The Bully Blockers Club

Lotty Raccoon is excited. This year she has a new teacher, new backpack, and new shoes. But her enthusiasm quickly wanes when Grant Grizzly begins bullying her. At the advice of her brother and sister, Lotty tries ignoring Grant and then tries to make a joke of it all, but neither approach works. When her parents hear about Grant, Lotty’s dad talks to the teacher. Although the teacher speaks to Grant and Lotty, now Grant just bullies her when no adult is around. 

After talking to her family again, Lotty comes up with an idea. She notices other kids are being bullied by Grant too. She gathers everyone together and they form a club—The Bully Blockers Club. Now when Grant tries to bully someone, the other kids speak up. That gets an adult’s attention, and Grant stops his bullying! 

The Bully Blockers Club will help readers understand what to do when someone is being bullied. Besides giving different ways to try to deal with a bully, the book also covers the topic of being a tattletale. The story reinforces the importance of telling an adult when you do not feel safe. Another positive aspect of the story is that Lotty and the other students are never mean to Grant, even when he is being a bully. The conclusion implies that Grant is going to stop his bullying ways, which may be a bit unrealistic.  

The book’s cartoonish pictures will appeal to readers and show the different ways Grant is bullying others. When Grant is being mean, the different students clearly show their anger and fear. Even though The Bully Blockers Club is a picture book, the story is intended to be read aloud to a child, rather than for the child to read it for the first time independently. Each page has three to 15 sentences and many of the sentences are complex. Because of the text-heavy pages, younger readers may have a difficult time sitting still until the end of the story. 

The Bully Blockers Club educates readers on bullying and encourages them to talk to an adult. Several times, Lotty’s family demonstrates healthy communication skills that require listening to each other. Plus, the teacher spends class time discussing bullying. On the chalkboard, readers will find a list of what characteristics makes a bully and what characteristics make a friend. The relatable topic and the educational value of The Bully Blockers Club make the picture book an excellent read. To explore more picture books that teach about friendship, check out Shawn Loves Sharks by Curtis Manley and Angus All Aglow by Heather Smith. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Grant steals a classmate’s eraser and then “kicked the back of her chair all morning.” The girl ignores Grant’s “nasty whispers.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Grant loudly tells someone that a classmate is “so stupid she doesn’t even know when someone’s talking to her.” Then he yells, “Hey, Stupid.”  
  • Grant tells Lotty, “I’m allergic to ugly. And you’re giving me a rash.” Then he calls her “Stink-O.” 
  • Grant knocks Lotty’s books off her desk. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Red Rover

On a car ride back from the beach, sixth grader Amy Tanner notices something strange by the side of the road. It’s a blindfolded dog, muzzled with duct tape. He’s tied to a post with a rusty chain. Concerned for the dog’s safety, Amy quickly convinces her parents to pull over, and the family frees this mystery dog, who they suddenly feel compelled to name Rover. Before long, Rover has charmed his way into the Tanner family home. He especially bonds with Amy’s younger sister, Katie, who seems to hear Rover’s thoughts in her head. 

Despite the Tanners’ excitement about having a new dog, Amy begins to notice unusual things happening around Rover. Electronics malfunction. Pets and humans that he dislikes freeze, wide-eyed, as if possessed. And, when Rover is forced to attend the school science fair against his will, a gory “accident” occurs, leaving the rats of a rival project dead. It slowly becomes clear that Rover has strange psychic abilities. Even Amy’s ever-logical parents begin to see that something is wrong.  

The Tanners attempt to tame their dog and, when that doesn’t work, to drop him off at a shelter, but they are unsuccessful. Eventually, Amy is left with no choice but to track down Rover’s previous owners and figure out how they were able to free themselves from this creature. This journey is how Amy meets the grizzled diva Miss Dola, who helps Amy and her family perform a ritual to weaken Rover. After a dramatic confrontation, they are able to drop him into the sea. He sinks to the bottom, gone for good. Or is he? 

A key theme in Red Rover is dealing with bullies. A girl from school named Valerie Starr frequently makes fun of Amy, and Amy draws a direct comparison between this rival and Rover. In the latter half of the book, Amy is willing to do almost anything in her power to spend less time around her dog. She relishes her hours at school. She goes on walks. She spends extra time in the bathroom. “Anything that took time out of her morning, she was good at. Anything to keep her up here, on the second floor, away from him.” Amy, for her part, dislikes the person that she’s become. Once a dog-lover, she now catches herself hoping for Rover’s downfall, a relatable struggle for anyone who’s endured bullying. She just wants to be free.  

Because Red Rover is told entirely from Amy’s perspective, frustration and fear are also key elements of the plot. While Katie blindly adores Rover and their science-minded parents don’t even consider psychic powers a possibility, Amy picks up on Rover’s sinister energy almost from the beginning. As the novel progresses, Amy becomes more and more frightened of Rover. This fear is what drives the plot forward and initially puts Amy at odds with her family. Readers will share Amy’s terror as suspense slowly builds, until the final confrontation at the end of the book where Amy’s “sharp, unspeakable terror curdle[s] into rage” and she must defend her younger sister from Rover’s attack. 

Although Red Rover is a bit slow at times, the story of a girl who lives in fear in her own home will resonate to any child who has had to deal with a bully, especially one that they seemingly can’t escape. With believable characters and a strong final act, Red Rover presents a powerful narrative about standing up for yourself, protecting the people you care about, and following your gut even when no one else believes you.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • When Amy and her family first encounter Rover, he is tied to a fence by the side of the road and has visibly been mistreated. A rusty chain is “looped tightly around [Rover’s] neck and clasped with a padlock,” and a dirty rag is “tied tight over the dog’s eyes.” Additionally, a “thick loop of duct tape” is “wrapped around [his] muzzle, holding [his] mouth shut.” 
  • A tall girl confronts Amy and demands that she hand over her ice cream money. Amy wishes she had the courage to “shove” the girl aside or “[throw] a punch.” The confrontation ends nonviolently when the tall girl looks Rover in the eyes and suddenly “lurche[s] forward” and “vomit[s] across the concrete.” 
  • When Amy brings Rover to the science fair, he becomes agitated and launches a telekinetic attack against the rats from a different project’s terrarium. The rats begin “slamming their bodies against the sides of their plastic cage, shrieking as they [throttle] themselves back and forth, back and forth.” The inside of the plastic terrarium rapidly becomes “smeared with blood.” 
  • Amy has a dream of Rover’s face “rotting away, revealing a skull.” 
  • While at a sleepover, Amy learns that her father just “fell and hit his head on the kitchen floor” and that there was “blood everywhere.” It is implied that Rover is responsible for the accident. 
  • Rover lures the family’s other dog, Stormy, into the street, and Amy jumps in front of a car trying to save him. Amy gets Stormy safely to the curb, but the car bumper “punche[s]” Amy in the side. She then “[flies] to the asphalt, rolling over twice and feeling the grit of the road beneath her scrape her elbows and knuckles raw.” 
  • While on a drive, Amy sticks her head out of the window and Rover tries to roll up the window “like a slow guillotine.” Amy is able to pull her head back inside just in time. 
  • Amy and her family attempt to drop Rover off at a shelter, but he escapes and returns home. Upon calling the shelter, they learn that the animals there “all just died at once.” It is implied that Rover used his powers to kill them. 
  • Rover attacks a professional dog whisperer by psychically throwing him through an exploded window. The dog whisperer lands in glass and sustains “dozens of cuts on his exposed arms and face.” 
  • Rover uses an “invisible force” to choke Amy, but he is distracted when Amy’s younger sister offers to feed him Greek honey cake. 
  • Amy burns out one of Rover’s eyes with a stick of sage, and the wound is described as “oozing a thick black liquid that sizzled as it hit the floor.” 
  • During a final confrontation, Rover throws furniture, pets, and family members around the house with his mind. He corners Amy and her sister in the attic, but before he is able to attack, Miss Dola appears and “stab[s] all three syringes down into the back of the dog’s neck.” This immobilizes Rover and they are able to lock the creature in a cage, which they eventually push into the sea.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language  

  • Amy mentally refers to herself as a “weak little idiot” when she hesitates to defend herself against a bully. 
  • In a fit of rage, Amy calls her younger sister a “brat.” 
  • A boy calls his brother a “dingus.” 

 Supernatural 

  • Rover possesses psychic abilities, which are slowly revealed over the course of the book. He is able to control electronics, move things with his mind, and even psychically kill other creatures. 
  • The family employs a supernatural ritual in order to break the bond between Rover and Katie. The ritual involves a string of leaves, three black candles, three medical syringes filled with a clear liquid, a “small black book with a gold triangle on the cover,” and a slice of Greek honey cake. 

Spiritual Content 

  • Miss Dola believes that Rover may be an incarnation of the three-headed canine beast Cerberus, a figure from Greek mythology. 

Riley’s Ghost

Riley Flynn is alone.  

It feels like she’s been on her own since sixth grade, when her best friend, Emily, ditched her for the cool girls. Cool girls don’t like Riley. They decide one day to lock Riley in the science closet after hours, after everyone else has gone home. 

When Riley is finally able to escape the closet, she finds that her horror story is only just beginning. All the school doors are locked, the windows won’t budge, the phones are dead, and the lights aren’t working. Through halls lit only by the narrow beam of her flashlight, Riley roams the building, seeking a way out, an answer, an explanation. And as she does, she starts to suspect she isn’t alone after all.  

While she’s always liked a good scary story, Riley knows there is no such thing as ghosts. But what else could explain the things happening in the school, the haunting force that seems to lurk in every shadow, around every corner? As she tries to find answers, she starts reliving moments that brought her to this night. Moments from her own life…and a life that is not her own. 

Riley’s Ghost explores the issue of bullying through two girls’ experiences. While the premise is unique—a girl is forced to face her past hurts with the help of a ghost—the story is frustrating because of the frequent flashbacks. Since much of the story is told in the past tense, the story’s pacing is slow and has very few dramatic scenes. When something interesting begins to happen, the story quickly shifts to past events which kills the suspense. While the constant jumps into the past help explain Riley’s behavior, she is not relatable or likable. Riley has often been the target of bullies; however, her own behavior has caused some of her problems.  

The addition of Max, a ghost who is using a half-dissected frog as a vessel, should add interest, but the ghost does not evoke sympathy because he is so awful. Instead of helping Riley, the frog does not want to confront his past. Riley is left to guess at Max’s motives. Even at the end, Max learns nothing and only wants to forget about his past mistakes instead of making amends. Plus, the story’s message is confusing because the story shows that most people pay for their mistakes, but “nobody should have to pay for their past mistakes indefinitely.” 

Riley’s Ghost takes a hard look at the bullying that can take place during middle school and shows how bullying can have a lasting impact on the victims. Unfortunately, the conclusion is confusing and chaotic, and the lesson is unclear. In the end, the story hints that Riley’s life makes a dramatic turn for the better, but the conclusion jumps to a feel-good ending without showing how Riley was able to make changes. For readers who want to explore the issue of bullying further, Out of Place by Jennifer Blecher and Fortune Falls by Jenny Goebel would be better book selections.  

Sexual Content 

  • Riley thinks about her teachers. “And rumor had it that Mrs. Brendaker, the choir teacher, was madly in love with Ms. Child, which was bound to be hard on Mr. Brendaker, if and when he found out.” 
  • While in middle school, Heather and her friend kiss. The boy “gave her her first awkward kiss underneath the bleachers by the tennis courts.” 

Violence 

  • In a hallway at school, Grace gets in Riley’s face. “Grace poked Riley just below the collar of her sweatshirt. . . Her chest burned above her heart where Grace’s finger had just been.” Without thinking, “Riley’s right arm, which uncoiled unconsciously, swinging fast, the open hand connected with Grace’s left cheek with such force it made the other girls’ head whip around.”  
  • After Riley slaps Grace, Grace and her friends lock Riley in a supply closet in the science classroom. 
  • When a half-dissected frog begins talking to Riley, she “kicked out with her right foot, sending the creature with its dissected belly and its flopping innards soaring ten feet, straight into a wall, where it hit with a sickening slap.” 
  • Riley gets angry at the frog and tries to stomp him. “Riley chased after the frog frantically leaping down the hall, trying to smash him under her bootheel like a toddler squashing bugs on the blacktop, until she cornered him in the entryway of a classroom, backed against the door.”  She grabs the frog and thinks, “it would be easy to snap his spine, to feel it splinter.”  
  • A ghost leads Riley into the auditorium where Riley sees a vision of the ghost’s life. When Riley sees the ghost’s face in a mirror, she reaches out to touch it. “The mirror shattered at her touch, splintering into a thousand pieces. Riley screamed. . . She felt her feet mysteriously pulled out from under her, a moment of pure weightlessness, a total loss of control.” Riley falls and her “head snapped back, striking the hardwood floor, taking away the last bit of light.” Riley is knocked unconscious. 
  • When Riley was in elementary school, a classmate named Jordan messed up her drawing. Without thinking, she stabbed him with a pencil. “But she had got lucky—or unlucky—catching the soft web of tissue between Jordan’s thumb and forefinger. . . Jordan screamed again. The wound, now free to bleed, burbling up a tiny stream that trickled down the length of his thumb.” Afterwards, Riley had to see a therapist. 
  • When she was in middle school, the ghost Heather, “snuck into the gym, grabbed one of the baseball bats from the supply closet, then she just went crazy. Ballistic. She smashed everything she saw. Windows. Desks. . .” Heather was suspended and never went back to school.  
  • Riley sees visions of Heather’s death. “Her father was driving. . . She wasn’t wearing a seat belt. . . Riley could picture it. The shattered glass. The screech of tires. The body lifted, floating. Head snapping backwards. And then . . . just gone.” 
  • Heather’s classmates locked her in a supply closet. “[Heather] pounds and kicks, she pleads and shouts, she cusses and spits. . . She is afraid. Afraid of being stuck in this place forever. Afraid that no one will ever try to find her.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • While locked in a closet, Riley wishes she could go home and take Advil, then sleep. 
  • One of Riley’s teacher is “the vape master.” 
  • In the nurse’s office, a cabinet is “full of Adderall and Ritalin.” 
  • While on vacation, Riley and her friend planned to “cajole Riley’s father into letting them try a sip of beer.”

Language   

  • Freaking is used in excess. For example, Riley says, “I’m stuck in this freaking school, freezing in the freaking dark, talking to a freaking frog who is also a freaking ghost!” 
  • Profanity is used occasionally. Profanity includes crap, hell, and piss. 
  • Goddam is used once. 
  • Occasionally, Riley calls her classmates names such as a jerk, prick, and “butt-faced jerkwads.” 
  • Riley imagines her classmates texting about her, saying that she “is cray cray.” Another girl says Riley is a “freak.” 
  • A boy tells a girl not to listen to Riley because “she’s a lunatic.” 
  • God, oh my God, and Jesus are used as exclamations rarely.  
  • Riley says, “screw this” and “screw it” several times. 
  • Emily thinks about telling her ex-friend’s mother that her daughter was a “terrible kiss-ass, crowd-following, spineless bystander.” 

Supernatural 

  • The ghost of Heather, a girl who died while in middle school, haunts the school. By making a flashlight blink on and off, the ghost shows Riley where she wants her to go. Riley also sees visions of the ghost’s life.  
  • While locked in the school, Riley hears voices when no one is there, lights go on and off. In addition, Riley hears crying coming from the bathroom stall. Then black letters appear on a mirror, “Nothing to see here.” 
  • A ghost uses a half-dissected frog as a vessel. He tells Riley, “I thought it might be easier for you to handle if you had an actual body to talk to. Something substantial. And this was the best vessel I could get.” 
  • While in a hallway, Riley sees “all the dials on all the lockers started to spin. Up and down the hall. Every locker, all at once, turning one way and then the other in unison.” Then Riley hears people talking, saying that someone is a “freak, a loser, so awkward, so weird.”  
  • Based on her father’s stories, Riley knows that “to vanquish a ghost was to find out what it wanted, what kept it anchored to this world. Find the tie that bound it here and then cut it loose.”  
  • The ghost, Max, wants to destroy some letters that his ex-friend wrote to him. “Riley felt a tickle like a breath on the back of her neck before a current of air picked up the stack of letters . . . the pages shot upward and then fell back down like maple leaves.” Riley saves the letters from being burned.

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Mean Ghouls

If Megan thought life at her new boarding school was going to be easy, she was dead wrong. Everyone has the same mysterious virus—one that’s slowly turning them all into zombies. The teachers are lifeless and the food stinks. Literally. And worst of all, the clique of popular mean girls who rule the school have already decided that Megan’s dead to them.

All Megan wants is to get back to her old school and her old friends, but until a cure is found, she’s stuck at Zombie Academy. How will she ever survive?

Squeamish readers will want to avoid Mean Ghouls because zombitus causes the students’ body parts to fall off and their teeth to sharpen, among other ailments. Plus, the bloody descriptions are detailed and gross. For example, when the limo driver picks up Megan, she is glad she’d only seen him from the back because “his head was barely attached to his neck. It kept lolling over to one side or the other. One of his eyes was hanging loosely from some kind of oozing stringy stuff. And though she hadn’t noticed from the backseat, whew, the guy stunk!”

Even though Mean Ghouls revolves around zombitus, the story is also a mystery that explores themes of bullying and friendship. When the zombitus cure is stolen, Megan jumps to the conclusion that the mean girls are the culprits. As she sneaks around looking for clues, Megan’s behavior unintentionally hurts her friends. However, the conclusion has several surprises that wrap up all the plot threads.

While none of the characters are well-developed, there’s a host of interesting characters that readers will love and hate. Megan’s brother, Zach, adds a dose of humor because he is totally obsessed with zombies and wishes he was the one that contracted zombitus. Plus, Megan’s high school crush, Brett, also gets infected and is befriended by the mean girls which leads to some comedy. For example, Brett’s zombitus causes him to attempt to eat Megan. “More scared than she’d ever been her whole life, Megan stopped fighting and closed her eyes. If this was the end, to be eaten alive by her first crush, she didn’t want to see it. She hoped it would be quick and painless.” Luckily, a teacher instructs Zach on proper zombie behavior, which doesn’t allow zombies to eat each other.

Fans of R.L. Stine will enjoy Mean Ghouls because the story is surprisingly entertaining with a unique premise that will draw readers in. The story has the perfect blend of action, suspense, and humor. Junior high readers who want an excellent scary story should also read Nightbooks by J.A. White and Fortune Falls by Jenny Goebel.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • While weaving through a crowded classroom, someone pushes Megan. “While she was picking her way toward her friends, someone shoved her from behind. . . she turned to see who’d pushed her. Brooke gave Megan a sharp-toothed smile.”
  • Brett is upset because eating Megan’s brownie gave him zombitus. Brett chases Megan. “Brett made a grab for the back of Megan’s black T-shirt and she stumbled. Rocks scraped Megan’s hands and knees as she lunged out of Brett’s grasp.” Brett and Megan wrestle until an adult “pulled Brett off of Megan with a strong hand.”
  • Megan thinks a group of girls are hiding the cure for zombitus. During a fashion show, Megan attacks. “Megan shoved Hailey out of the way. Her middle-school classmate stumbled on a spiked heel and fell off the stage. . . Megan grabbed a handful of the small glass tubes and rushed to the side of the stage.”
  • A group of people try to stop Megan’s attack. “Whirling and grunting and grabbing at anything she could, Megan tried to make a run for more of the vials, but Brenda and Betsy blocked her way.” Finally, someone grabs her, and, in the end, Megan finds out she was wrong. The attack scene is described over three pages.
  • Megan and her friend agree to appear in Megan’s brother’s horror movie. Megan’s friend “Rachel pulled out the thing Zach had given her. It was a dart gun. And before the zombies could shuffle away, Rachel fired darts at them.” The darts had the zombitus cure on the tips.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Megan calls her brother a dork numerous times.
  • Darn is used once.
  • An upset boy chases Megan. Megan’s friend causes a distraction and then yells, “You’ll never catch me, Zom-Bonehead!”
  • Megan calls a boy snaggletooth and dork.

Supernatural

  • Transforming into a zombie can take centuries because they are immortal.
  • When zombies have head wounds, they do not heal. Megan’s math teacher “had a huge gash in his head that revealed his brains. Megan was surprised that brains actually did look like the spaghetti that Zach had made for her last breakfast at home. A pink slime coated with gray, thick linking twist.”
  • Jones built the school after he turned into a zombie. “Mr. Jones was drooling blood. Wet, soggy blood stains covered the front of his shirt.”
  • Brooke gets injured. “The cut was small, but deep, and a sliver of her brain was slowly oozing out. Brooke used a tissue to push it back inside her skull. Betsy gave her a disgusted look and handed her a tube of hand sanitizer.”
    Spiritual Content
  • None

Athena the Brain

Athena has always been above average. She’s never quite fit in at Triton Junior High, but who would’ve guessed that Athena is actually a goddess? Principal Zeus’s daughter, to be exact. When she’s summoned to Mount Olympus Academy, Athena thinks she might actually fit in for the first time in her life. But in some ways, school on Mount Olympus is not that different from down on earth. It doesn’t help that Althea is going to have to deal with the baddest mean girl in history—Medusa! 

In the Goddess Girls Series, readers will follow the ins and outs of divine social life at Mount Olympus Academy, where the most privileged godboys and goddessgirls in the Greek pantheon hone their mythical skills including “manipulation, disasters, and quick saves.” 

The students at Mount Olympus Academy act like typical junior high students, but they have powers that add drama to the story. As part of her course work, Athena must create a quest for Odysseus. This allows the book to explore the story of Helen, who ran away with Paris and started the Trojan War. However, the rules between the human world and Olympus are unclear to Athena. For example, because Athena just learned that she was a goddess, she accidently makes mistakes, such as falling asleep and dropping Odysseus in the sea where he almost drowns. While none of the events are particularly believable, young readers will enjoy learning about Mount Olympus Academy and the Greek gods. However, in order to create more drama and conflict, the story doesn’t always stick to the facts from the original Greek myths. 

Athena and the other students also have a contest to see who can make the best inventions. Most of the inventions are silly, such as Lucky-in-Love Lip Balm that makes everyone fall in love with the wearer. When Poseidon wins the contest, he gets to determine his award. He says, “First off, I’d like mortals to name a chewing gum after my trident, so no one will ever call it a pitchfork again. And I’d like to be Earth’s official water park designer.” The book’s humorous tone will appeal to many readers.  

The quickly changing topics, the large cast of characters, and the reference to the Odyssey and the Trojan War may be confusing for some readers. However, Athena the Brain is full of silly events, crushes, and new friendships. While the story has no educational value and teaches no life lessons, young readers will quickly be caught up in the school’s drama. Athena’s bully, Medusa, is a predictable villain that readers will love to hate. While the conclusion is a bit predictable, readers will be happy to see the mean girl Medusa meet her downfall.  

If you’re looking for a fun series that will engage young readers, the Goddess Girls Series hits the mark. With 28 books in the series, it will keep readers entertained for a long time. Athena the Brain is perfect for readers who are ready to leave illustrated chapter books behind, but not yet ready to jump into the Percy Jackson Series. If you love stories that revolve around mythology, you should also read the Thunder Girls Series by Joan Holub & Suzanne Williams. 

Sexual Content 

  • Aphrodite encourages Athena to try out for the cheer squad because “you’ll get to hang out with the cutest guys on the team.” Athena teases Aphrodite, saying, “You’ve got a one-track mind.”  
  • Aphrodite thinks Poseidon is crushing on Athena. Aphrodite says, “Poseidon’s probably never come across a girl who didn’t fall for him right away. That’s why he’s trying so hard with you. You’re a challenge.” 
  • The events of the Trojan War are discussed. The characters talk about Helen falling in love with Paris and leaving her husband. 

Violence 

  • Poseidon tricks Medusa into looking into a mirror and she turns into stone. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Pheme, one of the students, asks Athena about her father, Zeus. Pheme asks, “So you think he’s kind of nutty? Then you think he’s a blowhard.”  
  • Some of the students make fun of Athena because her mom is a fly. “Making buzzing noises, the triplets whipped out flyswatters they’d tucked in their belts. . . Waving the swatters in choreographed moves, the girls launched into a little skit.” 

Supernatural 

  • Most of the book takes place on Olympus, where the Greek gods live. They follow many of the Greek gods’ lives including Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, Aphrodite, Medusa, etc. Some examples are explained below. 
  • Aphrodite was “born from sea foam.”  
  • Athena’s mom is a fly “as in a hairy-legged, two-winged, compound-eyes insect of the order Diptera.” The fly lives in Zeus’ head, so he can relay messages from the fly to Athena. 
  • Athena sketches inventions that come to life on earth. Artemis explains, “You should never make sketches without bespelling them to stay put on the page first.” 
  • As part of a class project, the students design a quest for someone on Earth. Athena chooses Odysseus. Everything Athena does has “an effect on mortals.” For example, Odysseus almost drowns when Athena falls asleep and drops him into water.  
  • Athena makes a special shampoo, Snarkypoo. “After someone uses it, any snarky words they think of turn to stone in their brain before they can be spoken. I invented it with Medusa in mind.” Later she discovers that she misspelled “the name as Snakeypoo, it turned hair into snakes.”

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Horse Girl  

Wills is a seventh-grader who’s head-over-hoof for horses, and beyond excited when she gets the chance to start training at the prestigious Oakwood Riding Academy. But Amara—the queen of the #HorseGirls—and her posse, aren’t going to let the certifiably dork-tagious Wills trot her way into their club so easily. Between learning the reins of horse riding, dealing with her Air Force pilot mom being stationed thousands of miles from home, and keeping it together in front of (gasp!) Horse Boys, Wills learns that becoming a part of the #HorseGirl world isn’t easy. But with her rescue horse, Clyde, at her side, it sure will be fun.

Wills’s embarrassing father, sensitive sister, and the members of the riding academy combine to make her story relatable and humorous. Every preteen will understand Wills’s desire to make friends as well as the embarrassing moments Wills suffers through. While Horse Girl has plenty of funny moments, readers will connect to Wills and understand her desire to find a place where she belongs. In addition to girl drama, mystery is added when someone begins leaving Wills encouraging notes and Wills begins investigating the members of the riding team.

Wills’s relationship with her parents is another positive aspect of the story. As Wills is trying to navigate life, she often thinks about her mom’s words of wisdom: “she says that whether you’re riding or flying or even just brushing your teeth, you have to be ready for surprises—the happy kind or the sad kind or the refreshingly minty kind. She says if you stop looking for surprises, they’ll stop looking for you—and what fun would life be then?”

The short paragraphs, text bubbles with emojis, and the list of Oakwood friend suspects makes the story engaging and fun. Plus, the text has footnotes that explain the horse terminology. The footnotes also include references that preteens may not know. For example, when Wills compares a rider to the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the footnote says, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a movie from a million years ago (aka 1961) starring actress Audrey Hepburn wearing a little black dress and pearls.”

Horse-loving readers will enjoy Horse Girl because horses are a pivotal part of the plot. However, Horse Girl will also appeal to a wide range of readers because of Wills’s relatable conflicts, friendship worry, and embarrassing moments. Wills isn’t afraid to embrace her dorkiness, her frizzy hair, or her love of horses. And in the end, she learns a valuable fact about friendship; “Your friends—even the least expected ones, even the ones you thought were out to get you, and especially the ones with four legs—will be there to help pick you up.”

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • OMG and OMGE are used occasionally.
  • Holy smokes and holy cow are both used as an exclamation once.
  • Heck is used five times.
  • Wills’s father says, “Dang it” once
  • Wills’s sister calls her a weirdo.
  • When Wills is feeling sorry for herself, her dad says, “But you’re behaving like an immature, whiny, selfish. . . brat.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Before Wills’s competition, she takes “a deep breath and says a silent prayer to the #HorseGods.”

 

Clovis Keeps His Cool

Clovis has a terrible temper. He’s been learning how to control it with calming tea, deep breaths, and his beloved late granny’s wise words in mind: “Grace, grace. Nothing broken to replace.” His new job running her old china shop helps put him at peace.

But when bullies from his football days come to heckle him at the shop, Clovis faces a big challenge that even deep breaths and Granny’s words might not be enough for. Will Clovis give in to the urge to charge even if it means destroying something he loves?

In stressful situations, Clovis tries his best to stay calm. However, when heckler’s break his granny’s teacup, Clovis charges. When he has the hecklers cornered, Clovis is reminded of his granny’s words, which allows him to calm down. In a unique twist, Clovis invites the hecklers to have a cup of tea with him. In the end, the hecklers help Clovis clean up the mess in granny’s shop. “Little by little, they helped Clovis pick up the pieces, putting right what had gone wrong. And always Clovis served tea. By the time his shop reopened, a few things had changed. Clovis had old hobbies, new friends, and plenty of grace to go around.”

Through Clovis’ experiences, the reader will learn ways to destress. For example, Clovis listens to soothing music, he does yoga, he has chamomile tea, and he breathes to the count of ten. However, Clovis isn’t perfect and he loses his cool, but he finds a way to make everything right. When Clovis was being bullied, he could have retaliated, but instead, he treats the hecklers with kindness and they find common ground. Some younger readers may not understand all the underlying themes in Clovis Keeps His Cool, but it will give parents the opportunity to discuss anger, bullying, and forgiveness with their child.

While Clovis Keeps His Cool is an entertaining story on its own, the illustrations are wonderfully fun and humorous. For example, the contrast between Clovis’ large size and the tiny china in the tea shop will make readers smile. Clovis’ facial expressions are detailed and help the reader understand his varied emotions. Readers will also enjoy looking for the cat that pops up in several pages.

Even though Clovis Keeps His Cool is a picture book, the story is intended to be read aloud to a child, rather than for the child to read it for the first time independently. Each page has 2 to 4 sentences. However, some of the sentences are complex and readers may need help understanding some of the vocabulary. The varying size of the text adds interest to the page and also helps reinforce when Clovis is angry. The story’s alliteration, onomatopoeia, and dialogue make the story fun to read aloud.

Clovis Keeps His Cool will resonate with every young child because everyone gets angry at times. The unique setting, animal characters, and entertaining story will keep readers engaged as it teaches the importance of staying calm. Whether you’re looking for an educational book or a book to read just for fun, Clovis Keeps His Cool is an excellent choice.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Hecklers come into the tea shop and one throws a teacup at Clovis. Angry, Clovis “tore through town, hot on the hecklers’ hooves. The stampede didn’t stop until he’d chased them to the end of a dark alley. . . Clovis snorted and pawed the ground.” Clovis controls his temper before he hurts anyone.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Someone calls Clovis a wimp.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Frosted Kisses

Former Manhattan girl, Penny, has quickly discovered that life in a small town is never dull. Not when there’s a festival for every occasion, a Queen Bee to deal with, an animal shelter to save, and a cute boy to crush on.

But Hog’s Hallow just got another new girl: Esmeralda. She’s beautiful, French, and just happens to be Charity’s (the Queen Bee’s) best friend. Penny figures with the arrival of Esmeralda, the Queen Bee might be too busy to keep making her life miserable. Penny couldn’t be more wrong.

But Penny doesn’t have a lot of time to worry about Charity. Her best friend, Tally, has recruited her to help save the local animal shelter, which is in danger of closing unless they can raise some desperately needed funds.

Then there’s Marcus, the adorable and mysterious boy that Penny thinks might likes her as much as she likes him. But while things with Marcus are wonderful and fluttery, they are also confusing at the same time. Can Penny and her friends save the animal shelter, navigate her new family dynamics, and get the boy—or will Charity and Esmeralda find a way to ruin everything?

While The Cupcake Queen was a cute romance that would appeal to middle school readers, the second book Frosted Kisses falls flat. Much of the story follows the exact same format as the first book and none of the characters are given any more depth. In addition, there are too many topics—divorce, jealousy, bullying, and parental problems. None of these topics are fully explored. Instead, the story jumps from topic to topic and leaves the reader with too many questions.

In The Cupcake Queen, Penny’s insecurity was understandable because she had just moved to a new town and her parents had recently separated. However, in the second installment of the story, she is still insecure, this time focusing her insecurities on Marcus. Penny’s jealousy and inability to talk to Marcus are frustrating. In addition, the fact that Marcus and Penny do not talk or spend any time together at school is unrealistic.

Frosted Kisses is a holiday-themed romance that doesn’t add any sparkle to the season. Instead, Hepler writes a stagnant story that relies on a typical mean-girl, love-triangle format. There is nothing exciting or wonderful to keep the story interesting. While readers will enjoy the first installment in the series, Frosted Kisses will leave readers disappointed. If you’re looking for a holiday-themed story to read while snuggling up by the fire, the Celebrate the Season Series would make an excellent choice.

Sexual Content

  • Penny wonders if Marcus is going to kiss her, but they are interrupted before anything happens. Penny thinks, “As much as I think I would want Marcus to kiss me, part of me isn’t sure I’m ready. Because there’s this tiny part of me that likes looking forward to it.”
  • Someone tells Penny that Marcus and Charity kissed “a few times last summer.” Penny gets upset and all she “can think of is him kissing her. And I know it was before I knew him and it shouldn’t bother me, but it does.”
  • Penny’s grandmother tells her a story about Dutch, who she dated in the past. When the two rekindle their romance, Penny’s grandmother kisses him several times.
  • At a festival, Marcus “bends and brushes his lips against mine [Penny’s]. And everything falls away.”
  • After Marcus walks Penny home, she kisses him. “I have to stand on my tiptoes to reach. It’s fast and I might have actually missed his mouth a tiny bit, but it was a kiss.”

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Several times a mean girl calls Penny, “Penny Lame.” The same girl also refers to Penny as a loser.
  • At one point Penny says, “I’m an idiot.”
  • “Oh my God” is used as an exclamation once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When Marcus tells Penny he is going to be tutored, she prays, “Please not Charity. Please not Charity.”

Out of Place

Cove Bernstein’s life has gone from bad to worse. After her best friend Nina moves from the island of Martha’s Vineyard to New York City, Cove is bullied more than ever by her classmates, Amelia and Sophie.  Without Nina, Cove has become the center of a bullying campaign. Cove tries to find a way to leave the island, but her mother refuses to leave, saying places outside of Martha’s Vineyard have “the never-ending pressure to be a certain person.”

Cove finds the chance of a lifetime to visit New York by entering herself in a kids-only fashion competition. Cove has little experience in sewing, but her friend in the retirement home, Anna, teaches her the basics. The plot thickens when Jack, a boy from her school, starts appearing wherever she goes. Then, she makes a terrible mistake – one that she thought she could not undo.

Told in an easy-to-read fashion, Out of Place truly captures a long-distance friendship as well as a friendship found in an unexpected place. Many readers will relate to Cove as she starts the school year without many kids to call friends. Despite their distance, Cove and Nina remain friends by writing letters to each other. The letters between Cove and Nina show their enduring friendship and summarize the events in their respective lives, which helps the reader understand the effort needed to keep a long-distance friendship.

Nina is less developed since she primarily appears through letters, but the letters about her life in New York City allow the reader to take a break from Cove’s days at school and to later reengage in the happenings of Cove, back at Martha’s Vineyard. Black-and-white spot art appears at the start of each chapter. The illustrations in Cove’s letters show the influence of the island’s residents on her, which is contrasted by Cove’s desire to leave the island through any means while dealing with Amelia and Sophie’s bullying. The theme of friendship holds stronger than the theme of bullying because the story focuses on Cove’s development into a more self-assured person. One instance of her development is when she wins a “stuffed scarecrow contest” and makes the scarecrow in the art room. As she looks at the finished product, Cove says to herself, “The letters are wobbly and Anna would never approve of the stitches—they’re way too uneven—but the message is clear. Anyone who wants to sit next to [her] scarecrow is more than welcome.”

Unlike many stories, Out of Place deemphasizes the bully’s mean behavior. Cove becomes invested in her passions, not as an escape, but to figure out her place in her hometown. Through the story, readers will come to a better understanding of a subtle approach to standing up against bullies, all while being one’s true self. Out of Place does end with a hopeful happily-ever-after, but perhaps most importantly, the story shows how friends — old and new – can make a difference in a person’s life.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Nina splashes dirty water onto Sophie and Amelia, who have been taunting her and Cove. “There is a moment when the foamy, dirty water floats in the air. Then it lands in Sophie’s and Amelia’s laps. And all I [Cove] hear are screams.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Sophie refers to Cove as “Rover” because Sophie had decided that Cove “looked like a dog.”
  • Many characters use the word “stupid” to describe an unlikable person or situation. For example, in a letter to Cove, Nina writes about the people and situations that she considers “stupid.”
  • Jack helps the art teacher and another classmate stuff straw into a scarecrow’s body. Jack says, “Horses must be pretty freaking tough.”
  • Cove’s mother yells at Cove’s stepfather. She calls him “naive. . . and stupid. And irresponsible.”
  • Cove tells Jonah, a college student, about her bullying. He says, “Damn. . . I forgot how tough growing up can be.”
  • Cove’s stepfather is late to meet Cove’s mother. He says “crap.”
  • Nina writes that the shirt design for Amelia and Sophie’s shirts “totally stinks.”
  • When Cove is practicing her sewing, she says it “stinks.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Cove’s mother believes in spiritual things, mostly that people have a “spirit” and that the events that happen in life affect them. Additionally, she believes in karma and fate.

by Jemima Cooke

Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business

Junie B. Jones is not excited when her parents tell her they are having another baby. She is excited, however, when the baby is born and her grandmother describes him as “the cutest little monkey.” Junie B. goes to school and announces at Show & Tell that her brother is a monkey with long fingers and loads of black hair.

Trouble ensues when Junie B.’s friends both want to be the first to see Junie B.’s baby monkey brother. Junie B. manipulates both friends by giving vague promises so they will bribe her with gifts. Junie B. enjoys the attention and takes all of her friends’ things, until one of her friends begins to cry. When the confusion is aired out, Junie B. learns that sometimes adults say things that don’t make loads of sense to kids. Like “cutest little monkey” or “the bees’ knees.”

In the second book in the series, Junie B. is still a spoiled child with no respect for others’ boundaries. She shouts at people, she calls people dumb, and she does not listen well to her parents or teachers. Junie B. also ignores her friend’s hurt feelings. Even after taking all of her friend’s nice things (including her friend’s new shoes) and making her friend cry, Junie B.’s main thought is “and then that dumb Grace shot off her big fat mouth about her shoes.” When sent to the principal’s office, Junie B. fails to take any responsibility for her actions.

While Junie B. Jones is the main character in all of the Junie B. Jones books, readers do not need to read the books in order. Easy vocabulary and simple sentence structure make the story accessible to young readers. Black and white illustrations appear every five to ten pages and will help readers understand the plot.

While Junie B. Jones and Little Monkey Business will no doubt entertain young readers; the bigger question is whether parents want their children reading a story with a terrible role model. Unless Junie B. Jones starts learning kindness, empathy, and boundaries, this series’ entertainment value will fail to outweigh the life lessons that it imparts. Parents looking for a series with a positive role model should check out Diary of an Ice Princess by Christina Soontornvat and The Critter Club Series by Callie Barkley.

Sexual Content

  • A boy smiles at Junie B. “Then Ricardo smiled at me. And so he might be my boyfriend, I think. Except for there’s a boy in Room Eight who already loves me.”

Violence

  • Grace and Lucille get into a fight. “That’s when that Grace kicked Lucille in the leg. And so Lucille pushed her down. And Mrs. had to come pull them off each other.”
  • When thinking about a boy in her class, Junie B. says, “I can beat him up, I think.”
  • Junie B. threatens a boy that she “hate[s]” saying, “I made a big fist at him. ‘HOW WOULD YOU LIKE THIS UP YOUR NOSE, YOU BIG DUMB JIM?’” She is not reprimanded even though an adult hears this exchange.

 

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When grandma is not home, “Grampa smoked a real live cigar right inside the house!”

Language

  • Junie B. calls things stupid frequently. When talking about her baby brother, she says, “I don’t even know its stupid dumb name.”
  • Junie B. calls things and people dumb with excessive frequency. Once, she yells, “THE PRESENT ISN’T IN THIS DUMB BUNNY ROOM.” Another time, she says, “I don’t think I’m going to like this dumb baby.”
  • Junie B. uses the word hate several times. Once, she thinks, “It was the night we had stewed tomatoes—which I hate very much.”
  • Junie B. uses darn twice. After she mistakenly thinks her mother got her a present, Junie B. says “You didn’t get me a darned thing, did you?” When she realizes her baby brother is not a monkey, she says “darn it.”
  • After Junie B. shouted “P.U.! WHAT A STINK BOMB!” to her friend’s baby brother, Junie B. was told to go home.
  • Grace calls Junie B. a “poopy head.” Another time, Grace says, “Pooey!”
  • Junie B. calls a classmate fat. She says, “Shush yourself, you big fat Jim.”
  • Junie B. thinks a classmate is “a cry-baby.”
  • Junie B. says heck once. “Only who the heck knew that dumb thing?”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Morgan Lynn

 

 

Junie B. Jones and Some Sneaky Peeky Spying

Junie B. is a spoiled child with no respect for others’ boundaries. She shouts, she loves getting away with things she knows she’s not supposed to do, and she does not listen to her parents or teachers. When a classmate bothers her, Junie makes “a fist at him” and then gets into a “scuffle.” Her response is to be excited when she doesn’t get into trouble.

While Junie B. Jones and Some Sneaky Peeky Spying will no doubt entertain readers, the bigger question is whether parents want their children reading a story with a terrible role model. For instance, Junie says an apology “is the words I’m sorry. Except you don’t actually have to mean it. ‘Cause nobody can even tell the difference.” She also willfully disobeys her mother’s instructions to stop spying on people.

While Junie B. Jones is the main character in all of the Junie B. Jones books, readers do not need to read the books in order. Easy vocabulary and simple sentence structure make the story accessible to young readers. Black and white illustrations appear every five to ten pages and will help readers understand the plot.

Kids will be entertained by Junie B.’s antics. However, since Junie B. Jones fails to learn from her mishaps, this story’s entertainment value fails to outweigh the poor life lessons that it imparts. If you’re looking for an entertaining series with a kinder main character check out the Jada Jones Series by Kelly Starling Lyons.

Sexual Content

  • While spying on her teacher, Junie B. sees her “and the strange man did a big smoochie kiss!”

Violence

  • When upset at her friend, Junie B. “made a fist at her. Except Mrs. saw me. And so I had to unfold it.”
  • When her grandmother says “curiosity killed the cat,” Junie B. says, “Where did the curiosity kill it? Was it in the street by my school? ‘Cause I saw a squished cat in the street by my school. Only Paulie Allen Puffer said it got runned over by the ice cream truck.”
  • When mad at Jim, Junie B. “made a fist at him. Then me and him got into a scuffle. . . Only guess what? I didn’t even get in trouble!”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Junie B. is being difficult, “Grandma Miller . . . took an aspirin.” A few minutes later, “Grandma took another aspirin.”

Language

  • Junie B. Jones says dumb and stupid often. When sent to her room for shouting and stomping, she thinks, “I never even heard of that dumb rule before.”
  • When angry at her mother, Junie B. “called Mother the name of pewie head” behind her mother’s back.
  • Junie B. says darn several times. When the store has no free samples, she says “darn it.”
  • Junie B. says, “Who the heck is that?” and “shoot” while spying on her teacher. She later says “shoot” when the principal finds her hiding place.
  • Junie B.’s friend calls her “big stinky.”
  • When the Principal calls Junie B.’s mother to tell her about the spying, Junie B. thinks, “Principal is a squealer.”
  • Junie B. tells her classmate’s grandmother that she hates him.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Morgan Lynn

 

 

 

Above All Else

Del is a striker on the school soccer team, the Cardinals, which has gone almost three seasons undefeated. To Del, it’s just a game, but some of the players think winning is all that matters. After an in-game altercation with the Cardinals’ main rival, the Rebels, one of Del’s teammates is attacked and seriously injured by an unknown assailant. Is it an act of retaliation or did someone finally take the above-all-else mentality too far?

Above All Else blends on-the-field action and mystery into a fast-paced story that will leave readers with one question: should a team play dirty in order to win?

While the story has some play-by-play soccer descriptions, much of the story revolves around the mystery of who hurt Del’s teammate. The mystery focuses on Del’s perspective, which allows the reader to piece together the clues. In the beginning, Del avoids conflict by staying quiet. However, in the end, he stands up for what he knows is right. Both Del and his teammates learn that “you can lose and walk off the field with your head high.”

Above All Else will appeal to both sports fans and mystery buffs. Written as a part of the Orca Soundings books, which are specifically written for teens, Above All Else is a fast-paced book that explores the idea of winning at all costs. While Above All Else may appeal to younger readers, parents may object to the frequent profanity and name-calling. However, older readers who are reluctant to read will enjoy this high-interest, easy-to-read story.

Sexual Content

  • Riley and Kira start spending time together. She goes to Riley’s soccer game. At halftime, Kira “threw her arms around Riley’s neck and kissed him full on the lips.” After the game, Riley and Kira “were locked in an awkward-looking kiss.”
  • Riley and Kira kiss several more times, but the kisses are not described.

Violence

  • During a soccer game, Rom intentionally hurts a player named Tim. Tim “was almost past Rom when Rom performed a slide tackle, knocking the ball out of bounds and sending Tim flying.” Tim is angry, but not injured.
  • Later in the game, Tim is getting ready to score when “Rom rushed him. Tim went head-on into the challenge, probably thinking he could rotate around Rom at the last second. . . Rom charged and, as Tim began his rotation, jutted his leg out and caught him square on the knee.”
  • After Rom takes down Tim, Tim’s teammates “ran right into Rom and took him down. He managed to get four quick punches in before his own teammates pulled him off . . .”
  • Del and his friend, Riley, find their teammate Rom injured. Riley says, “I just found him here . . .” Rom was “completely out.” Later Rom tells his friends, “Someone came up behind me while I was getting into my car and choked me out.” Rom’s ankle is also badly injured.
  • Del and his friends go into an abandoned mall, looking for the person that they think injured Rom. Del “turned around to find Jared sitting on top of Doug Richards.” After that, there is a lot of chasing, but everyone gets out of the mall without being hurt.
  • Elsa tells Del, “my brother got beat up at the mall the other night.”
  • At a game, Del accidentally crashed into the goalkeeper. The goalkeeper “caught me in the side of the head with a quick sharp punch. . . I tried to stand up to get away from the situation and he kicked me in the gut.”
  • Elsa and Del go back to the abandoned mall and a gang chases them out. When Elsa and Del get in the van, “the guys were banging on the van like wild apes.” When she goes to leave, Elsa runs over someone’s foot.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes ass, bullshit, crappy, damn, hell, piss, and shitty.
  • There are many instances of name-calling, which include asshole, dick, dickhead, idiot, sucker, prick, dillweed, and knobs.
  • Del and his friends are going into an abandoned mall. When Del doesn’t want to go, his friend says, “Grow a pair, Del.”
  • One of the other team’s players yells at Del, “Goddamn dirty players.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

Teasing Trouble

Hallie’s two loose teeth are the talk of the classroom! Everyone loves watching her wiggle them. Funny Spencer gets lots of attention, too, when he teases Hallie about her teeth. But when Spencer’s jokes go too far, and Hallie’s feelings are hurt, both children have to find a way to stop the teasing and save their friendship.

Spencer wants people to laugh at his jokes, but he doesn’t realize that his jokes are making his classmates mad. Even though Hallie doesn’t like Spencer’s jokes, she bottles up her emotions. Finally, Hallie has had enough, and she yells, “Spencer, I am tired of your teasing. You are a big, mean bully. . . You didn’t hurt me by pinching or punching. But your words hurt my feelings.”

In the end, Miss Sparks helps Spencer and Hallie resolve their conflict. Spencer learns that his words can hurt others. Hallie learns that she needed to tell Spencer how she felt. Both Spencer and Hallie apologize to each other. Spencer and Hallie show that friends can be angry at each other, forgive each other, and save their friendship.

Teasing Trouble includes “Dear Parent,” activities at the end of the book that were created by teachers and child specialists to help you nurture your child’s skills, boost their self-confidence, and encourage a lifelong love for learning.

Readers familiar with the Hopscotch Hill School Series will enjoy seeing a familiar character in an everyday situation. Readers who are beginning to read independently will appreciate the easy vocabulary. Most paragraphs are one simple sentence. Large, colorful illustrations appear on almost every page, which helps the readers understand the plot and the characters’ emotions. Teasing Trouble uses a relatable conflict to teach the importance of working through a conflict.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • When Hallie loses her two front teeth, Spencer says, “Hey, everybody! Hallie has a hole in her head!” Later he says, “You have a hole in your head too, Gwen. It’s your nose!”
  • Spencer tells Hallie, “There’s no such thing as the tooth fairy anyway. Only babies believe in the tooth fairy.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Komi Can’t Communicate Volume 1

Socially anxious high school student Shoko Komi’s greatest dream is to make some friends, but everyone at school mistakes her crippling social anxiety for cool reserve. With the whole student body keeping their distance and Komi unable to utter a single word, friendship might be forever beyond her reach.

Timid Tadano is a total wallflower, and that’s just the way he likes it. But all of that changes when he finds himself alone in a classroom on the first day of high school with the legendary Komi. He quickly realizes she isn’t aloof — she’s just super awkward. Now he’s made it his mission to help her on her quest to make 100 friends!

Anyone who’s ever been afraid to speak up will relate to Komi, who freezes every time someone talks to her. The socially awkward girl has a conversation with Tadano by writing back and forth on a whiteboard. This conversation helps the reader understand Komi’s inability to talk to others. While Tadano’s desire to help Komi become friends with others is endearing, part of the reason he wants to help Komi is because he finds her beautiful. Despite this, Tadano shows how two people’s friendship can bloom into something beautiful.

The black and white illustrations are adorable and portray the socially awkward girl and her interactions with others with humor. Each page has 1 to 11 simple sentences which appear in quote boxes. Square boxes are also used to show characters and general information. The illustrations help show Komi’s nervousness by showing her tremble.

While Komi Can’t Communicate focuses on Komi, the story also shows other awkward situations that arise because of miscommunication. Through Komi’s experiences, the reader will see the pitfalls of making assumptions about others. The story highlights this lesson by comparing the difference between what Komi is thinking and what others are thinking. With Tadano’s help, Komi begins to communicate with some of her classmates, which allows them to understand her difficulty talking.

Anyone who has ever had difficultly speaking up will relate to Komi. The anime art, the relatable conflict, and the easy-to-read vocabulary make Komi Can’t Communicate accessible to all readers. Readers will enjoy both the artwork and the plot. Readers who have social anxieties like Komi’s will want to put Guts by Raina Telgemeier and After Zero by Christina Collins on their must-read list.

Sexual Content

  • There are a few lewd jokes. For example, Osana asks Tadano, “Shall I sate your lust with my body?”
  • Osana’s sexual identity is unclear. Tadano is confused when he sees Osana in a dress. He says, “In junior high, you were a boy, weren’t you? In a boy’s uniform.”

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • When a girl sees Tadano talking to Komi, she says he shouldn’t talk to Komi because he is a “scumbag” and “less than horse poop.”
  • When Komi and Tadano are talking, a girl thinks, “I can’t bash him in front of her highness Komi, but I wish that scumbag would get lost.”
  • While playing a game, Tadano thinks he is “watching idiots.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • A girl hides from Komi in a bathroom stall. The girl prays to God, Buddha, and Komi. She says, “Please! I’ll do anything you want! Just go easy on me!” When Komi leaves the bathroom, the girl says, “The divinities answered my prayers.”
  • The students think being the student body president isn’t “grand enough” for Komi so they decide that “Komi’s position is God.”

Maybe He Just Likes You

For seventh-grader Mila, it started with some boys giving her an unwanted hug. The next day it’s another hug. A smirk. Comments about her body. It all feels weird. According to her friend Zara, Mila is being immature and overreacting. Doesn’t she know what flirting looks like?

But it keeps happening, despite Mila’s protests. On the bus and in the school halls. Even during band practice—the one place Mila thought she could always escape to; her happy “blue sky” place. It seems like the boys are everywhere. And their behavior doesn’t feel like flirting—so what is it?

Mila starts to gain confidence when she enrolls in karate class. But her friends still don’t understand why Mila is making such a big deal about the boys’ attention. When Mila is finally pushed too far, she realizes she can’t battle this on her own, and she finds help in some unexpected places.

Maybe He Just Likes You tackles the difficult topic of consent, boundaries, and sexual harassment in a way that middle school readers will understand. When boys on the basketball team begin sexually harassing Mila, she isn’t sure what to do. Her friends think she is overreacting and being immature. At one point, Mila’s friend Zara tells her, “Look Mila, there’s got to be a reason why they’re picking you. Those boys are super awkward and stupid sometimes, but they aren’t monsters, right? So maybe if you think about what you’re doing—” However, the book makes it clear that Mila’s behavior is not responsible for the boys’ behavior.

Many readers will relate to Mila, who struggles to understand her changing body and the changing social structure of junior high. Soon, the boys’ behavior escalates and begins to cause problems in other aspects of Mila’s life. Like Mila, many readers may struggle with who to turn to in times of need. However, Mila’s story highlights the importance of speaking up and getting an adult’s help. Through Mila’s story, readers will learn that if someone’s touch makes you feel helpless, weird, annoyed, or embarrassed, you need to speak up.

Even though Maybe He Just Likes You does an excellent job showing what sexual harassment looks like, the conclusion is unrealistically hopeful. In the end, the boys apologize to Mila and the harassment stops. However, the story doesn’t show the lasting effects sexual harassment can have on a victim. Instead, Mila and one of the boys continue to sit next to each other in band, and when the boy begins taking karate, Mila gladly helps him.

Maybe He Just Likes You uses short chapters, easy vocabulary, and plenty of friendship drama to keep readers engaged. Being told from Mila’s point of view allows the reader to understand the confusing emotions that Mila battles. Maybe He Just Likes You is an engaging story that highlights the importance of finding your voice. Both boys and girls will benefit from reading Mila’s story because it gives clear examples of sexual harassment and explores the complicated nature of bullying.

Sexual Content

  • A group of boys play a game to see who can touch Mila the most. They also get points if they tell her something about her body. The group corners Mila in the band room, and pressure her to hug Leo because it’s his birthday. Mila thinks, “they haven’t moved from the door. I’ll need to pass them to get out of here. This isn’t a choice. . . I walk over to Leo, throw my arms around him and squeeze once.”
  • Tobias wants Mila to hug him because, “Yesterday when we all hugged you, the guys who touched Mila’s sweater scored a personal best. So we decided that Mila’s green fuzz was magic.” Mila holds her arm out so Tobias can touch the sweater. “But then, before I knew it was happening, he threw his arms around my chest and squeezed so hard that for a second I lost my breath.”
  • On the bus ride home, Dante sits too close to her. Mila “could feel Dante’s shoulder bump against mine. This definitely felt wrong and unfair. . .his bare legs kept brushing against my jeans. . . But when the bus hit a giant pothole, his arm flew across my chest.” Mila asks him to move over, but he doesn’t.
  • A boy tells Mila, “You changed your outfit. Your butt looked nicer in that green sweater.”
  • Mila realizes that her friend Max “likes this new boy. As in, likes.” Later Max starts spending time with the boy.
  • When Mila is getting into her locker, “someone’s hand grabbed my butt.” When Mila confronts the boy, he says, “It’s probably your imagination.”
  • While walking onto stage for a performance, a boy says, “Hey Mila, I can see right through your shirt.”
  • During summer, Liana was helping babysit a little girl. They would often go to the pool. “Daniel and Luis and this other boy I didn’t know started playing this game. . . They kept bothering me underwater. Blocking me so I was trapped, yanking my swimsuit.” When she told the girl’s mother that the boys were bothering her, the mother said, “Well, honey, you know I’m paying you to watch Skyler, not to interact with boys.”

Violence

  • During band, a boy grabs Mila’s arm. Mila “yanked my arm away. And when I side-kicked him in the shin, Callum went sprawling, knocking over two chairs and three music stands on his way to the floor.” Mila is given three days of after-school detention and Callum is given one day of detention.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Dang is used once.
  • Twice, during a stressful time, Mila thinks “crap.”
  • Omigod is used as an exclamation 5 times. For example, before singing tryouts Zara says, “Omigod, I’m so nervous I could puke.”
  • A boy calls his friend a moron.
  • The girls occasionally say that someone is a jerk. A girl says that a classmate is “a total jerk to me in band.”
  • In the past, one of Mila’s friends was teased “when Hunter Schultz called him ‘gay’ and ‘Maxipad’ and a bunch of other things.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Candy Kisses

There’s no holiday like Valentine’s Day according to JoJo Siwa—candy hearts and frilly tutus are two of her favorite things! This year she’s hosting a Valentine-themed sleepover with BowBow and her friends. (Party time!!!) Best of all, JoJo has a new dance workshop to look forward to, with a big performance at the end. When the news breaks that only one dancer will get to shine in a solo, the snarky Queen Bs—Bree, Bahi, and Bell—begin to stir up trouble.

In Candy Kisses, JoJo continues her message of being kind. Unfortunately, JoJo’s sweetness and over-confidence don’t ring true. Most of the story focuses on a dance workshop that JoJo is taking. All of the dancers are older than JoJo and some of them dance professionally. Despite this, JoJo has no problem learning the dance moves and some of the other dancers are awed by JoJo’s dancing skills and fame.

When Bell begins talking badly about the others, the dance instructor and the other dancers don’t know how to address the problem. Despite this, JoJo comes up with a creative way to get Bell to stop bullying. JoJo “doesn’t believe in excluding anyone” and encourages others to believe in themselves. The unrealistic conclusion has all of the girls becoming friends. However, JoJo’s constant self-praise overshadows the story’s positive lessons.

While Candy Kisses is intended for girls six or older, the vocabulary will be difficult for younger readers. Readers who enjoy illustrated chapter books will find the text-heavy pages of Candy Kisses a little overwhelming. Each chapter starts with a cute black and white illustration, but they are the only pictures that appear in the book. Another negative aspect of the story is that BowBow rarely appears, even though he is on the cover of the book.

Instead of being an imperfect person who makes mistakes, JoJo is portrayed as a perfect person who has a solution for every situation. The self-promoting narration makes Candy Kisses difficult to enjoy. Even though JoJo is a dancer, singer, actress, and YouTube personality, parents and some readers will be annoyed by her lack of humility. The JoJo and BowBow Series is one that is best left on the library shelf. If you’re looking for an illustrated series that promotes friendship, add the Purrmaids Series by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen to your reading list. Older readers who want an action-packed animal story should read the Wild Rescuers Series by Stacy Plays.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Young Scrooge: A Very Scary Christmas Story

Rick Scroogeman hates Christmas. He can’t stand the carols or the pageants. He doesn’t like the lights or the mistletoe. But the worst part about the season is having to watch the old movie version of A Christmas Carol, especially since all of his classmates have started calling him Scrooge.

When Rick finds out that he didn’t get a part in the school play, he’s determined to get revenge. When Rick’s terrible prank successfully ruins Christmas for his classmates, he feels victorious. But when three ghosts appear, Rick realizes what he thought was just a nightmare might become real. Can anyone teach Rick the true meaning of Christmas?

Rick is truly a terrible boy. He thinks being mean is funny. He enjoys stomping on people’s feet, taking his brother’s jelly beans, and getting revenge. Rick bullies his way through life and doesn’t understand why so many people don’t understand his humor. When the Christmas ghosts appear, Rick learns how it feels to be bullied. Even though Rick learns how it feels to be bullied, the ending is ambiguous enough to make the reader wonder if Rick will change his horrid ways.

In Young Scrooge, Rick tells his own story. His snarky comments and ungrateful attitude show he is completely unaware of others’ feelings. When the ghosts take him to different realities, Rick is put on the receiving end of a bully. Yet for the majority of the story, Rick is more concerned with getting home and getting his Christmas gifts. Even though Young Scrooge is based on A Christmas Carol, the ending won’t give the readers a warm fuzzy feeling.

Readers who want to put a little horror into the holidays will find this ghost spooky but not scary. The story’s short chapters and easy vocabulary make the story easy to read. Even though the story shows the harmful effects of bullying, the story is never preachy. Although parents might find Young Scrooge lacking, younger readers will enjoy the fresh twist on A Christmas Carol. Young Scrooge will never become a Christmas classic, but it will entertain readers and would be a great conversation starter on bad behavior.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Rick splashes water on Davey. Rick thinks it’s funny because “everyone will see the dark spot on the front of his pants and think he had an accident.” When Davey gets mad, Rick slaps “him hard on the back. He goes sprawling into the yellow tile wall.”
  • When Jeremy asks Rick, “What do you want, Scrooge?”, it makes Rick angry so he tromps “down on the top of his sneaker as hard as I can with the heel of my shoe. . . That must hurt. He starts to hop up and down on one foot.”
  • When Rick walks into one of his classes, he sees Lucy. “First, I take my thumbs and smear the lenses on her glasses. Then I take both hands and ruffle her hair as hard as I can.”
  • Rick makes fun of a boy that stutters, then, “[he picks] him up by his waist and lifted him into his locker. And then [Rick] closed the locker door with him inside.”
  • While walking to the front of the class, Rick “tromped really hard on Josh Cratchit’s foot as I passed by him. I couldn’t believe how loud he screamed.” When Rick returns to his seat, he “gave it another good hard stomp as I passed.”
  • Josh sees Billy O’Brian, who is fat. Instead of calling Billy by his name, Rick calls him Belly O’Beast. Rick likes “to grab his big belly with both hands, jiggle it up and down, and shout, “‘Earthquake!’ especially when there are girls watching. Belly’s fat face always turns bright red.”
  • When Rick finds out that the kids did not want him to be in the play, Rick puts ants in their costumes. “Some kids sprawled on their backs, scratching. Others were frantically pulling off their costumes. I saw ants scurry out of the clothes and over the stage. Ants crawled all over Belly’s cheeks and forehead.”
  • When Rick gets home, he sees his brother Charlie. “I dropped my backpack on the floor. Then I grabbed both of his ears and tugged them as hard as I could.”
  • When Christmas carolers come to Rick’s house, he throws snowballs at them.
  • Rick is taken to a school in the past. A kid “raised his big boot and tromped his heel down as hard as he could on top of my right sneaker. . . pain shot up my leg, up my entire body. . . The pain was unbearable.”
  • When a girl laughs at Rick, he “grabbed the back of her hair and gave it a tug. You know. Playful. Not too hard.” The girl then dumps ink on Rick’s head.
  • A boy “stuck his foot out and tripped [Rick]. [Rick] stumbled into the big globe. Landed on top of it. And the globe and [Rick] rolled across the floor.”
  • While building snowmen with Ashley, Rick “grabbed up a big handful of snow and molded it into a snowball. . . and smashed it into Ashley’s face. [Rick] held it there, rubbing it over her cheeks and eyes.”
  • While in the future, Rick is taken to his grave. When he peers in it, he sees some of the kids from Dead Middle School. “They were huddled in my grave—and I could see right through them! They were transparent, all in shades of gray. No color. And now they raised their arms. All at once, they shot their arms up out of the hole. Hands wrapped around my feet. Two guys floated up and wrapped their arms around my waist.” Rick is able to pull himself free, but “One of the arms holding my waist fell off. The arm ripped off at the shoulder and fell to the dirt.” The scene is described over five pages.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Rick thinks most of the kids in his school are losers.
  • Mr. Pickwick didn’t give Rick a part in the play. Rick thinks it is because the teacher is a jerk.
  • When a girl dumps ink over Rick’s head, the other students laugh. Rick thinks, “I felt like a total jerk.”
  • The Ghost of Christmas Present takes Rick to his friends’ Christmas party. Rick overhears the kids saying he was a “total jerk.”

Supernatural

  • Rick sneaks into his attic looking for his Christmas presents. The attic door closes and the lights go out. Then, Rick sees “an eerie green-yellow mist swirling at the other end of the closet. . .It curled up on itself like a snake. [Rick] stared without breathing, without moving as the mist curled and uncurled, up to the closet ceiling, then down again.” The mist is replaced by a man. “His nose came to a sharp point. His eyes glowed red like burning coals.” The man is the ghost of Marly. The ghost discovers that he is in the wrong house and leaves.
  • After the ghost of Marly disappears, another one appears. “His long gray robe reached the floor, covering his whole body. It billowed like drapes at an open window, and I heard a sound like rushing wind. . . He turned toward me and I could see into the hood. I saw only blackness in there. No face. No face at all.” The ghost is the ghost of Christmas Past.
  • The ghost of Christmas Past touches Rick, then “The wind picked up again. . . [Rick] covered both of [his] ears with [his] hands as the blast sent [him] flying off the floor. Flying into a deep blackness.” When Rick opens his eyes, he is in the past.
  • After being in the past, the Ghost of Christmas Present appears and transports Rick to his time. “We plunged down, then started to slow. Colors swirled up in the gray, bright flashes of green and blue and red. So bright, I shut my eyes.” When he appears, Rick discovers he is now part of a different family.
  • While trying to leave his new family, two snowmen stop him. “I lowered my head and tried to swerve around it. But it moved quickly, silently gliding over the snow, staying close, pushing its big bulk in front of me. . . I pulled my arm back and shot my fist as hard as I could into my snowman’s frozen head” When another snowman comes near, Rick hits it as well. “The snowman didn’t seem to feel it. I tugged myself back—but now both hands were stuck in its icy grip. I pulled and pulled again, leaning as far back as I could, but I couldn’t free them.” One of the snowmen transforms into the Ghost of Christmas Present.
  • The Ghost of Christmas Future appears in the form of a robot and takes Rick to “Dead Middle School” where everyone is dead.
  • Rick hides in a closet. “And then I felt a puff of cold wind. I opened my eyes in time to see the closet fill with a purple light. . . The closet began to shake. The shelves rattled.” Rick is transported home.

Spiritual Content

  • None

On Thin Ice

Over the last couple of years, Ked’s life has slowly fallen apart. He’s been diagnosed with kyphosis, which has deformed his back. His friends have deserted him. Ked’s mother walked out on him and his dad. Ked doesn’t think things can get worse. Then he discovers that his dad has gambled away their rent money.

The thought of becoming homeless motivates Ked to fight back. He sneaks into his dad’s room and steals enough money to buy a broken down, vintage minibike. Ked is sure that he can repair the minibike and make a profit. The only problem is that Ked needs tools, which can only be found at the school’s maker space. Going to the maker space forces Ked into the path of a school bully who torments him about his condition. Can Ked and a few unlikely new friends find a way to build the bike and save his family from going under before it’s too late?

On Thin Ice begins with Ked’s very slow, detailed account of how his disease changed his life. Even though Ked tells his own story, some readers will have a difficult time relating to Ked, who has a messy life full of conflict. Ked blames most of his problems on his disease and never takes steps to stop the school bully, Landrover, from tormenting him. Ked doesn’t ask others for help but seems resigned to his lonely life.

