Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

The Flicker of a Smile, a guest post by Anuradha D. Rajurkar

                

“You wrote a whole book?” she asked. Eight-year-old Mia* and I were at our customary spot at the little round table in my math support classroom where we worked together three times a week. We had recently begun meeting one-on-one rather than in a small group with Mia’s peers, and it was working: instead of timidly twisting a tissue under the table with her delicate brown hands and hanging back, on her own she was happy, focused, engaged. She was making huge gains.

On that particular day, Mia and I had been talking about grit and perseverance, and she’d just learned that my debut novel, American Betiya, was going to be published. Her excitement was palpable; she bounced in her seat. “Is your book funny?”

“Yes. I made sure to make it funny.”

Her deep brown eyes sparkled impishly. Rolling a couple dice we’d been using in her hands, she asked, “What’s it about?”

Ah, the dreaded question. How to explain the heart of my #ownvoices upper YA book about first love, family boundaries, and the complications of a cross-cultural relationship to a third grader? Or to anyone, for that matter?

“It’s about love, friendship, and family,” I say finally. “And how when people don’t see each other’s points of view, there can be a lot of hurt feelings.” I stop, suddenly uncertain. This went dark fast.

But she sat forward. “Oh, so there is, like, fighting in your book?”

“Some,” I admit. “Mainly it shows how even with people you love, sometimes you have to fight for who you are.”

She gazed at me a moment, this wise-beyond-her-years girl who has gone from skulking uncertainly to bounding happily into my classroom, brightening my day every time. “What if you don’t know who you are yet?”

“That’s a big part of the book,” I said. “Figuring out who you are.”

She considered this. “And you said it’s also funny.”

“Yep. There’s a lot of silliness with friends,” I said, watching a slow smile spread across her face. “A book can be funny and serious, happy and sad, right?”

“Yeah.” She studied me. “Those are actually my favorite kinds of books.” She set down the dice and grabbed a handful of rubber teddy bear counters. “You know The Watsons Go to Birmingham?”

I looked at her, genuinely stunned. “How did you know that’s one of my favorite books of all time?”

“What?! Mine too!” she crows happily. “It’s got everything in it.” She begins arranging the bears into a circle. “Like yours.”

Working with students, especially those from underrepresented communities, reminds me of why I wrote American Betiya. On its surface, it’s a story about breaking from social and family expectations, first love, and learning to embrace the beauty of your cultural identity amid your search for love and belonging. But it’s also a story about feminist allyship, and learning to become an upstander for yourself in the face of specific kinds of microaggressions—the kinds that arise in places we least expect. As my main character Rani hurtles headfirst into her quest for love while her often charming boyfriend behaves in questionable ways, the story reveals how true first love is your own sense of dignity—one that is sculpted messily over time.

Amid the widespread “love conquers all” narrative so common in young adult literature, I hoped instead to explore the way our cultural identities intersect with love, personal boundaries, and respect.

Usually, when we think of racism, we imagine hate crimes, strangers yelling slurs, and perhaps the reality of systemic racism. But managing racism and patriarchy in our closest relationships are nuances that are just beginning to arise in our cultural conversation. Working with Mia both in a small group versus individually reminded me that microaggressions in our daily relationships—sometimes even our closest relationships—are so challenging because of the faith you have placed in them. The trust you have in them. Having watched Mia navigate her complicated surroundings reminded me of what I had always wished I had had more of growing up: More allies in the face of microaggressions. A stronger sense of myself as I learned to embrace my own sense of identity. And stories about the same that told me I wasn’t alone.

I was late joining the small group of students in my room that included Mia. The students were already at the table, eating their snacks, and I overheard one student—a girl who presented at times as being a friend of Mia’s— mocking the snack Mia had brought, one that was specific to her culture. On the spot, we discussed how that kind of a comment makes people feel, how foods from different cultures are actually really cool, and I shared my personal favorite snack foods—samosas and chaklis. As we moved on to the math lesson, Mia was quiet, but I noticed that she participated more than usual. I even saw the flicker of a smile.

At eight, Mia already knew a lot about fielding microaggressions, bias, and stereotyping. She already knew what it was like to try to seek belonging in a predominantly white learning community that didn’t always value the ways she was different. She knew the stress and exhaustion of self-advocacy. She’s experienced how racism can come from anywhere, even those close to you. She recognizes that sometimes, staying silent is self-preservation, and yet how an ally stepping in can turn everything on its head.

When we were together—both BIPOC females in a predominantly white institution—my classroom became a newfound safe space for both of us. Over the months I got to work with her, I admired her resilience, her quiet tenacity, her grit. Her teacher eventually shared that Mia was slowly coming into her own in class, opening herself up to her peers in a way that felt like small progress. She taught me, in her quiet way, all about grace.

Mia and I shared a love for stories about characters from diverse cultures who experience the joys and challenges of growing up nonwhite in America. We both love characters that embrace their identity while discovering spaces that are imbued with a warm sense of belonging, of laughter. That genuine feeling of love.

I hope that when she’s old enough to read it, she finds all of that and more in American Betiya.

I hope it makes her proud.

*All names and personal details have been changed for privacy.

Meet the author

Anuradha D. Rajurkar is the recipient of the nationwide SCBWI Emerging Voices Award for her YA contemporary debut, American Betiya (Knopf). Born and raised in the Chicago area to South Asian immigrant parents, Anuradha earned two degrees from Northwestern University, and for many years had the joy of being a public school teacher by day, writer by night. Nowadays, when she’s not writing or reading, Anuradha spends her time hiking through forests with her husband, obsessing over her garden, watching old horror flicks with her sons, eating too many baked yummies, or roguishly knitting sweaters without their patterns. She hopes her stories will inspire teens to embrace their unique identities and inner badass despite outside pressures and cultural expectations. American Betiya is her first novel.

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About American Betiya

A luminous story of a young artist grappling with first love, family boundaries and the complications of a cross-cultural relationship. Perfect for fans of Sandhya Menon, Erika Sanchez and Jandy Nelson.

Rani Kelkar has never lied to her parents, until she meets Oliver. The same qualities that draw her in—his tattoos, his charisma, his passion for art—make him her mother’s worst nightmare.

They begin dating in secret, but when Oliver’s troubled home life unravels, he starts to ask more of Rani than she knows how to give, desperately trying to fit into her world, no matter how high the cost. When a twist of fate leads Rani from Evanston, Illinois to Pune, India for a summer, she has a reckoning with herself—and what’s really brewing beneath the surface of her first love.

Winner of SCBWI’s Emerging Voices award, Anuradha D. Rajurkar takes an honest look at the ways cultures can clash in an interracial relationship. Braiding together themes of sexuality, artistic expression, and appropriation, she gives voice to a girl claiming ownership of her identity, one shattered stereotype at a time.

ISBN-13: 9781984897152
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 03/09/2021
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

Book Mail: New titles for middle grade and teen readers

Here are a slew of new and forthcoming titles. Some of these have arrived to me digitally. All summaries are from the publisher.

Call Me Him by River Braun (ISBN-13: 979-8557679978 Publisher: Independently Published Publication date: 12/01/2020, Ages 12 up)

Fight. Sleep. Repeat. That’s life for 14-year-old SoCal skate-punk Wylie Masterson. Like most teens, Wylie struggles with authority, puberty, and family. But when you’re a transgender male whose body, family, and society insist that you are female, the struggle to break out and live the life you were meant to live becomes a matter of life and death. Born Willow, Wylie wants nothing more than to escape his oppressive SoCal hometown and live the life he was meant to live—as a man, but his overly-religious mother has other plans for her “sweet, lovely daughter.”

Fireborne by Rosaria Munda (PAPERBACK ISBN-13: 9780525518235 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 12/29/2020 Series: Aurelian Cycle Series #1, Ages 12-17)

Game of Thrones meets Red Rising in a debut young adult fantasy that’s full of rivalry, romance . . . and dragons.

Annie and Lee were just children when a brutal revolution changed their world, giving everyone—even the lowborn—a chance to test into the governing class of dragonriders.

Now they are both rising stars in the new regime, despite backgrounds that couldn’t be more different. Annie’s lowborn family was executed by dragonfire, while Lee’s aristocratic family was murdered by revolutionaries. Growing up in the same orphanage forged their friendship, and seven years of training have made them rivals for the top position in the dragonriding fleet.

But everything changes when survivors from the old regime surface, bent on reclaiming the city.

