Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Book Review: Love and Other Curses by Michael Thomas Ford

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

love and otherLove & Other Curses by Michael Thomas Ford (ISBN-13: 9780062791207 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 04/09/2019)

Gr 9 Up—Sam Weyward, a gay teen in rural New York, knows that if he falls in love before his fast-approaching 17th birthday, the generations-long family curse will kill his love interest. Living with his magic-practicing grandma, great-grandma, and great-great-grandma (the Grands) and his 1980s metal–loving father, he can never forget about the curse. But he finds distraction with drag queens at the gay bar Shangri-La, the family ice cream stand, mysterious phone calls, and Tom Swift, a trans boy staying at the lake this summer. As his friendship with Tom, who is straight, grows more complicated, Sam wonders if the curse can be broken. While there is a lot to enjoy about this book, like the vivid setting and appealing premise, the unhealthy relationship between Sam and Tom, and the often-unchecked transphobia make this a troubling, offensive, and potentially harmful story. Tom is repeatedly deadnamed, misgendered, and outed (with Sam, among others, committing these offenses). The fixation on Tom’s body and transition feel voyeuristic and turn him into a one-dimensional character just used for Sam’s own development. Sam and the rest of the cast get to be vibrant and complex, with Sam supported and loved both by his biological family and his chosen family of drag queens who are helping him find his drag identity. Tom is miserable, angry, rejected, lacking support, and ultimately forced to present as female—a painful trajectory without much hope. VERDICT Though this novel is funny and highly readable, the tragic trans narrative makes it one to skip.

Kids Can Handle Big Decisions . . . If the Adults Get Out of the Way (But Also Don’t), a guest post by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

(CW: Assisted suicide.)

First, a million thanks to Teen Librarian Toolbox for hosting me. I appreciate your work so much!

(Important note: this blog post can’t tackle the social and legal issues around assisted suicide. Too much complexity for 900 words. We’re just gonna go with it.)

Lake Superior, Duluth, MN, where WRECK takes place. Photo credit: Kelly Tekler

Lake Superior, Duluth, MN, where WRECK takes place. Photo credit: Kelly Tekler

In Wreck, Tobin has a lot of choices to make—ones most high school juniors don’t generally make, thank goodness. She’s choosing what to do with her future, which is typical, but she also has to choose how to interact with her dad, Steve. Thanks to his ALS, which is complicated by frontotemporal dementia, he’s unpredictable on his best days and impossible on his worst. Is she going to be a crabby teenager, or will she show him compassion (or will she do both, which seems pretty traditional for a teenager, as well as what most humans would do)?

Eventually she also has to choose what to do (and how to feel) when Steve makes decisions about his own death. Steve’s choice is an awful thing for her to face—it’s an awful thing for a grown-up to face—but she legally becomes a criminal when she helps him carry out his wish to be free. That’s a heavy and unnecessary burden for a seventeen-year-old.

I can hear the outraged voices now: she’s too young for such a difficult choice! She can’t make such an adult decision! She has no idea what she’s doing!

Um. No, she’s not. Yes, she can. Yes, she does.

Yes, Tobin is young. No, human brains don’t mature until they’re in their mid-twenties. But Tobin understands a lot about two fundamental parts of being human: she knows about love, and she knows about loss.

Fundamentally, Tobin makes her decision to help her dad out of love, because they have loved each other fiercely for all of Tobin’s life, and she wants him to be out of both physical and mental pain. Her knowledge of loss is more of a mystery to the reader (and to her, really): she doesn’t acknowledge the large loss she’s already suffered, nor that it’s affected her in more ways than she’ll cop to. However, when it comes down to her decision to help Steve, she knows more than most of us because she’s lived with loss for much of her life. She knows she can cope.

Action figures are a part of WRECK, too!

Action figures are a part of WRECK, too!

What carries Tobin through all of her grief—including her decision—is the love of people older than her who help her make these big decisions. She has her great-uncle Paul, who clearly values her (and also understands loss), and she has Ike, a family friend who becomes a brother. Especially with Ike, Tobin can sort things out, feel her feelings, and figure out what’s next.

Tobin is also allowed to make decisions—which isn’t something all teens get to do. She isn’t forced into anything (with the exception of who will be her guardian, once Steve isn’t), and she isn’t sheltered from her dad’s choice. She has the knowledge she needs about the situation, and she responds to Steve out of love and understanding, rather than duty or a forced adherence to convention.

This is one of the ways kids become caring adults—first, they’re influenced by people who model both caring behavior and critical thinking, and second, they’re surrounded by safety. Tobin is safe to explore her thoughts and feelings with Steve, Paul, and Ike, and that safety allows her to come to her empathetic decision.

When I started writing for teens, I committed to giving my protagonists an older person they could rely on, because I had a couple in my high school years—a person who’s not a parent, usually. In Sky, Morgan has her grandma. In Beautiful Music, Gabe has his neighbor John. In Original Fake, Frankie has his boss and idol, Uncle Epic. Tobin has the same thing in Ike and Paul. Teenagers need to see evidence that not all grown-ups are assholes (if they are inclined to think they are), and that there are people interested in what they have to say. Some adults actually do recognize that yeah, teens are learning, but they’re pretty smart to start with.

If Tobin was a real person, she wouldn’t be able to recognize all the implications of her choice right away. A grown-up might not even be able to do that. But I don’t think she’d regret her choice, because she was helping someone she loves be free of pain. Hopefully Real Tobin would also have the support of those who love her, and they’d affirm her decision, even as they were sad about it. I know lots of teens and young adults who’ve been in really tough situations. Those who’ve come through it have been the ones with a circle of caring folks around them. Book Tobin does what she does, even though it will devastate her, because it’s the right thing to do, and because she’s got support.

There’s all the difference in the world between being forced into the fight and walking in with your head held high. Steve chooses. Tobin chooses. We all deserve that right.

Meet Kirstin Cronn-Mills

kirstinKirstin Cronn-Mills writes young adult novels and nonfiction for high school libraries. Her books have received both state and national recognition. She lives in southern Minnesota with her family, where she teaches and wishes she lived closer to Lake Superior.
Find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

About WRECK

wreckSometimes loss has its own timetable.

Set on the shores of Lake Superior, Wreck follows high school junior Tobin Oliver as she navigates her father’s diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

Steve’s life as a paramedic and a runner comes to an abrupt halt just as Tobin is preparing her application for a scholarship to art school. With the help of Steve’s personal care assistant (and family friend) Ike, Tobin attends to both her photography and to Steve as his brain unexpectedly fails right along with his body.

Tobin struggles to find a “normal” life, especially as Steve makes choices about how his own will end, and though she fights hard, Tobin comes to realize that respecting her father’s decision is the ultimate act of love.

Wreck wrecked me. Kirstin Cronn-Mills has a singular way of getting inside characters heads and making their stories come to life. This book will make you cry.” —Bill Konigsberg, award-winning author of The Music of What Happens?

“A provocative, unflinching, and emotionally-complex deep dive into mortality and loss while Tobin and her father grapple with almost unfathomable decisions. A wrenching and empathetic look at the tumultuous waters and seemingly bottomless grief that can interrupt an otherwise placid life.” —Amanda MacGregor, Teen Librarian Toolbox

“This book has heart and empathy as vast and deep as the Great Lake on which it’s set.” —Geoff Herbach, award-winning author of Stupid Fast and Hooper

“Every so often a book comes along that is so sharp, so moving, so real, and so good, you want to press it into everyone’s hands and say, Read this! READ THIS!” —Courtney Summers, author of Cracked Up to Be, on Beautiful Music for Ugly Children

“A kind and satisfyingly executed portrait.” —Kirkus Reviews

ISBN-13: 9781510739031
Publisher: Sky Pony
Publication date: 04/16/2019

See Amanda’s review here

Book Review: Wreck by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

Publisher’s description

wreckSometimes loss has its own timetable.

Set on the shores of Lake Superior, Wreck follows high school junior Tobin Oliver as she navigates her father’s diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

Steve’s life as a paramedic and a runner comes to an abrupt halt just as Tobin is preparing her application for a scholarship to art school. With the help of Steve’s personal care assistant (and family friend) Ike, Tobin attends to both her photography and to Steve as his brain unexpectedly fails right along with his body.

Tobin struggles to find a “normal” life, especially as Steve makes choices about how his own will end, and though she fights hard, Tobin comes to realize that respecting her father’s decision is the ultimate act of love.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Full disclosure: Kirstin is my friend and I blurbed this book. For the tl;dr version of this review, here’s my blurb:

 

Kirstin Cronn-Mills takes readers on a provocative, unflinching, and emotionally-complex deep dive into mortality and loss while Tobin and her father grapple with almost unfathomable decisions. A wrenching and empathetic look at the tumultuous waters and seemingly bottomless grief that can interrupt an otherwise placid life.

 

When Tobin’s father, Steve, is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), everything changes. ALS is a progressive, degenerative disease. While some things may slow the progression of the disease, there is no cure. ALS involves paralysis, eventually affecting breathing and swallowing. It’s junior year and Tobin should be hanging out with her few friends, preparing her photography portfolio for scholarships for art school, working at her aunt’s thrift shop down in Canal Park in Duluth, and just going about life as she has come to know it. But the diagnosis throws everything into disarray. Steve’s disease is rapidly changing his body and his brain. Ike, a family friend and former Army medic, moves in to be Steve’s personal care assistant. Tobin’s mom took off years ago, so it’s really always just been Tobin and her dad. They know that before long, Steve will die, leaving Tobin in the care of her aunt until she’s no longer a minor, then on her own.

 

The question becomes what do you do in the time between getting a devastating and terminal diagnosis and actually dying? For Steve, he continues to socialize, help work on the marathon committee, and writes a book of advice to leave behind for Tobin. For Tobin, she tries to bury her heart deep in Lake Superior, which feels like the only way she can keep going and cope with this horrible situation. To complicate matters further, there’s a box in their house that’s haunting her. Inside that innocuous-looking box is pentobarbital, a barbiturate that Steve intends to take a high dose of to end his life, on his terms, when the time is right. And if he’s physically unable to do so on his own, he’s asked Tobin to be the one to administer the medicine.

 

Yep. Oof.

 

For both Tobin and her father, their lives are nothing like what they had imagined them to be like. The grief that comes with accepting this diagnosis and Steve’s eventual death is heart-wrenching. Having lost my own father very suddenly in a car accident, I don’t know if there is a “good” way to have a parent die—unexpectedly, where you have no time to prepare, or slowly, where you have lots of time to anticipate and watch someone ail. I think it’s terrible no matter what the circumstance. For Steve, his personality changes are ROUGH. He vacillates between loving and his usual self to angry, mean, hateful, and uncontrolled. It goes with the territory with ALS, but that doesn’t make it easy for Tobin to experience or easy to read. No matter how hard Tobin tries to protect her heart, she can’t. The grief, the waiting, the unpredictability, the potential to have to help her father die—it’s all too much. Trying to have no feelings about something that causes BIG feelings is impossible. We know where this story is going and how it will end. It is an unrelentingly sad plot, punctuated by brief moments of joy, whimsy, and always by plenty of love. 

 

Undoubtedly, the narrative of death with dignity–that is, the right for terminally ill people to die on their own terms—will create passionate feelings about this book and possibly some controversy. That said, the plot makes it clear why this can be a compassionate act, why someone would choose this option. Steve and Tobin’s story is filled with lots of nuance, empathy, support, and love. This is a moving exploration of mortality, family, and impossibly difficult decisions.

 

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781510739031
Publisher: Sky Pony
Publication date: 04/16/2019

Book Review: The Whispers by Greg Howard

Publisher’s description

whispersA middle grade debut that’s a heartrending coming-of-age tale, perfect for fans of Bridge to Terabithia and Counting By 7s.

Eleven-year-old Riley believes in the whispers, magical fairies that will grant you wishes if you leave them tributes. Riley has a lot of wishes. He wishes bullies at school would stop picking on him. He wishes Dylan, his 8th grade crush, liked him, and Riley wishes he would stop wetting the bed. But most of all, Riley wishes for his mom to come back home. She disappeared a few months ago, and Riley is determined to crack the case. He even meets with a detective, Frank, to go over his witness statement time and time again.

Frustrated with the lack of progress in the investigation, Riley decides to take matters into his own hands. So he goes on a camping trip with his friend Gary to find the whispers and ask them to bring his mom back home. But Riley doesn’t realize the trip will shake the foundation of everything that he believes in forever.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

11-year-old Riley’s mother always told him a story about wish-granting Whispers that live in the woods behind their South Carolina home. Just leave them a tribute, tell them your heart’s desire, and the Whispers, who know all the secrets in the universe, will take care of you. When Riley’s mother disappears, he desperately hopes this story isn’t just fiction.

 

Riley’s mom has been missing for four months when we meet Riley. He’s repeatedly interrogated by a detective but can’t come up with any other details to help them find her—Riley was at home playing, his mother was napping, there was a mysterious car nearby, then she was gone. They keep going over the details, and Riley has no hope that the detective, who he thinks is incompetent, will ever find his mom. It’s up to him. It’s up to the Whispers in the woods behind his house. They must know where his mom is.

 

Riley, a self-professed mama’s boy, has been miserable since she disappeared. He’s started wetting the bed (which he refers to as “my condition”), his father hardly acknowledges him, and the bullying and teasing he’s always faced at school has gotten worse. He has one good friend, biracial Gary, and a protector in an older neighbor, Dylan, but beyond that, is alone. He’s carrying the heavy weight of guilt, worried that he somehow drove his mother away with his “other condition,” which is how he refers to the fact that he likes boys. He thinks that he’s being punished for this.

 

Deciding to take things into his own hands, Riley heads into the woods with Gary and Gary’s younger brother to camp, hoping to maybe hear more from the Whispers, who have been speaking to him lately. They tell him that “she’s here.” Believing them, believing that she’s in those woods, Riley heads deeper into the forest. He offers the ultimate tribute to the Whispers, but will it be enough for them to reveal where she is?

 

Readers will tear through this story, with many questions along the way. Is Riley hiding something from the detective? Or from the reader? What’s really going on with his neighbor, Dylan? Who is Kenny from Kentucky? What happened in the shed? Does the unlikely helper he encounters in the woods know something about his mother? Everything is eventually revealed and answered, and what readers learn will likely send them scrambling back to reread the story through new eyes. A moving, thoughtful examination of trauma, grief, and the power of imagination. 

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525517498
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 01/15/2019

WRITING YOUR OWN STORY (SORT OF), a guest post by Greg Howard

whispersLet me start by clearly stating that THE WHISPERS is first and foremost, a work of fiction. I’m reluctant to even call it semi-autobiographical. With that said, there’s no doubt that I left a lot of me on the page. Sort of.

 

When I first had the idea for this story, I thought a lot about my childhood—colorful family members, small towns in South Carolina where I grew up, the woods I explored with my buddies, those early school friends and bullies who leave a lifelong, indelible mark one’s psyche and memory. But I kept circling back a central missing puzzle piece of my youth—my mother.

 

 

My mother was a conspicuous and fundamental figure in my childhood even though she was absent for most of it. Why she wasn’t around isn’t as important as the fact that she was there in a monumental way in the beginning—when your attachments and developmental influences take root and form who you are as a person. She was a local beauty queen beloved by everyone, a steadfast pillar of the church community, a faithful wife and nurturing mother revered by other wives and mothers for her beauty inside and out. She was practically an angelic presence temporarily on loan from God to the good citizens of Georgetown, South Carolina. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

Greg's mother

Greg’s mother

 

As I grew older and wiser (sort of), the more I realized that my memories of my mother were a mix of the authentic and the imagined—some created from faded Polaroids, others from family lore, but only a scattering from actual events and real-life moments. That’s why I consider the mother in THE WHISPERS to be a tribute to my mother, but also a fully fictionalized character.

A young Greg and his sister

A young Greg and his sister

To my main character, Riley, his mother is virtually his entire world and when she goes missing, he’s not only completely lost without her, but obsessive about finding her and bringing her home. The world as Riley knows it simply doesn’t work without her. His dad grows isolated and distant, his brother retreats from the family, his grandparents are despondent, and as a mama’s boy who finds himself suddenly without a mama, Riley feels as alone and acutely isolated as I did at his age.

 

Growing up a self-aware queer kid the rural deep South only added to my seclusion. It was time when you didn’t talk about such things, neither at home or at school, and certainly not at church. Preachers told me I was going to hell without even realizing (I hope) the oppressive guilt and shame they were imposing on an already sensitive, fragile kid. Authority figures seemed to know without question or a second thought that I was not normal. I never found myself in television, movies, or books, but only ever saw a romantic construct of love represented between a man and a woman. Even at that young age, I felt erased from society and reality. Compound that with the absence of my mother and you have one deeply confused, broken and lonely little boy.

 

That was my story, but through writing THE WHISPERS, it became Riley’s.

 

Sprinkling the seasoning of my life into THE WHISPERS was deeply satisfying, incredibly cathartic, and at times particularly painful. From Grandma’s fruit salad recipe, to the Pentecostal corn choir, to missing family photo albums and boyhood crushes, to camping trips in the woods, childhood trauma, a country market, nightmares so vivid I remember them to this day, and even to the greatest dog in the history of dogs, Tucker—I lent it all to Riley. And it was interesting to see with those same story ingredients borrowed from my life, how drastically his path diverged from my own.

 

I used to think of THE WHISPERS as my own story. But the longer I’m away from it, the more I consider it Riley’s story. Those are now his adventures, hopes, pains, dreams, struggles and triumphs. But I’m delighted that my real-life memories served Riley well and found a safe and evergreen place to land. Riley’s was a more fantastical journey than mine, but imagination was important to us both. Imagination was the vehicle of our escape to an alternate world. One full of hope. And in that small yet significant way, Riley and I share this story.

 

When writing fiction, I don’t believe you can truly write your own story. At some point the characters hijack it and make it their own, and that’s okay. So, now I can say with definitive clarity that THE WHISPERS is my own story. Sort of.

 

Meet Greg Howard

Photo credit: Jamie Wright Images

Photo credit: Jamie Wright Images

Greg Howard grew up near the coast of South Carolina. His hometown of Georgetown is known as the “Ghost Capital of the South” (seriously…there’s a sign), and was always a great source of material for his overactive imagination. Raised in a staunchly religious home, Greg escaped into the arts: singing, playing piano, acting, writing songs, and making up stories. Currently, Greg resides in Nashville, Tennessee, with his husband, Steve, and their three rescued fur babies Molly, Toby, and Riley.

 

 

 

 Connect with Greg online:

Twitter: @greghowardbooks

Instagram: @greghowardbooks

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/greghowardbooks/

 

About THE WHISPERS

whispersA middle grade debut that’s a heartrending coming-of-age tale, perfect for fans of Bridge to Terabithia and Counting By 7s.

Eleven-year-old Riley believes in the whispers, magical fairies that will grant you wishes if you leave them tributes. Riley has a lot of wishes. He wishes bullies at school would stop picking on him. He wishes Dylan, his 8th grade crush, liked him, and Riley wishes he would stop wetting the bed. But most of all, Riley wishes for his mom to come back home. She disappeared a few months ago, and Riley is determined to crack the case. He even meets with a detective, Frank, to go over his witness statement time and time again.

Frustrated with the lack of progress in the investigation, Riley decides to take matters into his own hands. So he goes on a camping trip with his friend Gary to find the whispers and ask them to bring his mom back home. But Riley doesn’t realize the trip will shake the foundation of everything that he believes in forever.

(ISBN-13: 9780525517498 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 01/15/2019)

CHECK BACK ON 1/15/2019 FOR AMANDA’S REVIEW OF THE WHISPERS

Book Review: Lost Soul, Be at Peace by Maggie Thrash

Publisher’s description

lost soulFollowing her acclaimed Honor Girl, Maggie Thrash revisits a period of teenage depression in a graphic memoir that is at once thoughtful, honest, and marked by hope.

A year and a half after the summer that changed her life, Maggie Thrash wishes she could change it all back. She’s trapped in a dark depression and flunking eleventh grade, befuddling her patrician mother while going unnoticed by her father, a workaholic federal judge. The only thing Maggie cares about is her cat, Tommi . . . who then disappears somewhere in the walls of her cavernous house. So her search begins — but Maggie’s not even really sure what she’s lost, and she has no idea what she’ll find. Lost Soul, Be at Peace is the continuation of Maggie’s story from her critically acclaimed memoir Honor Girl, one that brings her devastating honesty and humor to the before and after of depression.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

11th grade Maggie is depressed—not that her parents have taken notice. Her grades are terrible, her only real friend is her cat (who either runs away or just weirdly disappears somewhere in their mansion, never to be seen again), and when she searches “depression” on the internet, she comes across the ever-so-helpful suggestion to just drink more water. You’re not depressed—you’re just dehydrated! She’s out to a few friends, but not to her parents. Her federal judge dad always has his head in a book or is at work, and Maggie is always surprised when her dad uses her name and doesn’t just refer to her as “Ms. Thrash” or “tenant.” When her mother isn’t criticizing her, she’s ignoring her. But when Maggie comes across a hallway in her home that she swears she’s never seen, she meets an important new friend who just happens to be a ghost (though he doesn’t think he’s dead). At first, Maggie thinks it’s only a dream, but quickly the line between dreams and reality blurs, and Tommy, the not-dead ghost, is always around. Maggie isn’t sure what to make of all this. She’s a former sleepwalker who now has night terrors. Is Tommy real? And why are there so many weird details about his life that really make his appearance feel like it’s a mystery meant to be solved? It’s only much later, after her dad’s mother dies, that Maggie begins to understand who Tommy is and why he’s here.

 

Though this is a companion to Thrash’s first graphic memoir, Honor Girl, it’s not necessarily to have read it to understand or enjoy this memoir. With simple yet engaging artwork (that will be in full color in the finished version, which I suspect will add a lot to the readability of the story—my ARC was only in black and white), Thrash tells a compelling and surprisingly deep story about the things we lose, the things we find, empathy, connection, and family. Honest, vulnerable, and ultimately hopeful, this memoir will resonate with a wide variety of readers. 

 

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780763694197
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication date: 10/09/2018

Book Review: Dream Country by Shannon Gibney

Publisher’s description

dream countryThe heartbreaking story of five generations of young people from a single African-and-American family pursuing an elusive dream of freedom.

Dream Country begins in suburban Minneapolis at the moment when seventeen-year-old Kollie Flomo begins to crack under the strain of his life as a Liberian refugee. He’s exhausted by being at once too black and not black enough for his African American peers and worn down by the expectations of his own Liberian family and community. When his frustration finally spills into violence and his parents send him back to Monrovia to reform school, the story shifts. Like Kollie, readers travel back to Liberia, but also back in time, to the early twentieth century and the point of view of Togar Somah, an eighteen-year-old indigenous Liberian on the run from government militias that would force him to work the plantations of the Congo people, descendants of the African American slaves who colonized Liberia almost a century earlier. When Togar’s section draws to a shocking close, the novel jumps again, back to America in 1827, to the children of Yasmine Wright, who leave a Virginia plantation with their mother for Liberia, where they’re promised freedom and a chance at self-determination by the American Colonization Society. The Wrights begin their section by fleeing the whip and by its close, they are then the ones who wield it. With each new section, the novel uncovers fresh hope and resonating heartbreak, all based on historical fact.

In Dream Country, Shannon Gibney spins a riveting tale of the nightmarish spiral of death and exile connecting America and Africa, and of how one determined young dreamer tries to break free and gain control of her destiny.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Confession: I have been staring at the blank screen now for 18 minutes. I’ve been writing book reviews for 16 years, since I was in graduate school at Simmons. How many reviews have I written in those years—many hundreds, maybe more than a thousand? And yet here I sit, trying to put together even just one useful, coherent sentence that might begin to sum up how powerful, unique, and phenomenal this book is. I’m frowning as I type, because those words don’t even begin to do this novel justice.

 

The first thing you should know is that this novel will challenge readers, and I mean that in the best possible way. We move around in time and in place, and though there are parts of a family tree shown, I had to draw my own to start to make the connections clearer. You know who is up for challenging reads? Teenagers. They’ll be fine.

 

We’re first introduced to Kollie, a 16-year-old Liberian boy living in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota (just outside of Minneapolis) in 2008. His family fled Liberia during the Second Civil War and lived for three years in a refugee camp in Ghana. Many of his friends and classmates are Liberian, and there’s a lot of tension between the African immigrant kids and the black American kids. Kollie and his friends are regularly called slurs, called “jungle animals.” Things are not easy for Kollie, but he’s getting by. His parents have high hopes for him, that he can help be a positive influence in the community. His mother warns him that America may be the land of opportunity, “but if you want to destroy yourself, they will give you that opportunity too.” She says the world will do its best to convince black boys that they should destroy themselves, but she’s proud he’s working to better himself. Of course, this speech is before Kollie is involved in a violent incident at school, suspended, and working for William, a neighborhood “degenerate.” Devastated and ashamed, his parents send him away.

 

From here, we weave back and forth in time and location, meeting some of Kollie’s ancestors and following their struggles, losses, and achievements as they try to make their way through a world that doesn’t seem to want them to succeed or even to exist. Readers meet Togar, in 1926, in Grand Bassa County, Liberia, fleeing from Congo soldiers. We follow the story of Yasmine, who we meet in 1827 on a plantation near Norfolk, Virginia. The American Colonization Society’s new idea is to send “the coloreds” back to Africa’s Gold Coast to share their knowledge, experience, and salvation with the people there. Though this opportunity seems rife with potential, another woman there warns Yasmine that their new town is a hell and to stay away from hope. Yasmine and her family quickly realize that their new life is one filled with tension and fighting, and that the white men who came up with this idea weren’t looking to better anyone, but rather to ship people away to eliminate them. We also spend time with Evelyn and Ujay, in 1980, in Monrovia, Liberia, where we see Ujay’s work as an activist with the Progressive Alliance of Liberia and the hope for indigenous, not Congo, rule. We flash forward to 1994 with Ujay, now in a refugee camp near Ghana. And finally, we hear from Angel, Kollie’s sister, in 2018, ten years after Kollie was sent away from their family.

 

The stories are loosely tied together (in the sense that we’re following the line of one family and returning to the same place over and over), but read like short stories, complete on their own. It feels especially profound, then, when we reach Angel’s portion of the narrative and understand that it is she who has been telling all of these stories as a way to help make sense of her lineage, history, and ancestors. Through her revelations about her writing, readers see the choices she made in telling these stories, her search for explaining people and their actions, her desire for wholeness, for neat intertwining, for being able to know what these experiences were like. The title, Dream Country, takes on new significance through Angel’s eyes, and with Angel’s own story. This powerful and well-written story examines deep human emotions, the desire and fight for freedom, power, and immigrant experiences. Perhaps shamefully, I managed to make it to 40 without knowing much of anything at all about Liberia, but this book has changed that. Gibney’s complex look at one family, told through a wide scope, is moving and unlike anything I have ever read before in YA. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Don’t miss it. 

 

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780735231672
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 09/11/2018

 

Book Review: Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Publisher’s description

dariusDarius doesn’t think he’ll ever be enough, in America or in Iran. Hilarious and heartbreaking, this unforgettable debut introduces a brilliant new voice in contemporary YA.Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s a Fractional Persian—half, his mom’s side—and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life.Darius has never really fit in at home, and he’s sure things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn’t exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Soon, they’re spending their days together, playing soccer, eating faludeh, and talking for hours on a secret rooftop overlooking the city’s skyline. Sohrab calls him Darioush—the original Persian version of his name—and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he’s Darioush to Sohrab.Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut is for anyone who’s ever felt not good enough—then met a friend who makes them feel so much better than okay.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

IMG_4112I’ve been in a reading slump for what feels like forever, abandoning at least half a dozen books before I can settle in and actually read one. But this book? This book, I burned through in two sittings—and would’ve read it in one, had I not been expected to do things like parent my child. In fact, when I was reading this on the second day, I got so engrossed that I didn’t even look up for the duration of reading, not noticing how my dachshunds arranged themselves in this adorable heap and passed out next to me. Given that I usually look at them about every 30 seconds and exclaim how cute they are, this is an impressive level of reading engagement.

 

 

Darius is a Persian American sophomore living in Portland, Oregon. He works in a tea shop, is bullied at school, has depression, and often feels like an outsider even in his own family. Those are all the traits/facts that seem to define him while at home. His younger sister is fluent in Farsi, but Darius only knows food words and a few other common words and phrases. His blond-haired, blue-eyed father always seems disappointed in him, and they have trouble connecting, relying on nightly episodes of Star Trek to be the quality time they spend together. Like Darius, his father has depression, but Darius feels his dad is ashamed of this fact. He thinks Darius wouldn’t be bullied so much if he would just act more normal. When Darius’s mother tells him their family will be going to Iran to visit the dying grandfather he’s never met, Darius figures it will just be another place that he doesn’t fit in or feel comfortable. While he’s Skyped with his grandparents and other relatives plenty, he’s never met them. As noted before, he doesn’t speak much Farsi, which he knows will isolate him further. To his surprise, it is in Yazd, his mother’s hometown, where he begins to feel comfortable and to open himself up for the first time in his life.

 

 

Though Darius is often awkward and monosyllabic, we get to know him much better when he is in Iran. Darius gets to know himself much better during this time. He becomes friends with Sohrab, a charismatic neighbor boy who draws Darius out of his shell, inviting him to play soccer and helping guide him through life in Yazd. Fairly quickly, Darius feels such closeness with Sohrab, feeling like they really understand each other. Sohrab is easy and comfortable with Darius, so open and affectionate. Though it is never discussed, it is easy to read their relationship as something more than friends, or something that could potentially be more than friends. Though their time together is short, Sohrab and his friendship appear to be life changing for Darius, showing him that he can connect with other people and that there is more to him than just a bullied kid who is always the object of jokes and cruelty.

 

 

The book has a lot of other things going for it. Darius’s depression is handled well. It’s noted over and over that he has been encouraged to not feel embarrassed or ashamed for having depression, that it’s just the way his brain chemicals work. He talks about being medicated for years, about having tried various medications, about side effects, like weight gain, and we routinely see him take his medication. His mother talks to him about the fact that her parents will have a different, less understanding attitude toward depression, which does come up once they are in Iran. It is refreshing to see mental illness depicted in such a matter of fact manner—it’s just one part of Darius. Darius also helps guide readers through Persian culture by explaining cultural ideas, tradition, and Farsi words as the story unfolds. Khorram manages to make this feel like part of the natural flow of the narrative. This quiet story will resonate with readers who feel they don’t fit in, for whatever reason, and can appreciate the profoundness of finally feeling like you can connect with someone. A heartfelt, complicated, and thoughtful look at identity, family, and unexpected connections set in a place, and within a culture, we rarely see in YA. A great addition for all collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher
ISBN-13: 9780525552963
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 08/28/2018
 

Book Review: Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake

Publisher’s description

girl made ofFor readers of Girl in Pieces and The Way I Used to Be comes an emotionally gripping story about facing hard truths in the aftermath of sexual assault.

Mara and Owen are as close as twins can get, so when Mara’s friend Hannah accuses Owen of rape, Mara doesn’t know what to think. Can her brother really be guilty of such a violent act? Torn between her family and her sense of right and wrong, Mara feels lost, and it doesn’t help that things are strained with her ex-girlfriend, Charlie. As Mara, Hannah, and Charlie come together in the aftermath of this terrible crime, Mara must face a trauma from her own past and decide where Charlie fits into her future. With sensitivity and openness, this timely novel confronts the difficult questions surrounding consent, victim blaming, and sexual assault.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

BILLY STARS

There’s what I tweeted after I finished this book. What a powerful and memorable read. I read a LOT of books. Often, as the weeks and months pass, the details get lost to me. I’ll remember I liked something, but not necessarily all of the reasons why. Or I’ll forget characters’ names or how the book made me feel. But this book? This book will stay with me. All of it.

 

Relationships in twins Mara and Owen’s world are closely-knit. They attend an arts magnet program with all the most important people in their lives. Hannah, Owen’s girlfriend, is one of Mara’s best friends. Charlie, Mara’s very best friend, is also her ex-girlfriend (Mara is bisexual; Charlie is nonbinary). And Owen’s best friend, Alex, has always been there, but Mara finds herself turning to him more and in new, unexpected ways. When Hannah says that Owen raped her at a party they all were at, Mara is devastated. She knows her brother would never do that. But she also knows Hannah would never lie about that. She turns to their small group of friends, including both Hannah and Owen, as she tries to process what happened. Mara has her own reasons for fiercely thinking that “believe girls and women” is a good policy (beyond it just being a good policy). She’s held on to a secret for years, a secret that ruined her relationship with Charlie. Mara and Owen’s parents believe Owen when he says he didn’t rape Hannah. They urge Mara to understand the need to be united on this, to not talk to anyone about it, to make sure they all have the story straight. But Mara is sick of not talking about things. She stands by Hannah, especially when Hannah comes back to school and is repeatedly greeted with, “Hey, slut, welcome back.” Mara, Charlie, and Hannah all have truths to tell. They rely on each other, and the support of girls (particularly in their feminist group at school, Empower) to find the strength to not be silenced. 

 

This masterpiece is gutting. It’s not just the characters, the dialogue, and the writing are all wonderful—they are—but that the story is so real. So true. So common. Maybe not the specifics, but the general story. This is in incredibly important read about the aftermath of a sexual assault, about consent, rape culture, family, friendship, and feminism. A powerful, heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting read. 

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781328778239
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/15/2018

 

 

Book Review: Antipodes by Michele Bacon

Publisher’s description

antipodesWhen Erin Cerise steps off her plane in Christchurch, New Zealand, she’s determined to overcome her losses of swim team captainship, her boyfriend Ben, and her reputation. Her mother is certain studying abroad will regain Erin’s chances of a good future. Once Erin meets her uninspiring host family and city, though, she’s not so sure.

Before Christchurch, Erin wasn’t always intense and focused. When had her priorities gone upside down?

Now, Erin balks at NZ’s itchy school uniforms, its cold houses, and her hosts’ utter inability to pronounce her name correctly. Christchurch does boast amazing rock climbing, gorgeous scenery, and at least one guy who could make her journey worthwhile—if she lets him.

With months ahead of her, Erin slowly begins to draw on the years behind her, one step back into her memories at a time. As she rebuilds herself from the other side of the world, she finds that although her life has been turned upside down and she’s far from home, every way she moves takes her closer to where she came from.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

When Erin moves from Chicago to New Zealand to study abroad, it’s mainly because she’s fleeing what has gone on in her life. It seems like a drastic move, but one her parents fully support. They’re already mortified at her behavior and choices, and besides, studying abroad will help make Erin’s college applications unique. And if she’s going to get into Columbia (and eventually get into med school, become a doctor, make lots of money, and have a perfect life), she’ll need something to help her stand out. Just a handful of weeks ago, her life had been different. Erin had felt like she had it all—a great boyfriend, her swim team spot, and excellent college prospects. But that was before she gained viral fame for an embarrassing and hardly life-ending incident. Now, everything is different.

 

Erin’s time in New Zealand opens her eyes to a lot of things. Erin is extremely privileged and totally unimpressed with her host family, their home, and really all of Christchurch. Her parents, both lawyers, have always been very intense and focused on Erin’s success and her future. Her mother lives for to-do lists and goal-setting. She wants Erin to use her time in New Zealand not to sightsee but to focus on being exceptional and unique. It doesn’t take Erin long in New Zealand to start to understand there is more to life than a constant fixation on goals she never even set for herself. Before long, she’s cast aside her cello, is excelling on the much more relaxed than she’s used to swim team, taking fun classes she never had time to consider before, and falling for a boy who falls far outside the bounds of what her parents would consider acceptable. For the first time in her life, Erin is being asked—and is asking herself–about what she enjoys, what she is interested in, and where she’d like her future to take her. These are confusing revelations, and Erin feels a bit lost as she navigates a new world not just far from home but free of expectations and demands. 

 

It may take readers a while to warm to Erin, who is spoiled and entitled, but her journey toward understanding herself and breaking free from her parents’ rigid rules is a genuine one full of heart and excitement. This engrossing story of self-discovery is bolstered by the unique (Erin’s mother would like that word) setting of New Zealand and a great cast of secondary characters who come to support and encourage Erin in ways it felt like no one at home truly did. An excellent and engaging look at what we can gain when it feels like everything is lost. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781510723610
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Publication date: 04/03/2018