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Book Review: P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy

Publisher’s description

ps i missA heartbreaking—yet ultimately uplifting—epistolary novel about family, religion, and having the courage to be yourself.

 

Evie is heartbroken when her strict Catholic parents send her pregnant sister, Cilla, away to stay with a distant great-aunt. All Evie wants is for her older sister to come back. Forbidden from speaking to Cilla, Evie secretly sends her letters.

Evie writes about her family, torn apart and hurting. She writes about her life, empty without Cilla. And she writes about the new girl in school, June, who becomes her friend, and then maybe more than a friend.

Evie could really use some advice from Cilla. But Cilla isn’t writing back, and it’s time for Evie to take matters into her own hands.

P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy is a heartfelt middle grade novel dealing with faith, identity, and finding your way in difficult times.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Oh, friends. We need SO MANY MORE middle grade books about LGBTQIA+ kids. I can’t wait for the day that kids of all identities can see themselves joyfully and lovingly represented and embraced.

Evie’s path to discovering who she really is is a very complicated and painful one. The entire book is told through letters to her sister Cilla, who at first has no internet/phone access and then later just isn’t responding. At first I couldn’t get past how extremely dated it feels to only be able to communicate through snail mail, but I did get past that once I got caught up in the story. Cilla got pregnant at sixteen and has been sent away from their home in Massachusetts to their great-aunt’s home in Virginia, to have the baby in secret, then to head to an all-girls’ Catholic boarding school after the baby is born and adopted. Evie desperately misses her sister and sends her endless letters, despite only rarely (and tersely) hearing back from Cilla. Evie’s extremely judgmental and withholding parents have retreated into work and baking/hiding away crying since Cilla left, leaving Evie so alone as she navigates some new feelings toward new classmate June. But it’s not like her parents would be comforting or loving to Evie during this time, anyway. The version of Catholicism that they practice is a strict and punishing one, one that makes them shun their pregnant daughter and, Evie is sure, would make them just as quickly disown their lesbian daughter. So she writes to Cilla, despite the silence back, trying to work out her feelings for June and process her sister’s absence. Evie is not at all prepared for what she finds when she goes looking on her own to find her sister. Uncovering a betrayal so profound that it’s hard to imagine it actually happening, Evie is forced to face the lengths some people will go to to maintain appearances and hide secrets. It’s a revelation that will change her life and her perception of her family, religion, and her thoughts on her own identity.

 

There is so much shame, stigma, and embarrassment here. Their parents constantly talk about how horrible Cilla’s “mistake” and “sin” is. They are mortified, deeply ashamed, and do everything to hide what has happened, including the very outdated-feeling move of sending her away to have the baby in secret. They have completely turned their back on Cilla, not communicating with her, showing any love, or even uttering her name. They remove her pictures from their walls, spin lies to the community about where she is, and even tell an old friend that Evie is their only child. The constant onslaught of shame and judgment toward teen pregnancy honestly got really hard to stomach.

 

Evie is very, very young-sounding and naive. The story takes place during 7th grade, but quite often, she feels much younger. She initially thinks in pretty simplistic ways (“bad girls get pregnant”). When she meets June, she notes that she’s never met anyone with dyed hair. When she learns June is an atheist, she again notes that she’s never met one. She observes that her sister broke commandments and sinned, but that she’s learned her lesson and won’t sin again. It’s clear how much of her thinking early on in the book has been influenced by her (awful) parents. Her thoughts on everything change and progress as the story unfolds, but for quite a bit of the story she is sheltered, naive, and parroting her parents’ beliefs. This development, this change to having her own opinions on right and wrong, on religion’s role in her life, on things like teen pregnancy and homosexuality, is believable if not always easy to read.

 

Evie’s relationship with June also develops in a believable, if not always happy, way. Though she recognizes and struggles with the crush she has on June early on, she is so worried that her parents will disown her, that she’s a sinner, that she’s doing something wrong. But she pushes past that and lets herself feel what she feels. Their relationship follows a very typical trajectory for 7th graders—they’re hesitant, nervous, excited, and happy. They hold sweaty hands, kiss (once, then Evie decides she isn’t ready to be doing that), and spend tons of time together. But for much of the book, it’s all in secret. Thankfully, when Evie does tell her best friends what is going on, they react positively. But even when Evie has told June how she feels and they are girlfriends, Evie notes that she still feels a little ashamed of herself for liking a girl.

 

My hope is that readers can see past the onslaught of shame and stigma, even felt and perpetuated by Evie herself, to see the joy of discovering someone you have a crush on and see how Evie eventually learns to not hide or be ashamed of who she is. A well-written, if deeply uncomfortable and often disheartening, look at identity, family, and secrets. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781250123480
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication date: 03/06/2018

Book Review: The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis

Publisher’s description

A raw, powerful, but ultimately uplifting debut novel perfect for fans of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe from debut author Angelo Surmelis.

Seventeen-year-old Evan Panos doesn’t know where he fits in. His strict immigrant Greek mother refuses to see him as anything but a disappointment. His quiet, workaholic father is a staunch believer in avoiding any kind of conflict. And his best friend, Henry, has somehow become distractingly attractive over the summer.

Tired, isolated, scared—Evan finds that his only escape is to draw in an abandoned monastery that feels as lonely as he is. And yes, he kissed one guy over the summer. But it’s Henry who’s now proving to be irresistible. Henry, who suddenly seems interested in being more than friends. And it’s Henry who makes him believe that he deserves more than his mother’s harsh words and terrifying abuse.

But as things with Henry heat up, and his mother’s abuse escalates, Evan has to decide how to find his voice in a world where he has survived so long by being silent.

This is a powerful and revelatory coming-of-age novel based on the author’s own childhood, about a boy who learns to step into his light.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

dangerous artThis was a rough read. The abuse and homophobia are nonstop. Though this is absolutely a worthwhile read and is very well written, readers need to know going in that Evan suffers a lot at the hands of his peers and his own mother.

Illinois 17-year-old Evan Panos spends most of his life hiding and hoping to fly under the radar. His extremely abusive Greek mother has spent his whole life hurting him, telling him he’s ugly and a sinner, that she wishes he were gone, as she beats him. Though not out, his religious mother has lived in fear that Evan is gay (“deviant”), bringing in other devout members from their church to pray that he’s released from this “demon.” His father doesn’t agree with his wife’s tactics, but also doesn’t (generally) intervene. Evan’s cuts and bruises don’t go unnoticed, but he explains them away by telling people he’s just incredibly clumsy and falls a lot. But everything starts to change when Evan and his lifelong best friend, Henry, realize they’re falling for each other. Evan is so afraid to trust anyone, and even though Henry is his best friend, he has his reasons for being hesitant (reasons that go beyond what his mother will do to him if she finds out about any of this). Can Evan begin to reveal the many secret sides to his life, or will revealing those secrets be the thing that ends him?

 

Like I said, this is a hard read. Evan has virtually no support. Even as adults begin to figure out, or suspect, what has been happening to him, no one intervenes. His mother is unrelentingly abusive and all of the scenes of violence are right there on the page. To watch that, and to watch Evan try to explain it all away, is heartbreaking. His classmates constantly accuse him of being gay, hurling disgusting slurs around. What he has with Henry is lovely, if at times complicated, but the romance takes a backseat to the story of the abuse. Make sure readers who pick this up also realize there are plenty of books about happy, accepted, safe gay kids, too. The author includes a note at the end, talking about how the his own personal story mirrored Evan’s, and resources for help. A powerful and devastating read with some of the worst physical and emotional abuse I’ve ever seen in a YA book. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062659002
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/30/2018

Book Review: The Ocean in My Ears by Meagan Macvie

Publisher’s description

ra6Meri Miller lives in Soldotna, Alaska. Never heard of it? That’s because in Slowdotna the most riveting activities for a teenager are salmon fishing and grabbing a Big Gulp at the local 7-Eleven. More than anything, Meri wants to hop in her VW Bug and head somewhere exciting, like New York or L.A. or any city where going to the theater doesn’t only mean the movies. Everything is so scripted here—don’t have too much fun, date this guy because he’s older and popular, stay put because that’s what everyone else does.

But when her senior year should be all boys, SAT prep, and prom drama, Meri feels more and more distance between herself and the people she loves. Her grandma dies, her brother gets hurt, and even her best friend checks out to spend more time with some guy. As she struggles with family, grief, friends, and hormones, Meri must decide if she really is ready for the world beyond her backyard.

Meagan Macvie’s debut novel, The Ocean in My Ears , raises questions of love, purpose, and the power to choose your own future even when your future’s the thing that scares you the most.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

the oceanMeri is complex. Heading into her senior year of high school, she’s desperate to leave her tiny Alaska town (a town known for two things—salmon fishing and having the highest per capita teen birthrate in the nation), but also terrified of leaving behind everything she knows. She has sex with a creepy older guy she’s dating but is also worried that it’s a sin and she might regret it (also, he’s a terrible human being but she hangs out with him for waaaaay too long). She doesn’t reveal anything about her life to her distant (both emotionally and physically) parents but longs for someone to do some parenting and for them to maybe understand her or even just see her. She has big dreams and big doubts. She’s been raised in a religious setting, having gone to Christian school until junior high. Her mother, and the church, repeatedly drive home the point that sex outside of marriage is a sin. It’s terrible, awful, you will go to hell, you will get diseases, you will get pregnant. Meri hears all of this but still wants to make her own choices, come to her own conclusions. It’s never easy stumbling your way through adolescence (the only way through is by stumbling, I think), but Meri is having a particularly hard time senior year. Her dad is either always off working in the oil fields or at home ordering her around, her grandma is dying (and her mom is gone for much of the book in Idaho tending to Meri’s grandma), her best friend has ditched her for a boy, and she likes Joaquin, a nice dude who she worries her parents won’t approve of, but instead dates jerky oaf Brett. She’s trying to figure out what she wants in life, but that’s hard to do in her tiny, isolated town with the constant talk of judging, sinning, and Satan.

 

Set in 1990, this look at a small town girl feeling trapped, frustrated, and ready to explore bigger horizons will appeal to fans of Carrie Mesrobian’s Just a Girl and other realistic YA where the main plot is the day-to-day existence of a teenager just trying to figure it all out. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781932010947
Publisher: Ooligan Press
Publication date: 11/07/2017

Book Review: Release by Patrick Ness

Publisher’s description

ra6Inspired by Judy Blume’s Forever and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, this novel that Andrew Smith calls “beautiful, enchanting, [and] exquisitely written” is a new classic about teenage relationships, self-acceptance—and what happens when the walls we build start coming down.

Adam Thorn doesn’t know it yet, but today will change his life.

Between his religious family, a deeply unpleasant ultimatum from his boss, and his own unrequited love for his sort-of ex, Enzo, it seems as though Adam’s life is falling apart.  At least he has two people to keep him sane: his new boyfriend (he does love Linus, doesn’t he?) and his best friend, Angela.

But all day long, old memories and new heartaches come crashing together, throwing Adam’s life into chaos. The bindings of his world are coming untied one by one; yet in spite of everything he has to let go, he may also find freedom in the release.

From the New York Times bestselling author of A Monster Calls comes a raw, darkly funny, and deeply affecting story about the courage it takes to live your truth.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

releaseYou know one of my very favorite books of all time is The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, right? I loved the really strange setup of that book, and when I saw that this book does something similar(ish), I was psyched. Admittedly, this setup of two narratives that seemingly have very little to do with one another will not appeal to everyone. In fact, I suspect that people who are only in it for the realistic main story will potentially skip over the shorter chapters that delve into the supernatural—though they would be remiss in making this choice.

In a dear reader letter at the beginning of this galley, Ness writes, “How do we ever, ever survive our teenage years? Every young person you meet is a walking, talking miracle.” I could not like this more. I agree with him SO HARD and think that the fact that he so obviously truly believes this sentiment is part of what makes him such a profoundly great writer. He understands those teenage years and isn’t afraid to show them in all their glory and horror. He doesn’t shy away from anything—not in any previous books, and certainly not in this new one.

The story here takes place in one day—one monumental, wonderful, awful day full of surprises both good and bad. Adam, nearly 18, lives in Frome, Washington. His dad is a minister and Adam considers himself completely under his dad’s Yoke while he still lives at home. Having homophobic, conservative parents means that Adam hides most of his true self from them. He’s gay and feels about one second away from them sending him to a conversion camp at any given point in time. But he has Angela, his very best friend, and Linus, his boyfriend whom he is trying really, really hard to give himself fully to (if only he could get over his lingering love for Enzo, his crappy ex-boyfriend). He also has a boss who sexually harasses him, a seemingly perfect older brother who is about to drop a shocking revelation on the family, and doesn’t know today is also the day he learns a secret from Angela that will throw him for a loop.

All of this is happening while the ghost of a local girl recently murdered by her meth-addicted boyfriend is carrying out her own part of the story, one that involves a giant fawn, visits to familiar places, confrontations, and an unexpected path to release. In anyone else’s hands, I would probably be left thinking, Um, okay, what is this doing here? But it’s Ness. He’s brilliant. He makes these dual but mostly unrelated narratives both work exceptionally well.

In my notes for this book, I noted a lot of passages and just wrote “YES!” or “I’m cheering!” or “OMG, I love Adam.” He is loved and supported (by his friends). He is vulnerable and feels undeserving of love. He is hurting but working through it. He is scared and confrontational. He contains multitudes. His relationship with Linus, sweet, patient, lovely Linus, is a thing of beauty. There is a lot of on the page sex and intimacy, which especially goes to prove the real difference between Linus and Enzo. There are wonderfully frank discussions of sex and sexuality between Adam and Angela, including a fantastic exchange about labels, fluidity, and the liberation that the right label can bring.

I read this book in one sitting. I didn’t want it to be over. It’s heartbreaking, beautiful, funny, odd, smart, and just truly stunning. This is easily one of my favorite reads so far in 2017. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062403193

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 09/19/2017

#FSYALit: From Rejection to Reconciliation: Changing Notions of Faith and Spirituality in LGBTQ YA, a guest post by Rob Bittner

faith and Spirituality“What I would love to see more of in Queer YA with Christian sub-plots is the ability of characters to reimagine their spirituality—their faith—in ways which incorporate gender and sexual identities, instead of feeling the need to abandon all religious and spiritual components of their identities.” –Rob Bittner

 

Back in 2015 (was that really two years ago already?) I wrote a piece for TLT exploring the role of religion and religious communities on the lives of queer teens in YA literature. In these last two years (though more like the last two months) I’ve been coming across a significant number of the texts that I had been hoping for in my last post. I wanted nuance, and I’m starting to see it. I wanted complexity, and it’s happening. I can’t tell you how excited that makes me! But first, let me go back and bit and plot how I got here and why I think this progress is so important.

 

I have been keeping an eye on books featuring queer characters in religious contexts for the last decade. When I was in my undergrad, I started on a directed study on books with LGBTQ content. My supervisor asked me about the direction in which I was hoping to go, and at the time I wasn’t entirely sure. Looking back at my own past and my history as a gay man within the Christian church, I wondered how, if at all, such experiences were being discussed in books for young readers. Keep in mind that only ten years ago, it was still difficult to find much in the way of LGBTQ literature for YA audiences, so trying to find religious representation within that limited subgenre felt at first like an impossible task. It certainly took a lot of effort to find materials, but I came across a few examples, and some from larger publishers, too. I discussed a number of these in more detail in my previous post. Here are some main points to refresh your memory:

 

  • Early LGBTQ YA tends to frame Christianity (or any major religion really) as the enemy, often in the form of a religious leader preaching fire and brimstone for any and all non-normative genders and sexualities (Nothing Pink, Desire Lines);
  • Queer teens often sent away to camps for degayification (Caught in the Crossfire, Thinking Straight, The Miseducation of Cameron Post);
  • Earlier narratives often include long and didactic passages with characters debating scripture in an effort to show which side is right (Nothing Pink, The God Box, Gravity);
  • The novels were basically able to be split into two categories: novels of reconciliation (characters are able to reconcile queerness and spirituality, though not very often), and novels of abandonment (characters have to abandon either their faith or their sexuality in order to survive, and this is the more common trope.)

 

After reading so many of these books, I started to feel as though I was just reading the same narrative multiple times with different characters at the center. It became quite frustrating. In a way, I started to avoid books with religious content if I knew about it beforehand. Recently, however, I started reviewing for a mainstream review journal, and they started to send me books with LGBTQ characters in religious contexts. I almost rolled my eyes, but I’m glad I didn’t. After reading the first book, Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens, I realized that the narrative wasn’t following my assumptions; the story was actively working against the tropes I noted above! In the last two years I’ve read a number of novels that I’d like to briefly talk about in terms of the ways that they reject stereotypes and normative tropes for the complexity and nuance I have been advocating for.

 

autoAutoboyography by Christina Lauren (due out in September 2017)—the combined pen name of authors Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings—follows once-openly bisexual Tanner Scott as he moves with his family from California to Utah, where he is asked by his parents to go back into the closet for a bit to avoid causing trouble. Tanner’s mother is an ex-Mormon and she is concerned about how Tanner being bisexual will affect his standing within the conservative community. Tanner himself is ready to coast through his senior year so he can leave for college and be himself once again. His plans, though, get interrupted when, in a writing seminar, he finds himself distracted by the seriously hot Sebastian. In the wake of this sudden infatuation, Tanner and Sebastian develop a relationship and are both placed in a precarious situation because Sebastian’s family is very much Mormon and very much opposed to non-normative sexuality. Though some of the descriptions of Sebastian’s family could be considered overly biased, I feel that the conversations around religion and sexuality between the main characters is ultimately hopeful. And the narrative also avoids use of scriptural debates, anti-gay preaching from the pulpit, and the use of a gay conversion camp within the overarching plot. I think it’s ultimately a novel that will provide food for thought for those who want something along the lines of Latter Days but without the stilted characters and the choppy plot.

 

georgiaAnother novel that uses the back-in-the-closet story, is Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown. In this novel, Joanna Gordon has been out and proud for years, until her father, a radio televangelist, moves her family from Atlanta to Rome, Georgia. Similar to Autoboyography, the new, more conservative setting leads Joanna’s father to ask her if she might be willing to go back in the closet, at least until his ministry has had a chance to grow and find a following; he doesn’t want her to rock the boat. As always happens, Jo meets a new girl at school and falls for her. She begins to wonder if she will be able to keep her promise to her father, or if the request itself was just plain wrong in the first place. The role of the televangelist father could have led to fire and brimstone preaching, but the narrative is refreshingly devoid of such a problematic trope. The novel is actually a lot more nuanced than the plot might initially suggest, and religion and sexuality are allowed to coexist without either being demonized or made out to be wrong. Along with this, Brown puts queer sex on the page, and she isn’t afraid to discuss sex and religion within a larger spiritual context, something which is entirely missing from so many books that contain both non-normative sexualities and faith and spirituality. Quite a refreshing read!

 

dress-codesPerhaps my favorite, though, is the aforementioned Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens. Stevens herself was previously a pastor, and therefore has an insider knowledge that I think really helps to elevate her narrative. When reviewing the novel for Booklist back in July, I gave it a starred review because I felt that it was an exemplary text in what was previously a very small and problematic body of work on gender/sexual difference in YA with components of faith and spirituality. In Dress Codes, Billie McCaffrey—an artist, troublemaker, and the daughter of a preacher—finds herself at the center of a rather difficult situation after she and her friends accidentally burn down a section of their church. To make things worse, the Harvest Festival is coming up and one of the main supporters has just passed away, leaving the Festival in jeopardy. Billie has to find a way to keep her friends out of trouble while also performing community service, trying to save the Harvest Festival, and trying to explore her own gender and sexuality. Stevens builds characters with incredible depth and confronts expectations and assumptions of gender and sexuality head-on, but with delicacy and nuance. The representation of religion is one of compassion and a desire to build bridges rather than walls, giving teen readers the impression that reconciliation between religion and gender/sexual difference is indeed possible.

 

This brief glimpse at changes since my first post on the subject is not meant to be a comprehensive examination of all of the books released since 2015 that match the criteria, but rather to give a sample of the literature available and to show how representations have changed to be more inclusive, less didactic, more compassionate, and less polarizing. Other books such as Jeffrey Self’s A Very, Very Bad Thing (out in October) is a really interesting novel, but the obvious bias against evangelical Christianity is evident in the depiction of a number of characters and makes it easier for readers to demonize Christianity within the context of the novel. There is always room to grow and improve, but the last two years have shown me that sometimes change can happen more quickly than we sometimes think in children’s and YA publishing. I would love to hear of other examples that people have come across and recommendations from those who are also interested in this topic.

 

Meet Rob Bittner

Photo credit: Sonya Sones

Photo credit: Sonya Sones

 

Rob Bittner is an instructor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Okanagan College in Kelowna, BC. He studies long-term trends in representation in YA fiction with LGBTQ content. You can find him on Twitter (@r_bittner) or his review blog, Sense and Sensibility and Stories (unquestionably-palatable.blogspot.com).

Book Review: Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Publisher’s description

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

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

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

 

Amanda’s thoughts

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

 

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

 

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

 

ISBN-13: 9781481492065

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

Publication date: 03/14/2017

Book Review: Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley

Publisher’s description

our-ownFifteen-year-old Aki Simon has a theory. And it’s mostly about sex.

No, it isn’t that kind of theory. Aki already knows she’s bisexual—even if, until now, it’s mostly been in the hypothetical sense. Aki has dated only guys so far, and her best friend, Lori, is the only person who knows she likes girls, too.

Actually, Aki’s theory is that she’s got only one shot at living an interesting life—and that means she’s got to stop sitting around and thinking so much. It’s time for her to actually do something. Or at least try.

So when Aki and Lori set off on a church youth-group trip to a small Mexican town for the summer and Aki meets Christa—slightly older, far more experienced—it seems her theory is prime for the testing.

But it’s not going to be easy. For one thing, how exactly do two girls have sex, anyway? And more important, how can you tell if you’re in love? It’s going to be a summer of testing theories—and the result may just be love.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Maryland 15-year-olds Aki, who is black, and her white best friend, Lori, are spending a month in a teeny town far outside of Tijuana. They’re there on a mission trip with their church, helping to build a new church, along with groups from two other churches (from Maryland and West Virginia). Aki’s dad, the youth minister, is on the trip, as is Lori’s aunt, as a chaperone. Lori’s excited about the chance to meet some new boys and hopefully have a summer fling. Aki is apprehensively excited to maybe finally start feeling like she’s living her life. She feels like everything is hypothetical, just ideas, and that she never actually lives out anything, instead stuck endlessly debating everything in her head. Last year, Aki told Lori she thinks she might be bisexual—but Aki feels that her identity, like everything else in her life, is only hypothetical. This all changes when she meets cute white, pansexual Christa, who is a year older and seems far bolder and more experienced than Aki. The girls start hooking up, deciding that what they are having is just a summer fling. After all, Christa has a boyfriend back home, though they decided to be on a break for the summer and see other people. Christa has heard that Aki is a talented musician, and Aki, who gave up music a while back for complicated reasons, allows Christa to continue to think she’s still actively playing and composing. It’s just a fling—there’s no harm in some little lies, is there? Before long, the two are sneaking away every chance they get, despite being worried about being found out. Christa has always hidden her sexuality from her very conservative parents and is worried it would somehow get back to them that she’s hooking up with Aki. Aki’s brother, also on the trip, says their parents wouldn’t be okay with Aki being queer. So they keep it a secret. Or try to.

 

Meanwhile, Aki’s relationship with Lori is falling apart, as she’s pretty much completely bailed on her to be with Christa. The two get in a major fight when Lori reveals who she has been secretly hooking up with—someone that is such a bad choice, Aki thinks they should turn to an adult for some guidance. And while Aki is pretty obsessed with Christa, she’s also working on the things they went to Mexico to do—painting, building a fence, working with children—and growing more interested and involved in some of the social justice issues the national convention will be voting on. She and Jake, a bi boy from another church, start some petitions and work on putting together a debate to educate their group about the issues.

 

A big part of Aki’s story is trying to figure out exactly what her identity is and what it means for her. She spends a lot of time thinking about what it means to be bisexual. She knows she is “not straight.” She knows she is attracted to girls–or at least to Christa. She has a lot of questions and thoughts about the fluid nature of sexuality, about labels, about identities shifting, about what it means to be bisexual. I think these thoughts and questions make this an especially valuable book for teens. Aki is young, just starting to figure out her identity, and completely open to asking herself questions. She is just starting to meet other queer teenagers (closeted Christa, possibly-soon-to-be-out Jake, and openly queer Madison). She is starting to reveal her identity (whatever it is or may become) to people in her life. She is also learning a lot about sex—not just from first-person experience, but from research. As she and Christa grow closer, Aki spends some time researching safer sex options. She tracks down what she needs while the youth group is at a college for two days for a conference. She’s informed and takes charge.

 

It’s a big month for Aki, one where her life finally starts to feel real and not just hypothetical. The underlying themes of changing people’s minds, truth, honesty, and love are reinforced through multiple storylines with Aki and many secondary characters. This exploration of love, sex, and identity is thoughtfully told. Aki’s interest in and thoughts on both religion and social justice issues help show just how much growing she is doing while taking a more active role in her own life. Talley has a knack for writing really complicated, authentic characters. Readers will appreciate the obvious respect for teenagers as smart, thoughtful, complex, sexual, and politically-aware beings. A great story about first love and a growing awareness of both self and the greater world. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780373211982

Publisher: Harlequin

Publication date: 01/31/2017

Book Review: Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki

Publisher’s description

savingA beautiful and offbeat novel from Mariko Tamaki, co-creator of the bestselling Printz Honor and Caldecott Honor Book This One Summer.

Montgomery Sole is a square peg in a small town, forced to go to a school full of jocks and girls who don’t even know what irony is. It would all be impossible if it weren’t for her best friends, Thomas and Naoki. The three are also the only members of Jefferson High’s Mystery Club, dedicated to exploring the weird and unexplained, from ESP and astrology to super powers and mysterious objects.

Then there’s the Eye of Know, the possibly powerful crystal amulet Monty bought online. Will it help her predict the future or fight back against the ignorant jerks who make fun of Thomas for being gay or Monty for having lesbian moms? Maybe the Eye is here just in time, because the newest resident of their small town is scarier than mothmen, poltergeists, or, you know, gym.

Thoughtful, funny, and painfully honest, Montgomery Sole is someone you’ll want to laugh and cry with over a big cup of frozen yogurt with extra toppings.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Let me jump right to this point: I really wish they had made Montgomery maybe 13 instead of 16 and turned this into a middle grade novel. Because her voice comes across as much younger than 16. I liked a lot of what was going on in this novel, but kept getting hung up on how young she felt and much better this would have worked for me if it wasn’t YA.

 

Montgomery really only likes her best friends Thomas and Naoki. Everyone else exasperates her. She’s surrounded by people who seem uninteresting and small-minded. She takes a lot of heat for having lesbian moms, just as Thomas puts up with a lot of taunting for being gay. She feels like an outsider all the time. The only thing she really likes it the mystery club she and her friends have. Investigating mysterious, paranormal things is intriguing to her, even if none of them seem to work out or be true. She aptly notes, “I’ve always been, like, this inexplicable thing, a mystery object that’s not like anyone else at this school. I guess it’s possible that that’s part of why I’m so obsessed with other inexplicable things.” Montgomery is so certain that no one really understands her, that everyone other than her best friends suck (and she even fights with them). She’s angry, sees things as black and white, and makes a lot of assumptions. As you might expect, the mystery she learns the most about in this story is herself.

 

Homophobia and religion play large parts in this story, especially once the “I’m going to save the American family” Reverend White shows up in town. Montgomery fills the reader in on the long history of those issues looming large in their own extended family, helping us understand why she reacts how she does (well—there’s no context needed for why she gets furious about all the homophobic comments, but the religion aspect makes a little more sense when you learn more about her family). I liked the fact that her moms show up a lot in the story and are so loving and supportive of Monty, even though she’s constantly pushing them away and covering up all the feelings and experiences she could be sharing with them.

 

There was a lot to like in this story, with really interesting characters, but the execution of it just fell flat for me. I’m good with stories having very little actual plot as long as the relationships between the characters and the dialogue can propel the story forward, but here I often found myself sort of bored by their repetitive conversations and Monty’s one-note behavior and feelings. Useful to put this one on the list of YA books that skew younger. The premise is interesting, but I just wanted more.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781626722712

Publisher: Roaring Brook Press

Publication date: 04/19/2016