Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

TLT TURNS TEN: Ten Fav Books I’ve Reviewed

I have been with TLT for seven years and over that time, I have reviewed A LOT of books. A LOT. Here are ten of my favorite YA books that have stuck with me over the years for various reasons. Maybe you missed reading these titles, and if that’s the case, get them on your summer reading list ASAP!

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero (ISBN-13: 9781935955955 Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press Publication date: 10/14/2014)

Publisher’s description

Gabi Hernandez chronicles her last year in high school in her diary: college applications, Cindy’s pregnancy, Sebastian’s coming out, the cute boys, her father’s meth habit, and the food she craves. And best of all, the poetry that helps forge her identity.

July 24

My mother named me Gabriella, after my grandmother who, coincidentally, didn’t want to meet me when I was born because my mother was unmarried, and therefore living in sin. My mom has told me the story many, many, MANY, times of how, when she confessed to my grandmother that she was pregnant with me, her mother beat her. BEAT HER! She was twenty-five. That story is the basis of my sexual education and has reiterated why it’s important to wait until you’re married to give it up. So now, every time I go out with a guy, my mom says, “Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas.” Eyes open, legs closed. That’s as far as the birds and the bees talk has gone. And I don’t mind it. I don’t necessarily agree with that whole wait until you’re married crap, though. I mean, this is America and the 21st century; not Mexico one hundred years ago. But, of course, I can’t tell my mom that because she will think I’m bad. Or worse: trying to be White.

From my review

In Gabi, we have a protagonist who challenges expectations, thinks for herself, and isn’t afraid of putting herself out there or making mistakes. I can’t rave enough about how wonderful this book is. Not only does Quintero unflinchingly address important issues, she’s created multifaceted characters who leap off the page. Gabi and her friends became so real to me that I often forgot this was fiction—it truly felt like reading a real teenager’s diary. I finished the book feeling honored to have watched Gabi grow as a poet and a young woman. I set the book down when I was done wishing I could read books of Gabi’s diaries from the high school years prior to this one, or to see a diary of what her life will hold now that she’s heading off to college. An all-around brilliant and outstanding look at one ordinary year in the life of an extraordinary teenage girl.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez (ISBN-13: 9781467742023 Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group Publication date: 09/01/2015)

Publisher’s description

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

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.

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

From my review

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

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

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

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness (ISBN-13: 9780062403162 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 10/06/2015)

A bold and irreverent YA novel that powerfully reminds us that there are many different types of remarkable, The Rest of Just Live Here is from novelist Patrick Ness, author of the Carnegie Medal- and Kate Greenaway Medal-winning A Monster Calls and the critically acclaimed Chaos Walking trilogy.

What if you aren’t the Chosen One? The one who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever the heck this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death?

What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again.

Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life.

Even if your best friend is worshipped by mountain lions.

From my review

It’s a month prior to graduation and Mel, Mikey, Henna, and Jared are spending their last few weeks all together before their post-high school lives split them up. Outside of the constant background threat of possible undead masses coming to destroy the town, the kids lead pretty normal lives. Mike is full of anxiety about his friends, his future, and his family. He suffers from OCD and can’t stop getting stuck in repetitive loops. Mel, who’s one year older than her brother Mike, is making up for the year of school she lost while battling anorexia. Henna, the object of Mike’s affection, is not super excited to be heading to a war-torn African country for the summer. And Jared? Well, he’s a little less normal. He’s three-quarters Jewish and one-quarter God. His mother was a half-Goddess. So what exactly is Jared a god of? Cats. Mikey starts to stress out more when Nathan moves to town five weeks before graduation. Henna seems interested in him, much to Mikey’s dismay, and he can’t help but think it’s super suspicious that Nathan’s arrival happens to coincide with a resurgence of supernatural activity.

There is a lot to love about this book. The structure is intriguing, the writing is smart and funny, and the characters are incredibly interesting and well-developed. I love how they interact with each other and care for each other. At one point, Mike’s OCD has made him wash his face until it’s raw. Jared dabs some moisturizer on it for him. In Mike’s narration, he says, “Yeah, I know most people would think it weird that two guy friends touch as much as we do, but when you choose your family, you get to choose how it is between you, too. This is how we work. I hope you get to choose your family and I hope it means as much to you as mine does to me.” These friends care deeply for one another (and explore just what exactly might be found in the depth of those feelings, with Mike noting very matter-of-factly that he and Jared have hooked up in the past–“And fine, he and I have messed around a few times growing up together, even though I like girls, even though I like Henna, because a horny teenage boy would do it with a tree trunk if it offered at the right moment….”). Their stories dovetail at times with the story of the indie kids waging war against a potential apocalypse (those poor indie kids, always battling the undead, ghosts, and vampires. At one point, Mike notes there are two more indie kids dead. Henna says, “This is worse than when they were all dying beautifully of cancer.” GOD I LOVE THIS BOOK), but they prove that daily teenage life is just as fraught and dramatic as the lives of The Chosen Ones.

See No Color by Shannon Gibney (Originally published 11/01/2015 in hardcover. Paperback info: ISBN-13: 9780823445684 Publisher: Holiday House Publication date: 07/14/2020)

Publisher’s description

Black daughter, white father, white mother. Race, adoption, and identity collide in this award-winning #OwnVoices debut about a teen challenging the life she’s always known.

Being a transracial adoptee doesn’t bother sixteen-year-old Alex Kirtridge-at least, not in a way she can explain to her white family. It doesn’t matter that she’s biracial when she’s the star of the baseball team. But when Alex is off the field, she’s teased for “acting” too white and judged for looking black. And while she loves her parents, her hot-headed brother, and her free-speaking sister, they don’t seem to understand what it means that Reggie, a fellow ball player, is the first black guy who’s wanted to get to know her. 

Things only get more complicated when she finds hidden letters from her birth father. Alex can’t stop asking questions. Does she really fit in with her family? What would it be like to go to a black hairdresser? Should she contact her birth father, despite the fact that it might devastate her parents? Meanwhile, her body is changing, and Alex isn’t sure she can keep up with her teammates. If she’s going to find answers, Alex must come to terms with her adoption, her race, and the dreams she thought would always guide her.

Author Shannon Gibney draws from her own experiences as a transracial adoptee to deliver this honest coming-of-age novel about a girl who doesn’t know where she wants to fit in. Paperback edition includes a reading guide at the back!

From my review

Mixed into the narrative are incidents from Alex’s past, such as being a small child at the beach and a rude woman telling her she’s floated too far from her “host family.” The woman goes on to ask if she speaks English and asks where she’s from. When Alex’s white mother appears, the woman’s tiny brain explodes. She sputters over how it could be possible that this girl belongs to this woman. When Alex’s mom tries to make her feel better about what happened, she says, “We are all one in this family, okay? We don’t even see color.” As readers, we understand that Alex’s family believes this to be true and to be a good thing. But of course, their constant correction that she’s mixed proves otherwise, and claiming to be colorblind isn’t really helping anything, as it ignores and invalidates identities and experiences.

Kit is the one who really pushes this conversation, asking her family what they actually think about Alex being the only black person in an otherwise white family. She says she sees how people stare at their family. “But it’s like this secret, you know? Like no one is supposed to actually admit that she’s black, or maybe more that she’s not white.” Of course, we all know what her father does, right? “Alex is only half black,” he says. Just in case anyone forgot. But this family doesn’t see color. Later, Alex exasperatedly says to Kit that she doesn’t even know what “mixed,” her dad’s favorite word, is supposed to mean. “Mixed. As far as I can tell, it means closer to white for Mom and Dad, and the lightest shade of black for everyone else.” Later, her father, apparently trying to be loving and reassuring, tells her, “I just want you to know that your mother and I, we will always see you as just you, as Alex. There’s nothing black—or particularly… racial–about you to us because you’re our little girl and always will be.” Alex notes that the way he says “black” is cringe-inducing, “like it was the worst thing a person could be,” but that when her dad says “mixed,” he sounds prideful. More of these conversations happen over and over with her family.

The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu (ISBN-13: 9780399186738 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 01/31/2017)

Publisher’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.

From my review

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.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour (ISBN-13: 9780525425892 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 02/14/2017)

Publisher’s description

You go through life thinking there’s so much you need. . . . Until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother. Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart. 
 
An intimate whisper that packs an indelible punchWe Are Okay is Nina LaCour at her finest. This gorgeously crafted and achingly honest portrayal of grief will leave you urgent to reach across any distance to reconnect with the people you love.

From my review

This is one of those books where I just don’t even want to say much of anything beyond OH MY GOD, GO READ THIS, IT’S STUNNING. I want the story to unfold for you like it did for me. I hadn’t so much as read the flap copy. I didn’t need to. It takes a while to figure out where the story might be going, and even once the pieces start to fall into place, it never feels predictable. This is, hands down, one of saddest books I have read in a very long time. But here’s how I mean that: you won’t cry all the way through. It’s not all doom and gloom. There is a lot of love and friendship to be found here. But Marin’s grief and loneliness will just destroy you.

And really, that’s all I’m telling you. The small summary up there of the plot gives you just enough of an outline to rope you in, but doesn’t reveal any of the really significant parts of the story. All you need to know is that this book will break your heart. But it won’t do it in a way that will leave you hopeless—I promise. A beautiful story of love, grief, and learning to heal. 

We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss (ISBN-13: 9780062494276 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 05/08/2018)

Publisher’s description

Luke and Toby have always had each other’s backs. But then one choice—or maybe it is a series of choices—sets them down an irrevocable path. We’ll Fly Away weaves together Luke and Toby’s senior year of high school with letters Luke writes to Toby later—from death row.

This thought-provoking novel is an exploration of friendship, regret, and redemption, for fans of Jason Reynolds and Marieke Nijkamp.

Best friends since childhood, Luke and Toby have dreamed of one thing: getting out of their dead-end town. Soon they finally will, riding the tails of Luke’s wrestling scholarship, never looking back. If they don’t drift apart first. If Toby’s abusive dad, or Luke’s unreliable mom, or anything else their complicated lives throw at them doesn’t get in the way.

In a format that alternates between Luke’s letters to Toby from death row and the events of their senior year, Bryan Bliss expertly unfolds the circumstances that led to Luke’s incarceration. Tense and emotional, this hard-hitting novel explores family abuse, sex, love, and friendship, and how far people will go to protect those they love. For fans of Jason Reynolds, Chris Crutcher, and NPR’s Serial podcast.

From my review

In Luke’s letters from death row, we see weird glimpses of hope that we could never see in the main narrative. I say “weird” because the kid is on death row. His letters are full of pain and anger, but also resiliency, and he works through so much in his letters to Toby. His letters give us a real insight into his mind during this time. It is, I would guess, virtually impossible for almost all of us to really imagine what it would be like to be on death row. To be waiting. To watch people you have come to know put to death. I think it can be easy for people to look at people in prison, on death row, and forget their humanity. It can be easy to write people off, to expect a punishment, to not see them as humans, to not understand what led them there, to not think about redemption or the worth of a life or what the death penalty really means. Bliss makes you think about all those things. He makes the reader understand that people are not just defined by one thing, but have entire lives and stories that led them to the act or acts that landed them in prison. He asks readers to see their complex lives and care about them. The standout characters, including the nun who routinely visits Luke in prison, are deeply affecting and beg readers to really pay attention to their lives and their choices. Though devastatingly sad, this is also a beautiful look at friendship between two boys—something we don’t always see much of in YA. This emotional, powerful, and unflinching look at friendship, loyalty, and the justice system is an absolute must for all collections. Not an easy read, but an important one. 

Heroine by Mindy McGinnis (ISBN-13: 9780062847195 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 03/12/2019)

Publisher’s description

A captivating and powerful exploration of the opioid crisis—the deadliest drug epidemic in American history—through the eyes of a college-bound softball star. Edgar Award-winning author Mindy McGinnis delivers a visceral and necessary novel about addiction, family, friendship, and hope.

When a car crash sidelines Mickey just before softball season, she has to find a way to hold on to her spot as the catcher for a team expected to make a historic tournament run. Behind the plate is the only place she’s ever felt comfortable, and the painkillers she’s been prescribed can help her get there.

The pills do more than take away pain; they make her feel good.

With a new circle of friends—fellow injured athletes, others with just time to kill—Mickey finds peaceful acceptance, and people with whom words come easily, even if it is just the pills loosening her tongue.

But as the pressure to be Mickey Catalan heightens, her need increases, and it becomes less about pain and more about want, something that could send her spiraling out of control.

From my review

All it takes is one prescription to kick-start a student athlete’s frightening descent into opioid addiction. After surgery following a car accident, Ohio softball phenom Mickey Catalan is prescribed OxyContin for pain. When she starts to run out of the Oxy she relies on to get through her physical therapy, she gets pills from a dealer, through whom she meets other young addicts. Mickey rationalizes what she’s doing and sees herself as a good girl who’s not like others who use drugs (like new friend Josie, who uses because she’s “bored”). Mickey loves how the pills make her feel, how they take her out of herself and relieve the pressures in her life. Soon she’s stealing, lying, and moving on to heroin. Her divorced parents, including her recovering addict stepmother, suspect something is going on, but Mickey is skilled at hiding her addiction. A trigger warning rightfully cautions graphic depictions of drug use. In brutally raw detail, readers see Mickey and friends snort powders, shoot up, and go through withdrawal. Intense pacing propels the gripping story toward the inevitable conclusion already revealed in the prologue. An author’s note and resources for addiction recovery are appended. This powerful, harrowing, and compassionate story humanizes addiction and will challenge readers to rethink what they may believe about addicts. VERDICT From the horrific first line to the hopeful yet devastating conclusion, McGinnis knocks it out of the park. A first purchase for all libraries serving teens.

Saving Savannah by Tonya Bolden (ISBN-13: 9781681198040 Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Publication date: 01/14/2020)

Publisher’s description

From acclaimed author Tonya Bolden comes the story of a teen girl becoming a woman on her own terms against the backdrop of widespread social change in the early 1900s.

Savannah Riddle is lucky. As a daughter of an upper class African American family in Washington D.C., she attends one of the most rigorous public schools in the nation—black or white—and has her pick among the young men in her set. But lately the structure of her society—the fancy parties, the Sunday teas, the pretentious men, and shallow young women—has started to suffocate her.

Then Savannah meets Lloyd, a young West Indian man from the working class who opens Savannah’s eyes to how the other half lives. Inspired to fight for change, Savannah starts attending suffragist lectures and socialist meetings, finding herself drawn more and more to Lloyd’s world.

Set against the backdrop of the press for women’s rights, the Red Summer, and anarchist bombings, Saving Savannah is the story of a girl and the risks she must take to be the change in a world on the brink of dramatic transformation.

From my review

This book is a mix of a very character-driven story for about 50% or more of the book, then a very action-driven story for the remainder. I really loved this book. In fact, I’ve been in a horrible reading slump for most of the past few weeks (thanks, depression!) and have started and abandoned a giant stack of books as I try to decide what to read and review here for TLT. I got lost in Savannah’s world and loved watching her awakening. Her best friend Yolande is always there, being horrified at Savannah’s choice of company, admonishing her for being around “common” people who are not their kind of people. Savannah’s own parents are less than pleased with her choices, so it takes real strength for Savannah to strike out on her own and make real strides to educate herself and expand her views. As D.C. and other major cities erupt in riots, bombings, lynchings, and fires, Savannah finds herself more involved in the action than she ever could have dreamed.

This complex story will put readers right in the middle of all the action and introduces a wide swath of ideas and perspectives. Set just over 100 years ago, the quest for social justice and real change makes for a powerful and still (always) relevant topic. An author’s note, historical photographs, notes, and sources all provide further context for Savannah’s story and her awakening in this engaging and unique read.

Super Fake Love Song by David Yoon (ISBN-13: 9781984812230 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 11/17/2020)

Publisher’s description

From the New York Times bestselling author of Frankly in Love comes a young adult romantic comedy about identity and acceptance. Perfect for fans of John Green and To All the Boys I’ve Love Before.

When Sunny Dae—self-proclaimed total nerd—meets Cirrus Soh, he can’t believe how cool and confident she is. So when Cirrus mistakes Sunny’s older brother Gray’s bedroom—with its electric guitars and rock posters—for Sunny’s own, he sort of, kind of, accidentally winds up telling her he’s the front man of a rock band.

Before he knows it, Sunny is knee-deep in the lie: He ropes his best friends into his scheme, begging them to form a fake band with him, and starts wearing Gray’s rock-and-roll castoffs. But no way can he trick this amazing girl into thinking he’s cool, right? Just when Sunny is about to come clean, Cirrus asks to see them play sometime. Gulp.

Now there’s only one thing to do: Fake it till you make it.

From my review

Here’s my favorite line from the book: Sunny and Cirrus are talking and she says, “It begs the question, What person isn’t just a made-up thing in the first place? Is it the fakery that makes us real? Is anything real?” And while that may sound like the kind of eye-roll-inducing conversation we all had as teens and thought was so deep, guess what? It is deep. Is there anything innate about our personalities or are we all just amalgamations of our interests and influences and ideals and emulations etc? And in Sunny’s case, is he actually faking being “cool” and interesting or is he indeed cool and interesting? Is changing our personalities and interests really in any way being “fake” when there’s nothing any more “real” about our previous identities or personalities or interests? How do you become who you are?

As I said in my review of Yoon’s previous book, I’m a hard one to make laugh, as a reader. Cry, sure, at the drop of a hat. But laugh? Rarely. But with this book, I laughed and laughed. I made note of brilliant lines. I went back and read clever conversations. I got completely sucked into the story and felt right there with the characters. I was shoving my fist right in there with theirs and shouting, “To metal!” I can’t say enough positive about this really smart, empathetic, and hilarious look at identity, friendship, preconceived notions, high school, and missteps. One of my very favorite reads this year.

Speak Your Mind

*