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Book Review: How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

Publisher’s description

how-to-makeGrace, tough and wise, has nearly given up on wishes, thanks to a childhood spent with her unpredictable, larger-than-life mother. But this summer, Grace meets Eva, a girl who believes in dreams, despite her own difficult circumstances.

 

One fateful evening, Eva climbs through a window in Grace’s room, setting off a chain of stolen nights on the beach. When Eva tells Grace that she likes girls, Grace’s world opens up and she begins to believe in happiness again.

 

How to Make a Wish is an emotionally charged portrait of a mother and daughter’s relationship and a heartfelt story about two girls who find each other at the exact right time.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I read this book in one sitting. I used to do that a lot—read books in one chunk of time—but don’t so much anymore. While I do typically read a book in one to two days, the time is broken up—I need to write something, I need to run errands, I need to parent, I need to do whatever. My busy brain isn’t the biggest fan of letting me settle into any one thing for too long. But with this book, I was hooked from page one and had no interest in moving until I was done reading. I am not a person who says “all the feels.” I do not tend to feel “swoony” over books. As a fairly cynical, scowly person, those kinds of expressions are just not me. BUT. I kept thinking of both expressions as I read. And when I was done, I shut the book and just held onto it, thinking, well, that was a completely satisfying read. And, really, how often do we read books that just feel completely, absolutely, perfectly satisfying?

 

Grace returns to Maine from a two-week piano workshop in Boston to find that her mother, Maggie, has, once again, moved them in with her newest boyfriend, Pete. Never mind that they’ve barely been dating for a minute. Never mind that Pete’s son, Jay, is Grace’s ex (and that he posted all of their sexts after they broke up). Maggie is always doing this—flitting from guy to guy, being impulsive, not thinking of how things might affect Grace, not doing her job as a parent. She’s basically an overgrown kid (with a drinking problem) and Grace is left to do the parenting. But there’s maybe only one more year of this life. At the end of the summer, Grace will be auditioning for the Manhattan School of Music. College will mean a fresh start for Grace—something that she needs—and not in the way her mother is always giving them new starts. But as much as Grace cannot wait to get away from her life, she’s worried about leaving her mother behind. Who will watch over Maggie?

 

Summer on the cape should mean more of the same—hanging with her best friend, Luca, and suffering through her mother’s unpredictable whims—but becomes much more interesting when Eva arrives. Eva is the daughter of one of Luca’s mother’s friends who recently passed away. Emmy, Luca’s mom, is now her guardian. Eva and Grace meet on the beach, where both have gone to process their emotions, and immediately click. Eventually, after Eva tells Grace that she is a lesbian and Grace tells Eva she’s bisexual, their friendship turns into something more. But it quickly becomes complicated by, what else, Grace’s mother. Maggie wants to nurture Eva and becomes buddies with her, something Grace would rather not see happening. Eva doesn’t understand the full story of just how Maggie can be and Maggie doesn’t know that Grace and Eva are dating (oblivious to anything that isn’t her own life, Grace did at one point try to tell Maggie she was bisexual, but Maggie chose to brush that admission off and not understand it). It’s clearly a recipe for disaster. When Maggie eventually makes a(nother) really bad choice—one that affects her, Grace, and Eva—Grace reaches her breaking point and has to decide who she really needs to be taking care of.

 

Blake’s characters are vibrant and multifaceted. Though so much of this book is about pain, loss, and grief, there is also just so much love in this story. Compassion comes from the places we would expect (Emmy, Luca) and from surprising places, too (Jay, Pete). Both Grace and Eva are fragile but resilient. They both find family in new ways—ways neither would have chosen (a dead mom, an irresponsible and alcoholic mom)—and find support and care and love there. And their relationship, though not always easy, is meaningful and achingly lovely. I do not generally want characters who date in YA books to stay together forever (see my earlier remark about being cynical and scowly). But I love Grace and Eva together. This is an easy recommendation for fans of contemporary stories. Again, it’s rare that I find something just completely satisfying, and this book felt perfect in every way. Go read it!

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544815193

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 05/02/2017

Book Review: Pointe, Claw by Amber J. Keyser

Publisher’s description

pointe-clawJessie Vale dances in an elite ballet program. She has to be perfect to land a spot with the professional company. When Jessie is cast in an animalistic avant-garde production, her careful composure cracks wide open. Nothing has felt more dangerous.

Meanwhile, her friend Dawn McCormick’s world is full of holes. She wakes in strange places, bruised, battered, and unable to speak. The doctors are out of ideas.

These childhood friends are both running out of time. Jessie has one shot at her ballet dream. Dawn’s blackouts are getting worse. At every turn, they crash into the many ways girls are watched, judged, used, and discarded. Should they play it safe or go feral?

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Take my advice on this, please: read Carrie Mesrobian’s Just a Girl, Elana Arnold’s What Girls Are Made Of, and Amber Keyser’s Pointe, Claw all in a row just like I did. Especially taken together like this, they build a powerful examination of girlhood.

 

Amber and I are agency-mates and here is something from her bio there: “Amber is a former ballerina with a masters degree in zoology and a doctorate in genetics; she lives in Portland, Oregon.” I tell you this to say that really only Amber could have written this unique and very weird (I mean that in the best way) book. Pointe, Claw takes place in Portland and involves a ballerina and a girl, a bear, and lots of genetic questions. The cover made me extremely curious about the book, but I had NO IDEA what I was in for.

 

When we first meet Dawn, she is in some kind of rage. She seems feral (I word I wrote in my notes after reading the second page and that I now see is used in the description–really, there’s no other way to think of Dawn). She talks about “going dark,” about waking up not knowing where she’s been or how she got there or what on earth is going on with her. She is drawn to a bear that a sketchy neighbor keeps locked up in a cage on his property. Her cold and unsympathetic mother drags her to doctor after doctor, trying to figure out what is wrong with Dawn and how to “fix” her. Is it mental illness? Lyme disease? Drugs? What’s behind Dawn’s strange episodes?

 

Jessie, meanwhile, dances six hours a day, six days a week, and is about to learn to be feral in ways that will disturb, challenge, and ultimately change her. At first devastated to not be chosen to dance in the artistic director’s student showcase piece, she learns to embrace the freedom and wildness that comes from dancing in Vadim’s boundary-pushing piece. The dance is animalistic and “ugly, lustful, lonely,” opening Jessie to a side of herself she’s never considered before.

 

Once Jessie and Dawn’s lives intersect again (they were childhood friends), things become even more interesting. Together they will reminisce about their past and recover memories that felt long gone, as well as uncover secrets and truths. Dawn’s episodes increase and she begins to suspect what may be going on with her, as impossible as her theory seems. And while Jessie doesn’t fully understand what exactly is happening to Dawn, she’s there for her, understanding that no one has ever meant what Dawn has meant to her. 

 

This is absolutely 100% a book about what it means to inhabit a girl’s body. It’s a book about growing up, changing, seeing ourselves, and being seen. It’s about expectations, anger, jealousy, relationships, shame, love, friendship, and support. There is a constant conversation about women and women’s bodies–Jessie, her fellow dancers, Dawn, Dawn’s makeup-selling mother, the girls at the strip club, the men who observe all of them… there is SO MUCH to unpack and think about. Much like Vadim’s dance (which, by the way, I was left sobbing after the description of their performance), this book is experimental and risky. And, like his dance, it is successful and surprising. The metamorphosis each girl undergoes is powerful; Dawn’s is downright shocking. I can’t say enough good things about this strange, disturbing, and extremely compelling look at girlhood, bodies, and identities. Raw, weird, and wonderful. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781467775915

Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group

Publication date: 04/01/2017

Book Review: My Seventh-Grade Life in Tights by Brooks Benjamin

Publisher’s description

seventh gradeFootball hero. Ninja freestyler. It’s seventh grade. Anything is possible.

All Dillon wants is to be a real dancer. And if he wins a summer scholarship at Dance-Splosion, he’s on his way. The problem? His dad wants him to play football. And Dillon’s freestyle crew, the Dizzee Freekz, says that dance studios are for sellouts. His friends want Dillon to kill it at the audition—so he can turn around and tell the studio just how wrong their rules and creativity-strangling ways are.

At first, Dillon’s willing to go along with his crew’s plan, even convincing one of the snobbiest girls at school to work with him on his technique. But as Dillon’s dancing improves, he wonders: what if studios aren’t the enemy? And what if he actually has a shot at winning the scholarship?

Dillon’s life is about to get crazy . . . on and off the dance floor in this kid-friendly humorous debut by Brooks Benjamin.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This book came out on Tuesday this week. If you haven’t read it yet, you’ve already waited too long. Open up a new window and order it from your favorite bookstore or your library. I’ll wait. I’ll just be here flipping through the book, revisiting all of my favorite parts.

 

You’re back? Okay, good. Without spoiling anything for you—because I know you’re going to read this book—I’ll say that I loved this book. I was hooked from the very first pages. Middle grade novel about a boy who just wants to dance? Yes, please. Dancers Dillon, Carson, and Kassie, along with their friend Austin, who films all of their dancing, have an oath: “The crew comes first.” That oath becomes harder to keep when Dillon auditions for a dance studio scholarship. Suddenly, he’s not seeing eye-to-eye with his friends and wondering how to make his own choices, knowing they will likely upset his friends. He’s getting dance lessons from Sarah, a brilliant dancer who happens to be Kassie’s nemesis. He isn’t sure if dance studios are the enemy. Kassie sees them as enforcing rules and killing creativity, but Dillon starts to see the benefit in leaning choreography and being taught technique.

 

It all becomes a muddled mess in his head—betray the crew and pursue his studio dreams or follow through with Kassie’s plan of winning just to throw things back in the studio’s face? To complicate things further, his dad doesn’t seem on board with his dream of dancing, preferring Dillon to keep playing football (though “playing” isn’t really accurate for this perpetual bench-warmer). He’s got Sarah on one side, telling him to copy her, and Kassie on the other, telling him to be himself (though her version of Dillon looks suspiciously like a carbon copy of herself). Before long, Dillon is lost in the mix, forgetting who his true self really is. His new friend DeMarcus cautions him to hurry up and figure out who he is before he gets stuck being someone he’s not. As Dillon dances his way toward the important Heartland competition, he’s going to have to decide if he should follow the steps laid out for him or put his own spin (or ninja-kick) on things.

 

The message to be yourself is a good reminder for middle school students who might be trying to figure out just exactly what that means. I loved the focus on friendships, both old and new, and seeing how those can change not just because of fighting or having hurt feelings but from starting to feel like maybe you like someone—you know, like like. Dillon is funny, kind, and determined. His friends are well-developed and all have their own things going on. Without spoiling things, I’ll just mention that this book also some LGBT characters and I loved the small storyline there, too. Excellent dialogue, fast pacing, and lots of humor—this book has all the right moves. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the author

ISBN-13: 9780553512502

Publisher: Random House Children’s Books

Publication date: 04/12/2016