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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

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

Book Review: By Any Means Necessary by Candice Montgomery

Publisher’s description

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

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

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

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

Amanda’s thoughts

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

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

But he’s used to it.

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

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

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

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

Helping Teens Prepare for College? Don’t Forget to Talk About Sexual Violence

I will readily admit that college preparation has been one aspect of teen librarianship that I have often failed to provide adequate services in. I have been really focusing on that more this year and have even started a special collection for college preparation/research and new adult materials. The New Adult collection specifically focuses on books with main characters in college to give teens the opportunity to find and read books about this possible next step in their life. At the same time, my own teenage daughter is starting to prepare for college. Just yesterday I was researching what the best colleges are for a Chemistry major. Both professionally and personally, helping teens plan for life after high school has been very much on my mind.

svyalit

Later that same day, I walked behind the circulation desk where I heard two staff members talking about visiting Ohio University over the weekend. If you don’t know, there have been 6 reported rapes on the OU campus since school started this fall. That’s six rapes in about a month’s time. That moment was a jarring reminder to me, as someone who works with teens and is researching college with her teen daughter, that sending our kids – especially our female ones – off to college can be an incredibly scary thing. Yet when we talk about doing college research, we often focus on things like cost and what schools have are best for a particular major. These questions are, no doubt, important and relevant, but they are not the only questions we should be teaching our teens to research. I would like to ask everyone of us that works with teens to expand our college preparation talks to include looking specifically at campus safety.

svyalitgraphic

Here are some facts about college sexual violence from Rainn:

  • 11.2% of all students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation (among all graduate and undergraduate students).2
  • Among graduate and professional students, 8.8% of females and 2.2% of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.2
  • Among undergraduate students, 23.1% of females and 5.4% of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.2
  • 4.2% of students have experienced stalking since entering college.2

Discussion about consent and sexual violence should definitely start before college (it should start at birth!), but as we are talking with teens and providing resources for teens to research college, one of the things we should be telling them to research is their college campus safety statistics and the statistics of the towns in which their colleges are located. College planning and prep can’t just be about majors and cost, it must also be about safety. Our teens may not think about this so we owe it to them to remind them to research this aspect of college life as well. We need to make sure our teens are making fully informed decisions, and there health and safety should be a very important part of that equation.

Things to look for:

Research college campus safety statistics for each college being considered

Town safety statistics and crime rates for each of the colleges being considered

Look at the college website. Do they have a page that talks about campus safety and consent? What does the college you are researching say specifically about college safety and their response protocol for reported incidents of sexual violence?

Do a general Google search. Has the college been in the news for recent incidents or for complaints about improper handling of reported incidents?

If you do a college campus visit, specifically ask them about both their safety statistics and whether or not they have a written procedure and staff training for handling issues of sexual violence on campus.

Resources:

How Safe Is Your Campus? Campus Safety Resources You Need

How to Do College Research Right: Step-by-Step Guide

Learn How to Research Campus Safety | Best Colleges | US News

College sexual assault: 10 questions to ask when choosing a school

18 Questions to Ask About Your School’s Sexual Assault Policy

10 Questions Every Parent, Student Should Ask About Campus Safety

Choosing a university? Look into campus rape rankings before you start packing

2019 Safest College Campuses in America – Niche

Book Review: The Infographic Guide to College

infographic1Publisher’s Book Description:

For fans of the popular Show Me How series, this illustrated guide to college life has everything a student needs to excel in their first year, from tips on getting involved around campus to advice about applying for loans and studying for exams.

College survival just got graphic!

Get a head start at school with this infographic guide to college life, with colorful descriptions of all the skills you need to survive and thrive in college, and advice about how to:

-Avoid the Freshman 15
-Declare a major
-Get around town
-Apply for a loan
-Ace your exams
-Master study habits
-Stay healthy
-And so much more!

With over fifty colorful, easy-to-read infographics, you’ll know how to make the most of your time in college and be fully prepared for the next step in your education. (Adams Media, 2017)

Karen’s Thoughts:

infographic2

Helping my teens plan for and get ready for college is an important part of my job, so I’m always looking for new and engaging resources to add to my collection. And as my daughter just began her high school career, this task takes on personal meaning as well. So I was excited when I learned about this book. For the most part, The Infographic Guide to College is a pretty straightforward and accessible look at college. It includes things like financial aid, selecting a major and even things like how to do laundry. Because it is presented in infographic format it is a quick and easy to read book, colorful, engaging and in many ways very helpful. I almost handed it to my daughter and her friends who just entered high school and was all set to purchase it for my library, but I had some concerns with a couple of issues that stopped me.

Having Said All That, This is Why I’m Not Buying This Book:

In the midst of all this useful information, there is a stunning lack of information regarding sex and sexual violence on campus. I think these are huge oversights for this publication. The subject of sex isn’t listed in the table of contents or in the index. There is no discussion of consent, sexual violence, sexual safety. Nothing.

There are also two pages about drinking. However, there are no mention in these two sections about the law regarding legal drinking ages. The section on Drinking Games 101 begins like this:

“Parties give you a chance to escape the rigors of classes and meet new people. You’ll also get the opportunity to showcase your drinking skills with popular games like beer pong and flip cup. Here’s the lowdown on the top drinking games played on college campuses.”

Beer Pong, Flip Cup, Quarters and King’s Cup are then explained.

Two pages later there is then a spread on Downing a Drink: What You Need to Know. Some basic safety is included here, like never drink on an empty stomach. But again, there is no mention of legal drinking ages, college rules regarding drinking, concerns about binge drinking and consent, or any type of real acknowledgement of the risks involved with drinking. If you Google “college drinking infographics”, you get a much different view of college drinking. You can see examples of them here, here and here. I think some infographics like this would have presented balance to the information presented.

A Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) of 21 saves lives and protects health

Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) laws specify the legal age when an individual can purchase or publicly consume alcoholic beverages. The MLDA in the United States is 21 years.  However, prior to the enactment of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, the legal age when alcohol could be purchased varied from state to state.1 (Source: CDC)

Keep in mind that the average age of a high school student going directly into college is 18 years old, 3 years below the legal drinking age. Yes, there are older and legal aged college students, but a majority of incoming Freshman are around 18 years-old. Without these discussions, I feel this book is almost advocating illegal behavior that puts a teens college career in jeopardy. This coupled with the omission of the sexual violence epidemic on our college campuses just makes this a no go for me. It seems in some ways irresponsible and negligent; it is not a comprehensive look at college life and those omissions seem like real safety issues.

RAINN: Campus Sexual Violence Statistics

If the author or publisher had included a brief caveat about the laws regarding these issues, I would feel differently about this book. Although it’s hard to overlook any book about college not having a genuine discussion about the fact that one in four college students reports being sexually harassed or assaulted on campus. I have often heard it said that you should review a book for what it is, not what you wish it to be, and for the most part I agree with that. However, this is a work of nonfiction and I think the parts that it leaves out are important and meaningful and, perhaps, dangerous.

Book Review: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Publisher’s description

we-are-okayYou go through life thinking there’s so much you need. . . . Until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother.

Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

An intimate whisper that packs an indelible punch, We Are Okay is Nina LaCour at her finest. This gorgeously crafted and achingly honest portrayal of grief will leave you urgent to reach across any distance to reconnect with the people you love.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I love Nina LaCour. When this book showed up in my mailbox, I was delighted. Because here’s the thing: I’m going to guess I haven’t been alone in having a really hard time concentrating on a book lately. I started and abandoned a whole bunch of books in January. I read this until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. Then the next morning, I read it while waiting for my doctor. For once, I wanted her to be running behind, because I was down to about twenty pages. I finished it later that same day, sobbing over my gummy candy and desperately hoping my kid would stay playing outside for a few more minutes so I could just keep on crying. It was exactly the book I needed to read at that moment in time. It’s a relatively quick read, and since it’s Nina LaCour, you know it’s going to be a deep and beautifully-written story. This is one of those books where I just don’t even want to say much of anything beyond OH MY GOD, GO READ THIS, IT’S STUNNING. I want the story to unfold for you like it did for me. I hadn’t so much as read the flap copy. I didn’t need to. It takes a while to figure out where the story might be going, and even once the pieces start to fall into place, it never feels predictable. This is, hands down, one of saddest books I have read in a very long time. But here’s how I mean that: you won’t cry all the way through. It’s not all doom and gloom. There is a lot of love and friendship to be found here. But Marin’s grief and loneliness will just destroy you.

 

And really, that’s all I’m telling you. The small summary up there of the plot gives you just enough of an outline to rope you in, but doesn’t reveal any of the really significant parts of the story. All you need to know is that this book will break your heart. But it won’t do it in a way that will leave you hopeless—I promise. A beautiful story of love, grief, and learning to heal. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525425892

Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group

Publication date: 02/14/2017

Book Review: Gap Life by John Coy

Publisher’s description

gap lifeCray got into the same college his father attended and is expected to go. And to go pre-med. And to get started right away. His parents are paying the tuition. It should be an easy decision.

But it’s not.

All Cray knows is that what’s expected of him doesn’t feel right. The pressure to make a decision—from his family, his friends—is huge. Until he meets Rayne, a girl who is taking a gap year, and who helps him find his first real job, at a home of four adults with developmental disabilities. What he learns about himself and others will turn out to be more than any university could teach him—and twice as difficult.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Here’s a thing I liked about this book right off the bat: the premise. That’s specific, right? What I mean is, I liked the idea of  a story about a teen who is pretty sure that heading right to college isn’t the right track for him. We don’t see a whole lot of this in YA and I certainly know plenty of teenagers who took a gap year, or a few gap years, or have decided that maybe college isn’t for them at this point in their lives. It’s nice to see this feeling in YA. I hesitate to say something like “it’s nice to see this uncertainty” because Cray, the main character, isn’t necessarily uncertain. He certainly knows he doesn’t want to be forced to attend the college both his dad and grandpa did and become a doctor just like they did—just like nearly everyone in his family does. And really, if there’s a time to feel really uncertain, and to reclaim that word as, if not positive, then at least okay, it’s when high school is ending. Everything you’ve ever known is changing, it’s likely you’re about to be on your own (to varying degrees) for the first time ever, and, no pressure, you’re also supposed to be figuring out exactly what it is you want to do with the rest of your entire life. It’s okay to feel like maybe you need to step back and figure out what it is that you want, which is exactly what Cray does.

 

The plot is pretty well summed up in the publisher’s description above, so I’m just going to talk some more about other specifics that I liked. It takes a lot of guts for Cray to walk away from what his parents have planned for him–a fully paid for education and other benefits, like a new car. He’s led a very privileged life, and to be able to walk away from these things is also coming from a place of privilege, but he’s determined to make his own way. His controlling father demands Cray get a job and pay rent, which Cray promptly does. Cray’s choice to overrule his parents’ plans for his future leaves them feeling mad, disappointed, betrayed, and humiliated. Cray’s work at the group home turns out to be harder but more interesting than he originally thought (his initial summation of working overnights at this job as being “paid to sleep” turns out to not exactly be accurate). The members of the house he works at are great, well-developed secondary characters. The guiding principle of their house is helping people live as independently as possible, which of course also becomes the ideal that Cray begins to work toward in his own life. Part of me couldn’t quite buy that Cray, who’s inexperienced, would land a job like this, but then I started to think of all the young adults I know around Cray’s age who’ve held these exact jobs. I also really appreciated seeing so many teenagers in this book with jobs of all kinds.

 

We only really get to see Cray’s life for a short chunk of weeks, just over the summer. Because this is a short, fast read, some details are dealt with on a pretty surface level. A longer book would’ve allowed more exploration of his relationship (or potential relationship) with free-spirit Rayne, who’s also taking a gap year, or his falling out with a close friend (and more about why Jett and Nora dislike Rayne so much). That said, the quick pace works for this story, because it keeps the focus tightly on Cray and his struggle over what to do with the next year. During the summer, Cray makes some serious missteps, whether it’s being unprofessional at his new job or misjudging things with Rayne, all of which further reinforce how young Cray is and how little he really knows yet about anything.

 

Teen readers will find plenty to discuss and relate to in Gap Life as Cray tries to figure out the future and worries that maybe his gap year will become a gap life. An honest and unique look at forging your own way and embracing uncertainty. 

 

 

Full disclosure: John and I share an agent, the fantastic Andrea Cascardi at Transatlantic Literary Agency. 

Review copy courtesy of the author and the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781250088956

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends

Publication date: 11/22/2016