Elem./MG – Miss Quinces

Fajardo, Kat. Miss Quinces. Graphix, 2022. 978-1-338-53559-4. 256 p. $12.99. Grades 4-7.

Suyapa (Sue) would love to spend all summer creating comics and attending sleepaway camp with her friends. They’re even introducing LARPing to the activities this year and she’s going to miss it, because instead Sue’s family is taking a trip to Honduras to visit her mom’s relatives. With no texting, Internet, or cable to distract her, she hopes to spend her days reading and avoiding family drama (particularly with her older sister, Carmen). But despite Sue’s specific and repeated request NOT to have a quinceañera, her Mami has already sent out a hundred invitations behind her back. With the guidance of her doting abuela, Sue compromises with Mami: if she participates in the celebration without complaint, she can attend sleepaway camp with her friends in August! Can a soon-to-be “Miss Quinces” who hates the spotlight, frilly dresses, and dancing in public, possibly survive this festive family tradition … maybe even enjoy it? This incredibly appealing graphic novel debut features bright, digitally rendered artwork and a loving, boisterous extended family. Text in the speech bubbles is blue when the characters are speaking Spanish, and black when they are speaking English, which visually reflects Sue’s experiences of existing in two cultures.

THOUGHTS: This graphic novel checks all the boxes: authentic, endearing, and funny! Follow it up with Frizzy by Claribel A. Ortega for another perspective on feeling like an outsider in one’s own family.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Elem. – The Midnight Club

Goth, Shane. The Midnight Club. Owlkids, 2021. 978-1-771-47394-1. Unpaged. $19.95. Grades PreK-1. 

Milly and her older sister Becca are members of the Midnight Club. When the clock strikes midnight, they quietly slip downstairs to explore their darkened home. As any good club does, the Midnight Club has rules. The siblings must tiptoe around the criss-crossed shadows of the upstairs window panes. Another rule of this magical time at night is that they can do whatever they want–whether it be sitting in their father’s chair and sampling his jelly beans or trying on their mother’s coat. They are joined in their adventures by a third member of the club–Oliver the cat. When their eyes grow heavy and they begin to yawn, it’s time to bring the club meeting to an end and return to their room before they are discovered. Young Ling Kang’s watercolor, pencil and digital illustrations bathe the darkened house in hues of blue and purple, with yellow street lights shining in through windows. This helps to create the shadows that the girls use to make shapes on the wall during their nighttime escapades. 

THOUGHTS: A sibling secret club will be quite relatable to many children, as will the idea of embarking upon home-exploring adventures. Kang’s illustrations lend the story a sense of nighttime stillness and atmosphere perfect for night adventures. Recommended. 

Picture Book            Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg SD

YA – Vial of Tears

Bishara, Cristin. Vial of Tears. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-823-44641-4. $18.99. 320 p. Grades 9-12.

Sixteen year old Samira is just trying to get by. Her father is missing in action, and her mother has a habit of disappearing for days at a time. When she receives a vase containing antique coins from her great grandfather in Lebanon, Samira and her sister Rima are unwillingly transported to the Phoenician underworld by the owner of one of the coins: a half god named Eshmun. Samira is desperate to get home, but when she is separated from Rima, she must rely on Eshmun and his companion Teth to find her. However, the underworld is a dark realm with dangerous creatures lurking around every corner, and Sam doesn’t know if she can count on anyone to help her and her sister get home. In a world where everyone seems to be after power or wealth, who can you trust?

THOUGHTS: Vial of Tears is another great title to recommend to readers who enjoy reading about mythology, and Phoenician mythology is definitely unique subject matter for young adult fantasy literature. Readers also will enjoy the sibling relationship between Samira and Rima and Sam’s memories of her time with her father.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley 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 – Sisters of the Snake

Nanua, Sasha, and Sarena Nanua. Sisters of the Snake. HarperTeen. 2021. 978-0-062-98559-0. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

Ria is a street urchin. A nothing that is just trying to survive and get out of this terrible town, away from where she is soon to be forced into the army. Princess Rian feels the same way, just slightly different. She is looking at the chance to be free to prove herself and her worth for her kingdom. When these two girls unexpectedly meet, they find out something shocking; they look identical! They decide they must be sisters… and each hopes to achieve something when they trade places.

THOUGHTS: A fun cultural fantasy novel. The first in a series, as this book ended on a cliff-hanger. The excitement for what happens next with these two magical sisters will pull at readers and have them wishing for the next novel!

Fantasy          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

YA – They’ll Never Catch Us

Goodman, Jessica. They’ll Never Catch Us. Razorbill, 2021. 978-0-593-11432-2. 330 pp. $17.99. Gr. 9-12.

