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Book Review: Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry

Publisher’s description

hereticsPut an atheist in a strict Catholic school? Expect comedy, chaos, and an Inquisition. The Breakfast Club meets Saved! in debut author Katie Henry’s hilarious novel about a band of misfits who set out to challenge their school, one nun at a time. Perfect for fans of Becky Albertalli and Robyn Schneider.

When Michael walks through the doors of Catholic school, things can’t get much worse. His dad has just made the family move again, and Michael needs a friend. When a girl challenges their teacher in class, Michael thinks he might have found one, and a fellow atheist at that. Only this girl, Lucy, isn’t just Catholic . . . she wants to be a priest.

Lucy introduces Michael to other St. Clare’s outcasts, and he officially joins Heretics Anonymous, where he can be an atheist, Lucy can be an outspoken feminist, Avi can be Jewish and gay, Max can wear whatever he wants, and Eden can practice paganism.

Michael encourages the Heretics to go from secret society to rebels intent on exposing the school’s hypocrisies one stunt at a time. But when Michael takes one mission too far—putting the other Heretics at risk—he must decide whether to fight for his own freedom or rely on faith, whatever that means, in God, his friends, or himself.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Well, this book was right up my alley. As an atheist, I am always looking for more atheist rep in YA. I picked this book up because the summary sounded super interesting, and also because I TOTALLY judge books by their covers and this cover is amazing. Add in the fact that this book is thoughtful, compassionate, funny, and filled with great characters, and the result was I read this book in one sitting.

 

Michael has moved four times in ten years. He’s starting his new school, a private Catholic school, a month and a half into his junior year. He’s never believed in any god, but his father’s boss got him into St. Clare’s, the best private school in the area. He figures it will be terrible—after all, he’s an atheist—but is quickly proven wrong when he meets Lucy and her friends, an eclectic group of kids who all have their own reasons for not quite fitting in at school. Outspoken Colombian American feminist Lucy, whom Michael initially mistakes as a fellow atheist, wants to be a priest and has many thoughts on how and why the church should grow and change. Avi is Jewish and gay. Korean American Max is a Unitarian who just wants to be able to wear a cape to school. Eden is a Wiccan—well, actually, she’s a Celtic Reconstructionist Polytheist. Even though Michael is an apostate, and not technically a heretic, he’s invited into their group, Heretics Anonymous, which is basically a support group serving as a place to air their grievances about school. It doesn’t take Michael long to feel the group should do something more, go public, figure out how they can make things better for everyone at school. They “fix” the sex ed video, challenge the dress code, and begin to leave their mark (literally) all over the school. But shaking things up and starting dialogues has consequences, and soon security cameras are popping up and innocent classmates are getting accused of these pranks. Things spiral out of control, causing HA to go on hiatus, but when Michael’s personal life becomes stressful, he pushes things at school too far and stands to lose all that good that has come out of landing in this most ill-fitting place.

 

I enjoyed that Michael and his friends all came from different backgrounds but worked to understand each other, even as they made mistakes and disagreed over big ideas. This isn’t some story where Michael sees the error of his ways and finds religion, but he does start to understand that God and faith is maybe far more complicated than he had previously thought. Michael may not believe in any god, but he does believe in plenty of other things that are meaningful. At its heart, this is a story about friendship, respect, beliefs, acceptance, and differences, but it’s also a very amusing look at a subversive secret society determined to bring about change and expose hypocrisy. Excellent dialogue and genuine character growth make this layered look at religion sparkle. A great recommendation for those who like their deep subjects peppered with humor. I look forward to more from this author. 

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062698872
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/07/2018

Book Review: All Summer Long by Hope Larson

Publisher’s description

all summer longA coming-of-age middle-grade graphic novel about summer and friendships, written and illustrated by the Eisner Award–winning and New York Times–bestselling Hope Larson.

Thirteen-year-old Bina has a long summer ahead of her. She and her best friend, Austin, usually do everything together, but he’s off to soccer camp for a month, and he’s been acting kind of weird lately anyway. So it’s up to Bina to see how much fun she can have on her own. At first it’s a lot of guitar playing, boredom, and bad TV, but things look up when she finds an unlikely companion in Austin’s older sister, who enjoys music just as much as Bina. But then Austin comes home from camp, and he’s acting even weirder than when he left. How Bina and Austin rise above their growing pains and reestablish their friendship and respect for their differences makes for a touching and funny coming-of-age story.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This will be an easy hit with fans of Raina Telgemeier, Victoria Jamieson, Jennifer Holm, and Shannon Hale’s Real Friends. I could probably bring 20 of these to work, put them on my desk, and have them all gone to 5th graders in a few hours.

 

There’s so much to like here. I loved everything about this graphic novel except the repeated use of the word “lame.” Why do people think it’s okay to still use that word? Barring that, which took me out of the story every time because I had to sigh and roll my eyes, it was fantastic. I love that it’s about a boy-girl friendship. Neighbors Bina and Austin have been best friends literally their entire lives. But as athletic Austin heads off to a month of soccer camp, leaving music enthusiast Bina behind, Bina feels at loose ends. She’s never really had to figure out what to do without Austin. She listens to music, plays her guitar, binges a tv show, and texts Austin, wishing he’d bother to text her back. It’s not that she doesn’t have anything else going on in her life, but it’s her first summer really on her own. Her older brother and his husband are adopting a baby, her other adventurous brother pops home and gives her a little pep talk, and she has a good relationship with her parents. She becomes friends (maybe, sort of, she thinks) with Charlie, Austin’s older sister. Charlie introduces her to new music, gets her into babysitting, and makes Bina feel kind of cool. And kind of used and frustrated. Middle school is a pretty typical time to discover just how complicated relationships, even lifelong ones, can be. So much is changing, but, as her mom points out, Bina is becoming more herself every day. She’s getting more into music, understanding more about social dynamics, and learning how to shape her own days without her best friend there to help her. When Austin returns from camp, things between them are definitely different, but they work it out, discovering that growing and changing doesn’t have to mean growing apart. Bina is a great character and a lot of readers will relate to her feelings and uncertainty. A solid addition to any graphic novel collection. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780374310714
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/01/2018

Book Review: We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss

Publisher’s description

fly awayLuke and Toby have always had each other’s backs. But then one choice—or maybe it is a series of choices—sets them down an irrevocable path. We’ll Fly Away weaves together Luke and Toby’s senior year of high school with letters Luke writes to Toby later—from death row.

This thought-provoking novel is an exploration of friendship, regret, and redemption, for fans of Jason Reynolds and Marieke Nijkamp.

Best friends since childhood, Luke and Toby have dreamed of one thing: getting out of their dead-end town. Soon they finally will, riding the tails of Luke’s wrestling scholarship, never looking back. If they don’t drift apart first. If Toby’s abusive dad, or Luke’s unreliable mom, or anything else their complicated lives throw at them doesn’t get in the way.

In a format that alternates between Luke’s letters to Toby from death row and the events of their senior year, Bryan Bliss expertly unfolds the circumstances that led to Luke’s incarceration. Tense and emotional, this hard-hitting novel explores family abuse, sex, love, and friendship, and how far people will go to protect those they love. For fans of Jason Reynolds, Chris Crutcher, and NPR’s Serial podcast.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I loved NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES and MEET ME HERE, the two previous novels from Bryan Bliss, so I figured I’d enjoy this. Though, really, enjoy is the wrong word to use for reading about impoverished, neglected, abused teens, one of whom is on death row. My point is, I knew I’d like the book. But I wasn’t prepared to be totally blown away and just gutted by this story. I’m a reading machine—as soon as I finish something, I pick up something new right away, hardly pausing for a breath in between. After finishing WE’LL FLY AWAY, I didn’t read anything else for a few days, just wanting the story and the characters to stick with me a while longer. This powerful look at loyalty, protection, friendship, and choices will shatter you. Be ready.

 

The story toggles between the letters that Luke is writing to Toby from death row and the time prior to his incarceration. We don’t know why Luke is on death row, other than he did something that he admitted to and doesn’t regret. We only learn at the very end how he landed there. Though I suspected what was going to happen, what would land him there, it was still absolutely devastating when the reveal of what happened came. But that all happens near the end. For the bulk of the book, we see Luke and Toby struggling through their day-to-day lives. Luke lives with his mom and twin younger brothers in a one-bedroom apartment. There’s never enough to eat and Luke does most of the caring for his brothers. When his mom eventually disappears for a few days, it hardly matters, because she wasn’t doing a whole lot to help out while there. Toby lives with his violent, drunk, abusive father. Toby is used to seeking safety and space to recover with Luke. What little Luke has, he’s happy to share with Toby.  He has always been Toby’s defender and protector. The two have hopes of leaving their small North Carolina town after graduation. Luke has a wrestling scholarship waiting for him in Iowa and Toby figures he’ll tag along. They haven’t exactly worked out details, but having some idea of life after this place helps them both cope with their realities. Things begin to unravel when Toby gets involved with Lily, a young woman he meets at the bar his dad frequents. Their meeting sets in motion terrible events that almost feel inevitable. As I read, as I watched events unfold, I kept thinking, “NO, NO, NO, NO,” even though I knew something terrible had to happen to get Luke on death row. It all feels so hopeless.

 

In Luke’s letters from death row, we see weird glimpses of hope that we could never see in the main narrative. I say “weird” because the kid is on death row. His letters are full of pain and anger, but also resiliency, and he works through so much in his letters to Toby. His letters give us a real insight into his mind during this time. It is, I would guess, virtually impossible for almost all of us to really imagine what it would be like to be on death row. To be waiting. To watch people you have come to know put to death. I think it can be easy for people to look at people in prison, on death row, and forget their humanity. It can be easy to write people off, to expect a punishment, to not see them as humans, to not understand what led them there, to not think about redemption or the worth of a life or what the death penalty really means. Bliss makes you think about all those things. He makes the reader understand that people are not just defined by one thing, but have entire lives and stories that led them to the act or acts that landed them in prison. He asks readers to see their complex lives and care about them. The standout characters, including the nun who routinely visits Luke in prison, are deeply affecting and beg readers to really pay attention to their lives and their choices. Though devastatingly sad, this is also a beautiful look at friendship between two boys—something we don’t always see much of in YA. This emotional, powerful, and unflinching look at friendship, loyalty, and the justice system is an absolute must for all collections. Not an easy read, but an important one. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the author

ISBN-13: 9780062494276
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/08/2018

Book Review: Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

Publisher’s description

stay sweetFrom the author of The Last Boy and Girl in the World and The List comes a bold and sweet summer read about first love, feminism, and ice cream.

Summer in Sand Lake isn’t complete without a trip to Meade Creamery—the local ice cream stand founded in 1944 by Molly Meade who started making ice cream to cheer up her lovesick girlfriends while all the boys were away at war. Since then, the stand has been owned and managed exclusively by local girls, who inevitably become the best for friends. Seventeen-year-old Amelia and her best friend Cate have worked at the stand every summer for the past three years, and Amelia is “Head Girl” at the stand this summer. When Molly passes away before Amelia even has her first day in charge, Amelia isn’t sure that stand can go on. That is, until Molly’s grandnephew Grady arrives and asks Amelia to stay on to help continue the business…but Grady’s got some changes in mind…

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Totally enjoyable book. Vivian is one of my auto-read authors—if she has a new book, I’m reading it. Reading this delightful summery book was just the ticket on an annoyingly cold day in Minnesota in April (we had a snow day this week and it was below zero two mornings this week). It made me want ice cream, which is no small feat given the unseasonable cold and the fact that I don’t generally like ice cream (Breyer’s nearly impossible to find vegan ice cream being the exception).

 

Vivian excels at great characters and great dialogue. The plot here is fairly small—when Grady inherits the ice cream stand, changes are afoot, including the possibility of selling the stand—but the relationships between the characters and the introduction of Molly’s own teenage diary makes this quiet story full of life. I like that Vivian is never afraid to show how complicated friendships/relationships between girls can be. Amelia and Cate are the very best of friends, but they keep secrets from each other, they argue, are jealous, they hold grudges, they lash out, and they figure out how to move past all those slights. I loved the whole concept of the ice cream stand—started in World War II by a young woman and only ever staffed by girls, all these years later (until Grady comes along). The system of support and friendship these Meade Creamery girls have is lovely and powerful. I would happily read a whole series about Meade girls over the years and what hijinks they got up to and saw each other through, from Molly and friends in the 1940s through now.

 

This will easily fly off shelves this summer. Give this to fans of Sarah Dessen and Jenny Han. And when you sit down to read this, have some ice cream handy, because you’re going to want some. A satisfying and sweet read. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781534405035
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing
Publication date: 04/24/2018

Book Review: After the Shot Drops by Randy Ribay

Publisher’s description

after the shotA powerful novel about friendship, basketball, and one teen’s mission to create a better life for his family in the tradition of Jason Reynolds, Matt de la Pena, and Walter Dean Myers.     
Bunny and Nasir have been best friends forever, but when Bunny accepts an athletic scholarship across town, Nasir feels betrayed. While Bunny tries to fit in with his new, privileged peers, Nasir spends more time with his cousin, Wallace, who is being evicted. Nasir can’t help but wonder why the neighborhood is falling over itself to help Bunny when Wallace is in trouble.

When Wallace makes a bet against Bunny, Nasir is faced with an impossible decision—maybe a dangerous one.
Told from alternating perspectives, After the Shot Drops is a heart-pounding story about the responsibilities of great talent and the importance of compassion.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This fast-paced story of choices, compassion, and consequences is the kind of book you need to read in one sitting. Both the stakes and the tension are high, the characters are dynamic and complicated, and, because of the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s gun, you can be pretty sure you know what’s eventually coming, but it’s still shocking and somehow a surprise.

 

For Bunny Thompson (nicknamed Bunny “because I got the hops”), a talented basketball player who likely has a huge career ahead of him, transferring to a private school in the suburbs seemed like a good choice. He will get to play on a great team, get a better education, and hopefully get noticed even more, which will all lead to him hopefully being recruited heavily and eventually able to help out his family (which consists of his older sister, who is in college, his twin little sisters, his nurse mother, who works the graveyard shift at the hospital, and his dad, who owns a bookstore). But Bunny grows conflicted about his choice as his time at St. Sebastian’s goes on. He’s one of a handful of black kids, feels like he has nothing in common with his classmates, and often feels like some sort of mascot. To his best friend Nasir and many others in their neighborhood, Bunny’s move feels like a betrayal, a rejection, like he’s leaving everyone behind and thinks he’s better than they are. Nasir and Bunny go months without talking, though it’s clear that both boys miss each other and would like to be able to bridge the gulf between them. But for Nasir, that’s an especially complicated idea, thanks to his cousin Wallace.

 

Wallace is no fan of Bunny. His only real friend is Nasir, who would love to be able to help Wallace and his grandma, who are about to be evicted, but doesn’t really have any resources to do that. So he tries to help by encouraging Wallace to get a job to help with bills, by being in Wallace’s corner and advocating for him and defending him, even though Nasir’s parents think Wallace is a bad influence. Wallace tries to get some money by making shady deals and placing bets that he isn’t good for. Bunny and Nasir repeatedly approach each other to try to mend their friendship, but each time, Nasir feels like he’s betraying Wallace, that Bunny has plenty of people in his corner, and plenty of resources and opportunities, but Wallace has nothing and no one. Wallace eventually puts Nasir—and Bunny—in an impossible situation, one that will test everyone’s loyalty, and the already high stakes of this story really ramp up. Readers will race through the final chapters to see what happens to all three of these complicated and conflicted characters.

