Blended by Sharon M. Draper

Published by Atheneum

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Summary:  Sixth-grader Isabella has a lot on her plate: her parents are divorced, and both get engaged to be remarried in the span of a few weeks.  Her mom is white and her dad is black, and Isabella has friends of different races. But when one of her friends is the victim of racist bullying, Isabella begins to feel like she has to choose sides.  Throughout the story, Isabella, a talented piantist, is preparing for a big recital.  A horrifying racially-charged incident on the way to that event derails her performance but leads to a reconciliation of sorts between the two sides of her family.  There are no easy answers, but Isabella emerges from the difficulties with a greater confidence borne of a greater sense of who she is. 320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Readers will connect with Isabella as she explores questions of how she fits into her world and deals with family difficulties that will undoubtedly be familiar to many.  The short chapters (all entitled “Mom’s Week”, “Dad’s Week”, or “Exchange Day” and Isabella’s honest voice will draw kids in right away.

Cons:  Isabella’s older stepbrother Darren was just a little too perfect to be true.

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Dragons In a Bag by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Geneva B.

Published by Random House

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Summary:  Jaxon’s not happy when Mama has to go to court to fight their eviction and drops him off with a strange and somewhat unfriendly older woman.  He can’t help but feel curious, though, when she receives a mysterious package from Madagascar that seems to contain something alive. Before long, he learns that the woman, Ma, is a witch with a long-term connection to his mother that Jax never knew about.  He gets drawn into a fascinating world of magic, meeting an unusual cast of characters that includes his long-lost grandfather, and finds out that Ma’s mysterious package contains three tiny dragons. When he and Ma travel back in time, though, things start to go wrong, and Jaxon fears he may have ruined everything.  By the time Mama returns, he’s found a way to begin to fix his mistakes and has agreed to become Ma’s apprentice. His mother isn’t thrilled with this turn of events, but an invitation from Ma to move in with her sets the stage for an interesting sequel. 160 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  This would make a good first fantasy book–the magic is fairly straightforward and the book is fairly short with quite a few illustrations.  Kids will relate to Jaxon as he tries to figure out the strange circumstances he is thrust into, and will be curious to find out what happens to him and his new dragon friends.

Cons:  It felt like the story was just getting going toward the end; here’s hoping the sequel will be out soon.

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Tight by Torrey Maldonado

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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Summary:  Sixth-grader Bryan wishes his life could be more peaceful and free of drama, but living in New York City’s projects makes that difficult.  His father is in and out of jail, and both his parents are trying to help Bryan and his older sister Ava stay on the right path. When Bryan meets Mike, he and his parents think he’s found a good friend–Mike is respectful and gets good grades.  But before long, Mike is convincing Bryan to cut school and “train surf” on the outside of subway cars. Bryan knows what he’s doing is dangerous and wrong, but it’s hard for him to risk Mike’s disapproval. When events start to catch up with the two boys, their friendship becomes strained, and Bryan has to decide where his loyalties to Mike, his family, and a new friend lie.  177 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Bryan’s experiences in the NYC projects may be unfamiliar to some kids, but his struggles with friends, family, and self-acceptance will resonate with almost all late elementary and middle school readers.

Cons:  Bryan’s father was kind of a mysterious character; I would have liked to understood more how he spent his days and a little more about his past.

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Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons

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Summary:  Sixth-grader Ollie is off to a rough start in school following the tragic death of her mother.  Seeking an escape after school one day, she wanders through the woods until she meets up with a distraught woman trying to throw a book into the river.  Ollie rescues the book, entitled Small Spaces, and is soon caught up in the story of a woman whose husband sold his soul to “the smiling man”.  When Ollie’s class takes a field trip to a nearby farm, she soon notices many similarities between the story in her book and the history of the farm.  When the bus breaks down and is surrounded by a strange mist, Ollie decides to go get help.  Coco and Brian, two kids she’s had reasons to dislike at school, join her, and the three slowly become friends as they fight for their lives against ghosts, scarecrows, and other evil forces before finally confronting the smiling man in the heart of his cornfield maze.  Ollie is the only one who is able to defeat him, and in doing so, she is able to acknowledge her grief about her mother and begin to move forward with her new friends.  224 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Those ready to move on from Goosebumps will enjoy this truly creepy tale that offers many heart-pounding, suspenseful moments before the final showdown between Ollie and the smiling man.

