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Book Review: Calling My Name by Liara Tamani

Publisher’s description

ra6Calling My Name, by debut author Liara Tamani, is a striking, luminous, and literary exploration of family, spirituality, and self—ideal for readers of Jacqueline Woodson, Jandy Nelson, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Sandra Cisneros.

This unforgettable novel tells a universal coming-of-age story about Taja Brown, a young African American girl growing up in Houston, Texas, and deftly and beautifully explores the universal struggles of growing up, battling family expectations, discovering a sense of self, and finding a unique voice and purpose.

Told in fifty-three short, episodic, moving, and iridescent chapters, Calling My Name follows Taja on her journey from middle school to high school. Literary and noteworthy, this is a beauty of a novel that deftly captures the multifaceted struggle of finding where you belong and why you matter.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

calling my nameThis quiet book is beautifully written and features a very introspective main character who interrogates her thoughts on sex, faith, dating, her future, and more. When we first meet Taja she’s 11 (I think–often her age is not specified). We follow her through her senior year of high school. Spanning such a large number of years is a risky move in a YA book and initially readers may wonder why she is so young and when the story will jump to her older teen years. Though she may be on the younger side at the beginning of the story, she grapples with the same questions throughout her tween and teen years. Raised in a religious household in Houston, Taja understands that her parents decide what’s best for her and wonders when she will get to choose for herself. She thinks a lot about church, God, religion, expectations, double standards, guilt, commitments, and what it means to truly feel alive. Her feelings change and grow as she gets older and really works to figure out what it is she believes and wants from life. An overachiever with big dreams, Taja eventually has to decide if the future her boyfriend sees for them is one she can live with.

Set, it seems, in the early 90s (again, this is not specified, but based on musical references and fashion details, I had guessed as much. The inclusion of kids with beepers really solidified that guess.), Taja’s story is light on a concrete plot but the very universal question of “who am I and what do I want?” seems like enough plot to keep readers invested as they watch Taja mature and begin to find her very own answers to some big questions. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062656865
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/24/2017

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: Pointe, Claw by Amber J. Keyser

Publisher’s description

pointe-clawJessie Vale dances in an elite ballet program. She has to be perfect to land a spot with the professional company. When Jessie is cast in an animalistic avant-garde production, her careful composure cracks wide open. Nothing has felt more dangerous.

Meanwhile, her friend Dawn McCormick’s world is full of holes. She wakes in strange places, bruised, battered, and unable to speak. The doctors are out of ideas.

These childhood friends are both running out of time. Jessie has one shot at her ballet dream. Dawn’s blackouts are getting worse. At every turn, they crash into the many ways girls are watched, judged, used, and discarded. Should they play it safe or go feral?

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Take my advice on this, please: read Carrie Mesrobian’s Just a Girl, Elana Arnold’s What Girls Are Made Of, and Amber Keyser’s Pointe, Claw all in a row just like I did. Especially taken together like this, they build a powerful examination of girlhood.

 

Amber and I are agency-mates and here is something from her bio there: “Amber is a former ballerina with a masters degree in zoology and a doctorate in genetics; she lives in Portland, Oregon.” I tell you this to say that really only Amber could have written this unique and very weird (I mean that in the best way) book. Pointe, Claw takes place in Portland and involves a ballerina and a girl, a bear, and lots of genetic questions. The cover made me extremely curious about the book, but I had NO IDEA what I was in for.

 

When we first meet Dawn, she is in some kind of rage. She seems feral (I word I wrote in my notes after reading the second page and that I now see is used in the description–really, there’s no other way to think of Dawn). She talks about “going dark,” about waking up not knowing where she’s been or how she got there or what on earth is going on with her. She is drawn to a bear that a sketchy neighbor keeps locked up in a cage on his property. Her cold and unsympathetic mother drags her to doctor after doctor, trying to figure out what is wrong with Dawn and how to “fix” her. Is it mental illness? Lyme disease? Drugs? What’s behind Dawn’s strange episodes?

 

Jessie, meanwhile, dances six hours a day, six days a week, and is about to learn to be feral in ways that will disturb, challenge, and ultimately change her. At first devastated to not be chosen to dance in the artistic director’s student showcase piece, she learns to embrace the freedom and wildness that comes from dancing in Vadim’s boundary-pushing piece. The dance is animalistic and “ugly, lustful, lonely,” opening Jessie to a side of herself she’s never considered before.

 

Once Jessie and Dawn’s lives intersect again (they were childhood friends), things become even more interesting. Together they will reminisce about their past and recover memories that felt long gone, as well as uncover secrets and truths. Dawn’s episodes increase and she begins to suspect what may be going on with her, as impossible as her theory seems. And while Jessie doesn’t fully understand what exactly is happening to Dawn, she’s there for her, understanding that no one has ever meant what Dawn has meant to her. 

 

This is absolutely 100% a book about what it means to inhabit a girl’s body. It’s a book about growing up, changing, seeing ourselves, and being seen. It’s about expectations, anger, jealousy, relationships, shame, love, friendship, and support. There is a constant conversation about women and women’s bodies–Jessie, her fellow dancers, Dawn, Dawn’s makeup-selling mother, the girls at the strip club, the men who observe all of them… there is SO MUCH to unpack and think about. Much like Vadim’s dance (which, by the way, I was left sobbing after the description of their performance), this book is experimental and risky. And, like his dance, it is successful and surprising. The metamorphosis each girl undergoes is powerful; Dawn’s is downright shocking. I can’t say enough good things about this strange, disturbing, and extremely compelling look at girlhood, bodies, and identities. Raw, weird, and wonderful. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781467775915

Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group

Publication date: 04/01/2017

Book Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Publisher’s description

radioFrom critically acclaimed author Alice Oseman comes a smartly crafted contemporary YA novel, perfect for readers who love Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. This is an utterly captivating and authentic new teen novel from the author of Solitaire, which VOYA said “could put her among the great young adult fiction authors.”

Frances Janvier spends most of her time studying.

Everyone knows Aled Last as that quiet boy who gets straight As.

You probably think that they are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and she is a girl.

They don’t. They make a podcast.

In a world determined to shut them up, knock them down, and set them on a cookie cutter life path, Frances and Aled struggle to find their voices over the course of one life-changing year. Will they have the courage to show everyone who they really are? Or will they be met with radio silence?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I’ll be honest: it took me a while to get into this story. I spent a few days picking it up and finding my mind wandering, so putting it down and working on something else instead. BUT, once I got roped in, I got ROPED IN. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a mystery, but it has elements of a mystery, and that’s what propelled me forward.

 

The summary up there doesn’t do the best job of making this sound appealing (although, yes please to more books about main character best friends who seem like they might fall in love but don’t, and yes please to stories about podcasts). It’s not just that Aled and Frances make a podcast together (think Welcome to Night Vale)—it’s that they make a VERY popular podcast, with a large fandom, and, as creators, stay shrouded in mystery for a long time. The premise of their podcast (which Aled starts and Frances joins eventually) is a student is sending out SOS messages from a futuristic university that they’re trapped inside of. The student goes by Radio Silence and is agender. The podcast grows in popularity, but when word gets out who is behind it, things really begin to fall apart quickly. Aled and Frances have an argument and drift apart (or rather, Aled bails on Frances and refuses to answer her calls etc). It becomes clear that something very troublesome is going on with Aled, and while Frances desperately wants to do SOMETHING to help him, she doesn’t know what to do. Until she does.

 

The small ensemble of characters feature a diversity of sexual identities, including gay, bi, lesbian, and demisexual. Frances is white and Ethiopian, Daniel is Korean, and Raine is Indian. There is also a lot of room for choices, or for rethinking choices, regarding what to do after school ends—namely, there are more options than just going to university and more options than just doing the thing you thought you were supposed to work toward. The story is about the podcast, but it’s also not. It’s about people desperately in need of friends. It’s about identities, desires, plans, expectations, and feeling lost. Frances and friends will easily appeal to teen readers who are also grappling with all these same feelings. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062335715

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 03/28/2017

Book Review: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Publisher’s description

inexplicableFrom the multi-award-winning author of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe comes a gorgeous new story about love, identity, and families lost and found.

Sal used to know his place with his adoptive gay father, their loving Mexican-American family, and his best friend, Samantha. But it’s senior year, and suddenly Sal is throwing punches, questioning everything, and realizing he no longer knows himself. If Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?

This humor-infused, warmly humane look at universal questions of belonging is a triumph.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Because I read in order of publication date (the only way I can manage my towering TBR pile), there are certain books that sit on my shelf for MONTHS and kind of taunt me from their spot. This is one such book. Given my absolute adoration of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, my expectations for this book were high. And I was not let down.

 

I am a big fan of quiet books. Give me good dialogue and interesting characters and I’m in. I don’t need a big plot. I don’t need big things to happen. To me, there is nothing more compelling or more of a “big thing” than just teenagers living their teenage lives–figuring out who they are, changing, finding their people, hurting, loving, and growing. That’s plenty. That’s everything. And for 450 pages, I was so wrapped up in the lives of Sal, Sam, Fito, and their families. Sal and Sam have been best friends forever. It’s never been romantic between them; they’ve always been like brother and sister. Sam knows Sal better than anyone. But lately, Sal feels like he’s changing. He’s developed a quick temper that manifests when he’s righteously angry and trying to protect those he loves. For the first time ever, he’s lashing out and getting in fights. He starts to wonder about his biological dad—maybe he was angry and a fighter. Maybe Sal is acting like him. But his wonderful father, Vicente, is calm and loving and open. Sal wonders about nature versus nurture. He wonders who is he really like. He wonders who he really is. His Mima, his father’s mom, is dying. Heartbroken that he’s about to lose someone he loves so dearly, Sal also ruminates on life, death, and everything that comes in between. Sam is a steadying force by his side, but she has her own terrible things going on. The pair take Fito, a gay classmate who’s had to survive on his own for a long time, into their fold, and together the three lean on each other and on Sal’s dad (and eventually on Vicente’s new boyfriend) while they redefine what “family” means.

 

Beautifully written and told, this is an unforgettable look at life, love, loss, grief, friendship, and family. Vicente may win the award for Best Parent in a YA Book 2017. The friendship between Sal, Sam, and Fito is profoundly moving and rich. Fans of Aristotle and Dante who are eagerly awaiting the sequel will be happy to have another wonderful work from Sáenz to tide them over. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544586505

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 03/07/2017

Book Review: The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera

Publisher’s description

educationPretty in Pink comes to the South Bronx in this bold and romantic coming-of-age novel about dysfunctional families, good and bad choices, and finding the courage to question everything you ever thought you wanted—from debut author Lilliam Rivera.

Things/People Margot Hates:
Mami, for destroying her social life
Papi, for allowing Junior to become a Neanderthal
Junior, for becoming a Neanderthal
The supermarket
Everyone else

After “borrowing” her father’s credit card to finance a more stylish wardrobe, Margot Sanchez suddenly finds herself grounded. And by grounded, she means working as an indentured servant in her family’s struggling grocery store to pay off her debts.

With each order of deli meat she slices, Margot can feel her carefully cultivated prep school reputation slipping through her fingers, and she’s willing to do anything to get out of this punishment. Lie, cheat, and maybe even steal…

Margot’s invitation to the ultimate beach party is within reach and she has no intention of letting her family’s drama or Moises—the admittedly good looking but outspoken boy from the neighborhood—keep her from her goal.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Puerto Rican Margot, who can’t escape her childhood nickname of Princesa, is not thrilled to be spending the summer working at her family’s supermarket in the South Bronx. She had hoped to spend the summer in the Hamptons with her prep school classmates, popular Serena and Camille. That plan fell apart when her parents discovered she stole their credit card and charged a bunch of clothes. Margot, a social climber who’s more than just a little arrogant when we meet her, can’t believe Papi expects her to do actual work while at the supermarket. While there, she meets Moises Tirado, a young community activist who helms a table outside of the store working on getting signatures for a petition to stop a housing complex from being torn down and replaced by high-end condos. Though Margot is drawn to Moises, she looks down on him. Her snooty school friends would never approve. Margot isn’t interested in learning about gentrification or any of the other social justice issues Moises is into. She’s appalled by where he lives. He’s working on his GED. Margot’s family is relatively well off (they are “rich adjacent”) and she’s seen as “the great brown hope” for her family, the one who will become a doctor or a lawyer. Her mother warns her that people are judged by the company they keep, but she can’t help but continue to be interested in Moises.

 

But an “inappropriate” crush and a summer stuck working at a grocery store turn out to be the least of Margot’s worries as a whole bunch of family secrets, stress, and denial finally come to the surface and demand to be dealt with. She’s forced to really reckon with the feeling that she just doesn’t fit in anywhere and start to sort out who it is she wants to be. While many of the secondary characters are rather undeveloped, Margot is complicated and flawed. She makes mistakes and is often insufferably self-absorbed. I wish rather than seeing so many subplots, there would’ve been less going on, but had more pieces explored more in-depth (like her friendships, especially with her former best friend, or more about Moises’s activism and past). The vivid setting and many issues make this a fast read about family, identity, and culture that will appeal to many, including reluctant readers. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481472111

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers

Publication date: 02/21/2017

Book Review: The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu

carefulPublisher’s description

The girls of Devonairre Street have always been told they’re cursed. Any boy they love is certain to die too soon. But this is Brooklyn in 2008, and the curse is less a terror and more a lifestyle accessory—something funky and quaint that makes the girls from the shortest street in Brooklyn special. They wear their hair long and keys around their necks. People give them a second look and whisper “Devonairre” to their friends. But it’s not real. It won’t affect their futures.

Then Jack—their Jack, the one boy everyone loved—dies suddenly and violently. And now the curse seems not only real, but like the only thing that matters. All their bright futures have suddenly gone dark.

The Careful Undressing of Love is a disturbing and sensual story of the power of youth and the boundless mysteries of love set against the backdrop of Haydu’s brilliantly reimagined New York City.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I know better than to judge a book by its cover. But in the case of A CAREFUL UNDRESSING OF LOVE, you can look at it and make a completely accurate judgement: lovely cover, lovely book. Come for the cover, stay for the devastatingly moving story about love and loss.

 

Lorna and her four closest friends (Delilah, Charlotte, Isla, and her brother Cruz) are a package deal. The fact that they live on the same street and all have dead fathers would be enough to unite them, but it’s the traditions and beliefs of Devonairre Street that solidify them. It’s their Shared Birthday. It’s the keys around their necks. It’s the Curse: if a Devonairre Street girl falls in love with a boy, he will die. The proof is in all the widows on their street. Angelika, the 70-something head of their street, never lets the girls forget that love will only cause unspeakable pain. But Lorna and her friends aren’t entirely sure they buy into the Curse. They aren’t afraid of love—or they don’t want to be. Or maybe they don’t actually know how they feel about any of it at all. Lorna enjoys her boyfriend Owen. She likes to be around him. She likes to have sex with him. She knows she loves things about him, but that’s not the same as being in love. And she’s not sure that there’s any appeal for her in love, anyway. Look around.

 

When Delilah’s boyfriend, Jack, is struck and killed by a taxi, all of their relationships with the Curse and with being Devonairre Street girls change. For Delilah, it makes her believe. She aligns herself with Angelika and carries the guilt of having caused Jack’s death. It changes her, driving a wedge between Delilah and Lorna, who she now wants to save from love. Lorna’s mother thinks it’s time to stop going along with all of Angelika’s silly Curse nonsense. She begins to stand up to the street, breaking Angelika’s rules and giving Lorna the courage to think of the Curse and the traditions as something she can opt out of. But it’s not that easy, especially as revelations throw everything Lorna thought she understood into doubt. And untangling love from curses, grief and loss from life, proves to be more difficult than she could have imagined. It’s hard to try to move on with your life when you’re surrounded by a world  that won’t let you. How can you possibly live in a present when you are constantly reminded of your past and warned of your future?

 

Haydu has written a profound story examining grief, doubt, tradition, expectation, and identity. Haydu’s story brings up huge questions about sacrifice and protection, about truth and perception. We are asked to consider, right alongside Lorna and crew, if love if a decision. Lorna and her friends know grief and pain, but they are still young. They are still learning that loss and heartache are inherent in love. And they can’t protect themselves from that—not by chalking things up to a Curse, not by drinking certain teas, not by building cages around their hearts, not by anything. They don’t yet know that we are all Affected, that we are all Cursed. In their isolation, they don’t understand that everyone has lost loved ones, that everyone blames themselves. Thanks to the relentlessness of Angelika, the Devonairre Street girls feel like they are the only ones protecting themselves, denying themselves, and stumbling under the dizzying weight of grief and guilt. Lorna, Delilah, Charlotte, and Isla’s whole lives are filled with people making them feel Other because of this. They don’t yet understand these are the prices we pay for being alive, for being the survivors. Their search for this understanding, their stumbling for answers and finding new pain, is heartbreaking. This beautifully written story is not to be missed. A powerful and deeply profound exploration of love, tragedy, and life itself.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780399186738

Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group

Publication date: 01/31/2017

Book Review: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

Publisher’s description

girl mans upAll Pen wants is to be the kind of girl she’s always been. So why does everyone have a problem with it? They think the way she looks and acts means she’s trying to be a boy—that she should quit trying to be something she’s not. If she dresses like a girl, and does what her folks want, it will show respect. If she takes orders and does what her friend Colby wants, it will show her loyalty.

But respect and loyalty, Pen discovers, are empty words. Old-world parents, disintegrating friendships, and strong feelings for other girls drive Pen to see the truth—that in order to be who she truly wants to be, she’ll have to man up.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

It’s no secret I was in a big-time reading slump this summer. I probably started and abandoned 30 YA books. Nothing was grabbing my interest. This roughly coincided with an extreme bout of insomnia. Instead of burning through my TBR pile, which mostly consists of YA books I’d like to review or use for other professional projects, I read a bunch of grown-up books (something I rarely do). I let myself off the hook with books I thought I “should” read. I started to assume that even things I had been excited to read would end up getting tossed aside. Thankfully, I was wrong. I got far enough into my pile to start finding things that really held my attention. And with this book, I couldn’t put it down. Part of my problem this summer with what I was reading was nothing felt NEW. Something would only hold my interest if it felt “fresh,” whatever that even means. Unique. New. Untold. New angle. Whatever. And this book? Was fresh. Even now that I’m done with it, I’m not sure I can come up with anything to rightfully compare it to.

Sometimes I don’t think about what’s missing from YA until I read a book that includes whatever that thing is and think, Oh! Hello there! YA desperately needs you! In this case, the “you” is Pen, a butch Portuguese lesbian who’s committed to being herself even though most people around her don’t understand—and don’t want her to have—her identity. Pen has a small group of friends—though “friends” is not really the right word because 2/3 of her group are utter jerks. Her supposed best friend is Colby, a neighbor boy who accepts her for who she is and protects her… but who also is incredibly mean, abusive, manipulative, and threatening. Pen begins to pull away from him when she becomes friends with Blake (her soon-to-be girlfriend) and Olivia (one of Colby’s recently-cast-aside conquests). As far as Colby is concerned, Pen exists to help him get girls and to remain “loyal” to him. Her pursuit of other relationships, especially one of friendship with Colby’s ex, is a betrayal to him. I probably hate Colby more than I’ve hated any other character I’ve read this year. He’s an awful human being.

 

Thankfully, in addition to her new friends, Pen also has her brother in her corner. Johnny has always stood up for Pen, who has a long history of suffering slurs and being shamed for who she is. Her parents don’t understand her at all. They feel she isn’t respecting them, that she isn’t being a “good girl.” Her mother would like her to look like a “princess,” horrified at Pen dressing in Johnny’s old clothes and shaving her head. Pen talks about having always been a tomboy. She’s often mistaken for a boy. She repeatedly says she doesn’t want to be a boy—she’s not transgender—but she’s not entirely comfortable being thought of as a girl (or at least as a stereotypical girl). She never uses words like genderqueer or nonbinary, or butch, for that matter—that word is mine. Pen comments often on what words like “boy” or “girl” mean to her, in regards to how she thinks of herself. She also thinks, “But I don’t think of myself as being gay, because that word sounds like it belongs to some guy. Lesbian makes me think of some forty-year-old woman. And queer feels like it can mean anything, but like—am I queer because I like girls, or because I look the way I do? Maybe I don’t know enough words.” She also just really doesn’t get why people care so much and need to label her. As she tells Olivia, during a conversation about if Pen could be trans, “I don’t feel wrong inside myself. I don’t feel like I’m someone I shouldn’t be. Only other people make me feel like there’s something wrong with me.”

 

She puts up with a lot of garbage regarding her presentation, what she “should” be doing, what her role is as a good Portuguese daughter, and so on. Rarely does she get to go through her day without someone from the outside commenting on her appearance, or asking her if she wants to be a boy, or calling her some gross name. It bothers her, but not a ton—Pen knows who she is and is fairly comfortable in her own skin, some body issues aside. At one point, she thinks, “Everyone wants something different from me. It’s like one second, I should be a better dude. I should stop being such a girly douche, and I should just man up. Then, it’s the opposite: I’m too much of a guy, and it’s not right. I should be a girl, because that’s what I’m supposed to be.” There are expectations and rules and confusion everywhere—within her family, with her old “friends,” with Blake, at school, EVERYWHERE. And though all of that is mega cruddy, Pen has lots of good things going on. Her brother Johnny unfailingly supports and protects her. She gets together with Blake, who is bold and funny and into gaming like Pen is. And their relationship is awesome—full of sneaking out and sexual tension and honesty and new experiences. One of my favorite f/f romances in a long time. She forms a legit friendship with Olivia, eventually accompanying her to an abortion and always having her back whenever it seems like things are about to heat up with Colby (who—have I mentioned? is a total ass).

 

She eventually has a pretty big blowout with her parents, as well as an impressive physical fight with Colby. She learns how to stand up more for herself and for her friends. There is so much wonderful stuff happening in this book. Pen is a great, complex character who’s not easily labeled. So much of her story is about identity, but none of it is because she feels bad about who she is. While she faces lots of haters, she has lots of people in her life who accept, love, and support her. I’m not sure I’ve read a book with a Portuguese main character (which may say more about me as a reader than about YA books) and the fact that she’s Portuguese is an important part of the story (her relationship with her parents, their expectations, etc). This is an interesting, well-done, and nuanced look at gender, identity, expectations, and what it means to really have someone’s back. I won’t soon forget Pen. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062404176

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publishers Publication date: 09/06/2016

Book Review: My Seventh-Grade Life in Tights by Brooks Benjamin

Publisher’s description

seventh gradeFootball hero. Ninja freestyler. It’s seventh grade. Anything is possible.

All Dillon wants is to be a real dancer. And if he wins a summer scholarship at Dance-Splosion, he’s on his way. The problem? His dad wants him to play football. And Dillon’s freestyle crew, the Dizzee Freekz, says that dance studios are for sellouts. His friends want Dillon to kill it at the audition—so he can turn around and tell the studio just how wrong their rules and creativity-strangling ways are.

At first, Dillon’s willing to go along with his crew’s plan, even convincing one of the snobbiest girls at school to work with him on his technique. But as Dillon’s dancing improves, he wonders: what if studios aren’t the enemy? And what if he actually has a shot at winning the scholarship?

Dillon’s life is about to get crazy . . . on and off the dance floor in this kid-friendly humorous debut by Brooks Benjamin.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This book came out on Tuesday this week. If you haven’t read it yet, you’ve already waited too long. Open up a new window and order it from your favorite bookstore or your library. I’ll wait. I’ll just be here flipping through the book, revisiting all of my favorite parts.

 

You’re back? Okay, good. Without spoiling anything for you—because I know you’re going to read this book—I’ll say that I loved this book. I was hooked from the very first pages. Middle grade novel about a boy who just wants to dance? Yes, please. Dancers Dillon, Carson, and Kassie, along with their friend Austin, who films all of their dancing, have an oath: “The crew comes first.” That oath becomes harder to keep when Dillon auditions for a dance studio scholarship. Suddenly, he’s not seeing eye-to-eye with his friends and wondering how to make his own choices, knowing they will likely upset his friends. He’s getting dance lessons from Sarah, a brilliant dancer who happens to be Kassie’s nemesis. He isn’t sure if dance studios are the enemy. Kassie sees them as enforcing rules and killing creativity, but Dillon starts to see the benefit in leaning choreography and being taught technique.

 

It all becomes a muddled mess in his head—betray the crew and pursue his studio dreams or follow through with Kassie’s plan of winning just to throw things back in the studio’s face? To complicate things further, his dad doesn’t seem on board with his dream of dancing, preferring Dillon to keep playing football (though “playing” isn’t really accurate for this perpetual bench-warmer). He’s got Sarah on one side, telling him to copy her, and Kassie on the other, telling him to be himself (though her version of Dillon looks suspiciously like a carbon copy of herself). Before long, Dillon is lost in the mix, forgetting who his true self really is. His new friend DeMarcus cautions him to hurry up and figure out who he is before he gets stuck being someone he’s not. As Dillon dances his way toward the important Heartland competition, he’s going to have to decide if he should follow the steps laid out for him or put his own spin (or ninja-kick) on things.

 

The message to be yourself is a good reminder for middle school students who might be trying to figure out just exactly what that means. I loved the focus on friendships, both old and new, and seeing how those can change not just because of fighting or having hurt feelings but from starting to feel like maybe you like someone—you know, like like. Dillon is funny, kind, and determined. His friends are well-developed and all have their own things going on. Without spoiling things, I’ll just mention that this book also some LGBT characters and I loved the small storyline there, too. Excellent dialogue, fast pacing, and lots of humor—this book has all the right moves. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the author

ISBN-13: 9780553512502

Publisher: Random House Children’s Books

Publication date: 04/12/2016

 

 

 

Book Review: Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

symptomsPublisher’s description:

Riley Cavanaugh is many things: Punk rock. Snarky. Rebellious. And gender fluid. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, and others as a girl. But Riley isn’t exactly out yet. And between starting a new school and having a congressman father running for reelection in über-conservative Orange County, the pressure—media and otherwise—is building up in Riley’s life.

On the advice of a therapist, Riley starts an anonymous blog to vent those pent-up feelings and tell the truth of what it’s really like to be a gender fluid teenager. But just as Riley’s starting to settle in at school—even developing feelings for a mysterious outcast—the blog goes viral, and an unnamed commenter discovers Riley’s real identity, threatening exposure. And Riley must make a choice: walk away from what the blog has created—a lifeline, new friends, a cause to believe in—or stand up, come out, and risk everything.

From debut author Jeff Garvin comes a powerful and uplifting portrait of a modern teen struggling with high school, relationships, and what it means to be a person.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Well, that extremely thorough summary up there really hits most of the main pieces of this story. This is 100% the story of a gender fluid teen. That fact is at the heart of every piece of this plot. We read the term “gender fluid” over and over again as we learn exactly what that means to Riley. Readers who are unfamiliar with what being gender fluid means (or means to one person) will walk away with a pretty complex picture of this identity .

 

Riley is starting at a new school. Riley’s father is a congressman, which matters because he’s up for re-election and needs Riley to attend fundraisers and help his campaign by not rocking the boat further. Riley has recently attempted suicide and had a recovery stint in a psychiatric hospital. Riley’s anxiety  and panic attacks are still a constant, but medication and therapy are helping with that. Riley hopes to start over at the new school, but is instantly called “it” or “tranny” and other slurs. “Is that a girl, or a guy?” kids whisper in the hall. It would appear that judgmental teenagers looking to figure out how they should categorize a person are all over the place. Go figure.

 

Riley makes two good friends, Solo (Jason Solomona) and Bec (self-named because of her prominent nose, “bec” being French for “beak”), though their friendships start out tenuously. Riley starts an anonymous blog as a way to connect with “people like me,” a suggestion from Riley’s therapist. The blog quickly gains traffic, especially after one of Riley’s replies to a reader goes viral when something unexpected happens. Riley is scared that someone will discover the blog and out Riley, but the community found there is too good to turn away from. Of course, you can probably see where this is going, right? Riley’s dad is a high-profile congressman. Riley is already being bullied at school. Riley isn’t out to Riley’s parents yet. Expect things to fall apart, especially when it appears that Riley has a stalker on the blog who may know Riley’s true identity.

 

I really liked this book for a lot of reasons. Riley spends a lot of time talking/thinking about being gender fluid. Riley talks about feeling neutral, or feeling more “boy” or “girl” on certain days, or “both” or “neither.” Riley talks about the body dysphoria and the various ways it makes Riley feel when Riley shifts between identities. There is a lot going on here about gender, identity, and assumptions, not just with Riley but with some secondary characters in the book, both at the support group Riley attends and at school. Solo and Bec are great characters—particularly Solo (who refers to himself as “the three-hundred-pound brown kid with the furry Chewbacca backpack”). He’s an absolutely fantastic character. Part of the football team, Solo, who initially really seemed to connect with Riley, falls to the pressure of his jerk peers. He doesn’t make fun of Riley or hurl slurs, but he distances himself from Riley and doesn’t stand up to his peers right away. It doesn’t take long for him to ditch that attitude, though, and be a real friend to Riley. As far as enemies go, the biggest one is Jim Vickers, the football-playing a-hole who goes out of his way to bully and threaten Riley. Things go from bad to worse (to really, really a lot worse) with him.

 

Riley’s anxiety and panic attacks are also described in great detail. We see Riley getting help through therapy, medication (complete with adjusting doses as things change and having backup medication for the particularly bad moments), and learning techniques to try to stave off anxiety—things like deep breathing, visualization, and more. We see how horrible the panic attacks can be. Riley is open about them and their affects. Mental health issues are also addressed with the character of Bec’s mom, who is deeply depressed after a tragic incident in their family.

 

Though the novel is about a lot of very serious things, Riley’s wry humor and easy banter with Bec and Solo help lighten the tone. Though Riley struggles with coming to terms with this identity and sharing it with others, Riley has a lot of support. Riley has compassionate friends, a caring online community, people in the support group who can relate, and loving (if sometimes judgmental and not understanding) parents.

 

The novel starts with a blog post. “The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl.” Of course, since Riley is gender fluid, we know those labels don’t apply or only sometimes apply. Garvin manages to successfully avoid all pronouns for Riley or any other indications of what gender Riley was assigned at birth, helping drive home points about identity. An author’s note discusses where the idea for this book came from as well as offers resources on gender identity, anxiety, and depression. I have many pages of notes on this book and feel like this is a really rambling review, but there was just so much going on in this book. Here’s the takeaway from this review: THIS GREAT BOOK WITH A GENDER FLUID MAIN CHARACTER EXISTS. IT’S GREAT. THE WRITING IS GREAT. LOTS OF STUFF HAPPENS. THERE IS A LOT TO THINK ABOUT. GO GET IT!

Riley’s story is an important one and one we haven’t seen much of yet in YA. I hope The Symptoms of Being Human finds it way to the shelves of every library that serves teenagers. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062382863

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 02/02/2016