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On Your Radar: Be Not Far From Me by Mindy McGinnis

Publisher’s Book Description:

Hatchet meets Wild in this harrowing survival story from Edgar Award-winning author Mindy McGinnis.

The world is not tame.

Ashley knows this truth deep in her bones, more at home with trees overhead than a roof. So when she goes hiking in the Smokies with her friends for a night of partying, the falling dark and creaking trees are second nature to her. But people are not tame either. And when Ashley catches her boyfriend with another girl, drunken rage sends her running into the night, stopped only by a nasty fall into a ravine. Morning brings the realization that she’s alone – and far off trail. Lost in undisturbed forest and with nothing but the clothes on her back, Ashley must figure out how to survive despite the red streak of infection creeping up her leg.

Karen’s Thoughts: This is an outstanding adventure/survival story with some fierce feminism and deep, thoughtful looks at poverty and small town life. Authentic, real, raw and engaging, teens will devour this book.

And for those keeping track (like me), McGinnis plunges her female character into the wilderness while on her period and it’s talked about openly and without stigma and shame. Yes, we do need more of this in YA. Some people have periods.

I’ve read every Mindy McGinnis book and one of the things she does very well is authentically represent both poverty and rural small town life. BNFFM is no different. She takes that one step further in this story by plunging us into the actual wilderness where survival in the present and of the past becomes an imperative. And as dehydration, hunger and sepsis start creeping in, moments of flashback help the reader tie who Ashley is and where she has been into how she just might survive in a situation that seems truly un-survivable. Everything matters and it all comes together in satisfying ways.

Definitely recommended. Unfortunately it doesn’t come out until March of 2020 and I read it super early because I’m a fan. So go back and read the other works of Mindy McGinnis and put this one on your TBR list for 2020.

Book Review: The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah, a guest post by Sanya

Publisher’s description

In the last days of the twenty-first century, sea creatures swim through the ruins of London. Trapped in the abyss, humankind wavers between fear and hope-fear of what lurks in the depths around them, and hope that they might one day find a way back to the surface.

When sixteen-year-old submersible racer Leyla McQueen is chosen to participate in the city’s prestigious annual marathon, she sees an opportunity to save her father, who has been arrested on false charges. The Prime Minister promises the champion whatever their heart desires. But the race takes an unexpected turn, forcing Leyla to make an impossible choice.

Now she must brave unfathomable waters and defy a corrupt government determined to keep its secrets, all the while dealing with a guarded, hotheaded companion she never asked for in the first place. If Leyla fails to discover the truths at the heart of her world, or falls prey to her own fears, she risks capture-or worse.And her father will be lost to her forever.

Sanya’s thoughts

An underwater world, a submarine race, an adorable puppy companion, an unlikely romance, and too many unanswered questions…

THE LIGHT AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD by London Shah is an own voices Young Adult sci-fi set in the year 2099. Society lives completely underwater. Leyla, our main character, is Muslim, and loves submarine racing and her dog, Jojo. But when her father is falsely accused of crimes he didn’t commit, and the government won’t even disclose where he is, Leyla knows she must uncover the mysterious circumstances of her father’s arrest and what other secrets the government may be hiding.

What I love most about this story is its easy diversity. Yes, Leyla is Muslim, but this story is not about her faith. It’s simply a part of her identity that no one questions, no one taunts her for, no one asks inane questions about. The year 2099 is free from Islamophobia. Leyla also does not struggle with her own faith. In fact, she turns to it for solace when struggling. As a Muslim girl myself, this kind of representation feels so important. I’m sure there any many like me that feel underrepresented in YA, but especially in a non-contemporary setting, and I’m so glad London Shah felt comfortable putting a part of herself on page like this.

My only true complaint for this book is how short it is. And yet still so much happens. From submarine racing to adventures beyond London, this story is jam-packed with happenings, but is perfectly paired with just the right pacing to make it feel like it’s not too much, too fast. It’s almost impossible to tell that this is London Shah’s debut, as her writing style is far from basic. She does a wonderful job at describing the lush and complex world of London under the sea. The implications and consequences of such a society are clearly well thought out, and the technology is deeply researched. At no point did I feel the need to question why something was done or explained a certain way. And broody Ari is the perfect addition to this deep sea mystery.

This story is an adventure. It’s about questioning everything you’re told and not being complacent. It’s about going outside of your comfort zone and doing whatever it takes for family, even if it scares you. But most importantly, this story is about never giving up hope, even when things seems darkest.

Meet Sanya

Sanya is a full time student at the University of Texas at Dallas and part time bookseller at Barnes & Noble. When she isn’t crying over her homework or forcing people to read her favorite books, you can find her squealing about dogs, hoarding fancy pens and journals, or writing poetry. Find her on Twitter @itsSANiiii and @BNFirewheel.

ISBN-13: 9781368036887
Publisher: Disney Press
Publication date: 10/29/2019
Series: Light the Abyss

Book Review: Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in an issue of School Library Journal

Gr 9 Up—Two lesbians in rural Texas suffer physical and psychological torture in this reimagining of the Orpheus legend. Raised in a conservative small town where gossip becomes myth, Raya has never felt like the other girls. She keeps her real self hidden, knowing that gay kids in her town disappear and become cautionary tales. When Raya and her best friend Sarah, a preacher’s daughter, are caught in bed together, they are sent to Friendly Saviors conversion camp to”get fixed.” Like Orpheus, Raya is determined to save the girl she loves, even if that means going through hell. But her resolve to escape quickly turns to resignation as she undergoes a brutal regime of labor, prayer, exercise, and, eventually, electric shock treatments. The so-called therapies at Friendly Saviors are staggeringly painful to endure and to read about. Horrific, graphic scenes of electroshock treatment as well as homophobic slurs, transphobia, suicide, and more may be triggering for some readers. Deeply emotional, this devastating story is lyrical and haunting, though repetition and heavy-handed reminders of the Orpheus story distract from the power and immediacy of Raya’s narrative. Underdeveloped secondary characters align with other mythological figures but do little to move the story along. This unremittingly bleak depiction of what it means to be anything other than cisgender and heterosexual is heartbreaking; isolated Raya has no examples of queer happiness or survival. 

VERDICT A secondary purchase for libraries with large LGBTQIA+ YA collections that also offer more nuanced and positive looks at what it means to be gay.

ISBN-13: 9781641290746
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/08/2019

Book Review: The Year We Fell from Space by Amy Sarig King

Publisher’s Book Description: Liberty Johansen is going to change the way we look at the night sky. Most people see the old constellations, the things they’ve been told to see. But Liberty sees new patterns, pictures, and possibilities. She’s an exception.

Some other exceptions:

Her dad, who gave her the stars. Who moved out months ago and hasn’t talked to her since.

Her mom, who’s happier since he left, even though everyone thinks she should be sad and lonely.

And her sister, who won’t go outside their house.

Liberty feels like her whole world is falling from space. Can she map a new life for herself and her family before they spin too far out of reach?

Karen’s Thoughts:

I remember distinctly the day in the 4th grade when I came home from school and my parents told me to go get my brother. I knew in that moment on my way to get my brother that my parents would be announcing that they were separating. In my memory, the day that they told us they were officially getting divorced was exactly the same. I don’t know if that’s true or just a trick of memory. I remember promises made and promises broken. I remember fear and anger and confusion and parents who started dating other people. And I remember one day going camping with my Dad and him asking if we wanted him to tell us why they were getting a divorce and my just telling him no and walking away.

I tell you all of this because as a reader, The Year I Feel from Space was all too real for me and it was a very hard read. I loved it, I’m glad it exists in this world, and I’m here to tell you, it’s very authentic and real. And all of that is what made this a personally hard read for me.

I’m also here to tell you that there are kids just like me who need this book in the world. I needed this book in the world. I love that on Tuesday, October 15th, 2019, this book will exist in the world for every kid like me who needed it then or needs it now.

The Year We Fell from Space isn’t just about divorce, it’s also about navigating a world of feelings and mental illness. I am a person who parents with a mental illness; like the dad in this book, I struggle with depression (with some good ole’ fashioned anxiety sprinkled in to make it even more interesting.) I loved everything that this book had to say about mental illness. I appreciated the acknowledgements that came each time it was talked about. It is so vitally important the way that the characters talk about how depression isn’t the same for everyone and how it can look different. I like that it acknowledges things like guilt and failure and anger and how they, too, are wrapped up in depression. 1 in 4 people struggle with mental illness and it is profoundly meaningful for kids to read books that acknowledge the very real impact that having a parent with depression has on their lives and on their families.

There are a lot of other great moments in this book. There is a nontraditional mom who loves hiking, camping and feminism. There is talk about periods and acknowledge that it isn’t just girls who need to learn about them. There are a lot of great moments in which various characters wrestle with the topic of friendship and bullying in various ways.

And because this is a book written by Amy Sarig King, it weaves all these thoughts together using very creative strings, or I guess to stay on theme I should using very creative star maps. As someone who has read all of the works of A.S. King, I saw echoes of Ask the Passengers and Still Life with Tornado used in different and creative ways to give Liberty the opportunity to explore both her concept of self and her feelings. King uses her personal style to tell a meaningful and beautiful story while dipping into the surreal and creative; she is a master storyteller that enlightens, entertains, moves and challenges. King gets below the surface in ways that few writers do. I love that she has taken the respect she has always shown in the intellect and creativity in teens while writing YA and has extended that same respect to middle grade readers.

The Teen also read this book and because I knew she liked it I asked her why. Her response was, “I like that it says you’re allowed to feel whatever it is you feel and that it ends with a sense of hope.”

I love Liberty and her family and I think that readers will as well. This is a hopeful look at what it means to fall apart, to fall from space, and then try to put yourself and the pieces of your life back together again. This is an affirmation of feelings, the good, the bad and the ugly, and an exploration of what it means to feel on fire from anger and guilt on the inside. It’s an affirmation of the most fundamental truth of life: we are always in the process of becoming the new-new-version of us because we are a work in progress. And at the end of the day, nobody is perfect but how we deal with our own imperfections and the imperfections of those around us matters.

I highly recommend The Year We Fell from Space by Amy Sarig King. And so does 4th grade Karen who just wanted someone to help her navigate her parent’s divorce. And so does 46-year-old Karen who is trying to parent with depression. This book is written with middle grade readers in mind, but it’s a story for all of us in a world that needs more empathy and understanding.

Book Review: By Any Means Necessary by Candice Montgomery

Publisher’s description

Heart-wrenchingly honest, fans of Brandy Colbert and Nicola Yoon will anticiapte this poignant reflection on what it means to choose yourself.

On the day Torrey moves and officially becomes a college freshman, he gets a call that might force him to drop out before he’s even made it through orientation: the bank is foreclosing on the bee farm his Uncle Miles left him.

Torrey’s worked hard to become the first member of his family to go to college, but while the neighborhood held him back emotionally, Uncle Miles encouraged him to reach his full potential. For years, it was just the two of them tending the farm. So Torrey can’t let someone erase his uncle’s legacy without a fight.

He tries balancing his old life in L.A. with his new classes, new friends, and (sort of) new boyfriend in San Francisco, but as the farm heads for auction, the pressure of juggling everything threatens to tear him apart. Can he make a choice between his family and his future without sacrificing a part of himself?

Amanda’s thoughts

Hey, this was great. Here’s why: FANTASTIC voice. Set in the first weeks of college. It tackles gentrification. It revolves around an APIARY. And did I mention the FANTASTIC VOICE?

Torrey, who is Black and gay, is excited to finally get out of where he grew up. But as soon as he arrives as SFSU, he learns two things that throw him for a loop: One, unpaid taxes means he’s about to lose the bee farm he inherited from his uncle. Two, Gabe, a boy Torrey was really into in junior high (and who then moved to Ohio) is also at SFSU. Gabe is Afro-Latinx and bi and has a girlfriend, but it’s clear that Torrey and Gabe still have lots of intense feelings for each other. But instead of figuring out college classes, making new friends, and potentially getting together with Gabe, Torrey has this MUCH bigger thing looming over him. Losing the bee farm would be devastating. He feels so much guilt and obligation and also frustration over the entire situation. He contemplates what to do during the two weeks until the add/drop period ends, wondering if his choice has to be all or nothing—go home? Stay at college? Somehow save the farm? It’s a lot for an eighteen-year-old to deal with.

But he’s used to it.

His mom is in a medically-induced coma, his uncle was killed, and his only real family is his aunt and his homophobic grandpa. He’s been dealing with hard stuff for a long time. He’s also used to taking care of the adults in his life. Now, during a time that theoretically should be all about him finally, he’s still having to worry about taking care of people and doing the right thing. He’s also super used to people leaving, so to fall in with this great found family at school, and to start to see more community and connections, makes him want to figure out both parts of his life—continuing on at college and somehow keeping things going with the apiary.

This is an immensely readable look at gentrification, systemic oppression, protest, action, community, and having your voice heard. It’s also a very sweet love story as well as sort of a best case scenario college story (you like your roommate! you have instant friends! a cool prof immediately takes you under her wing!). And, I can’t stress this enough, the main thing that this book has going for it is its voice. Torrey’s narration just comes alive. A great suggestion for anyone looking to read at the upper edges of YA and a good addition to the growing number of books that tackle gentrification.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781624147999
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 10/08/2019

Post-It Reviews: Graphic Novels Galore!

Here are some quick reviews of a few of the books I’ve read and enjoyed over the past few months. As I’ve been busy juggling library work, parenting, writing, blogging, and working on a secret project that has required a TON of reading (don’t worry, I’ll share eventually), I found myself reading a lot of graphic novels in what little free time I could find. I’m a huge fan of graphic novels and comic books.

Post-It Note reviews are a great way to display books in your library or classroom, a way to let kids recommend their favorite titles without having to get up in front of everyone and do a book talk, and an easy way to offer a more personal recommendation than just the flap copy offers.

All summaries are from the publishers. Transcription of Post-it note review under the summary.

The Secret of Danger Point (Surfside Girls Series #1) by Kim Dwinell

Sun… sand… and spooky adventures!

Things are getting weird in Surfside. Lately, Samantha’s best friend Jade explodes into fits of giggles whenever she sees a boy, and it’s throwing a wrench into the kick-back summer of surfing and hanging out that Sam had planned. But after swimming through a secret underwater cave, Sam starts to… see things. Like ghosts. And pirates. And maybe something even scarier! Can she and Jade get to the bottom of this mystery in time to save their town?

(Post-it says: The writing and depth of the story is pretty meh, but the kids at my school devour graphic novels so this very tame mystery will circulate plenty. The art is fun and the surfing, skateboarding girls are adept, if kind of dull, sleuths. Ages 8-11)

Stranger Things: The Other Side (Graphic Novel, Volume 1) by Jody Houser, Stefano Martino (Illustrator), Keith Champagn (Illustrator)

The hit Netflix series from the Duffer Brothers is now a spine-tingling comic that recounts Will Beyers’ harrowing survival in the treacherous Upside Down!

When Will Byers finds himself in the Upside Down, an impossible dark parody of his own world, he’s understandably frightened. But that’s nothing compared with the fear that takes hold when he realizes what’s in that world with him! 

Follow Will’s struggle through the season one events of the hit Netflix show Stranger Things! Written by Jody Houser (Mother Panic, Faith) and illustrated by Stefano Martino (Doctor Who, Catwoman).

(POST-IT SAYS: If you’ve watched the show and wondered, “But what happened while Will was missing in the upside-down?” this book’s for you. Satisfyingly adds a lot to the story we get on the show. A must-read for fans. Ages 11+)

Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board (Making Friends #2) by Kristen Gudsnuk

Dany, Madison, and…wait-another Dany?!-must navigate some very complicated friendships while trying to capture a magical dog that is turning their town upside-down!

Almost everything is going great for Dany. She and Madison are still best friends, she still has her magic sketchbook, and the new school year is looking up. But when Dany creates a duplicate of herself to secretly help with homework and raise her social status, the two of them accidentally unleash a magical dog that wreaks supernatural havoc on the town. Now, with the big school dance coming up, time is running short for Dany, Madison, and their friends to set things right before the night is completely ruined!

(POST-IT SAYS: Definitely read book #1 in this series or you’ll be so lost. Wacky scifi plot mixes with relatable middle school issues. Very busy illustrations and an overstuffed plot mean it may take readers a while to finish this. Ages 9+)

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, Harmony Becker (Illustrator)

A stunning graphic memoir recounting actor/author/activist George Takei’s childhood imprisoned within American concentration camps during World War II. Experience the forces that shaped an American icon — and America itself — in this gripping tale of courage, country, loyalty, and love.

George Takei has captured hearts and minds worldwide with his captivating stage presence and outspoken commitment to equal rights. But long before he braved new frontiers in Star Trek, he woke up as a four-year-old boy to find his own birth country at war with his father’s — and their entire family forced from their home into an uncertain future.

In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten “relocation centers,” hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard.

They Called Us Enemy is Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.

What does it mean to be American? Who gets to decide? When the world is against you, what can one person do? To answer these questions, George Takei joins co-writers Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker for the journey of a lifetime.

(POST-IT SAYS: I hope this book is already on your library shelves or in your hold queue. This profoundly moving memoir of one of the US’s darkest periods brings history to life through deeply emotional personal reflections. One of the best books I’ve read this year. Ages 12+)

I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir by Malaka Gharib

I Was Their American Dream is at once a coming-of-age story and a reminder of the thousands of immigrants who come to America in search for a better life for themselves and their children. The daughter of parents with unfulfilled dreams themselves, Malaka navigated her childhood chasing her parents’ ideals, learning to code-switch between her family’s Filipino and Egyptian customs, adapting to white culture to fit in, crushing on skater boys, and trying to understand the tension between holding onto cultural values and trying to be an all-American kid.

Malaka Gharib’s triumphant graphic memoir brings to life her teenage antics and illuminates earnest questions about identity and culture, while providing thoughtful insight into the lives of modern immigrants and the generation of millennial children they raised. Malaka’s story is a heartfelt tribute to the American immigrants who have invested their future in the promise of the American dream.

(POST-IT SAYS: Follows Malaka from childhood to present adulthood. A funny and authentic look at being part of a multiple cultures. The ever-changing layout/format, self-deprecating tone and illustrations, and real exploration of family and culture makes this a hit. Ages 13+)

Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

In 2014, Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, thought that a comic of reading statistics would be the last autobiographical comic e would ever write. At the time, it was the only thing e felt comfortable with strangers knowing about em. Now, Gender Queer is here. Maia’s intensely cathartic autobiography charts eir journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, and facing the trauma and fundamental violation of pap smears. Started as a way to explain to eir family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, Gender Queer is more than a personal story: it is a useful and touching guide on gender identity—what it means and how to think about it—for advocates, friends, and humans everywhere.  

(POST-IT SAYS: An important, honest, and raw look at gender and identity. Affirming and educational, Kobabe doesn’t shy away from complicated or painful feelings or experiences. Ages 16+)

Best Friends by Shannon Hale, LeUyen Pham (Illustrator)

Bestselling creators of Real Friends Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham are back with a true story about popularity, first crushes, and finding your own path in the graphic novel, Best Friends.

Follow your heart. Find your people.

Sixth grade is supposed to be perfect. Shannon’s got a sure spot in the in-crowd called The Group, and her best friend is their leader, Jen, the most popular girl in school.

But the rules are always changing, and Shannon has to scramble to keep up. She never knows which TV shows are cool, what songs to listen to, and who she’s allowed to talk to. Who makes these rules, anyway? And does Shannon have to follow them?

(POST-IT SAYS: Phenomenal! Should be required reading for all 5th-7th graders–so much insight into friendship, popularity, identity, and important looks at anxiety disorder. Love this even more than book 1. Ages 8-13)

Bloom by Kevin Panetta, Savanna Ganucheau (Illustrator)

Now that high school is over, Ari is dying to move to the big city with his ultra-hip band—if he can just persuade his dad to let him quit his job at their struggling family bakery. Though he loved working there as a kid, Ari cannot fathom a life wasting away over rising dough and hot ovens. But while interviewing candidates for his replacement, Ari meets Hector, an easygoing guy who loves baking as much as Ari wants to escape it. As they become closer over batches of bread, love is ready to bloom . . . that is, if Ari doesn’t ruin everything.

Writer Kevin Panetta and artist Savanna Ganucheau concoct a delicious recipe of intricately illustrated baking scenes and blushing young love, in which the choices we make can have terrible consequences, but the people who love us can help us grow.

(POST-IT SAYS: A sweet romance that gets to happen because charismatic Hector puts up with Ari, who still has a lot of growing up to do. I liked that both characters weren’t quite settled into what life after high school looks like. Ages 14+)

This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews

Ryan Andrews’s This Was Our Pact is an astonishing, magical-realist adventure story for middle-grade readers.

It’s the night of the annual Autumn Equinox Festival, when the town gathers to float paper lanterns down the river. Legend has it that after drifting out of sight, they’ll soar off to the Milky Way and turn into brilliant stars, but could that actually be true? This year, Ben and his classmates are determined to find out where those lanterns really go, and to ensure success in their mission, they’ve made a pact with two simple rules: No one turns for home. No one looks back.

The plan is to follow the river on their bikes for as long as it takes to learn the truth, but it isn’t long before the pact is broken by all except for Ben and (much to Ben’s disappointment) Nathaniel, the one kid who just doesn’t seem to fit in.

Together, Nathaniel and Ben will travel farther than anyone has ever gone, down a winding road full of magic, wonder, and unexpected friendship*.

*And a talking bear.

(POST-IT SAYS: A strange and fantastical story. Dreamlike adventure and fantasy mix with themes of friendship and astronomy. Gorgeous art. I loved the ending. Ages 9-13)

Boy-Crazy Stacey (The Baby-Sitters Club Graphic Novel #7) by Ann M. Martin, Gale Galligan (Illustrator)

A brand-new graphic novel adapted by USA Today bestselling author Gale Galligan!

Stacey and Mary Anne are baby-sitting for the Pike family for two weeks at the New Jersey shore. Things are great in Sea City: There’s a gorgeous house right on the beach, a boardwalk, plenty of sun and sand… and the cutest boy Stacey has ever seen!

Mary Anne thinks that Stacey should leave Scott alone and focus on the Pike kids, but Stacey’s in love. Looking for reasons to hang around his lifeguard stand takes up all her time, which means Mary Anne has to do the job of two baby-sitters! How can she tell Stacey that Scott just isn’t interested without ruining their friendship and breaking Stacey’s heart?

(POST-IT SAYS: I’m always as excited for these as the students are! Just enough dating/liking someone and friend drama with plenty of the usual BSC excitement. They can’t crank these out fast enough. PS—Did you know Stacey moved from New York? 🙂 Ages 8-12)

The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner

Sabrina the Teenage Witch meets Roller Girl in this hilarious, one-of-a-kind graphic novel about a half-witch who has just discovered the truth about herself, her family, and her town and is doing her best to survive middle school now that she knows everything!

Magic is harder than it looks.

Thirteen-year-old Moth Hush loves all things witchy. But she’s about to discover that witches aren’t just the stuff of movies, books, and spooky stories. When some eighth-grade bullies try to ruin her Halloween, something really strange happens. It turns out that Founder’s Bluff, Massachusetts, has a centuries-old history of witch drama. And, surprise: Moth’s family is at the center of it all! When Moth’s new powers show up, things get totally out-of-control. She meets a talking cat, falls into an enchanted diary, and unlocks a hidden witch world. Secrets surface from generations past as Moth unravels the complicated legacy at the heart of her town, her family, and herself.

In this spellbinding graphic novel debut, Emma Steinkellner spins a story packed with humor and heart about the weird and wonderful adventures of a witch-in-progress.

(POST-IT SAYS: So fun and cute. Tons of dialogue, fantastic characters, and vibrant art. This will be mega popular in elementary and middle school collections. A must-have book. Ages 9-13)

Stargazing by Jen Wang

Stargazing is a heartwarming middle-grade graphic novel in the spirit of Real Friends and El Deafo, from New York Times bestselling author-illustrator Jen Wang.

Moon is everything Christine isn’t. She’s confident, impulsive, artistic . . . and though they both grew up in the same Chinese-American suburb, Moon is somehow unlike anyone Christine has ever known.

But after Moon moves in next door, these unlikely friends are soon best friends, sharing their favorite music videos and painting their toenails when Christine’s strict parents aren’t around. Moon even tells Christine her deepest secret: that she has visions, sometimes, of celestial beings who speak to her from the stars. Who reassure her that earth isn’t where she really belongs.

Moon’s visions have an all-too-earthly root, however, and soon Christine’s best friend is in the hospital, fighting for her life. Can Christine be the friend Moon needs, now, when the sky is falling?

Jen Wang draws on her childhood to paint a deeply personal yet wholly relatable friendship story that’s at turns joyful, heart-wrenching, and full of hope.

(POST-IT SAYS: A great story about unlikely friends, expanding your horizons, and community and identity. Moon’s brain tumor late in the story adds a solemn layer to this story about middle grade friendships. Ages 8-12)


Book Review: Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee

Publisher’s description

Barbara Dee explores the subject of #MeToo for the middle grade audience in this heart-wrenching—and ultimately uplifting—novel about experiencing harassment and unwanted attention from classmates. 

For seventh-grader Mila, it starts with some boys giving her an unwanted hug on the school blacktop. A few days later, at recess, one of the boys (and fellow trumpet player) Callum tells Mila it’s his birthday, and asks her for a “birthday hug.” He’s just being friendly, isn’t he? And how can she say no? But Callum’s hug lasts a few seconds too long, and feels…weird. According to her friend, Zara, Mila is being immature and overreacting. Doesn’t she know what flirting looks like?

But the boys don’t leave Mila alone. On the bus. In the halls. During band practice—the one place Mila could always escape.

It doesn’t feel like flirting—so what is it? Thanks to a chance meeting, Mila begins to find solace in a new place: karate class. Slowly, with the help of a fellow classmate, Mila learns how to stand her ground and how to respect others—and herself.

From the author of Everything I Know About YouHalfway Normal, and Star-Crossed comes this timely story of a middle school girl standing up and finding her voice.”

Amanda’s thoughts

Let’s start with what I usually save for the end of reviews: Great, important, REAL book. Order this for your libraries, hand it to your middle schoolers, get it up on displays, use it for starting points for discussions. This is about consent and boundaries and respecting girls and not everyone is getting these messages at home.

My son Callum (yep, just like a main character here) is in 8th grade. We have been talking about consent forevvvver. You can hear us here, from some years back, talking about sex on The Longest Shortest Time podcast. My son is absolutely sick of me using every opportunity I can to talk about consent or respect or misogyny. Witness:

He has me listed in his phone not as “Amanda MacGregor, mom” but “Amanda MacGregor, feminist,” because he says I act like that’s my job. And you know what? It is. Because I am trying to offset all of the messages he receives elsewhere about what it means to be a white, cis boy and what he is allowed to do or should feel entitled to.

Which brings us to the book (finally!). Dee does so many really brilliant yet ordinary things with her story. Mila has friends tell her she’s overreacting, that she’s being a baby, that she shouldn’t tattle. She has friends blame her for their actions, tell her they wouldn’t “allow” such things. She has friends offer to go with her to tell someone about the harassment. She has an adult basically tell her that boys will be boys and that it’s her job to ignore their behavior. She has an adult take her seriously and offer up her own stories of harassment. The reactions all feel so genuine. I was brought back to middle school as I read this, thinking of my own experiences with this sort of garbage from boys. The things the boys do may not look like what many people think of as harassment, as troubling. But no one will walk away from this book thinking that. Readers see Mila become scared and uncertain. She doesn’t want to be on the bus with them, she doesn’t want to be alone with them at school. She wants to hide. When she speaks up for herself, the boys say they will stop, but of course they don’t.

I would really love to see this book used as a read aloud for 6th or 7th graders or used in reading circles. There is SO MUCH to talk about. Outside of the main issue, Mila is also dealing with her parents being split up, her mom working an unsatisfactory job and looking for a new job, and their family’s money struggles. She makes new friends throughout the course of the story and finds a new interest, karate, which helps empower her. Her tight friendships change as everyone makes new friends and finds new interests. And while Mila learns that she’s certainly not the only girl to go through this kind of bullying and harassment, the boys who perpetuate this behavior come to finally understand just what they are doing and how it’s making Mila (and other girls) feel.

This look at consent, guilt, blame, pressure, and obligation will inspire much needed conversations for middle grade readers and the adults in their lives. Mila learns to speak up and draw the line, but ultimately, it’s not up to girls to end this—it’s up to boys (and those of us raising them and teaching them) to learn how to not do these things in the first place. This important and well-written story will surely find many readers who will relate to both sides of this experience.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781534432376
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 10/01/2019

Book Review: The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

Publisher’s description

Told in two distinct and irresistible voices, Junauda Petrus’s bold and lyrical debut is the story of two black girls from very different backgrounds finding love and happiness in a world that seems determined to deny them both.

Trinidad. Sixteen-year-old Audre is despondent, having just found out she’s going to be sent to live in America with her father because her strictly religious mother caught her with her secret girlfriend, the pastor’s daughter. Audre’s grandmother Queenie (a former dancer who drives a white convertible Cadillac and who has a few secrets of her own) tries to reassure her granddaughter that she won’t lose her roots, not even in some place called Minneapolis. “America have dey spirits too, believe me,” she tells Audre.

Minneapolis. Sixteen-year-old Mabel is lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling and trying to figure out why she feels the way she feels—about her ex Terrell, about her girl Jada and that moment they had in the woods, and about the vague feeling of illness that’s plagued her all summer. Mabel’s reverie is cut short when her father announces that his best friend and his just-arrived-from-Trinidad daughter are coming for dinner. 

Mabel quickly falls hard for Audre and is determined to take care of her as she tries to navigate an American high school. But their romance takes a turn when test results reveal exactly why Mabel has been feeling low-key sick all summer and suddenly it’s Audre who is caring for Mabel as she faces a deeply uncertain future.

Junauda Petrus’s debut brilliantly captures the distinctly lush and lyrical voices of Mabel and Audre as they conjure a love that is stronger than hatred, prison, and death and as vast as the blackness between the stars.

Amanda’s thoughts

That summary up there is thorough. I just read it again, when I pasted it in, to see if it’s too thorough—after all, it really hits every major plot point. But while it gives you the broad strokes of the plot, it doesn’t do much to capture how powerful the story is, how beautiful the writing is, or how achingly lovely and profound the connection is between Agnes and Mabel. To be entirely honest, the book started a little slow for me, but once Agnes and Mabel are put in the same space, the story really took off and I became completely immersed in their world, their families, their big thoughts and feelings, and their love.

There is so much to love about this story. Yes, Agnes is sent away when her mother catches her with her girlfriend. She’s shamed and told she’s “nasty” by her mother. But she finds love, support, and acceptance from everyone else in her life. Mabel finds kissing her boyfriend kind of boring, but even just being near her friend Jada makes her all tingly. She’s working out what all this means, but it’s not angst-filled or painful or met with any hate. In Minneapolis, they are surrounded by supportive family and friends, many of whom are queer. And for Agnes, she has Queenie, her grandma, back home in Trinidad, who has always been her closest and most loving person. Queenie fully accepts Agnes for who she is—she always has—and fills with her love, always reminding her of her self-worth and that she’s perfect as she is.

While the story alternates between Mabel and Agnes, we also get some unexpected perspectives. There are chapters about Queenie’s younger life as well as chapters from a memoir Mabel is reading. Written by Afua Mahmoud while incarcerated, The Stars and the Blackness Between Them (his memoir) provides surprising points of connection for Mabel, who feels less alone as she reads his thoughts on life while dealing with her new diagnosis of a terminal illness. All of these voices and experiences speak of hope, connection, loneliness, love, isolation, and freedom. After they become pen pals, Afua tells Mabel that, despite his circumstances, his life is still his own, and so is hers.

Through the lenses of freedom and love, the characters ruminate on the past, the present, and an eternal future found through cosmic connections. They learn to be uncontained, to love without fear or boundaries, to give themselves the space to figure out who they are. The voices from this stunning debut will stay with readers long after the unpredictable ending. Full of love, healing, strength, and spirituality, this is a story that hasn’t been told before—not like this. Be ready to lose a day once you start reading; Mabel and Agnes will draw you into their worlds and not release their grip on you even after the last page. A lovely story that is sad and hopeful all at once.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525555483
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 09/17/2019

Book Review: Frankly in Love by David Yoon

Publisher’s description

Two friends. One fake dating scheme. What could possibly go wrong?

Frank Li has two names. There’s Frank Li, his American name. Then there’s Sung-Min Li, his Korean name. No one uses his Korean name, not even his parents. Frank barely speaks any Korean. He was born and raised in Southern California.

Even so, his parents still expect him to end up with a nice Korean girl—which is a problem, since Frank is finally dating the girl of his dreams: Brit Means. Brit, who is funny and nerdy just like him. Brit, who makes him laugh like no one else. Brit . . . who is white.

As Frank falls in love for the very first time, he’s forced to confront the fact that while his parents sacrificed everything to raise him in the land of opportunity, their traditional expectations don’t leave a lot of room for him to be a regular American teen. Desperate to be with Brit without his parents finding out, Frank turns to family friend Joy Song, who is in a similar bind. Together, they come up with a plan to help each other and keep their parents off their backs. Frank thinks he’s found the solution to all his problems, but when life throws him a curveball, he’s left wondering whether he ever really knew anything about love—or himself—at all.

In this moving debut novel—featuring striking blue stained edges and beautiful original endpaper art by the author—David Yoon takes on the question of who am I? with a result that is humorous, heartfelt, and ultimately unforgettable.

Amanda’s thoughts

Easily one of my top ten reads this year. EASILY. You know how many books I read a year? A few hundred. Eventually, many of them blur into fuzziness—I can’t remember plots or characters or (gulp) sometimes even that I read them at all. A long time ago, working at The Children’s Book Shop while I was in graduate school, my boss scolded me. “Don’t bolt your food!” she told me, watching me devour book after book. I can’t help it—I hardly stop to actually enjoy the writing, so desperate to consume the story. I usually hardly take a breath in between finishing one book and starting the next. But with this book? I read slowly. I let myself NOT read anything the rest of the day after I finished it. And I definitely will not be forgetting plot details or characters. This book is GOOD.

