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Book Review: Thoughts & Prayers by Bryan Bliss

Thoughts & Prayers: A Novel in Three Parts

Publisher’s description

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.

Amanda’s thoughts

I finished this book feeling both so, so angry and so, so hopeful. Angry because of the state of things and hopeful because of the awe-inspiring resiliency of humans. Angry that school shootings happen and hopeful that expanded conversations and movements regarding gun violence may one day lead us to a better, safer place. Angry as I think back to every library I’ve worked at, whether school or public, and had moments of fear, had lockdown drills, had spots picked out where I would hide, where I would shove kids. I finished the book angry at some characters, hopeful because of others, and really just profoundly sad that this fictional story is the true story of so many schools, so many communities, so many children.

Told in three parts, we meet Claire, Eleanor, and Brezzen. All three survived the school shooting together and now are in very different places in their lives. Claire moved from NC to MN, where she lives with her brother and seems to hope to skateboard her troubles away. It’s at the skate park that she meets God, Leg, and Dark, three boys who quickly adopt her as their friend. But Claire is wary of everything these days. She worries about monsters lurking around every corner, worries who she can trust, and worries that pretending to be fine is maybe not working out so great. Her new friendships are tested when she discovers deeply disturbing notebooks full of horrific art and now has to worry that she could be missing the signs or the chance to speak up and prevent something like a shooting from happening again.

Eleanor is still in NC and has become “the face of a new generation of teenagers who would save the world” after she began wearing a shirt that says fuck guns. This third of the story was probably the hardest for me—to see her peers and her community ridicule and harass her even though they too lived through this awful event. My politics are hardly a secret and while I can certainly understand that plenty of people can have something involving gun violence hit so close to home and yet not see guns as a problem (I mean—I can’t understand that, but I do understand this is how some people feel), it is gutting to see the fallout for Eleanor, who has very reasonably taken the stand that our country’s relationship with guns is a problem. Her story is very much about people trying to make her face the consequences of her “choice.” You know, her choice to be outraged, horrified, broken, loud, and hurt.

Meanwhile, Brezzen, the third student we meet, has been out of school for the past year. Going back has been just too scary. He has undergone extensive therapy, and when he does return to school, he can only face it if he approaches the whole ordeal like something from Wizards and Warriors, his favorite role-playing game. He makes maps, rolls his d20, and is always on the lookout for traps and monsters. He doesn’t know if he can actually handle being back at school.

These are teenagers in pain. We watch them remember to breathe, pretend to be fine, try to feel “normal,” and fall apart. Their stories are filled with pain, fear, rage, and grief. But no one is any one thing, no matter what our trauma or seemingly defining moment may be. The characters change, grow, and heal. They need help and they get help. They are not okay, and readers see that that’s okay. They have supportive teachers, parents, and friends. There is talk of therapy and trauma-informed practices. The characters show what is possibly the only true and universal part of grief and trauma: that healing and progress are not linear. In Bliss’s capable hands, we see their stories as intensely personal and individual while also being part of a larger narrative, a shared experience. We see them as broken and scarred but also as brave, fighters, warriors. They are survivors. They are coping. They are made-up characters, but their stories are those of thousands upon thousands of teenagers who live through these school shootings. A deeply empathetic, emotional, and infuriating story full of unforgettable characters (Dr. Palmer, I love you!). This affecting story is not to be missed.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the author

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

Book Review: Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh

Every Body Looking

Publisher’s description

“Candice Iloh’s beautifully crafted narrative about family, belonging, sexuality, and telling our deepest truths in order to be whole is at once immensely readable and ultimately healing.”—Jacqueline Woodson, New York TimesBestselling Author of Brown Girl Dreaming

“An essential—and emotionally gripping and masterfully written and compulsively readable—addition to the coming-of-age canon.”—Nic Stone, New York Times Bestselling Author of Dear Martin

“This is a story about the sometimes toxic and heavy expectations set onthe backs of first-generation children, the pressures woven into the familydynamic, culturally and socially. About childhood secrets with sharp teeth. And ultimately, about a liberation that taunts every young person.” —Jason Reynolds, New York Times Bestselling Author of Long Way Down

Candice Iloh weaves the key moments of Ada’s young life—her mother’s descent into addiction, her father’s attempts to create a home for his American daughter more like the one he knew in Nigeria, her first year at a historically black college—into a luminous and inspiring verse novel.

Amanda’s thoughts

Here’s a thing that I say probably way too many times on this blog: I’m a character-driven reader who doesn’t need much more plot beyond “a person tries to figure out how to be a person in the world.” To me, there is no bigger, deeper, more compelling plot than that. And this book is such a wonderful exploration of how to be yourself. I read it in one sitting, which is a statement that probably makes authors die a little, given how long it takes to write a book.

While the current timeline of the story is during Ada’s first few weeks at a HBCU, we also see important moments from her life as a young child and again in middle school. Ada has always felt different and alone. Readers learn about her estrangement from her addict mother, her strict and religious Nigerian father, and the pressures Ada has always felt. College will finally allow her some freedom to find out who she really is, away from her family, but of course the idea of “finding yourself” sounds easier than it actually is.

Iloh writes, “when you start growing/further away from/what used to be home/you go looking for somewhere/that lets you be/what’s inside your head.”

I’m not sure I’ve read any better lines in any book this year. There is nothing Ada wants more than to be the person inside her head. She’s always been drawn to dance, but her practical father never saw the point in pursuing it. A chance encounter with Kendra, another dancer, provides connection and the encouragement to follow her desire.

It is both painful and joyful to watch Ada change, grow, learn, and become. At college, she has the freedom to explore her own mind, to find something that is hers, and to be seen. Ada discovers the power of seeing herself reflected, she learns what she wants and will tolerate in relationships, and she seeks to make her own path, uncertain how to do that and making mistakes along the way.

A hopeful, beautifully written, deeply affecting story of what we endure and overcome in the journey to become ourselves.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525556206
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 09/22/2020
Age Range: 12 – 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.)

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

Book Review: Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Punching the Air

Publisher’s description

From award-winning, bestselling author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five comes a powerful YA novel in verse about a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated. Perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds, Walter Dean Myers, and Elizabeth Acevedo. 

The story that I thought

was my life

didn’t start on the day

I was born 

Amal Shahid has always been an artist and a poet. But even in a diverse art school, he’s seen as disruptive and unmotivated by a biased system. Then one fateful night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood escalates into tragedy. “Boys just being boys” turns out to be true only when those boys are white. 

The story that I think

will be my life 

starts today

Suddenly, at just sixteen years old, Amal’s bright future is upended: he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. Despair and rage almost sink him until he turns to the refuge of his words, his art. This never should have been his story. But can he change it? 

With spellbinding lyricism, award-winning author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam tell a moving and deeply profound story about how one boy is able to maintain his humanity and fight for the truth, in a system designed to strip him of both.

Amanda’s thoughts

This incredible novel in verse is definitely one of my top reads of 2020. The reality is that books about racism, the criminal justice system, and the prison industrial complex will always be both timely and timeless. But, I do think that at this particular time in history, maybe more people than ever will be drawn to this story and open to really sitting with what they learn from what happens to Amal and how it affects him.

As Amal goes through a trial and then is sent to a juvenile detention center, readers see the many ways racism and racist systems and institutions have tried to break Amal his entire life. Amal is fully aware of the fact that he has rarely even been seen as just a kid, that his every move can be misconstrued as threatening, angry, guilty. He’s not seen as a boy but a man, a criminal, a stereotype. Hardly anyone sees the real him—not the teachers at his arts high school, not the judge, not the corrections officers. Charged with aggravated assault and battery (Amal admits to being in the fight, to throwing the first punch, but not the last, the one that landed a white boy in a coma), Amal has too much time to ruminate over the many ways life has already been a prison for him. As he moves through the system and eventually falls into the routine of his life in prison, he constantly thinks of slave ships, of shackles, of auction blocks, of no freedom. Amal shows readers how he’s been boxed in his whole life.

Perhaps no page is more moving, more devastating, than the one where, on the day of his conviction, Amal memorizes his inmate number, his crime, and his time, and forgets his school ID number, his top colleges, and his class schedule. Stripped of his humanity, Amal becomes just another number in the school-to-prison pipeline. We see people fail Amal again and again, but also, surprisingly, we see people really see him for who he is and push him to retain his identity (an artist, a poet) while in prison. These people include other inmates who appreciate his talents, a corrections officer who understands his need to create art, and a teacher who visits and tells Amal she’s a prison abolitionist.

A deeply moving, profound, and infuriating look at how we fail Black boys, at the miscarriage of justice, at racist systems, and so much more. An essential purchase.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062996480
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/01/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Not Your #Lovestory by Sonia Hartl

Not Your #Lovestory

Publisher’s description

#PlaneBae meets Gilmore Girls in this hilarious and heartfelt story about the addictiveness of Internet fame and the harsh realities of going viral.

Macy Evans dreams of earning enough income from her YouTube channel, R3ntal Wor1d, to leave her small, Midwestern town. But when she meets a boy named Eric at a baseball game, and accidently dumps her hotdog in his lap, her disastrous “meet-cute” becomes the topic of a viral thread. Now it’s not loyal subscribers flocking to her channel, it’s Internet trolls. And they aren’t interested in her reviews of VHS tapes—they only care about her relationship with Eric.

Eric is overly eager to stretch out his fifteen minutes of fame, but Macy fears this unwanted attention could sabotage her “real-life” relationships—namely with the shy boy-next-door, Paxton, who she’s actually developing feelings for. Macy knows she should shut the lie down, though she can’t ignore the advertising money, or the spark she gets in her chest whenever someone clicks on her videos. Eric shouldn’t be the only one allowed to reap the viral benefits. But is faking a relationship for clicks and subscribers worth hurting actual people?

Amanda’s thoughts

The following is just a short list of things I’m a total sucker for: Rom-coms, meet-cutes, 80s/90s movies, Say Anything (see the very end of this post), interesting family dynamics, stories set at a workplace, and stories set in small towns. Truly. Give me any of those and I’m in. Give me ALL of those? And you’ve given me this book.

Macy is 18 and lives with her mom, who is 35 and a full-time waitress, and her grandma. They barely make ends meet and rely on bartering in their small town to get most of their goods and services. Macy’s dream is to scrape together enough income from her YouTube channel reviewing “old” movies to move to Chicago in a year or so. Until then, she works at a combination video store and repair shop. Now, you might say, really? A video store? Yes—and not just DVDS, but many of the movies are on VHS. Look, I grew up in a tiny rural town. There’s nothing to do and if anywhere is going to have the last VHS-rental store on Earth, it’s going to be some tiny town. So I buy it.

Macy’s world becomes bigger, at least virtually speaking, when videos and a tweet thread go viral. In them, Macy and Eric, a guy she randomly sat by at a baseball game and accidentally dumped her food on, appear to have fallen in love at this game and hooked up in the bathroom. As with so many observed stories, stories told by people other than who they happened to, there is very little truth to this. However, after initially feeling furious at both the invasion of her privacy and Eric (who is still a total stranger to her), who is playing along with this great love story, Macy sees how this could benefit her. Her videos are suddenly wildly popular and she just may be able to earn enough from them to really support her family and save to eventually leave. But playing along means not just selling out, but hurting the people who know the real Macy.

And you know what? Big whatever to Macy and Eric. We see right away that he’s a manipulative jerk and while Macy may get something out of playing along, readers aren’t going to root for them to end up together. Now Macy and Paxton… that’s a different story. Her coworker is cute, funny, sweet, and loves Say Anything. But he also seems to be hiding something. And there’s the fact that Macy’s mom has made her swear to never date a coworker.

Hartl does an excellent job showing how reality can look so very different from how something appears online. With an interesting cast of characters, layered backstories (trauma, grief, heartbreak, poverty, and more), and quick dialogue, I #lovedthisstory.

And now, a tour of my office:

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781645670544
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 09/01/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: The Whitsun Daughters by Carrie Mesrobian

The Whitsun Daughters by Carrie Mesrobian

Publisher’s description

“How quickly everything in the world disintegrates. Everything but the loneliness of young women.”

So begins The Whitsun Daughters, a story of three girls in a small Midwestern town, narrated by the ghost of a young Irish immigrant who, over a century earlier, lived and loved on the same small patch of farmland the girls and their mothers now call home.

Award-winning author Carrie Mesrobian weaves the story of the girls’ day-to-day struggles with the fractured and harrowing memories of their unseen observer. The threads of the tales are familiar: An arranged marriage. An impulsive proposal bitterly refused. Secret affairs. And pregnancies, both welcome and not. Each young woman fights her own lonely battle in the generations-long war of those who would no longer settle for haunting the margins of a world that wants to ignore them.

Amanda’s thoughts

I really like when I come to expect a certain thing from an author (genre, voice, whatever) and they veer off into some new direction. Especially right now, in this world full of the most routine of all routines (shall we stay inside today or stay inside?), I appreciate this foray into something new.

Half of this book is exactly what I’ve come to expect from Mesrobian—relatively poor kids hanging out in Nowhere, Minnesota, swearing, fending for themselves, figuring out adolescence, stumbling, and surviving. But the other half takes us back in time and follows the life of Jane, a young Irish immigrant brought to Minnesota to be a farmer’s wife at just 15. We see her leave and lose everything she has, come to Minnesota, live in relative loneliness and unhappiness with her new husband and his sister, and find comfort and joy in another man on the farm. Eventually, we also hear her narrate her story and the story of her descendants after her life has ended.

The bulk of the modern storyline revolves around the pregnancy of one of the Whitsun daughters and a, as one of the girls calls it, “homemade abortion.” The three Whitsun girls, Poppy, Daisy, and Lilah, spend this time with two neighbor boys, Wade and Hugh, who provide unexpected (and relatively nonjudgmental) support and assistance during this quest to end the pregnancy. In the short period of time we spend with them, we see their already complicated relationship grow far more complicated than readers can predict. And, thanks to Jane’s ghostly narration, we see how their lives are stitched together with hers.

The contrast between the more formal, beautiful narration of Jane and the conversational, grittier view from the modern characters works well to separate the stories and showcases Mesrobian’s writing in new ways. Parallels between the women in each timeline come out as the novel goes on, revealing absent men and fathers, pregnancies, mental illness, lies, secrets, and an eternal loneliness.

A gorgeously layered look at love, loss, and the complex lives of girls. Not to be missed.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780735231955
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 08/25/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Post-It Note Reviews: Toxic masculinity, Somali refugees, surprise siblings, and more!

Look, even on my best days, my anxiety is a mess, so it’s no surprise that during this nightmare year of 2020 I am a wreck. I vacillate between not being able to concentrate enough to read and ONLY wanting to read so I can stay distracted from reality. Here are quick reviews of what I’ve been reading lately.

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

Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles (ISBN-13: 9780062349194 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 01/21/2020, Ages 14-17)

Two-time Edgar Award finalist Lamar Giles spotlights the consequences of societal pressure, confronts toxic masculinity, and explores the complexity of what it means to be a “real man.”Del has had a crush on Kiera Westing since kindergarten. And now, during their junior year, she’s finally available. So when Kiera volunteers for an opportunity at their church, Del’s right behind her. Though he quickly realizes he’s inadvertently signed up for a Purity Pledge.

His dad thinks his wires are crossed, and his best friend, Qwan, doesn’t believe any girl is worth the long game. But Del’s not about to lose his dream girl, and that’s where fellow pledger Jameer comes in. He can put in the good word. In exchange, Del just has to get answers to the Pledgers’ questions…about sex ed.

With other boys circling Kiera like sharks, Del needs to make his move fast. But as he plots and plans, he neglects to ask the most important question: What does Kiera want? He can’t think about that too much, though, because once he gets the girl, it’ll all sort itself out. Right?

(POST-IT SAYS: Really great, funny, incisive look at toxic masculinity, sex, misogyny, entitlement, and what it means to be a good guy. Lots of character growth and lots to discuss here. Authentic and far funnier than I expected!)

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson, Omar Mohamed, Iman Geddy (ISBN-13: 9780525553908 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 04/14/2020, Ages 10-14)

Heartbreak and hope exist together in this remarkable graphic novel about growing up in a refugee camp, as told by a Somali refugee to the Newbery Honor-winning creator of Roller Girl.

Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have spent most of their lives in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. Life is hard there: never enough food, achingly dull, and without access to the medical care Omar knows his nonverbal brother needs. So when Omar has the opportunity to go to school, he knows it might be a chance to change their future . . . but it would also mean leaving his brother, the only family member he has left, every day.

Heartbreak, hope, and gentle humor exist together in this graphic novel about a childhood spent waiting, and a young man who is able to create a sense of family and home in the most difficult of settings. It’s an intimate, important, unforgettable look at the day-to-day life of a refugee, as told to New York Times Bestselling author/artist Victoria Jamieson by Omar Mohamed, the Somali man who lived the story.

(POST-IT SAYS: Phenomenal. Such a moving look at life in a refugee camp. Full of as much love and hope as it is of pain and despair, this is a powerful and unforgettable story. Required reading.)

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (ISBN-13: 9780062882769 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 05/05/2020, Ages 14-17)

In a novel-in-verse that brims with grief and love, National Book Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Acevedo writes about the devastation of loss, the difficulty of forgiveness, and the bittersweet bonds that shape our lives.

Camino Rios lives for the summers when her father visits her in the Dominican Republic. But this time, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people…

In New York City, Yahaira Rios is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash.

Separated by distance—and Papi’s secrets—the two girls are forced to face a new reality in which their father is dead and their lives are forever altered.

And then, when it seems like they’ve lost everything of their father, they learn of each other. 

(POST-IT SAYS: Quite possibly one of the most perfect books ever written. Sad, beautiful, powerful, and bittersweet, this story of family bonds broken and discovered will leave you crying. Just lovely.)

Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (ISBN-13: 9781984815682 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 08/11/2020, Ages 10-14)

A candid and fierce middle grade novel about sisterhood and sexual abuse, by Newbery Honor winner and #1 New York Times best seller Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

“Fighting Words is raw, it is real, it is necessary, a must-read for children and their adults—a total triumph in all ways.” —Holly Goldberg Sloan, New York Times bestselling author of Counting by 7s

Ten-tear-old Della has always had her older sister, Suki: When their mom went to prison, Della had Suki. When their mom’s boyfriend took them in, Della had Suki. When that same boyfriend did something so awful they had to run fast, Della had Suki. Suki is Della’s own wolf—her protector. But who has been protecting Suki? Della might get told off for swearing at school, but she has always known how to keep quiet where it counts. Then Suki tries to kill herself, and Della’s world turns so far upside down, it feels like it’s shaking her by the ankles. Maybe she’s been quiet about the wrong things. Maybe it’s time to be loud.

In this powerful novel that explodes the stigma around child sexual abuse and leavens an intense tale with compassion and humor, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley tells a story about two sisters, linked by love and trauma, who must find their own voices before they can find their way back to each other.

(POST-IT SAYS: A brutal but profound read. Will make so many children feel seen and less alone. Wonderful foster parent/situation rep and full of as much love as hurt. A raw story told in an unforgettable voice.)

Ikenga by Nnedi Okorafor (ISBN-13: 9780593113523 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 08/18/2020, Ages 10-13)

Nnedi Okorafor’s first novel for middle grade readers introduces a boy who can access super powers with the help of the magical Ikenga.

Nnamdi’s father was a good chief of police, perhaps the best Kalaria had ever had. He was determined to root out the criminals that had invaded the town. But then he was murdered, and most people believed the Chief of Chiefs, most powerful of the criminals, was responsible. Nnamdi has vowed to avenge his father, but he wonders what a twelve-year-old boy can do. Until a mysterious nighttime meeting, the gift of a magical object that enables super powers, and a charge to use those powers for good changes his life forever. How can he fulfill his mission? How will he learn to control his newfound powers?


Award-winning Nnedi Okorafor, acclaimed for her Akata novels, introduces a new and engaging hero in her first novel for middle grade readers set against a richly textured background of contemporary Nigeria.

(POST-IT SAYS: Vibrant Nigerian setting, lots of mystery and magic, and unique characters (especially the villains!) make for a widely appealing story. Much of the tale hinges on anger and grief. A solid read.)

Far From Normal by Becky Wallace (ISBN-13: 9781645670568 Publisher: Page Street Publishing Publication date: 09/22/2020, Ages 14-17)

From Stealing Home author Becky Wallace comes a Devil Wears Prada-inspired YA romance, in which “normal girl” Maddie must repair the image of Major League Soccer’s bad boy to ace her internship. A perfect read for fans of Morgan Matson and Miranda Kenneally.

Maddie McPherson is sick of Normal—both her hometown of Normal, Illinois and being the ‘normal’ sibling. But when she lands a summer internship with a sports marketing firm, she finally has a chance to crawl out of her genius brother’s shadow. Not to mention, a glowing letter of recommendation could secure her admission to her dream college.

But Maddie’s nickname is “CalaMaddie” for a reason, and when the company tasks her with repairing the image of teen soccer phenom Gabriel Fortunato, she wonders if she’s set herself up for embarrassment. Gabriel is a tabloid magnet, who’s best-known for flubbing Italy’s World Cup hopes. As Maddie works with him to develop “pleasant and friendly” content for social media, she also learns he’s thoughtful, multi-talented, and fiercely loyal—maybe even to a fault. Falling for a footballer is exactly how CalaMaddie would botch this internship, but with the firm pressuring her to get the job done, perhaps her heart is worth risking?

(POST-IT SAYS: A quick and relatively light romance that also has a lot to do with career ambitions and independence. Well-executed with an easy, wide appeal.)

Doodleville by Chad Sell (ISBN-13: 9781984894717 Publisher: Random House Children’s Books Publication date: 06/09/2020, Ages 8-12)

For fans of Svetlana Chmakova’s Awkward and Raina Telgemeier’s Smile comes an inventive new story from Cardboard Kingdom creator Chad Sell about a group of young artists who must work together when one of their own creations becomes a monster.

Drew is just a regular artist. But there’s nothing ordinary about her art. Her doodles are mischievous . . . and rarely do they stay in Doodleville, the world she’s created in her sketchbook. Instead, Drew’s doodles prefer to explore the world outside. But after an inspiring class trip to the Art Institute of Chicago—where the doodles cause a bit too much trouble—Drew decides it’s time to take her artistic talents to the next level.
Enter the Leviathan—Levi, for short. He’s bigger and better than anything Drew has ever created before. He’s a monster, but a friendly one. That is, until Levi begins to wreak havoc on Drew’s other doodles—and on the heroes her classmates have dreamt up.


Levi won’t be easily tamed, and it seems there is a link between the monster’s bad behavior and Drew’s feelings. With the help of her loyal art club friends, will she be able to save Doodleville—and Levi—before it’s too late?

(POST-IT SAYS: Young artists will especially enjoy this tale of art gone wild and art club friendships. Secondary characters are really great and help temper Drew, who can be a bit much.)

Book Review: Dating Makes Perfect by Pintip Dunn

Dating Makes Perfect

Publisher’s description

The Tech sisters don’t date in high school. Not because they’re not asked. Not because they’re not interested. Not even because no one can pronounce their long, Thai last name—hence the shortened, awkward moniker. But simply because they’re not allowed.

Until now.

In a move that other Asian American girls know all too well, six months after the older Tech twins got to college, their parents asked, “Why aren’t you engaged yet?” The sisters retaliated by vowing that they won’t marry for ten (maybe even twenty!) years, not until they’ve had lots of the dating practice that they didn’t get in high school.

In a shocking war on the status quo, her parents now insist that their youngest daughter, Orrawin (aka “Winnie”), must practice fake dating in high school. Under their watchful eyes, of course—and organized based on their favorite rom-coms. ’Cause that won’t end in disaster.

The first candidate? The son of their longtime friends, Mat Songsomboon—arrogant, infuriating, and way too good-looking. Winnie’s known him since they were toddlers throwing sticky rice balls at each other. And her parents love him.

If only he weren’t her sworn enemy.

Amanda’s thoughts

Somehow I have become the sort of person who finishes a really satisfying book and pronounces it “a delight.” So, can you guess how I felt about this book? Yep—it was a delight. I’ve now read two YA books in a row (and countless adult books in recent months) where the two main characters seem like enemies but are actually totally on a path to a happily ever after. And that’s fine. Give me more. The world is a raging nightmare, so if books want to take me to places of happiness, please, take me!

Winnie refers to Mat, her one-time friend, as “Mr. Tall and Pukey.” They haven’t been close for years, but are thrown together when Winnie’s mom decides she should fake-date Mat to get some practice in dating. Have any characters EVER fake-dated and not actually uncovered real feelings for each other? I doubt it. And also, I don’t care. I truly don’t care if something is totally predictable as long as the journey to get me to that predicted ending is enjoyable. From Winnie and Mat’s rom-com movie-inspired dates to their competing bets that the other will end up actually falling in love to all the amazing descriptions of food and festivities, this book nails it all. Winnie has a fantastic and interesting best friend (Kavya), another potential suitor (new boy Taran), and older twin sisters who always care for her and support her, even though they’re now at college. It’s hard for Winnie and Mat to know what’s truth and what’s a trick as they “fake date” and act like they’re only spending time together because they have to, though readers won’t be fooled about their real feelings for even a second. But while their outcome may seem certain, the real question is if Winnie will learn to stand up for herself and what she wants.

This truly fun book revolves around practice-dating, but delves into other issues like the expectations that can come from immigrant parents, obligation versus passion, friendships, and it paints a rich cultural picture of the Thai community Winnie and her family are part of. People like to use the word “cute” in such a dismissive way, like cute must equal something less-than, something not complicated or smart. But this book is cute in all the best ways, from the romance to the conversations to the eventual outcome. A really great and immersive read.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781682814970
Publisher: Entangled Publishing, LLC
Publication date: 08/18/2020
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years