Ked’s story mostly focuses on his need to fix the minibike. As he works on the mechanics, the story gives many long descriptions of his work. Readers who are interested in engines will find the descriptions interesting; however, readers with no knowledge of mechanics may quickly become bored. The pacing picks up as the story progresses, and the conclusion allows the reader to understand how many of Ked’s problems were actually a result of his own behavior. After a near-death experience, Ked finally relies on others and realizes that he must take steps to improve his life. He says, “I used to think my whole life had been stolen, piece by piece, but I figured something out. That’s how you put a life back together too. Just little pieces, but they add up.”

Despite the slow start, middle grade readers interested in mechanics should read On Thin Ice because it has many positive life lessons including the importance of honesty and communication. Ked also learns that he cannot be defined by his disease. Readers who want a more engaging story that tackles family problems should add Almost Home by Joan Bauer to their reading list.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • While at school, Ked sits in the only available seat. The boy next to him “delivers a sharp punch to my thigh, grinding his knuckles in at the end.” Ked yells out in pain, but when the teacher asks what happened, he lies and says it was a “cramp or something.” Another boy “drills me in the other thigh. All I can do is bite my lip and take it. The punches stop after that.”
  • When Ked takes the motorized bike on a test drive, a classmate named Landrover chases him on a four-wheeler. Ked crashes the bike. “I am flying off the trail and into the woods, already falling as I go. Falling and flying, flying and falling…Then impact… My left knee hits the ground first, and the pain shoots through me in a hot, electric burst. My body hits next, and the pain fills my upper back like water flowing into a hollow place.” Ked is banged up, but not seriously injured.
  • Landrover walks on a frozen pond and falls through the ice. “Landrover’s face is slick with water and contorted with fear. His numb hands are pawing uselessly at the edge of the ice, breaking it into chunks.” After Ked saves Landrover’s life, he is upset that Landrover “didn’t even say thank you.”
  • After Landrover falls in the ice, he tells Ked, “Dad’s gonna kill me!” Later, Ked sees Landrover with a bruised face and thinks, “it looks like his dad gave it a good try.” Ked makes an “anonymous tip” that leads to Landrover and his father getting family therapy.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Some of the kids at school call Ked “freakins” and “freak.” For example, a boy tells Ked, “You’re dead meat, freak.”
  • Someone calls Ked a loser several times.
  • While in the library, a boy gives Ked the book The Hunchback of Norte-Dame. Ked thinks, “Frickin’ Quasimodo.”
  • Heck is used twice.
  • The characters refer to others as jerks.
  • Ked frequently refers to himself and others as idiots. For example, when Ked gets upset at his father, he thinks, “I want to shout at him and tell him I know and he’s an idiot…”
  • Several times Ked refers to himself as an idiot.
  • A girl calls Ked “garbage boy.”
  • A girl calls the class bully a scumbag.
  • “Oh my God” is used as an exclamation three times.
  • The school bully calls Ked a “dipstick” and a “dummy.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Ked said a quick prayer, and then later he thinks, “I consider another quick prayer, but it’s not like the first one worked out so great.”

The Outcasts

Hal never knew his father, a Skandian warrior. But unlike his esteemed father, Hal is an outcast. In a country that values physical strength over intellect, Hal’s ingenuity only serves to set him apart from the other boys his age. The one thing he has in common with his peers is Brotherband training. Forced to compete in tests of endurance and strength, Hal soon discovers he’s not the only outcast in this land of seafaring marauders—and that his battle for acceptance has just begun.

Hal and his best friend, Stig, have always felt like outsiders. People have looked down on Hal because he is half-Araluen, and they look down on Stig because his mother makes a living doing other people’s washing. When the two boys go to Brotherband training, Tursgud and Rolland choose their team members, and the eight boys who were not picked form the third Brotherband. Hal is chosen as the reluctant leader of the third Brotherband, the Herons.

As the three teams compete against each other, the Herons learn to help and rely on each other. While few people believe the Herons can be turned into warriors, Hal and his ragtag group find creative ways to defeat the other teams. Even though many of the Herons do not have physical prowess, each member of the Brotherband has an important role. Everyone—even a half-blind boy—can contribute. Through their experiences, readers will learn the importance of controlling their anger, working as a team, taking responsibility for their actions, and using their intelligence.

Middle school readers will relate to Hal and the other Herons as they fight to prove their worth. The story focuses on Hal, who is often criticized for his creative intelligence. However, it is this very intelligence that allows the Herons to win competitions. The Skandia society admires warriors who have strength, courage, and are not afraid of going to battle. These Skandian qualities allow the fast-paced story to have many exciting scenes as well as many descriptions of bullying and violence.

The connecting story arcs, difficult vocabulary, and huge cast of characters make The Outcast best for stronger readers. The conclusion connects all of the story arcs together and ends with a surprising twist. The Brotherband Series features several adults that also appear in the Ranger’s Apprentice Series. Despite this, readers do not need to read the Ranger’s Apprentice Series in order to understand the Brotherband Chronicles. Both series appeal to a wide audience because of the engaging plots, the likable characters, and the life lessons.

Sexual Content

  • The Herons are declared champions and, “Hal was delighted when a certain blond-haired girl slipped her arms around his neck and kissed him on the lips.”

Violence

  • During a raid, village soldiers go after the Skandians. One of the Skandian warriors “slammed the flat of his ax into the shoulder of the charging horse, throwing it off balance. As it stumbled, he drove forward with his shield, hitting the animal again and sending it reeling to one side.” The rider falls off and when the Skandian scares the man, he runs away.
  • As the Skandians are heading back to their ship, one warrior named Mikkel is injured by a spear. “The heavy iron head penetrated underneath Mikkel’s raised arm, burying itself deep in his upper body. He let go a small cry and fell to his knees, then crumpled sideways.” Mikkel dies from his injuries. The raiding scene is described over three pages.
  • A known bully, Tursgud, insults Hal and Hal’s mother. Hal “thrust forward and shoved both hands into Tursgud’s chest, sending the bigger boy stumbling and falling in the soft sand.” The bully “grabbed Hal’s shirt front in his left hand and drew back his right, fist clenched.” An adult breaks up the fight.
  • Pirates attack a group of cargo ships. When the pirates board one ship, the ship’s captain “hears the sounds of battle, axes and swords clashing against each other. . . He heard men shouting, heard the defiant war cries of the Rainbow’s crew.” The Rainbow’s crew was “murdered in a few brief seconds.”
  • The pirates board another ship, the Golden Sun. “The clash of weapons had died away and there was a series of splashes alongside. He [the captain] realized that the pirates were throwing the crews’ bodies overboard.”
  • The pirates overtake a third ship. The Skandian crew “smashed into the disorganized pirates, their heavy oaken shields used as weapons of offense, slamming into the pirates and hurling them to either side. The first rank of the pirates fell before the massive onslaught. The deck ran red with their blood. . .” The pirates throw the captain and his nephew overboard and kill the entire crew. The pirate scenes are described over 10 pages.
  • One of the boys misinterprets an instructor’s command. Next, the instructor “realized that the tree trunk-sized club was whistling through the air at blinding speed, and in the next half second would knock his head clean off his shoulders. With a startled yelp, he dropped flat on the still-wet ground, feeling the wind of the massive weapon as it passed over his skull, missing him by a few centimeters.”
  • Tursgud and his brotherband corner Hal. Hal “sent two lightning left jabs into Tursgud’s face, feeling the other boy’s nose crunch under the impact of the second, then stepped forward and hooked savagely with his right at the big boy’s jaw, hoping to end it there and then.” The last punch misses and the fight continues.
  • Tursgud’s friends grab Hal and hold him captive. “Hal’s ears were ringing and he realized that consciousness was slipping away from him. A hand grasped his hair and pulled his head up, sending tears flowing from his eyes with pain. . . the fist scrape painfully along the side of his face, tearing at his ear, so that blood started to trickle down his face.” By the end of the fight, Hal is semiconscious. The vicious fight takes place over six pages.
  • During the fight, Tursgud’s brotherband ties up Stig, stopping him from helping Hal.
  • One of the brotherband’s competitions is a wrestling match. During a match between Bjorn and Stig, Bjorn throws insults. Stig angrily attacks, which allows Bjorn to pin him. Bjorn “raised his right foot and placed it in Stig’s belly. At the same time, he fell smoothly back onto the grass, then straightened the leg, adding his left leg to the thrust as he rolled backward into the grass.” Bjorn was able to pick up Stig and “the Herons’ representative flew for several meters, landing heavily on his back with an ugly thud that drove the air out of his lungs.” There are three wrestling matches that are described over sixteen pages.
  • During a competition, Stefan mimics Tursgud’s voice in order to confuse Tursgud’s brotherband. When Tursgud sees Stefan, Tursgud runs after him. Tursgud “rapidly overtook Stefan and hurled himself on him, driving him to the ground. Stefan curled in a half ball, elbows and knees up to protect himself from the wild punches Tursgud was throwing.” An instructor breaks up the fight.
  • Pirates sneak into town and kill two of the town watch. Someone reports, “Their throats had been cut.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Thorn becomes a drunk after his best friend dies in battle. At one point, Thorn “had become so drunk the previous night that he had lost his way while heading back to the boatshed where he lived. He had crawled into the shelter of the wall, out of the wind, and laid down, vaguely hoping to die.” While Thorn stops drinking in chapter two, others often talk about his drunkenness.
  • After his friend’s death, Thorn became depressed and looked “for comfort in an ale or brandy tankard. There was very little comfort in either, but there was oblivion, and a strong drink helped him forget his loss, albeit temporarily.”
  • After the Herons are forced to surrender their title, Thorn thinks about Hal’s dismal future and he wants to drink. He gets a strong brandy that was hiding in his room. He is able to resist the temptation because he realizes, “If he drank himself insensible, he would eventually wake up. And this situation would not have changed.” His struggle is described over three pages.
  • A ship was carrying “valuable goods—oil, wool, fleeces, and brandy.”
  • A pirate ship lands in Skandia; the ship is carrying wine.
  • When the Herons are declared champions, the town throws a celebration and many of the adults drink ale.

Language

  • The Skandians often use their gods’ names as exclamations. For example, when someone sees a drunk, Hal says, “Oh, by Gorlog’s claws and nostrils, Mam! He stinks.” Later, someone uses “Gorlog’s breath” as an exclamation.
  • Someone uses “Gorlog and Orlog” as an exclamation. Orlog “was Gorlog’s lesser-known brother, only invoked in moments of great stress or surprise.”
  • When two brothers argue they call each other names such as a “bowlegged monkey,” “ugly gnome,” and “numbskull.”
  • A boy calls Thorn an “old wreck” and a “dirty old cripple.”
  • While fighting, someone calls Tursgud a coward and another boy calls him “coward scum.” As Tursgud punches Hal repeatedly, his brotherband yells, “Kill him! Kill him!”
  • Hal is often reminded that he is half Araluen. One boy calls him an “Araluen weasel.” Later, another boy calls him a “mongrel.”
  • The characters call each other idiots a few times. For example, Hal yells at two arguing brothers, “You blasted, blithering idiots. . .”
  • When an instructor sees two brothers arguing, he tells the group leader, “Gorlog help you if they’re always like that.”
  • An adult calls someone a fool.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • The Skandians believe “if a sea wolf died in battle without a weapon in his hand, his soul would wander in the netherworld for eternity.”
  • Gorlog “was one of the second rank of Skandian gods, like Ullr the hunter or Loki the liar, although unlike them, Gorlog had no specialized skills.”
  • When Hal saw a boy fell, he “breathed a silent prayer of thanks” because the boy’s fall ensured Hal’s brotherband would not be punished.
  • Stig calls Thorn a “broken down tramp.” Later Stig apologizes. When Thorn accepts the apology, Stig says, “Well, praise Gorlog for that!”
  • While getting ready to sail, Hal tells one of his team members, “ ‘All right Ingvar, pull as if Hulde herself was on your heels.’ Hulde was the goddess of the dead, and definitely not someone you would ever want close behind you.”
  • After the Herons fail at protecting an ancient relic, someone says, “Orlog curse the lot of you!”
  • When the Herons leave Skandia, someone says, “ ’May Ullr guide you.’ Ullr was the god of hunters.”

The Paper Cowboy

More than anything, Tommy wants to be a cowboy just like the great Gary Cooper or the Lone Ranger, but really he’s more of a bully. He picks on other kids at school, gets into fights, and acts more like one of the bad guys than the cowboy he wants to be. But there’s a reason Tommy misbehaves: things at home are bad. After his sister is badly burned doing a chore that it was Tommy’s turn to do, his mother’s usual moodiness and scoldings turn into beatings. Tommy is racked with guilt. And without his sister, who is hospitalized, he’s left alone to face his mother’s anger.

As the beatings get worse, Tommy’s bullying spirals out of control. He’s even caught stealing from the neighborhood store. Instead of taking his punishment as a true cowboy would, Tommy seeks revenge on the store’s owner, Mr. McKenzie, by framing him as a communist. The results are disastrous.

But in his heart, Tommy knows a cowboy would make things right, so he sets out to find the real communist. But when the real communist is uncovered, it may make Tommy question what it really means to be one of the good guys.

The Paper Cowboy is a compelling story told from Tommy’s point of view. As Tommy navigates through life, he takes inspiration from the cowboys he has seen in movies. Tommy “longed to be a cowboy. Not a bully. But a cowboy who stands up to others. Who fights for the people he loves, for the town they live in.” After Tommy frames Mr. McKenzie for revenge, Tommy is racked with guilt and he becomes convinced that finding the real Commie is the only solution. As Tommy talks about his dilemma, one character says, “It only takes a little poison to ruin a well on a farm, or to spoil a reputation in a big city.” Later, someone tells him, “It doesn’t matter what you intended. The damage has been done. It’s easy to start a rumor. Much harder to stop it.”

The Paper Cowboy portrays the fear of the McCarthy Era by focusing on the townspeople Tommy comes into contact with. It is through these interactions that Tommy stops judging people based on their appearances and instead judges them based on their character. When Tommy is determined to prove that his neighbor, Mrs. Glazov, is a communist, he begins spending time with her hoping that he can find evidence. He thinks she is a communist, but as he learns more about Mrs. Glazov, he begins to like her and wonders, “What was wrong with me?” In the end, Tommy comes to the conclusion that Mrs. Glazov doesn’t belong in jail, even if she is a communist.

Readers will quickly get caught up in Tommy’s world. While Tommy isn’t always likable, readers will empathize with him as he struggles to become a better person, to right his wrongs, and to understand others. The Paper Cowboy takes readers back into time and allows them to understand how the politics of the McCarthy era affected one small town. In the end, Tommy grows into a cowboy, is able to emulate Gary Cooper’s good qualities, and makes his father proud. Tommy’s dad says, “It wasn’t the shoot-out that made Gary Cooper a great man. It was that he cared for others. He faced his problems. He didn’t walk away. He solved them. A good cowboy is a leader who looks after his heard and his posse. No one goes missing.” Tommy’s well-developed voice jumps off the page and his experiences will show readers the importance of finding your own voice and doing what is right.

Sexual Content

  • Tommy’s sister Mary Lou wanted to wear lipstick, but her mom “wouldn’t let her. She said it was only for loose women. I wondered what that meant. . .”

Violence

  • Tommy’s mom is abusive. She frequently yells and slaps him. After Tommy steals two yo-yos, his mother makes him take his pants down. “This was standard procedure for a whipping. I didn’t mind so much with my dad, but it was humiliating to pull down my pants and underwear in front of my mom. I put my hands on the kitchen counter. . . The belt whipped through the air. Eight, nine. It made a whistle and then a slap as it hit me. Ten, eleven. She didn’t stop. Mom kept hitting me, again and again, until finally the belt snapped back and hit her on the chin. . . In the quiet, I could feel each individual welt on my buttocks. There were tears on my face, but I wiped them away.” Tommy thinks he deserved the punishment.
  • Tommy mentions Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg who were “convicted of spying for the Soviets.” They were executed. During recess, Tommy and his friends like to play “electric-chair tag.”
  • One of Tommy’s classmates has a burn scar on his face. The boy’s father explains, “It happened during the war. There was an air raid and we’d made it to the shelter. We thought we were safe. . . But a bomb caused a water heater to explode and it scarred his face.”
  • When a boy tells the store owner that Tommy stole the yo-yos, Tommy punched the boy in the stomach and the boy “bent over double.” Later, Tommy shoves the boy, who “lost his balance and fell into the dirt.”
  • Tommy’s mom gets upset at him and commands him to take his pants down. “When Mom started whipping me, I tried to make myself concentrate on normal things. . . But Mom just didn’t stop. I could feel the welts forming on welts on my butt. And when a lash went wild and hit my back, I couldn’t help crying out. . . Mom kept hitting me. It felt like a thousand bees, stinging me at once. . . Mom kept on. And Dad never came in to see if I was okay.”
  • Tommy’s neighbor tells him why she came to America. “The Nazis not just throw me in camp. They kill my boys and my husband.”
  • Tommy’s mom is upset that Tommy gave Mary Lou a pain pill. “Mom yelled at me to stop [crying], and I tried to, I really did. I wanted to be tough and stoic, but the tears kept coming. . .” Mary Lou told their mom to stop. “I knew Mary Lou was trying to help, but it was mortifying to have my older sister see me, my pants around my ankles, crying like a baby. . .Mom just ignored Mary Lou and kept hitting me. . .Mom paused, the belt dangling from her hand. . .Mom was breathing hard, sweat on her forehead, even though it was cold in the room.” Tommy’s dad intervenes.
  • Tommy and his friend, Eddie, play a mean joke on Little Skinny. At school, Little Skinny confronts them and “punched Eddie in the stomach. . . Little Skinny had his full weight on top of Eddie and was pounding away. One hit after another, I could see the blood pour out of Eddie’s nose.”
  • When Tommy is late, his mother slaps him. Tommy tells her, “’Go ahead. Slap the other side.’ She did.” One of the school nuns intervenes.
  • Tommy’s dog is hit by a car. “There was a huge red gash from one end of his belly to the other. . . I was pretty sure I could see his guts hanging out.” Tommy takes the dog to an adult friend, who is able to sew the dog’s wound. The dog lives.
  • When Tommy misses the bus, his mom “didn’t wait for me to pull down my pants this time, just slammed my hands down on the counter and started hitting me. . . I was too terrified to cry. Her blows were wild now, as likely to hit my back or my legs as my buttocks.” Tommy’s sister Pinky tries to stop her mom. “The belt flew through the air again. Pinky gasped. A big welt rose up on her skinny little arm.” Tommy yells and runs out of the house. The scene is described over three pages.
  • Tommy doesn’t keep his best friend, Eddie’s, secret. So at school, Eddie, “slugged me in the stomach. I wasn’t expecting the blow and I fell to the ground. My belly ached, twisted in knots, and for a moment, I thought I was going to throw up.” Tommy thinks about his mom’s beatings and doesn’t hit back.
  • Tommy, Eddie, and their dads go fishing. Eddie’s dad, Mr. Sullivan, gets drunk and the men start arguing. Mr. Sullivan “slapped Eddie on the cheek” for being disrespectful. Then Mr. Sullivan began shaking Eddie. Tommy thinks, “I bet it hurt being shaken like that. It had hurt when Mom had hit me.”
  • As the men’s arguing escalates, Mr. Sullivan “pulled out a handgun and pointed it at my dad’s face. . . Dad picked up the knife we used to gut fish.” Tommy and Eddie work together to diffuse the situation. Mr. Sullivan, “still had the gun pointed at my dad, but it was a bit lower now. . . Eddie and I both jumped onto his father, knocking him to the ground. The gun went off, but the bullet went wild, into the marshy grass.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • While Mary Lou is in the hospital, the doctors give her morphine for the pain. Her mother worries that “she’ll become an addict!”
  • When Mary Lou is allowed to go home for a visit, her mom “started rationing Mary Lou’s pain pills.” Her mom is worried that Mary Lou would become a drug addict.
  • When the sheriff goes to talk to the store owner, the owner gives the sheriff a beer.
  • On Halloween, a doctor gives Tommy’s mom “a pill” to help her sleep. After that, Tommy’s mom continues to take the pills and sleeps a lot.
  • After Tommy’s father goes to see Mary Lou, he comes home smelling like whiskey.
  • On Thanksgiving, Tommy’s father leaves and when he comes back, he “smelled like alcohol again.”
  • While in a courtroom, Tommy “listened to the next case: a man who had had too much to drink had backed his car into his neighbor’s bed of prize-winning roses.”
  • A man is fired because he was drinking at work.
  • While eating lunch with a friend, Tommy’s dad has a beer.

Language

  • The kids in the book occasionally call each other names such as stupid, jerk, and idiot.
  • Crap is used once.
  • A boy tells the store owner that Tommy stole the yo-yos, and Tommy calls the boy an idiot and a rat. Tommy’s friend calls the boy a tattletale.
  • Tommy calls a fat classmate, “Little Skinny.” Tommy often calls Little Skinny names such as idiot and fatty.
  • Tommy’s mom has to go in front of a judge for a speeding ticket. She curses to the judge in Polish, saying “pieprzony dupku!”
  • Tommy calls a girl, “Lizard-Face.” One of his friends joins in and calls someone else, “Monkey-Head.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Tommy’s family is Catholic and he goes to a Catholic school. When Tommy’s sister is burned, his mom says “prayers to the Virgin Mary.” Tommy says, “so many Hail Marys, it seemed like those were the only words left in the world.”
  • At school, the students have mass “every morning. That meant thirty-five minutes of peace and quiet—well, except for the standing up and kneeling, and chanting in Latin, but I could do all that in my sleep.”
  • After Tommy’s sister is injured, several people tell him, “We’re praying for your sister.”
  • When Tommy sees his sister for the first time after the accident, he begins to cry. He thinks, “I know I should be happy and thanking God, but I couldn’t stop crying.”
  • Tommy thinks the “Commies didn’t believe in freedom of religion either. Heck, they didn’t believe in religion at all.”
  • One man doesn’t want to include Sam when planning an event because his dad was rumored to be a communist. However, someone reminds the group of, “Ezekiel 18:20. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father.’”

I’m Ok

Ok’s life takes a dramatic turn for the worse when his father dies. His mother works three jobs, yet barely makes ends meet. Ok feels that as the man of the house, he should help pay the bills. As a twelve-year-old, he has little opportunity to make money. He hopes he can win the cash prize at the school talent contest, but he can’t sing or dance, and he has no magic up his sleeves. With no talent, he has to come up with another business.

Soon, Ok is braiding hair for the girls at school, but the girls can’t pay him much. His braiding business makes Mickey McDonald notice him. The girl, with a larger-than-life personality, wants to be his friend. Ok is used to being by himself, and he doesn’t want to be friends with Mickey, who will distract him from his mission—making money.

Life gets worse when the pushy deacon at their Korean church starts wooing Ok’s mom. Ok doesn’t want his mom spending time with the deacon. His mom is so caught up in the deacon that she doesn’t even notice Ok anymore. Feeling lost and confused, Ok comes up with an exit strategy. Will being totally alone, give Ok the peace he needs?

I’m Ok deals with the difficult topics of grief, poverty, racism, and friendship. Even though the story highlights the importance of friends, Ok’s story is often dark and depressing. At school, Ok is bullied and made fun of because he’s Korean. He reluctantly becomes friends with Mickey, who is self-assured but also ignored by many of the students. The two team up to win the school talent contest, and Mickey begins teaching Ok to skate. Mickey spends time with Ok, gives him a pair of skates, and is kind to him. Despite this, the only thing Ok cares about is winning the contest’s money. At one point, Ok even steals from Mickey’s mother. While Ok’s homelife is understandably difficult, his negative reaction to all events and his self-centered, mean personality make it difficult to feel compassion for him.

Ok spends time reminiscing about his father, who he clearly misses. Even though Ok grieves for his father, most of Ok’s memories of his father are negative. His father treated both Ok and his mother terribly. For example, Ok’s father would talk under his breath, “loud enough that I could hear, but soft enough so I felt guilty about eavesdropping, ‘When’s this idiot going to be human?’” Ok’s father isn’t shown to have many positive aspects other than financially supporting the family.

I’m Ok shows the difficulties many Korean immigrants face. However, the story’s conclusion leaves several threads untied. Plus for the entire story, the deacon is portrayed in such a negative light that it is difficult to understand why Ok’s mother marries him. Even though Ok and several of the supporting characters are well-developed, readers may have a difficult time relating to Ok, who is often mean to those who care about him. If you’re looking for a book that tackles racism and/or poverty, you may want to leave I’m Ok on the library shelf. However, Katherine Applegate excellently tackles both issues in her books Crenshaw and Wishtree.

Sexual Content

  • While braiding girls’ hair, the girls talk about a lot of different topics. For example, “Jaehnia is in love with Asa, and Asa is not at all interested in her in that way ’cause he’s not into desperate girls… Kym’s parents are getting a divorce… Claudio got caught sneaking around under the back staircase looking up girls’ skirts.”

Violence

  • Several times Ok thinks about his father’s death. When Ok makes a mistake, he thinks his dad would have called him stupid. Ok thinks, “At least I didn’t trip while working on a roof and come tumbling down and land so hard and wrong on concrete that my neck broke.”
  • Ok’s mother accidently “Ran into a parked car, smashing its headlight. My father called her an idiot, yelled at her, took over the wheel, and raced out of there like it was a getaway… He told her to shut up. I crouched on the floor of the backseat, scared my mother would get kicked out of the country.”
  • Asa and Ok wrestle, and Ok “bite[s] his finger, grab[s] his shirt, and stretch[es] it over his face… He punches me in the stomach. I cough and punch him back… We tumble around some more, no longer really hitting each other, holding and rolling disguised as fighting.” A neighbor tells them to stop and they do.
  • Ok steals $10 out of Mickey’s mom’s purse. The next day, Mickey shows up at school with “a bruise on her cheek.” Mickey says, “Ain’t you ever seen a bruise before? If you gotta know, Ma did it.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Ok’s father would play cards with his friends and drink beer. Ok thinks back to a time when his father “let me take a sip of his beer. When I grimaced at the taste, he laughed.”
  • Ok’s father often had a Johnnie Walker in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

Language

  • After Ok’s father dies, a woman tells him that he will need strength to get through this hard time. “What a senseless mess. Makes you want to kick some idiot’s butt, she says, shaking her head…”
  • Pissed is used five times. When Ok is called to the principal’s office, he tells the principal he has to go to the bathroom and “pressing my knees together and making the I’m going to piss right here, right now face.”
  • A kid in Ok’s class makes fun of him, calling him “Okie Dorkie” and “Wong-chung-chung.”
  • Oh my god is used as an exclamation six times. For example, when Ok tells a girl that he saved a puppy’s life, she says, “Oh my God, you’re the bravest.”
  • Mickey McDonald uses “Oh my Lord Jesus Christ” once and “Oh my Lordy” as an exclamation seven times. For example, Ok accidently goes into the girls’ bathroom. When Mickey McDonald sees him, she says, “Oh my Lord, what on God’s green earth are you doing in the girl’s bathroom?” She then calls Ok a “perv.” Later she calls Ok a “snothead.”
  • A kid calls a girl a moron.
  • Ok calls a kid a jerk; later, he thinks the deacon is a jerk.
  • A kid teases Mickey, calling her “Old McD. White Trish-Trash. Mick the Hick. Mickey Gives Hickeys… Mickey McDonald looks like Miss Piggy and a troll doll had a baby.”
  • Ok thinks the deacon is a jackass.
  • Badass is used once, and hell is used three times. For example, a woman tells Ok, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
  • Ok tells Asa, “Aren’t you glad yo’ mama could spell? Otherwise yo’ name be like Ass… I’m calling you Ass ’cause you look like one, smell like one, and God knows you read and write like one.” Later, Ok calls Asa a butt-face and moron.
  • Ok calls Asa stupid and a nincompoop.
  • Ok tells Mickey that a classmate is a pervert.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Ok and his mother attend the First Korean Full Gospel Church. After a service, some of the women “moan and babble because the Holy Spirit has a hold on them.” Ok wishes “the Holy Spirit would get a hold of me so I could wail my sadness too.”
  • After his father dies, a woman from church tells him “to be good and strong for my mother and have faith in God’s will, because I’m the man of the house now. God works in mysterious ways.”
  • After his father dies, Ok’s mother tells him, “I’m not worried. God will take care of us. We just need to do our part and believe he loves us.”
  • When a classmate is mean to Ok, he “prayed I wouldn’t piss my pants, prayed I wouldn’t get beat up because I looked like one of those kids you couldn’t help but beat up.”
  • During church service, the pastor asks the congregation to pray. Ok closes his eyes and prays, “telling God that I need a talent for the talent show so I can win a hundred dollars…”
  • When a girl sees Ok writing in a library book, Ok “pray[s] hard that she doesn’t walk away and tell on me.”
  • After Ok earns some money, he wonders what to do with it. “I could offer the money to God tomorrow, drop my coins onto the plate… What blessing can $11.68 buy me?”
  • The deacon tells Ok’s mother, “Do not worry. What does the Bible say? Worrying is a waste of your time and energy. It is a sign of your lack of faith. Obey our Lord and don’t worry… All things work for the good of those who have faith in God.”
  • When Ok’s mother hurts her ankle, Ok prayed “that I had nothing to do with my mother slipping on some ice that had spilled out of a tub full of mackerel.” Ok wonders if God allowed his mother to get hurt because he stole something, then he blames God for allowing his mother to get hurt.
  • The deacon tells Ok, “God is in math. Oh sure. The concept of infinity. That is God.”
  • Many of the characters pray. For example, after making kimchi, Ok’s mother prays, “thanking God for her abilities, for our kitchen, and for me… She asks God to bless the kimchi, bless anyone who eats it, make the person strong and good and faithful.”
  • At church, the preacher told the congregation, “if we felt sad, we should count our blessings. Make a list of all the things we were grateful for. Not focus on what we lost.”
  • When the deacon is trying to teach Ok to swim, he says, “The Bible says that if you build a house on sand, that house will collapse, so you must build your house on stone, so it can withstand wind and storms.”
  • When the deacon clears his throat, Ok thinks, “here we go with the sermon about how God created the universe, the moon, and the stars, and how he created me in his image and loves me so much he killed his only son for the forgiveness of sins.”

She’s the Liar!

When Abby enters sixth grade at her new boarding school, Brookside Academy, she is determined to reinvent herself. She sheds her shy personality and starts playing the part of the confident, bubbly, popular “Abbi.” She quickly learns about the Committee, an all-powerful student organization that controls nearly every aspect of extracurricular life. Whatever you do, you don’t want to be on the Committee’s bad side.

Abby’s older sister, Sydney, is in eighth grade at Brookside. At home, she was always a loner, so Abby is shocked to discover that Sydney has also crafted herself into a new person at school—she’s the president of the Committee and rules the entire student body through intimidation.

Each sister is a threat to the success of the other’s new personality, and things get heated as Abby and Sydney try to outmaneuver each other for power and influence. Both girls have hidden motives, and they soon find themselves hopelessly tangled in a web of lies, schemes, and blackmail.

She’s the Liar! uses the backdrop of a boarding school to highlight the fact that every story has two sides. The first half of the book is told from Abby’s point of view. In the past, Abby allowed one embarrassing moment to define her. Now that she’s at a new school, Abby decides to reinvent herself. Instead of avoiding people, Abby is going to be outgoing, join clubs, and make friends. Soon, Abby is able to overcome her fears and she realizes, “The old me would’ve been totally terrified that if anyone knew my secrets, nobody would like me. But then you told me that I had to own my failures and my success, because they’re all part of me.”

The second part of the book is told from Sydney’s point of view. At the beginning of the book, Sydney’s actions seem villainous and cruel. Adding Sydney’s point of view allows readers to understand her actions, which are largely based on insecurity. Even though it is clear that the reader is supposed to sympathize with Sydney, why she blackmails people instead of befriending them is never mentioned. The ending is a little too sweet and unrealistic; however, even Sydney learns the importance of taking ownership of her past deeds.

Middle school readers will relate to Abby’s fears and uncertainty, and they will cheer for her when she takes steps towards being a better person. Even though there are some holes in the plot, younger readers will still enjoy the story, which showcases student government and sister relationships. Even though the story focuses on Abby and Sydney, the other characters in the book have different interests: astronomy, theater, dance, and even playing Dungeons and Dragons. The other characters add interest and show that people’s differences should be celebrated. She’s the Liar! is an entertaining story that teaches that no one should feel embarrassed about their past.

 Sexual Content

  • One of the sixth graders is embarrassed because “I wrote this really stupid, gushy letter to a guy in my youth group.”

Violence

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • “God” and “Oh my god” are frequently used as exclamations. For example, during play auditions when a girl sings, someone says, “Oh my god, she’s so good.”
  • Freaking is used once. When Sydney approves purchasing a telescope, someone asks, “Jenna gets a freaking telescope, and I can’t have two hours at the mall?”
  • Pissed is used once. When a student tells her friends that Sydney tried to blackmail her, her friends were “pretty pissed.”
  • While out to dinner with their parents, some girls walk by the table. Abby asks her sister if the girls are her friends. Sydney replies, “I would never associate with those idiots. God, don’t be stupid.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • While on stage, Sydney takes “a deep breath like I taught Abby to do and pray everyone can’t read my emotions all over my face.”

 Masters of Mischief

After successfully trapping Ralph and his two cronies in South Ridge Middle School, Max’s crazy night seems almost over as police sirens approach. There is just one last thing to do – go home! While evading the police and possible suspensions, Max and Erin dive into the back of a pickup truck just as it is about to take off. What they don’t know is that the pickup truck is driven by the thieves – Ralph, Tucker, and Moose – who all escaped from Max’s traps and the police!

Successfully ditching the pickup truck when it stops for fast food, Erin and Max head home for some well-needed rest. Throughout the weekend and at school on Monday, Max must dodge police, his parents, his nosy neighbors, and a brutal bully to avoid any possible suspicion for his involvement with Friday’s robbery. If Max is caught, he risks detention and probably homeschooling by his grandmother for the rest of his life. However, Max and Erin discover the thieves’ new plan – to pose as security guards to steal the new, expensive school computers when no one is looking. Can Max and Erin avoid detection and detention while stopping the malicious thieves?

Masters of Mayhem is a fun, suspenseful read for young readers. Throughout her three books, Russel has created a character who is troubled just like any other boy his age but manages to strive through his problems and think of others. Max does not flaunt or boast about how he stopped Ralph and his gang and saved the school but instead keeps it to himself. He considers the consequences of his actions and worries about involving Erin and tarnishing her perfect school record. Max cares about other people more than he cares about himself. He even swears to put a stop to the thieves again, risking his own life to protect his new school. He is a role model for young teenagers.

Unlike other books in the series, Russel does not depend on bathroom humor or inappropriate behavior for her jokes. Instead, she puts Max in hysterical and wacky scenarios to entertain her readers. In addition, the book’s cartoonish, manga-like black-and-white illustrations will help readers transfer their reading skills from picture books into full-fledged novels, making this story great for young, reluctant readers.

The Misadventures of Max Crumbly is a series that should be read in order. Like every book in the series, Masters of Mischief ends with a suspenseful cliffhanger, so make sure you have the next book in the series ready for your reader.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • After Max and Erin fall into the school dumpster, Max worries that unless he and Erin “can figure out how to get out of this stupid dumpster,” they might never roam free again.
  • Erin doesn’t want her ice princess costume to get damaged. Max says, “Erin only cared about her STUPID ice princess costume.”
  • When Max and Erin hide in the back of a truck, Max worries that “those Neanderthals would see us through that big window in the back of the truck and try to run over us or something.”
  • Max says that if “Erin could sneak out of her house to rescue me, then I could at least sneak INTO my house to save my butt.”
  • Max screams when he sees his sister in an oatmeal face mask. Max’s sister tells him, “Shut up, you birdbrain!”
  • After the police visit their house, Max’s sister comes downstairs and asks if the police were there. Max says his sister is hearing things and she responds with, “Actually, the voices TOLD me to give YOU some mouthwash, BUTT BREATH!”
  • Thug Thurston, Max’s bully, asks Max, “Did you have a nice weekend, BARF?!”
  • Erin fumes and says they “can’t just let these JERKS get away with this!”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Matthew Perkey

The Ugly Truth

School’s back in session for Greg Heffley, but this time without his best friend Rowley. After Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days where Greg and Rowley end their friendship, Greg is all alone to face the trials and tribulations of middle school. Everything around Greg changes when puberty starts to strike the middle school population and Greg’s Mom returns to her schooling. He finds himself dealing with the pressures of boy-girl parties, increasing responsibilities, and the meaning of getting older all without his best friend. Will Greg survive until winter break or will he have to face the “ugly truth”?

The Ugly Truth’s plot revolves around everything that happens in Greg’s life and is written from his 12-year-old perspective. The story contains a lot of bathroom and childish humor. At one point in the story, Greg puts a whoopie cushion on his Grandma’s chair. When she sits down on it, he can’t stop laughing. After Greg hid rotten eggs in one of his uncle’s pants, his uncle has to move out of the house. The humor is awfully crude and disrespectful at times, and throughout the story Greg is obsessed with trying to get a girlfriend.

Despite the book’s bathroom humor, The Ugly Truth has some positive aspects. Jeff Kinney has a natural talent for using humor to entertain while teaching important life lessons. The Ugly Truth addresses the issue of puberty and the challenges puberty brings in a fun manner. Kinney makes it easy for readers to see that everyone goes through puberty, and it is not something to be ashamed of. Many of the characters even show off some of their changes, like Rowley’s first zit.

The consistent funny black-and-white illustrations help bring Greg’s struggles to life. However, parents should be aware of the book’s drawings and jokes as Kinney often uses bathroom jokes such as Greg’s friends going behind the curtain to make fart sounds at the lock-in. Many of the jokes are inappropriate for really young readers. The topic of sexual health and puberty’s changes comes up often. In addition, parents will not want their children to emulate Greg’s behavior because he demonstrates qualities such as laziness, selfishness, and narcissism. But at the end of the story, Greg shows a sign of maturity and decides to be a better friend to Rowley. He makes the first move in patching things up between them instead of waiting for Rowley to come crawling back to him.

Readers should read the books in sequential order in order to get the full effect of Greg’s character and humor. Many of the events and jokes overlap from book to book. Despite the story’s flaws, readers will relate to Greg as he goes through puberty. The Ugly Truth is a funny, enjoyable story that will entertain and teach practical lessons.

Sexual Content

  • Greg has a major crush on his dental hygienist, Rachel. Greg says, “Rachel always lectures me about brushing and flossing and all that, but she’s so cute that it’s hard to take her seriously.”
  • Greg gets invited to Jordan Jury’s big party along with Rowley and agrees, saying, “I can definitely pretend I’m friends with Rowley for one night if it means I get to play ‘Spin the Bottle’ with a bunch of girls who are a whole grade ahead of me.”
  • Greg thinks about the pros and cons of going to Uncle Gary’s wedding. He thinks about the bachelor party he might be invited to and says, “And as a bonus, at the wedding, I’ll be paired with one of the bridesmaids. I’m just crossing my fingers that Sonja has some cute friends.”
  • Greg’s uncle is getting married for the third time.

Violence

  • After Greg’s big brother, Rodrick, accidentally spits in his father’s face, his father chases after him in the parking lot. Dad trips over the curb, twisting his ankle and having to go to the hospital.
  • Greg accidentally bites his new dentist.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Bathroom and immature humor are used frequently to entertain. Words like pee, bra, butt, and fart are used frequently.
  • This book is full of bathroom jokes. In one instance, Mom called a household meeting and says, “she was tired of having to clean the floor around the toilet because of our ‘lousy aim.’” Greg continues to tell the story of how he got stuck to the bathroom floor after Manny used the bathroom.
  • Greg fakes his mother’s instructions to his Grandpa when he is babysitting the three Heffley boys. The note tells Grandpa to spank Rodrick and has a picture of a naked butt.
  • Greg goes into a locked-in night at his school. Greg remembers, “Every once in a while, somebody would cut the cheese, and that made Mr. Palmero really mad because he couldn’t figure out who was doing it.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Matthew Perkey

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