New Release Spotlight: February 21, 2023

Happy Presidents’ Day, and welcome to this week’s New Release Spotlight! Middle grade books look strongest to me this week.

This week’s top picks:

  • Where Darkness Blooms by Andrea Hannah (YA)
  • The Worlds We Leave Behind by A.F. Harrold (MG)
  • Elbert in the Air by Monica Wesolowska (picture book)

This week’s Spotlight titles are #3087-#3105 on The Ginormous book list.

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*Imposter Syndrome and Other Confessions of Alejandra Kim by Patricia Park

Alejandra Kim doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere. At her wealthy Manhattan high school, her súper Spanish name and súper Korean face do not compute to her mostly white “woke” classmates and teachers. In her Jackson Heights neighborhood, she’s not Latinx enough. Even at home, Ale feels unwelcome. And things at home have only gotten worse since Papi’s body was discovered on the subway tracks.

Ale wants nothing more than to escape the city for the wide-open spaces of the prestigious Wyder University. But when a microaggression at school thrusts Ale into the spotlight–and into a discussion she didn’t ask for–Ale must discover what is means to carve out a space for yourself to belong.

Patricia Park’s coming-of-age novel about a multicultural teen caught between worlds, and the future she is building for herself, is an incisive, laugh-out-loud, provocative read.

Kirkus and SLJ starred.

  • Genre(s): realistic fiction
  • Setting: elite private school in Manhattan, New York City, USA
  • Recommended for: Grades 7+
  • Themes: discrimination, subtle racism, classism, microaggressions, death of a parent (father), Asian Americans, scholarship students, inclusivity, privilege, woke-ness, not fitting in
  • Protagonist description: female, Korean Argentine, HS senior

*Last Chance Dance by Lakita Wilson

Leila is crushed when Dev, her boyfriend of four years, breaks up with her right before graduation. Just when she’s thinking she wasted her entire high school experience on a dead-end relationship, her best friend Bree reminds her that Last Chance Dance is just around the corner.

A high school tradition, the Last Chance Dance gives all the students one last opportunity to find love before they graduate. All Leila has to do is submit three unrequited crushes to the dance committee and if any of her crushes list her too, they’ll get matched. Presto: new relationship, just like that. To her utter amazement, Leila is matched with all three of her choices–and with someone she never expected, Tre Hillman, her chemistry partner and low-key nemesis.

Though at times skeptical, Leila embarks on her Last Chance Dance mission–trying out her matches and going on dates. If Dev wasn’t her true love–then maybe someone else is. She knows it’s definitely not Tre, even though he seems more and more determined to convince her he’s right for her.

But as graduation and the dance approaches, and each date seems to change her mind (and her heart)–Leila must figure out what–and who–she really wants. It’s her last chance, right?

Kirkus and Publishers Weekly starred.

  • Genre(s): romance, rom-com
  • Setting: Prince George’s County, Maryland, USA
  • Recommended for: Grades 7+
  • Themes: dating and relationships, best friends, school dances, matchmaking, unrequited love, high school graduation
  • Protagonist description: female, HS senior, Black; secondary cast is diverse

Project Nought by Chelsey Furedi

Ren Mittal’s last memory in the year 1996 is getting on a bus to visit his mystery pen pal Georgia. When he wakes up in 2122, he thinks he might be hallucinating…he’s not!

Tech conglomerate Chronotech sponsors a time-travel program to help students in 2122 learn what history was really like…from real-life subjects who’ve been transported into the future…and Ren is one of them.

In 2122, Ren’s life in the 1990s is practically ancient history–and Ren’s not sure how to feel about that. On top of it all, he learns that his memory will be wiped of all things 2122 before he’s sent back to the ’90s. Adding to Ren’s complicated feels, he’s forming a crush on his student guide, Mars.

And when he crosses paths with the absolute last person he expected to see in the future, he has a bigger problem on his hands: What if Chronotech isn’t the benevolent organization they claim to be, and he and his fellow subjects are in great danger?

  • Genre(s): science fiction, adventure, graphic novel
  • Setting: New Zealand, 1996 and 2122
  • Recommended for: Grades 8+
  • Themes: future settings, 1990s, webcomics, evil corporations, pen pals, LGBTQIA+, ethics in scientific research
  • Protagonist description: male, teen, Asian Indian New Zealander, queer

Where Darkness Blooms by Andrea Hannah

The town of Bishop is known for exactly two things: recurring windstorms and an endless field of sunflowers that stretches farther than the eye can see. And women–missing women. So when three more women disappear one stormy night, no one in Bishop is surprised. The case is closed and their daughters are left in their dusty shared house with the shattered pieces of their lives. Until the wind kicks up a terrible secret at their mothers’ much-delayed memorial.

With secrets come the lies each of the girls is forced to confront. After caring for the other girls, Delilah would like to move on with her boyfriend, Bennett, but she can’t bear his touch. Whitney has already lost both her mother and her girlfriend, Eleanor, and now her only solace is an old weathervane that seems to whisper to her. Jude, Whitney’s twin sister, would rather ignore it all, but the wind kicks up her secret too: the summer fling she had with Delilah’s boyfriend. And more than anything, Bo wants answers and she wants them now. Something happened to their mothers and the townsfolk know what it was. She’s sure of it.

Bishop has always been a strange town. But what the girls don’t know is that Bishop was founded on blood–and now it craves theirs.

Ooh! This sounds great for fans of Kim Liggett’s The Grace Year!

  • Genre(s): supernatural, thriller, mystery, horror
  • Setting: small town of Bishop, Kansas
  • Recommended for: Grade 7+
  • Themes: femicide, missing women, patriarchy, friendship, alternating perspectives, violence, sentient plants, sunflowers, twins, secrets, lies
  • Protagonist description: alternates among four teen females; two are twin sisters

Junkyard Dogs by Katherine Higgs-Coulthard

Josh’s father has gone missing without a trace, and Gran’s ready to call social services. If Josh wants to keep himself and and his little brother, Twig, out of the system, he’ll have to take to the streets and track down his dad. But when Josh digs too deep, his dad’s old accomplices catch up to Josh and plunge him into a dangerous underground where putting his trust in the wrong person could number Josh in a growing pile of bodies.

This chilling portrayal of a teen desperate for food, shelter, and safety barrels the reader through an emotionally-charged journey as Josh discovers that blood doesn’t always make family–and some bonds can be broken forever.

  • Genre(s): realistic fiction
  • Setting: Indiana
  • Recommended for: Grades 9-12
  • Themes: missing parent, neglect, abandonment, brothers, homelessness, poverty, grandparents, abusive families, drugs
  • Protagonist description: male, age 17, white

*Lasagna Means I Love You by Kate O’Shaughnessy

Nan was all the family Mo ever needed. But suddenly she’s gone, and Mo finds herself in foster care after her uncle decides she’s not worth sticking around for.

Nan left her a notebook and advised her to get a hobby, like ferret racing or palm reading. But how could a hobby fix anything in her newly topsy-turvy life?

Then Mo finds a handmade cookbook filled with someone else’s family recipes. Even though Nan never cooked, Mo can’t tear her eyes away. Not so much from the recipes, but the stories attached to them. Though, when she makes herself a pot of soup, it is every bit as comforting as the recipe notes said.

Soon Mo finds herself asking everyone she meets for their family recipes. Teaching herself to make them. Collecting the stories behind them. Building a website to share them. And, okay, secretly hoping that a long-lost relative will find her and give her a family recipe all her own.

But when everything starts to unravel again, Mo realizes that if she wants a family recipe–or a real family–she’s going to have to make it up herself.

Kirkus and Publishers Weekly starred.

  • Genre(s): realistic fiction
  • Setting: New York City, New York, USA
  • Recommended for: Grades 3-7
  • Themes: grief, foster care, family, cooking, family recipes, family stories, creating a website, new friendships, food
  • Protagonist description: female, age 11, white

*The Worlds We Leave Behind by A.F. Harrold (Author) and Levi Pinfold (Illustrator)

Hex doesn’t know why he does the things he does–why he sometimes stands up in class to look out the window or ask an unrelated question or do a little dance. He also doesn’t know why he threw the rock that day in the woods. He didn’t mean for the girl to fall and break her arm. But he’s blamed anyway.

Enraged at how unfair life is, Hex runs into the woods and finds himself in a strange clearing–a clearing that can’t possibly exist–where a strange old woman offers him a deal: she’ll rid the world of those who wronged him. All he has to do is accept and they’ll be forgotten, forever. But what Hex doesn’t know is that someone else has been offered the same deal.

When Hex’s best friend Tommo wakes up the next day, something feels wrong. Half-whispered memories tug at his brain, making him think that something–or someone–is missing from his life. Can Tommo put the world back the way it was? Or can he find a way to make a new world that could be better for them all?

Booklist and SLJ starred. Includes grayscale illustrations.

  • Genre(s): fantasy, supernatural
  • Setting: England
  • Recommended for: Grades 4-8
  • Themes: best friends, betrayal, magic, consequences, courage, alternate timelines, anger, revenge
  • Protagonist description: male, white

Breaking the Mold: Changing the Face of Climate Science by Dana Alison Levy

Sixteen scientists. Protecting our planet. Making science more equitable.

Scientists who collect microbes from surfers’ skin, who use radar sensors to gather data miles away, who combat inequality by pushing for cleaner air policies. Each with their own story, all working to make life better for future generations.

Celebrated author Dana Alison Levy profiles 16 people, all studying different elements of the earth’s landscape, animals, and climate, who defy stereotypes of who can be a scientist. From analytical chemists to volcanologists, from global experts to recent graduates, these scientists share what they were like as young people, how they got where they are now, and what they—and the rest of us—can do to help the planet.

Based on extensive interviews and featuring infographics and personal photos, Breaking the Mold offers a snapshot of the people and organizations fighting to make science more equitable. Back matter includes advice for readers interested in science careers, DIY projects, paths to community involvement, and more.

SLJ starred.

  • Genre(s): collective biography, narrative nonfiction
  • Setting: worldwide
  • Recommended for: Grades 3-8
  • Themes: equality, STEM, science, pollution, climate change, environmental science, diversity, NASA, meteorology, microbiomes
  • Protagonist description: profiles of 16 diverse scientists, including LGBTQ+, disabled, BIPOC

The Enchanted Life of Valentina Mejía by Alexandra Alessandri

Twelve-year-old Valentina wants to focus on drawing the real world around her and hopefully get into art school in Bogotá one day, but Papi has spent his life studying Colombia’s legendary creatures and searching for proof of their existence. So when Papi hears that a patasola–a vampire woman with one leg–has been sighted in the Andes, Valentina and her younger brother Julián get dragged along on another magical creature hunt.

While they’re in the Andes, a powerful earthquake hits. Valentina and Julián fall through the earth…and find an alternate Colombia where, to Valentina’s shock, all the legends are real.

To get home, Valentina and Julián must make a treacherous journey to reach this land’s ruler: the madremonte, mother and protector of the earth. She controls the only portal back to the human world–but she absolutely hates humans, and she’ll do anything to defend her land.

Kirkus starred.

  • Genre(s): fantasy, mythology, supernatural
  • Setting: Colombia, Andes Mountains, South America
  • Recommended for: Grades 3-7
  • Themes: earthquakes, Colombian legends, myths, monsters supernatural beings, journeys, finding one’s way home, portals, alternate worlds, folklore, witches, magic
  • Protagonist description: female, age 12, Colombian

No Matter the Distance by Cindy Baldwin

Penny Rooney has cystic fibrosis, which means she has to do breathing treatments to help her lungs work. Some days, it seems like her CF is the only thing Penny knows about herself for sure.

From her point of view, everyone around her can make sense of their place in the world. So why can’t Penny even begin to write a poem about herself for school?

Then during spring break Penny spots something impossible in the creek behind her house: a dolphin, far from its home. Penny names the dolphin Rose and feels an immediate bond, since the dolphin is also sick.

But as Penny’s CF worsens, she realizes that Rose needs to return to her pod to get better. Will Penny be able to help guide Rose back to the ocean, even if it means losing her friend?

Booklist starred. The author herself has cystic fibrosis.

  • Genre(s): realistic fiction, animal stories, novel in verse
  • Setting: North Carolina
  • Recommended for: Grades 3-7
  • Themes: chronic illness, cystic fibrosis, pink dolphins, animals, human-animal friendships, #ownvoices
  • Protagonist description: female, age 11, sixth grader, white, has cystic fibrosis

Fae and the Moon by Franco Aureliani (Author), Catherine Satrun (Illustrator), and Sarah Satrun (Illustrator)

Fae, in mourning for her missing mother, sits night after night below the Moon that her mother so loved.

Then one night she discovers she can pluck the Moon out of the star-filled sky! Back safe in her house, she holds it close, feeling comfort at last. But Fae loses the Moon, and finds that taking it has awakened ancient monsters–rats, dragons, and more, who hunt it for themselves. Will Fae be able to reclaim the Moon, find her own inner strength, and save the world from eternal darkness?

This has not received any starred reviews (as of yet), but I can see this being super-popular with elementary students!

  • Genre(s): graphic novel, fantasy
  • Setting: magical world
  • Recommended for: Grades 1-7
  • Themes: grief, the moon, monsters, lost objects, talking animals, good versus evil
  • Protagonist description: female, pale skin, red hair

The Human Kaboom by Adam Rubin

Adam Rubin is back with this companion to The Ice Cream Machine, inviting you into six thrilling new worlds filled with daring and danger, mystery and mayhem—not to mention explosions!

In a swanky New York City hotel, a reclusive guest appears to have spontaneously combusted. On a school field trip to a human anatomy museum in space, two kids try to pull off the greatest prank in history.

Somewhere on a deserted island, three siblings try to make a life for themselves after the rest of the planet has been decimated by gigantic rock monsters. And then there’s the small, quaint fishing town where a boy visiting his sister stumbles across an ancient curse; the traveling circus where a young girl becomes the assistant to a death-defying human cannonball; and the rugged wilderness where one kid with superpowers just can’t seem to find some peace.

BCCB starred. Includes black and white illustrations by different artists.

  • Genre(s): short stories, humor
  • Setting: various settings
  • Recommended for: Grades 3-7
  • Themes: explosions, spontaneous combustion, circus acrobats, pranks
  • Protagonist description: all protagonists cue as white

Abandon Ship!: The True World War II Story About the Sinking of the Laconia by Michael J. Tougias (Author) and Alison O’Leary (Author)

True Survival series, book 1. On September 12, 1942, the RMS Laconia was attacked by a German submarine five hundred miles off the coast of western Africa.

What the Germans didn’t know was that they had just attacked their allies: locked below decks on the British ship were nearly 1,800 Italian prisoners of war.

When the Germans realized their mistake, they made the unprecedented decision to rescue all survivors regardless of their nationality, attempting to declare the waters a neutral zone.

But when an American bomber flew over the humanitarian effort, he was ordered to drop bombs, contributing to the deaths of many Italian POWs and British civilians in the process. Some of those who remained alive endured weeks adrift at sea, fighting for survival with little water or food, and in shark infested oceans.

Suspenseful and informative, this incredible true account, which includes historic photographs, is a testament to the idea that compassion can rule over conflict—even at the cruel heights of war.

This sounds super-interesting and should be easy to booktalk with upper-elementary and middle school students. Give this to fans of the I Survived series.

  • Genre(s): narrative nonfiction
  • Setting: 500 miles off the coast of West Africa; 1942
  • Recommended for: Grades 4-10
  • Themes: war, WWII, survival, rescue efforts, world history, steamships, maritime disasters, torpedoes, prisoners of war, German U-boats
  • Protagonist description: wide variety of people – Italian POWs, Polish guards, British military personnel, and civilians

*You Are a Story by Bob Raczka (Author), Kristen Howdeshell (Illustrator), and Kevin Howdeshell (Illustrator)

Poet Bob Raczka’s You are a Story highlights all of the nuance and potential of a growing person’s identity, delighting in the things that make us special and connect us to others. Text and illustrations replete with inventive imagery and appealing metaphors show how we all live as individuals and citizens of the world.

You are a living thing.
You breathe. You eat. You Sleep.
You work and play.
You have dreams and fears.
You have thoughts and memories.
You are.

What makes you you? So much goes into who you are, and you are so many different things: A child, an animal, a body of water, a friend, a mystery, one-of-a-kind, a miracle. You are and could be so many things, but whatever you choose to do, it’s your life to write, you are a story.

Booklist and SLJ starred.

  • Genre(s): picture book
  • Recommended for: PreS-Grade 5
  • Themes: uniqueness, individuality, personal experiences, identity, interconnectedness, being oneself, writing stories, telling one’s own story, metaphors, social emotional learning, SEL, imagination
  • Protagonist description: a diverse group of children with different skin tones, hair textures, and physical abilities

The Last Plastic Straw: A Plastic Problem and Finding Ways to Fix It by Dee Romito (Author) and Ziyue Chen (Illustrator)

From reeds used by ancient Sumerians to bendy straws in World War II hospitals, people have changed the straw to fit their needs for 5000 years. Today however, this useful tool is contributing to the plastic problem polluting our oceans. Once again, the simple straw needs a reinvention.

With bright illustrations and well-researched text, children can read about the inventors behind the straw’s technological advancements, including primary sources like patents, as well as how disposable plastic harms the environment. See the newest solutions, from plastic straw alternatives to activism by real kids like Milo Cress who started the Be Straw Free campaign when he was 11 years old.

Learn about what kids can do to reduce plastic waste. The backmatter includes more information on the movement to stop plastic waste, action items kids can do, a bibliography, and additional resources on plastic pollution.

Horn Book starred.

  • Genre(s): informational picture book; picture book for older readers
  • Setting: 5000-year history of straws
  • Recommended for: Grades 2-5
  • Themes: straws, evolution of useful objects, history of straws, Earth Day, plastic pollution, technology, inventions, plastic waste, activism, cleaning up the planet
  • Protagonist description: humans pictured are racially diverse

Black Beach: A Community, an Oil Spill, and the Origin of Earth Day by Shaunna & John Stith (Author) and Maribel Lechuga (Illustrator)

Twenty million people across the country made their voices heard on the first Earth Day.

Some came out to celebrate the environment, while others protested and demanded change.

A movement was born.

In 1969, Union Oil caused an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara that would change the world. Hazardous crude oil from the blowout flooded the Pacific Ocean, harming wildlife and devastating habitats. But from this ecological disaster sprang a new wave of environmental activism that continues to this day.

Based on actual events, Black Beach: A Community, an Oil Spill, and the Origin of Earth Day follows Sam and her classmates as they fight back. Sam initially feels powerless watching her parents and neighbors try to clean up the oil spill. But as her awareness grows, she learns she’s not alone in caring for the Earth. The impact of the spill seeps into living rooms and classrooms across the nation. People everywhere are motivated to act, and a movement to protect and celebrate the environment is born.

Booklist starred.

  • Genre(s): informational picture book
  • Setting: off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, USA; 1969-today
  • Recommended for: PreS-Grade 3
  • Themes: oil spills, Earth Day, pollution, environmental protection, origin of Earth Day, conservation, activism
  • Protagonist description: female, light-skinned; diversity is included in illustrations

Bravo, Little Bird! by Annie Silvestro (Author) and Ramona Kaulitzki (Illustrator)

The old man played joyful, jolly music.
Sad, soulful music.
Beautiful, bountiful, breathtaking music.
Little Bird listened…until she couldn’t stay quiet any longer.
Then, she sang.
“Bravo, Little Bird!” cheered the old man.

From this moment on, Little Bird and the old man are inseparable. Together, they make music and share their gifts with their families.

But over time, the old man starts to grow tired…until the day comes when his piano playing stops altogether. As Little Bird looks for a special way to honor the old man’s memory, she soon discovers that her friend isn’t truly gone after all–he lives on in their music.

Kirkus starred.

  • Genre(s): picture book
  • Recommended for: PreS-Grade 4
  • Themes: music, piano, death, grief, birds, honoring someone’s memory, grandfathers
  • Protagonist description: old man, his wife, and a grandson; all tan-skinned

Elbert in the Air by Monica Wesolowska (Author) and Jerome Pumphrey (Illustrator)

Shortly after he is born, Elbert floats up into the air. Before long, his mother must stand on her tip toes to reach him and toss toys into the air at playtime.

While everyone in town, from the school nurse to the mayor, is full of advice for keeping her boy down, Elbert’s mother knows her son is meant to float. And so, she lets him.

But as life becomes more and more difficult for a floating boy, and people understand him less and less, Elbert has to make a decision: Stay bound to the ground or float higher in the hopes of finding the world–and community–he’s always wished for.

SLJ starred.

  • Genre(s): picture book, magical realism
  • Recommended for: PreS-Grade 3
  • Themes: floating, differently-abled, individuality, uniqueness, allegory, supporting someone with differences, neurodiversity, mothers and sons, unconditional love
  • Protagonist description: boy and his mother; both have brown skin and curly black hair

Wallflowers by Mackenzie Joy

Sometimes they call you shy. Sometimes they call you quiet, or maybe even scared. People think these are bad things, because sometimes they are LOUD.

But you are happy just the way you are. And maybe you don’t need to learn to be loud, they just need to learn to listen.

Mackenzie Joy beautifully pairs her gorgeous illustrations with minimalist text in this heartwarming book that doesn’t just acknowledge shy children, but celebrates them–because every wallflower deserves their chance to grow.

Kirkus starred.

  • Genre(s): picture book
  • Recommended for: PreS-Grade 3
  • Themes: quiet, introversion, shyness, gardens, metaphor, individuality
  • Protagonist description: multiple children with varying skin tones




The New Release Spotlight began in May 2016 as a way to help librarians keep up with the many new children’s and YA books that are released each week. Every Tuesday, school librarian Leigh Collazo compiles the New Release Spotlight using a combination of Follett’s Titlewave, Amazon, Goodreads, and Barnes and Noble. Titles with a * by them received two or more starred professional reviews. Recommended grade levels represent the range of grade levels recommended by professional book reviewers.

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