24 Hi-Lo Books for Striving Middle Grade and YA Readers

Hi-Lo titles are high-interest stories written at a lower reading level for striving readers. These 24 books, in genres ranging from romance to horror, are sure to grip readers with relatable main characters and contemporary ­coming-of-age themes. 

Hi-Lo titles are high-interest stories written at a lower reading level for striving readers. These 24 titles, in genres ranging from romance to horror, are sure to grip readers with relatable main characters and contemporary ­coming-of-age themes. 

Anderson-Dargatz, Gail. Spotting Dottie.112p. (Orca Currents). Orca. Apr. 2024. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781459834828.
Gr 4-7–Fourteen-year-old Charlotte is the granddaughter of Dottie Donna, who has dedicated her life to proving the existence of the mysterious water monster (Dottie) rumored to occupy Lake Dorothy. Charlotte’s grandmother is the laughingstock of the town for her eccentric mission; then Charlotte uses her new drone to record a potential Dottie sighting! She posts it to social media in an attempt to show people the truth, and it changes everything. But Charlotte realizes being right isn’t as important as protecting the fascinating creature she loves. Readers will relate to Charlotte’s dogged enthusiasm to redeem her beloved grandmother’s reputation, as well as the allure and volatility of internet fame. Part of the “Orca Currents” series, Anderson-Dargatz’s novel tackles faith, family dynamics, and staying true to yourself in hi-lo format. Features include cream-colored paper, dyslexia-friendly font, and larger trim size. VERDICT A realistic fiction novel with a fun cryptid twist. A recommended addition to hi-lo collections.–Ashleigh Williams

Burgoine, Nathan. Stuck with You. 176p. (Lorimer Real Love). Lorimer. Aug. 2023. Tr $20.99. ISBN 9781459417274; pap. $14.99. ISBN 9781459417205.
Gr 7 Up–A laugh-out-loud hi-lo gay romantic comedy set almost entirely on a train. Ben, a gay teen nearing graduation, is not only stuck on the train for more than four hours with a broken cell phone—he is stuck on a train with the guy who broke his phone! The story begins with Ben having just finished a miserable visit with his father who disapproves of Ben’s decision to take a year off before going to college. This visit was made worse because, his phone being broken, Ben had no ability to contact his friends. When Caleb Khoury, the boy who broke his phone, sits down next to him on the train, Ben thinks Caleb is a stereotypical jock; when they are stuck together for more than four hours, he learns that Caleb is kind, funny, and bisexual. Proximity and understanding lead to a budding friendship and the beginnings of a romance. This is a hilarious and an all-around enjoyable read. The secondary drama among Ben’s friends in the Rainbow Alliance is painfully realistic, foreshadowing the all-too-common biphobia that exists (even in LGBTQIA+ spaces) before readers are introduced to the bisexual love interest. Even though the plot takes place almost solely on one train ride, the romance never drags or feels rushed. The book is written at a third grade reading level. VERDICT Highly recommended for hi-lo readers who loved Heartstopper.–Jeri Murphy

Chan, Marty. Cosplay Crime.112p. (Orca Currents). Orca. Feb. 2024. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781459837430.
Gr 4-7–Cosplay is more than just dressing up in costumes—it is a celebration of fandom, uniqueness, and it “lets you forget the real world for a little bit.” While exuberant 13-year-old Bree attends her first comic convention in costume, hoping to meet her favorite Japanese voice actor, she stumbles on a crime. A valuable art print is stolen, and since Bree desperately wants to solve the case to meet her beloved actress, she takes it upon herself to catch the thief. Bree and her nonbinary best friend, Alix, value the role of cosplay in their journey of pride and self-acceptance. Chan’s high-interest novel has dyslexia-friendly features with font, cream paper, and larger trim size for accessibility. This book can be used in small group discussions on social anxiety and how to maintain individuality amid adversity. English teachers will enjoy the imagery of the gamers room. Furthermore, the short text will suit reluctant or striving readers who see the cover and think Squid Game. VERDICT Anime and manga fans will appreciate the references to popular stories combined with sweet friendship and realistic mystery.–Laura Dooley-Taylor

Coccia, Paul. Leon Levels Up.112p. (Orca Currents). Orca. Feb. 2024. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781459837355.
Gr 4-7–Virtual-reality gaming and video games are popular across the board with tweens and teens, regardless of gender. Educators and parents are also often searching for read-alikes for fans of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. Themes of belonging, finding your people, and social acceptance, combined with a gaming-focused plot, will resonate with tweens. Leon, 12, and a gaming savant, has been invited by classmate Nico, the son of a famous video game developer, to play a new game. The VR game is still in experimental stages, and the 4D immersion experience quickly turns deadly as the players lose communication and experience physical ill-effects. Since Leon negatively compares himself to others, this book could be used along with Jarrett Lerner’s A Work in Progress in a unit about body shaming, as well as in discussions about the social-emotional effects of poverty, isolation of technology, anxiety, and the value of real friendship. Leon’s desire for friendship and popularity almost costs him his life in this high-stakes sci-fi adventure. Coccia’s text is dyslexia-friendly with features like accessible font, cream-colored paper, and larger trim size. VERDICT Hopefully, readers will grasp the author’s message about obsession with technology and heed the warning. A good choice for most collections.–Laura Dooley-Taylor

Di Lorenzo, Melinda. Racing Hearts.128p. (Orca Soundings). Orca. Aug. 2023. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781459836808.
Gr 6 Up–A grieving teen decides to join a triathlon, despite facing anti-fat bullying, and falls in love in this hi-lo novel. Sienna is still grieving her best friend, Stacey, who died by suicide, when she discovers that Stacey registered them for a triathlon as a joke. With encouragement from handsome and kind jock, Blake, Sienna decides to train for the triathlon, and the two begin a sweet romance. Sienna is plus sized and has been the target of anti-fat bullying. Di Lorenzo walks an excellent line of showing that Sienna’s experience of bullying is real, but that other students are capable of respect and kindness. Readers watch as Sienna breaks down the walls she has built around herself and opens herself to romance and new friendships. This refreshing sports story does not focus on Sienna trying to change or shrink her body; she wants to complete the triathlon in memory of her friend, and out of spite for her bullies. Another plus to this novel is that Blake likes Sienna first, and never wavers in or hides that he likes her. The book is written at a second grade reading level. VERDICT A quick hi-lo love story for readers who know sports are for people of all sizes.–Jeri Murphy

Finley, Allison. Below the Surface.112p. (Orca Currents). Orca. Apr. 2023. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781459834538.
Gr 4-7–Thirteen-year-old Theo’s favorite hobby is treasure hunting and returning stuff to their rightful owners. When his hunting exploits uncover an old pocket watch that’s been buried for 60 years, he posts it on his social media. As a result, a threatening comment tells him to return the watch or else. Soon, Theo is deeply embroiled in solving an old ghost story. With his friend Syd, the two start poring over old newspapers and contacting a possible descendant of a young traveler who mysteriously died in 1967. How do the pocket watch, traveler, and mysterious comment tie together? The plot is engaging and full of twists and turns. Characters are fairly well developed and realistic. Interactions with other characters help bring Theo’s world to life. The writing style complements the story well and adeptly brings the mystery together. The layout is dyslexic-friendly with heavy bottom fonts, letter spacing, and white space. Characters are cued as white. The book is written at a third grade reading level. VERDICT Reluctant readers interested in mystery, treasure hunting, and ghost stories will want to pick this one up. Recommended for library collections where ghost stories and mysteries are popular.–Kira Moody

Gray, PJ. Star Dimmer. 92p. (Monarch Jungle). Saddleback. Jun. 2023. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781680215960.
Gr 9 Up–Teen fashion model Jen Conrad has been staying with her grandmother, Babe, at her beach house in Malibu. During a recent stint in Tokyo, Jen’s roommate, fellow model Cammie, went missing. Jen is now a suspect in the apparent disappearance, and the tabloid media won’t leave her alone. It’s too much for her mom, television actress and former “it” girl Val Kane, who is filming a new series and staying at her condo in Los Angeles. Aloof, distant Val even asked Jen’s dad, former stuntman Jack Conrad, to take Jen to live with him and his new partner, Todd, in Connecticut, but he refused. Then Jen stumbles into an even bigger challenge: discovering that Val’s new boyfriend, sleazy former bodyguard Rob, is scheming to murder Val whose will leaves her entire estate to him. With a careening plot, very short sentences, and simple syntax and vocabulary, this is a true high-interest story written at an accessible reading level. The ending is terse and pat, with Val in mental health rehab and Jen finishing her GED before turning to more salutary interests like astronomy. All main characters are cued as white. The book is written at a first to second grade reading level. VERDICT Teen stardom, the fashion world, tabloid headlines, a salacious crime—this will have no trouble finding an audience and is a great pick for striving readers.–Bob Hassett

Howard, Max. The Surprise Party Rules. 200p. Enslow/West 44. Aug. 2023. Tr $25.80. ISBN 9781978596733; pap. $16.35. ISBN 9781978596740.
Gr 6 Up–When high school senior Ivy is unjustly fired from her job, she vows to get revenge against her boss, the mayor. To do so, she runs for election against him—and unexpectedly, she wins. Life as mayor, however, isn’t easy. People are trying to ban books from the library, her principal isn’t being accommodating, and a staff member steals city funds, leaving no budget for necessities. When a natural disaster strikes, the city goes underwater, and people are stranded. Emergency personnel can’t get to everyone in time. Will Ivy find a way to save her city and survive being mayor? In this story told in verse, the author’s writing style and play on words is engaging. Many of the secondary characters are flat and are unrealistic, but the main characters are well developed and help bring the story to life. The layout is dyslexic-friendly with heavy bottom fonts, letter spacing, and white space. Characters cue as white. The book is written at a second to third grade reading level. VERDICT Readers who like books dealing with civics, school stories, and characters who are trying to make a difference will enjoy this title. Recommended where such books are popular.–Kira Moody

Jendrick, Angel. Secret Me.176p. (Lorimer Real Love). Lorimer. Aug. 2023. Tr $20.99. ISBN 9781459417250; pap. $14.99. ISBN 9781459417182.
Gr 9 Up–Tage doesn’t like who she is, her popular lifestyle, or her friends. Secretly, she identifies as queer, but worries homophobic queen bee Hayley will find out. As a result, she’s dating Ben (whom she doesn’t like) and participating in bullying other queer teens. When her breakup with Ben turns into an explosive one, a snowstorm forces her to spend the night at her crush Wren’s house. Soon, a secret relationship between the two ensues. Can Tage learn to be herself openly or will her new relationship suffer as a result? Thought-provoking themes of bullying, acceptance, and self-identity have potential, but the novel lacks great execution. With the exception of Wren, Tage and the other characters are one-dimensional. Tage does experience growth and redeems herself in the end, but the story suggests the changes will likely not stick. The layout is dyslexic-friendly with heavy bottom fonts, letter spacing, and white space. Characters are cued white. The book is written at a third grade reading level. VERDICT Overall, the novel likely won’t appeal to most striving readers who are interested in LGBTQIA+ books due to poor execution. Recommended only for general library collections where bullying and school stories are in very short supply.–Kira Moody

Liss, Jennifer. Bugs. 80p. (White Lightning Mysteries). Saddleback. Jun. 2023. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781638892083.
Gr 4-7–After his parents leave his older brother, Clayton, in charge, Asher decides to play a prank on him. Things go horribly wrong, however, when Clayton breaks a container that unleashes three insects in the house. These, however, aren’t ordinary insects. They are designer, black market bugs. The worm releases a deadly red slime. The beetle devours small insects. The venomous spider, however, is the most dangerous of all. If the brothers don’t destroy the bugs, the consequences could be disastrous. Can they get rid of the bugs in time? The plot is engaging and full of twists and turns. Multiple scenes are intense and pull readers into the story. The characters are unlikable but have pretty realistic sibling dynamics. The text is easy to follow and fits well with the hi-lo reading style. The layout is dyslexic-friendly with heavy bottom fonts, letter spacing, and white space. Characters are presumed white. The book is written at a third grade reading level. VERDICT For reluctant readers who enjoy The Twilight Zone, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, horror, darker fiction, or mysteries, this is a must-read. Recommended for most library collections.–Kira Moody

Liss, Jennifer. Doubles. 80p. (White Lightning Mysteries). Saddleback. Jun. 2023. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781638892052.
Gr 4-7–After seeing his picture in a news story about a parade he never went to, Easton’s world gets turned upside down. He hears of his double going to the same coffee shop, hitting the same haunts he likes to visit, and even dressing like him. Doing research about doubles, Easton enlists the help of his friend Mari to try and solve the mystery. Mari, however, is skeptical. Could Easton really have a double out there? What does the double really want? The plot is engaging and well written. The characters are intriguing and draw readers into the story. Providing a Twilight Zone or Are You Afraid of the Dark? vibe, Liss adeptly creates a spine-tingling mystery. Cliff-hangers and plot twists make this book impossible to put down. The layout is dyslexic-friendly with heavy bottom fonts, letter spacing, and white space. Characters are from diverse backgrounds and play into Easton’s thinking of how impossible it would be for him to have a double. The book is written at a third grade level. VERDICT For striving readers who enjoy horror, darker fiction, and mysteries this is a must-read. Highly recommended for most collections.–Kira Moody

Liss, Jennifer. Eclipse. 76p. (White Lightning Mysteries). Saddleback. Jun. 2023. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781638892069.
Gr 4-7–When Nate goes camping with his dad and brother, the trio plans on seeing a solar eclipse. Things, however, take a weird turn when they get chased by a creature that looks an awful lot like a raccoon. Not long after, they begin to disappear, and their dog, Comet, fully vanishes. Can they get back to civilization before they disappear completely? And what really happened to Comet? What is the weird creature, and what caused them to start disappearing? The plot is engaging, well written, and full of twists and turns. The author does a great job building suspense and intrigue. Characters are not well developed but are realistic and likable. Character dynamics are well drawn and add depth to the story. The text is easy to follow and fits well with the hi-lo reading style. Layout is dyslexic-friendly with heavy bottom fonts, letter spacing, and white space. Characters are presumed white. The book is written at a third grade level. VERDICT For those who enjoy horror or mysteries this is a must-read. Recommended for most library collections.–Kira Moody

Liss, Jennifer. Peace Mission. 80p. (White Lightning Mysteries). Saddleback. Jun. 2023. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781638892076.
Gr 4-7–When aliens come to Earth with a mission of peace, knowledge, and sharing, Will and Silas get invited to be a part of a teen envoy to the alien ships. While there, they get to experience everything that the Ramlix aliens have to offer. Soon, Will and the other teens start acting strange and talking about how Earth is inferior to the Ramlix aliens. Silas also discovers an “off limits” room where he finds a binder laying out a plan for destroying the Earth. Have the aliens truly come in peace or are they using teens to destroy Earth? The plot is intriguing and entertaining. The secondary characters are poorly developed, but it plays into the plot well. Text is easy to follow and helps to bring the story to life. The layout is dyslexic-friendly with heavy bottom fonts, letter spacing, and white space. The book is written at a third grade reading level. VERDICT A great selection for science fiction fans, especially those who enjoy the alien-invasion subgenre Recommended for most library collections.–Kira Moody

Liss, Jennifer. Sea Cave. 76p. (White Lightning Mysteries). Saddleback. Jun. 2023. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781638892045.
Gr 4-7–While visiting his cousin Tate, Eric learns of a legend where a man went insane after going into a cave by the sea. Not believing his cousin, Eric goes into the cave and takes a tooth from it. Soon, he finds that whatever dreams he has the night before come true the next day. It doesn’t matter how strange they are, either. Tate chides him and then reveals that the man from the legend went insane because he could see into the future. When Eric dreams of himself drowning in the cave, he knows he must change his future. Will he succeed or will he go insane like the legend? The plot is entertaining and engaging. The twists and turns are well done and add depth and intrigue to the story. The characters are realistic, and their dynamics are nuanced. Liss’s propulsive writing style pairs well with this genre of hi-lo novel. The layout is dyslexic-friendly with heavy bottom fonts, letter spacing, and white space. Characters are presumed white. VERDICT Striving readers who are fans of darker fiction or thriller-mysteries will enjoy this solid entry. For most library collections.–Kira Moody

McAdam, Tash. Airlock. 112p. (Orca Soundings). Orca. Aug. 2023. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781459836600.
Gr 7 Up–Society has mostly collapsed, leaving a scarred world infested with “Boots” who roam about enforcing the interests of the rich. Food and water is scarce. With Mom dead, teen Brick is alone and has little use for other people. Brick is nonbinary and feels comfortable doing an “impression” of either a boy or girl. Throughout this story, they present as a boy, though this is not instrumental to the plot. On the run from soldiers out to arrest them for stealing supplies, Brick contrives to stow away on a spaceship bound for the moon, but not before encountering Amar, a local enforcer presented as a sort of gentle giant, not bright but ruthlessly strong and ultimately goodhearted, who wants to go, too. The two manage to remain hidden until after takeoff but become caught up in an attack by pirates. Battling panic attacks from their fear of space, Brick, along with Amar and an impish artificial intelligence, helps save the crew and subdue the pirates. Occasionally Amar’s unrefined speech—“You is good, Brick”—can seem awkward. Worldbuilding is light on detail, but adequate to the story. First-person narrator Brick is well fleshed out and the action is consistently brisk. The author identifies as trans and queer, which will resonate with teens. The book is written at a third grade reading level. VERDICT With a relatable and compelling sci-fi/dystopian narrative, this should be an easy pitch for middle or high school reluctant readers.–Bob Hassett

Matas, Carol. Zevi Takes the Spotlight. 128p. (Orca Currents). Orca. Apr. 2024. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781459838826.
Gr 4-7–His mom calls it a gift—but to 13-year-old Zevi, his psychic abilities are anything but. He doesn’t know how or why, but Zevi can hear people’s thoughts, communicate with the dead, and see preternatural visions. His invaluable help in a missing child case puts his abilities front and center, and he’s worried about this visibility hurting his acting aspirations. Suddenly, the opportunity of a lifetime comes to Zevi’s doorstep when his house is used in a film starring popular actor Robert Lemon. But foreboding supernatural hints are plaguing Zevi—and coming true in the form of dangerous accidents during filming, like collapsing light fixtures and poisoned drinks—making him fear for Robert’s safety. Readers will keep turning pages as Zevi and his crew attempt to find the culprit behind the on-set mishaps. Various terms and tidbits about filmmaking will appeal to movie enthusiasts. Zevi is Jewish, and this important part of his identity is skillfully woven throughout the narrative. VERDICT This hi-lo title excels in the genre, packaging an accessible, dyslexia-friendly text with a compelling plot and likable protagonist whose journey readers will happily follow. Highly recommended.–Ashleigh Williams

Pedican, Jawara. The Hoop and the Harm. 272p. Lorimer. Aug. 2023. Tr $20.99. ISBN 9781459417229; pap. $14.99. ISBN 9781459417151.
Gr 9 Up–College freshman Udoka Clendon, known by his friends and teammates as Duke or Yoosie (a play on his initials), is feeling crushed by self-doubt and expectations around his basketball career at an unnamed school in Toronto. Consumed with love for the game since he was a preschooler, Udoka refers to basketball as Her. Nurtured intermittently by an estranged older brother, he progressed through street and rec league ball to an elite prep school in Chicago. An epic dunk at a local park, caught on video, brought him social media notoriety and led to a violent flare-up that shook him and strained his friendships. Now he’s seeing a sports psychologist at the college and confronting a desire to quit the game he loves. Mo, a girlfriend, is always at the fringe of the story but is never adequately developed. A sister, Leena, is passionately committed to performing arts but struggles with the volume of attention lavished on Udoka. The author played varsity basketball at McGill and the University of Toronto and explains in a concluding note that much of the story reflects his own experience. Given the length and complexity of the narrative, it will not be an easy sell for struggling readers. Detailed and jargon-heavy descriptions of game play could discourage non-fans. The book is written at a third grade reading level. VERDICT A potent message about the mental toll of elite sports and the value of playing for love of the game will resonate with teens. Recommended for high school libraries.–Bob Hassett

Prendergast, Gabrielle. Aftershock. 96p. (Orca Anchor). Orca. Aug. 2023. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781459837201.
Gr 6 Up–A teen and her half sister seek their parents after a destructive earthquake in this hi-lo novel. Amy is at her private school when a dangerous earthquake hits. With her father at work in the city and her mother on a business trip overseas, Amy is about to go home with a teacher when her estranged half-sister, Mara, comes to find her. The girls return through the debris to find their homes unlivable and decide to walk to the city to find their father and Mara’s mother. They encounter dangerous situations, such as landslides, intimidating strangers, and, of course, aftershocks on their journey. One of the methods used to make this title more accessible is that it is written almost completely in first-person present tense, which may feel unusual to more experienced readers but could be helpful for emerging readers. The relationship between Amy and Mara is well drawn, and the girls grow closer by relying on each other to survive amid exciting action sequences. Survival stories are popular among middle school students, and this book would be a good choice to hand to readers who haven’t developed the skills yet for novels like Hatchet. It is written for teen readers reading under a second grade level. VERDICT A useful title for older emerging readers.–Jeri Murphy

Quinn, Kate Karyus. The Art of Being a Vampire. 200p. Enslow/West 44. Aug. 2023. Tr $25.80. ISBN 9781978596702; pap. $16.35. ISBN 9781978596719.
Gr 9 Up–Shelby has been through a lot before arriving to stay with Aunt Clara and transferring to a “fancy, uptight school” where she soon gets into a fight and is nearly expelled. Her former beauty queen mom, just 34, recently died of an overdose. Her father has never been on the scene, leaving her mother with an addiction and an unplanned pregnancy. At school, Shelby falls in with sulky outsider Brandt. Alienated from both his divorced parents, Brandt brings Shelby to the squat where he lives with creepy Sid and Tallie, who are, like Brandt, vampires. They have an arrangement with local drug users to provide a safe spot in exchange for blood. After Shelby is bitten, she quickly develops an overwhelming craving for blood. Following a botched attempt to knock off a blood drive at the local Y, she becomes desperate and turns on Brandt, ultimately destroying the vampire house and freeing the drug users. When she returns to Aunt Clara’s and decides to enter rehab, Shelby makes peace with her memories of her mother, seeing the parallels between addiction and vampirism. She embraces her love for photography and finds hope and courage. The text is in verse form but reads mostly as prose broken arbitrarily into very short lines. Apart from the positive ending, the tone throughout is unrelentingly dark. The book is written at a second to third grade reading level. VERDICT A quick read with a gritty, urban horror setting and a moody but compelling narrator, this will appeal to a wide range of high schoolers.–Bob Hassett

Rodman, Sean. Dark Tide. 96p. (Orca Anchor). Orca. Aug. 2023. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781459837119.
Gr 6 Up–When his mother got remarried, Kai didn’t like getting a new stepfather. To help the two bond, Kai’s mother insists that Kai join his stepfather, Rick, on a research trip. On a floating research lab, Rick is studying sound waves and underwater caves. When his first robot disappears, an ancient predator awakens and starts hunting them. With no cell phone reception, it is up to the duo to stop the creature. They only have until dawn, when the tide changes, before the creature is unleashed into the sea to prey on more people. Can they stop it in time or will it destroy them? The plot is engaging and hooks readers from start to finish. The characters are likable and realistic. The writing style is unique but easy to follow. Layout is dyslexic-friendly with heavy bottom fonts, letter spacing, and white space. Plot twists and turns are intriguing and add depth to the short novel. Emotional resolution, however, is too quick to be believable. Characters’ ethnicity is not described. The book is written at a second grade level. VERDICT Overall, a great read for reluctant readers who enjoy action, adventure, and books dealing with cryptids. Recommended for most library collections.–Kira Moody

Seldeen, Claudia Recinos. Everything I Know. 200p. Enslow/West 44. Aug. 2023. Tr $25.80. ISBN 9781978596764; pap. $16.35. ISBN 9781978596771.
Gr 6 Up–Mila is autistic. She can tell you everything she knows about her school’s layout, locker, classes, and friend Chris. When her family decides to move to Boston for her dad’s job, Mila’s world gets turned upside down. She has a hard time relating to people. Her new school is noisy, but she’s worried she’ll be made fun of for wearing headphones. Can she learn to fit in and adjust to her new life? The author’s writing style is simple and engaging in this story told in verse. The characters are relatable and experience growth. Character dynamics feel slightly stifled at the start of the story but feel more natural towards the end, which plays into the development of the characters’ arcs. Layout is dyslexic-friendly with heavy bottom fonts, letter spacing, and white space. Secondary characters’ backgrounds are unknown, but Mia and her family cue as Latinx. The book is written at a second to third grade reading level. VERDICT Striving readers who like school stories, books dealing with autism, and making new friends will enjoy. Recommended for library collections where school tales and novels in verse are popular.–Kira Moody

Steele, Michael Anthony. Feed the Beast. illus. by Mike Laughead. 72p. (Open World Squad). Capstone/Stone Arch. Jan. 2024. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781669031703.
Gr 4-6–Four 13-year-old friends team up in Open World, an online video game where they battle fantastical creatures and complete quests with their avatars. While the friends game, they encounter real issues, such as caring for younger siblings and taking care of dinner while mom works late. This illustrated high-interest title empowers siblings to collaborate inside and outside the game. Educators will appreciate the social-emotional lessons about positive teamwork, self-monitoring, using creativity to problem solve, breathing, and the Taking Care page devoted to mental health websites. Part of the text is in-chat messages, and illustrator Laughead’s dynamic art resembles “Teen Titans Go!” Bold text is used for onomatopoeia, and there’s a glossary with pronunciations and discussion questions for reading groups. VERDICT A sci-fi/realistic hybrid designed for middle schoolers where helpful real-world advice is provided in a context of video gaming.–Laura Dooley-Taylor

Taekema, Sylvia. Big Winner. 128p. (Orca Currents). Orca. Apr. 2023. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781459834064.
Gr 4-8–When 14-year-old Skye’s family moves to the East Coast, she loses everything familiar to her. To cope, she gets a job at a coffee shop. There she meets Digby, a local group home resident. He loves ping-pong and is particular about how things get done. After the winning lottery numbers are announced, Digby comes into the coffee shop all excited, saying he has the winning ticket. Soon, however, Skye worries that the town is taking advantage of Digby. Can Skye be the friend he needs and help him to see the truth? Or will Digby take it the wrong way? This story is well written, humorous, and draws readers into Skye and Digby’s lives. The message and themes of kindness and real friendship are heartening. Plot twists add depth and nuance, and the characters are likable and realistic. Layout is dyslexic-friendly with heavy bottom fonts, letter spacing, and white space. Characters are cued white. The book is written at a second grade level. VERDICT Striving readers who like realistic fiction, friendship stories, or who have ever dreamed of winning the lottery when they get older will want to pick this one up. Recommend for libraries where realistic fiction and hi-lo titles are popular.–Kira Moody

Wolf, Ryan. The Real Unreal. 200p. Enslow/West 44. Aug. 2023. Tr $25.80. ISBN 9781978596672; pap. $16.35. ISBN 9781978596689.
Gr 7 Up–A disenfranchised teen falls down the alt-right conspiracy theory pipeline and finds himself in a dangerous situation in this hi-lo verse novel. Nate, a middle-class teenager in the near future, is fired from his summer job and has his art program at the local community center canceled due to an illness outbreak. Spending more and more time online, he finds himself in rage-filled forums about secret societies that are thought to rule the world. He starts receiving private messages from “Mockingbird” about the local community center, once a masonic lodge, which he says is being used for human trafficking and satanic rituals. Mockingbird and Nate’s rhetoric intensifies until they decide to meet to graffiti the community center, but Mockingbird has something even more dangerous in mind. The story offers a realistic demonstration of how easy it is to fall into conspiracy theories and hateful online groups. The author is also careful to show Nate deconstructing these beliefs and making amends for his behavior. The novel is an example of how believing in conspiracies can lead people to violence and other dangerous actions. The fact that many of the conspiracy theories in the novel have roots in anti-Semitism was never addressed, but overall, this is an excellent teardown of conspiracies without making readers feel preached at. This is a novel in free verse and the story just flies by, which may be an incentive for hi-lo readers. The book is written at a second to third grade reading level. VERDICT An excellent hi-lo verse novel about a vital topic in today’s political landscape.–Jeri Murphy

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