New Kid on the Block

As kids reach their tween and teen years, "fitting in" suddenly becomes more important. These fiction titles, both serious and light, and across genres and formats, explore the topic.

As kids reach their tween and teen years fitting in and/or being perceived as fitting in suddenly becomes more important, particularly as they navigate school and social situations. Being new to a school or town can compound those concerns, or offer an opportunity to reinvent oneself. Below you’ll find a selection of fiction titles, across genres and formats, with both serious and light touches, that explore the topic—and others.

redstar BENJAMIN, Ali. The Next Great Paulie Fink. 368p. Little, Brown. Apr. 2019. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780316380881.
Gr 5-8 –Caitlyn has spent her sixth grade year learning the rules of middle school survival, and, while not attaining “silver dollar” social status, has secured a place among the other shiny “quarters.” When her mother gets a new job and they move to rural Vermont, Caitlyn must reconsider everything she thought she knew, including the social hierarchy and her place in it. First of all, the Mitchell school, housed in a ramshackle old estate, resembles a haunted mansion. The kids are assigned to care for a herd of goats that are grooming their soccer field and are expected to have lunch with assigned kindergarten buddies. Secondly, there are only 11 students in the entire seventh grade and they are in no way cool. Her classmates are devastated to learn that Paulie Fink, the legendary class prankster and creator of chaos, has not returned to Mitchell and they are too distraught to welcome Caitlyn. When the kids decide to hold a reality TV–type competition for the next great Paulie Fink, Caitlyn is chosen as the logical impartial arbiter. She uses oral histories and interviews to get to know her classmates as they demythologize this larger-than-life figure and learns a great deal about her own strengths in the process. Benjamin has crafted a smart, funny, and deeply felt coming of age story that middle schoolers will relate to and find themselves ruminating on. She incorporates allegories from the ancient Greeks to examine assumptions and to question one’s place in the community and in the world. VERDICT A witty, tender, and utterly engaging modern school story that draws on the wisdom of the ages.

See also SLJ ’s interview with Ali Benjamin.

CAPIN, Hannah. The Dead Queens Club. 448p. Inkyard. Jan. 2019. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781335542236.
Gr 7 Up–Annie Marck, aka Cleveland, is not your typical new girl struggling to find her place in her new home, Small Town, Indiana. Instead, Cleveland enters the scene on the arm of the most popular boy in town, super jock, genius, and prankster Henry. No, she’s not his girlfriend, but yes maybe she’d like to be. Henry is on his sixth girlfriend in two years, and his most recent ex is dead, killed in a mysterious prom explosion. Everyone has their theories, but Cleves is determined to find out what really happened before it’s too late and history repeats itself. Capin’s debut YA authentically captures high school culture and dialogue. Though sometimes a bit contrived and overly detailed, the novel’s light humor and whodunit aspect will keep readers’ interest in this send-up of King Henry VIII and his many wives. VERDICT A general purchase for most YA collections, especially those looking for genre-bending mysteries.–Betsy Davison, Cortland Jr. Sr. High School, NY

redstar CRAFT, Jerry. New Kid. illus. by Jerry Craft. 256p. HarperCollins. Feb. 2019. Tr $21.99. ISBN 9780062691200.
Gr 4-7 –Jordan Banks is anxious about being the new kid at Riverdale, especially since he’d rather be going to art school. He’s even more nervous when he realizes that, unlike in his Washington Heights neighborhood, at Riverdale, he’s one of the few kids of color. Despite some setbacks, Jordan eventually makes a few friends and chronicles his experiences in his sketch pad. This is more than a story about being the new kid—it’s a complex examination of the micro- and macroaggressions that Jordan endures from classmates and teachers. He is regularly mistaken for the other black kids at school. A teacher calls another black student by the wrong name and singles him out during discussions on financial aid. Even Jordan’s supportive parents don’t always understand the extent of the racism he faces. This book opens doors for additional discussion. Craft’s illustrations are at their best during the vibrant full-page spreads. The art loses a bit of detail during crowd scenes, but the characters’ emotions are always well conveyed. Jordan’s black-and-white notebook drawings are the highlight of this work, combining effective social commentary with the protagonist’s humorous voice. VERDICT Highly recommended for all middle grade shelves.–Gretchen Hardin, Sterling Municipal Library, Baytown, TX

See also SLJ’s interview with Jerry Craft .

redstar HERNANDEZ, Carlos. Sal and Gabi Break the Universe. 400p. (A Sal and Gabi Novel: Bk. 1). Disney-Hyperion. Mar. 2019. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781368022828.
Gr 4-8–Sal Vidón is attending a new school, with new bullies and new teachers who don’t understand the needs of a student with Type 1 diabetes. He also causes rips in time and space by transporting objects from other universes. Sometimes he transports harmless prank items, but sometimes he goes home to find his long-dead mother cooking yucca in the kitchen. When Sal meets Gabi Reál, student body president and all-around firebrand, they begin a friendship that may break the universe—or save it. Delightfully weird, this is unlike any other book in the middle grade canon. Hernandez has managed to include conflict and excitement into his first novel for young people, without falling into the trap of unrealistic villainy. Every character is doing their best, even when that best doesn’t turn out well. Readers need to be comfortable with a suspension of disbelief and accept unexplained backstories. Many elements of the story, like Sal’s superpowers and Gabi’s family dynamics (including a robot parent,) are left mostly unexplained. Fans who enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Rick Riordan’s works will love Sal and Gabi, as will readers looking for upbeat fiction with Spanish-speaking characters. VERDICT Hernandez offers a rip-roaring and emotionally resonant sci-fi adventure. A must-have for middle school or upper elementary libraries, especially where there are science fiction and fantasy fans.–Jeri Murphy, C.F. Simmons Middle School, Aurora, IL

redstar JOHNSON, Varian. The Parker Inheritance. 352p. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks. Mar. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780545946179.
Gr 4-6–Part historical fiction, part critical problem-solving exercise, part suspenseful mystery, this story weaves through the past and present of one town’s struggle with hatred and racism. Candice and her mother have moved temporarily from Washington, D.C., to her mother’s hometown in Lambert, SC, while her parents finalize the plans of their amicable divorce. Candice is miserable until she meets Brandon and finds an old letter addressed to her from her deceased grandmother with a puzzle enclosed. Twenty years prior, her grandmother had tried unsuccessfully to solve the puzzle that would yield a great deal of money to the town and the person who solved it. Together, Candice and Brandon make their own attempt. Who were Enoch, Leanne, and Siobhan Washington? How does an illegal tennis match played in 1957 between the white Wallace School and African American Perkins School factor into the solution? The characters are varied, authentic, and well developed. The plot moves along quickly and seamlessly between the past and present, with chapters from the 1950s shaded in light gray for a smart visual effect. The present day isn’t sugarcoated, showing readers that racial equity is still an unresolved problem. Appended author notes offer additional context, making it an excellent link to social studies or history units. VERDICT A must-purchase for most libraries, especially where Johnson’s previous titles have fans.–Anne Jung-Mathews, Plymouth State University, NH

redstar MAGOON, Kekla. The Season of Styx Malone. 304p. Random/Wendy Lamb Bks. Oct. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781524715953.
Gr 4-7–Summertime in small-town Indiana only heightens 10-year-old Caleb’s frustrations with feeling ordinary. When he and his older brother, Bobby Gene, meet smooth-talking 16-year-old Styx Malone, a whole new world of excitement, and its frequent companion trouble, opens up. Enthralled by cool kid Styx, Caleb and Bobby Gene are roped into an “escalator trade,” whereby the boys attempt to trade small things for increasingly more valuable items in the hopes of eventually trading up to a shiny moped. The characters are magnetic; Styx in particular unfolds into a touchingly human young man withstanding the buffets of foster care. The themes of friendship, trust, rebellion, and safety strongly flavor the book without overpowering the easy fun. VERDICT A summertime romp filled with trouble-making, camaraderie, and substance. A solid purchase, especially for collections where realism circulates well.–Erin Reilly-Sanders, University of Wisconsin-Madison

MCCRANIE, Stephen. Stephen McCranie’s Space Boy: Vol. 1. illus. by Stephen McCranie. 220p. Dark Horse. Jul. 2018. pap. $10.99. ISBN 9781506706481.
Gr 6 Up–Amy, 16, has spent her whole life on a mining colony in deep space. When her father loses his job, she and her family must move back to Earth. To make the 30-year trip back, they are cryogenically frozen. Upon awakening on Earth, Amy must adjust to life in a new place and time. Technology has drastically changed, her old friends have grown up and have children of their own, and everyone at her high school seems peculiar to her, especially a mysterious boy named Oliver. The characters in this graphic novel are a joy—so expressive and authentic, it’s impossible not to care for them. Amy’s synesthesia causes her to associate people with flavors, which adds dimension to the characters. Her mother is like mint, “sharp and bright”; her father is like hot chocolate, “sweet and full of gentle warmth.” The linework is superb, the palette appealing, and the backgrounds dynamic—vivid yet subtle, they deftly illustrate Amy’s flavors. The panel layouts mimic the original webcomic version of the book, with long flowing panels or sets of panels that advance the action smoothly and create lots of drama. VERDICT An arresting title with first-rate storytelling and beautiful use of color and design. For fans of graphic novels, sci-fi, or the webcomic.–Kelley Gile, Cheshire Public Library, CT

redstar MAFI, Tahereh. A Very Large Expanse of Sea. 320p. HarperCollins/HarperTeen. Oct. 2018. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780062866561.
Gr 9 Up–In the aftermath of 9/11, Shirin, a Muslim American teenager, bears the brunt of the country’s anger on a daily basis. An intelligent, mature girl, Shirin has built up a tough armor from years of being bullied and misunderstood. Moving homes frequently because of her parents’ continual desire to upgrade, she and her older brother are used to the ways their peers and teachers warily observe them. But now that the country is in panic mode and people see threats everywhere, Shirin, who has always chosen to wear a headscarf, is ostracized even more than usual at her newest high school. When a good-looking, white classmate, Ocean, starts to pay attention to her, Shirin cautiously dismisses him. Eventually, the two enter into a tentative relationship. No matter how much Shirin had anticipated the backlash, she is unprepared for the events that unfold when the community finds out about the two of them. It is not easy to incorporate important cultural themes in a young adult novel that also satisfies the social, romantic needs of teen readers. Not only does Mafi pull it off beautifully, but she exceeds expectations by delving deeply into characterization as well. Her writing is nuanced, smart, and lacks the sentimentality that often weighs down young adult books. Shirin and Ocean’s interactions are palpable, and the discussions and exploration of what it means to be a Muslim in politically charged America will resonate with many teens and will be enlightening for some. VERDICT A must-have for all library collections.–Karin Greenberg, Manhasset High School, Manhasset, NY

redstar PANETTA, Kevin. Bloom. illus. by Savanna Ganucheau. 368p. First Second. Feb. 2019. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781250196910; pap. $17.99. ISBN 9781626726413.
Gr 8 Up–Aristotle Kyrkos has graduated from high school and desperately wants to move to Baltimore with his friends to make it in the music industry. His father, owner of their family-run bakery, is less than understanding of Ari’s “anywhere but here” mentality, so, with the summer tourist season coming up, Ari hires a replacement. Enter Hector Galea. On sabbatical from culinary school, he’s in town to organize his late grandmother’s estate and figure out where his life is going. His skills boost the family’s struggling business, and Ari realizes the reason he’s spending so much time in the bakery has nothing to do with the delicious cupcakes and baguettes. With Baltimore starting to feel like a distant dream, Ari must make a decision about his future. Beautiful artwork depicts characters coping with life’s increasing responsibilities and is especially sumptuous when focusing on the yummy desserts. This is both a delicious foray into the world of baking and young love and an endearing, realistic tale of two teens helping one another grow. ­VERDICT A fresh take on the coming-of-age story that spotlights the triumphs and travails of young people. A must-read for teens craving a realistic love story.–Michael Marie ­Jacobs, Darlington School, GA

redstar PHILIPPE, Ben. The Field Guide to the North American Teenager. 384p. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Nov. 2018. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780062824110.
Gr 7 Up–Seventeen-year-old Norris Kaplan has just had his world turned upside-down. When his mother has to relocate to find work in her field, Norris finds his identity as a Black, French-Canadian hockey fan challenged by his new existence in the suburbs of Austin, Texas. While on the surface this is a classic fish-out-of-water tale, there are many more layers to the story. Lots of different elements of identity are brought to bear in Norris’s narration: his Haitian/immigrant heritage, racial identity, and viewpoint on American high school stereotypes. The protagonist’s smart and funny demeanor will engage readers, even when he makes obviously bad decisions. Norris is particularly adept at letting his assumptions about his peers impact his ability to relate to them as individuals, either as friends or romantically. The authorial decision to have the “outsider” be the character influenced by stereotypes rather than the opposite makes for a very compelling reversal that ultimately works. The unresolved ending allows teens to revel in the messiness of high school social blunders and see the value in doing the hard work of making amends. VERDICT A witty debut with whip-smart dialogue that will find much love among fans of authors like John Green and Jason Reynolds.–Kristin Lee Anderson, Jackson County Library Services, OR

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