 

Told through an incredibly effective alternation narration, readers get to see deep inside the minds of both Bunny and Nasir. who show that the situation is much more complicated than just being about two best friends driven apart by Bunny’s choice to change schools. Gripping, suspenseful, and complex, this story of basketball, friendship, courage, desperation, and choices will appeal to a wide audience. A must-have for all collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781328702272
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 03/06/2018

Book Review: Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp

Publisher’s description

From the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller This Is Where It Ends comes another unforgettable story of loss, hope, betrayal, and the quest for truth

Best friends Corey and Kyra were inseparable in their snow-covered town of Lost Creek, Alaska. When Corey moves away, she makes Kyra promise to stay strong during the long, dark winter, and wait for her return.

Just days before Corey is to return home to visit, Kyra dies. Corey is devastated—and confused. The entire Lost community speaks in hushed tones about the town’s lost daughter, saying her death was meant to be. And they push Corey away like she’s a stranger.

Corey knows something is wrong. With every hour, her suspicion grows. Lost is keeping secrets—chilling secrets. But piecing together the truth about what happened to her best friend may prove as difficult as lighting the sky in an Alaskan winter…

 

Amanda’s thoughts

before iYour number one thought while reading this book will be WHAT ON EARTH IS WRONG WITH THE PEOPLE IN LOST CREEK, ALASKA? The one word that will crop up most in your thoughts as you read is OMINOUS. Trust me. 

 

The last Corey knew, her best friend Kyra had been receiving treatment for her bipolar disorder through both medication and therapy. There had been talk of her getting further help at a facility in Fairbanks. But now Kyra is dead, and the entire tiny town of Lost Creek, Alaska (a tight-knit community that doesn’t take kindly to outsiders) seems to view her death as an inevitable act that not only was foretold, but was good and necessary. It was her time. Her time! Yep. The girl was mentally ill and now the town is saying that it’s okay she died (she fell through the ice) because she had found her purpose and served it.

Again, may I point you back to WHAT ON EARTH IS WRONG WITH THE PEOPLE IN LOST CREEK, ALASKA?

Corey’s family moved from Lost Creek a while back, so the closed community now considers her an outsider. They are NOT HAPPY that she has returned to town and that she is horrified by what she begins to uncover about the way the town was treating Kyra and the things that led up to her death. Kyra’s mother claims that Kyra was happy near the end, that she’d changed, that she’d found her place (in a town that, last Corey has seen, shunned Kyra because of her bipolar disorder). Her mother tells Corey that Kyra was no longer receiving any treatment, but that love and belonging made her better. Thank goodness Corey knows that’s garbage. She digs around to find the truth of what was going on in Lost Creek and is shocked when she learns just how exactly the town was “embracing” Kyra.

Parts of the story are told through letters and flashbacks. Through these, we learn more about what Kyra was actually going through and feeling as well as more about the history of Kyra and Corey’s friendship (like the fact that pansexual Kyra and asexual Corey shared a kiss that briefly seemed to complicate things).

There is a LOT to discuss here regarding mental health. Lost Creek treats her first as an outcast, then as a prophet—both extremely troubling notions. If we didn’t have Corey in the mix, pointing out how ludicrous all of that is, reminding us that therapy and medication treat mental illness, not some completely messed up idea of “belonging” and “love” (that’s not love, Lost Creek), I probably would’ve literally thrown this book across the room. Kyra’s mental illness is romanticized by the people of Lost Creek, and while Nijkamp (and Corey) take her illness seriously and are concerned, no one else in town does. Kyra is exploited and never properly supported. She is abandoned. It is shocking that anyone, much less a whole town, would treat ANYONE, much less someone with mental illness, this way. They are cruel, ill-informed, and, frankly, awful people. Nearly all of them—nearly all of the town. We never really learn how or why an entire town became so terribly cruel. I hope readers will really pay attention to Corey’s point of view, and understand that what the town did was deeply wrong, yes, but what Kyra’s parents did, the people who should have been advocating for her and TREATING her, was much, much worse. Despite the entire town feeling like Kyra was magical and served some grand purpose (and then died), it’s clear that untreated mental illness is a terrible thing, and that Lost Creek is one messed up place. Hand this to readers who like spooky-feeling stories that will leave them rather enraged at the gross injustice of a life lost. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781492642282
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 01/02/2018

Book Review: Kat and Meg Conquer the World by Anna Priemaza

Publisher’s description

ra6For fans of Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything, Emery Lord’s When We Collided, and Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl,Anna Priemaza’s debut novel is a heartwarming and achingly real story of finding a friend, being a fan, and defining your place in a difficult world.

Kat and Meg couldn’t be more different. Kat’s anxiety makes it hard for her to talk to people. Meg hates being alone, but her ADHD keeps pushing people away. But when the two girls are thrown together for a year-long science project, they discover they do have one thing in common: They’re both obsessed with the same online gaming star and his hilarious videos.

It might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship—if they don’t kill each other first.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

katKat is new to Alberta and starting grade 10. Being the new girl is extra hard for Kat, who has anxiety and panic attacks. She tries to stay off everyone’s radar, ducking quickly through halls and hiding out in the library during lunch. At least in the library, she can play Legends of the Stone, her favorite game. Online is where she feels comfortable.

Meg is an extremely charismatic extrovert who has ADHD and has bounced around between friends and is currently mostly friendless. She’s one of only a few black kids in school, chatters nonstop, doesn’t do well in her classes, and is into skateboarding and watching LumberLegs play Legends of the Stone on YouTube.

The two pair up for a science project and, while it’s clear their styles of working (or not working, in Meg’s case) are not going to mesh easily, they bond over LumberLegs and LotS. Meg makes sure they start hanging out, not just getting together to work on their science project, and they start playing LotS online together, too. Meg is a lot for Kat to handle—she’s erratic, wants to make Kat socialize more, and just so full of frantic energy. Kat loves order, predictability, pro/con lists, and hiding out alone. Neither girl reveals her diagnosis to the other, though thanks to the symptoms of ADHD and anxiety, it’s pretty obvious. But not talking about the different ways their brains work and how that affects them makes their friendship all the more complicated, muddying up communication and making for hurt feelings. They have such different goals and concerns. Kat would like to win the science fair, keep playing online with the few people she feels comfortable text chatting with, and be friends with Meg but also be left to her own devices as far as being social. Meg desperately wants to go to LotsCON, to find people in her life who stick around (struggling to figure out friends, her boyfriend, and her relationship with her ex-stepdad), and just be herself without also feeling so bad about who and how she is.

 

I don’t presume to actually know what it’s like to live with ADHD. BUT, my son has ADHD, so I do have a fairly good grasp on what it looks like, if not necessarily what it feels like. This story is not really about the ins and outs of ADHD or anxiety/panic disorder. Kat mentions a counselor who didn’t really help her. Meg is on medication. That’s about the extent of any medical/therapy discussions. But, this story is very much about the day-to-day experiences of both ADHD and anxiety. Meg’s inability to focus, to follow through, to live up to her potential, to complete assignments, to remember details, to think through impulsive choices all ring very true. And, as someone who enjoys the roller coaster of fun that is anxiety disorder and panic attacks, I can definitely say that all seems legit, too. Though their friendship isn’t necessarily easy, it is genuine, and more than anything, that’s what this story is about—finding true friendship and showing your real self to someone else. The alternate narration lets readers into the heads of both girls, really showing how they feel about themselves and their lives. While coincidence brings them together and a shared fandom kicks off their friendship, it’s their deep affection for one another and their eventual honesty that really cements their relationship. A fun book about conquering your fears and finding friendship when your own brain sometimes feels like your worst enemy. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062560803
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/07/2017

Book Review: Being Fishkill by Ruth Lehrer

beingfishkillThis book will rip your heart right out of your chest. Several times. Literally.

Publisher’s Book Description:

Fishkill Carmel fends for herself, with her fists if need be — until a thwarted lunch theft introduces her to strange, sunny Duck-Duck and a chance for a new start.

Born in the backseat of a moving car, Carmel Fishkill was unceremoniously pushed into a world that refuses to offer her security, stability, love. At age thirteen, she begins to fight back. Carmel Fishkill becomes Fishkill Carmel, who deflects her tormentors with a strong left hook and conceals her secrets from teachers and social workers. But Fishkill’s fierce defenses falter when she meets eccentric optimist Duck-Duck Farina, and soon they, along with Duck-Duck’s mother, Molly, form a tentative family, even as Fishkill struggles to understand her place in it. This fragile new beginning is threatened by the reappearance of Fishkill’s unstable mother — and by unfathomable tragedy. Poet Ruth Lehrer’s young adult debut is a stunning, revalatory look at what defines and sustains “family.” And, just as it does for Fishkill, meeting Duck-Duck Farina and her mother will leave readers forever changed.

Karen’s Thoughts:

This book was sent to me by Amber Keyser who contacted me and said, “I read the most spot on book about poverty and I think you need to read it.” And she is not wrong, the depiction of poverty in this book is so accurate and is just one of the ways in which this book will rip your heart right out of your chest. Fishkill Carmel lives in abject poverty: she steals food to survive, hordes food for the lean times that will be coming – and they are always coming back, and fights over SNAP cards. This isn’t the we only have $150 in the bank until payday poverty that many people live with (which is real and also horrific), this is the scraping change out of the couch cushions to try and keep the lights on during the cold winter nights poverty. This is hunger pains and naive social workers and empty fridges and clothes and shoes that don’t fit because you HAVE to make do with what you can find at the thrift store poverty that society likes to turn its back to. It’s real and raw and difficult to read, especially if you have been there, but it’s oh so important.

So after barely surviving for most of her life, Fishkill meets Duck-Duck Farina, who has a mom and a pretty pink bedroom and three square meals a day who decides to be Fishkill’s friend. Well, technically she decides to admit Fishill into her “gang”. Duck-Duck is an intelligent young girl who watches way too much procedural TV and wants to be a lawyer when she grows up. Her constant lawyer talk is amusing. Duck-Duck and her mother take Fishill in, both figuratively and later literally when things get complicated.

At the end of the day, this is a book about friendship, and it’s quite a moving one. I loved these girls and their journey, though at times it is truly difficult to read because life is life and no one is spared hardship, least of all Fishkill. Seriously, heart ripped right out. Multiple times. Because that is what life is like for people like Fishkill, glimmers of hope amidst an agonizing parade of hardship, but only if you haven’t built your walls up so thick that you can’t even see the possibility of hope in the future.

This book will move readers. You will sit with it, in both tears of agony and joy. Your heart will swell, get ripped out, swell, repeat. I highly recommend it. Publishes November 14th 2017 by Candlewick Press

TLT: Teens and Poverty in YA Lit

Book Review: The Closest I’ve Come by Fred Aceves

Publisher’s description

ra6The Closest I’ve Come is a must-read from talented first-time author Fred Aceves, in the tradition of Walter Dean Myers.

Marcos Rivas yearns for love, a working cell phone, and maybe a pair of sneakers that aren’t falling apart. But more than anything, Marcos wants to get out of Maesta, his hood, away from his indifferent mom and her abusive boyfriend—which seems impossible.

When Marcos is placed in a new after-school program, he meets Zach and Amy, whose friendship inspires Marcos to open up to his Maesta crew, too, and starts to think more about his future and what he has to fight for. Marcos ultimately learns that bravery isn’t about acting tough and being macho; it’s about being true to yourself.

The Closest I’ve Come is a story about traversing real and imagined boundaries, about discovering new things in the world, and about discovering yourself, too.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

closestThis was phenomenal. Why was I not seeing any buzz about this book before reading it? Well, let’s work to fix that. This book is great. It’s unusual. It’s immensely readable. Your library needs it. Buzz, buzz–go order it!

 

It’s sophomore year and Marcos Rivas is sad, lonely, and frustrated. Sure, he has his group of guys to hang out with, but while they’re tight, Marcos feels like he can’t really share his feelings or complicated thoughts with them. Boys aren’t supposed to talk to each other like that, right? But he wants to. He’s poor, doesn’t have enough t-shirts for each day of the week, longs for money for new shoes, and is pretty sure the reason he’s never had a girlfriend is at least partially because he’s broke. He’d like to have a girlfriend—he’d like the companionship, to be able to really talk to someone. To his surprise, he falls for blue-haired Misfits-shirt-wearing punk girl Amy. Musically, they might not have much in common (she listens to some hip-hop and rap, Marcos listens to the Smiths, so there is some overlap), but their home lives and backgrounds give them more in common than they could have guessed. Amy’s outspoken and confrontational. Marcos would just rather walk away than fight. Together, they begin to share more about their lives after they wind up in the same Future Success class. For the first time, Marcos begins to understand that adults can have his back and believe in him. His cold mother and her abusive boyfriend mean Marcos’s home life is hellish. The thought that someone could see the potential in him, could call him intelligent and encourage him to think about life beyond daily survival in his neighborhood of “luxury projects” is revolutionary. But just being pegged as someone not living up to his potential isn’t enough to fix his life. He’s still lonely. He’s still called slurs by Brian, his mom’s scumbag boyfriend, and regularly beaten up by him. He’s still worried about how poor he is, the bad choice his best friend is making, and where he’ll get enough money for a haircut. It’s all well and good to be in a class focused on the future, but for Marcos and his friends, what about right now? Their worries are much more immediate and concrete, and no amount of learning how to study better or any of the other things the class is teaching will help them out in the present. Not in the ways they need help. But through his new friendships with Amy and Zach (also from the Future Success class), a brave move at home, the encouragement of his teachers, and his own fortitude, Marcos begins to see that the future may be brighter than he’d thought, and that maybe the present will be okay, too—not ideal, but okay.

 

Marcos is so achingly honest and vulnerable. He longs for connections—real, meaningful connections, where he can truly talk about his life. His loneliness is palpable. He makes mistakes but owns up to them and learns from them. Despite having every reason in the world not to, he allows himself to be real and open, tentatively at first, seeking so hard to find understanding and compassion, and to offer it to others. He’s loyal, smart, and brave enough to move beyond the expectations for him. It takes guts to make new friends, to be authentic (all while still trying to figure out just who you are), to try new things. It takes guts to go home day after day only to be greeted by abuse and neglect and indifference. It takes guts to tell your friend he’s making the wrong choice, to tell a girl you might be in love with her, to tell the police what’s been happening at home. Though the story is filled with violence and sadness, it is ultimately a hopeful story. Aceves shows how terribly painful life can be, but also how beautiful it can become through friendships, support, growth, and hope. A powerful look into the life of one kid trying to answer the question of “who am I?” in the midst of both bleak circumstances and increasingly deep friendships. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062488534
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/07/2017

Book Review: Neighborhood Girls by Jessie Ann Foley

Publisher’s description

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

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

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

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

 

Amanda’s thoughts

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

 

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

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062571854

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 09/12/2017