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Book Review: Charming as a Verb by Ben Philippe

Publisher’s description

Charming as a Verb

From the award-winning author of The Field Guide to the North American Teenager comes a whip-smart and layered romantic comedy. Perfect for fans of Nicola Yoon and Jenny Han. 

Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger can charm just about anyone. He is a star debater and popular student at the prestigious FATE academy, the dutiful first-generation Haitian son, and the trusted dog walker for his wealthy New York City neighbors. But his easy smiles mask a burning ambition to attend his dream college, Columbia University.

There is only one person who seems immune to Henri’s charms: his “intense” classmate and neighbor Corinne Troy. When she uncovers Henri’s less-than-honest dog-walking scheme, she blackmails him into helping her change her image at school. Henri agrees, seeing a potential upside for himself.

Soon what started as a mutual hustle turns into something more surprising than either of them ever bargained for. . . .

This is a sharply funny and insightful novel about the countless hustles we have to keep from doing the hardest thing: being ourselves.

Amanda’s thoughts

If, for some reason, you were to click on my name and read a bunch of my reviews in a row, you might think, good lord, she just looooves everything. But you know what? I don’t. I abandon probably three times as many books as I finish. If a book isn’t something I’m enjoying, unless I think it’s an actively harmful or horrible book, I’ll just set it aside and move on. I’m going to use my blog time to say, hey, look at this GREAT book. Reviews that just could be summed up as “this book was fine, I guess” don’t serve anyone. SO, that said, guess what? Yep! I looooooved this book.

Haitian American Henri is always hustling, beaming his Smile at everyone, but reserving his real smile for the few that really know him beyond his school persona. He runs a dog walking company that’s not so much an actual company as it is just him with a more professional looking front to get more business. Henri juggles the dogs, school, debate team, and preparing to hopefully attend Columbia, his dream school (well, maybe his. Definitely his dad’s dream school). His dad’s their building’s super and his mom recently traded in her life as a paralegal to become a firefighter. Black and poor, Henri knows he doesn’t have the same opportunities or connections that help his classmates at the Fine Arts Technical Education Academy sail easily through life, but he keeps working hard and Smiling, hoping it all pans out.

Senior year ends up holding many surprises, the biggest (and best) being Corinne, his upstairs neighbor and the most intense girl in his class. She blackmails Henri into helping her revamp her image as someone less uptight and socially awkward, hoping it will improve her college recommendation letters. And while Henri is game, he has no idea what he’s in for. Turns out that Cori is not just brilliant but totally and bluntly honest, hilarious, and almost always gets what she wants (usually thanks to a series of note cards to study from and exceedingly detailed multi-point plans). What starts as a weird transaction between the two turns into a real friendship (and more) as they get to see each other beyond the labels, preconceived ideas, and Smiles. But Henri messes it all up (and I mean ALL of it) when he makes a terrible choice that he justifies as evening the playing field but really is just SO. BAD.

This book has everything going for it. The conversational tone, the standout characters, the excellent (and rocky) romance… everything. I’m a fast reader. Generally my approach is that I have to read as fast as I possibly can so I can keep flying through my TBR pile. But if I take the time to slow down, to make sure I’m really reading and not just skimming, to be sure I’m enjoying every well-crafted sentence and clever exchange, then I know I am loving a book. I stretched this one out over three afternoons, just so I could keep dipping back into Henri and Cori’s world. A completely satisfying, engaging, and memorable read.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062824141
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/13/2020
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Why are Teen Girls the new Sci-Fi Protagonists?, a guest post by Brea Grant

You can’t slingshot a rock right now without hitting a YA book about a teen girl surviving a dystopian apocalypse, discovering her magical powers, or finding a doorway to an alternate land. I’m not complaining but it’s interesting that teen girls are at the front and center of the science fiction/fantasy universe. What is it about the teen girl experience that lends itself to being a protagonist in an otherworldly adventure?

When writing my new graphic novel, Mary, I took a look at Mary Shelley’s personal history and built on it to create my own teen girl protagonist forging her own way and finding a magical world. My modern-day character, Mary, is the fictional descendant of Mary Shelley. She comes from a long line of writers and is expected to become a writer herself. Instead, she discovers that Mary Shelley was not writing about the fictional creature of Frankenstein’s monster but instead was writing a guidebook for her progeny so they could follow in her real footsteps — not as writers but as a doctor to monsters. When my current-day Mary discovers this, she must grapple with what she’s been told about the world and her future choices. It’s coming-of-age magnified.

Struggling with knowing what to do with your life is something most of us can all relate to…even in our mid-to-late 30s (note to self: figure out what you want to do) and beyond. Writing this graphic novel, I felt like I could take my own meandering path regarding my career choices and put it into a magical context and that somehow made it…easier to deal with? Mary could think about her life in a way that I couldn’t because her world was actually as strange as mine has always felt. If the world is actually bizarre, difficult to understand, and magical, maybe she (or myself by extension) wasn’t such a weirdo for not being able to fit into it. If the reason that you are unable to make a decision about what to do with your life is because there are monsters living among us and no one told you about them, maybe you weren’t so wrong to have trouble deciding whether or not to go to college (or insert other major life decision here)!

Mary Shelley herself happens to be an interesting heroine in real life. Shelley can be credited with being the mother of modern day science fiction as we know it. She was a pioneer. What people often forget is that she was only 19 when she conceived of the concept for Frankenstein, on a cold, dark night (true story!). When published, it was so outlandish that a woman would write something horrific that she didn’t put her actual name on its first published editions.

So, like a lot of heroines in science fiction novels, she was a rebel. She didn’t fit into the rules of her day. She had a relationship with a man against her parents wishes and was estranged from them for many years. She wrote and created in an unexplored genre that was unseemly for women. And like many of our modern-day heroines in the aforementioned apocalyptic situations, she forged her own way against the rules that had been set up. We don’t center YA novels around teenagers following the rules and upholding tradition. We center them around pioneering young people willing to take chances and break things. Shelley was definitely one of those. She opened up a magical door that was rarely opened for female writers while under the age of 20. Teen female protagonist for the win.

Being young encourages imagination. I am in the small minority of people who have the privilege of spending most of my days imagining worlds that don’t exist. Between the pull of adulthood, responsibilities and all of the very crushing realities of growing up, somewhere along the way, we lose our ability to just play. Science fiction and fantasy allow us to be imaginative. They allow us to escape — as writers or readers. So it may be obvious that age has a lot to do with the many examples we see of female protagonists fighting monsters, discovering worlds, and ending up winning the day. We associate science fiction — the ultimate place for imagination — with youth. Of course our main characters are youthful. They still are allowed to play.

But that doesn’t explain the choice of young women over young men as sci-fi protagonists. I would make the argument that the monsters/dragons/evil doers are stand-ins for the harsh realities of growing up and the tough decisions young women have to make. The female experience lends itself to the paranormal in the obvious ways our bodies change but also the way in which societal standards morph as we get older. As children, we can run, play and be free to think wildly but as we get older, those things start to be discouraged. A young girl covered in mud is much different than a 20-year-old. Dealing with these standards is like fighting off a demon. It is choosing to stand out and creating an entirely new set of rules. It’s difficult. I think it’s why we are seeing so many interesting trans characters in sci-fi as well. Trans people have known they were breaking societal rules for a long time. They have been fighting these monsters since the day they realized they wanted to wear a dress instead of a soccer uniform. Breaking out of these molds are otherworldly. For a young woman, something as simple as choosing to study engineering is comparable to teen heroine picking up a sword for the first time in an all-male league of dragon fighters. Although different worlds, it takes the same amount of courage to be a young woman who doesn’t quite fit into the mold of what is expected and to continue to push boundaries.

I love that we have these models for young women. It’s hard to be a thing if you can’t see it and we can see these boundary-pushing young women all over YA right now. So, if you’re never fought a monster before, how do you do it? You dive in like Katniss, Emika, Sunny, Starr and the many other teenage female protagonists who are fighting new fights, figuring their way through it, and on the other end, becoming the heroes of their own stories.

Meet Brea Grant

Brea Grant is a filmmaker/writer best known for her Emmy-nominated work on the Netflix series, EastSiders, and her most recent film, 12 Hour Shift, a comedy heist film starring Angela Bettis and David Arquette. It premiered at Tribeca in 2020. A month later, she starred in the horror film, Lucky, which she also wrote, directed by Natasha Kermani, which premiered at SXSW in 2020. Her first comic series is called We Will Bury You, which was published by IDW and co-written with her brother, Zane Grant. She co-hosts a weekly book podcast called Reading Glasses with author Mallory O’Meara on the Maximum Fun Network. She started in the film industry as an actress and has appeared on shows like Heroes, Friday Night Lights, and Dexter, as well as horror films like Halloween II and the recent indie favorite, After Midnight.

Brea online:

http://www.breagrant.com/

https://www.instagram.com/breagrant/

https://twitter.com/breagrant

About Mary: The Adventures of Mary Shelley’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter

Angsty teenager Mary Shelley is not interested in carrying on her family’s celebrated legacy of being a great writer, but she soon discovers that she has the not-so-celebrated and super-secret Shelley power to heal monsters, just like her famous ancestor, and those monsters are not going to let her ignore her true calling anytime soon.

The Shelley family history is filled with great writers: the original Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, the acclaimed mystery writer Tawny Shelley, cookbook maven Phyllis Shelley…the list goes on and on. But this Mary Shelley, named after her great-great-great-great-great grandmother, doesn’t want anything to do with that legacy. Then a strangely pale (and really cute) boy named Adam shows up and asks her to heal a wound he got under mysterious circumstances, and Mary learns something new about her family: the first Mary Shelley had the power to heal monsters, and Mary has it, too. Now the monsters won’t stop showing up, Mary can’t get her mother Tawny to leave her alone about writing something (anything!), she can’t tell her best friend Rhonda any of this, and all Mary wants is to pass biology.

ISBN-13: 9781644420294
Publisher: Six Foot Press
Publication date: 10/06/2020
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years

Raising Superheroes: How Tough Times Create Resilient Kids, by author Rebecca Behrens

Today we are very excited to host this great post about resilient kids by author Rebecca Behrens. 2020 is proving to be a difficult year for our kids and Behrens shares tips to get them involved, give them space, and help grow resilient kids to survive the challenge that is 2020 – and life in general.

“I told her to keep happy thoughts.” That’s how Leia Carrico kept her little sister, Caroline, calm during the first night they spent stranded in the Northern California wilderness. The girls, just five and eight years old at the time of their ordeal, had wandered off a deer trail while looking for a “sunny spot” in the woods near their home, and soon found themselves wandering in circles.

Once the girls realized they were hopelessly lost, they stopped to wait under the shelter of a bush they nicknamed their “huckleberry home.” The sisters stayed hydrated by licking rainwater droplets off of leaves, and they stayed positive by focusing on things they loved, those “happy thoughts” about their family and trips to the ocean. At night, Leia bravely kept watch for wild animals—like bears and mountain lions—while Caroline tried to rest. The girls kept yelling for help, even losing their voices—but not before searchers heard them and cut through bramble bushes for a dramatic rescue, after forty-four harrowing hours alone in the woods.

Stories like the amazing Carrico sisters’—and my own, far less dramatic childhood brushes with wildlife and severe weather—have helped inspire the fictional survival stories I write for young readers. In researching my books, I’ve uncovered many stories of kids whose daring and determination have helped them get through maritime mistakes, natural disasters, being stranded in the wilderness—not to mention times of serious emotional stress. I’ve also picked up a few tips for parents and families who want to encourage resourcefulness and resilience in their kids, both while out exploring the world and sheltered at home.

A little training does a lot of good Crucially, the Carrico sisters, once they recognized that they were lost, stayed in one place to better their chances of being found. They also knew the risks of dehydration and that fresh rainwater on leaves would be their safest bet for a drink. The girls’ survival knowledge—Leia had even learned how to safely start a fire to keep warm!—was thanks to wilderness training from a local 4-H club, family camping trips, and what they’d seen in the movies.

Some suggestions for training in your own family could include:

Consider signing your family up for outdoors or survival skills training if available from a group in your community—such as a scouts organization4-H, or the Red Cross.

Set aside some time to talk to your kids about how to stay safe outdoors or in an unexpected survival situation—such as getting stranded on the highway, or how to handle a major power outage at home.

Always be prepared Whether you are planning an epic backcountry trek or a ten-minute stroll in a state park, you should always go into nature prepared. Follow these tips to set out safely:

Make sure to always tell others where you are planning to be and when you expect to be back. (This advice goes for both adults and older teens hiking alone and families outdoors together.)

Weather conditions can change suddenly, so wear layers that can keep you comfortable when the temperature rises or drops.

Bring plenty of snacks and water—considering the weight of what you pack along is important, but in general it’s better to have more than you need than not enough.

This probably goes without saying, but a working cell phone to get help in an emergency is a must, whether you’re going near or far into nature. This past August, a Pennsylvania family was rescued from a Mount Washington trail in New Hampshire after they got disoriented on a daytime hike. Luckily, they had a cell phone and were able to call for help. Rescuers finally reached them in the dark, just before 11:00 p.m.—saving them from an overnight on the mountain, where temperatures were dropping fast. It was the third search-and-rescue call of the day—all of those hikers were fortunate they had charged phones (so watch how much juice you have left while taking selfies on the trail).

Safer at home: Natural disasters, extreme weather, and even now global pandemics are an unfortunate part of life. Even while you’re at home, these events can impact safety, security, and physical and mental health. The good news is, a little preparation in putting together an emergency kit can make these events a lot easier for your family to overcome.

Make sure your family’s kit is well-stocked—experts recommend a three-day supply of food and water, plus necessary medications, toiletries, and other supplies to stay safe and comfortable at home in extreme conditions.

A great tip is to pack coloring books, puzzles, and other non-electronic toys in your emergency kit, so you don’t have to use precious battery charge to stay occupied.

Look for lists of what to include at Ready.gov and your local Red Cross website. Make sure to consider what the most common natural disasters are in your area!

Did you have trouble finding toilet paper or tissues last March—or even your pantry staples? You don’t need to panic-buy and stock a closet full of Charmin, but it’s a good idea to set aside a little extra of your most-used household and grocery items so the next time there’s a blizzard—or a stay-at-home order—you don’t have to make a harried Target run.

The comfort of familiar or favorite things can also help kids cope when the world seems scary outside. As a child, I was terrified by summertime tornado warnings. But whenever we had to shelter from the storm, my mom let us grab some treats from the “deep freeze” freezer in the basement—like our supply of frozen Girl Scout cookies. Somehow, Thin Mints always made waiting out the storm a little easier.

Model resilience: While tough times—like the novel coronavirus pandemic, or after an earthquake, flood, or other natural disaster—put strain on all family members, they are also an opportunity to teach resilience. Dr. Sheila Modir, a pediatric psychologist in Orange County, suggests creating a “Family Coping Box” that is filled with items to help soothe when someone is feeling stressed. Perhaps most important is maintaining an open dialogue in your family about emotions in difficult times, to make sure kids are comfortable sharing their Big Feelings about the challenges and changes going on in their homes, schools, and communities. Need help getting started?

The American Library Association offers a variety of disaster resources online.

The book blog Pop! Goes the Reader has compiled a list of twenty-five recent survival titles to give middle-grade and young adult readers hope in tough times.

You can also ask your local librarian for an age-appropriate “overcoming adversity” booklist to read together as a family, then let the conversations flow.

Be the helpers: In an ongoing Vanderbilt University study, two thousand families across the United States are volunteering to collect their own COVID-19 swabs at home, which they then mail to researchers. The study hopes to gain information about how many kids get infected with the virus, and then how much they spread it to others they’re in close contact with—and the study’s results could help schools open safely in the future. For the families currently involved, it’s a way to contribute to science from home.

Eight-year-old Benna Schlub in New York City also found a way to help from home: She slipped notes under the doors of the elderly residents of her apartment building during the coronavirus outbreak this spring, offering to pick up their groceries and essentials so they didn’t need to put themselves at risk to shop in stores.

Kids have also found ways to contribute as budding inventors—ten-year-old Matthew Valerio in California invented a mask-and-T-shirt combo with snaps to encourage kids to always have a face mask handy. And the Ellis family in Ontario, Canada, created a “hug glove”—a plastic sheet with sleeves to allow the kids to hug Grandma without risking direct contact. Encouraging kids to creatively problem solve to find ways to help in the midst of a pandemic helps them stay connected to their communities while developing confidence—and building their STEM skills.

Some suggestions for your family to join “the helpers” now and in the future could include:

Using fabric remnants at home to sew face masks for your family’s use or to donate to healthcare workers.

Signing up to become disaster volunteers with an organization like the Red Cross.

Donating food, clothing, books, other supplies, or funds to national or local organizations responding after emergency situations. Coordinating a bake sale, a book drive, or a fundraising walk/run is a great way for kids and families to make a difference and connect with their communities in a meaningful way.

Kids are naturally resilient and resourceful—just look at the Carrico sisters’ story of survival. “They saved each other,” the girls’ mother told reporters, adding, “I raised superheroes.” Kids are capable of amazing, heroic things, and that includes their ability to cope and bounce back from whatever challenges nature, or life, throws their way. The opportunity to grow their resilience superpower can be a silver lining, in even the toughest times.

Rebecca Behrens is the author of the critically acclaimed middle-grade novels When Audrey Met AliceSummer of Lost and FoundThe Last Grand Adventure, and The Disaster Days, which is a Junior Library Guild selection, a Bank Street Best Children’s Book, and an ILA Teachers’ Choices selection. Look for her latest thrillingly realistic survival story, Alone in the Woods, in October 2020. You can visit her online, and view resources for parents and educators, at www.rebeccabehrens.com.

About ALONE IN THE WOODS

From the author of The Disaster Days comes a thrilling survival story about two former best friends who must work together to stay alive after getting lost in a remote national forest.

Jocelyn and Alex have always been best friends…until they aren’t. Jocelyn’s not sure what happened, but she hopes the annual joint-family vacation in the isolated north woods will be the perfect spot to rekindle their friendship.

But Alex still isn’t herself when they get to the cabin. And Jocelyn reaches a breaking point during a rafting trip that goes horribly wrong. When the girls’ tube tears it leaves them stranded and alone. And before they know it, the two are hopelessly lost.

Wearing swimsuits and water shoes and with only the contents of their wet backpack, the girls face threats from the elements. And as they spend days and nights lost in the wilderness, they’ll have to overcome their fractured friendship to make it out of the woods alive.

Praise for The Disaster Days:
“A realistic, engrossing survival story that’s perfect for aspiring babysitters and fans of John Macfarlane’s Stormstruck!, Sherry Shahan’s Ice Island, or Wesley King’s A World Below.”–School Library Journal
“The strength of this steadily paced novel that stretches over four days of a scary disaster scenario is that Hannah doesn’t figure everything out; she stumbles, doubts, and struggles throughout it all.”–The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
“Fans of survival thrillers in the vein of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet will enjoy this tense, honest tale of bravery…an excellent (and refreshingly not didactic) teaching tool on natural-disaster preparedness.”–Booklist
“The relentless progression of a variety of disaster scenarios will keep readers turning pages…equally suspenseful and informative.”–School Library Connection
“Behrens uses immersive details and situations effectively viewed from Hannah’s perspective to create a suspenseful, vivid story filled with lessons about responsibility and overcoming adversity.”–Publishers Weekly 

From Sourcebooks Young Readers October 1, 2020 ISBN 9781492673378

Big, Funny, and Proud, a guest post by Rebecca Elliott

That’s my character Haylah in my book Pretty Funny for a Girl. And I don’t necessarily mean “big” in the physical sense, although Haylah (known as “Pig” to her friends) is dealing with body confidence issues surrounding her plus-size figure. She’s big in her personality, ambitions, opinions, and passions. I wrote the character as a reaction to the message we are so often spoon-fed—that girls are pretty, meek, innocent, and sweet, or else they are slutty and objectified. Either way, girls are passive and not yet a fully formed thing, and when they are, they’re past their best.

WHAT A LOAD OF BALL-BAGS!

This narrow description, consistently shoved in our faces by the media and society, literally fits NO teenage girl I have ever met. EVER.

Girls are exciting and passionate and strong and ambitious and fierce and wonderfully weird and a hundred different things in any given moment. And girls are funny. So frickin’ funny. Yet often the girls who know they’re funny, know they’re clever, know their personality is brighter and bigger than any room could possibly hold still feel like a no one. Why? Because the crappy societal pressures, ever more present in today’s Instagrammy world, tell them they don’t live up to the impossible and downright dull expectations we put on girldom.

Using stand-up comedy, which is a big fear for a lot of people, seemed like a good way to explore my main character’s bravery, not in a dystopian-hero-saving-the-world kind of way, but in more of a relatable way. Even if it’s not a career readers are interested in, I think there’s so much in stand-up that teens can identify with: the intense vulnerability and the desire to be noticed and heard but not to be judged. Plus it’s a good excuse to make a lot of jokes and hopefully make readers laugh. Because, as Haylah says, “When you find the funny in this serious world that is so often full of pain and cruelty, it’s like discovering a diamond in a cave of crap. It’s precious.”

So aside from my own life-long love of comedy, this is another reason why I chose to have Haylah deal with both body image and her confidence as a comedian at the same time. Because girls are already in many ways standing on a stage feeling like the world is staring at them and judging them, and I wanted my character to voluntarily take that leap onto centre stage and find the confidence to proudly be herself, to say, “This is me, with all my perfect imperfections, and dammit I have a voice and deserve to be heard!”

I very much didn’t want the body image thing to be the central theme of the book. So often when plus-size female characters are the main protagonists of books and movies, their weight is the major factor, the main narrative hook to hang everything else from. But guess what: when you are bigger, that usually isn’t the main thrust of your own narrative  (and I certainly never wanted to lead her towards some “happy” ending where she loses the weight and all is well with her world—like thin people have it all sorted too!).

Yes, Haylah feels that she’s big and at times wrestles with the way that makes people perceive her, but for the most part she’s quite happy with herself and what she thinks about way more than the way she looks is her ambition to do something amazing—become a stand-up comedian. I only wish that the way we look, particularly for teenagers, could take a back seat to the way more important stuff, like our passions and ambitions.

Whilst, as with most of us, Haylah may always struggle a little with her body confidence, I think she’d also say that one of the coolest realisations as a feminist is that there is no right or wrong way for a girl to look, to dress, to act, so be you big, small, loud, shy, “masculine,” “feminine,” high-heeled and preened, DM-wearing and pierced, and anything and everything in-between and outside—it’s ALL GOOD, and it’s all beautiful. We are sold, particularly on social media, the ideal of “perfection,” whereas the message should, of course, and particularly in respect to teenagers already bombarded by judgement and pressure, be that YOU ARE PERFECT REGARDLESS. By getting on stage and being the girl she is, nothing more, nothing less, Haylah isn’t proving that she thinks herself perfect, but that she’s happy in her own skin; as Sophia Bush so eloquently put it, “You are allowed to be both a masterpiece and a work in progress, simultaneously.”

So I hope one of the central themes of the books is screw the haters, screw the ridiculous expectations of society and social media, the only opinion of you that matters is your own opinion. So be whoever the hell you want to be and be proud—shoulders back, tits out, and go show the world who you really are.

I hope the book resonances with readers, and particularly those closest to my heart—the gobby, opinionated, wildly inappropriate, larger-than-life girls who make you laugh until you pee your pants. The girls who need to shake off society’s ridiculous expectations of them, jump under the spotlight and crack on with joyously wobbling their funny bits in the face of life.

Meet Rebecca Elliott

REBECCA ELLIOTT is an author and illustrator of many picture books and The Owl Diaries early chapter book series. Pretty Funny for a Girl is her first YA novel. She earned a degree in philosophy and once did a brief stint in a dull office. Now, she enjoys eating angel delight, loudly venting on a drum kit, and spending time in her sunny garden. She lives in England with her family, some chickens, and a cat named Bernard.

Find Rebecca’s book at Bookshop.org: https://bookshop.org/books/pretty-funny-for-a-girl/9781682631478

Rebecca’s site/social:

https://www.rebeccaelliott.com/

https://www.instagram.com/rebecca_elliott_author/

Facebook

@BecElliott

About Pretty Funny For a Girl

Pretty Funny for a Girl

A candid and laugh-out-loud journey of family, friends, and fierce mistakes.

Haylah Swinton is an ace best friend, a loving daughter, and an incredibly patient sister to a four-year-old nutcase of a brother. Best of all, she’s pretty confident she’s mastered making light of every situation—from her mom’s new boyfriend to unsolicited remarks on her plus-sized figure. Haylah’s learning to embrace all of her curvy parts and, besides, she has a secret: one day, she’ll be a stand-up comedian star.

So when impossibly cool and thirstalicious Leo reveals he’s also into comedy, Haylah jumps at the chance to ghost-write his sets. But is Leo as interested in returning the favor? Even though her friends warn her of Leo’s intentions, Haylah’s not ready to listen—and she might just be digging herself deeper toward heartbreak. If Haylah’s ever going to step into the spotlight, first she’ll need to find the confidence to put herself out there and strut like the boss she really is.

Rebecca Elliott’s hilarious and authentic narrative voice is sure to capture readers’ hearts as her plus-sized, teenage heroine navigates learning to love the body she’s in while dealing with friends, family, and boys.

ISBN-13: 9781682631478
Publisher: Peachtree Publishing Company
Publication date: 10/01/2020
Age Range: 12 – 16 Years

How to Write Books that Aren’t Exciting, a guest post by Bryan Bliss

When I first came up with the idea for Thoughts & Prayers, I paused. Coming off the heels of my previous novel—We’ll Fly Away, which dealt with the death penalty—I was reminded of a writing mentor’s response when one of his eager MFA students really went for it.


“A bit much.”

A school shooting book? Really? While I have made a career writing about current topics, I’ve always been hesitant to go too “ripped from the headlines” for fear of trading on pain and trauma in the name of publishing a relevant novel. Plus, if I’m honest, the voices of my two teenagers were in my head, reminding me I write books that—and I quote—aren’t very exciting.

Teens, right?

But…fair enough.

I’ve always been interested in the subtle moments of adolescence. The rages and the furies, yes. But in smaller quantities—only used to offset the quieter moments when kids are alone with one another, when they feel vulnerable and connected in a way that is so intimate, so real, I often believe adults spend the rest of their lives seeking that same connection. That same sense of truly being accepted. Having somebody you can count on, no matter what.

This urgency is well known to anyone who writes or reads young adult literature. But too often, it can become a hyper-reality, especially in so-called issue novels. I don’t fault any writer who wants to tell a story in the moment. In fact, I often wonder if I would do the same if I could only pull it off with any skill. But if we begin thinking teenagers are only searching for that sort of rush—an adrenaline shot in 300 pages—we miss out on the need, the desire, to develop and investigate interior lives. To encounter big traumas on the page and relate them to the different-sized traumas we all face.

I am not trying to be an apologist for my novels or suggest that there aren’t many other authors working in these same, subtle places. Writers I respect, like Nina LaCour, Sara Zarr, Francisco X. Stork, and Lamar Giles (to name a few) are masters at presenting stories that are simultaneously beautiful, complicated, and joyful. These authors give teenagers an opportunity to see a familiar, often challenging world—the world as it could be—in the pages of books that honor the struggles and wonders of real life.

Again, grain of salt coming from the guy who wrote a book about a teenager on death row and followed it up with a story about three teenagers dealing with the after-effects of a school shooting.

A bit much, indeed.


But We’ll Fly Away was a death penalty book only in shorthand. And Thoughts & Prayers is less about a school shooting and more about how teenagers are so damn strong, so damn resilient—so damn brave. Both books may have been conceived by focusing on a Big Issue, but my stories never stay on such high a shelf for very long. Instead, they always find their centers, their true weight, in the moments when one teenager looks at another teenager and says, “Don’t worry. I’m here for you. I’ve got you.”


As you can imagine, my children are not impressed with this argument—especially as they are both voracious readers who finish books in single sittings, gripped by stories that I admittedly will never be able to write for them. In fact, when I told my son about this blog, he grimaced and said, “All I want is one book with a happy ending!”

This is a criticism I won’t take as quickly. Yes, my books rarely resolve with two teenagers holding hands under an arcing rainbow, a neat bow. But ambiguity and messiness do not indicate a lack of hope or happiness. There is always a path through the muck and the darkness in my books—even if it doubles back on itself time and time again.


All we need is a sliver. All we need is a spark, a chance. The smallest hint of light. Anything to draw us forward, even a single step. Because the more we see it—in novels or real life—the more we believe it exists.

What’s more exciting than that?

Meet Bryan Bliss

Bryan Bliss is the author of four novels, including Thoughts & Prayers, which released today, and We’ll Fly Away, a 2018 National Book Award longlist selection. He teaches in the MFA program at Seattle Pacific University and lives in St. Paul, MN with his family.

Check out Amanda’s review of Thoughts & Prayers here.

About Thoughts & Prayers

Thoughts & Prayers: A Novel in Three Parts

Fight. Flight. Freeze. What do you do when you can’t move on, even though the rest of the world seems to have? 

For readers of Jason Reynolds, Marieke Nijkamp, and Laurie Halse Anderson. Powerful and tense, Thoughts & Prayers is an extraordinary novel that explores what it means to heal and to feel safe in a world that constantly chooses violence.

Claire, Eleanor, and Brezzen have little in common. Claire fled to Minnesota with her older brother, Eleanor is the face of a social movement, and Brezzen retreated into the fantasy world of Wizards & Warriors.

But a year ago, they were linked. They all hid under the same staircase and heard the shots that took the lives of some of their classmates and a teacher. Now, each one copes with the trauma as best as they can, even as the world around them keeps moving.

Told in three loosely connected but inextricably intertwined stories, National Book Award–longlisted author Bryan Bliss’s Thoughts & Prayers follows three high school students in the aftermath of a school shooting. Thoughts & Prayers is a story about gun violence, but more importantly it is the story of what happens after the reporters leave and the news cycle moves on to the next tragedy. It is the story of three unforgettable teens who feel forgotten.

ISBN-13: 9780062962249
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/29/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Miss Meteor by Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemore

Miss Meteor by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Publisher’s description

A gorgeous and magical collaboration between two critically acclaimed, powerhouse YA authors offers a richly imagined underdog story perfect for fans of Dumplin’ and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

There hasn’t been a winner of the Miss Meteor beauty pageant who looks like Lita Perez or Chicky Quintanilla in all its history.

But that’s not the only reason Lita wants to enter the contest, or her ex-best friend Chicky wants to help her. The road to becoming Miss Meteor isn’t about being perfect; it’s about sharing who you are with the world—and loving the parts of yourself no one else understands.

So to pull off the unlikeliest underdog story in pageant history, Lita and Chicky are going to have to forget the past and imagine a future where girls like them are more than enough—they are everything.

Amanda’s thoughts

Individually, I love these authors. And together? Perfect. So glad they teamed up to write this magical, lovely, moving story of former best friends who team up to try to end 50 years of blond, white beauty queens.

In Meteor (or is it Meteorite?) New Mexico, the biggest thing in town is the Miss Meteor Pageant. Chicky, a “tomboy” (her term) who lives in flannel shirts and has a short “boy’s haircut” (again, her words) feels friendless. She’s sick of the bullying from the popular kids (mainly Kendra and Royce) and wonders if she could possibly stop queen bee Kendra from winning the pageant. She’d like to see Kendra lose and suffer. Around the same time Lita, Chicky’s former best friend, gets the idea to participate in the pageant. Could a brown girl made of stardust who’s being raised by the local bruja/curandera (who also came to earth with the meteor) possibly stand a chance?

The two old-but-new friends team up with Junior, a talented artist and also secretly talented cornhole player (cornhole being the most popular game in Meteor) who has long had a crush on Chicky (who, we learn, is pansexual but not out for much of the story–until she joyfully and beautifully IS out), and Cole, a kind, outspoken, trans boy, and one of the popular kids (and, it’s worth noting, brother to queen bee Kendra). Chicky’s three sisters get involved too, helping prepare Lita for the pageant and helping look out for her as others try to sabotage and stop her run for the crown.

A lot happens along the way. The characters call out racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and more. They fight stereotypes, they elevate each other, they find unexpected friendship, and they persist in the face of so many small-minded townspeople. The story is about the Miss Meteor Pageant, yes, but it’s really about relationships and finding your place. It’s about bringing light to the town, it’s about finding space for yourself, and it’s about belonging. Together, the four main characters find and offer strength to one another in powerful and meaningful ways. A feel-good story about being proud of your identity and opening yourself to sharing your self and your truth with others. This layered story with fantastic characters shows that trying to blend in sometimes just hides the many wonderful ways you were made to stand out. Like Chicky and Lita find out, there is space for you. You belong, just as you are.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062869913
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/22/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Post-It Note Reviews: Quick looks at new YA and MG graphic novels, fiction, and nonfiction

All descriptions from the publishers. Transcriptions of the Post-It notes follow the description.

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr by Laura Lee Gulledge (ISBN-13: 9781419742002 Publisher: Amulet Paperbacks Publication date: 04/07/2020, Ages 13-18)

A bold and original YA graphic novel about one teen’s battle to understand her mental illness—and find her creative genius

Sometimes, the world is too much for Mona Starr. She’s sweet, geeky, and creative, but it’s hard for her to make friends and connect with other people, and her depression seems to take on a vivid, concrete form. She calls it her Matter.

The Matter seems to be everywhere, telling Mona she’s not good enough and that everyone around her wishes she’d go away. But with therapy, art, writing, and the persistence of a few good friends, Mona starts to understand her Matter and how she can turn her fears into strengths.

Heartfelt, emotionally vulnerable, and visually stunning, The Dark Matter of Mona Starris a story about battling your inner doubts and fears—and finding your creative genius.

(POST-IT SAYS: Really nice addition to the field of YA books about mental health. Emphasis on self-care, connection, therapy, art, and hope. Really gets at how depression and anxiety can feel. A quiet, introspective story many will relate to.)

Parachutes by Kelly Yang (ISBN-13: 9780062941084 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 05/26/2020, Ages 14-17)

Speak enters the world of Gossip Girl in this modern immigrant story from New York Times bestselling author Kelly Yang about two girls navigating wealth, power, friendship, and trauma.

They’re called parachutes: teenagers dropped off to live in private homes and study in the United States while their wealthy parents remain in Asia. Claire Wang never thought she’d be one of them, until her parents pluck her from her privileged life in Shanghai and enroll her at a high school in California.

Suddenly she finds herself living in a stranger’s house, with no one to tell her what to do for the first time in her life. She soon embraces her newfound freedom, especially when the hottest and most eligible parachute, Jay, asks her out.

Dani De La Cruz, Claire’s new host sister, couldn’t be less thrilled that her mom rented out a room to Claire. An academic and debate team star, Dani is determined to earn her way into Yale, even if it means competing with privileged kids who are buying their way to the top. But Dani’s game plan veers unexpectedly off course when her debate coach starts working with her privately.

As they steer their own distinct paths, Dani and Claire keep crashing into one another, setting a course that will change their lives forever. 

(POST-IT SAYS: A devastating read about privilege, identity, sexual assault, socioeconomics, and speaking up. An important look at rape culture and a smart, intersectional addition to #metoo books based on the author’s own experience.)

Never Look Back by Lilliam Rivera (ISBN-13: 9781547603732 Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Publication date: 09/15/2020, Ages 13-17)

Acclaimed author Lilliam Rivera blends a touch of magical realism into a timely story about cultural identity, overcoming trauma, and the power of first love.

Eury comes to the Bronx as a girl haunted. Haunted by losing everything in Hurricane Maria—and by an evil spirit, Ato. She fully expects the tragedy that befell her and her family in Puerto Rico to catch up with her in New York. Yet, for a time, she can almost set this fear aside, because there’s this boy . . .

Pheus is a golden-voiced, bachata-singing charmer, ready to spend the summer on the beach with his friends, serenading his on-again, off-again flame. That changes when he meets Eury. All he wants is to put a smile on her face and fight off her demons. But some dangers are too powerful for even the strongest love, and as the world threatens to tear them apart, Eury and Pheus must fight for each other and their lives.

Featuring contemporary Afro-Latinx characters, this retelling of the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice is perfect for fans of Ibi Zoboi’s Pride and Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper.

(POST-IT SAYS: I don’t mind instalove, so this Latinx reenvisioning of the Greek myth worked for me. Great imagery and writing, but the uneven pacing and rushed ending detract from the overall success of the book. Still, a satisfying read about love, mental health, and culture.)

Like Spilled Water by Jennie Liu (ISBN-13: 9781541572904 Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group Publication date: 09/01/2020, Ages 13-18)

Nineteen-year-old Na has always lived in the shadow of her younger brother, Bao-bao, her parents’ cherished son. Years ago, Na’s parents left her in the countryside and went to work in the city, bringing Bao-bao along and committing everything to his education.

But when Bao-bao dies suddenly, Na realizes how little she knew him. Did he really kill himself because of a low score on China’s all-important college entrance exam? Na learns that Bao-bao had many secrets and that his death may not be what it seems. Na’s parents expect her to quit her vocational school and go to work, forcing Na to confront traditional expectations for and pressures on young women.

(POST-IT SAYS: A quick but powerful read. Unique setting of community college in China and compelling explorations of expectations, culture, and education. A poignant look at pressures and disappointments and identity.)

She Represents: 44 Women Who Are Changing Politics . . . and the World by Caitlin Donohue (ISBN-13: 9781541579019 Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group Publication date: 09/01/2020, Ages 13-18)

In a complicated political era when the United States feels divided, this book celebrates feminism and female contributions to politics, activism, and communities. Each of the forty-four women profiled in this illustrated book has demonstrated her capabilities and strengths in political and community leadership and activism, both in the United States and around the world. Written in an approachable, journalistic tone and rounded out by beautiful color portraits, history, key political processes, terminology, and thought-provoking quotes, this book will inspire and encourage women everywhere to enact change in their own communities and to pursue opportunities in public affairs.

(POST-IT SAYS: A well-rounded collection that includes women of all political backgrounds and will introduce readers to many names they may not encounter in other such collections. Visually appealing, easy to browse, and packed with information.)

How to Do It Now Because It’s Not Going Away: An Expert Guide to Getting Stuff Done by Leslie Josel (ISBN-13: 9781541581616 Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group Publication date: 10/06/2020, Ages 13-18)

With distance learning, teens are having to manage their time and attention now more than ever.

Procrastination is especially tough for young adults. Getting started is overwhelming, it’s hard to get motivated, not knowing how long things take messes up planning, and distractions are everywhere. We are all wired to put things off, but we can learn tools and techniques to kick this habit. This book is a user-friendly guide to help teens get their tasks done. Simple, straightforward, and with a touch of humor, it’s packed with practical solutions and easily digestible tips to stay on top of homework, develop a sense of time, manage digital distractions, create easy-to-follow routines, and get unstuck. In her breezy, witty style, internationally recognized academic and parenting coach Leslie Josel opens the door to a student’s view of procrastination, dives deep into what that really looks like, and offers up her Triple Ts—tips, tools and techniques—to teach students how to get stuff done…now.

(POST-IT SAYS: Sharing this because it’s good to know about as a potential resource. Charts, time charts/worksheets, personal stories, and lists help break up intimidatingly thorough looks at various areas of procrastination. My own teenager could use this… but he’d never read it.)

Undecided, 2nd Edition: Navigating Life and Learning after High School
by Genevieve Morgan
(ISBN-13: 9781541597792 Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group Publication date: 10/06/2020, Ages 14-18)

For high school students all over the country, deciding what to do after graduation can be overwhelming. How do you know if college is your best choice? If it is, how do you plan for student loans? If it’s not, what are your other options?

That’s where Undecided comes in! This updated and revised edition provides a comprehensive overview of the choices available after high school, from traditional four-year colleges and trade schools to military service and gap years. Teens can choose a career path and get advice on how to succeed. Checklists, anecdotes, brainstorming activities, and journal exercises lead to well-informed decisions. Find a future that works for you!

(POST-IT SAYS: Really nice because it gives equal time and value to the many post-high school paths. Asks readers to put a lot of thought into their options, desires, and decisions. The information and aspects to consider may help make the future less overwhelming. Good for students and caregivers.)

Even If We Break by Marieke Nijkamp (ISBN-13: 9781492636113 Publisher: Sourcebooks Publication date: 09/15/2020, Ages 14-18)

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Marieke Nijkamp comes a shocking new thriller about a group of friends tied together by a game and the deadly weekend that tears them apart.

FIVE friends go to a cabin.

FOUR of them are hiding secrets.
THREE years of history bind them.
TWO are doomed from the start.
ONE person wants to end this.
NO ONE IS SAFE.

Are you ready to play?

(POST-IT SAYS: A thriller-ish story populated by a great diversity of characters (trans, autistic, disabled) who use the game as a backdrop to explore their own issues, feelings, and the mystery of what’s happening at the cabin.)

Shirley and Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goerz (ISBN-13: 9780525552864 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 07/14/2020, Ages 8-12)

This middle-grade graphic novel for fans of Roller Girl and Smile introduces Jamila and Shirley, two unlikely friends who save each other’s summers while solving their neighborhood’s biggest mysteries.

Jamila Waheed is staring down a lonely summer in a new neighborhood—until she meets Shirley Bones. Sure, Shirley’s a little strange, but both girls need a new plan for the summer, and they might as well become friends.

Then this kid Oliver shows up begging for Shirley’s help. His pet gecko has disappeared, and he’s sure it was stolen! That’s when Jamila discovers Shirley’s secret: She’s the neighborhood’s best kid detective, and she’s on the case. When Jamila discovers she’s got some detective skills of her own, a crime-solving partnership is born.

The mystery of the missing gecko turns Shirley and Jamila’s summer upside down. And when their partnership hits a rough patch, they have to work together to solve the greatest mystery of all: What it means to be a friend.

(POST-IT SAYS: Graphic novels need zero help to move off the shelves, but this is a good one to know about because of the diverse characters and the fast-paced detective element. A great, fun look at independence and friendship.)

Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram (ISBN-13: 9780593108239 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 08/25/2020, Ages 13-17)

In this companion to the award-winning Darius the Great Is Not Okay, Darius suddenly has it all: a boyfriend, an internship, a spot on the soccer team. It’s everything he’s ever wanted—but what if he deserves better?

Darius Kellner is having a bit of a year. Since his trip to Iran, a lot has changed. He’s getting along with his dad, and his best friend Sohrab is only a Skype call away. Between his first boyfriend, Landon, varsity soccer practices, and an internship at his favorite tea shop, things are falling into place.

Then, of course, everything changes. Darius’s grandmothers are in town for a long visit, and Darius can’t tell whether they even like him. The internship is not going according to plan, Sohrab isn’t answering Darius’s calls, and Dad is far away on business. And Darius is sure he really likes Landon . . . but he’s also been hanging out with Chip Cusumano, former bully and current soccer teammate—and well, maybe he’s not so sure about anything after all.

Darius was just starting to feel okay, like he finally knew what it meant to be Darius Kellner. But maybe okay isn’t good enough. Maybe Darius deserves better.

(Link to my review of the first book, Darius the Great is Not Okay)

(POST-IT SAYS: Really lovely, perfect sequel. Looks at dating, consent, depression, family, and daily life. A very character-driven and beautifully written story. Shows that just when you think you’ve got a handle on things, everything changes. I love Darius!)

The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg (ISBN-13: 9781338325034 Publisher: Scholastic, Inc. Publication date: 09/01/2020 Ages 14-18)

Two teenagers, strangers to each other, have decided to jump from the same bridge at the same time. But what results is far from straightforward in this absorbing, honest lifesaver from acclaimed author Bill Konigsberg.

Aaron and Tillie don’t know each other, but they are both feeling suicidal, and arrive at the George Washington Bridge at the same time, intending to jump. Aaron is a gay misfit struggling with depression and loneliness. Tillie isn’t sure what her problem is — only that she will never be good enough.

On the bridge, there are four things that could happen:

Aaron jumps and Tillie doesn’t.

Tillie jumps and Aaron doesn’t.

They both jump.

Neither of them jumps.

Or maybe all four things happen, in this astonishing and insightful novel from Bill Konigsberg.

(POST-IT SAYS: The unique format of following all the possible paths will grab readers’ attention. Konigsberg’s excellent writing and compassionate telling of a story that he intimately relates to make for a moving and realistic look at mental health and hope.)

Digging for the Truth, a guest post by Lilliam Rivera

Photo credit: Isabelle Santiago

If you’re like me, I try my best to avoid consuming the news all day. This is not an easy feat considering the world we’re currently experiencing. The reality is that to get to the truth about things takes more than just a quick glance at a headline. Our most “trusted” news outlets continue to fail us. How can we prepare ourselves when the established media institutions bend the truth? There is fake news and then there is also this idea of sugarcoating the truth. Why not use the words “white supremacy” or “racist” when you can use “racially tinged” and “racially motivated?”

However, this essay is not about linguistics or the history of how words are used to perpetuate the racial structure that so many benefit from. This essay is about High School history class. When I was attending High School in New York, I attended a public school specializing in secretarial studies and computer sciences. The goal was to prep students to enter the work force as assistants. I learned how to type and spent most summers temping in various offices around the city. The funny thing was that I loved history. I devoured books exploring the period between the late 1950s to the late 1970s. During that period, the world felt as if it was at a crossroads. Students and young people all across the United States were rising up to make their voices heard against a tyrannical government. I wanted so desperately to read about the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican youth movement who joined the Black Panthers to help aid their community. I wanted to read about the Chicano Movement, La Raza, and more.

Sadly, this wouldn’t be the case. The history books I was forced to read didn’t mention these Brown and Black social movements. And if I ever wanted to search anything tied to Puerto Rico, well, I was out of luck. Instead I cobbled together what I could, creating a mix match selection from the library which included memoir, fiction, and poetry. I read Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets right alongside Alex Healey and Malcom X’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X.  I read Bobby Seale’s Power to the People with Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It wasn’t enough. I couldn’t find works on Latin America’s liberation theology or the Young Lords work in Chicago and the Bronx. It would be later in college when I would be able to connect with those periods. Perhaps this is the reason why I decided to find ways to incorporate history in my young adult novels. I’m not writing historical fiction but allowing these characters to explore their cities through a historical lens.

The Education of Margot Sanchez

In my first novel The Education of Margot Sanchez, I introduced gentrification and its effects on Brown and Black families. But my latest young adult novel goes further with this idea. In Never Look Back, I flip the Orpheus and Eurydice myth and set it in mostly in the Bronx, New York with two Afro Latino protagonists. Pheus is a wannabe bachata singer who meets and falls in love with Eury, a Puerto Rican displaced by Hurricane Maria and haunted by an angry spirit. The novel is a love story but it is also a story of how trauma infects each generation. Pheus is a fairly typical high schooler, one with the gift of musical talent. He is also a great history buff. Through Pheus, we are able to get insight, however short, into the colonization of Puerto Rico, the Young Lords occupation of Lincoln Hospital in the 1970s to help their community, and the traumatic effects of the military on young people. Pheus doesn’t just see a building, he sees the blood and tears imprinted on the walls.

Never Look Back

I love this idea of the school curriculums moving between fiction and history. High School English and US history are great places to have a robust conversation. In recent years, there have been wonderful works being produced in children’s book spaces. Why not pair Sonia Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano with The Young Lords: A Reader by Iris Morales? What about Esmeralda Santiago’s When I was Puerto Rican with The Taste of Sugar: A Novel by Marisel Vera? A school guide has already been created for the award-winning New York Times’  1619 Project. What if the project was paired with Kekla Magoon’s Fire in the Streets or Renée Watson’s Some Places More Than Others

If a young reader is not into historical fiction, there are still a lot of innovative ways to introduce overlooked historical moments through young adult and middle grade novels. The excitement is not only discovering the pages can be mirrors but can also bring much needed light to a period times overlooked by our history books. Let young readers question the very text books being handed to them. Let them raise their eyebrows at what is left off the page and nudge them to present their doubts through the use of fictional characters who are also on a similar journey. The goal is to expand what is presented in approved texts and have them find the missing voices in between the lines because no one story book or newspaper holds the full truth.

Meet Lilliam Rivera

Photo credit: Vanessa Acosta

Lilliam Rivera is an award-winning writer and the author of children’s books Goldie Vance: The Hotel Whodunit, Dealing in DreamsThe Education of Margot Sanchez, and the forthcoming young adult novel Never Look Back (September 15, 2020) by Bloomsbury. Her work has appeared in The Washington PostNew York Times, and Elle, to name a few. A Bronx, New York native, Lilliam currently lives in Los Angeles. 

About NEVER LOOK BACK

Never Look Back

Expertly blends reality and fantasy to explore what’s behind love and loss, what it takes to heal.” – Randy Ribay, author of National Book Award finalist Patron Saints of Nothing

Acclaimed author Lilliam Rivera blends a touch of magical realism into a timely story about cultural identity, overcoming trauma, and the power of first love.

Eury comes to the Bronx as a girl haunted. Haunted by losing everything in Hurricane Maria—and by an evil spirit, Ato. She fully expects the tragedy that befell her and her family in Puerto Rico to catch up with her in New York. Yet, for a time, she can almost set this fear aside, because there’s this boy . . .

Pheus is a golden-voiced, bachata-singing charmer, ready to spend the summer on the beach with his friends, serenading his on-again, off-again flame. That changes when he meets Eury. All he wants is to put a smile on her face and fight off her demons. But some dangers are too powerful for even the strongest love, and as the world threatens to tear them apart, Eury and Pheus must fight for each other and their lives.

Featuring contemporary Afro-Latinx characters, this retelling of the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice is perfect for fans of Ibi Zoboi’s Pride and Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper.

ISBN-13: 9781547603732
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 09/15/2020
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Psst–Wanna Hear a Secret? Keeping Things Private in My Life in the Fish Tank, a guest post by Barbara Dee

This may sound funny to admit, but I’ve only recently realized that all my recent books are about secrecy.

I didn’t write these books with a recurring theme in mind.  My latest Middle Grade (or, to be precise, Upper Middle Grade) books explore a variety of  “tough topics”–sexual orientation (Star-Crossed),  pediatric cancer (Halfway Normal), eating disorders (Everything I Know About You), sexual harassment (Maybe He Just Likes You).  My next book, My Life in the Fish Tank (Aladdin/S&S, Sept 15, 2020) is about a family of four kids unsettled by the oldest son’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Looking over my shoulder, though, I see that what these very different stories have in common  is a protagonist struggling under the burden of a secret.  In Star-Crossed and Maybe He Just Likes You, it’s a secret that shouldn’t be a secret at all. In Halfway Normal, the secret is a form of self-protection. In Everything I Know About You and My Life in the Fish Tank, the secret is intended to protect others. But in all these stories, whatever motivates the desire to hide information, the secret is a source of anxiety, responsible for tensions with the protagonist’s friends and family.

My Life in the Fish Tank

In My Life in the Fish Tank, Zinny doesn’t want to keep her brother Gabriel’s mental illness secret–it’s her parents who insist on it. And actually, her parents never use the word secret–they simply ask that the kids in the family keep it private.  “For Gabriel’s sake,” they explain. 

But Zinny immediately sees through their language.

“You mean secret?” I asked.

“Not secret, private,” Dad said. He flashed mom a look.

“Okay,” I said.

But if there was a difference between those two words–“secret” and “private”–I didn’t know what it was. 

It’s not that Zinny wants to talk about her brother’s bipolar disorder (“The whole thing hurt my heart in a way I couldn’t describe…I couldn’t explain to anyone how it felt to wonder if he’d be okay.”) She’s also (rightfully) wary of friends like Maisie who pry, expecting gossipy details on demand.

But what Zinny comes to realize is that not talking to people about Gabriel  has a cost. If you don’t share vital information about yourself, if you hide your true feelings, you push people away. As the hospital social worker tells Nora in Halfway Normal, there’s no requirement that she “entertain anyone with (her) cancer story…Although not sharing can be tricky too…Maybe you want to consider how other people would feel about that.” 

I think one reason I write about secrecy so much is that in middle school, intimacy–sharing secrets–is the currency of friendship, especially among girls. So in Maybe He Just Likes You, when Mila doesn’t tell Zara about the boys’ s sexual harassment game, it seals the fate of their already rocky relationship. In Star-Crossed, Mattie’s instinct not to tell loyal but loudmouthed Tessa about her crush on Gemma almost wrecks their friendship too. In Halfway Normal Nora’s desire to keep her “cancer story” to herself is understandable–but it threatens her bonds with Harper and Griffin. Withholding secrets from your best friends can be  dangerous, a source of conflict–even when it’s for a good reason.

Sometimes I hear from adult readers, “I just wished the character had told an adult.” This comment always surprises me.  For upper elementary and middle school kids, one of the worst things you can be is a tattletale, which is why Tally resists sharing  Ava’s secret in Everything I Know About You. And when the secret is your own, you also don’t rush off to tell a grownup. You usually do one of two things: either you share it with your friends (if it’s the sort of secret that’s shareable) or you turn inward–closing yourself off, obsessing in potentially unhealthy ways.

Because as a bright, observant twelve-year-old, Zinny is starting to see that adults aren’t perfect and can’t solve all your problems. She watches her parents with sharp eyes: the way after her brother’s diagnosis her dad withdraws from the rest of the family but adopts a “bright, cheery voice” when they visit Gabriel at the residential treatment center  (“I couldn’t help thinking that he’d kept it from us, hidden away. Almost like he thought we didn’t deserve it or something.”) And even though Mom insists that she wants to keep Gabriel’s condition “private” out of respect for Gabriel, Zinny notes how Mom lies to her neighbor Mrs. Halloran, telling her that Gabriel is “back at school and working hard.”   Horrified, Zinny wonders: “Why would Mom lie about Gabriel? Was she ashamed that her own kid was crazy? Because I couldn’t think of any other reason.”

Eventually  Zinny is brave enough to confront her parents. She doesn’t call them out for stigmatizing mental illness;  she’s a kid, so she’s more focused on the way their insistence on secrecy has affected both the family and her own social life.  At the same time, Zinny has been identifying people she can confide in: kids like Kailani and the others in the Lunch Club. Adults like Mr. Patrick, the excellent guidance counselor who allows Zinny to proceed at her own pace, gradually feeling comfortable enough to share her secret. In all my stories about kids with secrets, there are good friends and less-good ones, adults who demand information (like Ms. Castro in Halfway Normal) and adults who offer support in unobtrusive ways that earn the protagonist’s trust  (like Mr. Torres in Star-Crossed and both Ms. Molina and Mr. Patrick  in Fish Tank).

If you ask me what Middle Grade books are about, I’d say they’re about this: learning to analyze behavior.  Evaluating friendships in ever-changing light. Seeing adults not as all-powerful, all-knowing paragons, but as complicated, flawed (if often benevolent) human beings.

And then figuring out your relationship with all these people–whom you can trust, especially with your precious secrets.  

Meet Barbara Dee

Barbara Dee is the author of several middle grade novels including Maybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About You, Halfway Normal, and Star-Crossed. Her books have received several starred reviews and been included on many best-of lists, including the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten, the Chicago Public Library Best of the Best, and the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. Star-Crossed was also a Goodreads Choice Awards finalist. Barbara is one of the founders of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. She lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound dog named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York.

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My wonderful local indie is Scattered Books.  They ship everywhere. I’m doing a signing there on Sat, Sept 26 from 2-4 pm. It will be outside, in front of the bookstore—COVID safe!

About My Life in the Fish Tank

My Life in the Fish Tank

From acclaimed author of Maybe He Just Likes You and Halfway Normal comes a powerful and moving story of learning how to grow, change, and survive.

When twelve-year-old Zinnia Manning’s older brother Gabriel is diagnosed with a mental illness, the family’s world is turned upside down. Mom and Dad want Zinny, her sixteen-year-old sister, Scarlett, and her eight-year-old brother, Aiden, to keep Gabriel’s condition “private”—and to Zinny that sounds the same as “secret.” Which means she can’t talk about it to her two best friends, who don’t understand why Zinny keeps pushing them away, turning everything into a joke.

It also means she can’t talk about it during Lunch Club, a group run by the school guidance counselor. How did Zinny get stuck in this weird club, anyway? She certainly doesn’t have anything in common with these kids—and even if she did, she’d never betray her family’s secret.

The only good thing about school is science class, where cool teacher Ms. Molina has them doing experiments on crayfish. And when Zinny has the chance to attend a dream marine biology camp for the summer, she doesn’t know what to do. How can Zinny move forward when Gabriel—and, really, her whole family—still needs her help?

ISBN-13: 9781534432338
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 09/15/2020
Age Range: 9 – 13 Years

Book Review: My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee

My Life in the Fish Tank

Publisher’s description

From acclaimed author of Maybe He Just Likes You and Halfway Normal comes a powerful and moving story of learning how to grow, change, and survive.

When twelve-year-old Zinnia Manning’s older brother Gabriel is diagnosed with a mental illness, the family’s world is turned upside down. Mom and Dad want Zinny, her sixteen-year-old sister, Scarlett, and her eight-year-old brother, Aiden, to keep Gabriel’s condition “private”—and to Zinny that sounds the same as “secret.” Which means she can’t talk about it to her two best friends, who don’t understand why Zinny keeps pushing them away, turning everything into a joke.

It also means she can’t talk about it during Lunch Club, a group run by the school guidance counselor. How did Zinny get stuck in this weird club, anyway? She certainly doesn’t have anything in common with these kids—and even if she did, she’d never betray her family’s secret.

The only good thing about school is science class, where cool teacher Ms. Molina has them doing experiments on crayfish. And when Zinny has the chance to attend a dream marine biology camp for the summer, she doesn’t know what to do. How can Zinny move forward when Gabriel—and, really, her whole family—still needs her help?

Amanda’s thoughts

The summary up there is pretty thorough and hits most of the main plot points of the story. What you need to know, what you can’t really learn from the summary, is how nuanced and emotional this story is. Many families choose to keep something like a mental illness private/secret/a family matter. I’m not here to judge people doing that (though, we all know I’m super open about our mental health issues here and think being open helps eliminate stigma and leads to more help for everyone) because mental illness is hard, family can be hard, choices are hard, and so on. But certainly for Zinny, being told to keep it private that her older brother is bipolar and in a treatment facility really destroys her.

Zinny’s parents become distant and shut down as the family tries to get through this hard time without really talking to one another about it or being open. Her mother shows signs of depression and takes a leave from her job as a teacher. Her father is always at work. No one makes dinner or takes care of things, leaving Zinny to feel like she should cook, get groceries, and so on. Her secrecy drives a wedge between her and her best friends, leaving her feeling even more isolated and alone. Her older sister is dealing with their brother’s diagnosis and absence differently than Zinny is, so she also feels a loss of kinship with her sister. She’s confused, ashamed, upset, and still not entirely clear what’s happening. Her feels even worse when she hears her mom straight up lie about her brother (he’s back at college and doing great!).

While all of that is really hard, surprising good things happen. Dee doesn’t leave Zinny alone and despairing. She gives her a great science teacher, Ms. Molina, who lets Zinny come help in her classroom during lunch, who supports her without overtly making it about what’s happening at home, and who encourages Zinny to be making connections and continuing to live her life. Dee also gives Zinny a group of new friends, a lunch bunch of other middle school kids dealing with rough issues. While Zinny isn’t thrilled to be in this group at first, she gets a lot out of those connections and finds not just kids who are also experiencing difficult times, but kids who want to be her friend, who include her, and who show her it’s okay to be dealing with family issues. Her family is struggling, but Zinny is surrounded by support and true caring. And while her parents definitely make missteps along the way (as a parent, I can safely say we all do, even if we’re certain we’re trying to do our best), they all work together to figure out how to get through this time.

Flashbacks to both happier times and moments with Gabriel that illuminate how long his mental illness went undiagnosed create a bigger and better picture of Zinny’s family. Given how many children are most certainly dealing with mental illness at home or with someone close to them, this is a much needed book that shows how hard and scary it can be, but also how much help there is and how much hope there is. Zinny’s story moves from feeling like they’re all just barely surviving this upheaval to seeing how everyone learns to function more honestly and healthily in this new reality. It’s hardly news to say that mental illness affects the entire family, but it’s so important that we see the ways this can happen and understand that it’s okay to be affected and to need to figure out a way forward. An important read and highly recommended.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781534432338
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 09/15/2020
Age Range: 9 – 13 Years