MG – Almost There and Almost Not

Urban, Linda. Almost There and Almost Not. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-47880-0. 211 p. $17.99. Grades 5-7.

Eleven year old California Poppy doesn’t know if she is coming or going. Her widowed father is heading to Alaska for a salmon fishing job and takes her to Minnesota to stay with Aunt Isabelle, who should know more about taking care of a “bra needing” child than he does. It turns out that Aunt Isabelle is not really the nurturing type and is too busy working on a meatloaf recipe for the Great Meatloaf Bake Off. So California finds herself traveling to Michigan to live with Great Aunt Monica. Her great aunt, still grieving for her late husband, broke her hand and needs help with her research on Eleanor Fontaine, an author of etiquette books from the 1920s. Aunt Monica wants to complete her husband’s planned biography of his author-ancestor and asks California to read Fontaine’s Proper Letters for Ladies and to practice writing letters to become familiar with the author. Callie soon realizes that there are two ghosts in the house: a dog who enjoys playing with her and a refined lady named Eleanor, who dissolves into a pile of dust when she gets upset. Aunt Monica is not aware of these guests, so her niece takes care when talking to them. Eleanor begins to share her story with the young girl, who notices that the ghost seems to be getting younger each time she appears.  California soon learns the truth about her father’s whereabouts and Eleanor’s secret. Just as Callie feels she has come to terms with her father’s absence, her struggles in school and having periods, she overhears a conversation that changes her life forever.

THOUGHTS: Urban has written a very engaging story about loss, grief, and resilience. Although the text is not lengthy, a lot happens and one cannot help but root for the likeable main character who narrates the story. Readers will enjoy California’s letters to Aunt Isabelle, her father, and the Playtex Company. This sensitive but humorous tale is a solid choice for upper elementary and middle school collections.

Fantasy          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

When California Poppy is 11 years old, she is dropped off at her Aunt Monica’s house while her father claims to look for work in Alaska. During her stay, she plays with the ghostly dog and talks to the ghostly woman who haunts her aunt’s home, a woman who turns out to be California’s Great-Aunt Eleanor. Eleanor teaches California about all the etiquette she thinks a proper lady should know, and California begins to unearth details about Eleanor’s past, which is not as simple as the old woman wants it to seem. As a relationship between the girl and the ghost develops, California also grows closer to her Aunt Monica by helping with research for Eleanor’s biography. Eventually, these relationships help California to confront the reality of her father’s abandonment and allow her to begin to heal in her new, more stable life.

THOUGHTS: This story, told in the first person by California herself, is about the life of two young girls who are trying to figure out who they are in a grown-up world. Magical realism, historical fiction, and a love of family and friends weave together in this book to create the story of a girl who has a lot to learn, but also a lot to offer the world. The ghosts in this book are friendly rather than scary. Kids and teens who are wise beyond their years, and those that deal with family troubles and long for a better, more stable life, will find it easy to relate to California.

Fantasy          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Paola Santiago and the River of Tears

Mejia, Tehlor Kay. Paola Santiago and the River of Tears. Disney-Hyperion, 2020. 978-1-368-04917-7. 350 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Scientific Paola just eyerolls when her superstitious mother talks of spells, wards, and evil beings like La Llorona, the creature who roams the river stealing children to replace those she lost. But Paola and her friends Emma and Dante do respect the Gila River near their Arizona home. Several local children have drowned in the waters. Not that that stops them from lying to their parents and hanging out on the banks of the river. But when Paola repeatedly has dreams of a creature reaching out of the waters and grabbing her, and Emma disappears one evening, Paola begins to reconsider whether her mother’s superstitions are as ridiculous as she always assumed them to be. When the police refuse to listen to Paola, she and Dante decide to take matters into their own hands. Armed with support and advice from a most surprising source, they venture into a world of legendary monsters battled by lost children, shocked to discover their own roles in this world that shouldn’t exist. Paola Santiago, part of the Rick Riordan imprint, is a page turner from the very beginning. Pao is a delightful protagonist, supported by her two best friends. Scientific-minded, fascinated by space, she is stunned by the existence of magic, myth, and monsters. Dante and Emma are strong characters as well (in every sense of the word), and the various creatures they encounter don’t stand a chance against the combined wiles of the trio. But Pao also learns that there is more to life than what the power of physics can prove and becomes closer to her mother through the ordeal. Paola and Dante are Hispanic; Emma is white.

