Ace of Spades

Chiamaka, one of two Black students at the elite Niveus Academy, is more than ready for her senior year. Since her freshman year, everything she’s done at Niveus has been with Yale’s pre-med program in mind – taking the hardest classes, staying on top of her grades, making connections. When she is selected to be one of the senior Prefects at the back-to-school assembly, she is pleased but not surprised. After all, this was the track she meticulously planned for since day one. 

By contrast, Devon, the only other Black student, is ready to fall back into Niveus’s monotony, finish his senior year, and get out. Quiet and shy, the only place he truly feels at ease at Niveus is in the music classroom, where he can escape into building his portfolio for Julliard’s piano performance program. So, when he is also selected to be a senior Prefect, he is taken aback: he is a good student, but not an exceptional one.  

But things never stay quiet at Niveus for long: soon after the semester begins, a mysterious entity who calls themselves Aces begins sending incriminating messages to the entire school, exposing students’ deepest, darkest secrets. After a few texts, Chiamaka and Devon realize something disturbing: Aces seems to be only targeting them. They pair up to try and take Aces down, but the more they dig, the more they uncover about their classmates, teachers, and Niveus’ dark past. It soon becomes clear that they can only trust each other – or can they do even that? 

Ace of Spades is a gripping read from the start. The pacing is a bit off-putting at times– the book starts slow, uncovering the story layer by layer, and then speeds up in the end with several plot twists that are not as developed as they could be. Nevertheless, Chiamaka and Devon are both such smart and compelling narrators that readers will quickly get hooked – the story is told from both of their perspectives, so readers get full insight into both characters’ lives and see both similarities and differences in their experiences. Both Chiamaka and Devon go through a lot of character development throughout the story. Despite their flaws, they are sympathetic characters that readers will root for and be able to relate to.  

While Ace of Spades is a deeply important read, it does handle many difficult topics, such as institutional racism, drug use, incarceration, and death. None of these issues are sugarcoated and they are all integral parts of the story, especially racism. Because these issues are given the gravity they deserve, several parts of the story are rather heavy. While readers should be aware of the heavy subject matter going into this book, it should not deter them from reading it since all of the issues are important to talk about and learn about as they are prevalent in our world today. 

Overall, Ace of Spades is a suspenseful thriller that exposes many systemic injustices prevalent in our world today, sending an important message about how to combat them. It has a multi-layer plot that is slowly and carefully peeled away to reveal a big picture that is truly shocking and thought-provoking. Although parts of this story are uncomfortable to read about, they reflect important issues in our modern society that are vital to address and discuss. Ace of Spades will hook readers from the start, and leave them thinking about it for weeks to come.  

Sexual Content 

  • Chiamaka remembers the first time she and her best friend, Jamie, hooked up at a party. “He told me to meet him in his bedroom, and while that night we only made out, it was the catalyst for what happened the rest of the year: Jamie sneaking kisses, whispering things in my ear, asking me to come over . . . ” 
  • Aces leaks a video of Devon and his ex-boyfriend having sex. Chiamaka (and the rest of the school) get a text notification from Aces, plus the video: “Just in. Porn is easy to come by these days. You either search for it online or it falls right in your lap when you least expected it to.” Chiamaka doesn’t click on it, but she “could hear the sounds of it playing from Jamie’s phone.” 
  • Aces exposes the fact that Chiamaka and Jamie hooked up last year. “Belle Robinson [Jamie’s current girlfriend], you have a problem. I’d ask your boyfriend and his bestie, Chiamaka, what they were doing this summer. Hint, it involves no clothes and a lot of heavy petting.”
  • Devon has sex with an ex-boyfriend. “Dre moves off the bed and goes over to the drawer in his desk, pulling out some condoms. I look away from him now and up at the ceiling, listening to the sound of the rain hitting the windows and the wind angrily crying out, letting it drown my thoughts. His weight tilts the bed as he leans over me and joins our lips together again . . . And then, when we are finally done and I’m in his arms, I let myself cry.” 
  • A poster of Chiamaka is circulated at a party and spreads around Niveus. “Posters of a passed-out Chiamaka in a short silver dress, black tights, black heeled boots, mascara dried on her cheeks, and her hair a tangled mess. Some of the posters have Bitch written in big black bold text, others Slut.” 
  • It’s implied that Chiamaka and her girlfriend make out, or more. “Belle nods, a sly smile on her lips as she reaches up to her shirt and starts to unbutton it. ‘Want to continue not talking?’ she asks, the yellow of her bra making everything inside tingle. ‘Not talking is my favorite thing to do,’ I tell her.” 

Violence 

  • Chiamaka has a flashback to when she was in the car with Jamie behind the wheel, and they hit a girl. “Rain pounds the road as I peer out the window at the body – her body. Through the rivulets, I see her face. Blond curls, pale skin, a dark pool forming a halo around her head. I gag, gripping on to the cold, hard dashboard, closing my eyes. I feel so sick.” This scene is described over two pages. 
  • After a picture of Devon and his ex-boyfriend kissing is leaked, Devon worries about the violence he might face from the homophobic community. “The guys in my neighborhood, the ones I used to go to school with, they’d kill me if they saw that picture. Toss my body into the garbage disposal once they were done with me. These guys watch me on my walk home, staring me down, smirking. Sometimes they yell shit. Other times they push me to the ground, then walk off laughing. The picture would make things in my neighborhood ten times worse.” 
  • Jamie physically attacks Chiamaka, and she defends herself. “I’m cut off by Jamie wrapping his hands around my neck and squeezing. He’s shaking as he strangles me and I’m wheezing, laughing and gasping for air . . . I don’t want Jamie’s face to be the last thing I see before I die, and so I summon all the remaining strength I have, and I kick him in the crotch. Jamie staggers back, releasing me. I cough, throat hurting, chest aching. I don’t give myself time to pause before I kick him again. This time he falls to the ground.” Chiamaka runs away, shaken but uninjured. 
  • The headmaster of Niveus holds a gun to Chiamaka’s forehead to stop her from exposing Niveus’ secrets but doesn’t shoot her. “Before I can do anything else, I feel a large hand grab me, dragging me away through the curtains. I glance back, trying to break out of this powerful grip, and that’s when I feel cold metal pressed to my forehead. A gun.” Chiamaka gets away by “[sticking] something in [the headmaster’s] neck. He freezes up and drops to the ground, the gun dropping with him.” 
  • A fire breaks out at Niveus. Most make it out, but a few people die, including Jamie. These deaths are only mentioned, not described.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Chiamaka got drunk at a party with her best friend, Jamie. “We’d both gotten drunk, so drunk I don’t remember much of that night.” 
  • Chiamaka got drunk at a party with her now-ex-boyfriend. “He thrusts his hand out, this time spilling a bit of his drink, before concentrating hard on placing it down straight.” 
  • Devon has sold drugs to support his family. When he asks his mom to let him help with the bills, she “shakes her head. ‘I know what you want to do and I don’t want you doing that ever. I want you off those streets, in that classroom – making your life better, not jeopardizing it.’” 
  • Chiamaka and Devon have some wine in her basement. “I open up one of the liquor cabinets and I take out a bottle of Chardonnay, placing it on the island. I get out two wineglasses and pour some into each, before sliding one over to Devon. I don’t even like the taste of it, but I know it will help me relax a little. I only poured half a glass so that we wouldn’t be too relaxed or out of it, just enough to give us some liquid courage.” 

Language 

  • Shit and fuck are used occasionally. 
  • The n–word is used once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Devon’s mother is a devout Christian and often prays to God. For example, when the family is struggling financially, she says, “It’ll work itself out, Vonnie. God never falters.” 

The Science of Being Angry

Eleven-year-old Joey is angry. All of the time. And she doesn’t understand why. She has two loving moms, a supportive older half-brother, and, as a triplet, she’s never without company. Her life seems good but sometimes she loses her temper and lashes out, like the time she threw a soccer ball—hard—at a boy in gym class and bruised his collarbone. Or when jealousy made her push her (former) best friend and crush, Layla, a little bit too roughly.

After Joey has a meltdown at her apartment building, the family is evicted and Joey is desperate to figure out why she’s so mad. A new unit in science class makes her wonder if the reason is genetics. Does she lose control because of something she inherited from the donor her mothers chose? 

The Science of Being Angry follows Joey, who is struggling to understand her place in her family. Joey feels different from her brothers because she’s a fraternal triplet and her brothers are identical twins, but they’re only genetically related to one of their moms. When Joey’s class begins a genetics unit, Joey begins to question how her DNA is affected by her mothers’ sperm donor. In addition, Joey wonders if the sperm donor’s DNA is the link to her uncontrollable anger.  

Joey and her friend Layla decide to send Joey’s brother’s DNA to 23 and Me. For some reason, Joey thinks that sending her brother’s DNA will lead to better results Unfortunately, when Joey’s moms discover the 23 and Me account, they have it deactivated before Joey learns anything. This abruptly ends the story thread without answering any of Joey’s questions about the donor.   

In addition to exploring family bonds, The Science of Being Angry also focuses on Joey’s inability to control her anger. Joey’s confusion about her biological father and her insecurities about her moms’ love causes Joey to lash out at others. Joey may have sensory sensitivities that cause her to become irritable, but this thread is left unexplored. To make matters worse, her moms don’t always agree about the best way to help Joey. In the end, Joey and her moms seek help from a therapist, which ends the story on a hopeful note. However, some readers may be disappointed that the story doesn’t include any anger management strategies.  

The Science of Being Angry uses sensitivity as it explores complicated family dynamics. Joey’s feelings are described in detail in kid-friendly language. However, much of the story focuses on Joey’s emotions and inner turmoil so there is little action. In addition, readers will have to pay close attention to the text because Joey’s moms are referred to as Mama and Mom, which may make it difficult for some readers to keep track of who is talking. Readers who have nontraditional families will relate to Joey and can benefit from reading The Science of Being Angry. However, the story will mostly appeal to readers who are interested in exploring Joey’s vast emotions and the genetics that make her unique. Middle-grade readers who want to explore difficult family dynamics may also want to read We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen. 

Sexual Content 

  • Joey’s moms occasionally kiss. For example, when Mom “kiss[ed] Mama on the cheek. . . Mom pressed her face against Mama’s cheek to kiss it again and wrapped her arms around Mama, holding tightly.” 
  • Mom explains meeting Mama. “She was such a kind, sweet little dweeb. How could I not fall for her?” Then Mom explains how she knew she liked girls. “I didn’t want to think about it, because I was confused for a long time. I married Luka, because I thought that’s what I wanted. . . But something was missing with Luka. With me. When I met your mama, I found that something.” 
  • Joey is confused about her feelings for her friend, Layla. While at her house, she “suddenly wondered what it would be like to kiss her.” Joey wonders if she is gay. Thinking about her feelings makes Joey angry so she “shoved Layla as hard as she could onto the floor. Layla hit her elbow on the coffee table in front of them. She was okay; she got a small bruise and cried, but she didn’t bleed or anything.”  
  • At a party, Layla sits next to Joey. Layla’s “voice was too soft, her leg felt too good against Joey’s. . . Joey, without thinking, kissed her.” Afterwards, Joey runs out of the house. 
  • Joey is thinking about her moms watching a movie. “She couldn’t see them. . . but she knew what they’d look like, anyway. Mom was probably draped along the couch, Mama lying on top of her between her legs. They were much like that. . .”

Violence 

  • Joey and her brothers sneak out of their apartment and go to the swimming pool. Before they can jump in, a security guard appears, and “Joey responded the way she always did, the way that her moms both begged and yelled at her not to. With her fist. . . Joey turned and punched the security guard square in the belly. He fell directly into the pool. . .”  
  • At hockey practice, Eli calls Joey a bad name, “so Joey used the hook of her stick to pull at Eli’s leg, knocking him off balance and sending him spiraling on the ice. . .” 
  • While watching TV, Joey’s brother Thomas sits on the couch. Joey gets upset that Thomas keeps touching her so she “kicked her leg into Thomas as hard as she could.” 
  • Joey and her brothers go to a Halloween party at their friend Eli’s house. “The second they walked through Eli’s door, Joey found herself getting slammed against the wall, hard, with a loud oof! . . . She shoved Eli, and then backhanded him against his helmet.” 
  • At the Halloween party, Eli’s bullying of Joey continues. He “slapped her across the face with the slice of pizza in his hand.” 
  • While at school, Joey bruised her classmate Danny’s collarbone. “Joey didn’t think she meant to hurt him, but she definitely meant to throw the ball as hard as she could at him.” 
  • During science, Joey gets upset and yells “I don’t care about the stupid project!” Then she threw her “heavy science textbook at the classroom window” breaking it. She is suspended from school. 
  • While playing football, Joey tackles Mama. “Just as the ball flew over Mama’s head, Joey threw her entire weight at Mama’s middle. . . tackling her hard to the grass. Mama’s head hit the ground first. . .” Mom jumps in and “reached behind Mama to find her head and pulled away with some blood on her hand. . . Mama’s eyes opened but they didn’t look right. . .” Mom turns on Joey and yells, “What is wrong with you? What the hell is wrong with you!” Mama goes to the hospital but is released the same day. 
  • At hockey practice, Joey skates past Eli “when suddenly she felt something jerk her back. Eli had his hand gripped tightly into the collar of her shirt and he yanked it.” Joey starts to fall, but “Eli pushed her into the wall of the rink, hard, took the puck back, and scored.” Joey’s mom had talked to the coach about Eli’s bullying. The coach sees Eli’s behavior and sits him on the bench.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Joey’s brother takes ADHD medication. 
  • After dinner, Mama “picked up the bottle of wine and refilled her and Luka’s glass.” 

Language 

  • Several times Joey calls a classmate a rat. 
  • Jesus Christ is used as an exclamation twice. 
  • Oh God and Oh my God are occasionally used as an exclamation.  
  • Heck is used twice. 
  • There is some name-calling including jerk and loser. For example, Joey’s brother says the landlord was a “jerk” for kicking them out.  
  • While playing hockey, Joey tells Eli that he’s being a ball hog. When Eli replied, “he used the B word that had been banned from Joey’s household.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Lupe Wong Won’t Dance

Lupe Wong wants to be the first female pitcher in the Major Leagues.   

She’s also championed causes her whole young life. Some worthy . . . like expanding the options for race on school tests beyond just a few bubbles. And some not so much . . . like complaining to the BBC about the length between Doctor Who seasons.

Lupe needs an A in all her classes in order to meet her favorite pitcher, Fu Li Hernandez, who’s Chinacan/Mexinese just like her. So when the horror that is square dancing rears its head in gym? Obviously, she’s not gonna let that slide.  

Lupe Wong Won’t Dance examines middle school drama by focusing on Lupe’s struggles. Middle-grade readers will empathize with Lupe as she tries to navigate the complexities of a middle school’s social hierarchy. Even though Lupe doesn’t mean to make enemies, she often does because she doesn’t always think about the consequences of her actions. For instance, Lupe gets upset and makes hurtful comments to her best friend, Andy. In response, Andy begins hanging out with the popular soccer girls and stops talking to Lupe. The two eventually work out their differences, and Lupe learns that she needs to “try to listen to people more instead of worrying about myself and my own goals.” 

Lupe’s family life is an integral part of the story. Lupe misses her father, who died in an accident. She also questions her father’s decision to quit playing baseball to care for his family. Lupe is desperate to meet Fu Li Hernandez because he reminds Lupe of her father, and many of Lupe’s actions are based on her need to earn straight A’s in order to meet Fu Li Hernandez. However, Lupe Wong Won’t Dance doesn’t include any baseball action other than one short practice and when Lupe finally meets Fu Li Hernandez. Still, meeting Fu Li Hernandez makes Lupe realize, “My dad was no quitter. Fu Li’s smile was like Dad’s the first time I whistled. The same smile when I finger-painted my entire face and body. . . And it’s the same smile he had when I hit my first baseball.”  

Lupe Wong Won’t Dance uses humor and middle school drama to highlight the importance of being inclusive. While the story explores the discrimination of the past, it does so in a nonjudgmental way that reminds readers that it’s important to take this advice: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” Another important lesson the story imparts is the importance of self-acceptance. As Lupe’s friend says, “I shouldn’t change just so people will like me.” 

Lupe’s story is perfect for middle schoolers, especially those who often feel out of place. Lupe Wong Won’t Dance acknowledges that others can be cruel while challenging readers to overcome their difficulties. In the end, the story encourages readers to be kind and inclusive to others, even those who are different than you. For more middle school reads featuring a protagonist who feels out of place, read Out of Place by Jennifer Blecher, Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros, and A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi. 

Sexual Content 

  • In order to get out of square dancing, Lupe researches the song “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and discovers the song’s origins. A YouTube video explains that the song refers “to a man making his rounds with the ladies. . . Why are his eyes white as cotton?. . . if one listens carefully to the words, poor ol’ Cotton-Eyed Joe’s eyes were whited out by chlamydia or syphilis—”  
  • After watching the YouTube video, Lupe looks up chlamydia and discovers it’s “a widespread, often asymptomatic sexually transmitted disease caused by chlamydia trachomatis” and syphilis is “a sexually transmitted disease caused by the spirochete bacterium treponema pallidum.” 
  • Lupe’s mom asks her if she’s gay. Lupe replies, “I don’t know. I’m only twelve. I thought I’d figure it out in a few years.” 
  • On an online forum discussing students being forced to learn how to square dance, someone writes, “Outrageous! Should we bring back petticoats and chastity belts?”  

Violence 

  • When Lupe was in second grade, she saw her classmate Zola picking her nose. Lupe began calling Zola “the Green Goblin” and the name stuck. “She eventually found out I was the one who started the Green Goblin nickname and hasn’t spoken a word to me since.” 
  • While practicing her pitching, Lupe’s brother Paolo “takes me out at the knees. The wind is knocked out of me a little. He hoisted me back up by the waist of my jeans, giving me a wedgie.”  
  • When Paolo learned how to square dance, he was partnered with a popular girl. And at the time, his mom was making the kids take “Crock-Pot leftovers for lunch” which caused Paolo to fart a lot. “It’s hard to hide a fart when you do-si-do and spin around. . . between hand sweats and farting. . . she told everyone. . . It’s taken two years for everyone to stop calling me Flutterbutt.” 
  • In the PE locker room, Lupe finds her locker decorated in shaving cream that reads Guadapoopy. When Coach Solden sees it, she goes to wipe it off the locker. “Coach spins back around and one foot slips on remnant shaving cream. Her foot flies up in the air, and she tries to catch herself with one arm. She falls to the floor with a thump and a small crack. Lips pursed together, noises burble from her mouth that sound like cusswords in an alien language.” The coach broke her arm in the fall. 
  • Lupe’s mom tells her about Coach Becky Solden’s square dancing experience. “One by one, as a joke, the boys approached her and then passed her by for other girls. She was the only girl left. . . Just like the rest, [Bruce] walked up to her, but he stopped and bowed. . . Just before Becky touched his hand, Bruce jumped back and ran towards the boys’ locker room screaming. . . For the entire two weeks, we danced, every time a boy danced with Becky, he made monkey noises under his breath. . . Even some of the girls made monkey noises and pretended to scratch their armpits.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When researching the song Cotton-Eyed Joe, one article says “he could have gotten his cloudy eyes from alcohol poisoning.”  

Language 

  • Variations of crap are used frequently. 
  • Heck is used occasionally.  
  • There is frequent name-calling such as jerk, dorks, doofus, idiot, nimrod, whiner, klutz, and others. 
  • When Lupe shows the school principal pictures of a “cropped, magged-up version” of an eye, the principal says, “Oh, gawd.” 
  • Samantha, a mean girl, calls Lupe “Guadaloopy.” Samantha also calls Lupe’s friend Andy, “Anda-loser.” In return, Lupe calls Samantha “Sam-o-nella.” 
  • During PE, Samantha whispers loudly, “Word is [Lupe’s] parents found her at the dump. That’s why she smells like a blowout diaper.” 
  • Lupe comments on “Skanky Potato Head.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Before dinner, Lupe’s family prays. Her brother says, “Thank you God, for all that we have. Bless this interesting food to our bodies. And please help Lupe with her cleanliness so she can be next to you . . .” 
  • Before dinner, Paolo prays, “God, thank you for our grandparents who can cook. . . And thank you for giving Mr. Montgomery pinkeye so my algebra test is postponed. And help Lupe through puberty and bless this food.”  
  • Lupe thinks about her father. During Qingming, “the Chinese version of Dia de los Muertos . . . Grandma Wong takes us to the cemetery to burn paper things that represent what she thinks Dad needs in the afterlife. This year she burned a paper house and fake money. [Lupe] snuck in a paper baseball and bat.” 

The Magical Reality of Nadia

Nadia loves fun facts. Here are a few facts about her: 

  • She collects bobbleheads — she has 77 so far.
  • She moved from Egypt to America when she was six years old.
  • The hippo amulet she wears is ancient…as in it’s literally from ancient Egypt.
  • She’s going to win the contest to design a new exhibit at the local museum. Because how cool would that be?!

Okay, so that last one isn’t a fact just yet, but Nadia has plans to make it one. But then a new kid shows up and teases Nadia about her Egyptian heritage. It’s totally unexpected and totally throws her off her game. 

Then something else happens that Nadia can’t explain: Her amulet starts glowing! She soon discovers that the hippo is holding a hilarious — and helpful — secret. Can she use it to confront the new kid and win the contest? 

Nadia often acts like a know-it-all who loves telling people interesting facts about random subjects. Despite this, Nadia is a likable protagonist who learns that “being a leader didn’t mean telling people what to do or doing it all yourself. It was about guiding everyone else to come to a solution together.” Nadia’s quirky personality will draw readers into the story, but it is Titi who is the star of the story.  

While living in Ancient Egypt, a magician curses Titi by sending him into a hippo amulet. When Nadia purchases the amulet, she discovers the secret to breaking the curse—Titi can only be set free by helping Nadia six times. Titi is energetic, optimistic, and funny. And as a teacher, he has plenty of wisdom to impart. For instance, Nadia and Titi jump into the parable of “The Eloquent Peasant.” The parable comes to life in comic-style panels that educate about Egyptian history in a unique and entertaining way. While in the comic, Nadia learns a powerful lesson about how to deal with a bully. Even though Titi lived in a different time period, he is still able to help Nadia with her friendship problems.  

One of Nadia’s problems is that the new kid, Jason, is very vocal about his dislike of Nadia’s Egyptian heritage. For example, he makes fun of Nadia’s lunch because “it smells weird.” In addition, he says he only eats “American food. . . not desert people food.” However, Jason’s mean comments are not just confined to school. While at the fall fair, Jason asks the DJ to play the song “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Then, Jason “took a couple of staggering steps forward with his arms in the awkward position. He moved his head forward and back like a pigeon, too, a huge grin on his face.” In this situation, Nadia uses the parable of “The Eloquent Peasant” to find a solution, but not everything goes as she planned. 

At first, Jason’s behavior makes Nadia want to hide her Egyptian heritage, but her parents explain how they handle microaggressions. When a cashier at the local supermarket made rude comments, Nadia’s Mama began talking about things they had in common. Mama said, “It showed her that we aren’t so different after all. . . Getting to know me has allowed her view to shift.”  

The Magical Reality of Nadia uses humor to highlight the importance of finding common ground with others. Nadia points out that, “Unless you are Native American, we all have an immigrant story in our past. Each of us is here today because one of our ancestors came to America and started a life for their family.” While most of the story is in traditional text, the book includes sections of black-and-white comics as well as lively black-and-white illustrations throughout.  

While The Magical Reality of Nadia is humorous and entertaining, the story hits on topics of prejudice, friendship, and courage. Nadia’s story will help readers have empathy for people who are different from them and in the end, the lessons from The Magical Reality of Nadia will stay with readers long after they put the book down.  

Readers looking for another book about immigrating to another country should also read Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga and Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros. However, if you’d like to learn more about Ancient Egypt’s culture, check out the Kid Detective Zet Series by Scott Peters and the TombQuest Series by Michael Northrop. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • During summer vacation, one of Nadia’s friends went to London. Afterward, Nadia asks, “Did you know they used to display chopped-off heads on the original London Bridge?”  
  • Jason goes to the museum and destroys Nadia and her friends’ project. 
  • While at an ice cream shop, Jason starts making fun of Nadia’s heritage. Nadia gets upset with “her hands balling into fists. She’d never hit anyone before, but there was a first time for everything. She lunged at Jason . . . and tripped over her backpack. Jason laughed, but as Nadia fell, she knocked into him and he lost his balance falling backwards onto the table.” Jason falls onto an ice cream sundae. One of Jason’s friends says, “It looks like you pooped your pants!”  
  • Nadia’s parents left Egypt during the Arab Spring. Her mom says, “People who opposed the government were still being imprisoned, and tortured, and killed. We realized we did not want to raise you in that kind of environment.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • A teacher teases a magician. Afterwards, the magician calls the teacher a fool. 
  • Titi tells Nadia to “close your mouth. You look like Hatmehit’s hat! Hatmehit was an ancient Egyptian fish goddess.”  
  • Freakin’ and heck are both used once. 
  • After reading a parable, Nadia says one of the characters is a doofus and a fool. 
  • When Nadia tells her friend they “can’t toss a football in a museum,” her friend tells her to “Calm down, Grandma.” 
  • Jason calls one of his friends an idiot. 
  • Jason calls Nadia an “Egyptian Queen.” Then he says, “You don’t even belong here. Why don’t you just go back where you came from?!”  

Supernatural 

  • A teacher is cursed by an angry magician. “The next thing the teacher knew, there was a great wind and a loud sucking noise. Then everything turned black.” The teacher is confined to an Egyptian necklace.  
  • “Ancient Egyptians wore hippo amulets to ward off evil.” 
  • Nadia held her hippo amulet and asked for help. Then, “Nadia went over to the desk . . . There, on the college-ruled pages of what was to be her math notebook, a little animated man was jumping up and down, waving wildly at her.”  
  • At first, Nadia is confused when she discovers “a little animated man [Titi] haunting her math notebook!” But then she realizes that if she shuts the notebook, the man disappears. However, Titi and Nadia soon set boundaries that allow the two to communicate when appropriate.  

Spiritual Content  

  • One of Nadia’s fun facts revolves around the Ancient Egyptian’s beliefs about death. The Book of the Dead says “When a person died and was judged by the ancient gods, they had to swear to two things: that they had not lied, or cheated, or killed, or harmed others; and that they preserved the Nile River and kept it pure. . .” 

Star of Stage and Screen

Lights, camera, Nancy! This year, Nancy Clancy’s elementary school is putting on a play about the 50 states called The Nifty Fifty. Everyone in her class is so excited to participate, and so is she. After only getting small parts in previous plays, Nancy is ready for something bigger and something with more of a spotlight. So, with her guitar and a song, she auditions. Her nerves and her bully, Grace, tell her she won’t be good enough, but she still performs. Mr. Dudeny, her teacher, is so pleased with her performance that he gives Nancy a callback and, then, a part! Nancy is determined to be the best she can be. 

There was much to do before the opening night. All of the students made sure to practice, but Bree, Nancy’s best friend, took her practicing a little too seriously. Every free moment Bree practices her tap routine. She is practicing so much because she is afraid to make a mistake. But Nancy doesn’t understand Bree’s feelings. Nancy’s lack of understanding and Bree’s perfectionist attitude cause a divide between them right before opening night. However, when she goes on stage, Nancy freezes which allows her to finally understand how Bree feels.  

Nancy’s parents and sister, JoJo, are her biggest supporters. Nancy’s family gives her advice not only on the fight with Bree but also on her upcoming performance. Nancy’s family is excited when she gets a callback, and they are sympathetic to her when she messes up. Throughout the story, JoJo and Nancy fight like typical sisters but, in the end, they lean on each other. Nancy tells JoJo “Merci mille fois– that’s French for ‘Thank you a thousand times.’ You’re a great sister and you really came to the rescue.”  

Star of Stage and Screen has 14 chapters each containing around 10 pages. Black-and-white illustrations, which appear on every other page, break up long pieces of text and show the emotions and actions of the characters. A young audience will find humor in the jokes told about the states. Lionel, who is the MC for the musical, tells most of these jokes. Some of his jokes include, “What did one Volcano say to the other? . . .I lava you!” and “If a cowboy rides into Houston on Friday and leaves a day later on Friday, how on earth can that be? Because his horse is named Friday!” Her family also adds humor to the story. For example, when Nancy’s dad is giving her advice about performing, he tells her, “Right before you start, you look out at the audience and pretend that everyone is in their underwear.” Nancy responds with, “Eww. Daddy, I don’t want to picture the parents undressed.” 

Star of Stage and Screen is geared more toward early elementary readers. The different plotlines may be difficult for some readers to follow. Star of Stage and Screen is most relatable to readers who perform in musicals or plays. Readers will empathize with Bree who is terrified of making a mistake in front of an audience. However, they will also empathize with Nancy who deals with stage fright. By reading Star of Stage and Screen, young readers will find comfort in knowing they are not alone. The story teaches the importance of being able to rely on family and friends during difficult times. Readers who enjoy performing on stage should also check out Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen and JoJo & BowBow Take The Stage by JoJo Siwa. If you’re looking for books that have positive lessons about friendship, add these books to your reading list: Bo the Brave by Rebecca Elliott and the Purrmaids Series by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • One of Nancy’s classmates, Grace, bullies Nancy throughout the story. Grace picks on Nancy by making mean comments. For example, right before Nancy is supposed to audition, her nervousness shows. Grace asks Nancy, “What are you so worked up about? . . . You won’t be one of the stars.’”  
  • As Nancy awaits a callback, Grace asks Nancy if she heard anything. Nancy replies, “No. Not yet.” Grace then tells Nancy, “Aw, too bad… But there have to be some kids in the chorus right?” 
  • At dress rehearsal, Grace yelled at Nancy for wearing a country outfit and cowboy hat like her. She accuses Nancy of “copying her” and tells her to change. Luckily, Mr. Dudeny explains to Grace that they could both wear cowgirl outfits. 
  • Nancy does not reciprocate her meanness. In fact, when Grace is sick and is not able to perform at the show, Nancy calls Grace and says, “I’m sorry you can’t be in the show . . . I feel really bad for you.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Squad Goals

Energetic seventh-grader Magic Poindexter wants nothing more than to join the cheerleading squad for the Valentine Middle School Honeybees. After all, cheerleading runs deep in her family’s blood, and Magic wants to continue her family’s legacy, especially since her Grammy Mae was the first Black cheerleader on the Honeybees squad.  

But Magic is different. She isn’t coordinated, has zero athletic ability, and she struggles to stay on beat. Her only chance lies with Planet Pom-Poms, the summer cheer camp where she’ll audition for a spot on the cheerleading squad. However, cheer camp brings more than strenuous practice routines, and Magic struggles to balance the interweaving plotlines of summer romances, friendship trouble, and mean bullies. Can Magic survive Planet Pom-Poms and earn herself a spot on the Valentine Middle School Honeybees? 

From the start, Magic’s bubbly, quirky personality enriches the story’s plot and surrounding characters. Readers will enjoy experiencing Planet Pom-Poms through Magic’s point of view, and her mixture of excitement and anxiety for the cheerleading audition makes her a very relatable character. Yet, Magic’s strength lies in her positive view of herself and others. Despite what others say about her, Magic remains upbeat and optimistic which is why she becomes an admirable figure for both the readers and the other characters. 

Magic is a dynamic character, who shows personal growth; at first, she fears her lack of cheerleading talent but she learns to love herself. This change highlights the book’s message of loving and believing in yourself. This message extends past Magic to her friends, who find beauty in their differences. Magic exemplifies this by saying, “With all of our differences . . . we’re like a cool bag of Skittles. Each of us has our own unique flavor. Without one of us, the rest of the bag would be boring.” While Squad Goals primarily focuses on Magic’s development, the book also includes plenty of cheerleading action. Readers can expect many action sequences with in-depth descriptions of real cheerleading moves. 

Overall, Squad Goals is a heartfelt story about a young girl learning to love herself and her differences. The combination of fast cheerleading scenes with slower introspection scenes mix well and provide an authentic experience for the characters to learn and grow from. The book pleasantly wraps up the different plotlines and leaves the readers with a satisfying conclusion. Although the characters may act overly cheesy, the book explodes with enough charm that it will elicit a smile from all readers who love positivity and cheerleading. Readers who want more cheerleading action should also read The Tryout by Christina Soontornvat. 

Sexual Content 

  • When Magic talks to her crush, Dallas Chase, Dallas’ “cheeks turn red when he smiles this time.” 
  • Whenever Magic thinks about Dallas, it “makes her heart turn into a drum major and beat against my chest. Then my hands get sweaty and I don’t want to touch anything.” 
  • When Magic talks about Dallas, she “swipe[s] at my brows and try to shake off the red. But when I glance in the mirror, my entire face is still flushed. I shake my head. Now it’s even redder. But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it . . . even though I can’t deny that he makes me feel like a hot cup of cocoa topped with squishy marshmallows, all caramel excitement and chocolate nerves.” 
  • Magic’s and Dallas’ eyes lock, and Magic loses “all focus, my mouth opening and closing like a fish as I try to figure out what to say.” 
  • Magic watches Dallas and Gia, the captain of the cheerleading squad, interact from afar, and she “can feel [her] legs turning to limp taffy” out of fear and disgust. This scene is described over three pages. 
  • Magic sees Dallas in a crowd and her “palms go sticky and I start losing my grip on my pom-poms.” 
  • Dallas meets up with Magic outside her cabin. Magic explains, “he looks up at me and a powerful surge of mushy feelings rushes through my nervous system, making me . . . nervous. They start in my toes and sizzle up to the ends of my big, long braids.” 
  • Magic and Dallas hold hands as they walk. “We turn to head back to the dorm, hand in hand, and I’m so content that I don’t even bother to count the Mississippis.” 
  • When Dallas invites Magic to a birthday party, she “can’t hold back the mega-blush that’s turning my face a solid Crayola red.” 

Violence 

  • Magic falls off the steps of the bus, and “an obnoxiously loud thud echoes behind my fall and everyone turns to look right at me and my face, which is now buried in the dirt.” Magic hurts her arm and has to go to the nurse’s station later on. 
  • Magic’s friend, Brooklyn, explains that the cheerleader captains “will be covered in that chalky calamine lotion” after she spreads poison ivy on Gia and Yves’ pillows. 
  • Gia and Yves, the two cheerleading captains, sabotage Magic’s introduction video during the Midsummer performances. They switch out Magic’s original video with a video of her professing her love for Dallas Chase for the entire audience to see: “The audio skips. I try to keep dancing to my background music, mainly because Coach force-fed us that the show must always go on, even if disaster strikes. The audio skips again. ‘—and I’m in love with Dallas Chase. And I’m in love with Dallas Chase. I’m—I’m—I’m in love with Dallas Chase.’” This scene is described over three pages. 
  • Gia and Yves sabotage Magic and her friends’ performance at the Finale by dropping a bucket of water on Magic’s friends during their performance. Magic decides to “cut the string” to save her friends’ performance, “but the bucket is still teetering back and forth, and while I’m looking up at the rafter, watching the bucket with my mouth wide open, I feel a few droplets just before the entire bucket of water splatters right over my head. And I’m soaked.” Magic sacrifices herself to allow her friends to finish their performance. This scene is described over three pages. 
  • Magic and her friends cover Gia and Yves bedsheets with poison ivy in revenge for the Midsummer disaster: “’I’ll do the honors,’ I say to Winnie, taking the tissue with the poison ivy in it from her. I lean over the other bed and follow Winnie’s fingertip as it guides me across and then down the pillowcase.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Magic mentions that her grandfather “takes medication” when his “heart is beating dangerously fast.” 
  • Magic’s mom mentions that “children’s Motrin will help” with Magic’s throbbing head. 

Language 

  • Magic exclaims “ohmahgawd” multiple times. 
  • Two cheerleaders regularly call Magic, “Tragic Magic.” They also call another cheerleader, Capricorn, “Kettle Corn.”  
  • Magic’s friend, Lulu, screams “ohmygosh” once. 
  • Magic repeatedly exclaims “fan-fricking-tastic.”   
  • A mean cheerleader taunts Capricorn by telling her that she “sucks.” 
  • A mean cheerleader tells Magic that “she looks like a raccoon.” 

Supernatural 

  • When Magic holds her Grammy Mae’s pom-poms before the Finale, she sees Grammy Mae encouraging her. “It’s Grammy Mae’s voice, and I’m not sure if I’m imagining it, because it feels so real. And when I open my eyes, I can see her, smiling sweetly, even though I know she’s not there.” 
  • Grammy Mae’s initials on her pom-poms change to Magic’s initials at the end of the story. “And when I do, Grammy’s initials aren’t there anymore. Instead, that same golden glow is swirling around the initials MOP.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Magic’s big sister, Fortune, compliments Magic by saying, “God was having a good day when he made [you].” 

Deadman’s Castle

A twelve-year-old boy has a simple desire: to have friends, go to school, keep his name, and stop “bugging out.” Unfortunately, his life has been far from simple ever since his dad witnessed something he shouldn’t have. In order to protect themselves, his family abandoned their identities and went into hiding. Currently, the young boy hides under the name Igor.  For the past seven years, they have had to live under different names and in new houses. Now they’re always on the run, hiding from the mysterious and dangerous Lizard Man.

Despite the constant danger and the fear of being discovered, Igor clings to the hope of a normal life. He yearns to have a routine. Igor longs to be able to discover his real name, the one that connects him to his past and his family. But as he grows older and more restless, Igor starts testing the limits of his dad’s strict rules, hoping to find a way to break free from the never-ending cycle of running and hiding. But the more Igor uncovers, the more he realizes that the danger is real, and the Lizard Man is closer than ever. The Lizard Man is getting closer, and Igor’s father’s past is catching up with them. But Igor is determined to find a way out of this life of fear, to discover the truth about his father’s past and his family’s connection to it.

Despite the odds, Igor clings to the hope of a normal life, and his determination to find a way out of the cycle of hiding and running makes him a hero in his own right. Will he be able to uncover the truth about his family’s past and put an end to the never-ending cycle of hiding and running? Only time will tell.

Deadman’s Castle is a gripping tale of adventure and mystery that promises to keep readers on the edge of their seats. From the very first page, readers will be transported to a world of danger and intrigue, where every turn of the page brings a new revelation and a new challenge for the protagonist, Igor. As the story unfolds, Igor finds himself embroiled in a web of lies and deceit that threatens to destroy not only his own life but the lives of those he loves most.

The plot of Deadman’s Castle is both intricate and compelling with a rich and immersive world that readers won’t want to leave. There are heart-stopping action scenes that will leave readers breathless with fear and suspense, as well as heart-warming moments of tenderness and compassion that will bring a tear to the eye. 

But it’s not just the plot that makes Deadman’s Castle such a captivating read. The characters are fully fleshed-out and multi-dimensional, with their hopes, fears, and motivations making them feel like real people. Readers will find themselves cheering for Igor as he struggles to uncover the truth about his family’s past and break free from the never-ending cycle of hiding. They’ll also be drawn to the other characters, such as Zoe and Angelo, Igor’s two new friends, who each have their own unique story to tell. Zoe, if that even is her real name, is a mysterious orphan struggling to find her sense of identity. Constantly changing her entire style and name without warning, she still knows how to remain true and honest to those she keeps closest to her. Angelo, on the other hand, is a rough and tumble boy with a hard exterior but a soft inside. Zoe and Angelo make for loveable and relatable sidekicks to Igor’s adventures.

In short, Deadman’s Castle is a must-read for anyone who loves a good adventure story. The book masterfully explores the theme of living a life of constant movement, while recognizing and empathizing with the struggles of adolescents. It addresses the themes of identity, family, and the lengths taken to protect loved ones. It’s a novel that will keep readers on the edge of their seats from beginning to end and leave them longing for more.  Readers who want more suspenseful stories should also read The Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown and Dreaming Dangerous by Lauren DeStefano.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • On the first day of school, the other kids treat Igor like an outcast. A group of three boys threatens to harm Igor. One of the bullies, Angelo, “turned to [Igor]. He pointed a finger like a stabbing knife. ‘I’m going to kill you,’ he said.” At this point, Igor becomes worried that his dad may have been right; starting school so suddenly with a strange name would make him an easy target for being picked on.
  • Igor decides he must face Angelo and he goes outside with Angelo and his posse. “The others held my arms and pinned me there, one on each side . . . his hand swept up again,  and in his fist was — snow. He had a handful of snow, and he squashed it into my mouth and my eyes. He forced it between my lips, against my teeth; he pushed it up my nose.” The boys only stop their torture when Igor starts laughing because it wasn’t as bad as the things he imagined in his head.
  • Trevis, Angelo’s former best friend, likes to make up bizarre stories instead of answering questions truthfully. Igor asks about Zoe, one of Igor’s new friends, and Trevis tells Igor, “Both of her parents were killed. Zoe grew up as an orphan. . . It was a 747. A jumbo jet . . . Three hundred and forty people were killed.”
  • Angelo, Zoe, and Igor decide to go to Deadman’s Castle. Igor inquires why it is named Deadman’s Castle. “‘Cause there’s dead men in it,’ said Angelo. ‘There were bodies sealed in the walls.’” Although they never confirm what the actual story behind the name is. 
  •  While at Deadman’s Castle, Igor faces the Lizard Man. Igor “didn’t know what to tell him. [The Lizard Man] swung his foot and kicked me in the ribs.” Igor lay on the ground, unable to get out of reach of the Lizard Man. He ultimately joins Angelo, who has already been placed in a cell in the basement. 
  • The Lizard Man corners Angelo and Igor who use their video game skills to defend themselves. Igor describes how Angelo was “suddenly Johnny Shiloh, and I was Colt Cabana. We leapt from the floor and tackled the Lizard Man. The whip fell from his hand; his hat went rolling into a corner . . . With fists and feet we attacked the Lizard Man.” It deters the man for a few seconds but doesn’t take long for him to get back up and chase after the boys, before recapturing them.
  • Angelo’s dog, Smasher, tries to protect the boys from the Lizard Man. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much for the Lizard Man to fend off the dog. “Either way, it didn’t matter. The door slammed against her. There was a thud and a cry that came together, the most terrible sound I’d ever heard.”
  • The Lizard Man chases Angelo and Igor when they try to break free. To escape, the kids must cross a very deep pit that is only crossable by planks of wood. “With a scream, he fell. The lantern dropped from [the Lizard Man’s] hand and went tumbling down in a whorl of light. It hit the walls and went out, and we heard the thudding of the planks as they boomed from the sides of the pit. Everything landed at once, what seemed a long time later: the light, the Lizard Man, and the planks of the bridge.” The kids presume he has died and run for help.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Mascot

Since the car accident, Noah Savino has been confined to his wheelchair. His past life as an average seventh grader has been turned upside down, and he struggles to find solace away from baseball. It doesn’t help that physical therapy is terrible, his mom seems extra stressed, and his old friend, Logan Montgomery, has turned into his new personal bully. To make matters worse, his father also passed away in a car accident that paralyzed him.

Everything changes, including his perspective on life, when Noah meets the new kid, Ruben Hardesty, a.k.a “Dee-Dub.” For the first time in his life, Noah finds someone different from others, and this blossoming friendship with Dee-Dub places Noah’s life on a roller coaster of emotion where he discovers that he’s more than just a kid in a wheelchair. Eventually, Noah learns that his past doesn’t dictate his future. He isn’t just a mascot rooting on the sidelines; he’s the ballplayer on the baseball diamond that can change both his and others’ lives. 

Throughout the book, readers will experience the typical life of a seventh-grade boy through the eyes of Noah Savino, a sassy but lovable character. Although his quick sarcasm and stubborn attitude can be irritating initially, readers will slowly discover the complex emotions hidden within Noah’s character. His growth from a boy stuck in the gloom of the past to a lovable friend with a heart for others is admirable and inspiring, and Noah’s story highlights that good can come from bad things — although not necessarily in the most straightforward manner. 

Noah’s character development is supported by a fantastic cast of side characters who showcase how the powers of friendship, love, and forgiveness can positively impact both the giver and the receiver. Readers will enjoy how each of the characters’ stories weaves together. Whether it’s strengthening his friendship with Dee-Dub, acknowledging his feelings for Alyssa, or being friendly to his overly competitive partner in physical therapy, Noah learns and grows because of each of the people in his life. Noah even learns to forgive his bully, Logan, after a heartfelt conversation. “For the first time in months, I bump [Logan’s] fist right back, and he smiles like he knows exactly what I’m thinking.”

Readers will relate to Noah because he recognizes that bad things happen in people’s lives. However, the story offers an important lesson about moving forward and focusing on the future. Although Mascot has its share of awkward moments, readers will fall in love with the emotional richness of the characters and how their everyday activities are enhanced by each other. For those who enjoy a fast-paced, moving saga littered with baseball references, Antony John’s Mascot is the perfect book for you. For more inspiring baseball action, read Soar by Joan Bauer and Firefly Hollow by Alison McGhee.

Sexual Content

  • Noah Savino is repeatedly caught staring at his classmate, Alyssa Choo’s, boobs. She responds to the three instances with anger and immediate action, like “[sliding] onto the chair across the aisle from me and [folding] her arms across her chest.”
  • For several pages, Noah and Makayla Dillion discuss whether their parents are “sucking face.”
  • One of Makayla’s books mentions the character Gabriella kissing a boy, and “she seems to be enjoying it.”
  • Noah and Alyssa briefly touch hands. When she leaves, Noah notices the “empty space where she was touching me” and that “his skin tingles.”
  • After speaking with Alyssa, Noah notes that her voice was “a little quieter and breathier than before, makes me feel kind of tingly.”
  • At the end of the book, Noah and Alyssa exchange a kiss, where Noah notes that “she even stays in place as I turn my head, so that for an instant our lips brush together.”

Violence

  • During a contest, Alyssa purposely hits Logan Montgomery’s leg and Dee-Dub Hardesty’s stomach with a baseball. Logan “just watches as it lands a yard in front of him, ricochets off the ground, shoots up, and cracks against the outside of his left knee.”
  • Mr. Riggieri, Noah’s neighbor across the street, jokingly threatens to murder the three kids if they don’t help him clean. He says that they must help “or I’ll track you all down and murder you in your sleep.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Because of her pitching power, Noah once joked that Alyssa takes “steroids.”

Language

  • Noah’s mom says “for Pete’s sake” when Noah questions her about her upcoming dinner date.
  • Heck is used as an exclamation several times.
  • Noah says, “Geez. You’re like freaking Einstein.”
  • Noah calls a kid a “moron.”

Supernatural

  • During a baseball game, Noah believes his deceased father is “where he is now — on the sidelines, invisible but somehow present.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow

During winter break, Moth Hush comes to terms with the revelation of her witch heritage and powers. Her mother, also a witch, helps Moth learn new spells and Moth gets happier with each one she picks up. Moth has a best friend in Carter, a boy from one of her classes, and Mr. Laszlo, a talking cat. Her life, friendships, and relationship with her mother couldn’t be better!

Unfortunately, Moth’s life doesn’t stay stress-free for long. At school, she runs into bullies that she wishes would leave her alone. After an incident in which she accidentally wears a similar outfit to a teacher, the bullies make Moth their latest victim and torment her for being the teacher’s “twin.” To make matters worse, Moth’s grandmother wants Moth to become a powerful witch and puts a lot of pressure on Moth to succeed in studying and practicing magic.

When Moth finds a solution to her problem — a magic charm that can bring out a confident and self-assured version of herself — things start out great. She gets praise from her grandmother and admiration from her classmates. With magic, Moth feels like she has a handle on how she presents herself to her family and classmates. But depending on magic to achieve her wildest dreams causes Moth’s life to spiral out of control.

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow expands upon Moth’s school life. Many students are ruthless bullies; they stop at nothing to terrorize someone, never letting a joke or prank run dry. Moth’s tormentors mock Moth for her old-fashioned clothing, crooked teeth, and dark skin. Moth stresses over her looks and wonders if she would fit in if she changed her appearance. Readers will relate to Moth’s self-esteem issues, her struggle to accept herself for who she is, and her desire to fit in with the rest of the student body.

Moth discovers more about discrimination and exclusion from her grandmother’s stories about her witch heritage. Most witches in the Hush order (Moth’s grandmother’s previous order) believed that Moth’s grandmother was undeserving of her high-ranking position due to her skin color and class. In one conversation, Moth’s grandmother states, “They refused to see me as an equal.” Discussions such as these call attention to mistreatment towards underrepresented communities, showing prejudice is still pervasive not just in Moth’s grandmother’s time but also in the modern era.

Steinkellner’s full use of the graphic novel format lends itself to dynamic paneling and excellent pacing. Thick outlines make characters stand out while vibrant colors and pastels will keep readers engaged. Reluctant readers may like that most pages do not have words but rather tell the story through illustrations. In addition, Moth’s perspective as the narrator makes The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow easy to follow.

To relate to today’s readers, The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow incorporates modern-day technology. Familiar technology, such as smartphones and social media, brings readers closer to Moth’s world and highlights Moth’s desire to fit in. Memes, texting, and pop culture references invite the reader to become involved in the story. The inclusion of diverse characters and family dynamics adds depth and promotes diversity and representation.

Through her experiences, Moth learns an important lesson about integrity and self-trust. She doesn’t need to take shortcuts for quicker results or use magic to change herself to fit in: she can become whoever she wants by her own means without destroying herself from the inside out. Readers who want to learn more about standing up to bullies should also read Out of Place by Jennifer Blecher and Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language   

  • None

Supernatural 

  • Witches perform magic spells in various ways: nonverbally, incantations, gestures, or a mix of the three. For example, Moth shrinks a bug by aiming her pinky at it, scrunching her nose, and twisting her arm to the right. Moth is surrounded by magic and magical occurrences every day. As such, not all instances are listed here. 
  • Moth finds the nyklum, a “powerful charm that may transform its wearer into a bolder, more self-assured version of themselves.” The charm requires a small item from the person the witch chooses to imitate and the following incantation: “Bring it forth that I may be the better half that waits in me.” Moth uses the nyklum to become popular. She becomes more confident in herself and gains the attention of her classmates.
  • The more a witch draws upon the nyklum, the more likely the ancient demon Shadriel Kannibalstisch will take over the witch, incapacitating her for good. As the story progresses, Moth risks being taken over by Shadriel Kannibalstisch. 
  • Shadriel Kannibalstisch, also known as the Hungry Shadow, is a demon that looks to take over a person. The demon makes the witch formidable, but it corrupts the witch at the same time. When Shadriel Kannibalstisch becomes more powerful than its host, Shadriel eclipses them, the witch dies, and Shadriel takes the witch’s body for itself. 
  • To be more confident in front of her classmates, Moth wants to use the nyklum at the Valentine’s Day school dance. Upon hearing about the consequences of using the nyklum, Moth removes the nyklum to destroy Shadriel Kannibalstisch before it eclipses her. 
  • Shadriel Kannibalstisch comes out of the nyklum to stop Moth from destroying both it and the nyklum. When Shadriel Kannibalstisch shows itself, it takes control of the other students. Shadriel Kannibalstisch’s magic doesn’t hurt the students. 
  • To repel the students that Shadriel Kannibalstisch controls, Moth’s mother and another witch use magic to throw a wall of light to shake the demon’s hold on the students. The students are unharmed. The wall of light restrains or startles the students. 
  • Moth defeats the demon by shrinking the nyklum to an imperceptibly miniscule size. In doing so, the students are freed from the demon’s control. 

Spiritual Content 

  • Professor Folks, a museum educator at the local museum, believes animals are like humans in some ways. When seeing Mr. Laszlo, Professor Folks states, “I’ve always felt that animals have a special soul inside them. Look into this cat’s eyes. So expressive. So human. Almost as if we’re old, dear friends.”

The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane

Emmy, a twelve-year-old girl from Connecticut, is being sent to boarding school in England so her mother can advance her career. Emmy’s mom is a child psychologist and “mentor for the moms and dads of America.” Emmy’s mother wants to make sure that her daughter will “get a top-notch education,” even if Emmy doesn’t love the idea of a boarding school. However, Wellsworth (Emmy’s new school) provides her with an exciting opportunity — to learn more about her mysterious father, who went missing when she was just three years old. Following instructions from a mysterious letter from “a friend,” Emmy searches her family’s home for any “relics” from her dad. Emmy finds a box with a letter from her father on top. He asks her to “keep them safe.” The box contains twelve beautiful medallions, but Emmy has no idea why these are so important to her father. 

Emmy is a sympathetic character, as she confronts issues readers may relate to, such as struggling to make friends in a new school. She explains, “Wellsworth wasn’t the first school her mom had sent her to so she could get a ‘top-notch education,’ and it probably wouldn’t be the last. She figured out a long time ago that friends never stuck around when she switched schools, so why bother making new ones?” However, Emmy’s mindset changes when she meets Lola and Jack; the three friends bond over difficulties with their families’ relationships. Lola’s mom is in charge of disciplining and ensuring order of all of the students in their dormitory, and Jack’s family is deeply involved with the dangerous Order of Black Hollow Lane. After spending so much time with them, Emmy realizes, “They really had become like her family.” 

One of the major themes in Nobel’s book is the danger of being greedy and seeking power. While researching the school’s architecture, Emmy and her friends find a book with information about the Order of Black Hollow Lane, a secret society that started at Wellsworth. A teacher explains, “There will always be people who crave power. And people who will go to any lengths to hold onto it.” This perfectly encapsulates the members of the Order and, as Emmy discovers, this is why her father tried to stop them by stealing their “only one complete collection of medallions” that act as keys for them to access their vaults of money.

Another major theme is growing to love a new school or environment, as Emmy ultimately does with Wellsworth. She bonds with her friends, Lola and Jack, and also finds that, “It doesn’t matter if it feels weird. This is my home.” Readers who enjoy mystery or books about secret societies will love this novel as its twists and turns will leave you wanting more. At first, Emmy feels completely alone at her new school as she deals with a cruel roommate on top of a completely new environment. But when Emmy meets Lola and Jack, she is finally able to share her feelings with them and they become her best friends. 

Emmy also finds herself most comfortable representing her new school on the soccer field. Emmy joins the soccer team with her friend Lola and playing helps Emmy gain confidence. She explains, “This was where she belonged. Her heart was meant to pound with the rhythm of fast feet . . . No matter where she was in the world, the smell of freshly cut grass meant she was home.” Though the book mainly centers around Emmy and her friends searching for information on her missing father and about the awful intentions of the Order, readers who enjoy soccer will enjoy that Emmy spends a great deal of time discussing and playing soccer with Lola. 

The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane wraps up Emmy’s first semester at Wellsworth and ends with her returning home to Connecticut for the summer. Emmy has seemingly convinced the members of the Order that she has thrown the box containing the medallions into the sea, “Now that [the Order’s medallions] are gone, there’s no reason for the Order to come after [Emmy].” However, the book leaves the readers on edge as it sets up for The Secret of White Stone Gate, as Emmy reveals to Jack and Lola that she actually still has the real box of medallions. Readers will be thrilled to find out what Emmy will do next as she returns to Wellsworth after her summer at home. If you’re up for more intriguing mysteries, check out the Wolfe & Lamb Series by Lauren St. John and the City Spies Series by James Ponti. Strong readers looking for more suspense and mystery should also read Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche by Nancy Springer.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • In her humanities class, Emmy’s friend, Lola, explains that Anne Boleyn is “a queen who got her head hacked off.”
  • Lola describes a time during a soccer game in which she “punched a girl in the middle of a match and got herself banned for most of last season.” Lola explains that this was because the girl was bullying her teammate.
  • Lola recounts the time she “slugged Brynn [her cousin]” and then “had to do community service.” Lola explains, “He thinks his side of the family is so much better than ours because they have more money.”
  • It is not described in detail, but students gossip about Jack’s brother, Malcom, who “fell off the chapter house roof.” He is injured but okay. 
  • While Emmy searches to find out more information about a mysterious letter from “Brother Loyola,” she runs into Brynn who approaches her and “ripped the letter from her hand.” Brynn is furious and demands to know where she got the letter. “He shoved her into the wall. Pain shot through her back as she crunched into the hard stone. She tried pushing back but he had her pinned.” To get away from Brynn, Emmy “sprang forward and kicked him in the shins as hard as she could. He grunted and limped back, and Emmy launched her whole body into his. He crashed into the display case, and Emmy ran past him.”
  • After constantly dealing with bullying from her snobby roommate, Victoria, Emmy comes back to her room to find her side completely trashed. “Something had finally snapped. She kept running until she reached Victoria and shoved her so hard she fell back onto the couch.”
  • Brynn is bullying Lola and Emmy and he calls Emmy’s father a “deadbeat,” which makes Emmy completely furious. “It happened in the blink of an eye: Emmy let go of Lola, reached back, and punched Brynn square in the face. He doubled over, hand on his eye, moaning like a wounded animal.”
  • As Emmy and her friends uncover the entrance to the Order of Black Hallow Lane, Emmy is separated from them in the tunnels and encounters a figure in the darkness. She is horrified to realize it is the security guard, Jonas. “Jonas’ kindness . . . All his helpful suggestions. It was all fake.” He reveals that he is the leader of the Order, Brother Loyola, and that he has been “keeping a close eye on [Emmy] for a while. Ever since [she] asked [him] about [her dad].” He blocks her path to exit the tunnels and threatens her. Jonas says, “We should be far enough away now that your friends won’t hear us.”
  • Jonas describes how Emmy’s father, Thomas Allyn, joined the Order with him but refused to participate in the illegal activities they did. “As our influence has grown, it has needed to move outside the law. Dealing in weapons, the black market, the underground diamond trade — these are all necessary parts of our work.” Emmy is afraid of Jonas and wonders, “What lengths would Jonas go to?”
  • Emmy’s father decided he did not want to participate in the Order when, “One of his friends was injured when an initiation ritual went too far.” Jonas chocks this up to, “The girl was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was just an accident.” But Emmy senses that is not true.
  • To escape Jonas in the tunnel, Emmy “grabbed a lantern off its hook and flung it at Jonas with all her might. The flame blew out, but the sound shattering lantern glass and garbled yelling told her that she’d hit her mark.”
  • Jonas corners Emmy in the belfry of the school’s church where, “Even the teachers’ housing is too far away to hear us.” And then he approaches her, “He took a knife out of his pocket.” He tries to force Emmy to give him the box of medallions. He says, “Hand it over, or I’ll have to take it one way or another. You’d be amazed by what I can pass off as an accident.” Emmy escapes by jumping onto the giant rope connected to the bell, sliding down until she can jump to her escape.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • Occasionally, mild language, such as suck and stupid, is used by the main characters. 
  • When they are frustrated or confused, the British characters, such as Emmy’s friends Lola and Jack, use bloody for emphasis.
  • Rarely, Lola uses prat to refer to someone she thinks is a bad person. 

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • Lola explains to Emmy that she only punched the girl during the soccer game because, “That girl was making fun of [her teammate’s] hijab. She’s Muslim, and she likes to keep her head covered when she plays. What else was I supposed to do?”
  • On Emmy’s birthday, which she laments “her mom hadn’t once mentioned,” Lola explains that the school celebrates “Saint Audrey’s Feast Day! We get a proper feast tonight to honor our house’s illustrious patron, Saint Audrey.”
  • Jack explains the “houses” or dormitories the students are separated into are “named after saints . . . Edmund, Felix, Withburga . . . they were all saints from this part of England.”

Be Prepared

Vera, a nine-year-old Russian girl, yearns for a sense of belonging. She looks to her classmates for guidance on how to fit in. In Vera’s case, this means trying to blend in with her American classmates. Despite her best efforts, she just can’t seem to get it right. Her first American-style sleepover is a disaster, leaving her feeling like she’ll never be able to connect with her peers. 

Just when she’s about to give up, her friend, Ksenya, tells her about a Russian summer camp. Vera is intrigued, but also a little hesitant. After all, the camp is in the middle of the woods in Connecticut, which is not exactly what she had in mind. Nevertheless, she decides to give it a try. 

When Vera first arrives at the camp, she is introduced to her tent-mates, Sasha and Sasha. While initially hopeful, her first interaction with the Sashas does not go well. Vera tries to make friends with them by drawing pictures and sharing her stash of hidden Skittles, but it soon becomes clear that their friendship is only superficial. Will Vera ever find a place where she belongs? 

The Russian language is heavily used throughout the text. There are even some portions written completely in Russian scripture. For example, campers sing a song that is written in Russian scripture: “БУАЬ ГОТОВ, РАЗВеДЧИК, к Делу чеСТноМУ, Трудный путь лежит перед тобоЙ . . .” In addition to direct Russian scripture, there are Russian words that utilize the English alphabet. For example, the boys at the camp are referred to as “volchata,” which means “wolf cubs.” A handful of the English-written Russian words are defined, but most of them are not given a definition and there is not a glossary, which can make some areas of the text harder to decipher. 

Be Prepared is a captivating graphic novel that partially draws on the true experience of the author, who shares an intriguing snippet of her life. The graphic novel takes the reader on a thought-provoking journey of self-discovery, narrated from the viewpoint of nine-year-old Vera. Through her eyes, readers witness not only the challenges that many preteens feel, such as finding their place in the world but also the unique challenges immigrant children face.  

One of the most striking aspects of the graphic novel is its use of green and gray illustrations. These colors add depth and dimension to the story and help to convey the complex emotions that Vera experiences throughout her journey. The adorable art style, with its round-faced characters and expressive eyes, is both charming and heartwarming, making it impossible not to root for Vera as she navigates the ups and downs of growing up. 

In the end, Vera gains a new perspective and begins to reach out to other campers who are also left out. This allows her to find a sense of purpose, make new friends, and appreciate her Russian heritage. Vera’s story is a powerful testament to the resilience and strength of the human spirit. As she learns to navigate the world around her, she discovers new friendships and a sense of belonging that she never thought possible. This graphic novel is a must-read for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, and for anyone who wants to understand the experiences of immigrant children in a deeper and more meaningful way. 

Sexual Content  

  • Vera starts to change in front of her new tent-mates who are both fourteen. One of the girls says, “She doesn’t wear a bra? Gross!” 
  • One of Vera’s tent-mates, holds a maxi pad in front of Vera’s face and makes fun of her for not having a period.  The girl says, “It’s a maxi pad!! Do you seriously not know what those are?” 
  • Sasha and Sasha, Vera’s tent-mates, taunt her for drawing Alexei, their camp crush and an older male camper. “She wants [the picture of Alexei] so she can kiss it.” 

Violence  

  • A chipmunk bites Vera on the pointer finger.  Vera talks to herself about the possibility of what may happen. “Now I am going to die of rabies… I wonder how many people I’ll bite before they subdue me.”  
  • Vera, after being bitten by the chipmunk, chooses to stay silent since she feels there is no one she can tell at the camp. When her mother comes to visit her after the second week, Vera fills her in. “I have rabies and I’m going to die!” Vera yells to her mother upon her arrival at camp.  
  • Vera talks about the violent side of the Russian religion, particularly in relation to Saint Vera. “I never forgot, [the saints] died horrible deaths . . . [Saint Vera] was tortured and beheaded, along with her sisters, while her mother watched. If I was learning anything from the history classes, it was that Russians are bred for suffering.” 
  • Vera talks about the history that leads up to the formation of the camps that exist today. She talks about the harsh history that made many Russians lose their culture, which is why the camps were formedto help Russian heritage remember their culture and past. “During one three-year period in the seventeenth century, a third of the population starved to death. And in the twentieth century, the government sent millions of its own citizens to suffer and die in work camps (including my own great-grandmother).” “Gulag” is one of the terms used in the text. This refers to the system of labor camps run by the Soviet Union during the 1930s-50s. 
  • “Ow! Something stung me!” a male camper exclaimed when a wasp stung him on the forehead. The sting caused an allergic reaction and swelling. 
  • The camp counselors told a story about a small camper who died because a bigger camper pooped on top of him. The boy “died down there, in the dark at the bottom of the [outhouse].” 
  • A jealous camper hangs another girl’s bloody underwear on the flagpole for everyone to see.  
  • Phil, Vera’s little brother, talks about dealing with a mean individual at camp. “Yeah he takes karate at home, and he put me in a headlock. And one time he found a mouse in the woods, and he ran up and kicked it right in front of me. It died.” 

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • None 

Language  

  • Hollywood is used to refer to the outhouse that is set up for the camp. 
  • When a wasp stings a boy on the head, Vera accidentally says the bite looks like a “nipple.” Afterwards, the entire camp calls the boy “tit head.”  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content  

  • Vera writes to her mother about the Russian church at camp. “On Sundays we have church. It’s just like church at home except it’s outside. They keep all the icons in a little house, so they don’t get wet. I am jealous of the saints for the first time ever.” 
  • Vera explains what she likes about the church services at camp and her personal connections to the religion.  “The orthodox liturgy is a beautiful melodic chant. I understood maybe a third of it. But the icons…I loved the icons. The gilded script, the tiny piece of Saints’ bones in jewel-encrusted frames. And I never forgot those people died horrible deaths. I had a picture of my namesake, Saint Vera, over my bed at home. She was tortured and beheaded, along with her sisters, while her mother watched.”  

The Green Glass Sea

Young Dewey Kerrigan and Suze Gordon live in a time ravaged by World War II. When their families are moved to a secret location in the New Mexican desert called Los Alamos, the girls’ lives become filled with military personnel and top-secret information. Their parents are the nation’s finest scientists and have been enlisted to build a powerful weapon to end the war. However, with their parents on this mission, the girls are left with many questions and choices about the war, their families, and their futures. 

Dewey’s and Suze’s worlds collide when Dewey’s father goes on an important business trip and leaves Dewey in the hands of the Gordon family. Although Suze’s parents are friendly and hospitable, there’s one massive problem: Suze and Dewey are very different people and don’t like each other. As the war grows more dire and tragedy strikes the Gordon family, problems erupt between the girls that could jeopardize their present and future lives. Can Suze and Dewey settle their differences in time? 

The Green Glass Sea features two main protagonists — Dewey Kerrigan and Suze Gordon. Each chapter alternates between the two girls’ points of view which showcases their drastically different voices and personalities. For example, Dewey prefers to work on her gadgets and gizmos in solitude. On the other hand, Suze enjoys her social network and creates beautiful collages filled with old, discarded objects. The girls’ differing personalities keep each of their chapters fresh and exciting. Their realistic views and worries about the war, their family, and the future ground them as authentic, enjoyable characters. While most readers may find it difficult to relate to these girls’ experiences, they can admire the girls’ motivation, strength, and optimism during this tough period. 

Dewey and Suze are surrounded by a wonderful cast of supporting characters who emphasize the story’s lesson about family and loving one another. Dewey and Suze learn to love each other’s differences, and Dewey finds a home with the Gordons when Suze explains, “You’re coming too . . . Daddy said the whole family’s going.” Alongside this heartwarming plot and engaging characters, the story also features a realistic portrayal of history, matching the story’s scenes with the real-life events of World War II. 

The Green Glass Sea addresses the difficulty of World War II and includes sensitive topics like the Nazis, concentration camps, and the ethical usage of the atomic bomb. This information may be hard to digest for certain readers, but it only makes up a small portion of the story. Overall, The Green Glass Sea is a moving story about two girls’ worlds colliding because of World War II. With the combination of exciting characters and historical events, this book is a must-read for history buffs who appreciate the impacts that big-scale events have on normal people. Readers who want to learn more about World War II should also read Survival Tails: World War II by Katrina Charman and Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood. 

Sexual Content 

  • Suze and Dewey sing a song about the war, where they sing, “Hitler has only got one ball. Goering has two but they are small. Himmler has something sim’lar, but poor old Goebbels has no balls at all! 

Violence 

  • Suze escapes some military police (MPs) while taking a shortcut through a restricted area.  As she climbs over a fence, she scrapes her knee, causing “a little rivulet of blood [to trickle] slowly down her dirt-covered leg . . . ” This scene is described over two pages. 
  • Suze bullies Dewey by drawing “a straight yellow line down the middle” of their room and saying, “You and your stuff stay on your side. Got it?” 
  • When Suze and Dewey go to school. Suze says, “You better not walk with me,” and, “Don’t even think about eating lunch with me.” 
  • While at school, Suze purposely hits the edge of Dewey’s radio “sending it flying,” which causes “a loud crack and a clatter like hailstones as its lid popped open and its contents scattered.” 
  • Suze and Dewey encounter a mean girl, Joyce. After Joyce insults Dewey and her, Suze “took a step forward, grabbed Joyce by the knot of her yellow Girl Scout neckerchief, and pushed her away. Hard.” Joyce lands in a muddy puddle. 
  • Dewey’s father, Jimmy Kerrigan, dies in a car accident. The accident isn’t described.   
  • Dewey angrily smashes a record that reminds her of her father’s death. Dewey “lifts the record off the turntable with both hands and smashes it with all her strength across her upraised knee.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • While on a train, Dewey sees people “smoking cigarettes and drinking cocktails and talking very loud.” 
  • Dewey keeps her home-built radio inside a “wooden cigar box.” 
  • Throughout the story, Suze’s mom repeatedly smokes cigarettes in the house.  
  • Suze’s father regularly drinks beer and whiskey during and after work. While at home, “he reached up and opened the cupboard, putting two glasses and the bottle of whiskey on the counter.” 
  • Suze’s dad, Phillip, also regularly smokes his pipe. As he smokes, “the smoke blew over her head, smelling like sweetish-sour burning leaves.” 
  • Dewey’s dad, Jimmy, offers Suze’s mother, Terry, “an inch of brown liquid.” Terry exclaims, “It’s Bushmills [whiskey]. How heavenly.” 
  • Jimmy gets drunk after a couple of drinks at an after-work party. He didn’t realize that “the boys were just dumping liquor bottles willy-nilly into the bowl.” 
  • Jimmy once pulled out “a pack of Camels, and lit one.” 
  • After they had completed their gadget, many scientists “held whiskey bottles” in celebration. 

Language 

  • Mrs. Kovack, Dewey’s neighbor, yells, “For the love of Pete, will you just come inside?” 
  • The book references the black community as “negros.”   
  • Dewey’s friend, Jack, uses the word “bitch” to describe the fighting and atrocities of World War II. 
  • Throughout the story, the kids repeatedly call Dewey, “Screwy Dewey.” 
  • Suze’s mother says both “damned” and “goddamn” once. 
  • Suze’s father says “goddamn” and “oh, Jesus” once.  
  •  “Oh god” and “My god” are both used as an exclamation once. 
  • Throughout the story, kids call Suze “Truck” because she’s a “big fat pushy steamroller truck.” 
  • Suze once utters that something is “a bunch of bushwa.” 
  • Suze and Dewey repeatedly use the acronym “FUBAR,” which means “fucked up beyond all recognition.” 
  • “Hell,” “crissakes,” and “jeez Louise” are all used once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Mrs. Kovack does “her good Christian duty by taking Dewey in.” 
  • Suze mentions that her family celebrates Hanukkah. 
  • Dewey’s father once exclaims that he hopes “to god the war doesn’t go on longer. . . ”

Holding Up the Universe

Holding Up the Universe follows the love story of two teenagers who are grappling with their own perception of identity. Jack Masselin is a popular boy who secretly struggles with a neurological disorder; Libby Strout is known as an overweight girl, once dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen” after an incident from her childhood was covered by local news. Jack and Libby realize they have more in common than they thought, but both teens struggle with understanding themselves and learning how they present themselves to others. Over the course of the book, the characters gain confidence in themselves, and learn how to trust their intuition and interact with peers.

Seventeen-year-old Jack has a reputation as being a popular “playboy” and has various other popular friends, such as Dave Kaminski and Seth Powell. Jack is also in an “on-again, off-again everyone-assumes-we’ll-end-up-together-forever” relationship with Caroline Lushamp, one of the school’s most popular cheerleaders. Jack embraces his own arrogance and confidence as he considers himself to be “charming,” “hilarious,” and “the life of the party.” However, Jack secretly struggles with prosopagnosia, which prevents him from being able to recognize faces. Jack is terrified of being excluded, so he tends to go along with what the “popular” kids are doing in order to remain in their good graces. Throughout the story, Jack learns how to tell others about his condition, and learns various “tricks” to manage his condition.

After her mom’s death, sixteen-year-old Libby lost control of her weight. The media negatively represented the Strout family after Libby had to be airlifted out of her home following a panic attack. After being dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen,” Libby was homeschooled for several years, but now she’s ready to return to public school. Shortly after re-enrolling, Libby is bullied for her weight and consistently receives hurtful remarks from peers. Despite the mean statements, Libby remains confident in herself, almost becoming empowered by their hate. 

Following a physical altercation between Jack and Libby, they are required to engage in an after-school Conversation Circle with the school counselor, Mr. Levine. During these meetings, Jack and Libby get to know each other and help each other in a variety of ways. Libby encourages Jack to seek an official prosopagnosia diagnosis from researchers at Indiana University, and Jack slowly realizes he is falling in love with Libby. By the conclusion of the Conversation Circle meetings, Jack and Libby discover how important their identity is, and that it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks about them. They come to terms with this realization and manage to develop deeper relationships with those around them.

Jack and Libby narrate alternating chapters which occasionally include flashbacks. At times, the back-and-forth perspectives between the two characters can be confusing, but the author weaves them together so seamlessly, it allows the reader to see the emotions of both characters within a specific event. The author effectively uses flashbacks by including them during relevant parts of the plot, such as referring to the day that Libby was airlifted from her home. 

Jack and Libby are relatable in their own ways. Jack is terrified of being excluded, while Libby understands that people will hate her for her weight and chooses to ignore their comments and trust herself. Because Jack is obsessed with what others think, he can sometimes be annoying. Instead of talking to his friends and accepting help from others, Jack believes he should manage everything independently. Despite this, the relationship between Jack and Libby is sweet, and has a lovable moment when Jack is able to recognize Libby without having to use “identifiers.” 

Overall, Holding Up the Universe is well-written and enjoyable to read because it’s paced appropriately and has a plot that readers can connect to. The author effectively utilizes descriptive language to manipulate the emotions of readers to the point that it feels like they are experiencing the events through the characters’ eyes. Holding Up the Universe tackles complex topics that may not be suitable for younger readers, such as fat-shaming, bullying, depression, and peer pressure.

Holding Up the Universe speaks on empowerment, acceptance, and overflowing love, which makes it a feel-good read, but readers still learn about struggles common in high school. The overall theme of the novel can be identified as “seeing and being seen,” since the main characters struggle with identifying others and being respected for who they really are. If you’re ready for another story that explores the importance of accepting yourself, Dating Makes Perfect by Pintip Dunn and Mosquitoland by David Arnold should be added to your must read list.

Sexual Content 

  • There are multiple references to blow jobs and girls being undesirable as a sexual partner.
  • Libby is eager for her first kiss and talks about being hopeful to find a boy to “claim her body.” She also is fascinated by the anecdote about a woman losing weight by having “marathon” sex.
  • Jack discovers that his father is having an affair with a teacher.  Jack sees “a new, unopened email from Monica Chapman . . . and then I open it. And wish I hadn’t.” Jack then drafts a reply which reads “Dear M. If Jack is angry, it’s because of us . . . Maybe I should stop being so selfish. If I really loved you, I would end my marriage or at least come clean to my wife.”
  • On a date, Jack invites Libby to dance with him. Jack is “at first aware of every eye in the room on us, but then all the faces fade away, and it’s just Libby and me, my hands on her waist, all that woman in my arms.”
  • At a party, Caroline tries to coerce Jack to have sex. After removing her shirt, Caroline says, “I think I’m ready for it. . . with you . . . unless you don’t want to.” They do not have any form of sexual contact because Jack realizes, “I don’t love Caroline. I don’t even like Caroline.”

Violence 

  • There is a game known as “Fat Girl Rodeo” where players non-consensually jump on the back of a “fat girl” and try to hang on as long as possible. After Libby enrolls in high school, she becomes the target of the game. Jack jumps on her in the cafeteria, and Libby manages to “summon all the strength [she has] to peel him off like a Band-Aid.” Once Jack is on the ground, she punches him in the mouth. Jack’s “jaw feels knocked loose, like it’s somewhere in Ohio. I give it a rub to make sure it’s still attached, and my hand comes away covered in blood.” 
  • Jack sticks up for someone being bullied. When the group doesn’t back down, Jack “runs right into the herd of them . . . one lands in the dirt, and suddenly they’re not laughing anymore.” The bullies argue with Jack, and then Jack begins to throw punches. “Maybe because I’m angry. At everyone. At myself.” Jack continues to punch the bullies that come at him “even when his hand feels broken, even when he can’t feel his knuckles anymore.” This scene lasts four pages.
  • After a misunderstanding at a party, Moses Hunt tracks down and begins punching Jack. Moses’ “fists are coming at me too fast to duck, too fast to move. Over and over his fists make contact with bone, or maybe he’s not the only one swinging.” This fight lasts three pages.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Teens gather for a party and consume alcohol and weed. Jack drinks beer. After drinking several shots, he declares “my esophagus burns like I just inhaled gasoline.” Jack also smokes a joint “because maybe this is the secret of life . . . maybe this will give me answers. Instead, I end up coughing like an old man for a good five minutes.”

Language 

  • Insults and taunting such as “whore” are used toward the girls.
  • There is frequent swearing throughout the book, both casually and as insults. Profanity includes ass, bastard, bitch, bullshit, damn, douche, fuck, goddamn, hell, pissed, and shit.
  • Phrases such as OMG and oh my god are used occasionally.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Ghost Boys

When twelve-year-old Jerome Rogers is shot and killed by a police officer, his ghost watches his family and the world around him shake in the wake of his death. Upset and frustrated, he doesn’t understand why this had to happen–why a police officer would confuse a kid with a toy gun for a grown man, and why no one administered any medical care at the scene. Jerome is mad that this often happens to black folks like him. Then, Jerome meets another ghost boy named Emmett Till, who teaches him about the United States’ long legacy of discrimination against black people, and especially black boys.

Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ghost Boys is a gripping story about violence, grief, and the devastation caused by systemic racism. Jerome laments about how he’ll never get to grow old, and that he has to leave his family behind. He witnesses the court proceedings deciding the fate of the police officer, and he sees his family’s reaction when the judge decides that there is not enough evidence for a trial. It is wholly unfair, and Jerome struggles with this unfairness throughout much of the novel. It is by Emmett Till’s explanation of history that Jerome learns he can still look after kids who have been wronged and that maybe we can take steps toward change.

A couple of people can see Jerome’s ghost and interact with him. His grandmother has some inkling that he’s there, but Jerome spends most of his time speaking with Sarah, the daughter of the police officer. She grapples with internalized biases, and they help each other understand that they can still create change for the better, even though their worlds are categorically messy. It is through Sarah and Emmett Till that Jerome comes to accept his death and realizes that sharing his story will hopefully help prevent events like this in the future.

Rhodes doesn’t hold back in Ghost Boys. Although this book details violence and tragedy, she does an excellent job using these details to move the plot along and help the characters grow. Her choice to include the historical case of Emmett Till is also well done, and Emmett’s inclusion in the book helps balance out Jerome’s other primary interactions as a ghost. 

Ghost Boys is an emotionally difficult book, and the target audience should be middle-grade readers and older readers who find themselves ready for this intensity. The tragedy of this book is not that it is violent, but rather that this is our unfortunate reality. The names of real-life black people killed by the police are scattered throughout the book, reminding us that this book doesn’t exist in a vacuum. For all the gravitas that Ghost Boys brings, it is an important read for understanding grief and compassion, and by the end, there is still a glimmer of hope that maybe people can change for the better.

There are many great book options for middle-grade readers who want to explore racism in more detail including  The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine, A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée, From The Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks, and The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson.

Sexual Content 

  • Jerome dreams about what it would be like for him to be able to grow up. On his list of things he would’ve done, he mentions, “Real is me having a girlfriend. (Maybe.)”

Violence 

  • The protagonist, Jerome, is shot and killed by police officers who mistook his toy gun for a real one. As a ghost watching himself outside his body, Jerome describes his body, saying, “Laid out flat, my stomach touching ground. My right knee bent and my brand-new Nikes stained with blood. I stop and stare at my face, my right cheek flattened on concrete. My eyes are wide open.”
  • Jerome’s Ma pokes him while emphasizing that she wants him to be educated. Jerome says, “Sometimes the poke hurts a bit. But I get it.”
  • Jerome is afraid of some bullies at school because they “like to dump [his] backpack. Push [him], pull [his] pants down. Hit [him] upside the head.” This is a common occurrence when Jerome describes his time at school. 
  • Jerome notes that the new kid, Carlos, is going to get a beating from the school bullies. Jerome says, “New students are beat-down magnets.”
  • The bullies attack Carlos in the school bathroom. Jerome describes, “Mike punches Carlos. He falls backwards. Then, Mike and Snap are both kicking Carlos. In the stomach. The head.” This scene continues for two pages. 
  • Jerome stands up to the bullies on behalf of Carlos, and Carlos pulls a gun on the bullies, surprising everyone. Jerome describes, “We all turn. Carlos has a gun.” It turns out later that it’s a plastic toy, and that’s how Carlos got it past school security.
  • Jerome doesn’t like seeing his mom upset. He says, “seeing Ma crying makes me want to crush, slam something into the ground.” He does not act on these impulses.
  • Jerome’s dad is upset over his son’s death at the hands of a policeman. While speaking with the rest of the family about the injustice, Jerome describes, “Pop’s fist slams the wall. The drywall cracks. I’ve never seen Pop violent.”
  • Many references are made to slavery and violence against black people in the United States. Jerome’s dad says, “Tamir Rice, 2014. He died in Cleveland. Another boy shot just because he’s black . . . No justice. No peace. Since slavery, white men been killing blacks.”
  • Sarah, the daughter of the police officer, can see Jerome’s ghost. She tells him that she’s sorry, and Jerome thinks, “If she wasn’t a girl, I’d think about hitting her.”
  • Ever since her dad killed Jerome, Sarah’s parents have been arguing. Jerome and Sarah both hear noise coming from downstairs. “A door slams. Sarah’s mom and dad are shouting. Glass breaks.”
  • Jerome becomes angry, and in his ghost form his “hand connects. Peter Pan flies across the room. The book hits the wall, drops to the floor.”
  • Emmett Till died in 1955. He was lynched by a group of men, and the scene lasts for two pages. Jerome watches Emmett’s memories, describing, “The husband fires the gun, sparks fly. Emmett’s spirit rises. With barbed wire, the men lash Emmett’s body to a large wheel. They drag, shove the wheel into the river. Watch it sink. Blood stains the riverbank.”
  • In one of the final chapters, the reader experiences Jerome’s death in first person. Jerome says, “Pain slams me. Two fire sticks are inside me. Burning, searing my right shoulder and lower back. What happened? What happened to me?” This description goes on for a couple of pages.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Jerome says that, “I know Ma will remind [Grandma] to take her blood pressure pill.”
  • Jerome describes a lot a few blocks away from his home. He says, “A meth lab exploded there and two houses burnt.”
  • Jerome describes some drug dealers who happen to deal two blocks away from his school. He says, “drug dealers slip powder or pill packets to customers, stuffing cash into their pockets. Pop says, ‘Not enough jobs, but still it’s wrong. Drugs kill.’”
  • After killing Jerome, Sarah’s dad “drinks, stares at the TV.”

Language 

  • Mild language is used occasionally. Terms included are stupid, dumb, and crazy.

Supernatural

  • Jerome dies and becomes a ghost, watching over his family for much of the book.
  • Jerome meets Emmett Till’s ghost, who was a real-life boy who was killed in 1955.
  • From Sarah’s window, Sarah, Emmett, and Jerome can see “a shadow. Then, another. And another. Another and another. Hundreds, thousands of ghost boys standing, ever still, looking up, through the window into our souls.” It is then clarified that these are the ghosts of thousands of black boys who have been killed.

Spiritual Content 

  • Grandma has “premonitions . . . worries about bad things happening.” She tells Jerome that she receives these premonitions in the form of bad dreams.
  • Grandma has superstitions, and Jerome states that she likes to do things in threes because it’s “Grandma’s special number.”
  • Grandma tells Jerome, “Three means All. Optimism. Joy . . . Heaven, Earth, Water. Three means you’re close to the angels.”
  • For Jerome’s funeral, Reverend Thornton makes an appearance. He says to Jerome’s family, “We should pray.” To this, Jerome’s dad says, “What for? Jerome’s not coming back.”
  • Grandma expresses her belief in spirits and the afterlife, saying, “Every black person in the South knows it’s true. Dead, living, no matter. Both worlds are close. Spirits aren’t gone.” Her words are dismissed by the reverend and by others as mere superstition. 
  • Emmett Till talks about his mother’s beliefs, saying, “‘Family and faith,’ that’s what mattered, she said.”
  • Jerome’s grandma has an altar to her late husband. Jerome describes, “Every Sunday, Grandma lights candles and talks to a picture of Grandpa in a sailor’s uniform.”
  • Carlos tells his dad that he “wants to honor Jerome” on Day of the Dead. The Day of the Dead ceremony goes on for a chapter.

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 treated the hecklers with kindness and they found 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 children.

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

 

 

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