MG – Ground Zero

Gratz, Alan. Ground Zero. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-24575-2. 336 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

Brandon, 9 years old, suspended from school for fighting, is spending the day with his father, who works at the Windows on the World Restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. He sneaks away from his dad to run an errand when a plane flies into the building. It is September 11, 2001. Brandon’s life has changed forever. Decades later, and a world away, Reshmina, a young Afghan girl, also lives with the fallout of that horrific day. Life in rural Afghanistan changed drastically when the US armed forces came to push back the Taliban. While no one likes the American soldiers, most Afghans fear the Taliban as well. Alan Gratz’s take on the 9/11, attack follows the two young people, alternating between their stories. While Brandon fights for his life as he tries to escape the burning tower, Reshmina struggles with the burden of Pashtunwali, providing aid to those who request it. Reshmina comes across an American soldier injured during a Taliban ambush. Despite her hatred of the Americans, she cannot leave him to die after he asks for help. The move places her family in danger; her twin brother has begun working with the Taliban and threatens to notify them of the soldier’s presence at their home. It won’t surprise any reader that the soldier is Brandon, 18 years later. There is nothing subtle about this book. Gratz had a point to make, and he hammers it home. The two stories aren’t just parallel, but painfully structured to be identical stories – an event in one story is mirrored by a similar event in the other narrative. And Gratz does not couch his opinion that everything the US did in Afghanistan was wrong and hurtful. While the current generation of readers looks for books set around 9/11, Gratz, a master of historical fiction adventure, who single handedly has converted young readers to historical fiction fans, falls a bit flat with this story. Gratz fans will want to read it, but it will not replace gems like Refugee or Projekt 1065.

THOUGHTS: Purchase where Alan Gratz is popular, but readers may be disappointed.

Historical Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

It’s September 11th, 2001, and Brandon Chavez is accompanying his dad to work after getting suspended from school. His dad, a kitchen manager at Windows on the World on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, is not thrilled that his son has to go with him today. He has told Brandon several times that they have to be a team, especially since Brandon’s mother passed away from cancer. While his dad is busy at work, Brandon decides to take the elevator down to the North Tower’s underground mall – but his plans are interrupted by the crash, stopping the elevator car between floors. Fast forward to September of 2019 and we meet Reshmina, who lives in a small village in Afghanistan. Her family barely scrapes by financially, mostly because the American army is fighting alongside the Afghan National Army to defeat the Taliban in what is practically her backyard. Reshmina has plenty of reasons to hate their war – her sister Hila was accidentally killed by the American army and her brother Pasoon is eager to join the Taliban, a fact that leaves Reshmina worried for his safety. She keeps out of the way of both armies until she stumbles upon an American soldier in need of help after a Taliban attack. Risking her family’s safety, she offers him refuge at their home. Pasoon, angered that Reshmina wants to help an enemy, decides to join the Taliban sooner rather than later and divulge the wounded soldier’s location. Each chapter alternates between Brandon and Reshmina, and their stories mirror each other until a twist is revealed at the end.

THOUGHTS: Author Alan Gratz is well-known for his action-packed historical fiction stories that are beloved by middle grade students. Ground Zero is no exception and is a must-have for middle grade libraries.

Historical Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – Realm Breaker

Aveyard, Victoria. Realm Breaker. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-062-87262-3. 563 p. $19.99. Grades 8-12.

Aveyard returns with a lush new fantasy series that feels like a cross between King Arthur and Game of Thrones. A new player has come to the Ward, a man with the power to open Spindles, portals between realms. Spindles have not been opened for generations, not since the Immortals traveled into the Ward and found themselves stranded, unable to return to their home. But now Taristan has stolen the sword to create spindles, and begun releasing monsters and undead creatures into the world. Those knights who survived the initial battle between good and evil realize what Taristan is unleashing, yet few rulers care to believe them. The Immortal Domacridhan knows what it will take to stop Taristan – an individual with Corblood, and a Spindlesword – and he sets out to locate 17-year-old Corayne, an illegitimate daughter of the Cor lineage, who yearns for adventures her pirate mother refuses to grant her. The group gradually enlarges to seven unique characters, including a squire who lost his Lord at the first battle; a forger; a bounty hunter; a witch; and Sorasa, an assassin who steals the story. With no support from the monarchs of the Ward, the ragtag group proceeds to try to close the spindles before their world is set ablaze. This first book in the series has a great deal of scene setting to accomplish, and Aveyard evokes a fascinating world of exotic lands and characters of all ethnicities and skin tones. A detailed map on the endpapers assists readers in keeping track of the sprawling territory, and at times the proliferation of characters, locales, and realms can be overwhelming, but the story is gripping and delightfully satisfying. While Corayne seems to be set up as the main character, the story rotates between all the voices, and each character is a well-developed personality: Andry, the 17-year-old squire has nobility ingrained in him, but slowly develops the ruthlessness needed to survive their quest; Dom, the Immortal, does not quite understand mortals; and Sorasa, the female assassin, just might have a heart under her tough persona. There is no shortage of action, battles, monsters, daring escapes, and breathtaking betrayals.

THOUGHTS: Fantasy lovers should flock to this new series and be waiting on the edge of their seats for the sequel.

Fantasy          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Corayne an-Amarat is the daughter of a pirate, but she hasn’t had any adventures of her own. When she discovers that she’s the last of an ancient line, her world is changed forever. Corayne begins a journey along with Domacridhan of Iona, an immortal sworn to protect her, the assassin Sorasa Sarn, squire Andry Trelland, the forger Charlon Armont, bounty hunter Sigil of the Temurijon, and a witch named Valtik. Together, this fellowship sets out to stop Erida of Galland, the queen who chose to ally with villainous Taristan of Old Cor from using spindle magic to tear a rip between worlds, and save the Allward realm from their destruction.

THOUGHTS: This book reminds me of Game of Thrones but for a YA audience. The story is told through the perspective of a large cast of characters. Some of the characters are good and set out to defend their world while others, hungry for power, make questionable decisions that will determine the course of the future. Within the fantastical world of Realm Breaker, readers will experience action, adventure, and ancient magic along with pirates, assassins, and monsters. This also would be a great book recommendation for readers who aren’t looking for a strong love story, and it’s perfect for any fan of the high fantasy genre.

Fantasy           Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Rise to the Sun

Johnson, Leah. Rise to the Sun. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-66223-8. 336 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Olivia is planning an epic best friend weekend at the Farmland Music and Arts Festival with Imani. Determined to leave a disastrous junior year behind her, self-proclaimed heartbreak expert Olivia has relied on Imani to get her through too many heartbreaks to count. Reluctant about the Festival, Imani – who always supports and goes along with Olivia – thinks Olivia’s mind should be on other things, like an upcoming judicial hearing. But Olivia can’t focus on that right now, even thought the white lie about a youth church retreat she told her mom does make her feel a little guilty. She wins Imani over because her favorite band is headlining the festival, and Olivia promises a hookup free best friend weekend with great music and a ride on the Ferris wheel. Toni is at the festival – like every summer she can remember – with her best friend Peter. Though nothing is the same as last year, Toni is hoping this year’s festival gives her some much needed clarity and life direction before she goes where she’s supposed to next week. When Toni spots a clear festival newbie, donning impractical attire and literally wrapped up by the tent she’s trying to setup, her weekend goes in a completely different direction. Olivia is determined to play matchmaker between Imani and Peter and can’t help but notice her feelings for Toni. She breaks through Toni’s Ice Queen exterior by offering to help Toni enter the Golden Apple in exchange for help with the #FoundAtFarmland contest. Without another option, Toni agrees, and each girl has a weekend like she couldn’t have imagined. Once the magic of the festival wears off, will Olivia be heartbroken, and what about her promises to Imani?

THOUGHTS: With a loveable, Black bisexual protagonist, readers will root for Olivia to find herself, without losing herself. This whirlwind romance is a must have for high school collections to add more romance or LGBTQ+ titles.

Romance          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – The Gilded Ones

Forna, Namina. The Gilded Ones. Delacorte Press, 2021. 978-1-474-95957-5. 432 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Deka is awaiting her blood ceremony that will determine if she can become a member of her village; her blood needs to run red, and Deka is afraid her’s won’t. The day of the ceremony comes the worst case happens, and she is now faced with making a choice. Should she stay in the village and face her fate or follow this stranger to fight for the emperor with an army of girls just like her? Deka decides to leave the only life and home she’s ever known and journey to the city to learn more about herself and the empire. The Gilded Ones is the first in a young adult fantasy trilogy (Deathless) and starts off extremely fast paced. The magic system is interesting, and there definitely is room for that to grow as the series goes on.

THOUGHTS: Overall, this is an amazing introduction to a new, dark YA fantasy trilogy. In the version I read, there was a warning for violence and that would be the only thing to know going into this book.

Fantasy          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

In Deka’s village, the color of your blood determines your fate. Before becoming an official member of the community, the females must attend a blood ceremony. Any female with gold blood is considered to be impure, and when Deka’s runs gold, she is given a choice. She can stay in the village where she continues to be tortured, or she can join a group of warriors made up of other girls like herself. Not only is Deka’s blood gold, she also cannot die. This unique ability, shared by the other girls with golden blood, makes them valuable fighters. As Deka and the others train and prepare for battles, she discovers the truth about her new life and makes difficult decisions in order to survive and earn acceptance in her future.

THOUGHTS: The Gilded Ones is a new fantasy series with a large cast of female characters trying to survive in a patriarchal society. Each one has been deemed unworthy to live in their village and suffers at the hands of people that were supposed to love them. Although this is a fantasy, readers may still find connections with the many issues and topics present in both the novel and our society today including racism, misogyny, inequality, abuse, feminism, and empowerment. This would be a great recommendation for fans of Tomi Adeyemi’s Orisha Trilogy. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Throwaway Girls

Contos, Andrea. Throwaway Girls. Kids Can Press, 2020. 978-1-525-30314-2. 392 p. $17.30. Grades 9-12.

With only three months left until graduation and a few days after that until she turns 18, Caroline Lawson is more than ready to leave her prep school and unsupportive parents behind. All she has to do is put on a smile and pretend like everything is perfect. Things are anything but perfect, and Caroline can’t wait to leave and be who she truly is meant to be. Caroline’s girlfriend recently broke up with her and left for California, and Caroline’s best friend Madison just disappeared. Having kept secrets from each other and grown apart, Caroline feels partially responsible for Madison’s disappearance. Feeling like the only person capable of finding Madison, Caroline sets off on a dangerous path, determined to find her friend before it’s too late. But Caroline has to face some truths about herself, her relationship, her family, and about her friend. The deeper Caroline digs, the more she uncovers – including other girls who have gone missing. Why hasn’t anyone noticed these girls, and how is Madison connected to them? As Caroline gets closer to uncovering the truth, she realizes she may be the one connection between them all.

THOUGHTS: Despite having endless means, Caroline is extremely unhappy. The adults fail teens over and over. Mystery readers will be absorbed into this twisty narrative (this reviewer had a few jaw-dropping realizations) and will root for Caroline to uncover the truth before it’s too late.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – One Year at Ellsmere

Hicks, Faith Erin. One Year at Ellsmere. First Second, 2020.  978-1-250-21909-1. 166 p. $19.97. Grades 5-8.

Juniper knows she will not fit in at her fancy new private school–child of a single mother, lower income, scholarship student–and she is prepared. She is at Ellsmere for the academics, and if her classmates don’t like her, that’s just fine. She probably won’t like them either. So it is no surprise when she lands on the radar of mean girl Emily. Jun thinks she can handle her, but this time she may have met her match. Luckily, Jun has her roommate, Cassie, as a friend and ally. She will need her if she is going to survive her first year at Ellsmere.

THOUGHTS: Perfect for fans of Smile and Jennifer L. Holm’s Sunny books who are looking for something a little darker with more drama. There are some fantastical elements at the end that are not really necessary, but overall it’s a good add for a middle school graphic novel section.

Graphic Novel          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD