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In Which I Wrestle with THE WOODS ARE ALWAYS WATCHING by Stephanie Perkins

I am trying to figure out how I felt about The Woods are Always Watching by Stephanie Perkins and I have decided to write about it. Please note, I can’t talk about this book without talking about all of it. So spoilers will abound.

SPOILER ALERTS

TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL VIOLENCE WILL BE DISCUSSED

As is often the case for me, fall has become my spooky season. So I went looking for horror to read and, knowing that it’s about to be a Netflix movie, I started with There’s Someone Inside Your House. It was entertaining enough, so I went ahead and read Perkins newest YA thriller, The Woods are Always Watching. And I had a very strong negative emotional reaction to it, which I have been trying to process ever since. As someone who has reviewed books professionally for more than 20 years, I have had a hard time articulating my thoughts on this book. Today, however, I am going to try.

The premise is this: two friends have just graduated and are going on a camping trip in the mountains before separating for college. While in the woods they are pursued by madmen.

The book begins with these two girls who are supposed to have been best friends bitching at one another in the ways that toxic friends do. They have a list of unspoken grievances that come up and they use their words and the past to sling arrows at one another in the ways that far too many of us do. From the get go, this trip seems like a bad idea, but they persist and into the Appalachian mountains they go with a map, an inhaler, and very little experience among them to take a trip of this nature.

Then, one of the girls falls into a hole that is clearly meant to be a trap – but for what – or who? So they separate and the other one must try and make her way back to get help. She runs into a man who she at first thinks is going to help her and slowly she realizes that he is not, in fact, going to help her. There are things about this moment that I like: She has an instinct and trusts it, and her instinct is proven right. This part is a powerful moment.

Meanwhile, back at the hole, a man appears and at first the girl in the hole thinks he is going to rescue her, but he is not. This is where our first instance of sexual violence occurs as the man masturbates while the girl is stranded in the hole, clearly aroused by the peril he has put her in. And the girl, rightly, has a very negative and visceral reaction to this and talks about consent. She spends quite a lot of time in this hole, though she will eventually make her way out of it and attack this man.

Over time it becomes clear that the two men are working together and have a history of finding people in the woods and, of course, they kill the guys and rape the girls. Is this a thing that happens in real life? Yes, though not as often as you might think. You are far more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone you know and trust than you are by a stranger. But also, is it necessary to this story that we include sexual violence? I would argue no, it is not. Outside of the scene with the masturbation, there is no other sexual assault on the page, but there are some very real moments where sexual violence becomes a plot device. These girls are not just in peril, they are in peril from people who they know have a history of sexual violence who are going to do sexual violence against them. I would argue that it wasn’t necessary to this story and it falls into the realm of including sexual violence for plot or character development for the sake of plot or character development, but not adding anything meaningful to the discourse on this topic. It uses sexual violence to motivate in a story in which is wasn’t necessary to drive the plot forward, which happens a lot.

As a person who like to read mystery thrillers, I have thought about the above point a lot. I do not like the inclusions of sexual violence for entertainment, and yet I enjoy reading murder mysteries and thrillers. One of the things that I like about mystery and thrillers is that in the end, you get a sense of justice that you don’t often get in the real world. So I like the process of following the clues and solving the murder, but I also like the sense of justice you get at the end. But I wondered as I read this, why is it okay to use any type of violence or murder as a plot point and yet we push back when the same is done with sexual violence? It’s an interesting question to ponder, but I have drawn for myself a line in the sand that I am done with narratives that use sexual violence as plot or character backstory in ways that are necessary, titillating, or don’t help move the needle in our global conversations about sexual violence. Rape culture is real and the victims of sexual violence almost never get the justice that they deserve and I believe that this point makes a profound difference in how we evaluate narratives that include sexual violence.

At times, I feel like Stephanie Perkins is trying to write a feminist novel that talks about sexual violence in the lives of women. It can and has been done. I feel, however, that ultimately Perkins fails on her delivery here for a couple of reasons. One, the story did not need for the topic to be sexual violence for this story to work. Madmen in the woods pursuing these women could have just been madmen, the sexual violence part was not necessary or handled in a way that made it meaningful in my opinion.

The other way in which I think Perkins fails is this: the girls are ultimately saved by a bear. At one point, the girls rally and they determine they are going to save themselves. Yes, you think! Some female empowerment is happening here. This is a moment I can get behind. And yet, right as they are about to rescue themselves, they are saved by a bear. Is the bear somehow the spirit of the forest or the spirit of justice or the spirit of all the women that have been victims before to come save these two girls? Why does the bear attack the men and not the girls? In the end, I don’t think that I care because the girls, on the verge of saving themselves, have that moment stolen from them by a deus ex machina. As a reader, you want to cheer for these women who have saved themselves from this impending sexual violence that has chased them throughout this story and then you are robbed of that moment of victory.

As the two girls walk away, they talk about how they are forever scarred – both emotionally and literally, as one girl has lost a hand in the course of our story – and how they are forever bonded by their trauma. So these two girls who began are story fighting in stereotypical female ways and were set to go their own way because they felt that their friendship had run its course are now permanently scarred and bonded in trauma caused by two men. Would they have resolved their relationship on their own in fairly normal ways? Perhaps, but we’ll never know. Because now they are forever and always bonded by their trauma.

Another point that really bothered me was the depiction of the two men themselves. The men are stereotypical ignorant, meth head hillbillies from Appalachia who rape and kill. There are not a lot of depictions of people from Appalachia in YA, so it’s unfortunate that one of the few we have gotten recently includes this stereotype. I’m from Ohio and don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of these types of men to go around, but we get so little discussion and depiction of Appalachians in YA that this is not the representation the region needs. Thankfully, the new book In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner has some recent representation of Appalachia as well and he manages to balance some hard truths of the region with great characters and hope.

I have had some behind the scenes discussions with people about this book as I wrestled with what I thought and felt about reading it. I think I understand the attempt, but would argue that in many ways, the author fails to fully reach that intent. At points I felt that the sexual violence was included in a way similar to how men often use sexual violence in their thrillers; it seemed irrelevant and unnecessary. And in the moments when I thought oh I got it, this is a feminist take on this topic, those moments were deflated by some later story developments, including a bear and an ending discussion about trauma bonding. And I just felt the mention that the perpetrators were Appalachian men was unfortunate, because they just could have been any man from anywhere because there are far too many men like this out there in the world and the people of Appalachia get so little healthy representation in YA literature. I’m sorry to say that there was nothing new or meaningful that made this story much different from any other story about women being pursued by men who want to commit sexual violence against them. The fictions shelves, our tv screens and the big screen are littered with stories like these; women are always being pursued by those who want to commit sexual violence against them for the sake of a “thrill”. There was nothing in this narrative that made me think yes, we need another story like this because this one moves the needle or changes the discussion in any meaningful way.

Am I right about my thoughts on this book? I honestly don’t know. I do know that at the end of the day, this isn’t a book I would personally recommend to my teens wanting thrillers and I wouldn’t want to recommend it to my teens asking for books that handle the topic of sexual violence, because there are books that are better both out there for teens. As a survivor of sexual violence, I personally struggled with this book not because I believe books should never talk about sexual violence, because they should and they can do it well, but because I just didn’t think that this book contributed to those discussions in any meaningful way and at times it was, perhaps, harmful to those discussions.

Book Review: In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner

Publisher’s Book Description: From the award-winning author of The Serpent King comes a beautiful examination of grief, found family, and young love.

Life in a small Appalachian town is not easy. Cash lost his mother to an opioid addiction and his Papaw is dying slowly from emphysema. Dodging drug dealers and watching out for his best friend, Delaney, is second nature. He’s been spending his summer mowing lawns while she works at Dairy Queen.

But when Delaney manages to secure both of them full rides to an elite prep school in Connecticut, Cash will have to grapple with his need to protect and love Delaney, and his love for the grandparents who saved him and the town he would have to leave behind.

Karen’s Thoughts:

This is a soul crushing book that makes your heart soar while ripping it out at the same time; it is profoundly moving and well written in the way that makes you want to frame quotes on your bedroom wall to carry you through life’s dark days.

Cash is a high school teenage boy who lives in abject poverty in the Appalachia region with his grandparents who are raising him since his mom died from an overdose. He is best friends with Delaney, who just happens to be a scientific genius. Because of an amazing discovery that she makes, the two are offered a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school (she is the type of friend who negotiates her deal to help a friend instead of leaving him behind). In the Wild Light is a peek behind the curtain in the life of a group of teenagers, but mostly a boy named Chase, who are trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be.

At school, Chase discovers poetry as a language to help him talk about his feelings, he finds his people, and in the process, he starts to find himself. It’s a moving character study that dismantles toxic masculinity, explores the heart of family and friendship, and introduces us to characters who have every obstacle put before them and you can’t help but root for them.

This is a stunning, achingly moving book. I loved everyone (except for the roommate, who you are not supposed to love). If you like moving and triumphant character studies, this is the book for you: full of grief, hope, joy, anger and triumph.

Some of the issues tackled in the book include addiction, grief, sexual violence, bullying, and toxic masculinity.

Highly recommended.

Some additional books on the opioid crisis and addiction include:

Book covers pictured include Heroine by Mindy McGinnis, The Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley, They’ll Never Catch Us by Jessica Goodman and You’d Be Home by Now by Kathleen Glasgow (comes out September 28th)

Book Review: Sing Me Forgotten by Jessica S. Olson, by Teen Contributor Riley Jensen

Publisher’s Book Description:

Isda does not exist. At least not beyond the opulent walls of the opera house.

Cast into a well at birth for being one of the magical few who can manipulate memories when people sing, she was saved by Cyril, the opera house’s owner. Since that day, he has given her sanctuary from the murderous world outside. All he asks in return is that she use her power to keep ticket sales high—and that she stay out of sight. For if anyone discovers she survived, Isda and Cyril would pay with their lives.

But Isda breaks Cyril’s cardinal rule when she meets Emeric Rodin, a charming boy who throws her quiet, solitary life out of balance. His voice is unlike any she’s ever heard, but the real shock comes when she finds in his memories hints of a way to finally break free of her gilded prison.

Haunted by this possibility, Isda spends more and more time with Emeric, searching for answers in his music and his past. But the price of freedom is steeper than Isda could ever know. For even as she struggles with her growing feelings for Emeric, she learns that in order to take charge of her own destiny, she must become the monster the world tried to drown in the first place. (March 2021, Inkyard Press)

Riley’s Thoughts:

Sing Me Forgotten is a young adult fantasy by Jessica S. Olson. She is a debut author, and she is starting with a great book. This book is full of twists and fascinating magic.

In the beginning, the book starts with the main character doing what she is supposed to do. In the opera house she makes sure that everyone enjoys the performance with her magic ability, but she can’t be seen. She is not even supposed to be alive. This introduction immediately grabs the reader’s attention.

Soon after the main character is introduced, a new character arrives. Someone she has never seen before, but immediately grabs her attention. Nobody is supposed to know of her existence except for her employer, but she finds herself drawn to this newcomer. He wishes to perform in the operas, and there’s something about him that makes her want to help.

As the two grow closer, the reader may see that this girl with magic isn’t exactly good. She tries to fight against everything that pushes her away from the boy, but the ending isn’t what the reader will hope for.

This book perfectly sets up for a sequel. Everything about this book from the world to the magic to the romance will leave the reader wanting more. Hopefully, there is more to come.

Riley, Teen Reviewer

I am a senior in high school and an avid reader. I have been reviewing books on this blog since 2012. I love musical theatre and listen to show tunes a lot. I also love murder books (both fiction and nonfiction), and want to go to college to be a forensic scientist after high school. Reading is one of my favorite things to do, so I just put that hobby to good use for my mom.

Book Review: The Project by Courtney Summers

Publisher’s Book Description:

“The Unity Project saved my life.”

Lo Denham is used to being on her own. After her parents died, Lo’s sister, Bea, joined The Unity Project, leaving Lo in the care of their great aunt. Thanks to its extensive charitable work and community outreach, The Unity Project has won the hearts and minds of most in the Upstate New York region, but Lo knows there’s more to the group than meets the eye. She’s spent the last six years of her life trying–and failing–to prove it.

“The Unity Project murdered my son.”

When a man shows up at the magazine Lo works for claiming The Unity Project killed his son, Lo sees the perfect opportunity to expose the group and reunite with Bea once and for all. When her investigation puts her in the direct path of its charismatic and mysterious leader, Lev Warren, he proposes a deal: if she can prove the worst of her suspicions about The Unity Project, she may expose them. If she can’t, she must finally leave them alone.

But as Lo delves deeper into The Project, the lives of its members, and spends more time with Lev, it upends everything she thought she knew about her sister, herself, cults, and the world around her–to the point she can no longer tell what’s real or true. Lo never thought she could afford to believe in Lev Warren . . . but now she doesn’t know if she can afford not to.

Welcome to The Unity Project.

The next pulls-no-punches thriller from New York Times bestselling and Edgar Award-winning author Courtney Summers, about an aspiring young journalist determined to save her sister from a cult.

Karen’s Thoughts:

Let’s start with I love all things Courtney Summers and this book does not disappoint. Courtney Summers dives deep into the female psyche and explores the complex nature of growing up in a patriarchal society that puts young girls at risk in a variety of ways. She also does a great job of looking at the complex mental and emotional states of young people, which is why her books resonate with readers of all ages.

The Project does all of things and looks specifically at the idea of a cult, making it one of the timeliest books to come out in 2021. At the risk of alienating some readers I feel like this book really captures the zeitgeist of the current political landscape that we have just seen play out in the 2020 election where there has often been a very real dismissal of provable facts that has come at a great harm to a lot of people, including 250,000 Americans dead from a deadly global pandemic. So this deep dive into the psyche and what makes someone fall into a cult is perhaps the most necessary reading of our time.

Another thing Summers does well is to present us as readers with a complex female character that is realistic. What I mean is, she’s not always likable or perfect in any way, which is true of every one of us. Lo’s journey is complicated and she is a rich, rewarding character that takes a journey through a life many of us could never imagine. There is a tremendous burden placed on Lo because of other people’s external expectations and part of what motivates her is trying to fill shoes she never asked to have to wear. That, more than anything, will resonate with teens who are trying to figure out how to become more fully themselves while living with the expectations of others.

Perhaps the most unpopular I would share about this book is that I don’t think it should technically be classified as Young Adult (YA), as it fits more solidly into what should be the New Adult (NA) category had that ever taken off the way that it should have. None of the characters in this book are in high school, they are all at or over the age of 19, and they live independently, though not necessarily successfully. Having said that, I think that teens will in fact read it, just as teens have always read adult books. In the truest sense of the word this is a crossover novel as it will appeal to a wide age of readers.

This is a moving portrait of loss, self discovery, and sisters trying to find their way back to one another. It’s a passionate exploration of how the mind works and how others can manipulate it for their cause. It’s suspenseful, rich and illuminating.

The Project releases February 2021 from Wednesday Books and it is highly recommended.

Book Review: Thoughts & Prayers by Bryan Bliss

Thoughts & Prayers: A Novel in Three Parts

Publisher’s description

Fight. Flight. Freeze. What do you do when you can’t move on, even though the rest of the world seems to have? 

For readers of Jason Reynolds, Marieke Nijkamp, and Laurie Halse Anderson. Powerful and tense, Thoughts & Prayers is an extraordinary novel that explores what it means to heal and to feel safe in a world that constantly chooses violence.

Claire, Eleanor, and Brezzen have little in common. 

Claire fled to Minnesota with her older brother, Eleanor is the face of a social movement, and Brezzen retreated into the fantasy world of Wizards & Warriors.

But a year ago, they were linked. They all hid under the same staircase and heard the shots that took the lives of some of their classmates and a teacher. Now, each one copes with the trauma as best as they can, even as the world around them keeps moving.

Told in three loosely connected but inextricably intertwined stories, National Book Award–longlisted author Bryan Bliss’s Thoughts & Prayers follows three high school students in the aftermath of a school shooting. Thoughts & Prayers is a story about gun violence, but more importantly it is the story of what happens after the reporters leave and the news cycle moves on to the next tragedy. It is the story of three unforgettable teens who feel forgotten.

Amanda’s thoughts

I finished this book feeling both so, so angry and so, so hopeful. Angry because of the state of things and hopeful because of the awe-inspiring resiliency of humans. Angry that school shootings happen and hopeful that expanded conversations and movements regarding gun violence may one day lead us to a better, safer place. Angry as I think back to every library I’ve worked at, whether school or public, and had moments of fear, had lockdown drills, had spots picked out where I would hide, where I would shove kids. I finished the book angry at some characters, hopeful because of others, and really just profoundly sad that this fictional story is the true story of so many schools, so many communities, so many children.

Told in three parts, we meet Claire, Eleanor, and Brezzen. All three survived the school shooting together and now are in very different places in their lives. Claire moved from NC to MN, where she lives with her brother and seems to hope to skateboard her troubles away. It’s at the skate park that she meets God, Leg, and Dark, three boys who quickly adopt her as their friend. But Claire is wary of everything these days. She worries about monsters lurking around every corner, worries who she can trust, and worries that pretending to be fine is maybe not working out so great. Her new friendships are tested when she discovers deeply disturbing notebooks full of horrific art and now has to worry that she could be missing the signs or the chance to speak up and prevent something like a shooting from happening again.

Eleanor is still in NC and has become “the face of a new generation of teenagers who would save the world” after she began wearing a shirt that says fuck guns. This third of the story was probably the hardest for me—to see her peers and her community ridicule and harass her even though they too lived through this awful event. My politics are hardly a secret and while I can certainly understand that plenty of people can have something involving gun violence hit so close to home and yet not see guns as a problem (I mean—I can’t understand that, but I do understand this is how some people feel), it is gutting to see the fallout for Eleanor, who has very reasonably taken the stand that our country’s relationship with guns is a problem. Her story is very much about people trying to make her face the consequences of her “choice.” You know, her choice to be outraged, horrified, broken, loud, and hurt.

Meanwhile, Brezzen, the third student we meet, has been out of school for the past year. Going back has been just too scary. He has undergone extensive therapy, and when he does return to school, he can only face it if he approaches the whole ordeal like something from Wizards and Warriors, his favorite role-playing game. He makes maps, rolls his d20, and is always on the lookout for traps and monsters. He doesn’t know if he can actually handle being back at school.

These are teenagers in pain. We watch them remember to breathe, pretend to be fine, try to feel “normal,” and fall apart. Their stories are filled with pain, fear, rage, and grief. But no one is any one thing, no matter what our trauma or seemingly defining moment may be. The characters change, grow, and heal. They need help and they get help. They are not okay, and readers see that that’s okay. They have supportive teachers, parents, and friends. There is talk of therapy and trauma-informed practices. The characters show what is possibly the only true and universal part of grief and trauma: that healing and progress are not linear. In Bliss’s capable hands, we see their stories as intensely personal and individual while also being part of a larger narrative, a shared experience. We see them as broken and scarred but also as brave, fighters, warriors. They are survivors. They are coping. They are made-up characters, but their stories are those of thousands upon thousands of teenagers who live through these school shootings. A deeply empathetic, emotional, and infuriating story full of unforgettable characters (Dr. Palmer, I love you!). This affecting story is not to be missed.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the author

ISBN-13: 9780062962249
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/29/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh

Every Body Looking

Publisher’s description

“Candice Iloh’s beautifully crafted narrative about family, belonging, sexuality, and telling our deepest truths in order to be whole is at once immensely readable and ultimately healing.”—Jacqueline Woodson, New York TimesBestselling Author of Brown Girl Dreaming

“An essential—and emotionally gripping and masterfully written and compulsively readable—addition to the coming-of-age canon.”—Nic Stone, New York Times Bestselling Author of Dear Martin

“This is a story about the sometimes toxic and heavy expectations set onthe backs of first-generation children, the pressures woven into the familydynamic, culturally and socially. About childhood secrets with sharp teeth. And ultimately, about a liberation that taunts every young person.” —Jason Reynolds, New York Times Bestselling Author of Long Way Down

Candice Iloh weaves the key moments of Ada’s young life—her mother’s descent into addiction, her father’s attempts to create a home for his American daughter more like the one he knew in Nigeria, her first year at a historically black college—into a luminous and inspiring verse novel.

Amanda’s thoughts

Here’s a thing that I say probably way too many times on this blog: I’m a character-driven reader who doesn’t need much more plot beyond “a person tries to figure out how to be a person in the world.” To me, there is no bigger, deeper, more compelling plot than that. And this book is such a wonderful exploration of how to be yourself. I read it in one sitting, which is a statement that probably makes authors die a little, given how long it takes to write a book.

While the current timeline of the story is during Ada’s first few weeks at a HBCU, we also see important moments from her life as a young child and again in middle school. Ada has always felt different and alone. Readers learn about her estrangement from her addict mother, her strict and religious Nigerian father, and the pressures Ada has always felt. College will finally allow her some freedom to find out who she really is, away from her family, but of course the idea of “finding yourself” sounds easier than it actually is.

Iloh writes, “when you start growing/further away from/what used to be home/you go looking for somewhere/that lets you be/what’s inside your head.”

I’m not sure I’ve read any better lines in any book this year. There is nothing Ada wants more than to be the person inside her head. She’s always been drawn to dance, but her practical father never saw the point in pursuing it. A chance encounter with Kendra, another dancer, provides connection and the encouragement to follow her desire.

It is both painful and joyful to watch Ada change, grow, learn, and become. At college, she has the freedom to explore her own mind, to find something that is hers, and to be seen. Ada discovers the power of seeing herself reflected, she learns what she wants and will tolerate in relationships, and she seeks to make her own path, uncertain how to do that and making mistakes along the way.

A hopeful, beautifully written, deeply affecting story of what we endure and overcome in the journey to become ourselves.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525556206
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 09/22/2020
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

Book Review: The Art of Saving the World by Corinne Duyvis

Publisher’s Book Description:

One girl and her doppelgangers try to stop the end of the world in this YA sci-fi adventure

When Hazel Stanczak was born, an interdimensional rift tore open near her family’s home, which prompted immediate government attention. They soon learned that if Hazel strayed too far, the rift would become volatile and fling things from other dimensions onto their front lawn—or it could swallow up their whole town. As a result, Hazel has never left her small Pennsylvania town, and the government agents garrisoned on her lawn make sure it stays that way. On her sixteenth birthday, though, the rift spins completely out of control. Hazel comes face-to-face with a surprise: a second Hazel. Then another. And another. Three other Hazels from three different dimensions! Now, for the first time, Hazel has to step into the world to learn about her connection to the rift—and how to close it. But is Hazel—even more than one of her—really capable of saving the world? 

Karen’s Thoughts:

This was a fun read with touches of interesting real world insight. Hazel lives with a bizarre rift in her home that she is somehow attached to, and it seems like the government is keeping a ton of secrets. On her 16th birthday the rift breaks open and she finds herself face to face with several different dimensional versions of herself and a task to save the world. It’s a wild ride, without a doubt. And such a unique concept.

Corinne Duyvis is the creator of the #OwnVoices hashtag as well as a participant in the Disability in Kidlit website and she takes an opportunity to enrich this story with lots of depth, including introducing a character who identifies as asexaul, talking realistically about mental health, and providing the first character that I am aware of in YA lit that struggles with endometriosis and painful periods.

Also, there is a dragon. I feel like everyone should know there is a dragon. And the dragon is really cool.

This was a unique concept with strong characters and some insightful discussion. It’s interesting to see how different Hazel and her life is in different dimensions and yet how alike it is in many ways. Like most teens Hazel is trying to figure out who she is and what her place is in this world, she just has to do it with several different versions of herself while literally trying to save the world from a dimensional rift that somehow seems tied to her. It’s a wild ride that I really recommend.

This book releases on September 15 from Amulet books.

Book Review: Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Publisher’s Book Description:

From award-winning, bestselling author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five comes a powerful YA novel in verse about a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated. Perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds, Walter Dean Myers, and Elizabeth Acevedo.

The story that I thought

was my life

didn’t start on the day

I was born

Amal Shahid has always been an artist and a poet. But even in a diverse art school, he’s seen as disruptive and unmotivated by a biased system. Then one fateful night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood escalates into tragedy. “Boys just being boys” turns out to be true only when those boys are white.

The story that I think

will be my life

starts today

Suddenly, at just sixteen years old, Amal’s bright future is upended: he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. Despair and rage almost sink him until he turns to the refuge of his words, his art. This never should have been his story. But can he change it?

With spellbinding lyricism, award-winning author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam tell a moving and deeply profound story about how one boy is able to maintain his humanity and fight for the truth, in a system designed to strip him of both.

Karen’s Thoughts:

When I read a book, I can’t help but read it with multiple hats. One hat is me, a person who reads for pleasure and enlightenment. The other hat is me, a librarian who serves teens. Although both recognize a good book, the reasons are often not the same. This is a great book, for all of the reasons.

Told in verse, this is a quick but moving read. Poetry was the exact perfect form for this novel. It captures the essence of this far too common tragedy and related it in stirring, beautiful verses that have perfectly chosen words, format and sometimes even visuals. As I read it I couldn’t help but think of what a perfect book this would be to help teach kids about poetry.

This is also a powerful story about the healing and expressive powers of art. That is one of my favorite topics.

This is also a story that has a Muslim main character and talks about things like prayer, belief and family. Although there is growing Muslim representation in YA lit, it is very few and far between and under-represented.

This is also an insightful look into juvenile incarceration. At one of my library jobs I used to visit a juvenile detention center and have always felt that there should be more YA that investigates the life of teens behind bars, wrongly convicted or not. Monster by Walter Dean Myers is another book on this topic that hopefully everyone has read. We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss is a recent book that looks at a teen who is not only incarcerated but on death row.

That is the librarian hat.

As a reader, this is a moving, powerful and important book. I’m actually old enough to remember the Central Park Jogger case and have been following the story of the Exonerated Five for some time. I recently saw Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam talk about this book as part of the SLJ Summer Teen virtual event. And as our nation, our world, continues to wrestle with topics of racism, policing and incarceration, this is a much needed entry into that discussion made all the more powerful because of the very true perspective that Yusef brings to the narrative.

This book is moving, powerful, thoughtful and important. It’s profoundly well written and emotionally impactful. It is without a doubt a must have for all and will be a classic. Highly recommended. You will be moved by the story of Amal and his efforts to keep hope in a system that is designed to steal it from you.

Releases tomorrow, September 1, 2020, by Balzer + Bray

Book Review: Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos

Publisher’s Book Description:

Caroline Lawson is three months away from freedom, otherwise known as graduation day. That’s when she’ll finally escape her rigid prep school and the parents who thought they could convert her to being straight.

Until then, Caroline is keeping her head down, pretending to be the perfect student even though she is crushed by her family and heartbroken over the girlfriend who left for California.

But when her best friend Madison disappears, Caroline feels compelled to get involved in the investigation. She has her own reasons not to trust the police, and she owes Madison — big time.

Suddenly Caroline realizes how little she knew of what her friend was up to. Caroline has some uncomfortable secrets about the hours before Madison disappeared, but they’re nothing compared to the secrets Madison has been hiding. And why does Mr. McCormack, their teacher, seem to know so much about them?

It’s only when Caroline discovers other missing girls that she begins to close in on the truth. Unlike Madison, the other girls are from the wrong side of the tracks. Unlike Madison’s, their disappearances haven’t received much attention. Caroline is determined to find out what happened to them and why no one seems to notice. But as every new discovery leads Caroline closer to the connection between these girls and Madison, she faces an unsettling truth.

There’s only one common denominator between the disappearances: Caroline herself.

Karen’s Thoughts:

This was an intense read. From the moment we meet Caroline we are drawn into her quest not just for her missing friend Madison, but for herself after her girlfriend Willa has left her. Caroline was already broken and barely hanging on, and then her world truly comes unraveling. I actually really hated Caroline, she’s jaded and angry and lost, but it’s all deserved and understandable and I felt compassion for her. I was invested in her story; she is truly a deeply moving and complicated main character.

Throwaway Girls uses some really great storytelling devices to keep you invested. There are chapters told by an unknown narrator that keep you wondering. There are twists and turns. And there is the truth about missing girls and powerful men and how our society treats both of them. This is the type of novel that entertains and enlightens, pulling back the curtain on serious issues and asking us as readers to think deeply about them. And think about them you will, for a very long time.

Although the title of this novel is Throwaway Girls and it is definitely about that, the thing that I am still left thinking about days later is what this book tells us about powerful men. This is a story full of powerful men who keep secrets, abuse their power, and feel like they are entitled to the world. And at the end of the day, when all the truths are finally revealed, the people in their lives are still more worried about protecting the image of these monsters disguised as men then they are protecting the “throwaway girls” who will now have to navigate life broken and struggling with lifelong trauma. I walked away from the pages of this powerful and moving novel shaking with rage at the truths revealed. You can jump on to Google right now and find thousands of real life stories that validate the underlying premise of Throwaway Girls, and that will never not make me angry.

The topic of Throwaway Girls is not new to YA, but it’s definitely dealt with in powerful and meaningful ways here. I would recommend adding Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson to a reading of this book. While Throwaway Girls talks very much about socio-economic disadvantage and how some girls have more worth then others when they go missing, and Monday’s Not Coming adds the reality of race and racism into this discussion. Both points of view are powerful.

In addition to the discussion of missing girls, Throwaway Girls deals a lot with Caroline and her sexual identity. Caroline is a lesbian growing up in a conservative family who has sent her to conversion therapy. She struggles with mental health issues – she takes medication for anxiety – and she has attempted suicide in the pass. She’s just hanging on until the age of 18 so that she can leave and start her real life where she can be her authentic self. My heart broke for her and this book really highlights how lack of support and acceptance can seriously harm our youth.

This is a heavy book, full of complicated conversations and relationships. There is no happy ending, even with a lot of important plot lines resolved. It’s a dark exploration of meaningful and realistic topics that populate the landscape of teen lives. It’s moving and powerful . . . and it’s important. Pretty politically relevant as well. Definitely recommended.

This book will be released September 1st by Kids Can Press

Book Review: Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Publisher’s Book Description:

It’s 200 years after Cinderella found her prince, but the fairy tale is over. Teen girls are now required to appear at the Annual Ball, where the men of the kingdom select wives based on a girl’s display of finery. If a suitable match is not found, the girls not chosen are never heard from again.

Sixteen-year-old Sophia would much rather marry Erin, her childhood best friend, than parade in front of suitors. At the ball, Sophia makes the desperate decision to flee, and finds herself hiding in Cinderella’s mausoleum. There, she meets Constance, the last known descendant of Cinderella and her step sisters. Together they vow to bring down the king once and for all–and in the process, they learn that there’s more to Cinderella’s story than they ever knew . . .

This fresh take on a classic story will make readers question the tales they’ve been told, and root for girls to break down the constructs of the world around them.

Published July 7 by Bloomsbury YA

Karen’s Thoughts: I spent most of The Teen’s toddler and early childhood years watching Cinderella over and over and over again. I know a few things about Cinderella, both in story form and in the Disneyfied version. I’m here to tell you, this is a wickedly cool twisted tale that will knock every readers socks off. Nothing was ever what I expected and it managed to surprise me at several turns.

This is both an amazing feminist and queer re-interpretation of Cinderella. Well, it’s not so much a re-interpretation as it is a look at what happens later after the story ended and how Cinderella’s legacy is used to manipulate and control women. It’s a dark dystopian in the tradition of The Handmaid’s Tale or newer feminist YA dystopians like The Grace Year. It’s poignant, chilling and powerful, and it puts a queer Black girl front and center, something that unfortunately doesn’t happen as often as it should in YA fantasy.

For every reader who wants to overthrow the patriarchy, this book is an entertaining read and a satisfyingly cathartic place holder and re-imagining of what that can look like. And it’s full of spooky twists along the way. Recommended.