Cons:  I will never look at scarecrows the same way again.

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Lu by Jason Reynolds

Published by Atheneum

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Summary:  In the final book of the Track series, we hear from Lu, the team co-captain.  Lu’s parents’ announcement that he will soon have a little sister is his catalyst for some serious soul-searching.  Born with albinism, he’s sometimes been the victim of teasing about his white skin and the thick glasses he used to wear before he got contacts.  But track has given him confidence, and he’s usually the first to cross the finish line. A new event, hurdles, is giving him some challenges, but he’s determined to overcome them.  Lu learns some unpleasant truths about his father, a former drug dealer who now works for a rehab center, and his coach. The two men grew up together, almost like brothers, but a tragedy pulled them apart, and Lu is determined to bring about a reconciliation before his sister is born.  Each chapter is entitled “A New Name for…” (“A New Name for Little Brother: Little Sister”), and the final chapter: “A New Name for the Defenders: Family” shows all the ways this amazing group of kids have grown and come together over the season (and the series). 224 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  I don’t usually review sequels, let alone an entire series, but I have loved these books so much that I had to read them all.  Lu was every bit as good as the rest; Ghost will always be my favorite, but this one is not far behind.

Cons:  I will miss the Defenders.

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The Nebula Secret (Explorer Academy) by Trudi Trueit

Published by National Geographic Under the Stars

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Summary:  Cole is excited to have been accepted into the elite Explorer Academy, not only because he wants to be an explorer, but because his mother worked there before dying in a mysterious accident when Cole was five years old.  The night before he leaves his home in Hawaii, a man tries to drown him while he’s surfing. On his trip to Washington, D.C. and during his first weeks at the Academy, Cole feels like he’s being followed, and he receives clandestine messages that he should leave.  When a hacker disrupts an important simulation that Cole’s team is participating in, he’s accused of the sabotage and expelled from school. Heartbroken, he and his aunt (a member of the Academy’s faculty) set out to prove his innocence. Their investigation reveals not only the real culprit, but important clues about his mother’s death and the people who want Cole out of the school–or worse.  Readers can look forward to the exciting sequel coming out in March 2019. Includes “The Truth Behind the Fiction” section that tells about real-life explorers and some of the technology they use. 208 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  An exciting page-turner with plenty of color illustrations that will appeal to both reluctant and avid readers.  This is the first book in a new imprint from National Geographic called Under the Stars that creates fictional stories based on real-life National Geographic explorers.

Cons:  There’s definitely some need for suspension of disbelief.  Also (spoiler alert): the librarian turns out to be the bad guy.

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The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon

Published by Wendy Lamb Books

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Summary:  Caleb and his older brother Bobby Gene are delighted to meet 16-year-old Styx Malone one day in the woods near their house.  They’re looking to unload a bag of fireworks they won, but that their parents won’t let them keep, and Styx has some good ideas.  He tells the younger boys if they keep trading for something slightly more valuable, they’ll eventually be able to get a new moped that the three of them can share.  Caleb in particular has a worshipful admiration of Styx, whose free-and-easy ways contrast with the boys’ strict parents.  Caleb’s modest wish is to go to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, but his father insists it’s safer for African-American boys to stay in their small town where everyone knows them.  As the summer goes on and Styx’s plans grow increasingly daring–and dangerous–Caleb and Bobby Gene have to make some tough choices about where their loyalties lie.  When tragedy strikes, the boys learn the truth about Styx and gain a new appreciation for their family and for each other.  304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Caleb is an engaging narrator, and there’s plenty of fun to be had before things get a bit more serious.  Many readers will figure out Styx’s troubled life in the foster system before Caleb and Bobby Gene do, but don’t worry, there is ultimately a happy ending.

Cons:  The story has a contemporary setting, but the boys seem to have a lot of freedom to wander around all day on their own (particularly given their strict parents), and Styx is constantly chewing on candy cigarettes, which don’t seem like they’d be readily available in their small Indiana town in the 21st century.

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