MG – Just Like That

Schmidt, Gary. Just Like That. Clarion Books, 2021. 978-0-544-08477-3. 387 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Meryl Lee, reeling from the tragic death of her best friend Holling, is struggling to find joy in anything. Her parents enroll her into a New England boarding school to help her find herself again (while also shielding her from the divorce process they are secretly going through). At St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls, Meryl Lee feels like she has more in common with the young ladies who are employed there rather than the stuck-up girls who attend as students. Despite being told that it is “unbecoming” to mingle with the staff, Meryl Lee knows in her heart this is wrong. With the support of the headmistress, Dr. Nora MacKnockater, Meryl Lee works on healing her heart and finding her place in the world. At the same time, a boy named Matt Coffin is always on the move. Homeless and parent-less, he moves from place to place carrying his pillowcase full of money, intent on avoiding the scary people who are coming after him. His travels take him to New England and there, his world collides with Meryl Lee’s and Dr. MacKnockater’s. With their help, he confronts his past and starts planting permanent roots in one place.

THOUGHTS: Although these two characters are seemingly different, the struggles they are going through tie them together. The book takes place in 1968 but still feels very modern. The character’s struggles are definitely ones that middle grade readers will relate to (fitting in, divorce) combined with the global struggle of the Vietnam War in the background of the story makes it more complex than it seems on the surface. Gary Schmidt’s witty writing style will make middle grade readers laugh, cry, and think.

Historical Fiction           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem. – The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story

Lam, Thao. The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story. Owlkids Books, 2020. 978-1-771-47363-7. 40 p. $17.95. Grades K-3.

The Paper Boat, inspired by events that happened during the author’s childhood, is a wordless picture book. The story begins with a Vietnamese family eating a meal together at the table. Throughout the course of their meal, ants invade the table in search of crumbs. The young daughter saves the ants from drowning in her soup as her parents watch tanks rumble past the windows. In the dead of night, the family travels quietly in search of the escape boat that will take them away from their war-torn country. The daughter and her mother find themselves separated from the others. To soothe her frightened child, the mother makes a boat out of paper. All seems lost until a trail of ants appears and leads them to their escape boat where they are able to join the others. The paper boat, left behind by the daughter, becomes the escape boat for the little ants as they make their way to a new world just like the family.

THOUGHTS: Because this is a wordless book, the pictures must tell the story, and they do just that. The illustrations, which look to be paper cut outs, beautifully show the emotional and physical struggle the family faces as they leave the only home they have known. This book could be appropriate for students even at the intermediate level as the illustrations can spur deep conversations about the hardships of war and the parallels between ant and refugee travels. This stunning book is a must-have for elementary and intermediate libraries.

Picture Book           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio

Backderf, Derf. Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. Abrams ComicArts. 2020. 978-1-4197-3484-7. 288 pp. $24.99. Gr. 10+.

For many of us, “Kent State” is synonymous with one of the most indelible images of the Vietnam War era. John Paul Filo’s influential, award-winning photograph captured the aftermath of four days of antiwar protests and National Guard presence, and more specifically thirteen seconds of gunfire. Tragically, four students were shot and killed, and nine more were wounded. In this gripping and painstakingly sourced graphic narrative, comics artist Derf Backderf turns his inimitable skill to chronicling May 1-4, 1970, from the perspectives of the four students whose lives were lost. They played music, went on dates, studied, called their parents, protested President Nixon’s escalation of the war, and uneasily observed the presence of the Ohio National Guard on campus (called in to suppress the “radicals” and agitators, who were generally not part of the student body). Backderf portrays the exhaustion, confusion, unpreparedness, muddled leadership, and dishonesty of the Guard throughout the catastrophic operation, as well as the political pressures impacting their actions.

THOUGHTS: Backderf recreates these four days with such intimate immediacy that the panels depicting the deaths of Jeff, Allison, Sandy, and Bill are gut-wrenching, even 50 years later. Distinctive artwork, ample period details, and integrated exposition set the narrative firmly within the era and provide helpful context. Simply outstanding on every level!

Michael Burgan’s 2017 juvenile nonfiction title, Death at Kent State, and Deborah Wiles’ recent novel-in-verse, Kent State, would round out a text set on this topic for a range of readers.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Nonfiction Grades 7 & up…Most Dangerous


Sheinkin, Steve. Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsburg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War. Roaring Brook Press, 2015. 978-159643-9528 370p. $19.99. Gr. 7 and up.

How does an attitude shift? In the early 1960s, Daniel Ellsburg was a “cold warrior” dutifully working for the U.S. government as a data analyst and committed to defeating communism. Sheinkin shows how Ellsburg changed his point of view to become the leak of the Pentagon Papers, spearheaded by Henry Kissinger, “seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations, over twenty years.” Ellsburg spent nearly two years in Vietnam collecting data to build the government’s case for war, but the hopelessness of the American position there, combined with the misrepresentation of the war’s “success”, gradually led Ellsburg to realize that the war was absolutely wrong on every level. The history is perfectly told in this new text.  Readers can understand the differing viewpoints and feel the explosion that is to come. THOUGHTS: Expertly researched and expertly told from start to finish this is a must have for all junior high and high school libraries.   

Fantastic, enthralling nonfiction that once again proves Sheinkin one of the best writers of YA nonfiction today, this story will help students to understand the background behind decades of complicated governmental actions. It will also push them to consider the current role of whistleblowers (Edward Snowden) and the support and backlash they receive. Students aren’t likely to know the name Daniel Ellsburg, but a solid push from librarians and teachers will get this into the right hands. This could be used in American History, AP Government, or Civics courses to explain the inner workings of government agencies and the “fall” of U.S. government’s trustworthiness in the eyes of the general public. An added bonus is that students can interview an older generation about their remembrances of the Vietnam era, Daniel Ellsburg, and/or the Pentagon Papers. This book has earned seven starred reviews, was a National Book Award finalist, a New York Times Notable Children’s Book, and a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year.  It is an excellent, eye-opening text on many levels.

959.7; Vietnam War    Melissa Scott, Shenango High School

The Way to Stay in Destiny…New Middle Grades Historical Fiction


Scattergood, Augusta. The Way to Stay in Destiny. New York: Scholastic, 2015. 978-0545538244. 592p. $16.99. Gr. 4-6.

In the wake of the Vietnam War, Theo finds himself uprooted from his grandparents when they find themselves too old to care for him.  His Uncle Raymond, a Vietnam vet and loner, agrees to take on Theo. Theo gets off the bus in Destiny and lands at Miss Sister Grandersole’s Boarding House and School of Dance, where Uncle Raymond rents a room.  Alone during the summer days, Theo  meets Annabel, a fellow baseball fan who is avoiding Miss Sister. He also discovers Miss Sister has a beautiful piano. This feel good novel is a great reflection of the time period in which America was at odds with treatment of returning soldiers and defined gender roles.  Scattergood uses humor, friendship, and family to create a story of how sometimes places choose people to live there, not the other way around.

A gentle coming of age story about a boy who is defining family and his place in the world, the novel would be geared towards upper elementary school students in grades four through 8.  Readers will fall in love with the characters, and the plot is rich in mystery and adventure in Destiny, a town defined by its name.

Historical Fiction (Vietnam War)      Brooke Gerlach, Manheim Central MS

The Secrets of Tree Taylor


Mackall, Dandi Daley. The Secrets of Tree Taylor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 978-0-375-86897-9. 282 p. $16.99. Gr. 6 and up.

Tree Taylor has always wanted to write. Her goal is to write a story over the summer that gets her on to the staff of The Blue and Gold; her school newspaper. She has a writer’s notebook all set to go, with daily inspirational quotes. When a gunshot rings out down the street, she knows she has her big story. Now all she needs to do is find out what happened. As she investigates, she learns more about herself and the circumstances surrounding the shooting. She feels the weight of people’s secrets coming down on her and she is not sure if she is doing the right thing by writing the article or telling other secrets she learns during her investigation. She has a great support system within her family and they help guide her to know when telling a secret is important and when it will cause damage.

Historical Fiction (Vietnam War)      Kathryn Gilbride, North Pocono High and Middle Schools

This book would be wonderful in an English class that concentrates on journalism. Tree is a likeable girl who only wants to write. She sees an opportunity for a big story, and she has inner conflict about whether to reveal all she knows. She writes questions for further investigation and interviews quite a few people. The Vietnam Conflict story line is very interesting, and may educate some of our students on a time period they don’t know much about, which may cause further investigation. There is one story line that doesn’t materialize into much of a story, her friend Sarah is moving to another state. When I was young, I would be consumed by this thought, and Tree rarely mentions it. That was the only implausible part, and it was minor.