YA – Gone Wolf

McBride, Amber. Gone Wolf. Fiewel and Friends, 2023. 978-1-250-85049-2. 348 p. $17.99. Grades 6-10.

Inmate Eleven has never seen the sun. She is a Blue living in post-pandemic 2111. She is held alongside her wolf-dog, Ira, in a small room within the tall walls of Elite, the capital of Bible Boot—a future, isolationist portion of the United States post-Second Civil War. Inmate Eleven is given tests and bloodwork with frequency. She has been told through a series of Bible Boot-issued flashcards that Blues are racially inferior, hate is illegal, and Clones are irrefutably kind. Larkin, a white Clone, begins to meet with Inmate Eleven, and Inmate Eleven feels empowered to choose a new name for herself: Imogen. Unfortunately, Larkin’s father also happens to be the powerful, racist leader of Elite. Soon, Larkin and Imogen realize they must escape the walls of Elite where slavery has been fully re-instituted, and both Black and Blue people are enduring torturous treatment. But…who is Imogen, really, and what year is it…truly? Imogen is living two disjointed realities, and she’s fighting to go wolf in both.

THOUGHTS: Many aspects of this book are heartbreaking. The way McBride weaves this story together is poignant and unique. Without giving too many spoilers, this is a book that brings to light concepts of generational and racial trauma in the United States. The book’s underlying commentary regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, racial violence, and political polarization will also be highly relatable to middle school students. Big twists and turns, compounded by sad events, caused myself as reader to question where the story was going at first, but not in a negative way. Then, pieces clicked masterfully into place. Because the story is told from a first person limited perspective, McBride uses ends of each chapter to offer clarifying bits of information that will help all readers access the underlying themes and nuance of the story. The powerful messaging of Black resilience and a new lens of trauma will stick with readers for a long time. As an adult reader, I found myself thinking of Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison’s stories. An essential addition to middle school and even high school fiction collections.

Science Fiction

YA – Spin

Caprara, Rebecca. Spin. Simon & Schuster, 2023. 978-1-665-90619-7. 393 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.

“You must learn to question/ the stories you hear” (84). “The bards and poets/ often get it wrong, especially/ when they speak of/ girls and women” (4). Arachne is unattractive and destined to be nothing and be heard by no one, they say in town. But Arachne grows, learns to weave from her mother, loves her younger brother and friend Celandine fiercely, and questions the wisdom of the gods. Even as her mother shares stories of the gods (including Persephone, Leucothoe, and Aite) and leaves gifts at Athena’s altar, Arachne in her anger dares to question what the gods have done for them in their harsh, illiterate lives. As the years pass and Arachne grows from girl to young woman, she avoids others, distrusts the gods especially in their treatment of women, and learns to weave so skillfully she begins to feel pride in her own abilities as well as earn approval from others, including her father. But tragedy steals her family, and when beautiful Celandine is assaulted by a group of boys, the two flee to the city of Colophon. There, finding work as a weaver, Arachne again becomes known for her increasingly exquisite handiwork, but she will not give credit to the goddess Athena, who Arachne feels never offered her anything. Even as Arachne feels an attraction to Celandine, the two are pulled apart by anger and misunderstanding, and Arachne pours her emotions into her weaving. The resulting showdown between Arachne and Athena is powerfully described as Arachne stands boldly–in words and in weaving–for herself and all women misused, overlooked, and judged harshly. 

THOUGHTS: This masterful novel in verse will appeal to young readers, especially those interested in mythology or strong women.  

Fantasy (Mythology)

MG – Once Upon a Family

Hill, Amanda Rawson. Once Upon a Family. Astra Publishing, 2023. 978-1-635-92317-9. 272 p. $19.99.Grades 4-7.

It has always been Winnie and her Mom for as long as she can remember. Now her mother is marrying Jeff, and they move from Denver to boring Wyoming. Winnie has to make new friends and get used to having a younger stepbrother, Sam. Like the fairy tales she loves, Winnie tries to concoct something magical to get her mother to return to Colorado and their old life. When she notices the blackbird with the gold-tipped wings and the glowing nest in the oak tree, she thinks she just may be able to wish herself to a happily ever after. Winnie suffers from anxiety stemming from a traumatic experience and, at times, it makes her an unsympathetic protagonist. She misreads teasing from a classmate, who has his own insecurities, and alienates a potential friend. Despite seeing her mother’s happiness grow, Winnie is suspicious of Jeff, her future stepfather, and annoyed by six-year-old Sam. When her worry erupts into impulsive behavior and threatens her new family, though, Winnie courageously enlists the assistance of the neighborhood curmudgeon and her friends to set things right. All characters appear to be white.

THOUGHTS: Some readers will identify this authentic view of a blended family. Winnie is an interesting character. She suffers from high anxiety that ratchets up into a caustic meanness, but she also is a prolific reader who alludes to fairy tales and stories constantly. The magical part is a nice surprise. The main characters all have another layer that confirms what you see may not be what you get, which may generate interesting discussion. In one flashback, Winnie’s trauma is described. It stems from a domestic violence abuse situation involving one of her mother’s old boyfriends. After a breakup, the boyfriend stalks Winnie’s mother and escalates into yielding a gun.

Fantasy (Magical Realism)

MG – Hazard

Dowell, Frances O’Roark. Hazard. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-1-481-42466-0. 146 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Hazard Pay Stokes, or Haz as he is known to his friends and family, has found himself temporarily suspended from football over an incident with a teammate. Haz’s coach believes he needs some help with managing his anger before he is allowed back on the team. At the same time, his father has returned home from Afghanistan, which should be a happy moment for Haz. However, the reason his father came home is a tough one for the entire family, especially for Haz’s dad who has to live with the consequences of what happened in Afghanistan. Even though Haz believes therapy isn’t going to help him work through his feelings, he decides to play along and complete the assignments anyway and does in fact start to work through all of the tough emotions brewing inside of him.

THOUGHTS: Told through a series of emails, texts, reports, and assignments, the reader gets a close look at the events through Haz’s point of view. Haz’s lyrical way with words will keep the reader engaged. The topic and the format of the writing will appeal to more reluctant middle grade readers, especially boys.

Realistic Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem./MG – The Lost Things Club

Puller, J. S. The Lost Things Club. Little, Brown and Company, 2021. 978-0-759-55613-3. $16.99. 219 p. Grades 4-7.

Leah is looking forward to spending summer vacation in Chicago with her aunt, uncle, and cousin, just like she does every year. When she arrives at their apartment, however, she notices something is different; her younger cousin, TJ, affectionately known as “hedgehog,” is not his normal self. He isn’t talking. As Leah spends time with her aunt and uncle and some kids from the neighborhood, she begins to realize the reason that TJ isn’t talking is the terrible shooting that happened in the spring at TJ’s elementary school. Even though Leah doesn’t completely understand why TJ is struggling, she vows to help him face his feelings and come back to himself and his family. Through Leah’s summer adventures with TJ, she begins to understand that stories can be much more than silly make-believe. Stories can be a way to heal after trauma, as well as a way to communicate the experiences of others and help everyone practice empathy and understanding.

THOUGHTS: This book deals with the sensitive topics of school shootings, survivor guilt, and PTSD in a way that older elementary and middle school students can understand. It illustrates the terrible toll that such events can take on young survivors, their families, and the surrounding school community, while also portraying those that are struggling with dignity and hopefulness. Ultimately, this book highlights the essential empathy-building benefits everyone can reap from coming together and sharing stories.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – Off the Record

Garrett, Camryn. Off the Record. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-984-82999-3. 320 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Josie, a high school senior, film aficionado, and journalist, has had her heart set on Spelman College since middle school. She has a great resume and is just waiting for her official early decision acceptance notice. She’s also waiting to hear if she won Deep Focus‘s (her favorite major magazine) talent contest. Josie knows winning will help launch her journalism career. In the meantime, she owes Monique, her freelance gig editor from Essence magazine, an op-ed, but Josie’s anxiety is distracting her. Josie’s parents casually mention that they worry she’s putting all of her eggs in one basket. Josie thinks they just don’t get her, especially since her mom always is pushing her to try a new diet. They try to talk about the “hard time” Josie had in middle school after which Josie switched schools, but Josie insists she’s fine. Josie proves just how fine she is when she is selected as the winner of the Deep Focus talent search. The grand prize will send her on a five city tour for a new film with interview access to the cast and crew. Her parents aren’t so sure about this and only agree if Josie’s older sister Alice – home for winter break from Spelman – can be her chaperone. Alice reluctantly agrees, and Josie leaves for an experience unlike any other. Nothing, however, could prepare Josie for the story a young actress asks her to tell or the feelings Josie develops for the film’s teen star. Is Josie the right person to tell this story, and will it do more harm than good?

THOUGHTS: Readers will empathize with Josie as she struggles to overcome her anxiety and focus on the story she was hired to write. A must purchase for high school libraries.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – The Life I’m In

Flake, Sharon G. The Life I’m In. Scholastic Press, 2021. $18.99. 978-1-338-57317-6. Grades 9-12.

In Sharon G. Flake’s best selling novel, The Skin I’m In, Charlese–Char–Jones is the confident bully wreaking havoc on the life of the diffident and vulnerable Maleeka. In The Life I’m In, African-American Char appears as the main character, still inwardly grieving for the loss of her beloved parents, and continuing to make bad decisions. Her older sister and guardian, Juju, has begun to get her life together–stopping the house parties and securing a job in a bank–and needs Char–sixteen and a seventh-grade drop out–to live with their grandparents in Alabama. At the start of this reluctant bus trip, Char is flippant and rude, comical and outspoken. The passengers are alternately annoyed and amused by her unself- conscious antics. When young, white mother, April gets on the bus with her three-month old biracial baby, Char’s maternal instincts urge her to assist April. Bound for a job, April shows the distressed signs of living rough on the streets. To provide for her child, she sells narcotics and sexual favors to truck drivers; she suppresses suspicion about this new employment that requires she pay for the position. When April disembarks the bus with baby Cricket in tow, naive Char decides she will go out on her own and not continue to Alabama. Thinking it is temporary, she volunteers to take care of Cricket when April’s aunt never shows up at the bus station and well-dressed and smooth talking Anthony arrives as April’s ride to Florida. Char enlists all her resources to persuade a hotel proprietor to rent her a suite; she figures out and procures the necessary baby supplies with the money from Juju; she contacts Juju and even the newly reconciled Maleeka to tell them of her actions if not her whereabouts. Char may talk a good game, but she is young, inexperienced, and a virgin. When Char’s funds dwindle and her efforts to find work are hindered by her motherly duties, she runs into Anthony again and, in an attempt to save Cricket, finds herself a victim of sex trafficking. Author Flake describes the depravity of Char’s existence during this time delicately, but does not stint on the truth. Char receives some solace in the community of other girls in Anthony’s pack, who seem to be of different races and backgrounds. When she eventually escapes and is reunited with Juju, Char needs the help of not only her sister, but also Maleeka, her former teacher, Ms. Saunders, and professionals to survive the trauma and feel truly free. The fluid text reflects Char’s actual voice, and her first-person narration gives an intense look into her complex feelings and her maturity as she tries to survive under egregious conditions. Although the stress and suffering Char conveys is painful to read about, readers will find this a compelling book.

THOUGHTS: This is a harsh story to tell, and Sharon Flake tells it well. The book serves as a mirror for those who have suffered sexual abuse or trauma of any kind as well as a window into the lives of people who have experienced homelessness and poverty. The reader leaves feeling not pity but understanding and an admiration for the resilience and effort exerted by trauma victims. It acts as a call for all to refrain from rash judgements and to be kind. Char’s second escape from Anthony seems contrived (would the driver wait for Char as she says good-bye to Maleeka?); however, readers will be rooting for the happy ending.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Aftershocks

Reichardt, Marisa. Aftershocks. Amulet, 2020. 978-1-419-73917-0. 318 p. $18.99. Grades 8+.

Ruby thought her world ended when her mom informed her she was dating Ruby’s high school water polo coach. But she soon finds out what the end of the world, or her world, really looks like. Skipping practice because she’s too embarrassed to face her coach, Ruby is hanging out at a laundromat, looking for someone to buy beer for her, when an earthquake hits. As a native Californian, Ruby is used to earthquakes, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is no minor tremor. “The ground shakes, the walls fall”, and Ruby is trapped under the rubble of the laundromat, with a young man named Charlie, with whom she had just started talking. The ‘Big One’ has hit. A 7.8 magnitude. She and Charlie can’t see each other, but they work desperately to bolster each other’s spirits. Minutes turn to hours as the pair assess their physical condition and tell each other stories and bits of their lives. Hours roll over into another day, and another, and Ruby and Charlie face the very real possibility of not being rescued in time, before their injuries overwhelm them. Unusually, the eventual rescue occurs halfway through the book and, true to the title, the second half deals with the aftershocks of the rescue and the earthquake. The pain and trauma. Ruby desperately needing her mother, but having no way to locate her in a world twisted and ravaged by the quake, bereft of cell service and internet. Ruby needing to make amends to the people she loves. The book is both edge-of-your-seat compelling and lyrically thoughtful. Reichardt’s writing deftly changes from gripping, gruesome descriptions of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, to heartbreaking, poetic passages as Ruby drifts in and out of consciousness, ready to embrace death. While character descriptions throughout the book are minimal, context clues imply that Ruby and Charlie are white.

THOUGHTS: This can’t-put-down book delivers it all: a compelling disaster story, with a satisfying ‘after’ that most books neglect. It was lovely to close the book knowing “the rest of the story.”

Action/Adventure          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD