Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Me and My Abuela: The Stories that Made Me Want to Become a Storyteller, a guest post by Alex Aster

Storytelling is one of our most ancient and sacred abilities as humans. From cave drawings, to woven tapestries, to the bards in Ovid, to my abuela, whispering terrifying tales in the dark. I remember it all—me and my twin sister tugging at my grandmother’s soft, starfish-like hand, leading her to our room. As a child, my abuela, at four-foot-eight, was always more of a conspirator than an adult figure. She would sneak us apple juice at 9pm, way past our bedtime, which we would request through a matching pair of Barbie walkie-talkies. She was scared of the same things we were—I remember screaming at the sight of a giant spider in my room, and calling for her to help, only for my abuela to say tentatively in the hallway, in Spanish, “What is it? I might be scared too.”

I don’t know how it started, but somehow, every night, my abuela would end up at the end of the bed my sister and I shared, swaddled in endless blankets like a giant child. My sister and I would shout requests, and then she would start, in a voice completely different than the high-pitched laugh that always echoed through our house. Everything about her would change—her voice became serious. Her spine straightened. And now, thinking back on it, maybe she wrapped herself in so many blankets because she was afraid for any of her skin to be exposed to the darkness. Because she understood something I do now. Words have power. Scary stories can make the room change—make the shadows on the wall longer, make the darkness hungrier.

Though my grandmother has been on a desperate, long journey to learn English since my sister and I were born, she never mastered it. So these stories were told the same way her mother had told them to her—in Spanish. And language, in storytelling, makes a difference. There are words I can’t begin to translate, not because I don’t know what the English equivalent is, but because the available words are unworthy. They don’t capture either the tenderness, or wickedness, or humor. They don’t sound the same. And, since these stories were always told orally, sound also makes a difference.

My grandmother knows dozens of stories that she can recite word for word—and they’ve never been written down. These tales have been passed along the same way they were passed to me. In dark rooms, on stormy nights, as cautionary tales to curious children. They contained warnings that used to shape my nightmares—don’t wear a ponytail to bed, or it’ll fall off. Don’t sleep backwards on the bed, or your life source will be flipped as well, and the devil will think you’re old instead of young, then collect you for death. Follow the rules, or you might just end up with horns on your forehead.

These Colombian legends shaped my creative brain, during a time when it was still growing, when critical connections were being made. And they continue to influence me now. One story in particular, La niña con la estrella en la frente, inspired the world of my debut book, Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch. In the story, a girl earns a star on her forehead for following the rules, and her sister is given horns on her face for breaking them. That tale inspired me to create a world where markings on one’s skin could be earned, and could come with great power—or could end up being a curse. And, as a tribute to all of those cuentos my abuela told me before bedtime, I created a Book of Cuentos for my debut, an ancient book of legends on Emblem Island that the main characters must use to track down the only person that can break their deadly curse—the Night Witch. Some of these cuentos are based on Latinx monsters, like “La patasola,” “La ciguapa,” and “La llorona.” Some I wrote from scratch. We included these stories in between each chapter, creating a book within a book. Nothing can quite capture the magic of my grandmother telling stories herself, or my sister and I on the edge of our seats (only for my abuela to start snoring before we lightly kicked her awake again). But, hopefully, my book will introduce children who have never heard of these Latinx monsters to our beautiful, rich culture.

I’m lucky to still have my grandmother in my life. She’s still four-foot-eight, still laughs more than she talks, and still can’t quite speak English the way she wants to. But, now that I’m twenty-four, I haven’t heard her storytelling in years. I asked her recently, if she told these stories to my cousins, who are four and eight. I believe she’s tried. Perhaps I’ll ask her to tell them to me again sometime. I owe everything to her, and to our family’s traditions. Because my abuela’s stories made me want to become a storyteller too.

Meet Alex Aster

About — Alex Aster
Photo credit: Kathryn Wirsing

Alex Aster recently graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied English with a Concentration in Creative Writing. Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch is her debut novel, inspired by Latinx myths her Colombian grandmother told her before bedtime. She is currently working on the second book in the Emblem Island series. Explore the world of Emblem Island at asterverse.com.

About Curse of the Night Witch

A fast-paced series starter, perfect for fans of Aru Shah and the End of Time and filled with adventure, mythology, and an unforgettable trio of friends.

On Emblem Island all are born knowing their fate. Their lifelines show the course of their life and an emblem dictates how they will spend it.

Twelve-year-old Tor Luna was born with a leadership emblem, just like his mother. But he hates his mark and is determined to choose a different path for himself. So, on the annual New Year’s Eve celebration, where Emblemites throw their wishes into a bonfire in the hopes of having them granted, Tor wishes for a different power.

The next morning Tor wakes up to discover a new marking on his skin…the symbol of a curse that has shortened his lifeline, giving him only a week before an untimely death. There is only one way to break the curse, and it requires a trip to the notorious Night Witch.

With only his village’s terrifying, ancient stories as a guide, and his two friends Engle and Melda by his side, Tor must travel across unpredictable Emblem Island, filled with wicked creatures he only knows through myths, in a race against his dwindling lifeline.

ISBN-13: 9781492697206
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 06/09/2020
Series: Emblem Island Series #1
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Write What You Know, a guest post by Loriel Ryon

I almost didn’t write this post.

As I’ve grown and changed, my thoughts and understandings of my identity and what that means have evolved a lot over the years. Being a writer means looking into yourself, pulling apart the pieces of what made you, and writing that. So when I started writing, my heritage and cultural upbringing kept coming up. How could it not? When I think back to my childhood years, my family and my traditions were so important to that time. But identity is complicated. Especially when you come from a blended family. And when that family breaks apart, identity gets even more complicated. My understanding of myself and my identity will probably change again. And again. But for now, this is where I am.

Because as the old saying goes: write what you know.

And this is what I know.

I grew up on bluegrass music and pumpkin empanadas. Pig pickins’ and the best southern fried chicken. Jackie Horner pies for birthdays, luminarias and tamales at Christmas, and cascarones at Easter. My childhood was a blend of my parents’ upbringings and traditions: my father, an Irish-English American Catholic southern boy, born and raised in North Carolina; and my mother, a Mexican American Catholic born and raised in south Texas. Their traditions were different from each other, but somehow, they found a way to raise me, my brother, and my sister with a blend of the two.

Sure, my mom loved to tell the story where she asked my dad right after they got married to get tortillas from the grocery store and he brought back corn tortillas in a can. (I’m not kidding. It was a family joke for a LOOONG time.) My grandad would tell us stories about how he wasn’t allowed at the school dance because he was Mexican and had to wait outside. I’m pretty sure my mom had never even heard of bluegrass music until she met my dad.

Spanish was spoken in our house (and it was basic Spanish at best), but not because my mom grew up speaking it. My grandparents didn’t teach their children Spanish. They wanted them to blend in and not rock the boat. Both my parents learned in school and college, and once us kids had learned how to spell, they’d switch to Spanish to keep us from knowing what they were talking about.

The other important thing to know is my parents didn’t stay married. And while that was a very tough thing to go through as a kid, it also really shifted my adult understanding of identity and heritage. Without my blended family intact, which traditions would stay? Would some fall away? How would we raise our own kids when the time came?

The other thing is while my siblings and I have our mother’s dark hair and eyes, our light skin coupled with our English last name affords a lot of privileges that other members in our family don’t have. By looking at us, you can’t really “tell” our heritage and with that comes the doubts.

If I look white and I don’t speak Spanish, can I be Mexican American? If I have a white last name, can I be Mexican American? If every time I tell someone that I’m part Mexican American and they say, “Well, you don’t look it…”, then maybe I’m not.

Questions about my identity carried with me all the way to my debut, INTO THE TALL, TALL GRASS. It’s a story about a girl and her sister, both of mixed heritage, as they go on a journey through the desert to save their grandmother’s life. I’d never read a story about a girl of mixed heritage like me. I stubbornly plowed forward, following the advice: write what you know. But even so, I was riddled with doubts. Because when you are straddling the in-between you never quite feel like you are enough. It is a constant battle between hoping you aren’t a fraud to trying to get things perfectly right. Would kids want to read about a girl like me? Would I do the story justice? Was it okay for me to write a story like this? But my Spanish isn’t very good…

I remember when Aida Salazar reached out and asked if I’d like to be part of the Las Musas group, a collective of Latinx authors who support one another. I almost told her no. I stressed over it. How was I going to tell Aida Salazar (who’s book I absolutely admired and adored) that she’d made a mistake? It wasn’t because I didn’t want to be a part of the group. I really did. It was because I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like I wasn’t Latinx enough to be in the group, and I finally found the courage and told her so.

And Aida, the always wise, said to me, “There’s no one way to be Latinx.”

And with those simple words, my view of my identity shifted again. When the doubts come rolling in, I repeat those words to myself. And while I may not get everything perfectly right and I’m sure to make mistakes along the way, I realize my unique viewpoint does matter. Just because it’s not quite like everyone else’s doesn’t mean it’s wrong or not enough. It’s just…mine.

And that is what I know.

For now.

Meet Loriel Ryon

Loriel Ryon is an author of middle grade fiction. She spent her childhood with her nose in a book, reading in restaurants, on the school bus, and during every family vacation. Her upbringing in a mixed-heritage military family inspires much of her writing about that wonderfully complicated time between childhood and adulthood. Also a nurse, she lives in the magical New Mexico desert with her husband and two daughters. Her debut middle grade novel, INTO THE TALL, TALL GRASS is out now.

Social Media

Twitter/Instagram/Facebook: @Lorielryon

Website: Lorielryon.com

About Into the Tall, Tall Grass

A girl journeys across her family’s land to save her grandmother’s life in this captivating and magical debut that’s perfect for fans of The Thing About Jellyfish.

Yolanda Rodríguez-O’Connell has a secret. All the members of her family have a magical gift—all, that is, except for Yolanda. Still, it’s something she can never talk about, or the townsfolk will call her family brujas—witches. When her grandmother, Wela, falls into an unexplained sleep, Yolanda is scared. Her father is off fighting in a faraway war, her mother died long ago, and Yolanda has isolated herself from her best friend and twin sister. If she loses her grandmother, who will she have left?

When a strange grass emerges in the desert behind their house, Wela miraculously wakes, begging Yolanda to take her to the lone pecan tree left on their land. Determined not to lose her, Yolanda sets out on this journey with her sister, her ex-best friend, and a boy who has a crush on her. But what is the mysterious box that her grandmother needs to find? And how will going to the pecan tree make everything all right? Along the way, Yolanda discovers long-buried secrets that have made their family gift a family curse. But she also finds the healing power of the magic all around her, which just might promise a new beginning.

ISBN-13: 9781534449671
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication date: 04/07/2020
Age Range: 10 – 18 Years

Book Review: Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry

Publisher’s description

The Torres sisters dream of escape. Escape from their needy and despotic widowed father, and from their San Antonio neighborhood, full of old San Antonio families and all the traditions and expectations that go along with them. In the summer after her senior year of high school, Ana, the oldest sister, falls to her death from her bedroom window. A year later, her three younger sisters, Jessica, Iridian, and Rosa, are still consumed by grief and haunted by their sister’s memory. Their dream of leaving Southtown now seems out of reach. But then strange things start happening around the house: mysterious laughter, mysterious shadows, mysterious writing on the walls. The sisters begin to wonder if Ana really is haunting them, trying to send them a message—and what exactly she’s trying to say.

In a stunning follow-up to her National Book Award–longlisted novel All the Wind in the World, Samantha Mabry weaves an aching, magical novel that is one part family drama, one part ghost story, and one part love story.

Amanda’s thoughts

Only two months and a few dozen books into 2020 and I’m ready to call something one of my favorite books of the year? Yes, yes I am. This stunning book is easily the best thing I’ve read so far this year.

After their sister Ana falls to her death, the remaining Torres sisters, Jessica, Iridian, and Rosa, survive only because they have to. Rosa looks for meaning with animals, particularly in an escaped hyena she feels certain has something to do with her dead sister’s spirit. Iridian hides out in books and writing, haunted by her final words to Ana. And Jessica spends her time with the worst possible boy to be with. They see snippets of things that point to Ana somehow being back, wanting something, needing something, though they’re not sure what her message is.

The power and beauty of this book is in the lovely writing and the magnificent, unforgettable characters. This is a story about what happens when girls become ghosts, when girls become animals. This is about what happens when girls embrace anger, when girls attack, when girls grow sick of the imprints men leave upon them. This is about aching, desperate, trapped, screaming girls. This is a warning and a celebration of what happens when girls become feral, become hunters, when girls decide they are not sorry. This haunting story is about sisterhood and death, about power and pain, and about confronting men and boys who are meddling cowards and abusers. A fierce story of heartbreak, grief, connection, and the complications of the human heart. Absolutely not to be missed.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781616208967
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Publication date: 03/24/2020

Ages 14-18

Book Review: The Resolutions by Mia Garcia

Publisher’s description

resolutionsA heart-expanding novel about four Latinx teens who make New Year’s resolutions for one another—and the whirlwind of a year that follows. Fans of Erika L. Sánchez and Emery Lord will fall for this story of friendship, identity, and the struggle of finding yourself when all you want is to start over.

From hiking trips to four-person birthday parties to never-ending group texts, Jess, Lee, Ryan, and Nora have always been inseparable. But now with senior year on the horizon, they’ve been growing apart. And so, as always, Jess makes a plan.

Reinstating their usual tradition of making resolutions together on New Year’s Eve, Jess adds a new twist: instead of making their own resolutions, the four friends assign them to one another—dares like kiss someone you know is wrong for you, find your calling outside your mom’s Puerto Rican restaurant, finally learn Spanish, and say yes to everything.

But as the year unfolds, Jess, Lee, Ryan, and Nora each test the bonds that hold them together. And amid first loves, heartbreaks, and life-changing decisions, beginning again is never as simple as it seems.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I shouldn’t, but of course I judge a book by its cover. It’s what stops me when I’m scrolling through online catalogs or pulling books off the shelf in a library or bookstore. Sometimes I’m wrong about a book—cover looks great and totally like something I’d love but book is meh—but sometimes the book is just as fun and cute and unique as its cover. Thankfully, that was the case for The Resolutions. I read it in one sitting.

 

Denver Latinx teens Jess, Lee, Nora, and Ryan are best friends. While still incredibly tight, it’s the middle of junior year and a they all have a lot going on in their lives. Ryan is still reeling from his breakup with Jason, Lee is struggling with whether or not to get tested for Huntington’s Disease (the disease that killed her mother), Nora is wondering if she can really handle a future that just holds going to a local college and continuing to work at her family’s restaurant, and Jess is busy, as always, taking on too many responsibilities. On New Year’s Eve, they assign each other resolutions, hoping to push each other out of their comfort zones (in a good way), encouraging each other to do the things they always talk about but never do. It’s been increasingly hard to coordinate time to all be together, and Jess hopes a project like this will help keep their bond strong. But, as you might expect, pursuing these resolutions is hardly uncomplicated, though the gentle pushes from their friends do help them discover parts of themselves they otherwise may have taken longer to know. 

 

There is so much to like about this book. Garcia’s keen ear for realistic dialogue really makes for effortless reading—it’s easy to cruise through lots of pages really feeling like you’re listening to friends talking. Including some of their text messages to each other also lends itself to that feeling. Though many of the friends are involved in romantic relationships—Ryan is recovering from his boyfriend breaking up with him, Lee is suddenly seeing someone old with new eyes, and bisexual Nora is happily dating the same girl she’s been with for a while—this is solidly a friendship story. The love and support and encouragement they offer each other is so great to see. Garcia manages to write about serious subjects, like Lee’s worries about Huntington’s Disease or Nora’s perceived lack of control over her future or Jess’s increasing and frightening panic attacks, with a light touch. These issues (and more) feel weighty and important, but maybe because of the support in their lives they also feel like things that can be conquered or achieved. As the story follows them through part of junior year and part of senior year (from one New Year’s Eve to another), we see them struggle, change, grow, and succeed in ways that feel very honest, real, and inspiring. Through it all, the bond of their friendship helps them grow up and grow together. I suspect teen readers will devour this totally satisfying look at identity, obstacles, and friendship. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062656827
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/13/2018

#ReadForChange: Get Really Real with Lilliam Rivera’s The Education of Margot Sanchez, a guest post by Marie Marquardt

ReadForChange copyTeen Librarian Toolbox is excited to be partnering with Marie Marquardt for her #ReadForChange project. Hop on over to this post to learn more about the initiative. Today, she and Lilliam Rivera join us for a conversation about gentrification, taking action, writing a novel that is just one voice of the many unheard voices in the publishing industry, and her excellent book The Education of Margot Sanchez. 

 

 

Take care not to listen to anyone who tells you what you can and can’t be in life.

– Meg Medina

 

Taking up space in the South Bronx

 

educationofThe Education of Margot Sanchez is a perfect summer read. It’s at times fun and funny, at other times heartrending and poignant. Much like Meg Medina’s fabulous Burn Baby Burn, this novel drops the reader deep inside summer at a very specific time on a very unique collection of New York City blocks. It’s crafted so well that we can feel the humidity in the air and the heat rising from the asphalt.

 

Most of Margot Sanchez’ summer “education” happens in and around the Sanchez & Sons supermarket – once a “welcoming oasis in a sea of concrete buildings” in the South Bronx, the supermarket, owned by Margot’s dad, has seen better days. As Margot explains: “the blue paint is peeling, the posters are the same from five years ago, and there’s some funky odor that I can’t place.”

 

While the supermarket stayed the same, Margot went through some big transformations. The most important: she got into the prestigious Somerset Prep, and she finally made friends with Serena and Camille, the coolest girls in school. Reading how Margot had to change to fit in with the cool girls will, for almost anyone who has been through middle school and early high school, evoke poignant reminders of painful times. Because Margot’s experience is so relatable, and because her decision to go to Somerset was shaped more by her parents’ aspirations than her own, we feel sympathy for Margot, even though she has done some incredibly stupid stuff.

 

Case in point: Margot used her parents’ credit card to charge six-hundred-dollars-worth of clothes, since hanging out with Serena and Camille transformed her style from thrift store bo-ho chic to designer Taylor-Swift-inspired. (Like I said: cringe-worthy). Margot’s adventures in shopping landed her at Sanchez & Sons for the summer, instead of in the Hamptons with all of her Somerset friends.

 

At first utterly disdainful of her work and most of the people she encounters there, Margot eventually discovers and embraces her unique identity (even while wearing a hairnet and serving up sliced meats to the neighborhood church ladies!). Her transformation is aided by Moises, an anti-gentrification activist with a bad reputation, and Elizabeth, her former best friend who chose art school over Somerset.

 

While drawing us into this unique South Bronx neighborhood and the fabulous characters that inhabit it, The Education of Margot Sanchez also pulls readers into some complicated questions about family, ethnicity, social class, identity, and the impact of gentrification on particular communities. The story also playfully sifts through an enormous heap of gendered expectations. (Note, for example, that “Sanchez & Sons is owned by a man with only one son, who goes by the nickname ‘Junior’. The other child is Margot, whom everyone calls ‘Princesa’.)

 

Margot is a list-maker. Her final list of the summer is the “Get Really Real List.” This is the perfect way to end a novel that’s so real, so honest, and so deeply embedded in a particular place. I enthusiastically recommend The Education of Margot Sanchez to anyone who’s looking for a summer read that’s both super funny and incredibly thought-provoking.

 

“The Audacity to Believe that I Deserved Some Shelf Space”: A Chat with Lilliam Rivera

downloadMARIE: Tell us about the moment when you knew that this story had to be written, and that you needed to be the one to write it.

LILLIAM: The moment I knew The Education of Margot Sanchez had to be written was back in 2013. I kept thinking of the many young adult novels I read as a teenager. The Judy Blumes. The S.E. Hintons. I devoured those books and so many more at my local library. Because of the abundance of those books, I had the audacity to believe that I deserved some shelf space. That perhaps a Latina coming-of-age story set in the South Bronx, New York can be just one voice of the many unheard voices in the publishing industry that takes up some space.

MARIE: What are some of the things you’re doing to create the world that you want to live in?

LILLIAM: This is an interesting question. I grew up in a household where we were taught to navigate spaces that were not meant for people with my last name. My family is very active politically and that has fed down to my own writing. I believe I can create works of art that speaks on my own struggles —colonization, racism, and class. Even when I am writing in a contemporary setting or near future, these are the things that I write towards. How does this work with creating the life I want to live? I try to bring this to the many students I speak to across the states and to my own kids. I love speaking to young people and letting them know that their voices are so desperately needed. To be heard and to be seen, it’s really what most people want.

MARIE: For readers who want to take action, themselves, what ideas can you share?

LILLIAM: The amazing part about being young right now is the many different social media accounts out there. Communicating with someone with the exact same interests as you is so much easier. Young people can control the narrative, away from propaganda. They don’t have to settle to hearing what is happening in the world through only a few outlets. It’s an amazing period to be active, to take action. You can find like-minded people online and that can spur you into having uncomfortable conversations and to be part of social movements.

 

Let’s Get Reading!: Gentrification, from A to Z

 

Margot RFCLucky for us, Lilliam recently posted a great article on Teen Librarian Toolbox about one of the most significant themes in this novel: gentrification. She’s got several great recommendations there for people who want to learn more and read more. So, head on over to that article for all the details. You can find it here.

 

 

 

Meanwhile, inspired by Margot, I will give you the short list:

 

Lilliam’s Really Real Gentrification List

“Gentrification and the Criminlazation of Neighborhoods” – The Atlantic

“Health Effects of Gentrification” – Centers for Disease Control

How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the fight for the Neighborhood by Peter Moskowitz

The Color of Law: A forgotten History of How Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

 Lilliam's Gentrification List

Let’s Get Loud!
“It’s an amazing period to be active, to take action!”

Ready to take action?  Here are a few recommendations that Lilliam Rivera says are “doing the work”.

Black Youth Project
(BYP100)
A national organization of 18-35 year-old Black organizers and activists, dedicated to creating justice and freedom for all Black people. Using a Black queer feminist lens, BYP100 “envisions a world where all black people have economic, social, political, and educational freedom.”

Immigrant Youth Coalition
An organization led by undocumented youth that works to empower immigrant youth in California to stand up to injustice and criminalization of immigrants.

 

 

United We Dream
This fabulous immigrant youth-led organization is making a second appearance on our list, and for good reason: “At United We Dream, we transform fear into finding your voice. We empower people to develop their leadership, their organizing skills, and to develop our own campaigns to fight for justice and dignity for immigrants and all people.”

Million Hoodies Movement for Justice
A human rights organization with chapters around the country that is “building next generation human rights leaders to end anti-Black racism and systemic violence”

 

 

 

¡ Pa’lante!
This summer, let’s get really real and #ReadForChange

If you’re hoping to start your summer with a free signed copy of The Education of Margot Sanchez, here’s a link to the giveaway. We’ll be announcing the winner on Twitter @MarieFMarquardt and Instagram marie_marquardt June 1!

 

Meet Marie Marquardt

Women’s March, January 21, 2017

Women’s March, January 21, 2017

Marie Marquardt is the author of three YA novels: The Radius of UsDream Things True, and Flight Season (available 2/20/18). A Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, Marie also has published several articles and co-authored two non-fiction books about Latin American immigration to the U.S. South. She is chair of El Refugio, a non-profit that serves detained immigrants and their families. She lives with her spouse, four kids, a dog and a bearded dragon in the book-lover’s mecca of Decatur, Georgia.

 

Book Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

Publisher’s description

i am not yourThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian meets Jane the Virgin in this poignant but often laugh-out-loud funny contemporary YA about losing a sister and finding yourself amid the pressures, expectations, and stereotypes of growing up in a Mexican-American home. 
 
Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family.

But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role.

Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.

But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first kiss, first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out. Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Julia is blunt, funny, sneaky, and also fairly miserable. Her sister, Olga, was recently killed and Julia feels more off-kilter than ever. She’s grieving, of course, but also intensely feeling her parents’ disappointment in her and trying to find ways to get a little breathing room, especially in respect to her judgmental and strict mother. All Julia wants to do is graduate and move to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a writer, but it’s hard to feel like that dream could become a reality since her parents think a good daughter would be happy to continue living at home and attending community college. That’s what Olga did, and especially as far as her mother is concerned, Olga was perfect. Julia, who talks back, is unabashedly a feminist, and isn’t particularly concerned with consequences, knows she is far from her parents’ ideal. She carries that weight while trying to just live her life in spite of her grief and her increasing depression. And while Julia certainly doesn’t think she has her own life figured out, she did think she had Olga’s nailed: boring secretary who attends one class at a time and was her parents’ pride and joy. But while trying to get to know her now dead sister a little better, Julia must face the fact that she didn’t actually know her sister at all–that no one in their family did. Julia assembles clues based on her limited findings and follows them until she is able to put together a more realistic picture of who Olga was. 

 

Overall, I liked this book. Julia is a complex character. Her struggles as a first generation American teenager and as someone living in poverty are just as complex and well-drawn as she is. However, once I realized the part mental health would play in her story, I wanted more from it: I wanted it woven in throughout, instead of just kind of dropped in, and explored more fully. The plot suffers a bit from being overstuffed—not that she can’t have multiple things happening in her life at once (friends issues, grieving her sister, her first real boyfriend, mental health stuff, a trip to Mexico)—I kept wanting Julia to either really hone in on the mystery with her sister OR explore her grief and hopes for her own life more fully, something to make the plot feel tighter to me. Maybe it just needed to cover less time. At any rate, as a character-driven reader, Julia’s emotionally complicated journey held my attention even when the plot meandered. Her desire for something bigger in life as well as the reveal that people aren’t necessarily what they seem will resonate with teen readers. 

 

ISBN-13: 9781524700485
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 10/17/2017

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

Publisher’s description

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

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

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

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

 

Amanda’s thoughts

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

 

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

 

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

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

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

Book Review: 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: When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

Publisher’s description

when the moonTo everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.

Atmospheric, dynamic, and packed with gorgeous prose, When the Moon was Ours is another winner from this talented author.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I don’t care if I somehow managed to read like 200 more YA books before the year is out. There is nothing that could possibly bump this book from my top ten. It is gorgeous. Stunning. Phenomenal. I’m a fast reader, as I’m sure many of you are. I know a book really has a hold on me if I force myself to slow down. If I stop reading down the middle of the page and scan every line to make sure I’m catching every beautiful word. If I make myself not bolt it down all in one sitting, but walk away to help drag out the experience, to give myself time to absorb the writing and the story, focusing on more than just burning through the book and getting it out of my TBR pile.

 

There’s actually almost nothing I want to tell you about this book other than the fact that it’s beautiful and powerful and unique. I want you to go discover every lovely detail for yourself. At the same time, I want to tell you EVERYTHING about this book because it’s just so great.

 

I’ll shoot for somewhere in the middle of that.

 

Pakistani Sam (or Samir) and Latinx Miel have been inseparable since Miel came pouring out of the collapsed water tower. Miel is taken in by Aracely, Sam’s neighbor. Now teenagers, Sam and Miel realize how they really feel about each other and what follows are many absolutely breathtakingly beautiful scenes of them kissing, and touching, and discovering each other. Discovery comes into play, too, with the four beguiling redheaded Bonner sisters, known locally as brujas and boyfriend-stealers. They’re convinced that getting some of the roses that grown from Miel’s wrist will help them regain their power over love. They threaten Miel, telling her if she doesn’t comply, they will spill the secrets about her mother. But it’s a second threat that holds even more power over Miel: if she doesn’t comply, they will show everyone Sam’s birth certificate, which shows that he was assigned the label of “girl” at birth. Miel would do anything to protect Sam, especially because she knows he needs the time right now to really be figuring out some big things. You see, Sam has always used the idea of bacha posh to explain himself. We learn that this practice exists in Pakistan and is something Sam learned about from his grandma when he was young. Bacha posh is a practice where girls dress as boys and live that way, to help out their family, be the man of the house, live with more freedoms, etc, eventually going back to dressing and living as girls when they get older. Sam grapples with this, wondering if that’s the most accurate way to think of himself—is there any possible world where he could imagine wanting to go back to who he was mistaken for in his youth? Other characters seem to know where Sam will eventually land on this, but he has to get there on his own.

 

This story is so much about secrets, untold truths, love, identity, family, culture, and the power of our bodies. This is also another title where I get excited because we are seeing something so new here. This story hasn’t been told. These characters are unique. The plot took completely unexpected twists. Give to this fans of magical realism, those who liked Sarah McCarry’s Metamorphoses Trilogy or Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, and anyone who appreciates staggeringly beautiful writing. Go read. Then find me on Twitter (@CiteSomething) and we can talk about the many wonderful details that you need to go experience for yourself.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781250058669

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 10/04/2016