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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

Book Review: All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

Publisher’s description

ra6Calling all Raina Telgemeier fans! The Newbery Honor-winning author of Roller Girl is back with a heartwarming graphic novel about starting middle school, surviving your embarrassing family, and the Renaissance Faire.

Eleven-year-old Imogene (Impy) has grown up with two parents working at the Renaissance Faire, and she’s eager to begin her own training as a squire. First, though, she’ll need to prove her bravery. Luckily Impy has just the quest in mind—she’ll go to public school after a life of being homeschooled! But it’s not easy to act like a noble knight-in-training in middle school. Impy falls in with a group of girls who seem really nice (until they don’t) and starts to be embarrassed of her thrift shop apparel, her family’s unusual lifestyle, and their small, messy apartment. Impy has always thought of herself as a heroic knight, but when she does something really mean in order to fit in, she begins to wonder whether she might be more of a dragon after all.

As she did in Roller Girl, Victoria Jamieson perfectly—and authentically—captures the bittersweetness of middle school life with humor, warmth, and understanding.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

alls faireWell, this graphic novel is just delightful. Imogene Vega, who has always been homeschooled, is going to attend traditional school for the first time. She’s pretty nervous—a feeling plenty of kids will be able to relate to, whether they’re new to their school or not. Imogene’s family works at the Renaissance Faire and she’s excited to finally be able to train to be a squire. But while she feels comfortable and like herself at the faire, middle school is a different story. Suddenly there are cliques, queen bees, the “right” clothes, bullies, and so much more to navigate. She falls in with a group of three girls, one of whom is extremely nasty, and while she doesn’t really have anything in common with them, they do offer some feeling of belonging. It doesn’t take Imogene long to see that fitting in may not be as satisfying as standing out.  With plenty of bumps in the road and impulsive (and bad) choices, Imogene takes a while to find her voice and figure out what version of herself to present in middle school, but when she does, watch out! Excellent artwork, quirky (in the best sense of the word) setting, and super relatable themes. An easy hit for fans of Roller Girl and fans of graphic novels in general.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525429982
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 09/05/2017

Book Review: Boy Seeking Band by Steve Brezenoff

Publisher’s description

ra6Great music and great friendships aren’t always in harmony. Terence Kato is a prodigy bass player, but he’s determined to finish middle school on a high note. Life has other plans. In eighth grade, he’s forced to transfer from a private arts school to a public school, where the kids seemingly speak a different language. Luckily, Terence knows a universal one: music. The teen sets out to build a rock band and, in the process, make a few friends. From the acclaimed author of Brooklyn, Burning and Guy in Real Life comes a fresh, funny, genuine novel about enjoying life beyond the opening act.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

boy seeking bandThere’s a lot to like about this book, but the major thing that stands out to me is this: this is a great book for reluctant/struggling readers who want something that looks/feels “older” than they might normally read. While this is about 8th graders, and could easily be a YA title with not much tweaking, kids 10 and up could comfortably read this book. The cover, plot, and deeper issues the story touches on all make this appealing for both fans of middle grade and fans of younger YA.

 

Minneapolis teen Terence has spent a few years attending an arts school, but now is at Franklin Middle School, a public school, after his mom died and he and his father moved across town. There’s no money anymore for the private school tuition and Terence’s dad is in rough shape, debilitated by grief and, understandably, not doing the greatest job parenting or helping Terence grieve or adjust to his new school. Terence, who plays bass, joins the school jazz band, but they’re not up to his standards, so he bails, searching instead to form his own band. Terence is just a bit of a music snob, something that really comes to light as he auditions people for his band. Before long he’s joined by other musicians, and while they sound great and really seem to click, Terence repeatedly makes it clear that this is just a band—he’s not looking for friends at Franklin. Like, he actually, repeatedly says out loud that he does not want friends. Sure, buddy. Whatever you say. It’s clear that Terence is struggling to work through his mother’s death and all the changes that came after, but he absolutely does not want to talk about it with his new friends (sorry, bandmates) to the point that he freaks out on them if they begin to show the tiniest bit of compassion to him.  In fact, things with the band fall apart, thanks to Terence, just when the Wellstone Music Battle of the Kid Bands is coming up. Terence’s band is being buzzed about at school and they seem like real contenders for the battle, but Terence’s anger and grief, and insistence on going it alone, may get in the way of their potential success. 

 

Brezenoff excels in creating interesting characters. Though Terence holds everyone at a distance, including the reader, the depth of his complicated feelings is clear. He’s surrounded by other people who show there is more to them than what they seem. BOY SEEKING BAND is a well-written look at the ways grief can change a life. Packed with music references, this will appeal to a wide range of readers, but especially to anyone who loves music as much as Terence does. A great addition for both middle grade and young adult collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley

ISBN-13: 9781496544629

Publisher: Capstone Press

Publication date: 08/28/2017

Book Review: Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens

Publisher’s description

ra6As the tomboy daughter of the town’s preacher, Billie McCaffrey has always struggled with fitting the mold of what everyone says she should be. She’d rather wear sweats, build furniture, and get into trouble with her solid group of friends: Woods, Mash, Davey, Fifty, and Janie Lee.

But when Janie Lee confesses to Billie that she’s in love with Woods, Billie’s filled with a nagging sadness as she realizes that she is also in love with Woods…and maybe with Janie Lee, too.

Always considered “one of the guys,” Billie doesn’t want anyone slapping a label on her sexuality before she can understand it herself. So she keeps her conflicting feelings to herself, for fear of ruining the group dynamic. Except it’s not just about keeping the peace, it’s about understanding love on her terms—this thing that has always been defined as a boy and a girl falling in love and living happily ever after. For Billie—a box-defying dynamo—it’s not that simple.

Readers will be drawn to Billie as she comes to terms with the gray areas of love, gender, and friendship, in this John Hughes-esque exploration of sexual fluidity.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

dress-codesI am not one for posting GIFs in reviews—that’s just not me—but for once I wish that just a GIF would be sufficient—one that captured the feeling of elation and love that reading this book inspired. Looking for some picture that captures those feelings seems way easier than trying to find actual coherent words to say about this fantastic book.

Like the summary up there says, this is a story about the gray areas in life—you know, where everything real and complex and interesting resides. Give me gray areas, and uncertainty, and questioning things any day over black and white supposed truths. Billie and her friends call themselves the Hexagon. Billie, Janie Lee, Woods, Fifty, Davey, and Mash are inseparable. They love schemes and they love each other. In their small town of Otters Holt, Kentucky, Billie, the minister’s kid, stands out. She dresses “like a boy,” is at times mistaken for a boy (or just seen as one of the guys), isn’t sure who she’s more interested in kissing, Woods or Janie Lee, and is willing to be herself and grapple with whatever that means all under the watchful and judging eyes of everyone in town.

There is SO MUCH to love about this novel. It’s a profoundly loving look at friendship, the kind of friendship where friends truly support each other and give each other room to grow, change, and figure life out. It’s also a really complex look at expectations, perceptions, identity, and fluidity. It’s also an incredibly necessary and supportive look at teenagers experimenting with who they are and finding so much love and support in even the most unlikely of places. Like Billie says at one point, “Feeling don’t sort like laundry.” Nor should we want them to. So much of the joy comes from sifting through everything, discovering who you are, in the process of finding yourself. Billie and her friends are unfinished and imperfect, but they’re grateful for what they have and willing to do the hard work of figuring out who they are. This thoughtful look at love, friendship, identity, sexuality, and fluidity is not to be missed. Brilliant. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss 

ISBN-13: 9780062398512

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 08/22/2017

Book Review: That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim

Publisher’s description

that-funny-thingThis young adult novel by Sheba Karim, author of Skunk Girl, is a funny and affecting coming-of-age story for fans of Jenny Han, Megan McCafferty, and Sara Farizan.

Shabnam Qureshi is facing a summer of loneliness and boredom until she meets Jamie, who scores her a job at his aunt’s pie shack. Shabnam quickly finds herself in love, while her former best friend, Farah, who Shabnam has begun to reconnect with, finds Jamie worrying.

In her quest to figure out who she really is and what she really wants, Shabnam looks for help in an unexpected place—her family, and her father’s beloved Urdu poetry.

That Thing We Call a Heart is a funny and fresh story about the importance of love—in all its forms.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I really liked 2/3 of this book. The first 1/3 was rough for me. It’s slow to really get to the heart of the story, the love interest is (at first) insufferably perfect and manic pixie dream boyish, there were completely unnecessary scenes (the party at the start), and Shabnam, the main character, kept referring to Farah and their falling out but didn’t delve into it more for a long time. BUT. But. Once Jamie (the love interest) gained some nuance, and Farah appeared, and Shabnam started to think harder about her relationships, I was in.

 

Shabnam, whose family is Pakistani-American, just wants to get through the summer and get to U Penn, where she can reinvent herself. At first, we don’t know much about her. We know she’s had a falling out with Farah, whoever that is. She makes out with Ryan, the “hottest boy in school,” who is a total tool and says super cool things like, “What are you?” to Shabnam. We know she is capable of spinning up a really elaborate and horrible lie about her family’s history with Partition. We also know she has complicated feelings about her own background. Her mother is Muslim, her dad is… well, he’s an extremely practical mathematician who believes in numbers and Urdu poetry and maybe not much else. And Shabnam? She says she’s “nothing.” She’s embarrassed by her great-uncle, who’s visiting from Pakistan. She makes several remarks, about him and about Islam/Muslims that are surprising (things like that her uncle looked almost like a member of the Taliban). She meets Jamie, a cute boy whose aunt runs a pie shop, and falls hard for him. Jamie gets Shabnam a job at the pie shop for the month it’s open. They’re in New Jersey and he goes to school in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s only there for the month, but in that time, Shabnam falls in love with him (even though there are plenty of things about him that are really, really annoying and off-putting. But we’ve all been there, right? You like someone so much that you can’t see their flaws… or really understand how one-sided that like may be).

 

For me, the story became much more interesting when Shabnam reconnected with Farah, who was her best friend until Farah decided she wanted to wear a hijab. That drove a wedge between them. Farah is awesome. She’s an outspoken feminist punk girl who sees herself as a “Muslim misfit.” She goes back to hanging out with Shabnam even though Shabnam was and is a pretty crappy friend. She’s dubious about the whole Jamie thing, but Shabnam isn’t going to hear any of that. During the latter part of this story, Shabnam thinks harder about her other relationships, particularly with her parents, and her feelings about what went on with Farah and their drifting apart. She begins to think more about family, history, poetry, and religion. She finally begins to see beyond herself and starts having more open discussions about everything. 

 

My advice: if you feel, like I did, that this book is slow to really take off, stick with it. It’s a good look at the complexity of friendships, love, and family and shows that Muslims and Pakistani-American girls are (of course) not a monolith. Now I’d like a whole book just about Farah, please. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062445704

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 05/09/2017

Book Review: Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Publisher’s description

amina's voiceA Pakistani-American Muslim girl struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while simultaneously blending in at school after tragedy strikes her community in this sweet and moving middle grade novel from the award-winning author of It’s Ramadan, Curious George and Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns.

Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.

Amina’s Voice brings to life the joys and challenges of a young Pakistani American and highlights the many ways in which one girl’s voice can help bring a diverse community together to love and support each other.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This book was wonderful. I will say right at the beginning of this review, so you don’t miss it, that this book should be in every library collection and is a super easy one to recommend to middle school students. This is the first book from the Salaam Reads imprint at Simon & Schuster (I have a post about the imprint coming up soon) and I am so glad this imprint exists. Living in Minnesota, a place with a very large Somali population, I know firsthand the difficulty in being able to recommend books to readers who want Muslim main characters. In both the high school and public library I worked out, I would get asked this (particularly at the high school) and I can’t imagine how much it would have meant to readers had I been able to say, hey, look, this imprint is dedicated to books by and about Muslims! 

 

Sixth grader Amina is finding that middle school is making her feel a little anchorless. Her best friend Soojin, who is Korean, is about to become an American citizen and is considering changing her name to something more American (whatever that means). Amina finds that idea troubling, but it’s just one of the many ways that her best friend seems to be changing. Soojin’s suddenly hanging out with Emily, a popular girl who’s never been particularly nice to them, and Amina feels threatened by that. At home, things feel different, too. Her older brother is not the studious boy he was in middle school. Now, in high school, he’s on the basketball team and his grades are slipping. Her uncle is also staying with them, spending three months in their Milwaukee-area home. Here from Pakistan, her uncle is more traditional than Amina and her family. Her parents worry a little that, because of his kufi and long beard, he may be treated unkindly or judged. Amina, who loves to sing (but only in private) and has played the piano for years, overhears her uncle reminding her father that music is forbidden in Islam and she should be spending less time with her music. When she hears her father agree, she’s devastated. Who is Amina if she doesn’t have her music? Her uncle also feels her parents should only speak to her in Urdu. Amina’s already struggling with feeling insecure about her Arabic as she prepares for a Quran recitation contest. After the Islamic Center and mosque are vandalized, Amina feels especially upset and uncertain, but as her greater community comes together to support the Muslim community, things begin to fall back in place for Amina, with some surprises.

 

The title serves both literally and metaphorically, with many of the characters, not just Amina, learning to find their voice. Amina is a great character—thoughtful, fun, smart, and authentic. This is an excellent and completely satisfying look at culture, family, friendship, faith,and identity. A solid and necessary addition to all collections. 

 

ISBN-13: 9781481492065

Publisher:Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Publication date: 03/14/2017