With war on the horizon and his relationship with Annie changing fast, Lee must choose to kill the only family he has left or to betray everything he’s come to believe in. And Annie must decide whether to protect the boy she loves . . . or step up to be the champion her city needs.

From debut author Rosaria Munda comes a gripping adventure that calls into question which matters most: the family you were born into, or the one you’ve chosen.

Ensnared in the Wolf’s Lair: Inside the 1944 Plot to Kill Hitler and the Ghost Children of His Revenge by Ann Bausum (ISBN-13: 9781426338540 Publisher: National Geographic Publication date: 01/12/2021, Ages 10-14)

“I’ve come on orders from Berlin to fetch the three children.” —Gestapo agent, August 24, 1944

With those chilling words Christa von Hofacker and her younger siblings found themselves ensnared in a web of family punishment designed to please one man—Adolf Hitler. The furious dictator sought merciless revenge against not only Christa’s father and the other Germans who had just tried to overthrow his government. He wanted to torment their relatives, too, regardless of age or stature. All of them. Including every last child. 

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus (ISBN-13: 9780823447053 Publisher: Holiday House Publication date: 02/02/2021, Ages 9-12)

For fans of The War That Saved My Life and other World War II fiction, A Place to Hang the Moon is the tale of three orphaned siblings who are evacuated from London to live in the countryside with the secret hope of finding a permanent family.

It is 1940 and William, 12, Edmund, 11, and Anna, 9, aren’t terribly upset by the death of the not-so-grandmotherly grandmother who has taken care of them since their parents died. But the children do need a guardian, and in the dark days of World War II London, those are in short supply, especially if they hope to stay together. Could the mass wartime evacuation of children from London to the countryside be the answer? 

It’s a preposterous plan, but off they go— keeping their predicament a secret, and hoping to be placed in a temporary home that ends up lasting forever. Moving from one billet to another, the children suffer the cruel trickery of foster brothers, the cold realities of outdoor toilets and the hollowness of empty stomachs. They find comfort in the village lending library, whose kind librarian, Nora Müller, seems an excellent choice of billet, except that her German husband’s whereabouts are currently unknown, and some of the villagers consider her unsuitable. 
A Place to Hang the Moon is a story about the dire importance of family: the one you’re given, and the one you choose. 

Carlton Crumple Creature Catcher 2: Tater Invaders! by David Fremont (ISBN-13: 9781645950066 Publisher: Holiday House Publication date: 02/02/2021, Ages 8-12)

More hilarious antics, more fast food, and more zany monsters combine in a treat middle grade graphic novel readers will devour in the second installment of the Carlton Crumple Creature Catcher series for fans of Lunch Lady and Dog Man.

Now that Carlton’s an official Creature Catcher with the Shady Plains police department, he’s on the hunt for a new monster. 

While taking a snack break with his buddy and faithful assistant Lulu, suddenly one of their tater tots comes alive! And that little robot tot dude leads them to whole underground world of evil potato creatures. 

Holy bacon bits!

It’s Carlton Crumple to the rescue, and he’ll have to get to the root of the problem before everything becomes a mashed potato mess!

David Fremont bring even more rolling-on-the-floor humor and fast-food fun in the second installment in his bright and brilliant middle grade graphic novel series, which will especially appeal to fans of series like Lunch Lady and Dog Man.

Ellie Makes Her Move by Marilyn Kaye (ISBN-13: 9780823446094 Publisher: Holiday House Publication date: 02/09/2021, Ages 8-12)

A magical spyglass reveals secrets that will bring four girls together in this new series.

Twelve-year-old Ellie is ordinary. Absolutely, positively ordinary. Then her dad’s latest community project makes their whole ritzy town, including all of Ellie’s friends, turn against them. Tired of being ostracized, Ellie’s family moves to the other side of the state to live in a rickety 100-year-old house complete with a turret—and Ellie swears off friendship forever.

That is until Ellie explores the turret and discovers an old-fashioned telescope—a spyglass. When she looks through it, the world she sees isn’t the same that’s out the window. There’s a community center that isn’t built yet and her new classmate Alyssa flying around on a broomstick!

To figure out what the magical images mean, Ellie recruits other self-described loners, Alyssa and Rachel. When they see a vision of fellow student Kiara playing tag with a tiger and a donkey—they have their first real spyglass secret to solve.

The New York Times best-selling author behind the Gifted series and the Replica books, Marilyn Kaye delivers a story filled with light magic and heart in this first book in the Spyglass Sisterhood series. Each girl will take a turn at the spyglass, confronting fears and sticking up for her peers.

Kingston and the Magician’s Lost and Found by Rucker Moses, Theo Gangi (ISBN-13: 9780525516866 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 02/16/2021, Ages 10-14)

Magic has all but disappeared in Brooklyn, but one tenacious young magician is determined to bring it back in this exciting middle grade mystery.

Kingston has just moved from the suburbs back to Echo City, Brooklyn—the last place his father was seen alive. Kingston’s father was King Preston, one of the world’s greatest magicians. Until one trick went wrong and he disappeared. Now that Kingston is back in Echo City, he’s determined to find his father.

Somehow, though, when his father disappeared, he took all of Echo City’s magic with him. Now Echo City—a ghost of its past—is living up to its name. With no magic left, the magicians have packed up and left town and those who’ve stayed behind don’t look too kindly on any who reminds them of what they once had.

When Kingston finds a magic box his father left behind as a clue, Kingston knows there’s more to his father’s disappearance than meets the eye. He’ll have to keep it a secret—that is, until he can restore magic to Echo City. With his cousin Veronica and childhood friend Too Tall Eddie, Kingston works to solve the clues, but one wrong move and his father might not be the only one who goes missing.

Life in the Balance by Jen Petro-Roy (ISBN-13: 9781250619730 Publisher: Feiwel & Friends Publication date: 02/16/2021, Ages 8-12)

Veronica struggles to balance softball, friends, and family turmoil in this new honest and heartfelt middle grade novel by Jen Petro-Roy, Life in the Balance.

Veronica Conway has been looking forward to trying out for the All-Star softball team for years. She’s practically been playing the game since she was a baby. She should have this tryout on lock.

Except right before tryouts, Veronica’s mom announces that she’s entering rehab for alcoholism, and her dad tells her that they may not be able to afford the fees needed to be on the team.

Veronica decides to enter the town talent show in an effort to make her own money, but along the way discovers a new hobby that leads her to doubt her feelings for the game she thought she loved so much.

Is her mom the only one learning balance, or can Veronica find a way to discover what she really wants to do with her life?

Daughter of the White Rose by Diane Zahler (ISBN-13: 9780823446070 Publisher: Holiday House Publication date: 02/16/2021, Ages 8-12)

Can a common girl save a prince trapped in the Tower of London?

April. England. 1483. The king is dead. Long live the king.

Nell Gould is the daughter of the royal butcher, a commoner, but she has been raised as the playmate of King Edward and Queen Elizabeth’s royal children: Princess Cecily, Princess Bess, Prince Dickon, and Prince Ned, heir apparent and Nell’s best and closest friend. They think alike, her and Ned, preferring books and jousts to finery and gossip and the sparkle of the court. But when King Edward dies, Prince Ned is imprisoned in the Tower of London by his scheming uncle, the evil Richard III—and Nell with him. Can they escape? Is Nell the key?

Based on the real royal scandal of the Princes in the Tower, Daughter of the White Rose covers a shocking episode in medieval history that has captured the imagination for 530 years. A story of murder, betrayal, resilience, and growing up, this girl-led medieval middle-grade novel will make a perfect companion to Catherine, Called Birdy and The Mad Wolf’s Daughter.

Dragonfly Girl by Marti Leimbach (ISBN-13: 9780062995865 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 02/23/2021, Ages 13-17)

In this spellbinding thriller and YA debut from bestselling author Marti Leimbach, Kira Adams has discovered a cure for death—and it may just cost her life.

Things aren’t going well for Kira. At home, she cares for her mother and fends off debt collectors. At school, she’s awkward and shy. Plus, she may flunk out if she doesn’t stop obsessing about science, her passion and the one thing she’s good at . . . very good at.

When she wins a prestigious science contest she draws the attention of the celebrated professor Dr. Gregory Munn (as well as his handsome assistant), leading to a part-time job in a top-secret laboratory. 

The job is mostly cleaning floors and equipment, but one night, while running her own experiment, she revives a lab rat that has died in her care. 

One minute it is dead, the next it is not.

Suddenly she’s the remarkable wunderkind, the girl who can bring back the dead. Everything is going her way. But it turns out that science can be a dangerous business, and Kira is swept up into a world of international rivalry with dark forces that threaten her life. 

Houdini and Me by Dan Gutman (ISBN-13: 9780823445158 Publisher: Holiday House Publication date: 03/02/2021, Ages 8-12)

Harry has always admired the famous escape artist Houdini. And when Houdini asks for help in coming back to life, it seems like an amazing chance…or could it be Houdini’s greatest trick of all?

Eleven-year-old Harry Mancini is NOT Harry Houdini—the famous escape artist who died in 1926. But Harry DOES live in Houdini’s old New York City home, and he definitely knows everything there is to know about Houdini’s life. What is he supposed to do, then, when someone starts texting him claiming that they’re Houdini, communicating from beyond the grave? Respond, of course.

It’s hard for Harry to believe that Houdini is really contacting him, but this Houdini texts the secrets to all of the escape tricks the dead Houdini used to do. What’s more, Houdini’s offering Harry a chance to go back in time and experience it for himself. Should Harry ignore what must be a hoax? Or should he give it a try and take Houdini up on this death-defying offer? 

Dan Gutman is the award-winning author of series including My Weird SchoolThe Genius Files, and the baseball card series, including Honus & Me. He uses his writing powers for good once again in this exciting new middle grade novel.

Deadman’s Castle by Iain Lawrence (ISBN-13: 9780823446551 Publisher: Holiday House Publication date: 03/02/2021, Ages 9-12)

For most of his life, Igor and his family have been on the run. Danger lurks around every corner—or so he’s always been told. . . . 

When Igor was five, his father witnessed a terrible crime—and ever since, his whole family has been hunted by a foreboding figure bent on revenge, known only as the Lizard Man. They’ve lived in so many places, with so many identities, that Igor can’t even remember his real name. 

But now he’s twelve years old, and he longs for a normal life. He wants to go to school. Make friends. Stop worrying about how long it will be before his father hears someone prowling around their new house and uproots everything yet again. He’s even starting to wonder—what if the Lizard Man only exists in his father’s frightened mind?

Slowly, Igor starts bending the rules he’s lived by all his life—making friends for the first time, testing the boundaries of where he’s allowed to go in town. But soon, he begins noticing strange things around them—is it in his imagination? Or could the Lizard Man be real after all? 

Iain Lawrence is a winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Children’s Literature Prize and the California Young Reader Medal. In Deadman’s Castle, he brings readers a mystery filled with intrigue and moments of heart-stopping danger. 

Violet and the Pie of Life by D. L. Green (ISBN-13: 9780823447558 Publisher: Holiday House Publication date: 03/09/2021, Ages 8-12)

There’s no golden ratio for a family, despite what number-crunching Violet might think.

Twelve-year-old Violet has two great loves in her life: math and pie. And she loves her parents, even though her mom never stops nagging and her dad can be unreliable. Mom plus Dad doesn’t equal perfection. Still, Violet knows her parents could solve their problems if they just applied simple math. 

#1: Adjust the ratio of Mom’s nagging to her compliments. 
#2: Multiply Dad’s funny stories by a factor of three. 
#3: Add in romantic stuff wherever possible. 

But when her dad walks out, Violet realizes that the odds do not look good. Why can’t her parents get along like popular, perfect Ally’s parents? Would it be better to have no dad at all, like her best friend, McKenzie? Violet is considering the data when she and Ally get cast in the school play, and McKenzie doesn’t—a probability that Violet never calculated. Maybe friendship and family have more variables than she thought.

Filled with warmth, math-y humor, and delicious pie, this heartfelt middle grade read is perfect for fans of The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl. Includes illustrated charts, graphs, and diagrams throughout.

Flamefall by Rosaria Munda (ISBN-13: 9780525518242 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 03/23/2021 Series: Aurelian Cycle Series #2, Ages 12-17)

Revolutionary flames ignite around Annie, Lee, and a brand new character in the follow-up to FIREBORNE.

After fleeing the revolution and settling into the craggy cliffs of New Pythos, the dragonlords are eager to punish their usurpers and reclaim their city. Their first order of business was destroying the Callipolan food supply. Now they’re coming for the dragonriders.

Annie is Callipolis’s new Firstrider, charged with leading the war against New Pythos. But with unrest at home, enforcing the government’s rationing program risks turning her into public enemy number one.

Lee struggles to find his place after killing kin for a leader who betrayed him. He can support Annie and the other Guardians . . . or join the rebels who look to topple the new regime.

Griff, a lowborn dragonrider who serves New Pythos, knows he has no future. And now that Julia Stormscourge is no longer there to protect him, he is called on to sacrifice everything for the lords that oppress his people—or to forge a new path with the Callipolan Firstrider seeking his help.

With famine tearing Callipolis apart and the Pythians determined to take back what they lost, it will be up to Annie, Lee, and Griff to decide who—and what—to fight for.

Six Feet Below Zero by Ena Jones (ISBN-13: 9780823446223 Publisher: Holiday House Publication date: 04/13/2021, Ages 8-12)

A dead body. A missing will. An evil relative. The good news is, Great Grammy has a plan. The bad news is, she’s the dead body.

Rosie and Baker are hiding something. Something big. Their great grandmother made them promise to pretend she’s alive until they find her missing will and get it in the right hands. The will protects the family house from their grandmother, Grim Hesper, who would sell it and ship Rosie and Baker off to separate boarding schools. They’ve already lost their parents and Great Grammy—they can’t lose each other, too.

The siblings kick it into high gear to locate the will, keep their neighbors from prying, and safeguard the house. Rosie has no time to cope with her grief as disasters pop up around every carefully planned corner. She can’t even bring herself to read her last-ever letter from Great Grammy. But the lies get bigger and bigger as Rosie and Baker try to convince everyone that their great grandmother is still around, and they’ll need more than a six-month supply of frozen noodle casserole and mountains of toilet paper once their wicked grandmother shows up!

This unexpectedly touching read reminds us that families are weird and wonderful, even when they’re missing their best parts. With humor, suspense, and a testament to loyalty, Ena Jones takes two brave kids on an unforgettable journey. Includes four recipes for Great Grammy’s survival treats.

Homewrecker by Deanna Cameron (ISBN-13: 9781989365472 Publisher: Wattpad Books Publication date: 05/18/2021, Ages 14+)

They say it is quietest in the eye of a storm…they lied.

Bronwyn’s mother is late. Again. Sitting on the edge of the sidewalk, waiting, Bronwyn figures she’s flaked out again. She’s always flaking out. Stomping home ready for a fight, Bronwyn is met by a cataclysmic tornado heading directly toward their run-down trailer. Bronwyn barely escapes with her life. Her mother isn’t as lucky.

Enter Senator Soliday, a.k.a. Bronwyn’s estranged father, who shows up at the hospital and takes her home with him, to a family she’s never been a part of, to people who have proved again and again they don’t want her. Confused, resentful, absolutely raging, Bronwyn enters a world she’s never been privy to, while reeling from the news that her mother wasn’t killed by the tornado but murdered

Torn between two identities: the daughter of a single drug addict and the middle child of a well-respected senator, Bronwyn is forced to navigate through this new, unfamiliar life alone and with a gut feeling she can’t shake.

Her mother’s killer isn’t unfamiliar.

The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimons (ISBN-13: 9781984815408 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 06/01/2021, Ages 12-17)

Love, Simon meets Bend It Like Beckham in this feel-good contemporary romance about a trans teen who must decide between standing up for his rights and staying stealth.

“A sharply observant and vividly drawn debut. I loved every minute I spent in this story, and I’ve never rooted harder for a jock in my life.” – New York Timesbestselling author Becky Albertalli 

Fifteen-year-old Spencer Harris is a proud nerd, an awesome big brother, and a David Beckham in training. He’s also transgender. After transitioning at his old school leads to a year of isolation and bullying, Spencer gets a fresh start at Oakley, the most liberal private school in Ohio. 

At Oakley, Spencer seems to have it all: more accepting classmates, a decent shot at a starting position on the boys’ soccer team, great new friends, and maybe even something more than friendship with one of his teammates. The problem is, no one at Oakley knows Spencer is trans—he’s passing. 

But when a discriminatory law forces Spencer’s coach to bench him, Spencer has to make a choice: cheer his team on from the sidelines or publicly fight for his right to play, even though it would mean coming out to everyone—including the guy he’s falling for.

A Dragonbird in the Fern by Laura Rueckert (ISBN-13: 9781635830651 Publisher: North Star Editions Publication date: 08/03/2021, Ages 14-18)

When an assassin kills Princess Jiara’s older sister Scilla, her vengeful ghost is doomed to walk their city of glittering canals, tormenting loved ones until the murderer is brought to justice. While the entire kingdom mourns, Scilla’s betrothed arrives and requests that seventeen-year-old Jiara take her sister’s place as his bride to confirm the alliance between their countries.
Marrying the young king intended for her sister and traveling to his distant home is distressing enough, but with dyslexia and years of scholarly struggles, Jiara abandoned any hope of learning other languages long ago. She’s terrified of life in a foreign land where she’ll be unable to communicate. 
Then Jiara discovers evidence that her sister’s assassin comes from the king’s own country. If she marries the king, Jiara can hunt the murderer and release her family from Scilla’s ghost, whose thirst for blood mounts every day. To save her family, Jiara must find her sister’s killer . . . before he murders her too.

Post-It Note Reviews: Books about gentrification, Black boyhood, time travel, the Greenwood Massacre, and more

Post-it Note Reviews are a great way to display books in your library or classroom, a way to let kids recommend their favorite titles without having to get up in front of everyone and do a book talk, and an easy way to offer a more personal recommendation than just the flap copy offers. Doing these short reviews would also be a great way to share more books during distance learning!

All descriptions from the publishers. Transcriptions of the Post-It notes are below each description.

Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles (ISBN-13: 9780593175170 Publisher: Random House Children’s Books Publication date: 01/26/2021, Ages 8-12)

Brand-new kicks, ripped denim shorts, Supreme tee

Wes Henderson has the best style in sixth grade. That—and hanging out with his crew (his best friends since little-kid days) and playing video games—is what he wants to be thinking about at the start of the school year, not the protests his parents are always dragging him to.

But when a real estate developer makes an offer to buy Kensington Oaks, the neighborhood Wes has lived his whole life, everything changes. The grownups are supposed to have all the answers, but all they’re doing is arguing. Even Wes’s best friends are fighting. And some of them may be moving. Wes isn’t about to give up the only home he’s ever known. Wes has always been good at puzzles, and he knows there has to be a missing piece that will solve this puzzle and save the Oaks. But can he find it . . . before it’s too late?

Exploring community, gentrification, justice, and friendship, Take Back the Block introduces an irresistible 6th grader and asks what it means to belong—to a place and a movement—and to fight for what you believe in.

(POST-IT SAYS: A great look at gentrification, community, activism, social justice, and friendship. Wes and friends don’t always say or do the right thing, but ultimately are there for each other. Great narration and vivid characters.)

You Have a Match by Emma Lord (ISBN-13: 9781250237309 Publisher: St. Martin’s Publishing Group Publication date: 01/12/2021, Ages 12-18)

A new love, a secret sister, and a summer she’ll never forget.

From the beloved author of Tweet Cute comes Emma Lord’s You Have a Match, a hilarious and heartfelt novel of romance, sisterhood, and friendship…

When Abby signs up for a DNA service, it’s mainly to give her friend and secret love interest, Leo, a nudge. After all, she knows who she is already: Avid photographer. Injury-prone tree climber. Best friend to Leo and Connie…although ever since the B.E.I. (Big Embarrassing Incident) with Leo, things have been awkward on that front.

But she didn’t know she’s a younger sister.

When the DNA service reveals Abby has a secret sister, shimmery-haired Instagram star Savannah Tully, it’s hard to believe they’re from the same planet, never mind the same parents — especially considering Savannah, queen of green smoothies, is only a year and a half older than Abby herself.

The logical course of action? Meet up at summer camp (obviously) and figure out why Abby’s parents gave Savvy up for adoption. But there are complications: Savvy is a rigid rule-follower and total narc. Leo is the camp’s co-chef, putting Abby’s growing feelings for him on blast. And her parents have a secret that threatens to unravel everything.

But part of life is showing up, leaning in, and learning to fit all your awkward pieces together. Because sometimes, the hardest things can also be the best ones. 

(POST-IT SAYS: An overall sweet read about family, friendship, and romance with an engaging voice and fun summer camp setting that requires a good suspension of disbelief. Will appeal to those who like drama in their stories. Adding that this is not a really great depiction of adoption from any angle—and Leo’s transracial adoption story is largely ignored.)

Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas (ISBN-13: 9780062846716 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 01/12/2021, Ages 14-17)

International phenomenon Angie Thomas revisits Garden Heights seventeen years before the events of The Hate U Give in this searing and poignant exploration of Black boyhood and manhood.

If there’s one thing seventeen-year-old Maverick Carter knows, it’s that a real man takes care of his family. As the son of a former gang legend, Mav does that the only way he knows how: dealing for the King Lords. With this money he can help his mom, who works two jobs while his dad’s in prison.

Life’s not perfect, but with a fly girlfriend and a cousin who always has his back, Mav’s got everything under control.

Until, that is, Maverick finds out he’s a father.

Suddenly he has a baby, Seven, who depends on him for everything. But it’s not so easy to sling dope, finish school, and raise a child. So when he’s offered the chance to go straight, he takes it. In a world where he’s expected to amount to nothing, maybe Mav can prove he’s different.

When King Lord blood runs through your veins, though, you can’t just walk away. Loyalty, revenge, and responsibility threaten to tear Mav apart, especially after the brutal murder of a loved one. He’ll have to figure out for himself what it really means to be a man.

(POST-IT SAYS: No surprise that this was great. A powerful look at family, loss, belonging, love, aspiration, and choices. Loved to learn Mav’s story and see familiar characters along the way.)

Every Single Lie by Rachel Vincent (ISBN-13: 9781547605231 Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Publication date: 01/12/2021, Ages 14-18)

In this gripping YA novel about social media bullying and half-truths, one girl’s shocking discovery of a dead baby in her high school locker room rocks an entire community.

Nobody in sixteen-year-old Beckett’s life seems to be telling the whole story. Her boyfriend Jake keeps hiding texts, which could mean he’s cheating on her. Her father lied about losing his job and so much more before his shocking death. And everyone in school seems to be whispering about her and her family behind her back.

But none of that compares to the day Beckett finds the body of a newborn baby in a gym bag—Jake’s gym bag—on the floor of her high school locker room. As word leaks out, rumors that Beckett’s the mother take off like wildfire in a town all too ready to believe the worst of her.

Beckett soon finds herself facing threats and accusations both heartbreaking and dangerous. Nobody believes her side of the story, and as the police investigation unfolds, she discovers that everyone has a secret to hide and the truth could alter everything she thought she knew.

A page-turning thriller set in a small Southern community, Every Single Lie is a jaw-dropping, twisty must-read for fans of Sadie.

(POST-IT SAYS: A solid read that will appeal to those that like stories where horrible things happen. The mystery of the dead baby’s parents will keep readers engaged. Action-packed.)

The Afterlife of the Party by Marlene Perez (ISBN-13: 9781640639027 Publisher: Entangled Publishing, LLC Publication date: 02/02/2021 Series: Afterlife #1, Ages 14-18)

I didn’t even want to go to the party.

Seriously, I’d rather have stayed home with my librarian-witch grandmother and her mystical book club than go. But my best friend Skyler begged me. So I went.

And it was the worst party of my life. Actually, it was the last party of my life.

Not only was there something very strange about the band, but the lead singer bit me afterwards. And then took off with Skyler.

Now I’m chasing down a band of dangerous vamps with my best guy friend Vaughn—the boy I’ve been secretly crushing on forever.

But anything can happen on the road.

I thought all I wanted was for things to change with Vaughn. For him to finally see the real me. But this wasn’t what I had in mind…

Let the afterlife begin.

(POST-IT SAYS: Pure fun. Quippy main character, fast-paced plot, and tons of twists. A lot goes unexplored and is underdeveloped, but if you want a clever paranormal adventure, this will satisfy.)

Yesterday Is History by Kosoko Jackson (ISBN-13: 9781492694342 Publisher: Sourcebooks Publication date: 02/02/2021, Ages 14-18)

A romantic, heart-felt, and whimsical novel about letting go of the past, figuring out what you want in your future, and staying in the moment before it passes you by.

Weeks ago, Andre Cobb received a much-needed liver transplant.

He’s ready for his life to finally begin, until one night, when he passes out and wakes up somewhere totally unexpected…in 1969, where he connects with a magnetic boy named Michael.

And then, just as suddenly as he arrived, he slips back to present-day Boston, where the family of his donor is waiting to explain that his new liver came with a side effect—the ability to time travel. And they’ve tasked their youngest son, Blake, with teaching Andre how to use his unexpected new gift.

Andre splits his time bouncing between the past and future. Between Michael and Blake. Michael is everything Andre wishes he could be, and Blake, still reeling from the death of his brother, Andre’s donor, keeps him at arm’s length despite their obvious attraction to each other.

Torn between two boys, one in the past and one in the present, Andre has to figure out where he belongs—and more importantly who he wants to be—before the consequences of jumping in time catch up to him and change his future for good.

(POST-IT SAYS: I burned through this interesting take on a love triangle. The time traveling is never really explained, but that’s okay because this story is full of so much goodness I could overlook that.)

Game Changer by Neal Shusterman (ISBN-13: 9780061998676 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 02/09/2021, Ages 14-17)

All it takes is one hit on the football field, and suddenly Ash’s life doesn’t look quite the way he remembers it.

Impossible though it seems, he’s been hit into another dimension—and keeps on bouncing through worlds that are almost-but-not-really his own.

The changes start small, but they quickly spiral out of control as Ash slides into universes where he has everything he’s ever wanted, universes where society is stuck in the past…universes where he finds himself looking at life through entirely different eyes.

And if he isn’t careful, the world he’s learning to see more clearly could blink out of existence…

This high-concept novel from the National Book Award-winning and New York Times-bestselling author of the Arc of a Scythe series tackles the most urgent themes of our time, making this a must-buy for readers who are starting to ask big questions about their own role in the universe.

(POST-IT SAYS: Ash discovers he’s the literal center of the universe in this speculative fiction look at identity, experience, interconnectedness, and privilege. A super interesting, twisty, unpredictable look at parallel universes/the multiverse.)

Claudia and the New Girl (The Baby-sitters Club Graphic Novel #9) by Ann M. Martin, Gabriela Epstein (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9781338304589 Publisher: Scholastic, Inc. Publication date: 02/02/2021, Ages 8-12)

A brand-new Baby-sitters Club graphic novel adapted by newcomer Gabriela Epstein!

Claudia has always been the most creative kid in her class… until Ashley Wyeth comes along. Ashley’s really different: She wears hippie clothes and has multiple earrings, and she’s the most fantastic artist Claudia has ever met.

Ashley says Claudia is a great artist, too, but thinks she’s wasting her artistic talent with The Baby-sitters Club. When Claudia starts spending more time with Ashley and missing BSC meetings, it becomes clear that Claudia has to make a decision — one of them has to go!

(POST-IT SAYS: Totally in love with these graphic novels—BSC forever! Such a good look at negotiating a new friendship and all that comes with it. The new illustrator did a great job.)

Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink (ISBN-13: 9781250768476 Publisher: Feiwel & Friends Publication date: 01/12/2021, Ages 12-17)

Randi Pink’s The Angel of Greenwood is a historical YA novel that takes place during the Greenwood Massacre of 1921, in an area of Tulsa, OK, known as the “Black Wall Street.”…

Seventeen-year-old Isaiah Wilson is, on the surface, a town troublemaker, but is hiding that he is an avid reader and secret poet, never leaving home without his journal. A passionate follower of W.E.B. Du Bois, he believes that black people should rise up to claim their place as equals.

Sixteen-year-old Angel Hill is a loner, mostly disregarded by her peers as a goody-goody. Her father is dying, and her family’s financial situation is in turmoil. Also, as a loyal follower of Booker T. Washington, she believes, through education and tolerance, that black people should rise slowly and without forced conflict.

Though they’ve attended the same schools, Isaiah never noticed Angel as anything but a dorky, Bible toting church girl. Then their English teacher offers them a job on her mobile library, a three-wheel, two-seater bike. Angel can’t turn down the money and Isaiah is soon eager to be in such close quarters with Angel every afternoon.

But life changes on May 31, 1921 when a vicious white mob storms the community of Greenwood, leaving the town destroyed and thousands of residents displaced. Only then, Isaiah, Angel, and their peers realize who their real enemies are.

(POST-IT SAYS: More about Black life, thought, politics, and love in Greenwood at the time of the massacre than the massacre itself. Beautiful, powerful, lyrical, and full of so much heart and life. I love Isaiah and Angel’s connection.)

Book Review: What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, a STARRED review, which originally appeared in an issue of School Library Journal.

Roaring Brook. Apr. 2021. 368p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781250268099.

 Gr 9 Up–A desperate boy risks everything to keep his brother out of foster care in this heart-pounding and heartbreaking story of survival and sacrifice. Seventeen-year-old Jack and his second-grade brother, Matty, only have each other. With their father incarcerated and their mother recently deceased, their only hope of sticking together is finding the money their father went to prison for stealing. Deeply impoverished and terrified of child protective services getting involved, Jack sets out to track down that cash, pursued at every turn by drug dealers and Bardem, his father’s partner in crime. His only hope comes in the form of Ava, who decides to help them and gets wrapped up in their mission. But Ava’s secret—that she’s Bardem’s daughter—guarantees there is no way things can end happily. Unremittingly bleak and gritty, this suspenseful story centers around the ravages of poverty and drug addiction that have left Jack and Matty with nothing. Breathtakingly beautiful writing and tender characters collide with a brutal plot filled with bloodshed and anguish. The body count piles up as Jack, Matty, and Ava try to hide in the quiet, frigid emptiness of rural Idaho, never more than half a step ahead of their hunters. The lengths Jack goes to keep his family together and the obstacles he faces will leave readers gutted. A gorgeous, intense, and shocking look at chaos, survival, fate, and betrayal. Characters’ ethnicities aren’t named and Jack and Matty are described as pale.

VERDICT A first purchase and a must-read. Prepare to be haunted and chilled to the bone by this exceptional story.

Middle Grade Titles to Get Excited About

There are lots of wonderful upcoming Middle Grade titles to be excited for – here are just a few I’m looking forward to reading:

Starfish by Lisa Fipps

From the Publisher:

Ellie is tired of being fat-shamed and does something about it in this poignant debut novel-in-verse.

Ever since Ellie wore a whale swimsuit and made a big splash at her fifth birthday party, she’s been bullied about her weight. To cope, she tries to live by the Fat Girl Rules–like “no making waves,” “avoid eating in public,” and “don’t move so fast that your body jiggles.” And she’s found her safe space–her swimming pool–where she feels weightless in a fat-obsessed world. In the water, she can stretch herself out like a starfish and take up all the room she wants. It’s also where she can get away from her pushy mom, who thinks criticizing Ellie’s weight will motivate her to diet. Fortunately, Ellie has allies in her dad, her therapist, and her new neighbor, Catalina, who loves Ellie for who she is. With this support buoying her, Ellie might finally be able to cast aside the Fat Girl Rules and starfish in real life–by unapologetically being her own fabulous self.

All You Knead is Love by Tanya Guerrero

From the Publisher:

Tanya Guerrero’s All You Knead Is Love is a contemporary middle grade coming-of-age novel about a twelve-year-old multiracial Filipino and Spanish girl who goes to live with her grandmother for the summer, gaining confidence through a newly discovered passion for baking, perfect for fans of Hello, Universe and Merci Suarez Changes Gears.

Sometimes you find home where you least expect it.

Twelve-year-old Alba doesn’t want to live with her estranged grandmother in Barcelona. She wants to stay with her mom, even if that means enduring her dad’s cutting comments to them both.

But in her new home, Alba forms a close relationship with her grandmother, gains a supportive father figure and new friends, and even discovers a passion and talent for baking. And through getting to know the city her mother used to call home, Alba starts to understand her mother better—and may just be able to make their family whole again.

The Plentiful Darkness by Heather Kassner

From the Publisher:

In Heather Kassner’s spine-chilling fantasy novel, reminiscent of Serafina and the Black Cloak, an orphaned girl chases a thieving boy into a magician’s land of starless, moonless gloom where other children have gone missing before her.

In order to survive on her own, twelve-year-old Rooney de Barra collects precious moonlight, which she draws from the evening sky with her (very rare and most magical) lunar mirror. All the while she tries to avoid the rival roughhouse boys, and yet another, more terrifying danger: the dreaded thing that’s been disappearing children in the night.

When Trick Aidan, the worst of the roughhouse boys, steals her lunar mirror, Rooney will do whatever it takes to get it back. Even if it means leaping into a pool of darkness after it swallows Trick and her mirror. Or braving the Plentiful Darkness, a bewitching world devoid of sky and stars. Or begrudgingly teaming up with Trick to confront the magician and unravel the magic that has trapped Warybone’s children.

The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga

From the Publisher:

An extraordinary new novel from Jasmine Warga, Newbery Honor–winning author of Other Words for Home, about loss and healing—and how friendship can be magical.

Cora hasn’t spoken to her best friend, Quinn, in a year.

Despite living next door to each other, they exist in separate worlds of grief. Cora is still grappling with the death of her beloved sister in a school shooting, and Quinn is carrying the guilt of what her brother did.

On the day of Cora’s twelfth birthday, Quinn leaves a box on her doorstep with a note. She has decided that the only way to fix things is to go back in time to the moment before her brother changed all their lives forever—and stop him.

In spite of herself, Cora wants to believe. And so the two former friends begin working together to open a wormhole in the fabric of the universe. But as they attempt to unravel the mysteries of time travel to save their siblings, they learn that the magic of their friendship may actually be the key to saving themselves.

The Shape of Thunder is a deeply moving story, told with exceptional grace, about friendship and loss—and how believing in impossible things can help us heal.

Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen by Kate McGovern

From the Publisher:

Maple is in fifth grade—again. Now everyone will find out she struggles with reading—or will they? An engaging read for anyone who has ever felt different.

Maple Mehta-Cohen has been keeping a secret: she can’t read all that well. She has an impressive vocabulary and loves dictating stories into her recorder—especially the adventures of a daring sleuth who’s half Indian and half Jewish like Maple herself—but words on the page just don’t seem to make sense to her. Despite all Maple’s clever tricks to hide her troubles with reading, her teacher is on to her, and now Maple has to repeat fifth grade. Maple is devastated—what will her friends think? Will they forget about her? She uses her storytelling skills to convince her classmates that she’s staying back as a special teacher’s assistant (because of budget cuts, you know). But as Maple navigates the loss of old friendships, the possibility of new ones, and facing her reading challenges head-on, her deception becomes harder to keep up. Can Maple begin to recognize her own strengths, and to love herself—and her brain—just the way she is? Readers who have faced their own trials with school and friendships will enjoy this heartwarming story and its bright, creative heroine.

What are you looking forward to this year?

Dispatches from the Texas Storm

I would normally share a post like this with you on Sunday as a Sunday Reflections, but I wanted to let everyone know what’s happening here in Texas.

During the night Sunday night, early Monday morning, our electricity started to go on and off. It would go off for a few hours and then come back on for a bit. Finally, maybe around 8:00 AM, our electricity went out for good. It was out for a solid 24 hours and off and on for hours before and a couple of days after it came back on.

This was all happening during a stretch of unprecedented cold in the state of Texas. The temperature went down into the single digits. We laid in bed with no electricity wearing layers of clothing and blankets.

The day was already cold, and it started getting colder. There were several times where we went and sat in our car (in our driveway, not a garage) to charge our phones and get warmed up. Thing 2 played in the snow, joyful and not aware that we were growing scared about what the night would bring.

As darkness came up, I could not get ahold of my mother, who lives an hour away. And I grew anxious. And it grew colder.

The weather forecast said it would be 1 degree over night and it was already so cold. And I grew afraid.

That evening, as I tried to get ahold of my mom, we sat in a hotel lobby trying to get a room for the girls and I. We sat in that lobby for 2 and a half hours but nobody cared, because it was warm and it was so very cold in our house. We would have sat in that lobby all night long if we had to just for the warmth. We saw so many people, desperate like us, coming in and trying to get a room. There were no rooms to be had. The clerk was very nice and set us up for a few hours in a room that they were not allowed to rent out because it had broken furniture, but we did not mind. We would take the few hours of warmth.

That night I had visions of going to see my mom the next day and finding her frozen in her home. Eventually, she called me. She had been turning her phone off to save the battery life. Because of the roads, she could not get to me and we could not get to her. It was late at night and already growing cold.

I told her all the things I had read online about staying warm. I begged her to go in her car – not in the garage please please please – and keep warm. We cried together, in fear and desperation about what these early morning hours would mean. That night we hung up the phone and I feared it would be the last time that I would speak to my mother.

I have talked a lot about my mom, but my stepdad is a part of this story as well. He is a man, in his early 70s, who only has one kidney. That one kidney only works at 47%. That detail will become important in a bit.

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Sinks Won’t Drain, No Hot Food, But Safe At Last?

On Monday, during the day, everyone was hopeful that the electricity would come back on sometime during the day. As the night grew, people began packing up and going to hotels, which soon reached capacity. I called several that night for my mom. But there was no room in the inn.

So on Tuesday, my mom and stepdad made their way to my house. It had gotten to 40 degrees inside their home and it scared her (and me). If the heat didn’t come back on it would just get colder still the next night with no heat to warm it up during the day. We could be cold together, but at least I would know that she was there and I could keep safe.

On Tuesday, my mom and stepdad were safely at our house and the electricity started cycling on and off again. During one of those on cycles I was able to cook and serve my mom and stepdad their first warm meal since Sunday, more than 48 hours before.

When we went to go do our dishes to clean up, we learned that the outgoing pipes in our kitchen sink were frozen. The sink wouldn’t drain. It would take more than a day with heat in the house for it to thaw out enough to drain. So we stacked up dirty dishes, we huddled around a fire, and we knew that we were luckier than so many others.

On Wednesday, my stepdad started to feel pretty sick. My mom became anxious. She worried that the prolonged time with no electricity and food had taken a toll on him. She worried about him having to go to our hospital, and not the hospital hear her where his kidney specialist was. So for another night, my mom and I went to bed crying and worrying about how we would survive what was happening in Texas.

The next morning, they decided to drive home even though the roads weren’t great because they wanted to be near his doctor. I told her to contact me when she got home safely and worried.

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“There’s water everywhere . . . “

When she got home her house was flooded. I’m talking every single surface of her floors in every single room covered in water. There is a spot on her ceiling where you can tell water leaked in. Two walls destroyed by water. A window that looks like a waterfall. And every floor, ruined. Her hope chest, destroyed. And the hope it contained, well . . . I hope she can find it again. But today is not that day.

Today we called around trying to find a service to help them remove the water from their home, and they are all so busy they said they could maybe help her next Wednesday. Plumbers, insurance adjusters, hotels . . . they are all so full that you get put on a waiting list. One water restoration place told her that they had received 940 calls in the last two days. And that is only one place.

I cried on the phone today with my mom or my husband almost hourly. Everyone is scared. Many people lost something. Some people lost everything.

There is no gas in our town. There hasn’t been since at least Wednesday.

We’ve gone to the grocery store 4 times. Twice it was closed because they had no food. Once it had a line wrapping around the building. Last night I was able to get some weird odds and ends for the girls and I at Aldi’s. There was no bread on the shelves. No meat. It was far worse than what we saw in the early days of the pandemic.

One of my best friends is living in an apartment that hasn’t had water for 2 days. It’s not expected to have water in the next couple of days either. People like her have buckets of snow that they are using to flush their toilets.

Because of my parent’s ages and risk factors, I haven’t seen them in a year. We went on Mother’s Day and said Happy Mother’s Day from the sidewalk. She came on Christmas Eve and said Merry Christmas from the sidewalk. Masked, of course. We weren’t together for her first grandchild’s 18th birthday. We weren’t together for Easter. We weren’t together for Thanksgiving. We weren’t together for Christmas. But in the life and death situation that was this week, we made hard choices and I hoped that we wouldn’t be putting my parents at risk of Covid while trying to save them from freezing.

My parents will now spend the next week or more in a hotel. After a year of working so hard to keep themselves safe from a deadly virus, they have to make all kinds of decisions that put them at risk. I am praying that saving them from the winter storm and its damage won’t kill them from the virus they have worked so hard to avoid.

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The Kindness of Friends and Strangers

Friends and strangers helped us. A friend gave us firewood to help us through Tuesday and Wednesday night as our electricity continued to cycle on and off. We huddled in the living room around a fire, someone staying away to make sure we didn’t burn the house down.

A neighbor gave us salt as we cleared out the driveway so my parents could walk safely into our home when they arrived.

Last night, a Twitter follower who has been working with Beto O’Rourke and Powered by People contacted me and asked me how they could help me help my mother. They have spent the day answering my questions and trying to get us connected with resources.

My mother found a hotel she can stay in starting tomorrow near her house and near my stepdad’s doctor. Given the amount of damage to her home, she will probably have to find a long term place to stay while her home is repaired. We have no idea what all the damage is, what the insurance will cover, what she will need to do to be safe and how much it will cost her. And we won’t know until, if we’re lucky, sometime next week because everyone she needs to help her is so very busy helping all of Texas.

Texas is not okay y’all.

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The Real Cost of the Failure of Leadership in Texas

The electricity is back on at my house. We slept comfortably last night, though many other Texans did not.

We were able to find a bit of food and The Teen made homemade fried rice, kind of.

Our sink is now draining.

And then I close my eyes and I see my mother, crying, as she surveys the damage to her home.

I want to share this small snapshot because we are not okay here in Texas. I am from Ohio and experienced weather related flooding 10 years ago this month. Texas was in no way prepared to handle this. And it will cost the residents of Texas everything while people like Jerry Jones gloat about the profits they are making.

A drilling company that operates in Texas and Louisiana told investors that the surge in natural gas prices — amid powerful winter storms — was giving it a major financial boost. “Obviously, this week is like hitting the jackpot,” CFO Roland Burns said. Source: NPR

Governor Greg Abbot, Senator Ted Cruz, Senator John Cornyn and more . . . they failed Texas. They didn’t heed the advice of experts given more than 10 years ago and winterize the electricity grid. And then when this happened, Governor Abbot took the time to jump onto television spread lies about how this was a failure of green energy rather than rolling up his sleeves and helping the people of Texas. And Ted Cruz, well, he hopped on a plane to Mexico and then when he got caught, he flew home with his tail between his legs and threw his children under the bus. And then he went onto television in a PR press to rehab his image instead of rolling up his sleeves and helping the people of Texas. Perhaps of all the systemic failures around this event, I am most full of rage for Cruz’s callous indifference to the suffering of the people he was elected to serve during a literal state emergency. He fled while people died and that should be his albatross around his neck for the entire rest of his life. Let it never be just a footnote in his history.

There are people helping the people of Texas. People like Beto O’Rourke, who is coordinating volunteers to make welfare check ups. People like Mattress Mack and HEB and Texas foodbanks. People handing out free water and getting cold people into hotel rooms. People handing out free food. Every day people like my friends and neighbors who gave us firewood and salt.

But make no mistake, in the past and in the present, the leadership of Texas failed its people and the people have lost a lot. Many Texans have lost yet another week’s worth of wages. Cars are damaged. Homes are damaged. Fridges full of food – spoiled. People have had medical conditions worsened. Their homes are unlivable.

And so very sadly, some of our fellow Texans are dead.

We can not let any of this be in vain. We must work to improve the infrastructure here in Texas to protect its citizens from future crisis. And make no mistake, Climate Change is real and there will be more crisis. We must invest in our state and each other to keep us all safe, healthy and thriving. We can not let a failure of leadership like this happen to us again, because it’s far more costly than just investing in what we need upfront.

I don’t know what’s going to happen to my mom’s house. To my state.

But I know that I want things to change.

No, we need them to.

Last night I went in and kissed The Teen as she laid down to go to bed. She cried, telling me she couldn’t take it anymore. None of us can.

IF YOU ARE IN TEXAS AND NEED HELP OR WOULD LIKE TO DONATE TO HELP TEXANS, THE TEXAS TRIBUNE HAS A GOOD ROUND UP OF LINKS

Here is information on how to apply for FEMA aid in Texas if you need it

Friday Finds, February 19, 2021

This Week at TLT

Book Review: Reckless, Glorious, Girl by Ellen Hagan

Questions, Anyone? a guest post by Neal Shusterman

Cindy Crushes Programming: 10 Tips for Make and Take Crafts During a Pandemic

Balance in the Time of Productivity Culture: Jen Petro-Roy and Life in the Balance

Tips for Writing A YA Series, a guest post by Rena Barron

Book Review: The Deepest Breath by Meg Grehan

Sunday Reflections: The Things We Won’t Buy, a Reflection on Generation Z, Conscious Capitalism, and “Cancel Culture”

Around the Web

Georgia Republicans Are Doubling Down on Racist Voter Suppression

STXtv Developing TV Adaptation Of Hafsah Faizal’s YA Fantasy Adventure Novel ‘We Hunt The Flame’

New Zealand Will Offer Free Sanitary Products At Schools To Fight Period Poverty

The Creation Of The Magnificent Makers

COVID-19 and a Lost Generation of Unhoused Students

Book Review: Reckless, Glorious, Girl by Ellen Hagan

Publisher’s description

The co-author of Watch Us Rise pens a novel in verse about all the good and bad that comes with middle school, growing up girl, and the strength of family that gets you through it.

Beatrice Miller may have a granny’s name (her granny’s, to be more specific), but she adores her Mamaw and her mom, who give her every bit of wisdom and love they have. But the summer before seventh grade, Bea wants more than she has, aches for what she can’t have, and wonders what the future will bring. 

This novel in verse follows Beatrice through the ups and downs of friendships, puberty, and identity as she asks: Who am I? Who will I become? And will my outside ever match the way I feel on the inside?

A gorgeous, inter-generational story of Southern women and a girl’s path blossoming into her sense of self, Reckless, Glorious, Girl explores the important questions we all ask as we race toward growing up.

Amanda’s thoughts

Oh, how I hope middle schoolers pick up this book. Beatrice is asking the biggest question: who am I? Having recently survived parenting a human through middle school, I am convinced that, in general, there is no worse age, no worse time, no worse everything than middle school. What a hard age. Hagan deftly captures how complicated this age is, and how all-consuming the questions of identity and fitting in can be.

I loved this book for a lot of reasons, and one of the biggest is Beatrice’s relationship with her grandma (Mamaw) and her mom. It’s loving and inspiring and accepting even when it’s challenging and frustrating and disappointing. With her Mamaw, she has a wonderful role model for embracing eccentricity and being yourself, whoever that is. She encourages Beatrice not to observe life from the sidelines, but to get right in there and live life.

Beatrice longs to show people more of who she really is, the parts that no one ever sees, her multitudes and complexities. She’s feeling a pull between her old self and the new self she maybe wants to be. She knows she sometimes mimics who she’s with, that she changes depending on who she’s around and the expectations. She’s worried about shaving, bras, periods, dating, kissing, and popularity. She wants to be noticed, to be really seen, to be liked by a boy. She does and feels all these things in the company of two totally accepting and unique best friends, friends who let her grow and change and make mistakes. Listen, for middle school? that’s a great depiction of friendship.

The message to be yourself, to be free, to not let others define you, and to not hide yourself away comes across loud and clear as we watch Beatrice fumble her way through early adolescence. This novel in verse will speak to many who so totally and completely relate to how Beatrice is feeling. She’s yet another middle grade character I want to give a hug and say, I know this is hard, but you will be okay. Thankfully, she has wonderful people in her life to do this. A beautifully written book with an empowering message.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781547604609
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/23/2021
Age Range: 8 – 11 Years

Questions, Anyone? a guest post by Neal Shusterman

When I have speaking engagements, even virtual ones, I like to do all questions-and-answers.  Sometimes it panics the more control-oriented administrators.  They’re terrified that their students will ask something inappropriate or won’t ask anything at all.  Never happens.  And even when someone in the audience asks something meant to rattle me, it doesn’t work—because I love thinking on my feet.

            Q: “How come so many people vomit in your book?”

             A: “Well, if you were going through what the characters go through, you’d hurl, too.” 

            Q: “How many licks does it take to get the center of a Tootsie Pop?”

            A: “Three.  And here’s why three is such an important number in storytelling…”

            Q: “Mr. Shusterman, what planet are you from?” 

            A: “A planet that your puny human telescopes have yet to discover.”

The thing about relating to an audience is that if you talk at them, they get this passive, glazed-over look.  They might engage, but only as a recipient, not as a participant.  I would rather get a slew of “What’s your favorite color” questions than spend an hour giving a lecture.  Invariably the questions I am asked are the things I would talk about anyway, but at least now the audience owns the answers.

A book is exactly the same.  Reading a book can be a passive experience or an active one.  An author can spoon-feed a story, a message, a moral—as if the author knows all the answers and has deigned to impart their wisdom to the masses.

Or an author can make the reader uncomfortable by offering questions with no easy answers.  Moral ambiguity; unintended consequences of our most noble actions; characters who face impossible choices but must decide anyway.  Because if you make the readers work for it, they will own the answers they find.

To me that is what writing is all about.  Not being afraid to ask hard questions.  Now don’t get me wrong—I am afraid.  In fact I’m terrified when I ask the hard questions, perseverating on all the things that can go wrong in the asking–especially now, when everyone on all sides of every issue is furious, and just looking for a reason to criticize.

And so what do I do?  Like an idiot, I throw into the raging inferno this Molotov cocktail called Game ChangerWhy would I write a book that peers into so many open wounds in society?  What would possess me to do such a thing, knowing that we’re all working our last nerve?

This might sound like a writerly BS answer, but it’s the truth:  I could not NOT write it.  Once the idea (and terror) took hold, I felt that I would be cheating if I didn’t write it. I would be a fraud, because I didn’t have the courage to tell the story that was screaming at me.  That is, after all, what I always tell students: I only write stories that scream at me and demand to be told.  So if I demanded that this story shut the hell up, I’d be a hypocrite.

Why was the story screaming?  That comes back to a question that I always get asked—more often from adults than from kids.  “What do you want readers to take away from your books?”  The answer to that is always the same.

Perspective. 

If there’s one belief that infuses everything that I write, it’s that perspective is the only way we’ll ever come close to answering the hard questions.  The more angles from which we can view a problem, the more likely we’re going to have the epiphanies and find the inspiration we need to solve it.

Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect?  All about illusory superiority, self-awareness, and meta-cognition.  In a nutshell, the two titular social psychologists postulated and proved that the less of an expert you are, the more of an expert you believe you are.   In other words, ignorance fuels itself, and the only way to deprive it of an energy source is through greater and greater perspective. It’s an ironic truth: the more you realize you don’t know, the more you actually do.  

Game Changer is all about a character learning empathy and killing the fuel source of his own ignorance.  The story is told from the point of view of a fairly oblivious white male heterosexual teen—but in the course of the story, he’s going to have all his notions of the world, and of himself, challenged.  He’s going to have a crash course in racism, sexism, homophobia, and privilege through a series of alternate realities that give him perspectives he could never have otherwise experienced.

 Now, before you go saying, “Great, another straight-white-male-hero-who-saves-the-world story,” I want to make it clear that my goal was to do precisely the opposite.  This is a story about that all-too-familiar character learning that he’s not the hero he thought he was, and, in fact, the only reason the world needs saving is because of his own actions… and inaction.   He can’t fix everything.  The best he can possibly do is find a place to start.

I set out to model how to accept personal and social responsibility, even when it’s painful.  Accountability is not something that just happens.  You have to grow into it—and resistance to accountability can often happen because someone doesn’t know how to get there.

It is always my hope that my stories will reach those who need to read them and offer them perspective they didn’t know they were missing. They say you don’t know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.  As a writer, I want to take that even further.  It’s more than just walking in someone’s shoes—it’s also understanding the reason for the journey.  I want to show readers what it means to be the road.

And if that leads to more questions than answers, then I’ve done my job! 

Meet the author

Photo credit: Gaby Gerster

Neal Shusterman is the New York Times best-selling author of over thirty novels for children, teens, and adults. He won the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Challenger Deep-and his novel, Scythe, was a 2017 Michael L. Printz Honor book-and is in development with Universal Studios as a feature film. His novel, Unwind, has become part of the literary canon in many school districts across the country-and has won more than thirty domestic and international awards. He co-wrote his most recent novel, Dry, with his son Jarrod, and in addition to being on numerous award lists, Dry is currently in development with Paramount Pictures. His upcoming novel, Game Changer, is in development with Netflix as a TV series, and he is co-writing the pilot episode.

Shusterman has also received awards from organizations such as the International Reading Association, and the American Library Association, and has garnered a myriad of state and local awards across the country. His talents range from film directing, to writing music and stage plays, and has even tried his hand at creating games.

Shusterman has earned a reputation as a storyteller and dynamic speaker. As a speaker, he is in constant demand at schools and conferences. Degrees in both psychology and drama give him a unique approach to writing, and his novels always deal with topics that appeal to adults as well as teens, weaving true-to-life characters into sensitive and riveting issues, and binding it all together with a unique and entertaining sense of humor. Neal lives in California but spends much of his time travelling the world speaking and signing books for readers.

Website: http://www.storyman.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nealshusterman

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nealshusterman/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/NealShusterman

About Game Changer

All it takes is one hit on the football field, and suddenly Ash’s life doesn’t look quite the way he remembers it.

Impossible though it seems, he’s been hit into another dimension—and keeps on bouncing through worlds that are almost-but-not-really his own.

The changes start small, but they quickly spiral out of control as Ash slides into universes where he has everything he’s ever wanted, universes where society is stuck in the past…universes where he finds himself looking at life through entirely different eyes.

And if he isn’t careful, the world he’s learning to see more clearly could blink out of existence…

This high-concept novel from the National Book Award-winning and New York Times-bestselling author of the Arc of a Scythe series tackles the most urgent themes of our time, making this a must-buy for readers who are starting to ask big questions about their own role in the universe.

ISBN-13: 9780061998676
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/09/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Balance in the Time of Productivity Culture: Jen Petro-Roy and Life in the Balance

When I was writing LIFE IN THE BALANCE, I thought a lot about goals. Writing this book—getting a book deal for this book—was a goal of mine. Before I was first published, I had worked for years, writing manuscript after manuscript, trying to improve my writing and find a story that would connect with readers.

I achieved that goal. With the publication of LIFE IN THE BALANCE, I’ll have achieved the goal of seeing another book on the bookshelves (in normal times when we’re able to go bookstores, that is). But regardless of how cool that accomplishment is, I want to always make sure that publication isn’t always the goal—that validation isn’t the only thing that brings me joy and fulfillment.

This can be hard. In a culture like ours, when everything is commodified and ranked and everyone is so focused on productivity and staying busy, it can be hard to do something purely for the joy of it. For the feeling of losing yourself in a passion, of doing something with no hope of reward.

Those kind of loves are worth savoring and cherishing. They’re also the ones that are sometimes discouraged by the people around us, the ones who are more focused on “getting things done.”

In Life in the Balance, Veronica has been obsessed with softball her entire life. She’s part of a softball family, after all—her mom was the star of her college team and her grandmother played, too. Plus, Veronica is good. Really good. Good enough to definitely make the local travel team, now that she’s old enough to try out.

Softball is also the thing that Veronica has always shared with her mom. It’s what makes them “them.” It’s part of her and part of her family legacy.

But then it turns out that her mother has something else going on—an addiction to alcohol that’s been affecting their family, too. An admission that she needs to go to rehab.

And Veronica soon finds out that she may not be as passionate about softball as she’s always been. So happens when you don’t want to achieve in the area you’re good at? When you don’t necessarily want to “get the things done” that have been the goals all along?

Life in the Balance is a story of what happens when our family members “disappoint” us, and why that disappointment may not be an actual, well…disappointment…at all. Why being vulnerable is important and how sometimes, passion may find us in the places we don’t expect them at all.

It’s about the pressures that life presents us with and how trying to achieve those “goals” that society expects–how trying to be who you’ve always been—may not necessarily be the path you want to take with your life.

It’s about love—between a mother and a daughter, an old love and a new, and for balance above all.

It’s about how reaching for balance and admitting we don’t have to do it all—or sometimes, even something–is sometimes the best choice we can make.

Meet the author

Jen Petro-Roy writes “honest books with heart,” about kids who are strong, determined, unsure, struggling to fit in, bubbly, shy, and everything in between. She is the author of P.S. I MISS YOU, GOOD ENOUGH, YOU ARE ENOUGH, and LIFE IN THE BALANCE (out February 2021), all from Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends. LIFE IN THE BALANCE has received a starred review from School Library Journal and is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection.

When she isn’t writing, Jen can be found reading, playing board games, belting out songs in the car to embarrass her two daughters, and working as an eating disorder awareness advocate.

Website: http://www.jenpetroroy.com

Twitter: @jpetroroy

Instagram: @jpetroroy

About LIFE IN THE BALANCE

Veronica struggles to balance softball, friends, and family turmoil in this new honest and heartfelt middle grade novel by Jen Petro-Roy, Life in the Balance.

Veronica Conway has been looking forward to trying out for the All-Star softball team for years. She’s practically been playing the game since she was a baby. She should have this tryout on lock.

Except right before tryouts, Veronica’s mom announces that she’s entering rehab for alcoholism, and her dad tells her that they may not be able to afford the fees needed to be on the team.

Veronica decides to enter the town talent show in an effort to make her own money, but along the way discovers a new hobby that leads her to doubt her feelings for the game she thought she loved so much.

Is her mom the only one learning balance, or can Veronica find a way to discover what she really wants to do with her life?

ISBN-13: 9781250619730
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication date: 02/16/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years