happiness. And maybe all those really nice people are what make the book so heartwarming.

THOUGHTS: Highly recommended. While there may be too many unrealistically nice people in the story, including a helpful police officer, a teacher who takes in Brian and Richie, and a pair of high school teenagers who befriend Ezra and Brian, it is worth it for the good feelings it engenders. There is no perfect ending – dad goes to prison, Ezra loses a friend, mom is still unstable – but the book still leaves you smiling. With main characters that are 13-years-old and in 7th grade, this book should have wider appeal than just middle grade. The timely issues of race and mental health make this a great fit for 7th and 8th graders. Hopefully readers will take to heart the message to befriend and understand shy kids, and to look out for each other. Perfect to pair with The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Brian, who suffers from Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome (SAWS), as he calls it, is used to having a rough time in junior high; he is a good basketball player, but feels too shy to talk to his teammates off the court. He often deals with bullying, and his dad wants him to be tougher and stand up to those who make him even more socially miserable. Then, life gets much harder when his dad suddenly leaves the family. Suddenly, Brian is taking care of his younger brother, navigating foster care, and still dealing with his social anxiety, bullies, and every-day adolescent stress. Luckily, a support system shows up to help when Ezra, a teammate from basketball, and a group of caring adults step in. Meanwhile, Ezra is dealing with uncomfortable tension between his childhood best friends, his growing interest in music and playing the guitar, and his changing feelings about boys.

THOUGHTS: This is a beautiful story about supportive friends in times of struggle. The characters in the story experience the difficulties of growing up and demonstrate the positive influences that good people and good friends can have during a teen’s formative years. This book also portrays several positive coming-out experiences and sensitively handles the struggles of a LGBTQ+ teen.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG -The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy

Heider, Mary Winn. The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy. Little, Brown & Company, 2021. 978-0-759-55542-6. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

For freckled-faced, dark haired Louise and Winston Volpe, the center of the galaxy is the 50-yard line of a football field in honor of their ex-quarterback player and now missing father, Lenny Volpe. Life was tough before their father disappeared, a victim of too many head-crushing plays as a Chicago Horribles team member, Mr. Volpe had trouble with his cognitive skills and executive brain function. After three years gone, the siblings burrow into their respective worlds: Winston taking up the tuba and Louise initiating a Science Club in order to experiment with ways to find her father. Flipping back and forth between eighth-grade Winston’s and seventh-grade Louise’s life, author Mary Winn Heider creates sympathetic characters trying to unravel an incredible mystery. Because their mother is buried in work and debt, the brother and sister are on their own a lot and the story takes place mostly at school. Winston’s friend and fellow tuba player, Frankie—who has a pigment condition—insists that the faculty of Subito School are an organized crime ring, and Winston willingly joins the investigation, spurred on when the teachers throw their tubas off the school’s roof. Louise, on the other hand, rejects the overtures of friendship from the other nerdy club members, even after they volunteer to use club dues for a bake sale to recoup the ruined tubas. She is more determined in perfecting a glowing GLOP cream and freeing the Chicago Horribles Football Team’s mascot, a bear. She does, however, develop an appreciation for pop star Kittentown Dynamo’s music. The two worlds collide at the football stadium’s half-time show: tubas, sinister teachers, Kittentown Dynamo, and the bear. Though the infiltration of the stadium and the bear rescue are far-fetched, they are entertaining. To balance this, the ending of this realistic fiction is not all wrapped up, but the characters do come to a healthy place in their family relationships and acceptance of their father’s demise.

THOUGHTS: When I started this book, I saw thin traces of other books in The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy: a less cerebral Wrinkle in Time where the daughter uses science to try to find her father;  James Ponti’s  City Spies where the kids are free-roaming, figuring their own solutions to problems and the adults are “other” and on the fringe; Jacqueline Woodson’s  Before the Ever After where the father has brain injuries from sports. Heider, though makes this book her own and uses unusual plot twists to lead these grieving siblings who are focused on their own sadness back to each other. Perhaps fourth graders would like this book, too; I extended the grade to 8 because Winston and Frankie are eighth graders and seem like they are headed for more than friends status by the book’s conclusion (he lets Frankie comfort him with a hug and he is thrilled to take Frankie to the Aquarium Dance).

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers

LaRocca, Rajani, and Chaaya Prabhat. Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers. Charlesbridge, 2021. 978-1-623-54129-3. unpaged. $15.99. Grades K-2.

The sibling holiday of Raksha Bandhan was coming soon, and Bina wanted to make the traditional bracelets for her brothers by herself this year. First she does some investigating to find out each brother’s color preferences. She learns that Vijay likes blue best but green the least; Siddharth loves green but can’t stand orange; and Arjun’s fav is orange but not blue. As readers will guess, once the process of putting together each personalized bracelet begins, Bina needs to do some problem solving. The patterns that come from her process are fun, allowing readers to play the part of Tara, the faithful family dog, to help Bina when she is stuck. Prabhat creates a colorful animated world to enjoy, and LaRocca adds her cultural note and math connections at the end to help make Bina’s story special.

THOUGHTS: The bracelet patterns are not advanced, but serve as a starting point to bigger pattern projects. The holiday of Raksha Bandhan gets a rare spotlight which siblings both familiar and new to the day should appreciate. This is a solid series to celebrate “Math, diversity, and the power of story.” Recommended.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD