Tracking a Monster

Sadie by Courtney Summers is the 2022 Nutmeg winner in the high school category.

Sadie is on a mission to find her mother’s former boyfriend Keith. She knows he is responsible for killing her thirteen-year-old sister Mattie. The story jumps back and forth between Sadie’s point of view and West McCray’s. McCray is running a podcast called Lost Girls. His chapters include the podcast script/notes from his conversations with Sadie’s caretaker/grandmother figure while following Sadie’s trail.

Readers find out that Sadie was molested by Keith during his time with their family, and she discovers that his background includes other victims too. Sadie finds herself in dangerous situations as she attempts to find and kill this monster. During her quest, we learn more about her relationship with her sister and their mother Claire. Will Sadie be able to enact vengeance and alleviate some of her own guilt for her sister’s murder?

This is a suspenseful read, but should be noted as having intense recollections of child abuse.

Breaking the Rules

First, I need to share a personal note. Since I am switching to high school in the new school year, my summer reading plan will include as much high school material as possible. Considering how much I plan on reading, I am going to keep my entries as brief as possible.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune is my first high school read of the summer. It was recommended by my peers and is a 2023 Nutmeg nominee.

This story is the ultimate fantasy. Linus is given a classified mission to investigate a top secret orphanage which houses the most extreme in magical, unusual children. There is a female gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an octopus-like boy, a shape shifter, and the devil’s son. Linus’s extremely predictable and rule-abiding existence is put to the test as he spends a month getting to know the children and care takers (both having their own secrets) of the remote island. His reports will determine if the orphanage is operating according to the rules and if it should stay open or not.

There are many beautiful moments and clear symbolism in this story which is about acceptance, friendship, change and love.

Road Trip South

Clean Getaway by Nic Stone is a 2022 Intermediate Nutmeg nominee. William “Scoob” is on a road trip with his grandma “G’ma” in order to escape his dad’s disappointment with him for a school incident.

Scoob’s grandma is white and his grandfather was black. The two of them took the same road trip years back during times of segregation. His grandmother is able to fill him in on what it was like then and how difficult it was for them as a mixed race couple.

During the trip, Scoob begins to notice that his grandmother may not be completely in her right mind. She refuses to contact his dad, and seems to have more secrets than Scoob could have imagined. Eventually, he comes to realize the truth about his past and his grandfather’s tarnished reputation. The time away also makes him realize how much he misses his dad.

There are mentions of horrible historic moments from our nation’s past throughout the story events, making this book a conversation starter about segregation, racism and making a change.

New Identity

Genuine Fraud by e. lockhart is another of my daughter’s recommendations. Nothing is quite what it seems in this wild story. The chapters are numbered sporadically in order to gradually build Jule’s story, which starts with her being tracked by a private investigator.

Spoilers: It isn’t until the very end of the book that we find out that pure chance brought Jules in contact with a vivacious, wealthy young woman named Imogen. Jules latched onto Imogen, and bathed in her attention and friendship. She became part of her social circle. Things start getting creepy when Jules reveals her obsessive feelings toward Imogen.

All is seemingly fine so long as nobody questions Jules’ motives. Readers begin to realize that Jules will stop at nothing, even murder, to get what she wants. This quick review only touches on the intriguing and crazy events of this book.

Marching Along

Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King is a trippy, young adult read. Lucky Linderman just completed a very challenging ninth grade year. His story slips among the events from his past school year, present time and his dreams. Lucky’s lucid dreams started when he was seven years old, following a promise to his dying grandmother that he would find and return his POW/MIA grandfather. His grandfather went missing during the Vietnam War. Lucky’s dreams all involve finding and connecting with his grandfather, but he is never able to bring him home. He does bring home a memento from each dream.

After years of bullying coming to an ugly head, Lucky’s mom decides it’s time to get away. The escape is due to Lucky’s latest encounter with his almost lifelong bully, but it is also due to the strained relationship between Lucky’s parents. Lucky and his mom go to spend a couple weeks with his mom’s brother and sister-in-law in Arizona. Lucky grows from this experience in all the right ways: physically, mentally and emotionally. He creates interesting relationships with his aunt and uncle and a beautiful neighbor with her own baggage. The ants are a metaphor for people’s problems; ultimately everyone has them in differing degrees. Lucky is finally able to figure out how to confront his problems.

This story was unique with strong character development, and it left me with many questions relating to Lucky’s dream states.

Personality Switch

Restart by Gordon Korman is my penultimate Nutmeg nominee.

Chase Ambrose goes from star football player to amnesia patient after a nasty fall from his roof.  He can’t remember anything from before his fall, but his classmates sure do. He was one of the school’s worst bullies along with his two best buddies. Now he isn’t able to play football due to concussion protocol. He finds himself hanging out with the very kids he used to terrorize while still trying to keep a foot in his former life, all while trying to remember what happened before the fall.

Major changes in his character include becoming a member of the film club, as well as befriending a war veteran at the senior living facility. This facility is the same spot where Chase and his football buddies were doing community service for a terrible bullying prank.

His football friends think he might be faking the whole thing for his own gain. It all comes to a head when they devise a way to implicate Chase in another bullying episode.

Will he resort to his former antics or has he truly changed?  What caused him to fall in the first place? This is a solid middle school read including relatable topics and important themes such as standing up for oneself and making positive changes. 

Forever Friends

The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman is an early edition copy I received. I decided to read this book due to its subject matter around the Chernobyl explosion, which is a new historical fiction time frame for me.

The main characters are Valentina and Oksana.  They begin as enemies but grow to be lifelong friends due to experiences that link them together. Their fathers were both working at Chernobyl when it erupted. Now they are being forced to evacuate their town. Oksana’s mother is sent to a hospital for radiation leaving Oksana with nobody to care for her. Valentina’s mother decides to take her with them. This sets the girls off on a new path living with Valentina’s grandmother (whom she has never met) in Leningrad.

Family history becomes a parallel story throughout the book, as “new” character Rifka is sent away from her mother and young brothers to escape the German soldiers during WWII. Eventually, the two stories’ connection is understood.

The plot is mostly engaged with the girls’ struggles and changes. But, I found it interesting to read about how the explosion was at first kept hidden. There are also tidbits about how they treated radiation exposure such as drinking milk, eating cucumbers, taking iodine pills, and staying low to the ground to name a few. For many, the exposure was too high for these remedies to work.

Sensitive topics of religious discrimination, physical abuse, and alcoholism are present. These topics are balanced by friends who become family with a message of being strong, kind, and generous.  It is a jump into a time period that may be unfamiliar to some, which can be a gateway to nonfiction about the place and time.

Fashion Principles

Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone is an advanced reader copy I obtained through this year’s virtual SLJ Day of Dialog.  It was a pleasant surprise to find this book and three other titles in my mail this past week.

Set in Connecticut, this story will appeal to middle school girls everywhere!  As a former middle and high school teacher, I could definitely connect to the issues at stake in this book (and am happy to say that I was not one of the fashion police!). Fisher Middle School’s principal has an obsession with maintaining a strict dress code, using a special monitor dubbed “Fingertip” who specifically keeps an eye out for shorts’ lengths, visible shoulders and cleavage.  

Events get heated when the entire eighth grade camping trip is canceled when Olivia is caught breaking the dress code.  Molly witnesses the exchange and decides that enough is enough.  She starts a podcast in order to share Olivia’s side of the story.  Her podcast starts the #dresscoded movement.  Other middle and high school girls want to share their stories too.  Molly and her friends add to the movement by putting up posters, signing a petition and going to the school board.  When nothing seems to make a difference, they set up their own camp-in at the school.  With persistence and strong arguments for equality, they are finally heard.  

Short chapters are a combination of podcast interviews, letters, lists and storytelling.  The dress code issue is surrounded by other important middle school topics: crushes, changing friendships, family struggles, vaping/addiction, and bullying.  Molly learns who her real friends are, and figures out how to navigate stressful family events. There is great depth in this story, making it a must read for teen girls and a conversation starter for everyone.

Drawn Together

New Kid by Jerry Craft is a well-deserved 2021 Intermediate AND Middle School Nutmeg nominee.

Jordan Banks is transferring to the elite Riverdale Academy Day School to start seventh grade, when all he would really like is to pursue his dream of attending art school.  This graphic novel portrays the first year at RAD, while his personal commentary on various events are drawn/noted along the way.  Humor is a constant throughout the book with many relatable, laugh out loud moments, and a straightforward approach to serious topics.

First are the discriminatory remarks made by fellow student Andy to each character of a different cultural descent.  There are microaggressions from faculty as well; for example, the teacher who calls every black student by the wrong name, and the book fair arranged by stereotyped categories.  There is also the stigma attached to students who use financial aid to attend.  So many important conversations can stem from the behaviors and events in this book.

The characters are written well, and I think students will connect to them.  Jordan is a nice person who takes time to get to know everyone, even oddball Alexandra who always wears a sock puppet on her hand.  Jordan has a way of finding classmates who are most genuine.  In doing so, he ends up having a decent year, making true friends and learning to speak up for himself and his friends.

I read this story in a day, and enjoyed every moment of it.

After the Crash

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano – it may sound odd, but this is a book I tried to savor.  I became immersed in the characters and Edward’s story and wanted to make it last. 

Edward is the sole survivor of a plane crash. He was with his brother and parents flying from New York to their new home in California when the plane went down. 

After the crash, Edward goes back to live with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey. Edward is numb. Seen as a miracle and an oddity by all, he survives each day in a trance. He is able to find comfort from his neighbor Shay, a girl his age who tells it like it is. Her frank, open company seems to be Edward’s only comfort. 

Years pass before they discover locked duffel bags in his uncle’s garage. These bags hold hundreds of letters written through the years to Edward from family or friends of the plane’s deceased.  All have special messages or requests for Edward on behalf of their lost loved ones. These letters have a profound effect on Edward. They begin to fully awaken him (while ironically allowing him his first real sleep in years). 

Throughout Edward’s story after the crash, readers are given glimpses from during the flight. We gain knowledge of some of the other lives that are lost.  Each character has his/her own unique addition to the story.  These people are rediscovered in the letters.  

The characters and events are interesting and satisfying. It’s hard to even begin to imagine how life could possibly go on after such a traumatic event.  Healing takes time. And breakthroughs can occur in unexpected ways.