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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

 

YA A to Z: H is for Historical Fiction, a guest post by librarian Amanda Perez

Today in our YA A to Z series, new librarian Amanda Perez joins us to talk about Historical Fiction in YA Lit.

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Historical Fiction authors go through a great deal of research in order to present their readers with an accurate window into history.  The final product presented to teen readers is often a masterful look into that particular moment in time, which encourages the development of empathy and new perspectives.  The benefits of reading Historical Fiction are well documented and as such are often the focus of book reports.

It is important to note that Historical Fiction can also be fun and not just a homework assignment.  The genre is unique in that it enlightens as well as entertains. The current trend of genre-bending include the latest works of historical fiction, and they may well be thrillers, humorous tales, or tinged with fantasy. Below is a list of recently released Historical Fiction teen novels, with great reviews.

(All Book Summary’s taken from Amazon.com)

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What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper (2018)

After losing her family and everything she knew in the Nazi concentration camps, Gerta is finally liberated, only to find herself completely alone. Without her Papa, her music, or even her true identity, she must move past the task of surviving and onto living her life. In the displaced persons camp where she is staying, Gerta meets Lev, a fellow teen survivor who she just might be falling for, despite her feelings for someone else. With a newfound Jewish identity she never knew she had, and a return to the life of music she thought she lost forever, Gerta must choose how to build a new future.

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Olivia Twist by Lorie Langdon (2018)

Olivia Twist is an innovative reimagining of Charles Dickens’ classic tale Oliver Twist, in which Olivia was forced to live as a boy for her own safety until she was rescued from the streets. Now eighteen, Olivia finds herself at a crossroads: revealed secrets threaten to destroy the “proper” life she has built for herself, while newfound feelings for an arrogant young man she shouldn’t like could derail her carefully laid plans for the future.

Olivia Brownlow is no damsel in distress. Born in a workhouse and raised as a boy among thieving London street gangs, she is as tough and cunning as they come. When she is taken in by her uncle after a caper gone wrong, her life goes from fighting and stealing on the streets to lavish dinners and soirees as a debutante in high society. But she can’t seem to escape her past … or forget the teeming slums where children just like her still scrabble to survive.

Jack MacCarron rose from his place in London’s East End to become the adopted “nephew” of a society matron. Little does society know that MacCarron is a false name for a boy once known among London gangs as the Artful Dodger, and that he and his “aunt” are robbing them blind every chance they get. When Jack encounters Olivia Brownlow in places he least expects, his curiosity is piqued. Why is a society girl helping a bunch of homeless orphan thieves? Even more intriguing, why does she remind him so much of someone he once knew? Jack finds himself wondering if going legit and risking it all might be worth it for love.

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The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe and Lilit Thwaites (2017)

Based on the experience of real-life Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus, this is the incredible story of a girl who risked her life to keep the magic of books alive during the Holocaust.

Fourteen-year-old Dita is one of the many imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Taken, along with her mother and father, from the Terezín ghetto in Prague, Dita is adjusting to the constant terror that is life in the camp. When Jewish leader Freddy Hirsch asks Dita to take charge of the eight precious volumes the prisoners have managed to sneak past the guards, she agrees. And so Dita becomes the librarian of Auschwitz.

Out of one of the darkest chapters of human history comes this extraordinary story of courage and hope.

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Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough (2018)

Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father’s paint.

She chose paint.
By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.

He will not consume
my every thought.
I am a painter.
I will paint.

Joy McCullough’s bold novel in verse is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, filled with the soaring highs of creative inspiration and the devastating setbacks of a system built to break her. McCullough weaves Artemisia’s heartbreaking story with the stories of the ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, who become not only the subjects of two of Artemisia’s most famous paintings but sources of strength as she battles to paint a woman’s timeless truth in the face of unspeakable and all-too-familiar violence.

I will show you
what a woman can do.

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Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman (2017)

Caleb has spent his life roaming southern England with his Pa, little to their names but his father’s signet ring and a puppet theater for popular, raunchy Punch and Judy shows — until the day Pa is convicted of a theft he didn’t commit and sentenced to transportation to the colonies in America. From prison, Caleb’s father sends him to the coast to find an aunt Caleb never knew he had. His aunt welcomes him into her home, but her neighbors see only Caleb’s dark skin. Still, Caleb slowly falls into a strange rhythm in his new life . . . until one morning he finds a body washed up on the shore. The face is unrecognizable after its time at sea, but the signet ring is unmistakable: it can only be Caleb’s father. Mystery piles on mystery as both church and state deny what Caleb knows. From award-winning British author Tanya Landman comes a heart-stopping story of race, class, family, and corruption so deep it can kill.

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Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (2018) – Historical Fiction/Alternate History/Horror

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—derailing the War Between the States and changing the nation forever.

In this new America, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Education Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead.

But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.

But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose.

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Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham (2017) – Historical Fiction/ Multiple Timelines

Some bodies won’t stay buried.
Some stories need to be told. 

When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family’s property, she has no idea that investigating the brutal century-old murder will lead to a summer of painful discoveries about the present and the past.

Nearly one hundred years earlier, a misguided violent encounter propels seventeen-year-old Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a country rife with violence against blacks and a hometown segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make hard choices on a painful journey towards self-discovery and face his inner demons in order to do what’s right the night Tulsa burns.

Through intricately interwoven alternating perspectives, Jennifer Latham’s lightning-paced page-turner brings the Tulsa race riot of 1921 to blazing life and raises important questions about the complex state of US race relations–both yesterday and today.

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Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson (2017) – Historical Fiction/SciFi/ Multiple Timelines

2065: Adri has been handpicked to live on Mars. But weeks before launch, she discovers the journal of a girl who lived in her house more than a hundred years ago and is immediately drawn into the mystery surrounding her fate.

1934: Amid the fear and uncertainty of the Dust Bowl, Catherine’s family’s situation is growing dire. She must find the courage to sacrifice everything she loves in order to save the one person she loves most.

1919: In the recovery following World War I, Lenore tries to come to terms with her grief for her brother, a fallen British soldier, and plans to sail from England to America. But can she make it that far?

While their stories span thousands of miles and multiple generations, Lenore, Catherine, and Adri’s fates are entwined in ways both heartbreaking and hopeful. In Jodi Lynn Anderson’s signature haunting, lyrical prose, human connections spark spellbindingly to life, and a bright light shines on the small but crucial moments that determine one’s fate.

But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies.

And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

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Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen (2018) – Historical Fiction/Thriller

After her mother is shot at a checkpoint, fifteen-year-old Sarah meets a mysterious man with an ambiguous accent, a suspiciously bare apartment, and a lockbox full of weapons. He’s part of the secret resistance against the Third Reich, and he needs Sarah to hide in plain sight at a school for the daughters of top Nazi brass, posing as one of them. If she can befriend the daughter of a key scientist and get invited to her house, she might be able to steal the blueprints to a bomb that could destroy the cities of Western Europe. Nothing could prepare Sarah for her cutthroat schoolmates, and soon she finds herself in a battle for survival unlike any she’d ever imagined. But anyone who underestimates this innocent-seeming girl does so at their peril. She may look sweet, but she’s the Nazis’ worst nightmare.

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The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls, edited by Jessica Spotswood (2018)

To respect yourself, to love yourself, should not have to be a radical decision. And yet it remains as challenging for an American girl to make today as it was in 1927 on the steps of the Supreme Court. It’s a decision that must be faced when you’re balancing on the tightrope of neurodivergence, finding your way as a second-generation immigrant, or facing down American racism even while loving America. And it’s the only decision when you’ve weighed society’s expectations and found them wanting. In The Radical Element, twelve of the most talented writers working in young adult literature today tell the stories of girls of all colors and creeds standing up for themselves and their beliefs — whether that means secretly learning Hebrew in early Savannah, using the family magic to pass as white in 1920s Hollywood, or singing in a feminist punk band in 1980s Boston. And they’re asking you to join them.

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The Book of Pearl by Timothee de Fombelle (2018) – Historical Fiction/Fantasy

Joshua Pearl comes from a world that we no longer believe in — a world of fairy tale. He knows that his great love waits for him there, but he is stuck in an unfamiliar time and place — an old-world marshmallow shop in Paris on the eve of World War II. As his memories begin to fade, Joshua seeks out strange objects: tiny fragments of tales that have already been told, trinkets that might possibly help him prove his own story before his love is lost forever. Sarah Ardizzone and Sam Gordon translate the original French into a work both luminous and layered, enabling Timothée de Fombelle’s modern fairy tale to thrum with magic. Brimming with romance and history, mystery and adventure, this ode to the power of memory, storytelling, and love will ensnare any reader’s imagination and every reader’s heart.

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Murder, Magic and What We Wore by Kelly Jones (2017) – Historical Fiction/Thriller/Comedy

The year is 1818, the city is London, and 16-year-old Annis Whitworth has just learned that her father is dead and all his money is missing. And so, of course, she decides to become a spy.

Annis always suspected that her father was himself a spy, and following in his footsteps to unmask his killer makes perfect sense. Alas, it does not make sense to England’s current spymasters—not even when Annis reveals that she has the rare magical ability to sew glamours: garments that can disguise the wearer completely.

Well, if the spies are too pigheaded to take on a young woman of quality, then Annis will take them on. And so she crafts a new double life for herself. Miss Annis Whitworth will appear to live a quiet life in a country cottage with her aunt, and Annis-in-disguise as Madame Martine, glamour artist, will open a magical dressmaking shop. That way she can earn a living, maintain her social standing, and, in her spare time, follow the coded clues her father left behind and unmask his killer.

It can’t be any harder than navigating the London social season, can it?historical13

 

Odd & True by Cat Winters (2017) – Historical Fiction/Horror

Trudchen grew up hearing Odette’s stories of their monster-slaying mother and a magician’s curse. But now that Tru’s older, she’s starting to wonder if her older sister’s tales were just comforting lies, especially because there’s nothing fantastic about her own life—permanently disabled and in constant pain from childhood polio.

In 1909, after a two-year absence, Od reappears with a suitcase supposedly full of weapons and a promise to rescue Tru from the monsters on their way to attack her. But it’s Od who seems haunted by something. And when the sisters’ search for their mother leads them to a face-off with the Leeds Devil, a nightmarish beast that’s wreaking havoc in the Mid-Atlantic states, Tru discovers the peculiar possibility that she and her sister—despite their dark pasts and ordinary appearances—might, indeed, have magic after all.

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The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein (2017) – Historical Fiction/Mystery
When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly what she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scottish Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister, Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she witnesses firsthand some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to-a stark contrast to her own upbringing-and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

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Guide Series by Mackenzi Lee (2017-2018) –Historical Fiction/Comedy

Summary for The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee (Book 1):

A young bisexual British lord embarks on an unforgettable Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend/secret crush. An 18th-century romantic adventure for the modern age written by This Monstrous Thing author Mackenzi LeeSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda meets the 1700s.

Henry “Monty” Montague doesn’t care that his roguish passions are far from suitable for the gentleman he was born to be. But as Monty embarks on his grand tour of Europe, his quests for pleasure and vice are in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

So Monty vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Witty, dazzling, and intriguing at every turn, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an irresistible romp that explores the undeniably fine lines between friendship and love.

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Conqueror’s Trilogy by Kiersten White (2016-2018) – Historical Fiction/Alternate History

Summary for And I Darken (Book 1):

NO ONE EXPECTS A PRINCESS TO BE BRUTAL. And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.

Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, who’s expected to rule a nation, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend—and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.

But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against—and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point.

More Historical Fiction Series:

Stalking Jack the Ripper series by Kerri Maniscalco

Charlotte Holmes Series by Brittany Cavallaro

Valiant Series by Lesley Livingston

Soldier Girl Series by Michael Grant

The Diviners Series by Libba Bray

Gold Seer Trilogy by Rae Carson

Jackaby Series by William Ritter

Meet Guest Blogger Amanda Perez:

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Amanda is in her first year as a Youth Librarian, currently at the Folsom Public Library, and has recently graduated with her MLIS from San Jose State University.  The fact that her nose was always stuck in a book should have been an early indicator of her eventual profession; however her undergrad degree is actually in Economics. When she’s not reading Amanda can be found attempting to keep up with her husband and two kids at their busy home.

Book Review: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

Publisher’s description

night diaryIn the vein of Inside Out and Back Again and The War That Saved My Life comes a poignant, personal, and hopeful tale of India’s partition, and of one girl’s journey to find a new home in a divided country

It’s 1947, and India, newly independent of British rule, has been separated into two countries: Pakistan and India. The divide has created much tension between Hindus and Muslims, and hundreds of thousands are killed crossing borders.

Half-Muslim, half-Hindu twelve-year-old Nisha doesn’t know where she belongs, or what her country is anymore. When Papa decides it’s too dangerous to stay in what is now Pakistan, Nisha and her family become refugees and embark first by train but later on foot to reach her new home. The journey is long, difficult, and dangerous, and after losing her mother as a baby, Nisha can’t imagine losing her homeland, too. But even if her country has been ripped apart, Nisha still believes in the possibility of putting herself back together.

Told through Nisha’s letters to her mother, The Night Diary is a heartfelt story of one girl’s search for home, for her own identity…and for a hopeful future.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This was another of those rare books that I read in one sitting, ignoring all of the other things I was supposed to do, allowing myself to be sucked into this book and its world.

Nisha, an introvert who rarely speaks to people outside of her family, begins keeping a diary in July 1947, after Kazi, the family chef, gives her a blank book for her 12th birthday. She narrates her life and the events unfolding around her in letters to her Muslim mother, who died while giving birth to Nisha and Amil, her twin brother. Nisha’s father is Hindu (as are Nisha and Amil), and Kazi is Muslim. Nisha is used to being friends with Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, but that all changes when Partition happens. Nisha struggles to understand how India will soon be free from British rule, but will be divided up into two countries, one for Muslims and one for Hindus and Sikhs. Where they live will now be part of Pakistan, where Muslims will live. Nisha and her family must leave behind Kazi and make the perilous journey to their new home on foot. The trip is long, and they have very little food or water. As they grow more exhausted and dehydrated, Nisha becomes sure that she, Amil, her father, and their grandmother will all die. Their destination, while ultimately the new India, is first making it to Rashid Uncle’s house, halfway to the border. Rashid is their mother’s brother, someone Nisha has never met before. Their time there is precious, with Nisha recognizing so much of herself and her mother in Rashid. Leaving his house, being displaced yet again, is hard for Nisha. The remainder of their trip is horrific and frightening, but they arrive safely in their new home, where an unexpected surprise helps Nisha feel like this is more like home.

 

This intimate look at Partition, families, and identity is beautifully written and especially engaging due to the diary/letters format. A solid read for those looking for historical fiction, books about India’s history and culture, or refugees. 

An author’s note explains that this novel is loosely based on her father’s family’s experience. A glossary is appended.

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780735228511
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 03/06/2018

Book Review: One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock

Publisher’s description

one trueWelcome to Daniel Boone Middle School in the 1970s, where teachers and coaches must hide who they are, and girls who like girls are forced to question their own choices. Presented in the voice of a premier storyteller, One True Way sheds exquisite light on what it means to be different, while at the same time being wholly true to oneself. Through the lives and influences of two girls, readers come to see that love is love is love. Set against the backdrop of history and politics that surrounded gay rights in the 1970s South, this novel is a thoughtful, eye-opening look at tolerance, acceptance, and change, and will widen the hearts of all readers.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

It’s 1977 in North Carolina and new girl 12-year-old Allie is immediately taken under the wing of gregarious Sam, a star basketball player who moves easily between all the social groups. She helps Allie get a spot on the school newspaper, with her first assignment being a profile about Sam. As the girls get to know one another, it quickly becomes obvious that they like each other. Sam’s parents are very close-minded, and Sam knows they would never approve of her liking girls—she says they’d immediately get put on the prayer list at her church, One True Way. Her mother calls her basketball coach, who is a lesbian and dating a fellow teacher, a pervert and an abomination. Allie thinks maybe she can be open with her parents; after all, her uncle is gay and everyone seems okay with that. But telling her mom doesn’t go how she hopes it will—her mother tells her she’s too young to know if she likes girls, that maybe it’s just a phase. It all becomes very complicated as the girls try to stay away from each other and Allie tries to see if it really is a choice, if she can maybe make herself like boys instead. Thankfully, through this painful and confusing time the girls have some very open, smart, loving people looking out for them, including the reverend from Allie’s Methodist church, Coach Murphy and Miss Holt, and, eventually, Allie’s own parents.

 

One of the things I like best about this book is the conversations Allie has with the adults in her life, especially her mother. Her mother’s initial disappointment and fear change as Allie repeatedly discusses with her her feelings for Sam. Her dad’s reaction is wonderful and loving, the therapist they all go see (for many reasons, including the death of Allie’s brother and her parents’ impending divorce) is supportive and kind, and Sam’s sister reaches out to Allie to see how to best accept and support Sam. Though worried about being gay in a small town in this era, the girls get plenty of love and support, never forgetting for too long that the important thing is to be true to yourself. We desperately need more middle grade novels with LGBTQIA+ main characters, and Hitchcock’s book is a very welcome addition to the small but growing selection. An affirming look at discovering who you really are and finding love and support when you learn to speak your truth. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781338181722
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 02/27/2018

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

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 the March 2017 issue of School Library Journal

 

 

gentlemans★ The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee.

ISBN-13: 9780062382801 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date:06/27/2017

Gr 9 Up—A trio of high-born, determined, and wildly charismatic teenagers get more than they bargained for in this rollicking 18th-century Grand Tour of the Continent gone awry. Endearing rake Lord Henry Montague (or Monty) and his biracial best friend (and unrequited love), the infinitely patient Percy, leave England to drop Monty’s fiercely intelligent sister Felicity off at finishing school. The friends then spend a year traveling. After the Grand Tour, Monty will return home to help his demanding father run their estate and Percy will go to Holland to law school. If Monty’s dad catches wind of him still “mucking around with boys,” Monty will be cut off from the family. The trip is intended to be a cultural experience. However, no one could have predicted that one seemingly petty theft would set off an adventure involving highwaymen, stowaways, pirates, a sinking island, an alchemical heart, tomb-raiding, and a secret illness. From the start, readers will be drawn in by Monty’s charm, and Felicity and Percy come alive as the narrative unfolds. The fast-paced plot is complicated, but Lee’s masterly writing makes it all seem effortless. The journey forces Monty and friends to confront issues of racism, gender expectations, sexuality, disability, family, and independence, with Monty in particular learning to examine his many privileges. Their exploits bring to light the secret doubts, pains, and ambitions all three are hiding. This is a witty, romantic, and exceedingly smart look at discovering one’s place in the world. VERDICT A stunning powerhouse of a story for every collection.

Book Review: Leaving Kent State by Sabrina Fedel

Publisher’s description

leaving kentOn May 4, 1970, the campus of Kent State University became the final turning point in Americans’ tolerance for the Vietnam War, as National Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed student protesters, killing four and wounding nine. It was one of the first true school shootings in our nation’s history. A new young adult novel, Leaving Kent State (Harvard Square Editions), by debut author Sabrina Fedel, brings to life America’s political and social turmoil as it ushered in the new decade of the 1970s. Throughout the harsh winter of 1969-1970, Kent, Ohio, became a microcosm of the growing unrest that threatened the very nature of democracy.

Told from the viewpoint of seventeen-year-old Rachel Morelli, Leaving Kent State explores themes of the day that are strikingly similar to our own: terrorism, war, racial injustice, and gender inequality. As Rachel struggles to convince her dad that she should go to Pratt University in New York to pursue her dream of becoming an artist, Kent slips ever further off of its axis, in step with the growing discord across the nation. Caught between her love for her next door neighbor, Evan, a boy who has just returned from Vietnam, and her desire to escape Kent, Rachel must navigate a changing world to pursue her dreams.

“While our nation has largely forgotten what happened on May 4, 1970,” says the author, “it was a defining moment for the way in which Americans consider involvement in war. While popular sentiment initially blamed the students for the massacre, it became clear in the years immediately following that something had gone terribly wrong in our democracy for American troops to have opened fire on unarmed college students. In our own protest laden present, the shootings at Kent State remain a valuable lesson in the escalation of force during peaceful citizen protests.”

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I can’t think of another YA novel about the Kent State shootings. Can you? For me, as someone born in the 1970s, I grew up always knowing about this massacre—having it come up multiple times during college, especially, from professors who were college students at the time of the shootings and the Vietnam War. But do today’s teenagers know about Kent State? I’m not so sure. Should they? YES.

 

I am a broken record in my reviews lately. I keep saying how all of these books that deal with any sort of social justice issue are both timely and timeless; they speak to what is happening now, but also to what’s always been happening, and to what feels like it will continue to happen. To read about the Vietnam war, the protests, the organizing, the response from the administration and others in power, and the questioning of motives during this volatile time all feels very current. Yes, it’s the Vietnam War. Yes, it’s 1969/1970 in the story. Yes, there’s talk of 8-tracks and bell bottoms and other things that make it clear that we’re reading historical fiction, but the subject matter is still relevant. War and protest will always be relevant.

 

The summary up there does a pretty thorough job of telling you the plot. Rachel has been keeping in touch with her neighbor, Evan, his whole time serving in Vietnam. When he returns after 23 months, injured, she realizes that he’s changed—of course he has. He’s horrified and haunted by what he saw and did in Vietnam. He has PTSD. Looking back at his letters to her, Rachel begins to understand how much she misunderstood what he was writing her. He wasn’t fine there. He wasn’t okay. Now home, he still hangs around Rachel’s house all the time, but his dreams of music school seem impossible (he lost part of his left hand). Rachel, who’s been in love with Evan for years, tries to understand how he feels. At first Evan seems to only reveal his pain to Rachel’s dad, a WWII vet, but eventually he slowly begins to share more with Rachel about what happened over there. They grow closer than ever, but Rachel continues to wonder if he’ll ever feel for her what she feels for him, or if she’ll always be like a sister to him.

 

Meanwhile, she’s applying to Pratt knowing her dad absolutely does not want her to go. He’s a professor at Kent State and wants her to stay home and go there. And in town–and all around the country–there is growing dissent about the war, manifesting in rallies and peace vigils and sometimes riots. Rachel’s peers are getting drafted via the lottery. Their siblings and cousins and friends are being killed in the war. The unrest reaches a boiling point on May 4, when the National Guard opens fire on unarmed protesters. Rachel and Evan are both at the college when this happens and end up right in the thick of the horrific action.

 

This look at the effects of war, at a soldier returning from war, and at a weary nation is engrossing and well done. Rachel is a thoughtful narrator who grows a lot over the course of the story. The portrayal of Evan as a returned solider coping with PTSD (though it’s never called that—I suppose at the time it would’ve been called shell shock or a stress reaction) and readjusting what his life’s plan is is nuanced and compassionate. This story of an important and shocking moment in United States history is a solid addition to libraries and has a wide appeal.

 

Review copy courtesy of the author

ISBN-13: 9781941861240

Publisher: Harvard Square Editions

Publication date: 11/11/2016

Book Review: Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

Publisher’s description

dreamlandSome bodies won’t stay buried.
Some stories need to be told.

When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family’s property, she has no idea that investigating the brutal century-old murder will lead to a summer of painful discoveries about the past… and the present.

Nearly one hundred years earlier, a misguided violent encounter propels seventeen-year-old Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a country rife with violence against blacks and a hometown segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make hard choices on a painful journey towards self discovery and face his inner demons in order to do what’s right the night Tulsa burns.

Through intricately interwoven alternating perspectives, Jennifer Latham’s lightning-paced page-turner brings the Tulsa race riot of 1921 to blazing life and raises important question about the complex state of US race relations – both yesterday and today.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

That description up there does not at all capture how completely absorbing this book is. Which is good, because it also doesn’t give too much away and you’ll get to discover on your own just how compelling and unpredictable this story is.

 

Narrative duties are split between contemporary teenager Rowan, a biracial girl (her dad is white, her mom is black) in Tulsa and William, a 17-year-old in Tulsa in 1921. William is also biracial–his dad his white and his mother is Osage Indian. The bulk of the story is really William’s, though Rowan and her friend James (who is also biracial–black and Native American–and asexual) do the investigating that starting putting pieces of the mystery together. Rowan has her own story line, too—it’s just not as big as William’s. James calls Rowan out for living in a bubble. James is into social justice and immigration reform and doesn’t let Rowan get away with statements like “things are better now.” He schools her about racism, power, and privilege, leading her to taking a summer job at a clinic in an impoverished area (that’s less dangerous than just forgotten, she notes) when her other internship falls through. Here, she befriends people she otherwise wouldn’t have known. And though they are set nearly 100 years apart, it’s no surprise that the racism that drives William’s story is also a strong force in Rowan’s story. An unexpected incident propels Rowan to action—and, surprisingly, begins to weave her story more tightly with William’s.

 

William, who we follow in 1921, is sort of thoughtlessly racist, as you might expect a young boy in Tulsa, Oklahoma at this time to be. Language of the era permeates his story, with terms like “mongrel,” “half-breed,” “Negro,” and the n-word frequently used. William instigates a scene at a local speakeasy when he sees the white girl he likes hanging around with a black boy. He doesn’t think what consequences his actions may have when he and his friend lie and say he was attacked by the boy. But soon, he does start to think more about racism, and begins to look beyond the expectations of how a white boy in this era should act and think, when he meets siblings Joseph and Ruby Goodhope. William meets them at his father’s Victrola shop, where, despite Jim Crow laws, they sometimes sell to black people on the sly. And while William’s dad agrees to sell Joseph a Victrola, and even allows him to finance it, he won’t write him a receipt—he can’t risk the proof of the sale falling into the wrong hands. It’s through this sale, and the issue of the receipt, that William and the Goodhope siblings begin to interact. Young Ruby, who is irritating in that special way that pesky little sisters can be, starts to grow on William. So when things come to a head in his town and the KKK and other white citizens begin rounding up black people, killing them, and burning their neighborhoods, William’s first concern is making sure Joseph and Ruby are safe. And while we know the skeleton under Rowan’s family’s guest cottage floor belongs to someone from William’s story, we’re not sure who. Nothing is revealed quickly, and just when you think you’re sure you’ve figured it out, Latham reveals unexpected details that make you throw that theory out.

 

Maintaining two timelines with two narrators and keeping both equally interesting is not an easy task. Latham ties the stories together enough that we see parallels without being hit over the head with them. Both narrators are complicated, interesting figures, but seeing William’s emotional and intellectual journey is the far more satisfying story. Equally as satisfying is how Latham brings us to the end of the mystery. The tight pacing and action-packed, unpredictable plot make this book fly by. An author’s note at the end tells more about the race riots in Tulsa in 1921 and examines the controversial term. The note also points out a few resources for further reading. This book—a contemporary story, historical fiction, and a mystery, all at once—will have wide appeal. A gripping look at a shameful time in America’s history and (not that we need it) a reminder of how slow progress really is. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780316384933

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Publication date: 02/21/2017

Book Review: Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez

out of darknessPublisher’s description:

“This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?”

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Smith and Wash Fullerton know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But there are some forces even the most determined color lines cannot resist. And sometimes all it takes is an explosion.

Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

 

Amanda’s thoughts:

Look, I know we’re all busy people. We read a ton of books. Our TBR lists are infinite scrolls and we’ll never even touch half of what we hope to read. But you need to figure out a way to find time to read this book as soon as possible. Don’t write it down on a list and then forget about it. Don’t bookmark this review as some reminder. Go RIGHT NOW and order this book from your library or favorite bookstore. Whatever else you’re reading can wait a day or two for you to read this instead. It’s that good. IT’S THAT GOOD, PEOPLE. 

 

The novel begins in media res (you know—in the middle of things). It’s March 18, 1937. Did you need some time to adjust to how completely emotionally obliterating this book will be? Too bad—welcome to page one, where we are faced with the rubble of a recently exploded school littered with bodies. No, check that—it manages to be worse than that: riddled with bits of bodies. Let’s make it worse: bits of children’s bodies. Sufficiently upset? Perez is just getting started.

 

We leave this heart-wrenching and gruesome scene to jump back to September 1936. Naomi and her twin siblings Beto and Cari are new to town, having recently been relocated from their San Antonio barrio to an oil-mining town by the twins’ father (and Naomi’s stepfather), Henry (their mother is dead). Naomi, who is Mexican, and her biracial siblings are instructed by Henry not to speak Spanish. The children seem to pass as white, but Naomi faces the town’s ugly racism. African-American Wash, the siblings’ one friend, is no stranger to racism either. The foursome quickly become friends, but keep their friendship secret, mainly getting together in wooded areas removed from the judging and gossiping of others. Wash is the one saving grace in Naomi’s fairly unhappy life. Her classmates are constantly whispering about her. The girls hate her because she’s pretty and the boys just want to get in her pants. She does make one girl friend, and a few of the neighbors are friendly, but even if she had a thousand friends, it wouldn’t erase what is happening at home. 

 

What’s happening at home, you ask? Some pretty horrific stuff. Naomi is essentially raising her siblings. She does all of the cleaning, cooking, and shopping (not easy when the stores don’t want to let in Negros, Mexicans, or dogs–the wording on the sign at the grocery store) while also attending high school. Naomi dislikes Henry (to put it mildly), that much we know, but the reasons why she hates him are slowly revealed. You might be able to guess what’s happening even with no context, but I’m not explicitly going to give you spoilers. Let’s just say it’s as bad as think…. multiplied by 100 more bads. Oh, and wait until you reach the end. Then it’s an infinite amount of bad. 

 

Wash and Naomi grow closer, after some initial misunderstandings, and eventually Naomi trusts him enough to start confiding in him. Wash makes a plan for them to run away, with the twins, to Mexico, where it seems at least a tiny bit possible that a Mexican girl and an African-American boy could start a life together. What they have now is one very passionate and intense relationship that can only take place in secret. But with so much against them, could they possibly pull off a future together? 

 

That question becomes simultaneously less and more important when the school explosion happens. Based on an actual event in history, the explosion leaves nearly 300 dead. Chaos and despair permeate the town, and the angry, grieving townspeople are desperate to find someone to blame. When Wash, who was present at the scene of the disaster, falls under suspicion, every single ugly thing that has been simmering in the novel gets turned up to 11. If this were a movie, I would have been watching it with my eyes mostly covered. Since it’s a book, I just settled for sobbing and repeatedly putting it down. As you’re reading this book, go ahead and keep this question in the back of your mind: “What is the worst possible way all of this could end?” Then make it worse. And then make it so much worse you kind of feel sick that your brain could come up with such scenes. Now you’re almost there. IT’S THAT BAD, PEOPLE. 

 

Have I convinced you yet to read it?

 

Perez’s story is nothing short of brilliant. The writing is tight, the tension manages to constantly increase, and the characters are exceptionally well-rendered. Was this book hard to read? Yes. Should that scare you away? No. Recommend this one widely to teens who like doomed love stories, historical fiction, diversity, or books where terrible things happen to people. Profoundly moving and richly imagined, this is a story that you won’t soon forget. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781467742023

Publisher: Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner Publishing Group

Publication date: 09/01/2015