KEEPING IT REAL by Paula Chase

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Mari can’t believe her parents didn’t tell her that their company was running a summer internship for aspiring fashion designers. The program was practically made for her! And her best friend (and secret crush) Justice is one of the three lucky kids who were accepted. When Mari confronts her parents, they explain that it was their intention to give opportunities to kids from less privileged backgrounds than her own, but Mari can’t let it go. She’s tired of being one of the only Black kids at her elite prep school, tired of all the code switching she’s required to do just to fit in. A hip-hop style internship will be a perfect opportunity to be herself–and spend some extra time with Justice.

But her plans go awry as soon as the internship starts. The two other girls see her as the boss’s daughter instead of a fellow intern. Even Justice is treating her differently and spending all his time with Kara, who for some reason seems to hate Mari’s guts. Kara doesn’t even seem enthusiastic about the program, and Mari can’t understand why she’s even there. But as the internship progresses and Mari struggles for acceptance, a long-buried secret will come to light, one that will test Mari’s world-view, her resilience, and her capacity for forgiveness.

This hard-hitting (but fun) middle grade novel explores the complex dynamics of privilege and class within a Black community. Mari’s authentic and realistic pre-teen voice will be accessible to middle school readers, who will see their own struggles to fit in reflected through her experiences. I highly recommend this novel to fans of contemporary realistic fiction and to middle school book clubs!

THE WOODS ARE ALWAYS WATCHING by Stephanie Perkins

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Camping may not have been the best idea for Neena and Josie’s last adventure before college separates them. Neither of them has ever been camping before, and it isn’t long before they’re exhausted and lost on a lonely mountain trail. With Josie watching fearfully for bears, and Neena trying to stifle her fear of running into a dangerous criminal in the isolation of the forest, their nerves quickly fray, and it isn’t long before they begin to fight. But the fight ends abruptly when a horrible accident leaves Josie trapped in a pit, Neena racing down the mountain alone for help. Unfortunately, their fears weren’t just in their imagination, and the worst kind of predator is on the prowl…

After a slow start, blood-chilling, violent terror drives an unputdownable second half of this psycho/serial killer horror novel. The psychological suspense in the first half wasn’t enough to keep me from skimming, but for the second half, I couldn’t look away. I’d recommend this to horror fans who love books with high stakes and physical violence.

ANY SIGN OF LIFE by Rae Carson

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When Paige wakes up, her first thought is that she’s missing basketball practice. Her mom probably hoped she’d oversleep and would say she shouldn’t be overdoing it while recovering from the flu. She apparently brought home a ton of IV bags from the hospital and hooked Paige up to all of them to keep her hydrated. It’s weird, though, that all the bags have run dry. And that she’s so thirsty that her first sip of water makes her vomit.

And then she finds the corpses.

Paige’s whole family is dead. Everyone on her street is dead–possibly everyone in Ohio. That flu that was going around wiped everyone out in less than a week. But Paige remembers the Covid-19 pandemic that happened less than a decade earlier. That virus didn’t even come close to this death toll. Is it even possible? Paige goes in search of supplies, aware that her mom’s last wish as she daisy-chained those IVs together was that Paige would live. But when she meets another survivor, a fellow teen athlete named Trey, she learns that her suspicion was correct. The virus wasn’t a coincidence. And the aliens that created it will stop at nothing until all the humans are eradicated…

Before I get to my effusive praise, I want to note that this book won’t be for every reader–at least not right now. For many readers, a book about an alien virus that wipes out 99.999% of humanity will be far enough removed from the reality of our current pandemic that it will allow them to work through some of the emotions and experiences of our real world in the fantastical extreme of the story. But for some teens, especially those who have recently lost loved ones to Covid-19, the wounds will be too raw and too deep. Early in this story, the protagonist abandons the corpses of her family, compartmentalizing her grief and focusing instead on survival. But for readers in mourning, this difficult shift and the constant presence of corpses–and reminders of the people they used to be–might be unduly upsetting. So I would hesitate to recommend this book to a teen who has lost someone during the pandemic.

That caveat aside, this book is excellent. The action and suspense starts on page one and builds to a thrilling climax, but what really elevates the story beyond a basic alien war is the constant search for–and discovery of–meaning in a post-apocalyptic world. The survivors aren’t just fighting for their lives; they are fighting to build something new and to preserve the memories of everyone who perished. It is truly a fight to preserve humanity rather than individual humans. The characters are nuanced, the moral quandaries complex, and the story riveting from the first sentence. I highly recommend this to fans of sci-fi, dystopias, and thrillers/suspense.

THE TROUBLED GIRLS OF DRAGOMIR ACADEMY by Anne Ursu

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If Marya’s brother Luka is destined to make their parents proud, then Marya is destined to disappoint them. She’s good at it—although to be fair, sometimes Luka helps her along. Marya was prepared to be the perfect sister and daughter when the sorcerer came to evaluate Luka for magic potential. She was even going to enjoy wearing the gorgeous gown that her mother bought her. It really wasn’t her fault that Luka stuffed it into the dirty chicken coop (even if it was in retaliation for her putting honey in his underwear), and it really wasn’t entirely her fault that the goat got out of its pen and charged the sorcerer (because she wouldn’t have left the pen open if she hadn’t been looking for her dress), and okay, maybe she should have known better than to shout at the sorcerer when his loud spells were frightening the goat further … but no matter what happened on that disastrous visit, Marya knows she doesn’t deserve to be sent to an Academy for Troubled Girls.

Unfortunately, the king’s council doesn’t see it that way. And so the next day, Marya must say goodbye to her dreams of becoming an apprentice to the local tapestry weaver and head out to boarding school. At Dragomir Academy, Marya hears echoes of the things she’s been hearing her whole life: girls should be quiet and orderly, helpers to the sorcerers so that they can fight the magical Dread that seems to keep spreading across the kingdom. But some things are new. For example, the teachers actually encourage the girls to read—a skill Marya had to learn in secret from her friend the weaver. And Dragomir castle seems to be filled with secrets. Like what happened to the Dragomirs’ daughter Nadia, who apparently disappeared as a teenager? And what causes the mysterious hallucinations that all the girls experience at some point—and how (and where) are they cured? It isn’t until Marya stumbles upon a secret code in the Countess Dragomir’s embroidery that she realizes these mysteries may be connected. And the truth points to a grave danger for all of the troubled girls–and everyone in the kingdom.

My new favorite Anne Ursu book! Ursu tackles systemic sexism through the lens of a medieval-based fantasy world. Laced with humor, heartfelt relationships, and well-developed secondary characters, the immersive world is one I was reluctant to leave when the book ended. The story itself is a powerful allegory for injustices in our modern world that asks young readers to consider “Who benefits?” from lies and mis- (or dis-) information. As a librarian, I swooned for Ursu’s accessible and subtly-incorporated guidance on how to evaluate historical sources (in this case, tapestries) for bias. But all of this comes within the package of an imaginative boarding-school-fantasy that is as fun as it is thought-provoking. Pick this one up for your middle grade reader or your 4th-7th grade book club!   

DARK AND SHALLOW LIES by Ginny Myers Sain

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Elora can’t be dead. Grey won’t accept it. When she steps off the boat back into her small bayou hometown, she’s immediately surrounded by the missing posters with her best friend’s face. She’s not the first of the Summer Children to be lost. Two of the ten children who were born in the same year died almost a decade ago, a double murder shrouded in secrets. But Elora is missing, not dead, and Grey is going to find her.

But as soon as Grey is back home, visions begin to plague her–visions of Elora fleeing from a shadowy madman who’s determined to kill her. Grey is the only one of the Summer Children who never developed supernatural abilities. There are times she wished she was a psychic like her mother, or an empath like her crush, Hart, but now she hopes that the visions only dreams, not a true window into a deadly past. That hope dies, however, when a stranger shows up in town–another Summer Child that no one knew about–and the dark undercurrents of the bayou rise to the surface. The only way this many secrets can exist in a town of psychics is if everyone only tells part of the truth…

World-tilting twists and an eerie, immersive atmosphere guarantee a gut-plummeting ride in this YA Mystery-Horror hybrid. Though it takes a few chapters to acclimate to the number of important players and their various superhuman abilities, the volume of characters and secrets makes the mystery that much more difficult to unravel. Suspense junkies won’t want to miss this stellar debut!

WELL MATCHED by Jen DeLuca

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After eighteen years as a single mom in a small town, April is ready for a change. In fact, she’s been planning it for the last decade: when her daughter leaves for college, she’ll sell the house and move into an apartment in the city. She’ll be farther from her younger sister, but closer to work. And it’s not like there’s anything else tying her to this town.

When her sister’s friend Mitch, a high school gym teacher and star of the annual summer Renaissance Faire, begs her to fake being his girlfriend at a family reunion, April sees a perfect opportunity to get some help with the repairs she’ll need to do to sell the house. She’s not sure anyone will believe she’s dating Mitch, what with him being a decade younger and the hottest man who has ever donned a kilt, but all he’s really asking her to do is show up and fake an attraction. Not that that will be difficult. But when she sees how Mitch’s family belittles him, April finds herself leaping to his defense and realizes that her attraction to Mitch might not be that shallow–or one-sided. After an unexpected night of passion, April is left wrestling with her emotions. Because in all her years of practical planning for the future, she never once considered the possibility of falling in love.

With fake dating drama and major communication fails, WELL MATCHED draws out the angst you hope for in a contemporary rom-com. Though kilts are promised (and delivered), the Ren Faire portion of the novel is comparatively small. More accurately, this story is about a divorced single mom finding the courage to let herself love again and a high school gym teacher accepting himself and his value to his community. Each has been devalued by people close to them (the hero by his extended family and the heroine by her ex) and it is through their fake relationship and real friendship that they regain their individual senses of self-worth. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this one on the Ren Faire angle alone, I would absolutely put it in the hands of fans of steamy contemporary rom-coms.

THE GIRLS ARE NEVER GONE by Sarah Glenn Marsh

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Dare is looking forward to spending a summer at a haunted mansion She knows she won’t see any ghosts (after years of ghost hunting with her ex, she’d have seen a ghost by now if they were real) but the internship will give her a great opportunity to launch her podcast, establish herself as a ghost hunter independent of her ex. And besides, even without ghosts, the history of the mansion and the suspicious drowning of a teenage girl who lived there is fascinating.

But when Dare arrives, her expectations for the summer are immediately upended. First, there’s Quinn, the daughter of the estate’s owner, who is not only adorable (and possibly into Dare, too) but also 100% convinced that she’s being haunted. Then, there are the mysterious occurrences: the warnings scrawled on the wall in what looks like blood, the shadow of a face in the mirror, the murky lake water pouring into the bathtub. And as Dare delves deeper into the history of the estate, she begins to suspect that more than one girl drowned in that lake, and if she doesn’t accept the possibility of a ghostly threat soon, she–or someone she cares about–might be next.

Deliciously chilling, THE GIRLS ARE NEVER GONE has the perfect blend of eerie atmosphere and ancient mystery, blood-curdling scares and false alarms–not something you’ll want to bring on your vacation to a remote lake! Its queer romance and Type-1 Diabetes representation set it apart from other YA horror while the thoughtful character development is just as engrossing as the mystery. Pick this one up if you want a ghost story that will have you jumping every time someone turns on a faucet!

BURDEN FALLS by Kat Ellis

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As if surviving the car crash that claimed her parents’ lives wasn’t devastating enough, now Ava has to say goodbye to her family’s ancestral, and see it sold to the man responsible for her parents’ deaths. There has been bad blood between the Thorn and Miller families since a centuries-old feud, but now there is literal Thorn blood on Miller hands and Ava can’t bear to think of either one of the Miller kids sleeping in her old bedroom–especially not Freya, her artistic rival.

But death hasn’t abandoned Burden Falls. Not long after Ava and her aunt and uncle move to a cottage near the old mill, the body of a girl is found at the bottom of the waterfall. Most sinister of all, her eyes have been gouged out, like the legend of Sadie, the ghost of an accused witch who supposedly still haunts Thorn Manor. The same ghost Ava’s father claimed to see moments before his death. Ava begins to catch glimpses of Sadie everywhere. At first she thinks it’s just her imagination, but when Freya Miller turns up dead, mutilated in the same way, she has to admit that the danger is very real. With the police suspecting her, her aunt and uncle pressuring her to get her head checked, and her best friend keeping secrets, Ava doesn’t know who to trust–except Dominic Miller, the only person who seems to agree that she is both sane and innocent. But as they launch their own investigation into Freya’s death, Ava can’t help but wonder: how can she prove her innocence when the most likely alternative suspect is a vengeful spirit?

From an eerie start to a dramatic, pulse-pounding conclusion, this thriller does not disappoint. There are great twists, an emotional hook, and even a touch of forbidden romance. Fans of YA thrillers and psychological horror will not want to miss this one!

DARLING by K. Ancrum

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Wendy’s parents may as well have her under house arrest. It was their idea to move to Chicago so that she could go to a prestigious prep school (and so they could adopt more kids to keep under house arrest). But now they won’t let her hang out with her friends–all because when her mom was younger she saw some kid get murdered at a party in a graveyard.

Of course, Wendy’s parents aren’t home when a charismatic guy named Peter breaks into her house, and when he invites her to join him and his friend Tinkerbelle at a party, she can’t bring herself to say no. But instead of a party, Peter brings her home to meet the boys he’s taken under his wing–boys who give Wendy cryptic warnings that lead her to believe that Peter isn’t what he seems. With the police on their trail and something dramatic slated to happen later that night, Wendy will need to figure out who to trust if she’s going to make it home alive.

This dark Peter Pan twist is impossible to put down! I loved how Ancrum turned it into a thriller instead of a fantasy, drawing out the darkness that already exists in the original Peter Pan and infusing it with a new take on the concept of “eternal youth.” I was riveted. Highly recommend to fans of YA thrillers and dark contemporary.

Amazon.com: Darling: 9781250265265: Ancrum, K.: Books

VOYAGE OF THE SPARROWHAWK by Natasha Farrant

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Lotti has no intention of leaving her beautiful home for another terrible boarding school. After all, it is her home. Her parents left it to her when they died. Her aunt and uncle are only living in it to help take care of her, and because no one has heard from her French grandmother since before the Great War. But when her uncle resolves to send her back to boarding school–and worse, to have her dog put down!–Lotti knows she has to run away. And she knows just the person to help her.

Ben lost his adoptive father during the war. His brother is lost, too, presumed dead, although Ben is certain he’ll come home someday. Unfortunately, someday won’t be soon enough now that the local constable is investigating him. He absolutely refuses to go back to the orphanage. For one thing, they’d take away his dog. For another, he loves living on the houseboat, The Sparrowhawk. His father would be rolling in his grave if he knew how close they were to losing it. So when Lotti shows up insisting that they travel to France, how can Ben say no? After all, maybe he’ll find his brother there. With the constable and an irate uncle chasing in their wake, Lotti and Ben embark on The Sparrowhawk‘s first major voyage, hoping that the friendly accomplices they meet along the way will be able to help reunite them with the family they’ve lost.

This novel about courage and found-families follows in the grand tradition of middle grade stories about plucky young orphans embarking on zany adventures. The quirkiness of the narrative voice, along with the historical setting, lend the book a classic feel while the cast of compassionate characters keep the tone hopeful through even its suspenseful moments. A fun choice for upper-elementary readers!