THOUGHTS: Paola Santiago and the River of Tears is an exciting page turner that is hard to put down. Paola is a feisty heroine who is easy to love and is sure to gain legions of fans. Add this to your collection if other mythology-based books are popular.

Fantasy/Mythology          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Tristan Strong Destroys the World

Mbalia, Kwame. Tristan Strong Destroys the World. Disney, 2020. 978-1-368-04238-3. 390 p. $17.99. Grades 3-7.

There’s no rest for the weary. Tristan Strong may be the hero of the Battle of the Bay, having saved the mythical land of Alke, home to the West African gods and the legends of African-American folktales, but a battle means winners and losers, and it appears someone is not happy with Tristan. Barely a month has passed since Tristan returned from Alke when he’s alerted that a shadowy figure called the Shamble Man is coming after Tristan. When he comes, he destroys Tristan’s grandparents’ farm and kidnaps his grandmother. It’s time to return to Alke. Luckily Tristan has his SBP (Story Box Phone), inhabited by Anansi the spider, who is doing a little magical app development while cooped up in the SBP. Soon they are on their way to the mythical lands to try and discover the identity of the Shamble Man, rescue Nana and set Alke right again. As Tristan attempts to uncover the identity of the Shamble Man, friends old and new come to his assistance, but it looks like time might be running out on Tristan. Mbalia’s conversational narration (the audio book, read by Amir Abdullah, is sensational) grabs readers from the first words. Tristan is eminently likeable, as he struggles with fears and self doubt, but the surrounding cast of characters really brings the book to life. Once again, Tristan’s tiny, gooey sidekick, Gum Baby, steals the show, offering a steady stream of tongue-twisted patter and comic relief. Fortunately for readers, the ending leaves plenty of room for further sequels, because we all need more Gum Baby.

THOUGHTS: There is no sophomore slump for Mbalia. This second entry in the series is easily as good as the first, if not better. The characters from African American folk tales and West African gods may not be familiar to young readers, but they will have a very good time meeting them. Hand this series to readers who enjoy mythology based books, but also those who like to laugh.

Fantasy          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Elatsoe

Little Badger, Darcie. Elatsoe. Levine Querido, 2020. 978-1-646-14005-3. 368 p. $18.99. Grades 8-12.

In a world where paranormal activity is as normal as overpriced movie theatre popcorn, Ellie, who is able to summon the dead, is determined to solve the mystery of her cousin’s death. After Trevor appears in her dreams pleading her to keep his family safe from his murderer, Ellie and her friend Jay begin to investigate the strange town where he died and the circumstances surrounding his death. Using her mystical powers, passed on through generations of Lipan monarchs, Ellie uncovers the horrific truth of Willowbee’s origin and the connection between Willowbee’s founder and Trevor’s death.

THOUGHTS: A thrilling story for readers who love fantasy, mystery, and folklore. The story weaves elements of these three genres to create a unique and compelling story.

Fantasy     Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD

New Historical Fiction…Cuckoo Song and Echo

cuckoo song
Hardinge, Frances.  Cuckoo Song. New York: Amulet, 2015. 978-1-4197-1480-1. $17.95. 416p. Gr. 6-12.
Triss’s family is struggling to recover from the devastating death of her brother during The Great War.  Tragedy nearly strikes again when Triss practically drowns in “The Grimmer” while vacationing with her family.  Their immediate return to town and the comforts of home provide a pithy interim when mystery materializes in the form of letters from her deceased brother, threats to the family from The Architect, and monetary demands from her brother’s ex-fiance, Violet.  Triss herself cannot fully comprehend her own changes, dirt and dead leaves on her floor and in her hairbrush, the undeniable hatred from her sister, Pen, and a voracious appetite that food alone will not gratify.  After an encounter with an eccentric tailor, Triss’s life is suddenly in grave danger, and she discovers a surprising ally in Pen and a solicitous confidant in Violet.  The only way to save herself is to find out what happened at “The Grimmer” and to the true Triss.  She embarks on an adventure that takes her into the underbelly of the city, into a secret and forbidden community and has her face a formidable enemy willing to do anything to save himself and his community.
Magical promises, unlikely bonds, and dubious alliances keep readers guessing until the final page.  Vivid language and complex characters create a fantastical tale comparable to classic folklore.
Historical Fiction (Supernatural)                    Christine Massey, JWP Middle School




Ryan, Pam Munõz. Echo. New York: Scholastic, 2015. 978-0-439-87402-1. $19.99. 585p. Gr. 5-8.
In the midst of a rousing game of hide-n-go seek, Otto finds himself lost in the middle of a dark, dubious forest.  Three young girls, sisters, come to his rescue, and in return he promises to help free their imprisoned souls.  Reunited with his family, Otto struggles to understand the peculiar quest and the remarkable harmonica placed in his possession.  Only decades later, three other young people find themselves entangled in the same story.  Friedrich, in Germany, discovers the same instrument hidden at work.  The music he plays is mellifluous and unprecedented.  With instrument in hand, somehow he must overcome family secrets and save his father from a work camp in the middle of World War II.  Ivy, in California, receives the charming harmonica next and looks forward to playing a school solo on the radio when the family is suddenly uprooted from their home and relocated so her dad can take a promising new job and the family may have an auspicious future.  Faced with racism and Japanese internment camps, Ivy hopes the music she plays will provide solace to her family and safely bring her brother home from the war.  Mike, in Pennsylvania, is next in line for the instrument.  As he and his brother leave a boys home for a new foster family, Mike hopes the harmonica will provide a secure, safe future for himself and his brother, even if that means they must be separated in the process.
Each page is riddled with secrets and intrigue as the characters face daunting challenges and attempt to emerge triumphant in the midst of danger.  The three stories merge together in a riveting conclusion, drawing the reader in with bated breath.  A unique blend of historical fiction and magic, Ryan has succeeded in creating a masterful, harmonious story.  Readers will be caught up in the beauty of music, family, and sacrifice.
Historical Fiction                        Christine Massey, JWP Middle School


Echo is the story of three tragic tales intertwined through the voice of a harmonica. The harmonica is introduced to the reader in the beginning of the novel, and it is continued throughout three stories of youth.  In the first tale, Friedrich is a boy growing up in Nazi Germany in 1933.  Hitler has risen to power, and the constant threat of persecution is real and ever present Friedrich, his father, and his Uncle Gunther.  After a school situation, due to a birthmark on his face, Friedrich’s father removes him from school to avoid further bullying. Friedrich then joins his father at the music factory where he helps manufacture musical instruments.  When impending danger threatens the family, Friedrich is faced with the challenges of keeping the family together and saving his father. The story follows the harmonica to Mike in Pennsylvania where he is a ward of the state after his grandmother gives custody of him and his brother to a group home, Mike and his brother rely on their musical skills in the hope of having an opportunity at family life. The journey then leads to Ivy, a girl who is gifted at the harmonica and is asked by a radio station to perform on the air. Before she performs, her father makes a pivotal decision to move the family to a farm where a Japanese family has been deported to an internment camp.  They will take over their farm until the return of the family. The final part of the book details how the harmonica and music bring the three together.

Echo is written as a beautiful historical fiction tale. In each story, the characters and the harmonica depict life for people throughout the turmoil of World War II.  In Friedrich’s story, we learn of the persecution of those with disabilities and opposition to Hitler’s ideals and principles.  Mike and his brother are given up by their grandmother in the face of The Great Depression and pre-war preparation in America.  Finally, Ivy gives us the perspective of a girl who is recognizing the prejudice of Americans to that of Japanese Americans and Mexican Americans.  This book is one that will teach perspective and the way in which families are tied together no matter the distance or circumstance.  Each family tries to save what they view as their family.  The author uses characterization to build the connections the reader makes with the characters.  In each part ends with a cliffhanger.  It isn’t until the end of the novel that all three stories are tied together.  This is an amazing piece of historical fiction and perspective.  

Historical Fiction (WWII)      Brooke Gerlach, Manheim Central MS

When My Heart Was Wicked


Stirling, Tricia. When My Heart Was Wicked. New York: Scholastic Press, 2015. Print. 978-0545695732. 192 p. $17.99. Gr. 9+.

This debut novel packs a lot into a quick 173 pages, but Tricia Stirling succeeds in creating a darkly enchanting tale of one young girl’s quest to define herself. When we first meet Lacey, her beloved father has recently passed away and she is living with Anna, her stepmother. Suddenly, her mother, who had been missing for 3 years, returns and forces Lacey to move back to Sacramento with her. Though unwilling, Lacey complies. Her unwillingness stems from her feeling that she becomes a completely different person when she is in the shadow of her mother- dark, angry, and evil. With her father and Anna she is light, happy, and kind. She knows that this Lacey cannot be sustained when she is living with her unpredictable and dangerous mother. Her mother is some sort of witch (her powers are never clearly defined), and her ability to craft spells has been passed on to Lacey. These skills prove to be useful in her new school in which she is bullied by a group of girls. Lacey is also singled out by a boy with a sketchy reputation, and though warned by one of his prior victims, she falls prey to his advances and becomes the target of his vicious rumors when she refuses to have sex with him.  Lacey begins to perform small spells and have occasional outbursts that make her feel like she is once again turning into the evil daughter of her evil mother. The text occasionally falls into a stream of consciousness narrative, and the reader must keep up with Lacey throughout her rambling thoughts. She jumps back and forth between past events and the present, and the reader is left to pick up the pieces and figure out what it is that makes her both love and hate her mother. This ambiguity works well with the novel’s theme of the difficulties that lie in defining oneself outside of one’s family and friends. Lacey does make friends in her new school, and these relationships keep her grounded amid the fraying relationship with her unpredictable mother. The characters are interesting and realistic, though one wonders how Lacey’s mother can be considered a fit guardian for her daughter. This novel will engage readers who enjoy dark tales with a realistic edge to them.

Realistic (Supernatural) Fiction           Lindsey Myers, Peters Township High School


Similar to how the main character struggled to define herself, I struggled to define my feelings about this novel from beginning to end. It is captivating and Lacey has a unique voice, but the interspersing of witchcraft caught me off guard on occasion, possibly because the rest of the novel is typical young adult drama- dealing with a new school and friends, bullying, fighting with parents, etc. The witchcraft did lift it up out of the “general” realistic fiction into something supernatural and dark, which I believe will appeal to teens looking for something more than the standard fare. I am eager to see more from this author.

Evil Librarian


Knudsen, Michelle. Evil Librarian. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2014. 978-0-7636-6038-3. 343 p. $16.99. Gr. 7 and up.

Cyn Rothschild is a pretty typical high school junior. She swoons over Ryan Halsey from afar, and tolerates merciless teasing from her BFF, Annie, as a result. She’s in charge of set design for the fall musical, Sweeney Todd, and she’s cooking up a design for a killer barber’s chair. Everything is going fine until Annie falls head over heels for dreamy Mr. Gabriel, the new twenty-something librarian who has a somewhat stupefying effect on the students. All of the students, that is, except for Cyn. She soon sees him for what he really is – a demon using the life force of the student body to build up his power (the bloody ritual she witnesses in the library is a bit of a giveaway). She teams up with Ryan to stop Mr. Gabriel’s plan to abscond with Annie to the underworld and claim the demon throne. Demonic alliances, secret deals, and an epic battle ensue. This fun, fast read will appeal to fans of tongue-in-cheek horror stories in the vein of Catherine Jinks’ The Reformed Vampire Support Group (Harcourt, 2009) or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Horror (Humorous)            Amy V. Pickett, Ridley High School

This book, Knudsen’s first for a YA audience, had me scrolling through the channel guide looking for syndicated episodes of Buffy! It would make an excellent tie-in to spark interest in Evil Librarian.

Realistic Attitude – More 2013 Picks in YA Fiction

Stevenson, Robin. Attitude. Victoria: Orca Book Publishers, 2013. 978-1-4598-0382-4. 137p. Gr. 7 and up.
Australian native, Cassie Jordan, is heading to Vancouver, Canada, to dance in a summer initiative at the Pacific Coast Ballet Academy.  But the cutthroat competition turns personal when Melissa and her group of sidekicks decide to vote girls out of the program.  Cassie votes the first time, thinking it’s just a silly game.  When disaster strikes, she learns Melissa can be ruthless.  With the increasing pressure to compete and keep her friends, Cassie hears her dad’s voice, “Just do what you know is right, Cassie, and everything else will fall into place.”  Dancing might take audacity, passion, and diligence, but so does standing up for what you believe in.  Cassie can only hope her desire to stay true to herself doesn’t end up costing her a chance to become a world-renowned dancer.

Being so far away from home and living with a family, Cassie shows an admirable amount of determination and courage.  She only speaks to her parents occasionally, yet their words of  wisdom and advice still resonate within her heart.  She and other girls are bullied in subtle ways, including cyberbullying, and her quiet resolve to stand up for herself and others is quite remarkable and sends a positive message to young girls.  

Part of a series, Attitude is a great hi-lo choice for reluctant readers.

Realistic Fiction                            Christine Massey, JWP Middle School


Blumenthal, Deborah. The Lifeguard. Chicago: Albert Whitman & Company, 2012. 978-0-8075-4535-5. 277p.
Gr. 9 and up.
Instead of spending the summer at camp with her best friend Marissa, Sirena is sent to Rhode Island to live with her aunt while her parents finalize their divorce.  Thousands of miles away from home, Sirena continues to struggle with her parents’ separation, the idea of returning to two houses, and the image of her dad leaving a tawdry hotel with another woman.  Then she meets Pilot, the lifeguard who patrols the local beach.  He’s gorgeous and mysterious, and Sirena is attracted to him on a primeval level she doesn’t fully understand.  Tormented by his taciturn demeanor and the ghosts in her aunt’s house, she finds herself confiding in a local artist at the beach.  Then, in a moment of irrational conviction, she sheds all inhibition, steps into the ocean and is pulled under by a riptide.  Only Pilot will be able to save her if he finds her in time.

An alluring coming-of-age story about first love and the power of friendship and sacrifice.  With summer just around the corner, take this straight-forward novel to the beach.  Enjoy a little romance with a supernatural twist.

Supernatural Fiction                        Christine Massey, JWP Middle School


Hucklesby, Jill. Samphire Song. Chicago: Albert whitman & Company, 2013. 978-0-8075-7224-5. 287p. Gr. 6 and up.
It has been two years since Jodie’s dad died, but the hurt still burdens her heart.  She tries to keep busy with school and working at the stables but feels lonelier with each passing day.  Then an unexpected surprise from her mother allows Jodie to realize her dream of owning a horse.  She stumbles on Samphire at a horse auction, and their immediate bond is undeniably powerful.  He is a spirited stallion, and some would even claim hostile and damaged, but Jodie only sees a kindred spirit.  When her brother’s kidney disease takes a life-threatening turn and her mother loses her job, Jodie must make the ultimate sacrifice for her beloved brother.  Through tears, she promises Samphire they will be reunited one day, but providence may have other plans for her cherished horse.
Girls in the middle school seem to truly enjoy animal stories, especially about horses.  The plot is fairly predictable, but the love between Jodie and her horse is undeniable.  She relentlessly searches for him after raising enough money to buy him back and discovers the sordid world of animal abuse and trafficking.  The story will appeal to animal lovers and tug at their hearts.

Realistic Fiction                            Christine Massey, JWP Middle School

New in YA Fiction 2013 – Lauren Kate


Kate, Lauren. Teardrop. New York: Delacorte, 2013. 9780385742658. $18.99. Gr. 7-12.

Seventeen-year-old Eureka Boudreaux can’t find anything worth living for.  Her parents have divorced, her father is now married to the unloving Rhoda, and her mother has died in a freak car accident involving a rogue wave on the way to Key West.  Eureka, who was in the car with her mother, somehow survives but is physically and emotionally battered.  Eventually, Eureka’s distant behavior drives away all but two of her best friends, fun-loving Cat and quiet, considerate Brooks.  Eureka slowly begins to rejoin the outside world.  One day, on her way to a track meet at her Southern Louisiana high school, she is rear-ended by a white Chevy pick-up truck.  The driver, Ander, is silvery-pale, with light blonde hair and blue eyes. He will become a bigger part of her life than she can imagine.  Eureka’s life begins to change in strange ways.  Her mother’s will provides three mysterious gifts: a locket, a thunderstone securely wrapped and stored in a wooden box, and an ancient book in an unreadable language.  Eureka and Cat soon find Madame Blavatsky, a “self-taught expert in dead languages”. The book begins to give up its secrets; Eureka finds out that her tears have magical powers, including the ability to raise the lost continent of Atlantis. In the meantime, Brooks’ loving nature turns decidedly darker and Ander begins to reveal more about the world of Atlantis.  The two young men seem to be engaged in a battle for Eureka’s soul, but who will be victorious and why?

This book was written by Lauren Kate, author of the popular Fallen series.  It will appeal to twelve to seventeen year old female readers with its supernatural elements and an absorbing story of a tragic love triangle.  Future books in this series will be forthcoming.

Fantasy (Supernatural)                Susan Fox, Washington Jr./Sr. HS, Washington, PA