Did Stella Steckler do something to Mila Keene? That’s the question at the heart of Jessica Goodman’s taut sports mystery set in New York’s Catskill Mountains. In Edgewater, the cross country team reigns supreme, and Stella is the star. Her main competitor is her younger sister, Ellie, who is more of a “people person” than Stella. In fact, Stella has a history of violence; she hurt another runner in an incident that is alluded to and fleshed out throughout the novel. But, after spending the summer at Breakbridge Elite Track and Field Center, Stella is back on a good path and clocking her best times yet. Ellie, meanwhile, is in a relationship with another runner’s boyfriend, and dealing with her complicated feelings about the abortion she had over the summer. When champion runner Mila Keene transfers to Edgewater High, both sisters are drawn to her kindness and ability to listen without judgment. When Mila disappears, the town is plunged back into its years as “Deadwater,” when three girls disappeared from the local resort’s running trails and were later found, murdered, with their shoelaces missing. The cases were never solved, and with a fresh missing person’s case, everyone is a suspect … and Stella isn’t the only one with secrets (and first place finishes) to protect. 

THOUGHTS: With chapters alternating between Stella’s and Ellie’s points of view, They’ll Never Catch Us is both a fast-paced mystery and a nuanced portrayal of sisters who fiercely protect each other’s secrets despite their deep mutual distrust. Fans of Karen McManus will run to this one!

Mystery          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Fire with Fire

Soria, Destiny. Fire with Fire. Clarion Books, 2021. 978-0-358-32973-2. $17.99. 432 p. Grades 7-12.

Dani and Eden are sisters, and they have a secret: they come from a long line of dragon hunters and have trained to become slayers since they were young girls. Dani doesn’t take her duties as a slayer as seriously as Eden, but when she comes across a dragon and they become soul bonded, everything Dani thought she knew about her family’s legacy changes in an instant. Although Dani has a change of heart, Eden does not, and instead becomes mixed up with the sorcerers who use magic from dragons to fuel their own powers. Suddenly, the sisters are enemies, and each is trying to save the other from what they believe is a deadly situation, not realizing there is a more dangerous enemy threatening to destroy them both.

THOUGHTS: This is one of the first contemporary dragon fantasies that I’ve read, and I love that the book’s setting is rural Tennessee rather than a fictional land or kingdom. It’s a nice change from the many high fantasy dragon series, and I think readers will enjoy the relationship and sibling rivalry between Dani and Eden. Although they are dragon slayers, they are still sisters, and looking out for one another comes before all else. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Wings of Ebony

Elle, J. Wings of Ebony. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 978-1534470675. $19.99. 368 p. Grades 9-12.

Rue has lived in Houston with her mother and half sister for her entire life, but when her mother is murdered outside of their apartment, the sisters are separated. Rue is sent to live with her father, who had previously been absent from her life. Not only is she forced to leave Houston, but discovers her father lives on the hidden island of Ghizon, a home for magic wielders. Rue discovers she has these magical abilities also, and although she makes some friends in Ghizon, she leaves on the anniversary of her mother’s death, hoping to catch a glimpse of her sister Tasha. However, Rue wasn’t supposed to leave the island, and her actions lead to violent consequences. Although Houston and Ghizon are on opposite sides of the world, Rue’s two homes collide, and it’s up to her to save her neighborhood and Ghizon from the violence and corruption that could destroy both.

THOUGHTS: Rue is a strong, African American female protagonist, whose motto is “make a way out of no way” and puts family above all. Wings of Ebony is the perfect blend of fantasy and contemporary, urban fiction, and I would recommend this title to fans of Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, and Tomi Adeyemi. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – One of the Good Ones

Moulite, Maika, and Maritza Moulite. One of the Good Ones. Inkyard Press, 2021. 978-1-335-14580-2. 384 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Teen YouTube activist and influencer Kezi Smith dies under police custody following her arrest at a social justice rally on her eighteenth birthday. Instantly immortalized as a martyr in the fight against police brutality, Kezi’s family is devastated by loss. While her pastor parents want to preserve and protect Kezi’s memory, sisters Happi and Genny look for a unique way to honor her. Embarking on the trip Kezi planned to take following an heirloom copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book, the sisters and friends Ximena (Kezi’s girlfriend) and Derek go on a journey to reconnect with the Smith’s African American family history and remember Kezi. Tormented by her broken relationship with Kezi, the trip is an opportunity for Happi to understand her older sister, who she feels like she didn’t truly know. Together they will learn more about Kezi, each other, and their family’s history. A surprising twist won’t shock careful readers, but the alternate time periods may challenge struggling readers.

THOUGHTS: This title examines what it means to be remembered and who gets to be called “one of the good ones.” Recommended for high school collections where social justice and social issue titles are popular.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD