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Book Review: You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

Publisher’s description

Becky Albertalli meets Jenny Han in a smart, hilarious, black girl magic, own voices rom-com by a staggeringly talented new writer.

Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay — Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor.

But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down . . . until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.

The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams . . . or make them come true?

Amanda’s thoughts

It’s probably not enough to just write a little love note, like, “Dear book, I love you. Love, Amanda,” and consider this review done, is it? Or maybe it is. It gets across the point—I love this book. It’s cute, sweet, and fun while still dealing with serious and upsetting things. It made me remember all the best things about high school romances—the many firsts, the excitement, the joy, the fun.

The Twitter-like app Campbell Confidential catches every important bit of high school drama at Liz’s school. And now that she’s in the running for prom queen, she’s gone from an under-the-radar wallflower who’d rather evaporate than get attention to someone who’s suddenly SEEN by so many people. Liz has always felt so different from her classmates, who are mainly white and rich, and while she has a small, tight group of friends, she’s never been one to mingle with her peers. Until now. Liz finds herself teaming up with and becoming friends with classmates she never thought would like her, connecting with her old best friend, and, yes, falling for a super cool and interesting competitor for that prom queen crown.

But it’s not all fun and hijinks. Liz, who is being raised by her grandparents as her mother died from sickle cell and her dad was never in the picture, constantly worries about money. She worries about the health of Robbie, her younger brother (who also has sickle cell). She feels manipulated and betrayed by Gabi, her best friend, who takes this prom queen candidacy VERY seriously. And, Liz is gleefully falling for Mack, but since she isn’t out to anyone at school beyond her small group, she wants to keep things on the down low, especially because she’s worried that coming out in her small Indiana town would be met with homophobia that could keep her from winning the prom queen crown, and thus keep her from the scholarship money she so desperately needs.

The best thing about this book is how REAL it feels. Liz and friends all mess up. They make bad choices, hurt each other, apologize, and learn what true friendship looks like. The connection and acceptance and support that eventually shines through in this story shows all the best parts of high school and the best parts of people. As Liz fumbles her way toward the prom court, she learns that maybe playing the game differently is the key to it all. And with the encouragement of her friends and the eventual support of her peers, Liz comes to understand that if they won’t make space for you, demand it.

A smart, fun, and sweet look at navigating the unexpected moments and at celebrating being yourself.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781338503265
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 06/02/2020
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

Book Review: The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

Publisher’s description

Nishat doesn’t want to lose her family, but she also doesn’t want to hide who she is, and it only gets harder once a childhood friend walks back into her life. Flávia is beautiful and charismatic, and Nishat falls for her instantly. But when a school competition invites students to create their own businesses, both Flávia and Nishat decide to showcase their talent as henna artists. In a fight to prove who is the best, their lives become more tangled—but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush, especially since Flávia seems to like her back.

As the competition heats up, Nishat has a decision to make: stay in the closet for her family, or put aside her differences with Flávia and give their relationship a chance.

Amanda’s thoughts

(The content warning from the book, FYI: The Henna Wars contains instances of racism, homophobia, bullying, and a character being outed. All of these are challenged and dealt with on the page.)

Bangladeshi Irish Nishat, 16, has decided to come out to her parents. After all, they have a “love marriage” (versus an arranged marriage), so maybe they can accept this other form of love. Her parents acknowledge her telling them she’s a lesbian, then dismiss her. She later overhears them saying she’s confused, she will work it out, she will change her mind. Their intent is to carry on as though nothing is different.

But for Nishat, everything is different. She doesn’t want to be closeted anymore, or be anyone other than who she is. And her crush on her new classmate Flávia, who is Brazilian and white Irish, makes it even harder for her to ignore or dismiss who she is and how she feels. But that crush quickly grows more complicated when both Nishat and Flávia decide to create henna businesses for a class project. Nishat is outraged that Flávia thinks it’s okay to do henna; doesn’t she understand that’s cultural appropriation? Flávia says it’s just art, and no one can make boundaries about art. It doesn’t help that Flávia’s cousin in Chyna, the nastiest girl in their class, who is racist and started rumors about Nishat’s family years ago.

This story is equal parts about having a crush on someone who should probably be your enemy and coming out/being outed. The only people Nishat tells are in her family. Her younger sister has known for a while and is totally loving and supportive. Her parents tell a family friend and have her try to reason with Nishat—she’s young, she’s confused, she has a problem, “Muslims aren’t gay” (pg 123), she has a “sickness.” Meanwhile, her parents continue to act as though she never told them anything and this whole “problem” will just eventually resolve itself. After all, according to her parents’ logic, can’t she understand that she’s making a “choice” that is bringing shame to the family? This coming from parents who have made it clear to her that she can be anything she wants… except herself, apparently.

Both pieces of the story, the henna competition and the crush, have many believable and dramatic ups and downs. There are lots of conversations about racism, bullying, homophobia, cultural issues and appropriations, family, and more. The most challenging aspect of the book may be the part about Nishat being outed, which is traumatic and, of course, unacceptable. I do want to say that this has a happy ending, that characters in her life do learn and grow and ultimately support her and show love. The relationship between Nishat and her sister, Priti, is one of the shining points of the book. They are absolutely best friends and the support Priti provides Nishat while so many others turn their back on her is priceless. Though at times painful to read, this is exploration of identity, family, and self is well-written, honest, and, ultimately, empowering.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781624149689
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 05/12/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in an issue of School Library Journal

Gr 9 Up—Two lesbians in rural Texas suffer physical and psychological torture in this reimagining of the Orpheus legend. Raised in a conservative small town where gossip becomes myth, Raya has never felt like the other girls. She keeps her real self hidden, knowing that gay kids in her town disappear and become cautionary tales. When Raya and her best friend Sarah, a preacher’s daughter, are caught in bed together, they are sent to Friendly Saviors conversion camp to”get fixed.” Like Orpheus, Raya is determined to save the girl she loves, even if that means going through hell. But her resolve to escape quickly turns to resignation as she undergoes a brutal regime of labor, prayer, exercise, and, eventually, electric shock treatments. The so-called therapies at Friendly Saviors are staggeringly painful to endure and to read about. Horrific, graphic scenes of electroshock treatment as well as homophobic slurs, transphobia, suicide, and more may be triggering for some readers. Deeply emotional, this devastating story is lyrical and haunting, though repetition and heavy-handed reminders of the Orpheus story distract from the power and immediacy of Raya’s narrative. Underdeveloped secondary characters align with other mythological figures but do little to move the story along. This unremittingly bleak depiction of what it means to be anything other than cisgender and heterosexual is heartbreaking; isolated Raya has no examples of queer happiness or survival. 

VERDICT A secondary purchase for libraries with large LGBTQIA+ YA collections that also offer more nuanced and positive looks at what it means to be gay.

ISBN-13: 9781641290746
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/08/2019

Book Review: The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

Publisher’s description

Told in two distinct and irresistible voices, Junauda Petrus’s bold and lyrical debut is the story of two black girls from very different backgrounds finding love and happiness in a world that seems determined to deny them both.

Trinidad. Sixteen-year-old Audre is despondent, having just found out she’s going to be sent to live in America with her father because her strictly religious mother caught her with her secret girlfriend, the pastor’s daughter. Audre’s grandmother Queenie (a former dancer who drives a white convertible Cadillac and who has a few secrets of her own) tries to reassure her granddaughter that she won’t lose her roots, not even in some place called Minneapolis. “America have dey spirits too, believe me,” she tells Audre.

Minneapolis. Sixteen-year-old Mabel is lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling and trying to figure out why she feels the way she feels—about her ex Terrell, about her girl Jada and that moment they had in the woods, and about the vague feeling of illness that’s plagued her all summer. Mabel’s reverie is cut short when her father announces that his best friend and his just-arrived-from-Trinidad daughter are coming for dinner. 

Mabel quickly falls hard for Audre and is determined to take care of her as she tries to navigate an American high school. But their romance takes a turn when test results reveal exactly why Mabel has been feeling low-key sick all summer and suddenly it’s Audre who is caring for Mabel as she faces a deeply uncertain future.

Junauda Petrus’s debut brilliantly captures the distinctly lush and lyrical voices of Mabel and Audre as they conjure a love that is stronger than hatred, prison, and death and as vast as the blackness between the stars.

Amanda’s thoughts

That summary up there is thorough. I just read it again, when I pasted it in, to see if it’s too thorough—after all, it really hits every major plot point. But while it gives you the broad strokes of the plot, it doesn’t do much to capture how powerful the story is, how beautiful the writing is, or how achingly lovely and profound the connection is between Agnes and Mabel. To be entirely honest, the book started a little slow for me, but once Agnes and Mabel are put in the same space, the story really took off and I became completely immersed in their world, their families, their big thoughts and feelings, and their love.

There is so much to love about this story. Yes, Agnes is sent away when her mother catches her with her girlfriend. She’s shamed and told she’s “nasty” by her mother. But she finds love, support, and acceptance from everyone else in her life. Mabel finds kissing her boyfriend kind of boring, but even just being near her friend Jada makes her all tingly. She’s working out what all this means, but it’s not angst-filled or painful or met with any hate. In Minneapolis, they are surrounded by supportive family and friends, many of whom are queer. And for Agnes, she has Queenie, her grandma, back home in Trinidad, who has always been her closest and most loving person. Queenie fully accepts Agnes for who she is—she always has—and fills with her love, always reminding her of her self-worth and that she’s perfect as she is.

While the story alternates between Mabel and Agnes, we also get some unexpected perspectives. There are chapters about Queenie’s younger life as well as chapters from a memoir Mabel is reading. Written by Afua Mahmoud while incarcerated, The Stars and the Blackness Between Them (his memoir) provides surprising points of connection for Mabel, who feels less alone as she reads his thoughts on life while dealing with her new diagnosis of a terminal illness. All of these voices and experiences speak of hope, connection, loneliness, love, isolation, and freedom. After they become pen pals, Afua tells Mabel that, despite his circumstances, his life is still his own, and so is hers.

Through the lenses of freedom and love, the characters ruminate on the past, the present, and an eternal future found through cosmic connections. They learn to be uncontained, to love without fear or boundaries, to give themselves the space to figure out who they are. The voices from this stunning debut will stay with readers long after the unpredictable ending. Full of love, healing, strength, and spirituality, this is a story that hasn’t been told before—not like this. Be ready to lose a day once you start reading; Mabel and Agnes will draw you into their worlds and not release their grip on you even after the last page. A lovely story that is sad and hopeful all at once.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525555483
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 09/17/2019