Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Black Brother, Black Brother: Rhodes, Jewell Parker: 9780316493802 ...

Summary:  Donte wishes he could be less visible, like his lighter-skinned older brother, Trey, but his dark skin makes him stand out at the elite Middlefield Prep in the suburbs of Boston.  After being unjustly accused by a teacher, Donte winds up being arrested and sent to jail before being suspended for a week.  It’s during this suspension that he finds out about a former Olympic fencer who works at a Boys and Girls Club in Boston.  Donte’s worst enemy at Middlefield is the star of the fencing team, so he decides to seek out the coach to train him.  To his surprise, he ends up excelling at fencing, and his love of the sport eventually eclipses his desire for revenge.  Trey, Donte, and a brother and sister from the club form a fencing team, and their participation in the Massachusetts regional championships bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.  240 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  While last year’s The New Kid brought to light microaggressions against kids of color at an elite mostly-white prep school, this book features much more blatant racism from students, teachers, and administrators.  Fans of Kwame Alexander and Jason Reynolds will enjoy this fast-paced sports story, and readers everywhere will learn the importance of seeing othersand being seen by others.

Cons:  As is so often the case in stories about school bullying, educators came across by and large as clueless chuckleheads.

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The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead

Published by Wendy Lamb Books

The List of Things That Will Not Change: Stead, Rebecca ...

Summary:  12-year-old Bea looks back over the last few years of her life, starting when she is 8 and her parents are getting a divorce.  They give her a notebook with the beginnings of “A List of Things That Will Not Change”, which starts with her parents’ love for her.  Two years later, her father and his boyfriend Jesse announce their engagement.  She’s thrilled, especially when she learns that Jesse’s daughter, Sonia, is also 10.  Bea will be getting the sister she’s always wanted, even if Sonia spends most of her time in California.  But the road to the wedding proves to be a bumpy one, as Bea has to deal with the fact that Sonia doesn’t seem quite as happy about being sisters; that Jesse has a brother who can’t accept him and has stopped speaking to him; and most of all, that she is carrying a terrible secret from the previous summer that she worries is about to come back to haunt her.  As the wedding day draws near, Bea must learn to trust her friends and family enough to tell them what is going on so that she can embrace the changes happening in her family.  224 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Rebecca Stead once again proves her mastery at writing an absorbing middle-grade novel.  The plot could be nothing special in the hands of another writer, but Stead’s characters and attention to detail are what really make the magic happen.  This is sure to get some Newbery consideration.

Cons:  I enjoyed this more than Liar & Spy (I wasn’t much of a fan), but not quite as engaging and emotionally complex as Goodbye, Stranger.  And will anything ever match When You Reach Me

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Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Published by Dial Books (Released August 11)

Summary:  Della and her older sister Suki have just been placed in foster care with Francine.  It’s pretty clear from page 1 that some horrible things have happened to them.  Early on, Della tells how her mother got sent to jail several years before for setting fire to a hotel room while cooking meth with both girls in the hotel with her.  But, Della continues, that’s not the hard part of the story.  It’s not until many pages later that the reader learns how Clifton, the mother’s boyfriend that the girls ended up living with, tried to molest Della.  How Suki caught him and took a picture.  And how, slowly, Della realizes with horror what has been happening to Suki for years.  The unremittingly grim trajectory of their lives, though, begins to change.  Francine turns out to be an unlikely, no-nonsense heroine.  A girl named Nevaeh reaches out to Della and becomes a friend.  And when Suki finally finds her pain unbearable, doctors and therapists are available to help her.  Della decides the wolf is her favorite animal, and as the days with Francine go by, she learns to be strong like the wolf, but also to lean on the strengths of the rest of her pack.  272 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This book is tough to read, but I couldn’t put it down and read it in less than a day.  You’ll recognize some of the elements that made The War That Saved My Life so memorable.  The flawed, but unforgettable young narrator.  The unlikely guardian who ends up creating a family.  The traumatized sibling.  The unlikely humor.  Kimberly Brubaker Bradley has created another masterpiece, as well as shining light on an issue that often stays in the shadows, especially for the intended audience.  A Newbery contender for sure.

Cons:  Fans of The War That Saved My Life will undoubtedly be clamoring for Bradley’s latest book., but the subject matter may raise a few parental eyebrows., so be ready for some potentially difficult questions.  On a lighter note, if you have parents who object to language, Suki tells Della to use the words snow, snowman, or snowflake instead of curse words.  That’s how the words appear on the printed page, but it’s usually pretty easy to guess what she’s really saying by how other characters react.

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War Stories by Gordon Korman

Published by Scholastic (released July 21)

War Stories: Korman, Gordon: 9781338290202: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Trevor has always worshipped his great-grandfather, Jacob, who fought in World War II as a 17-year-old.  Trevor’s fascination of WWII has resulted in a room decorated with memorabilia and a passion for war-based video games.  When Jacob announces he’s going back to the French village that he helped liberate to commemorate the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, Trevor is thrilled to be invited along.  He, his reluctant father Daniel, and Jacob. make a journey that starts at Fort Benning, Georgia, and continues to Normandy, and on into the French countryside.  As they get closer to their destination, Jacob becomes more distant and irritable; Daniel monitors threats against Jacob being made on social media; and Trevor notices a girl about his age who seems to be following them.  Jacob’s war stories begin to take on a different tone, and by the time he finally reveals what happened in that French village, Trevor has learned some new truths about the horrors of war and what really makes a hero.  240 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Told in third-person narratives that switch between 2020 and 1944, the action really builds, and by the time the reader gets to the French village, it’s hard to put the book down.  Gordon Korman and a World War II story make an unbeatable combination for middle-grade readers.

Cons:  Through no fault of his own, Gordon Korman has created a story that would never have taken place.  You will have to suspend your disbelief and pretend we live in a parallel universe where a 93-year-old man could have traveled to Europe during the spring of 2020.

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Trespassers by Breena Bard

Published by Scholastic Graphix

Trespassers by Breena Bard

Summary:  Gabby and her family have always spent their summer vacation at the family’s lakeside cabin.  But this year is different.  At the beginning of the week, her father announces that he’s being transferred, but doesn’t know where yet.  And there’s a new family staying next door with two obnoxious kids the same age as Gabby and her younger brother.  The parents insist that the kids hang out together, and they find themselves breaking into a mysterious mansion that’s been abandoned for years.  The house fires up Gabby’s imagination, and she begins writing a mystery about it.  When new girl Paige finds out, they start collaborating, using clues they’ve found in the house.  Things get a little too real as they begin to find evidence of foul play, possibly involving their kind old neighbor.  By the time the week ends, bookworm Gabby has realized that there’s plenty of adventure to be found in real life, and when the family finds out where they’re moving, she’s ready for a new chapter to unfold.  256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Scholastic Graphix hasn’t disappointed me yet, and this fun summer graphic novel is sure to find many, many fans among the Telgemeier-Holm-Jamieson crowd.  The mystery is fun, and family and friendship issues feel real, yet wrap up reassuringly.

Cons:  I’d love to see another story about Gabby and/or Paige, but as near as I can tell there are no plans for a series.

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Beast: Face to Face with the Florida Bigfoot by Watt Key

Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Beast | Watt Key | Macmillan

Summary:  Adam and his parents are on their way home from Disney World, when they’re involved in a terrible car accident.  Adam wakes up in the hospital, where he learns that his parents are missing and presumed dead.  His last memory before the crash is of a huge creature in the road.  This memory haunts him day and night, and continues to plague him when he goes to live with his quirky Uncle John.  His Internet research makes him think he saw a sasquatch from the Florida swamps.  Unable to face getting back to regular life, Adam runs away to find a man who also claims to have seen Bigfoot.  Stanley has lost his wife and daughter to his Bigfoot obsession.  He gives Adam some advice, but acts crazy enough that Adam sneaks off to search on his own.  He ends up lost deep in the swamps…and what he finds there will change his life.  Includes an author’s note about his own close encounter with something mysterious in the swamps.  224 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This book will sell itself from the cover and title alone.  It’s also a good survival story with plenty of suspense.  The author’s note will have kids buzzing about whether or not Bigfoot is real.

Cons:  The story dragged a little when Adam first headed into the swamp.  And for a relatively pampered suburban kid, he seemed to figure out how to survive on his own pretty quickly.

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Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (Released July 7)

Dress Coded: Carrie Firestone: 9781984816436: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  When Molly’s friend Olivia gets dress coded, costing the entire eighth grade the chance for a camping trip, Molly wants a chance to tell the world what really happened.  Having observed the incident, she feels qualified to set the record straight, and decides to start a podcast about her middle school’s dress code.  Before long, other girls start to come forward with stories of their experiences getting dress coded, and word of her podcast starts to spread.  As eighth grade graduation approaches, the dress coding stories pile up, and the administration stonewalls the kids, they decide it’s time for some more drastic action to bring attention to their cause.  320 pages; grades 6-8.

Pros:  The portrayal of middle school is spot on in this breezy but empowering story of kids determined to be heard.  The girls take the spotlight, but they have plenty of cool boys standing with them.  Lots of other middle school topics are touched upon, including vaping, bullying, and family issues.  This will be an easy sell to middle schoolers.

Cons:  Although I’ve seen this recommended for fifth grade, I think kids will appreciate it more (and parents may object less) if they’re experienced middle schoolers.

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Shuri: A Black Panther Novel by Nic Stone

Published by Scholastic

Shuri: A Black Panther Novel (Marvel) (1): Stone, Nic ...

Summary:  Princess Shuri, sister of T’Challa the Black Panther, is gifted in all things technological and wants to use her talents to help Wakanda.  She feels that her mother and brother don’t appreciate her and treat her like a child.  So when she discovers that the powerful heart-shaped herb is dying, then has a vision of an evil invading Wakanda, she feels compelled to act.  When her family doesn’t take her warnings seriously, Shuri takes matters into her own hands, escaping with her friend and protector K’Marah to travel to Kenya and London in search of assistance.  Their return to Wakanda coincides with the invasion, and Shuri is able to use some of her innovative technology to stop it and to show her family what she is capable of.  272 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  My experience with another middle grade Black Panther novel makes me pretty confident that this will be an easy sell.  It’s an action-packed ride with a strong, smart girl protagonist, and characters that may be familiar to readers from the movie or comic books.

Cons:  The queen seemed unnecessarily obnoxious to her daughter, not appreciating Shuri’s considerable gifts, and focusing too much on her clothes and social skills.

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Shelly Struggles to Shine (The Derby Daredevils, book 2) by Kit Rosewater, illustrated by Sophie Escabasse

Published by Amulet Books (Released September 15)

Shelly Struggles to Shine (The Derby Daredevils Book #2 ...

Summary:  Shelly loves being part of the Daredevils roller derby team.  But when she and her friends get the chance to play in a bout, Shelly starts noticing the skills each of her teammates has and feeling like she’s not the best at anything.  She decides to use her artistic talents to design special derby gear for each one of her friends.  Things like bubble boots and sticky gloves seem amazing in her imagination, but fall far short in reality.  The other girls start to get frustrated by Shelly’s insistence that they try her inventions, and using a couple of them in the bout earns Shelly a penalty.  When Shelly finally shares what she’s feeling with the other Daredevils, they reassure her that she is an important part of the team.  And one of her ideas ends up winning them a special award!  176 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  This illustrated book will appeal to fans of Roller Girl and anyone who enjoys a good friendship story.  True to the roller derby spirit, there are all sorts of body types, genders, and sexualities woven effortlessly into the story, and everyone is celebrated for being themselves.  I haven’t had a chance to read book 1, Kenzie Kickstarts a Team, but that one is currently available.  I’m hoping there will be at least one book in the series for each of the five Daredevils.

Cons:  Some of Shelly’s creations, as well as her insistence that the girls try them out, were pretty cringey.

The Derby Daredevils: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team: (The Derby ...

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The Mystwick School of Musicraft by Jessica Khoury

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

The Mystwick School of Musicraft: Khoury, Jessica: 9781328625632 ...

Summary:  Amelia Jones has always dreamed of attending The Mystwick School of Musicraft where her late mother became a maestro.  Amelia is a flutist who has studied musicraft with some local teachers, but is ill-prepared for the big time and bungles her audition to the school.  She’s shocked a few weeks later when she gets an acceptance letter.  But when she arrives at Mystwick, she discovers the letter was an error–it was intended for a different Amelia Jones, a piano prodigy who died the previous summer under somewhat mysterious circumstances.  Our Amelia is about to be sent packing, when the teachers discover a nifty bit of magic she inadvertently performed on the school grounds.  They decide to give her two months to get her magic up to speed, at which time she’ll have to audition again to stay for good.  Amelia is determined to work hard, but when the ghost of the other Amelia Jones seems equally determined to see her fail, it becomes more and more difficult for her to believe that she really belongs at Mystwick.  368 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Harry Potter fans will enjoy this fun tale of a school where kids learn to use their musical talents to do magic.  There are plenty of plot twists and supernatural events to keep kids turning the pages, and the end seems to make a sequel inevitable.  I enjoyed listening to the Audible version of this which is free, along with quite a few other books: check out their site for details.

Cons:  Granted, Amelia had plenty of reasons to doubt her talents, but I got tired of her constant “maybe I just don’t belong here” refrain.

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