YA – Castles in their Bones

Sebastian, Laura. Castles in their Bones. Delacorte Press, 2022. 978-0-593-11816-0. $18.99. 528p. Grades 9-12.

Sophronia, Daphne, and Beatriz are triplets, and from the time they were young, they have been raised to be the future rulers of Vesteria. Their mother, Empress Margaraux, has had this plan in place since before they were born. At sixteen years old, the sisters are leaving each other for the first time. Each is engaged to a prince so that they may infiltrate the kingdoms from within and use their talents to bring down each monarchy for their mother. However, when the girls arrive at their new homes, they begin to realize that the world is not quite the way described to them by their mother. Will the girls change the plan as they form new relationships and see the struggles of each kingdom, or will they stay faithful to their mother?

THOUGHTS: Castles in their Bones hooked me from the very beginning. Saphronia, Daphne, and Beatriz change so much throughout the novel when they are finally on their own. They have to navigate challenges they never anticipated, and their real personalities start to emerge as they spend more time away from their mother. Thanks to the cliffhanger ending, I’m impatiently waiting for book two in the duology.

Fantasy           Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – M Is for Monster

Dutton, Talia. M Is for Monster. Abrams ComicArts, 2022. 978-1-4197-5197-4. 224 p. $17.99. Grades 7-10.

Frankenstein’s monster gets a gender-flipped, graphic novel update in Talia Dutton’s M Is for Monster! Innovative scientist Frances Ai lost her younger sister in a laboratory accident six months ago. Frankie cobbled Maura back together and, with the help of a well-timed lightning strike, brought her back to life. However, she isn’t quite … Maura. “M” has no memories from before her resurrection, and she fears that Frankie may take apart and reassemble her over and over again until she gets it right. She finds an unlikely ally in the ghost of Maura, who appears in mirrors and coaches M through interactions with her older sister. This way, M avoids a dismantling and Maura gets to keep living, in a fashion. But the cracks in this arrangement begin to show as M and Maura assert their individuality. Can they both find a path forward, or will Frankie intercept their Cyrano de Bergerac-style ruse? Author and illustrator Talia Dutton uses a green, black, and white color scheme (and plenty of period details) to portray M’s limited but intriguing world. It’s one she desperately wants to continue living in, and readers will feel the same!

THOUGHTS: What first appears to be a straightforward horror novel is also a thought-provoking take on grief and identity.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – Smaller Sister

Willis, Maggie Edkins. Smaller Sister. Roaring Brook Press, 2022. 978-1-250-76741-7. 312 p. $22.99. Grades 4-7.

Lucy and her older sister, Olivia, are just twenty months apart. While close as can be in their youngest years, the sisters grow apart when Olivia becomes more concerned with her looks and her weight than spending time with Lucy. Things keep changing when Olivia is diagnosed with an eating disorder, followed by a family move from Indiana to Massachusetts. As Lucy moves into middle school and deals with some (really) mean girls, she too becomes excessively focused on her appearance. She needs her sister’s guidance more than ever, but Olivia – and their parents – remain focused on her fragile recovery. Will Olivia be able to reprise her role as supportive big sister when Lucy needs her most? Author/illustrator Maggie Edkins Willis portrays this story of a serious topic with plenty of humor and heart. Her digital artwork and gentle color palette wonderfully depict how the sisters grow and mature over the course of several indelible years. The book’s back matter includes a note on how Willis’s own preteen years inspired this story and resources for readers who struggle with disordered eating.

THOUGHTS: Smaller Sister is an excellent choice for fans of middle grade graphic novels, sibling stories, and the fabulous works of Lucy Knisley!

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – Winnie Zeng Unleashes a Legend

Zhao, Katie. Winnie Zeng Unleashes a Legend. 978-0-593-42657-9. Random House, 2022. 279 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Winnie Zeng has enough pressure: starting middle school, as well as her Chinese parents constantly nagging her to get better grades, practice the piano more, and to always beat her nemesis, David Zuo. She really doesn’t need her pet rabbit, Jade, to start talking to her. Not to worry, says the rabbit, it’s the overspirit of her dead grandmother, Lao Lao. When Winnie uses her grandmother’s old cookbook to bake mooncakes, she unknowingly activates her own shaman powers (which summons Lao Lao), as well as unleashes a class one spirit who promptly possesses her older sister’s boyfriend. Lao Lao explains to Winnie that shaman are responsible for protecting the human world from malevolent spirits that escape into the world. Great! Now she has a supernatural grandmother nagging her as well! What’s a good Chinese daughter to do? Practice the piano for the upcoming competition (and beat David) or practice her shaman skills with her grandmother? To make things even worse, Winnie discovers David is also a shaman-in-training (but doing better than her, of course.) With spirit activity increasing as the Mid-Autumn Festival approaches, Lao Lao and David pressure Winnie to step up her training, but even an obedient Chinese-American daughter can only do so much. Will Winnie choose to save the world or ace the piano competition once and for all? Zhao uses Chinese mythology to frame the plot, but the heart of the story is Winnie’s need to find herself amid the constant drive to please her parents. Winnie is an appealing, laugh-out-loud funny narrator. Students definitely will relate to her exasperation at being expected to do so much at a very high level, and the feeling of never being quite good enough.

THOUGHTS: Readers looking for a humorous book with a likable protagonist definitely will enjoy  Winnie Zeng. While they may not understand her (temporary) choice to focus on school and turn down being a spirit-catching, world-saving shaman, most will relate to her stressed-out feeling of being over-scheduled with activities and expectations, and look forward to the next book.

Fantasy (Mythology)                Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – All Four Quarters of the Moon

Marr, Shirley. All Four Quarters of the Moon. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-1-543-38886-1. $17.99. 247 p. Grades 5-8.

Peijing Guo has a perfectly happy life in China. She is a good student who is popular and well liked at school. She loves living with her extended family. Peijing is care-taker by nature and believes honoring her parents is her duty. She loves to draw. Peijing’s five year old sister, Biju, is a wonderful storyteller. The sisters create a secret “Little World” of handmade paper cutout animals designed from Biju’s imagination and interwoven with bits of Chinese mythology. The sisters spend hours together playing in their imaginary world. When Ba Ba gets a new job, Peijing, Beiju, Ma Ma, and their grandmother Ah Ma immigrate to Australia, where the family quickly begins to fall apart. Newly settled in a gorgeous and large new home, the family begins to change. Ah Ma, who spent her days in China with friends playing games and exercising in the park, now only sits in front of the television. Ma Ma, who was once social and stylish, dresses in sweatpants, and refuses to leave the house or to learn to speak English. The sisters struggle to improve their language skills and do well in a school where everything is completely different from anything they ever experienced in China. Only Ba Ba seems to be happy in Australia. Ba Ba slowly begins to relax and participate in household chores. He seems determined to develop a relationship with his two young daughters. Peijing is confused and miserable until she befriends an outcast classmate named Joanna. Scruffy and tough, Joanna is often hungry, exhausted, and bruised. Peijing, always caring for others before herself, tries to help Joanna. Peijing brings Joanna food, encourages her artistic abilities, and defends her friend from classroom bullies. Joanna helps Peijing understand life in Australia. The two become the best of friends, each bolstering the other’s confidence. When a caring teacher intervenes to help get Joanna out of her abusive home, the two friends fear their friendship will be over. The characters in this middle grade novel are beautifully drawn. The Chinese mythology woven throughout the development of “Little World” provides a gorgeous backdrop to a story about understanding humanity, and the changes we encounter in life. 

THOUGHTS: This is a warm and thoughtful middle grade novel that depicts an immigrant experience with great respect and care. The bond between sisters Peijing and Biju is wonderfully delightful. The inner-conflict Peijing experiences as she becomes a tween trying to assimilate into a culture with different values is both heartbreaking and empowering. Readers will cheer Peijing on as she discovers who she is meant to be and how she can fit into her changing, yet traditional, family. 

Realistic Fiction          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD

YA – Hotel Magnifique

Taylor, Emily J. Hotel Magnifique. Razorbill, 2022. 978-0-593-56080-8. 391 p. $15.99. Grades 9-12.

Jani is barely able to provide for her and her sister Rosa in the town of Durc. Rosa is an incredible singer, and Jani is supposed to take care of her which she is barely able to do. When the Hotel Magnifique comes to town, Jani thinks that this might be their ticket out of Durc and she jumps at it. However, once they get into Hotel Magnifique something is off and not everything is as perfect as it seems. Jani and Bel, the hotel’s interesting doorman, are off to figure out what is going on inside and how to free everyone from the maitre d’hotel, who isn’t what he seems.  Will they succeed or will Jani and Rosa be stuck in the Hotel Magnifique forever.

THOUGHTS: This is a unique fantasy stand alone that has several twists and turns to keep the reader engaged from the beginning until the very end. This book is a great addition to any high school collection and would be great for any fantasy fan.

Fantasy            Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter School

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