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Book Review: P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy

Publisher’s description

ps i missA heartbreaking—yet ultimately uplifting—epistolary novel about family, religion, and having the courage to be yourself.


Evie is heartbroken when her strict Catholic parents send her pregnant sister, Cilla, away to stay with a distant great-aunt. All Evie wants is for her older sister to come back. Forbidden from speaking to Cilla, Evie secretly sends her letters.

Evie writes about her family, torn apart and hurting. She writes about her life, empty without Cilla. And she writes about the new girl in school, June, who becomes her friend, and then maybe more than a friend.

Evie could really use some advice from Cilla. But Cilla isn’t writing back, and it’s time for Evie to take matters into her own hands.

P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy is a heartfelt middle grade novel dealing with faith, identity, and finding your way in difficult times.


Amanda’s thoughts

Oh, friends. We need SO MANY MORE middle grade books about LGBTQIA+ kids. I can’t wait for the day that kids of all identities can see themselves joyfully and lovingly represented and embraced.

Evie’s path to discovering who she really is is a very complicated and painful one. The entire book is told through letters to her sister Cilla, who at first has no internet/phone access and then later just isn’t responding. At first I couldn’t get past how extremely dated it feels to only be able to communicate through snail mail, but I did get past that once I got caught up in the story. Cilla got pregnant at sixteen and has been sent away from their home in Massachusetts to their great-aunt’s home in Virginia, to have the baby in secret, then to head to an all-girls’ Catholic boarding school after the baby is born and adopted. Evie desperately misses her sister and sends her endless letters, despite only rarely (and tersely) hearing back from Cilla. Evie’s extremely judgmental and withholding parents have retreated into work and baking/hiding away crying since Cilla left, leaving Evie so alone as she navigates some new feelings toward new classmate June. But it’s not like her parents would be comforting or loving to Evie during this time, anyway. The version of Catholicism that they practice is a strict and punishing one, one that makes them shun their pregnant daughter and, Evie is sure, would make them just as quickly disown their lesbian daughter. So she writes to Cilla, despite the silence back, trying to work out her feelings for June and process her sister’s absence. Evie is not at all prepared for what she finds when she goes looking on her own to find her sister. Uncovering a betrayal so profound that it’s hard to imagine it actually happening, Evie is forced to face the lengths some people will go to to maintain appearances and hide secrets. It’s a revelation that will change her life and her perception of her family, religion, and her thoughts on her own identity.


There is so much shame, stigma, and embarrassment here. Their parents constantly talk about how horrible Cilla’s “mistake” and “sin” is. They are mortified, deeply ashamed, and do everything to hide what has happened, including the very outdated-feeling move of sending her away to have the baby in secret. They have completely turned their back on Cilla, not communicating with her, showing any love, or even uttering her name. They remove her pictures from their walls, spin lies to the community about where she is, and even tell an old friend that Evie is their only child. The constant onslaught of shame and judgment toward teen pregnancy honestly got really hard to stomach.


Evie is very, very young-sounding and naive. The story takes place during 7th grade, but quite often, she feels much younger. She initially thinks in pretty simplistic ways (“bad girls get pregnant”). When she meets June, she notes that she’s never met anyone with dyed hair. When she learns June is an atheist, she again notes that she’s never met one. She observes that her sister broke commandments and sinned, but that she’s learned her lesson and won’t sin again. It’s clear how much of her thinking early on in the book has been influenced by her (awful) parents. Her thoughts on everything change and progress as the story unfolds, but for quite a bit of the story she is sheltered, naive, and parroting her parents’ beliefs. This development, this change to having her own opinions on right and wrong, on religion’s role in her life, on things like teen pregnancy and homosexuality, is believable if not always easy to read.


Evie’s relationship with June also develops in a believable, if not always happy, way. Though she recognizes and struggles with the crush she has on June early on, she is so worried that her parents will disown her, that she’s a sinner, that she’s doing something wrong. But she pushes past that and lets herself feel what she feels. Their relationship follows a very typical trajectory for 7th graders—they’re hesitant, nervous, excited, and happy. They hold sweaty hands, kiss (once, then Evie decides she isn’t ready to be doing that), and spend tons of time together. But for much of the book, it’s all in secret. Thankfully, when Evie does tell her best friends what is going on, they react positively. But even when Evie has told June how she feels and they are girlfriends, Evie notes that she still feels a little ashamed of herself for liking a girl.


My hope is that readers can see past the onslaught of shame and stigma, even felt and perpetuated by Evie herself, to see the joy of discovering someone you have a crush on and see how Evie eventually learns to not hide or be ashamed of who she is. A well-written, if deeply uncomfortable and often disheartening, look at identity, family, and secrets. 


Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781250123480
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication date: 03/06/2018

Book Review: Neighborhood Girls by Jessie Ann Foley

Publisher’s description

ra6A powerful coming-of-age story about a girl whose encounters with loss, broken friendships, and newfound faith leave her forever changed, from Printz Honor winner and Morris Award Finalist Jessie Ann Foley

When Wendy Boychuck’s father, a Chicago cop, was escorted from their property in handcuffs, she knew her life would never be the same. Her father gets a years-long jail sentence, her family falls on hard times, and the whispers around their neighborhood are impossible to ignore. If that wasn’t bad enough, she gets jumped walking home from a party one night. Wendy quickly realizes that in order to survive her father’s reputation, she’ll have to make one for herself.

Then Wendy meets Kenzie Quintana—a foul-mouthed, Catholic uniform-skirt-hiking alpha—and she knows immediately that she’s found her savior. Kenzie can provide Wendy with the kind of armor a girl needs when she’s trying to outrun her father’s past. Add two more mean girls to the mix—Sapphire and Emily—and Wendy has found herself in Academy of the Sacred Heart’s most feared and revered clique. Makeover complete.

But complete is far from what Wendy feels. Instead, she faces the highs and lows of a toxic friendship, the exhaustion that comes with keeping up appearances, and a shattering loss—the only one that could hurt more than losing herself.


Amanda’s thoughts

neighborhood girlsHigh school junior Wendy Boychuck enjoys the protection, fear, and respect that comes from being part of the most popular (and nastiest) clique in school. But Wendy also kind of hates her alleged friends and kind of hates herself for how she is with them. But, in the wake of her cop father’s arrest for torturing suspects, Wendy feels like she has no choice but to remake herself into this hardened girl who doesn’t care what others think. This means leaving behind Alexis, her smart, quiet, violin-playing best friend of nine years. Alexis knows her too well, knows she isn’t tough and hard, and Wendy can’t be reminded of anything from her past. Of course, it’s not that simple—our pasts don’t disappear or cease to matter just because we’d like it to work that way. There are constant reminders of what her father did—the family lost everything to pay for legal fees, so they now live in a small apartment (after having to foreclose on their home) and Wendy’s college savings (and tuition for her private high school) is wiped out. People still whisper about her father. Her last name still makes people raise their eyebrows. And while her friends may offer her some level of perceived protection, even Wendy starts to really realize how awful they are. She begins to pull away from them, but it’s not that simple. Queen bee Kenzie likes to be in control and doesn’t want to lose face, so Wendy finds herself pulled back to the clique. When she finally confronts them and speaks her mind, Kenzie makes it clear she will enact revenge, just as she’s done with everyone else who has crossed her. It takes a while, but things finally start to seem like they might be okay for Wendy… and then a horrific accident changes everything, again. 


This book is not an easy or uplifting read in any way. The bad things just keep on coming. Wendy is in a bad situation with her friends and makes a lot of bad choices while with them (or, maybe more accurately, makes no choices, just standing by, which is just as bad). The story is given great depth thanks to how fleshed out Wendy is and how much readers get to know her and see her internal struggle. Neighborhood Girls is a moving and at times frustrating look at faith, love, and forgiveness. Wendy spends a lot of time thinking about uncertain futures, painful pasts, and the terrible and sometimes wonderful present. A good choice for readers who like introspective main characters who spend too long making bad choices even when they know better. 


Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062571854

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 09/12/2017

FSYALit: Catholicism in YA, a guest post by Katie Behrens

Today as part of our Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit Project, guest Katie Behrens is discussing Catholicism in YA literature.

When I was confirmed in the Catholic Church at the age of 16, I really meant it. I knew there was a lot about the faith that I didn’t know and maybe some stuff I didn’t understand, but I knew the Church was important to me. I was your typical, book-loving public school kid, but I also felt a great longing for life to be bigger than it seemed. The Catholic Church, filled with beauty and mystery and 2,000 years of theology, was where I found myself.

Unless you know Catholics who take their faith seriously, you could easily assume that it’s a dying religion of a bygone era. That’s the stereotype I get from the media, at least. Fictional Catholic characters usually “go through the motions” of religious practice out of obligation, rather than personal conviction. My experience is the opposite. In college, I met hundreds of people my age who were full of life and joy because of their Catholic faith. They might be a minority, but believe me, Catholic teens definitely exist.

For a religion that unites an estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide, Catholicism can be very misunderstood. Catholics ARE Christians. We do read the Bible, but we also look to tradition and the great writings of the past for guidance. However, many baptized-and-confirmed Catholics don’t know what the Church really teaches or why. In the U.S. at least, the past several generations have received poor instruction about the Church’s teachings and mission. We all acknowledge it – if you attended CCD between 1970 and 2000, you probably didn’t get the full picture.  Even worse is the painful and horrible reality of the priest abuse scandals brought to light in the past 20 years. It caused great hurt within the Church, and cast doubt on the clergy.

All of these factors contribute to a pretty pitiful representation in YA lit. Priests and religious (monks and nuns) are all too often used as a stand-in for ultimate and crushing authority in the lives of teens. Catholicism is seen only in its “rules” and not as a diverse and complex body of believers. It’s especially obvious in stories set in a Catholic school, like The Chocolate War. The primary Church representative, Brother Leon, manipulates the schoolboys against each other for his own gain. A power-hungry, corrupt priest is a stereotype, no question. Is there corruption in the priesthood? Unfortunately yes – they’re humans just like us. But that seems to be the only role they play in stories (I’m looking at you, Dan Brown), and it’s become a tired trope.

Catholicism for teen protagonists isn’t so much a stereotype as it is a flat, empty character trait. Maybe they say their family is Catholic, and then a sentence or two dismisses its importance to the story. Is that the fault of the author? Not necessarily. The world is filled with devout Catholics and cultural Catholics and “cafeteria” Catholics (so-called because they pick and choose what they believe). A character who says she’s Catholic can fall anywhere on that spectrum. We all want characters that present faith in a positive light, no matter what we believe, but the reality is that lived faith is messy.

I want to focus on three books that positively resonated with my experience as a Catholic. The first is Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel Boxers & Saints. The corresponding stories of Little Bao and Vibiana are centered on the Boxer Revolution in China at the turn of the 20th century. Faith is shown to be real, something for which people choose to die. In Saints, Vibiana sort of falls into Christianity and eventually embraces it in the face of death. St. Joan of Arc appears to her and inspires her, even when it would be easier to renounce it all. We also see characters who bully in the name of Christ, a priest who makes difficult decisions in serving his congregation, and the stark reality of martyrdom. Yang, a Chinese American Catholic, beautifully weaves these stories of faith and identity together with humor and grace.

My second recommendation is The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork. There’s so much wonderful and deeply honest discussion of faith between different characters, but I think there’s a particularly Catholic flavor to it. Daniel Quentin (D.Q.) is dying when he meets Pancho Sanchez, but he’s resolved to suck the marrow out of what remains of his life. The priest in charge of the orphanage, Father Concha, is a non-sentimental man who greatly cares for the children (not a stereotype!). Pancho was raised Catholic, and when pushed on the topic, he says, “Faith’s what makes you pray. It’s why people say the Rosary and light candles to Jesus and Mary and all those saints. It’s what you go to church for. It’s why you’re good when you want to be bad. It’s what you think is gonna happen to you after you die.” He doesn’t have to say much more about what he thinks of religion, because his actions through the rest of the novel make it clear what Pancho believes. There’s a great exchange between D.Q. and Pancho later in the story that goes like this:

Pancho: “You gotta believe.”

D.Q.: “I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Pancho: “What’s that?”

D.Q.: “Nothing. Something I remembered.”

That “something” is from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 9, where a father asks Jesus to heal his epileptic son. It’s an emotional moment where humanity meets divinity. The fact that Stork can sneak scripture into character conversation definitely earns my respect.

My third pick is a recent read for me: The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab. For most of Caro’s life, her older sister Hannah has been gone at a convent, but Hannah returns one day and won’t explain why. Caro has to get used to Hannah in her life again, all the while balancing friends, school, boys, and whatever she does or doesn’t believe about religion. Jarzab does an amazing job showing the complexities of faith, especially what happens when it’s used to shut the world out. The priest with whom Caro forms a friendship speaks eloquently and accurately about Catholicism – and he loves science (that’s right! We do!). Caro herself wrestles with the big questions and comes to a place of peace amidst her confusion. It’s not a perfect novel – sometimes scenes are forced, and I highly doubt that Hannah’s religious order would have allowed her to stay as long as she did when she was obviously unhappy. It’s still one of the best representations of real Catholic faith I’ve seen in realistic YA fiction.

Other great Catholic characters and themes can be found in more classic works. For the teen that likes reading older stuff, you only have to point them to Flannery O’Connor, G.K. Chesterton (especially The Ball and the Cross and The Man Who Was Thursday), C.S. Lewis’ work for grown-ups (The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and his Space Trilogy), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, famously said that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”

Did you notice the racial diversity in the three selections?  It was unplanned on my part, but it speaks to the inherent diversity within the Catholic Church. All across the globe, people are united by the same beliefs and love for God (the word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal’). As we call for greater ethnic diversity in YA lit, we should also expect more stories of authentic faith.

Meet Our Guest Blogger

Katie Behrens is a 2013 graduate from UW-Madison’s School of Library and Information Studies. She’s currently obsessed with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast, and her first reread of The Lord of the Rings. Katie is a project manager for The Library as Incubator Project and occasionally blogs at

About the Books Discussed:

Boxers and Saints by Gene Yuen Lang

One of the greatest comics storytellers alive brings all his formidable talents to bear in this astonishing new work.

In two volumes, Boxers & Saints tells two parallel stories. The first is of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy whose village is abused and plundered by Westerners claiming the role of missionaries. Little Bao, inspired by visions of the Chinese gods, joins a violent uprising against the Western interlopers. Against all odds, their grass-roots rebellion is successful.

But in the second volume, Yang lays out the opposite side of the conflict. A girl whose village has no place for her is taken in by Christian missionaries and finds, for the first time, a home with them. As the Boxer Rebellion gains momentum, Vibiana must decide whether to abandon her Christian friends or to commit herself fully to Christianity.

Boxers & Saints is one of the most ambitious graphic novels First Second has ever published. It offers a penetrating insight into not only one of the most controversial episodes of modern Chinese history, but into the very core of our human nature. Gene Luen Yang is rightly called a master of the comics form, and this book will cement that reputation.

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork

Two young men — one dying of cancer, one planning a murder — explore the true meanings of death and life in the tense and passionate new novel from the author of MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD.

When Pancho arrives at St. Anthony’s Home, he knows his time there will be short: If his plans succeed, he’ll soon be arrested for the murder of his sister’s killer. But then he’s assigned to help D.Q., whose brain cancer has slowed neither his spirit nor his mouth. D.Q. tells Pancho all about his “Death Warrior’s Manifesto,” which will help him to live out his last days fully–ideally, he says, with the love of the beautiful Marisol. As Pancho tracks down his sister’s murderer, he finds himself falling under the influence of D.Q. and Marisol, who is everything D.Q. said she would be.

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab

Caro Mitchell considers herself an only child—and she likes it that way. After all, her much older sister, Hannah, left home eight years ago, and Caro barely remembers her. So when Caro’s parents drop the bombshell news that Hannah is returning to live with them, Caro feels as if an interloper is crashing her family. To her, Hannah’s a total stranger, someone who haunts their home with her meek and withdrawn presence, and who refuses to talk about her life and why she went away. Caro can’t understand why her parents cut her sister so much slack, and why they’re not pushing for answers.

Unable to understand Hannah, Caro resorts to telling lies about her mysterious reappearance. But when those lies alienate Caro’s new boyfriend and put her on the outs with her friends and her parents, she seeks solace from an unexpected source. And when she unearths a clue about Hannah’s past—one that could save Hannah from the dark secret that possesses her. Caro begins to see her sister in a whole new light.

  Additional #FSYALit Posts: