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Book Review: Between the Bliss and Me by Lizzy Mason

Publisher’s description

Acclaimed author Lizzy Mason delivers a moving contemporary YA novel about mental illness, young romance, and the impact of family history on one teen’s future, perfect for fans of Jandy Nelson, Robin Benway, and Kathleen Glasgow.


When eighteen-year-old Sydney Holman announces that she has decided to attend NYU, her overprotective mom is devastated. Her decision means she will be living in the Big City instead of commuting to nearby Rutgers like her mom had hoped. It also means she’ll be close to off-limits but dreamy Grayson—a guitar prodigy who is going to Juilliard in the fall and very much isn’t single. 

But while she dreams of her new life, Sydney discovers a world-changing truth about her father. She knew he left when she was little due to a drug addiction. But no one told her he had schizophrenia or that he was currently living on the streets of New York City. 

She seizes the opportunity to get to know him, to understand who he is and learn what may lie in store for her if she, too, is diagnosed. 

Even as she continues to fall for Grayson, Sydney is faced with a difficult decision: Stay close to home so her mom can watch over her, or follow her dreams despite the risks?

Amanda’s thoughts

While certainly not an easy read, this is an important one because of how it looks at the mental health and justice systems. When Sydney learns that her long-absent father has schizophrenia and has been living on the streets for most of her life, she’s devastated. Not only is she heartbroken for her father, but she doesn’t understand how something so big was kept from her. Her mother says that when Sydney was younger, she didn’t know how to address it, and as she got older, she didn’t want to burden Sydney, already prone to lots of anxiety, with this information. Of course, since many mental health issues are hereditary, it’s important that Sydney know the truth. She spends a lot of time googling and basically finds all of the worst case scenarios for people with schizophrenia. And, unsurprisingly, when she learns that there’s a roughly 10% chance that she may inherit this illness, she becomes consumed with worry, looking for signs and symptoms all the time.

Sydney is still trying to live her life and figure out what her impending move to college will bring while trying to grapple with this new information about her dad, her family, and her own health. She’s hanging out with her gay BFF Elliot, sometimes singing in his band, going around and around with her mother about choosing to take her grandparents’ money and go to NYU instead of staying closer to home, and falling for a cute musician. But the news of her dad has rocked her world. She needs to understand his past, what her grandparents and mother did to help him, and what it means now that she knows all this. She learns about his stints in rehab and halfway houses, his refusal to take his medications, his many arrests, and the ways his generally untreated schizophrenia manifests. She and Elliot go to NYC to try to find him and learn while there that he’s in a hospital with liver failure.

It’s all a lot for Sydney to process and she can’t help feeling like everyone failed her dad. Understandably, she is also so, so worried about her future and what that would mean for all of her relationships. Thankfully, Sydney’s family gets her into therapy and puts her on a path to getting help for her own anxiety and depression as well as now having someone who can help monitor her mental health knowing her family history. While her dad truly is living out kind of the worst of all scenarios for someone with untreated mental health issues, Sydney is able to see a different future for herself, no matter what may happen with her own health. The reveal of this big family secret opens up her relationships with her own family members and helps her see more clearly what she wants out of life.

This educational and emotional look at schizophrenia is compelling, complex, and well executed. While Sydney is rather obsessed with the darkest paths schizophrenia could lead a person down, she is repeatedly reassured that many people live quiet, relatively “regular” lives while also having schizophrenia. As readers learn the many ways her grandparents tried to help her father, they will grow to understand just how complicated it can be to try to get mental health help and support especially when someone is unwilling or unable to accept that help. A thought-provoking read.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781641291156
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/06/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: No Way, They Were Gay?: Hidden Lives and Secret Loves by Lee Wind

Publisher’s description

“History” sounds really official. Like it’s all fact. Like it’s definitely what happened.

But that’s not necessarily true. History was crafted by the people who recorded it. And sometimes, those historians were biased against, didn’t see, or couldn’t even imagine anyone different from themselves.

That means that history has often left out the stories of LGBTQIA+ people: men who loved men, women who loved women, people who loved without regard to gender, and people who lived outside gender boundaries. Historians have even censored the lives and loves of some of the world’s most famous people, from William Shakespeare and Pharaoh Hatshepsut to Cary Grant and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Join author Lee Wind for this fascinating journey through primary sources—poetry, memoir, news clippings, and images of ancient artwork—to explore the hidden (and often surprising) Queer lives and loves of two dozen historical figures.

Amanda’s thoughts

This book is a great and rather unique addition to the growing field of books on LGBTQIA+ history. It’s absolutely packed full of information about people throughout history who were, generally speaking, not out as queer. The book includes letters from the subjects and people in their lives, autobiography excerpts, interviews, articles, and other excerpts from writing (for example, some of Shakespeare’s sonnets), which provide “proof” and historical context. One of the big draws of this book, beyond the content, is the format, which includes lots of pictures, text boxes, bits of primary source materials, subheadings, and little explanatory notes about parts of the materials. Instead of opening the book and finding long blocks of text, these busy and lively pages will engage readers who may otherwise find this kind of historical stuff intimidating.

While certainly interesting and educational as a whole, and worth reading all of, this is also the kind of book that encourages readers to dip in and out, reading about someone who may interest them more than others, or an identity that may be more of interest. The book includes extensive source notes, recommended resources, and an index. At the beginning, Wind helps set the scene for the book by talking about hidden histories, how he decided who to include in this book, some general notes (like on the term “in the closet” bi erasure, acronyms, info on primary and secondary source materials, and more.

A really interesting read with a conversational tone, vibrant format, and so much historical information. A necessary addition to collections.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781541581623
Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/06/2021
Series: Queer History Project
Age Range: 12+

Book Review: Can’t Take That Away by Steven Salvatore

Publisher’s description

An empowering and emotional debut about a genderqueer teen who finds the courage to stand up and speak out for equality when they are discriminated against by their high school administration.

Carey Parker dreams of being a diva, and bringing the house down with song. They can hit every note of all the top pop and Broadway hits. But despite their talent, emotional scars from an incident with a homophobic classmate and their grandmother’s spiraling dementia make it harder and harder for Carey to find their voice. 

Then Carey meets Cris, a singer/guitarist who makes Carey feel seen for the first time in their life. With the rush of a promising new romantic relationship, Carey finds the confidence to audition for the role of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the school musical, setting off a chain reaction of prejudice by Carey’s tormentor and others in the school. It’s up to Carey, Cris, and their friends to defend their rights—and they refuse to be silenced. 

Told in alternating chapters with identifying pronouns, debut author Steven Salvatore’s Can’t Take That Away conducts a powerful, uplifting anthem, a swoony romance, and an affirmation of self-identity that will ignite the activist in all of us.

Amanda’s thoughts

Here’s what’s beautiful about this book: Carey is surrounded by so much love. If only all teens could have the amount of love, support, and complete acceptance Carey receives. This is such a lovely look at what parent-child relationships can be, what deep and loving friendship can look like, what teachers can mean to teens, and so much more.

The publisher’s summary up there hits all the broad strokes of the story. Mariah Carey-obsessed Carey, who is genderqueer, is a wonderful singer and decides to try out for the school musical, Wicked. They try out for and are cast as Elphaba. New friend Phoebe (who is Black and pansexual) is cast as Glinda and Carey’s new maybe-boyfriend Cris (who is Filipino, Greek, and bisexual) is cast as Fiyero. With new friendships cropping up, old friendships on their way to being repaired, the musical, and a cute boy in their life, it seems like things are starting to go well for Carey, who is also dealing with frequent panic attacks and their beloved Grams ailing from Alzheimer’s.

But it’s not all great. Carey is being bullied and blackmailed by a classmate as well as discriminated against and verbally attacked by a teacher who is out to ruin Carey’s role in the musical (readers may want to know going in that there’s suicidal ideation, lots of misgendering, and vicious bullying). Then things with Cris get really complicated. And the bullying and discrimination Carey is facing at school grow beyond anything they can try to ignore. Before long, Carey is at the center of a movement to increase the safety and support of queer kids at their school, eventually leading a protest, starting petitions, addressing the school board, and gaining national attention.

Through it all, Carey is surrounded by love and support. They have a great therapist, a fantastic mother who is 100% there to support and love her kid, and far more friends than they initially feel like are in their corner. Throughout the story, Carey needs to learn to be brave, feel safe, and trust others (you know—just really tiny and simple things—ha!) in order to be seen as they truly are. Carey comes to really understand that the reality of people is that they’re complicated and messy, but those that are there for you will be there for you no matter what. This book will leave readers with the powerful and affirming message that you are worthy, loved, perfect, important, and deserve to be seen as yourself, whatever that may look like. And while many upsetting and completely unacceptable things happen to Carey over the course of the book, Salvatore makes sure Carey always sees the love and support, ultimately leading Carey to a much happier place than they start the story in. Carey’s road is not easy—in fact, it’s very painful to read about—but the crying I mentioned up there in my tweet? It wasn’t for the all-too-realistic trauma Carey goes through—it was for the beautiful expressions of love, support, solidarity, and acceptance. All teens should be so lucky.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781547605309
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 03/09/2021
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

Book Review: Once Upon a Quinceañera by Monica Gomez-Hira

Publisher’s description

Perfect for fans of Jenny Han and Jane the Virgin, this immediately accessible and irresistibly fun #ownvoices rom-com debut will spin readers into an unforgettable summer of late-night dancing, broken hearts, second chances, and telenovela twists.

Carmen Aguilar just wants to make her happily ever after come true. Except apparently “happily ever after” for Carmen involves being stuck in an unpaid summer internship. Now she has to perform as a party princess! In a ball gown. During the summer. In Miami.

Fine. Except that’s only the first misfortune in what’s turning out to a summer of Utter Disaster. 

But if Carmen can manage dancing in the blistering heat, fending off an oh-so-unfortunately attractive ex, and stopping her spoiled cousin from ruining her own quinceañera—Carmen might just get that happily ever after—after all.

Amanda’s thoughts

Certainly here’s how everyone would LOVE to spend their summer after senior year: not technically graduated yet thanks to needing to fulfill an internship credit, performing in the quince of a cousin you’re in a feud with, surrounded by former acquaintances and distanced family members, and oh yeah, you’re also doing all this with your crush who’s actually your cousin’s date AND your ex-boyfriend/nemesis.

I mean, this whole story is sort of fairytale-based, and that’s obviously the one we all hope will play out for us—a summer of utter awkwardness full of people you generally dislike. Wheeee!

Might not be a great setup for real life, but it sure makes for a good story! Carmen isn’t psyched to be spending her summer performing as a princess at children’s parties, but I’m guessing she’d rather do a zillion of them than perform at her cousin Ariana’s quinceañera. Carmen’s own quince was cancelled thanks to some drama a few years back with Ariana and her family, so it’s really insult to injury to have to perform at this. And to make things worse, Mauro, her ex who moved away, is back, working for the party company, and everywhere Carmen goes. He wants them to be friends, but Carmen’s main question of the summer seems to be “do people really change?” and let me tell you, she is not one to give anyone the benefit on the doubt. But Mauro is persistent, and eventually Carmen agrees to be friends with him—or friendish. She’s super good at holding onto a grudge.

As summer progresses, there comes a point where everything seems perfect, so of course, queue some further drama and disasters.

This was a great read that will have wide appeal. Gomez-Hira makes the hot Miami summer come alive as we follow Carmen and crew through days of dance, Disney, and drama. Great dialogue (and such good banter between Carmen and Mauro) will keep readers flipping pages, probably hoping that Carmen and Mauro figure out how to find their own happy ending. Good fun.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062996831
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/02/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

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.

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

Book Review: The Deepest Breath by Meg Grehan

Publisher’s description

An accessible and beautifully written middle grade novel-in-verse by award-winning Irish author Meg Grehan about Stevie, a young girl reckoning with anxiety about the many things she has yet to understand—including her feelings about her friend Chloe. Perfect for fans of Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, Star Crossed, and George.

11-year-old Stevie is an avid reader and she knows a lot of things about a lot of things. But these are the things she’d like to know the most:

1. The ocean and all the things that live there and why it’s so scary
2. The stars and all the constellations
3. How phones work
4. What happened to Princess Anastasia
5. Knots

Knowing things makes Stevie feel safe, powerful, and in control should anything bad happen. And with the help of her mom, she is finding the tools to manage her anxiety.

But there’s one something Stevie doesn’t know, one thing she wants to understand above everything else, and one thing she isn’t quite ready to share with her mom: the fizzy feeling she gets in her chest when she looks at her friend, Chloe. What does it mean and why isn’t she ready to talk about it?

In this poetic exploration of identity and anxiety, Stevie must confront her fears to find inner freedom all while discovering it is our connections with others that make us stronger.

Amanda’s thoughts

This is a lovely, heartwarming, achingly honest book and I just want to jump into the story and tell Stevie that I love her and she’s perfect.

The summary up there tells you everything you need to know, plot-wise. Unsurprisingly, this is a character-driven story with a small plot, but that hardly detracts from how wonderful and necessary this book is (and, as I always prattle on about, I don’t care how tiny a plot is—tiny-seeming plots cover HUGE ground, like here, where Stevie is worrying about what it means to maybe, possibly, like girls. THAT IS HUGE!). But it doesn’t fully convey the heart this story has. Stevie is so dear, her heart so tender. Her own anxiety looms large, but she’s often concerned about making her mom worry and feel anxious (something her mom tells her is not her job to be concerned about). Stevie’s anxiety manifests as stressful dreams, stomach aches, a “noisy head,” and lots of overthinking. She suspects she knows what’s behind the “fizzy feeling” she gets around her friend Chloe, but needs to know more to be sure. Stevie loves knowing things, which is actually another manifestation of her anxiety. She’s overwhelmed by how much she won’t ever know/understand/see, and she really likes to know things because she can feel in control that way, she can feel prepared for anything. Hello, totally relatable aspect of anxiety! I see you, Stevie.

A clandestine trip to the library to seek out answers proves to be the opening she needs to finally talk about what she’s feeling. My notes just say, “Oh, the librarian! <3” and “Oh, her mom! <3.” At the library, Stevie learns the most important thing: she’s loved, she’s accepted, and while there’s plenty in life to worry about, her mother’s reaction to her revelation is not one of those things.

A gorgeous, heartfelt, affirming story perfect for upper elementary students. I want to hug sweet Stevie.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780358354758
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 02/16/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: A Pho Love Story by Loan Le

Publisher’s description

When Dimple Met Rishi meets Ugly Delicious in this funny, smart romantic comedy, in which two Vietnamese-American teens fall in love and must navigate their newfound relationship amid their families’ age-old feud about their competing, neighboring restaurants.

If Bao Nguyen had to describe himself, he’d say he was a rock. Steady and strong, but not particularly interesting. His grades are average, his social status unremarkable. He works at his parents’ pho restaurant, and even there, he is his parents’ fifth favorite employee. Not ideal.

If Linh Mai had to describe herself, she’d say she was a firecracker. Stable when unlit, but full of potential for joy and fire. She loves art and dreams pursuing a career in it. The only problem? Her parents rely on her in ways they’re not willing to admit, including working practically full-time at her family’s pho restaurant.

For years, the Mais and the Nguyens have been at odds, having owned competing, neighboring pho restaurants. Bao and Linh, who’ve avoided each other for most of their lives, both suspect that the feud stems from feelings much deeper than friendly competition.

But then a chance encounter brings Linh and Bao in the same vicinity despite their best efforts and sparks fly, leading them both to wonder what took so long for them to connect. But then, of course, they immediately remember.

Can Linh and Bao find love in the midst of feuding families and complicated histories?

Amanda’s thoughts

First thing first: figure out where you will order some Vietnamese food from before you even start reading. We are not much on eating out/takeout, in general, and have only had takeout maybe 4 times this whole pandemic, but after reading this, I’m going to need us to get some phở.

Linh Mai and Bảo Nguyễn are in the same grade at the same school and spend most of their time across the street from each other at their respective families’ restaurants, but haven’t spoken since they were children. If your families are lifelong enemies, there’s not much room for friendship. But when Bảo finds an upset Linh hiding out in the alley one day, everything changes. They start to hang out, a little, tentatively. They begin working on a project together for the school newspaper, reviewing area restaurants. And, to the surprise of no one, they begin to fall for each other. Sneaking around and lying isn’t great for a relationship, but how can they tell their families they’re together? As they begin to uncover some of the reasons for the rancor between the families, the odds of them working out grow even slimmer.

At the core, this is a romance, but there is so much depth to both of their individual stories. Both lead busy lives deeply enmeshed with their parents’ lives and expectations. Both are trying to figure out what they want to do beyond high school. For Linh, it’s a question of how she could possibly pursue art, her passion, while knowing her parents want her to be an engineer, a nice stable career path with plenty of security. For Bảo it’s working to figure out what he wants to do, period. They juggle work, school, and the many expectations from their parents while also maintaining friendships, pursuing goals, and figuring out if being together is worth the drama.

With a heavy focus on families, history, expectations, and secrets, this love story will leave readers satisfied. Except for the actual hunger part—readers will be left literally hungry. I’m not kidding that you should figure out where to order food BEFORE you start reading.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781534441934
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date: 02/09/2021
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years

Book Review: Love Is a Revolution by Renée Watson

Publisher’s description

From New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Renée Watson comes a love story about not only a romantic relationship but how a girl finds herself and falls in love with who she really is. 

When Nala Robertson reluctantly agrees to attend an open mic night for her cousin-sister-friend Imani’s birthday, she finds herself falling in instant love with Tye Brown, the MC. He’s perfect, except . . . Tye is an activist and is spending the summer putting on events for the community when Nala would rather watch movies and try out the new seasonal flavors at the local creamery. In order to impress Tye, Nala tells a few tiny lies to have enough in common with him. As they spend more time together, sharing more of themselves, some of those lies get harder to keep up. As Nala falls deeper into keeping up her lies and into love, she’ll learn all the ways love is hard, and how self-love is revolutionary. 

In Love Is a Revolution, plus size girls are beautiful and get the attention of the hot guys, the popular girl clique is not shallow but has strong convictions and substance, and the ultimate love story is not only about romance but about how to show radical love to the people in your life, including to yourself.

Amanda’s thoughts

Everyone knows the best way to start a relationship is with a bunch of lies, right? I mean, what could possibly go wrong? And if the boy you’re lying to lists “liars” as one of his pet peeves, it will probably be okay when you DO fess up to lying, right? RIGHT?!

It’s the summer before senior year and Nala is excited to hang out with Sadie, her best friend, and Imani, her cousin-sister-friend (Nala lives with Imani and her parents). She’s got it all planned out. But, as so often happens, nothing ends up going as she planned. Imani and Sadie are spending tons of time with Inspire Harlem, an organization that does community projects and raises awareness about social issues. Nala isn’t part of the group, but through an Inspire Harlem event, she ends up meeting Tye, a cute boy who is super into activism. Nala tells what she feels are small lies, but those lies become the basis for their relationship and become increasingly difficult to maintain the more they hang out. Does Tye like Nala for who she really is or who he thinks she is? Can he even really know her when she’s keeping her real self hidden? And even more importantly, can Nala even know herself in all this mess?

I loved this book for a lot of reasons. It’s full of passionate, dedicated, activist teens. Though Nala doesn’t live with her mother, one of the best parts of this story is how much of a role family plays. From Nala’s relationship with her aunt and uncle whom she lives with to all the time she spends with her grandma (and her grandma’s hilarious and great friends) to the many family get-together scenes, family is important. But most important? The idea of learning who you are, of forgiving yourself for missteps, of loving yourself, of being confident in exactly who you are. Throughout the story Nala learns that it’s not important what a cute boy thinks about her—it’s important what SHE thinks about HERSELF. I love how she eventually prioritizes figuring herself out and loving herself.

You can never go wrong picking up a book by Watson, but this book is really spectacular for its emphasis on growth, love, family, and truth. A great story about finding yourself.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781547600601
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/02/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years