Korean-American Frank isn’t sure where he’s supposed to fit in. The child of immigrants, he always feels like he’s not Korean enough, but he’s not fully American. He loves his parents, who are complicated people. He fully admits they’re racist (and have essentially let their daughter, whose husband is black, walk out of their lives because of this). His best friend, Q, is black, and while he feels totally at home at Q’s house, he rarely has him over. He knows when he eventually finds a girlfriend, she should probably be Korean-American, just to make everything easier. Falling for white Brit means lots of deception. When he begins fake dating his Korean-American friend Joy, as a cover, we can see what may happen, but we can’t predict all of the twists and turns that will come with both his real relationship and his fake one.

While this is a love story, it’s also about so much more. Frank spends an awful lot of time thinking about race and where he fits. He talks with his friends about this. He travels in various circles—the AP kids (the Apeys), the Gathering kids—and fits everywhere and nowhere. He is always learning, rethinking, growing. At one point he thinks, “People who let themselves learn new things are the best kind of people.” Mine, too, Frank. When he starts to date Brit, he eventually realizes that he will always be holding her at a distance because he isn’t being his real self with her (whoever his real self is). But dating Joy turns out to be just as complicated when he begins to see all the gaps in life–gaps in time, in generations, in class, in upbringing, in experience. He’s trying to figure out what labels are for him, or if labels are even helpful, which is not an easy task.

I absolutely loved this book. It’s smart, funny, sweet, sad, cute, and thoughtful in all the best ways. I totally admit that if I start a book that’s more than 250 pages or so, I think, ugh—I bet it won’t need to be so long, mostly just because I want to race through it and onto the next book on my list. At 432 pages, I was wary. But you know what? Every single page needs to exist. I wanted more. The ending is perfect and satisfying, but I wanted more. One last thing: I am an easy crier. I cry at books all the time. If we could play back a reel of my life so far, we could clip together like an entire hour of my son just looking at me in exasperation, saying, “Oh my god—are you crying? Are you crying again? Are you still crying? WHY ARE YOU CRYING SO MUCH?” I am not, however, an easy laugh. It’s the rare book that makes me literally laugh out loud or smile into its pages. This book managed that trick many times. I love how Frank and his friends talk, how they relate, how they support each other. I just love them. I hope you’ll go grab this book and love them too. An utter delight.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781984812209
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 09/10/2019

Book Review: The Liar’s Daughter by Megan Cooley Peterson

Publisher’s Book Description

Piper was raised in a cult. 
She just doesn’t know it. 

Seventeen-year-old Piper knows that Father is a Prophet. Infallible. The chosen one.

She would do anything for Father. That’s why she takes care of all her little sisters. That’s why she runs end-of-the-world drills. That’s why she never asks questions. Because Father knows best.

Until the day he doesn’t. Until the day the government raids the compound and separates Piper from her siblings, from Mother, from the Aunts, from all of Father’s followers–even from Caspian, the boy she loves.

Now Piper is living Outside. Among Them.

With a woman They claim is her real mother–a woman They say Father stole her from.

But Piper knows better. And Piper is going to escape.

Karen’s Thoughts

Piper is scared and alone in a room, separated from her family and thrust into a world that she has always been told is dangerous and deranged. She’s angry. She’s alone. And she’s truly home. What Piper doesn’t know is that everything she knows about her life has been a lie, and the story is about unraveling that lie and dealing with the long term psychological complications of being brainwashed and manipulated. It’s an eerily accurate look at the who, what, why and how of cults.

The Liar’s Daughter is a deeply nuanced psychological study that asks us all to imagine what it is like to have grown up in a cult. And it is in the psychology that this book truly excels. Eventually, Piper begins visiting a counselor and the evolution of this relationship, the slow building of trust, the respect this counselor gives to this psychologically injured young woman, and the wisdom that he shares with her about free will and responsibility are truly profound. These are some of the best counseling sessions I have seen presented in YA literature. These are some of the best parts of the book.

As a reader, you also have to give props to the mother and father in this book. They too are an injured party who lost their child years ago and have to live with that fear, guilt and uncertainty only to discover that their child has been raised by a cult leader who has erased their child’s memory and distorted her sense of self and family. They are aching and longing, but they are patient and kind as they try to follow the wisdom of others and allow their daughter to slowly unpack all that has happened to her. They are by no means perfect in the process, as no family would be, but they are truly loving and compassionate in the process.

Piper is an unreliable narrator for a major chunk of this story and it is fascinating to read. She’s justifiably angry and confused and struggling to get back to the place and the people that she thinks are her true family. It’s frustrating to read at time because as an outside reader, your alarm bells are going off from the very first page. But Piper doesn’t have the knowledge that you do and the ways in which that dynamic works are well crafted.

There is a lot of good stuff to read in this book; it’s intriguing and well crafted. It has a slower pace because it is so focused on character as opposed to action, but the psychological aspect is often profound and deeply engaging. It’s not a psychological thriller per se, but it’s close enough to keep readers turning the page and rooting for Piper. The Liar’s Daughter clearly demonstrates that even in the most traumatic of experiences, with good support and access to resources, you can step on a road to recovery and begin a journey to a healthy self. The Liar’s Daughter is a compassionate and engaging exploration of the psychological trauma of being raised in a cult. Recommended.

Publishes September 10th, 2019 from Holiday House