YA – The Box in the Woods

Johnson, Maureen. The Box in the Woods. Katherine Tegen Books, 2021. 978-0-063-03260-6. 383 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12. 

In July of 1978, Sabrina Abbott was breaking the rules, something this too good girl had never done. She and her friends paid dearly. Student sleuth Stevie Bell, known for solving the unsolvable Ellingham Academy case is home for the summer, working the second shift at the deli counter of her town’s local grocery store in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Desperate for her next case – or something more interesting than thinly sliced meat and cheese – Stevie receives an email referencing Camp Wonder Falls, and Stevie being Stevie knows this is the Camp Wonder Falls with the box in the woods murders. The email’s sender, Carson Buchwald, knows of Stevie’s talent for crime solving, and he wants to give Stevie full access to the camp, now known as Camp Sunny Pines, in exchange for her help in creating a true-crime podcast/documentary. Stevie and her friends will be counselors at camp, but Stevie really will focus on the case. Of course, her parents never will let her go for a decades old murder investigation, so Stevie has to get creative. Once at camp, Stevie enjoys time with her friends and barely tolerates the outdoors, but having real life family members of victims is harder than Stevie thought. Then an eerie message appears on Stevie’s bedroom wall – much like the one at Ellingham – and Stevie realizes not everyone is happy with Carson’s plan to  drudge up buried memories. Someone definitely doesn’t want the truth to surface, but that’s never stopped Stevie before.

THOUGHTS: Fast-paced and twisty, this thriller/mystery works best if you have the context of the series, but it can be read as a stand alone. A must purchase for high schools where mysteries are in demand.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Stevie Bell is back. With the Ellingham mystery solved and summer in full swing, Stevie’s life has returned to “normal” until she receives an email from Carson Buchwald, owner of Camp Sunny Pines in Massachusetts. Previously Camp Wonder Falls, where four gruesome murders happened in July 1978, Carson wants Stevie’s help to solve the “Box in the Woods” murders for his podcast. Stevie is intrigued by the request and accepts a position at the camp, along with Nate and Janelle, so that she can investigate the murders further. As Stevie learns more about the murders, she realizes that the town, and those who were there in 1978, are not sharing the whole truth. While she delves into the details and ultimately figures everything out, Stevie must also deal with David and her relationship, whatever it may be, with him.

THOUGHTS: Told through alternating chapters of present day with Stevie and flashbacks to July 1978, Maureen Johnson adds another delightful mystery to her repertoire. The only downside to this stand-alone is that I wish it weren’t a stand-alone. Stevie Bell is a fantastic character who is the perfect 21st Century detective. Readers want (and need) more of Stevie, Nate, Janelle, and David.

Mystery          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

MG – Summer of Brave

Parks, Amy Noelle. Summer of Brave. Albert Whitman & Co., 2021. 978-0-807-57660-1. 232 p. $16.99. Grades 4-8.

Lilla likes to make everyone happy, even if it means not speaking her mind. The Summer Wish is a tradition between friends Knox, Vivi, and Lilla – whoever blows off the most seeds of the dandelion gets to make a Summer Wish that the other two must do. When Vivi wins (again), she decides to make her wish for a summer of brave, where everyone is honest and shares their feelings in order to overcome a fear. For Lilla this will be a challenge at home since she spends half her time living on the second floor with her mother, a scientist, and the other half on the first floor with her father, an artist. When the trio apply for summer camp counselors, tensions mount when Vivi doesn’t get chosen and Lilla can’t tell her the truth (which equals not being brave). Add to that the decision on which school to attend in the fall (the private school for science or art? Or the public school for a more well rounded education?), Lilla struggles with finding her voice to tell both her parents and friends her true wish. Will the Summer of Brave truly work?

THOUGHTS: A great coming of age story about being honest with yourself and others while finding out who you are. These middle school students are relatable and each bring a special connection to the story. Lilla struggles with self doubt, and readers at this level will connect with her in more ways than one. A wonderfully written and brave story of finding the courage to speak up for what you believe in.

Realistic Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

MG – Chirp

Messner, Kate. Chirp. Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020. 978-1-547-60281-0. 227 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Mia and her family leave Boston to move back to Vermont in order to help Mia’s Gram sell her failing cricket farm. Strange things have been happening at Gram’s cricket farm, and Mia suspects sabotage by the man interested in buying the farm. Mia joins two summer camps, Launch Camp & Warrior Camp, at her mother’s request to keep her busy during the summer. At Launch Camp, Mia meets Clover who is instantly invested in helping Mia figure out what is going on at the cricket farm and in building a business plan to help the farm. Along with Anna, the girls create a robot to harvest crickets, a social media campaign (with the #ChirpChallenge), and a plan to pitch to several local businesses to hopefully gain investors. Clover decides to join Mia at Warrior Camp where Mia’s past gymnastic experience impacts her ability to perform. Each week Mia builds her confidence and strength up in order to confront an uncomfortable situation from her past. The girls form a strong friendship and work together to solve the mystery of who is trying to kill Gram’s cricket farm.

THOUGHTS: Messner does it again! This beautifully written, coming of age story is timely and offers readers a glimpse into the struggle kids face with speaking up. The story approaches the #metoo topic with grace and is appropriate to middle grade readers. Filled with plot twists, red herrings, and other elements of mystery, this book is a quick read and sure to delight fans of Messner’s work!

Mystery          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Mia’s family moves from Boston to Vermont to be near her grandmother, and Mia is glad for the change. Since she broke her arm at gymnastics, and despite her skill and enjoyment of the sport, she is relieved to give it up. She hasn’t told anyone about Coach Phil’s uncomfortable attention. If it wasn’t all right, wouldn’t an adult have stepped in? And besides, everyone likes Phil. Mia did, too, until hugs became too tight, his texts became personal, and finally, he gave her a friendly back rub she didn’t want. Mia felt “icky” around Phil, but nothing was wrong, was it? Now in Vermont, she finds an old photograph of herself and wonders if she can ever again be the brave girl who smiled as she jumped from the rocks into Lake Champlain with friends. In the meantime, she helps with her grandma’s cricket farm, caring for the crickets, working on advertising, and more. However, as more problems occur, her grandma is worried about sabotage and keeping the business afloat. Mia knows her mom wonders about her grandma’s memory and wishes her grandma would slow down.  But as Mia learns more, she and her friends begin to look into the problems. Could an outsider be trying to put her grandma out of business? Mia has spent time lately learning to be quiet, unnoticed, and unquestioned. But finding out the truth, and sticking up for another girl, helps her to find her voice. Mia learns that it’s not about finding her way back to the brave girl she once was, but finding her way forward, and she gets to decide for herself who she will be.

THOUGHTS: Messner expertly molds the serious issue of grooming and abuse into a coming of age mystery appropriate for upper elementary and middle school readers. Mia is a likeable personality, and readers will cheer for her as she stands up for herself and others and uses her voice once more.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Mia’s family is moving back to Vermont after living in Boston for a few years. Mia, a seventh grader, is happy about this move, as she gets to spend more time with her entomologist grandmother who owns a cricket farm. Mia is recovering from a gymnastics accident, but we learn that there was more damage than a broken arm from Tumblers Gymnastics in Boston.  With her parents making her choose two camps to participate in over the summer, Mia chooses Launch, an entrepreneurship camp that helps Mia save her Gram’s farm, and Warrior Camp, a parkour camp that helps Mia come to grips with her inner athlete. In her camps she makes lasting friendships that help her solve the mystery of who is sabotaging her Gram’s cricket farm and gives her the strength to face the secret she has been hiding from her parents.

THOUGHTS: This book is a must purchase for any middle grade library. Addressing all of the controversy surrounding gymnastics recently in a very appropriate way for middle schoolers (Mia’s male coach massages her shoulders and sends “friendly” texts and is generally just a bit too friendly in a creepy way), this novel focuses on female relationships and empowerment.

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy