School’s out, vacations are planned, and Casual Fridays are in effect for some offices. Still, summer may look a little different for kids and adults these days with less roaming around aimlessly, more scheduled activities, and hours of screen-time with the mini-computers in our hands. Thankfully, there is a HUGE amount of books with a wide swath of characters, adventures, themes, and styles to distract us from our screens. Whether we are browsing the library or our local book stores, it’s clear there are many books out there to satisfy any summer reading interests. There truly is something for everyone. To help kids (and the adults who love them!) take part in the Montclair Public Library’s Summer Reading program, Baristanet has collected some of our favorite suggestions for books to read all summer long! Let us know which books you recommend in comments.
Pre-School and Elementary Readers
Chris Singleton’s beautiful picture book, YOUR LIFE MATTERS, is a masterful expression of reassurance and love. It begins with a frightening and direct set of circumstances that might make young children, especially young Black children, feel like the world does not appreciate them. The rest of the book answers “Does my life matter?” with a resounding YES! followed by example after example of how deeply the reader’s life matters “from the tips of your hair to the lengths of your toes.”
Each page matches a reason the reader’s eyes, hands, heart, strength matters with an illustration of a Black icon demonstrating the example together with children. The icons, who include Katherine Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Maya Angelou, Barack Obama, Tegla Loroupe, are not named in the images, allowing children to imagine the adults in their lives — or themselves — as the mentors. The words hold up all that is possible and deserved, whether it’s in front of thousands or comforting one person’s broken heart.
This lovely picture book will satisfy curiosity about what some of the most familiar animals do at night, making it a wonderful bedtime read! WHERE DO CREATURES SLEEP AT NIGHT? by Steven J. Simmons is a rhyming collection of vignettes that provides families downtime before bed. Readers travel to ponds and backyards, burrows and bowls, fields and toddler beds as they visit domesticated and wild animals at night. The beautiful illustrations by Ruth Harper are bathed in restful blues and golds depict animals playing during the day and settling down for the night. Each animal has a page devoted to the contrast between daytime activity and nighttime rest. While domesticated animals like kittens and dogs are included, the focus is on familiar woodland and backyard creatures like ducks, squirrels, and honeybees.
The picture book WISHES by Mượn Thị Văn is one of those books you’ll want to give to every family and teacher you know. Built on the author’s deeply personal memories, its themes of loss, perseverance, and hope will resonate with every reader, even the youngest. Each page has just one line that shares a wish as a family of refugees prepares for and experiences a dangerous journey to a safer shore. The wishes come from various objects and natural elements during the journey, thus providing emotional safety for the little girl at the center of the story. The text is gentle and general, and it is the rich, detailed imagery that conveys the danger and fear. One moving example is the page showing the tiny refugee boat in a rough, uneasy sea. The text tells us, “The sea wished it was calmer.” The illustration shows sheets of rain, rough waves, and a bird’s eye view of the passengers huddled together, some with coverings and some without, exposed to the whims of the weather’s effect on the sea. Be forewarned: the heavy sense of longing for home and safety will ensure a few tears are shed by anyone with a heart.
For some extra summery reads, check out THE SANDCASTLE THAT LOLA BUILT by Megan Maynor puts a summer riff on The House that Jack Built to emphasize teamwork while showing the frustration that can sometimes come when cooperation is necessary. Lola starts meticulously building her dream sandcastle, and as she builds, more and more children come to “help.” Lola’s enthusiasm seems to take a dip when an inopportune wave visits, but the children she invited to play end up helping to save the day. In addition, PUNKY ALOHA by Shar Tuiasoa is a bright picture book about Punky, a delightful little girl who finds out how to be brave enough to overcome her nervousness about meeting new people. Care-givers will recognize one of the techniques — magical sunglasses — used. And all readers will want a fresh slice of banana bread when the story is done.
Middle Grade Readers
John Cho’s TROUBLEMAKER takes place on the first day of the protests following the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. Told through the eyes and voice of 12-year-old Jordan Park, a first-generation Korean-American. In one of the first scenes in the book, he reminds readers that a Korean store owner had recently shot and killed LaTasha Harlins, a young Black teenaged girl who had been accused of shoplifting. The two tragic injustices are questioned and held up with the authentic and fresh spotlight of Jordan’s youthful gaze. In addition, Jordan’s personal dramas include being suspended for cheating, a fraught relationship with his parents, and feeling disconnected from friends and purpose. The story follows Jordan through Los Angeles on the first night of the uprisings. Without focusing on specific violence, the righteous and relatable tension elevates the genre in a way that makes sense to readers who weren’t even born when the events occurred.
HUDA F ARE YOU is a graphic memoir by Huda Fahmy that tackles identity, teen angst, family expectations, and friendship with earnest humor and empathetic introspection. With deeply moving scenes around self-doubt, fitting in, and generational struggles, it will feel familiar to any reader. The characters are realistic and sympathetic, cringe-worthy and likable, and most of us will recognize ourselves and our friends and family in the pages. The main character Huda moves from a town where she is the only girl wearing a hijab to a town where she is surrounded by girls who look just like she does. As she shifts from being “the other” because of her outward appearance, Huda begins to figure out additional layers of her identity. Not easy! Between trying out clubs, friends, keeping up her grades, and learning how to navigate racist micro-aggressions, Huda is exhausted — but hopeful. The character is so authentic and endearing, that readers are rooting for her at every step forward and at every misstep as well.
JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA is a fast-paced middle-grade novel by Shakirah Bourne that blends the usual angst and challenges of middle grade stories (loss of a parent, best friend drama, questionable adults, feeling different) with mythology and magical threats to overcome. Josephine, the main character, is a wonderfully headstrong eleven-year-old who loves her father, the game of cricket, and she will do just about anything to protect one and play the other. Set in Barbados and filled with relatable conflicts, a full menu of entertaining characters, and a likable heroine with room to grow, the book will entertain readers as they root for Josephine to come out on top. As with many middle grade novels, there are adventures that go well beyond what an eleven-year-old would normally experience. There are physical dangers, emotional trauma, and personal divides to conquer before the story can wrap up. The likable personality and daring-sometimes-silly antics of the main character as well as the people that surround her makes sure that readers will enjoy the book from start to finish. Readers should know there are scenes of near drowning, references to the death of a parent, infertility, and violent threats. The language is age-appropriate and wrapped in the context of typical middle grade conflicts and adventures.
SWIMMING WITH SHARKS by Melissa Cristina Márquez is the #2 book in the Wild Survival series. As a stand-alone story, readers do not need to have read the first book to enjoy this adventure. The main character, 12-year-old Adrianna, is passionate about sharks, and desperately wants to convince everyone to love them just as much as she does. This novel takes place in Sri Lanka and centers on a rare Pondicherry shark that Adrianna’s family is sure is being kept in a restaurant’s tank as a tourist attraction. The fast pace and detailed descriptions of the country and people are infectious and fun. The characters are all likable and easy to relate to throughout the story. The family speaks Spanish and English during the novel, and there are several instances where Sri Lankan languages of Tamil and Sinhala are inserted into descriptions. It’s an age-appropriate adventure with informational inserts about various wildlife that is mentions. Readers will look forward to reading the next adventure thanks to the satisfying but cliff-hanger ending.
THE MAGICAL REALITY OF NADIA by Bassem Youssef and Catherine R. Daly is a lot of fun, and it deals with the usual middle grade topics of changing friendships, conflicts and bullying, self-identity, and even group-work challenges at school. All this is intermingled with a healthy dose of magic in the form of an ancient Egyptian teacher who is trapped in an amulet. With “fun facts” strewn throughout the novel and likable main and supporting characters, this will be a favorite read for many adventure lovers. Nadia, the main character, begins her 6th grade year with pride in her Egyptian heritage and with her best friend Adam by her side. Soon, however, a new kid disrupts her positivity by distracting her best friend and being a rude and bigoted bully about Nadia’s lunches, appearance, and clothing. The novel does a great job following different students’ responses and Nadia’s personal feelings about how the bullying makes her feel. Her choice to stop wearing clothing that celebrates her Egyptian identity will feel heartbreakingly familiar to many of us.
JUST BE COOL, JENNA SAKAI by Debbi Michiko Florence is a layered, thoughtful, and light exploration of how middle schoolers respond to dramas big (family divorce) and not-so-big (academic competition, friendship changes). This stand-alone follow-up to Keep It Together, Keiko Carter is readable, relatable, and filled with well-developed characters we both like and hope will grow. Main character Jenna is insecure, angry and vulnerable, and beneath her “heartbreak is for suckers” attitude, she is a bit of a romantic. When she returns from winter break with her dad, Jenna finds out her all-consuming boyfriend has broken up with her. An unwillingness to trust mixes with trading resentment for love, and it’s clear that despite the hurt over her own breakup, Jenna’s parents’ divorce is the real breakup she still needs to deal with. The story handles the complicated emotions well and with authenticity; parents of middle-schoolers would do well to read the book, too.
RICK by Alex Gino is not a continuation of the award-winning GEORGE from a several years ago, but the themes and some characters are consistent. This important novel focuses on Rick, whose best friend heckled and harassed Melissa (the focus of the novel GEORGE) for years, before she came out as a transgender girl. Rick treasures the long-time friendship he has with Jeff, but as he discovers and embraces his own identity, he realizes that Jeff is not someone he can find support with or rely on. With gentle discussions laced throughout the novel that involve language and LGBTQ+ labels, discovering and asserting one’s true self, and finding the courage to make change in relationships, the novel serves as both an affirmation and a guide for young people and the adults who love them.
High School/Young Adult
In the graphic novel ALMOST AMERICAN GIRL, writer and illustrator Robin Ha shares a deeply personal journey of moving from Korea to the United States as she grapples with identity, harassment, and her relationship with her mother. Robin loves her friends and life in Seoul, Korea. It’s always been just her and her mom at home, and while life isn’t perfect, delicious snacks, a comfortable routine, and close friends make Robin happy. When she and her mom take a vacation to Alabama, Robin trusts her mom and doesn’t ask many questions — and then her whole life is turned upside down. This jarring beginning opens up a dizzying array of experiences that many young teen readers will relate to even if their experiences are not all that similar to Robin’s. This memoir is also a fantastic opportunity for parents and teachers to reconnect with what being a teen who feels “othered” is like.
Between learning the language, being bullied by other kids, and being ignored by a new step-family, Robin is miserable. While she finds some consolation in her art, it’s the kindness of a teacher, the unconditional love of a dog, letters from her friends in Seoul, it is a connection to art and a budding realization of why her mom left Korea that pull Robin through a dark time. The scenes are expertly developed with layers of personality and complicated social interactions. Everyone will find something with which to connect in this narrative.
IN THE SAME BOAT by Holly Green is a YA story about conquering a 265 mile paddling race called the Texas River Odyssey. It’s also about relationships, forgiveness, pride, and perseverance. Main character Sadie Scofield was brought up to do difficult things and stay true to the family tradition of finishing the annual race through “constant forward motion.” However, the river adventure is just one challenge Sadie has to overcome, and it might depend on the more difficult task of healing the rift between her former best friend, Cully. The vivid descriptions of the physical effects of paddling for almost 300 miles help readers imagine themselves in the canoe with the teens. Between the blisters, muscle cramps, hunger, and stomach upheaval, readers will feel included in the good, the bad, and the very ugly of river racing. Technical terms related to river boating will become familiar by the end of the story. And while the novel doesn’t have a fairy-tale ending, the two-and-a-half days provide a solid and believable arc for several characters.
Leah Johnson’s second YA novel, RISE TO THE SUN, is a summery, dramatic, fun story that weaves serious emotional pain and challenges with a story about friendship, falling in love, and realizing one’s importance in the world. Told via alternating perspectives of the two main characters, Olivia and Toni, readers follow their blossoming romance and experience a music festival and all its adventures through the vivid descriptions and authentic, believable dialogue between the characters. Heavy topics addressed in the novel include nonconsensual sharing of private photos, gun violence, death of a parent, and the main characters spend a lot of time trying to avoid the realities of these topics. RISE TO THE SUN is a wonderful and relatable summer read. On the surface, it feels like there is too much action packed into the story, but thanks to Johnson’s steady and detailed prose, readers will lean into the characters and the story. It is a pleasure to witness the growth and hard choices made by each of the main characters. Highly recommended.
A first impression of THE DO-OVER by Jennifer Honeybourn may be a Young Adult retread of Sliding Doors or 13 Going on 30, but it the novel delves into realistic regrets that many teens have survived over the generations. It also details the kind of drama that feels life-changing at 15, and based on how many of us dwell on some events — perhaps it is! This engaging novel about a high school girl who regrets how she treated her friends and gets a chance to “do-over” one night, is a breezy, but not shallow, read.
Main character Emelia, or Em, has two close friends: Alistair and Marisol. She knows she has possible romantic feelings for Alistair, but is afraid of ruining their friendship. When the most popular boy in school, Ben, sets his sights on Em, she jumps into the world of popularity and boyfriends feet first, neglecting her long-time friends. When the novel jumps ahead six months, Em realizes that she is miserable and regrets ever getting involved with Ben and his popular crowd. At a summer carnival, she finds a “magical” yellow gem in a fortune teller’s tent and gets the chance to fix her regretful actions — or so she thinks. A fun read.
Adult Reads – local authors!
The world is A LOT these days. Always? Sometimes when the world is rough, we want books that are more gentle, but not too fluffy. Prolific author Valerie Wilson Wesley’s new novel is exactly that. Her first book in the “cozy” genre, A GLIMMER OF DEATH, doesn’t shy away from stark issues, but it does so with a softer hand. It’s a detective murder mystery, without the harshness or machismo of the genre. Wilson’s explanation of the genre is “cozy mysteries are just that—cozy. Character and setting are paramount. Hard cursing and graphic violence are off-stage. They’re more of a puzzle, more delving into character and the why of how bad things happen.” To emphasize the style, cozies usually feature appearances of cats and tea – both of which are included in A Glimmer of Death. And when you’re done, choose the follow-up, A Fatal Glow.
For sports-lovers, the well-received OUR LAST SEASON from Harvey Araton will deliver thoughtful and relatable scenes from a long-term friendship. Araton’s memoir focuses on his mentor Michelle Musler as she helps him through personal, health, and professional challenges. As often happens in friendships, he gets a chance to help her eventually as well. Basketball fans will love the behind-the-scenes moments, and we can all relate to the supportive and optimistic narrative around friendship.
Marcy Dermansky’s 5th novel, HURRICANE GIRL, is a perfect summer read. Described as gripping and provocative, this story doesn’t shy away from sex, violence, seeking freedom, finding joy, and more. For those who enjoy books that feel like substantial-not-fluffy guilty pleasures, following the main character Allison through tragedies, challenges, and events that feel shockingly satisfying. The spare prose manages to be descriptive without feeling overdone. Readers will have no trouble enjoying this novel whether it’s on the beach, on the road, or for a staycation.
Alice Elliott Dark’s FELLOWSHIP POINT (out on July 5th) will engross readers for each of the 600 pages. The novel follows two lifelong friends, Agnes and Polly, through heartbreak, love, loss of beloved children, struggles between generations who “know better,” and variations on ambition. The world Dark creates is layered and detailed; the characters and conversations are wholly formed and recognizable. Agnes, a children’s author (and secret novelist) and Polly, a devoted wife, mother, and friend, are committed to their friendship, their values, and to the Maine land of which they are stewards. How each woman responds to challenges is fascinating and, at times, surprising. When a younger companion suddenly appears with a tempting but unwanted opportunity, the juxtaposition of how the women respond deepens and grows our understanding of each character. Read the interview with Dark about Fellowship Point here.
Cleyvis Natera’s NERUDA ON THE PARK tackles gentrification, family conflict, ambitious dreams, and friendships in this debut novel about a Dominican family in New York City. Desperate schemes and budding romance entangle themselves to complicate the destruction and development of a community tenement. In a story lined with very real challenges between personal and public desires, morals, and responsibilities, the novel is sure to keep readers’ interest on summer days.
Looking for more? Browse Watchung Booksellers, Montclair Book Center, and our local library branches for new releases and old favorites. Also check out our past reading round-ups for young people: