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Book Review: We Can’t Keep Meeting Like This by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Publisher’s description

A wedding harpist disillusioned with love and a hopeless romantic cater-waiter flirt and fight their way through a summer of weddings in this effervescent romantic comedy from the acclaimed author of Today Tonight Tomorrow.

Quinn Berkowitz and Tarek Mansour’s families have been in business together for years: Quinn’s parents are wedding planners, and Tarek’s own a catering company. At the end of last summer, Quinn confessed her crush on him in the form of a rambling email—and then he left for college without a response.

Quinn has been dreading seeing him again almost as much as she dreads another summer playing the harp for her parents’ weddings. When he shows up at the first wedding of the summer, looking cuter than ever after a year apart, they clash immediately. Tarek’s always loved the grand gestures in weddings—the flashier, the better—while Quinn can’t see them as anything but fake. Even as they can’t seem to have one civil conversation, Quinn’s thrown together with Tarek wedding after wedding, from performing a daring cake rescue to filling in for a missing bridesmaid and groomsman.

Quinn can’t deny her feelings for him are still there, especially after she learns the truth about his silence, opens up about her own fears, and begins learning the art of harp-making from an enigmatic teacher.

Maybe love isn’t the enemy after all—and maybe allowing herself to fall is the most honest thing Quinn’s ever done.

Amanda’s thoughts

Rachel Lynn Solomon is an auto-read for me. Did you know she also wrote an adult book, too? Just as great as her YA. I’m glad she’s so prolific because I just adore her writing.

There is so much to like about this book. Newly graduated Quinn isn’t sure what she wants to do in college/for her grown-up life. But she does know she doesn’t want a future working for her family’s wedding planning company. She just doesn’t. But her parents have it all planned out for her—major in business, work for them, everything’s taken care of! And though Quinn doesn’t want that, she doesn’t know how to tell them that. She’s also worried that bailing on the business will upset the balance of their family and not give her the connection she loves having with her older sister.

One more summer of working weddings puts her back in the orbit of Tarek, son of the caterers who usually work with her parents. After she confessed her crush to him last year, he ghosted her, which is a pretty rotten move for a super romance-obsessed guy who loves grand gestures. Predictably, and thankfully (because they’re so cute together and their banter is A+), they get together, but it’s not smooth sailing. Quinn’s having a Big Summer. She’s grappling with what her future holds, how to please her family, the idea of her best friend moving across the country for college, and more. So dating her crush while simultaneously not believing in love or romance or relationships is… a lot.

The tension between Tarek and his belief that love is all about destiny and big gestures and “meant to be” stuff and Quinn and her totally cynical and guarded approach to relationships makes for an interesting story. As an adult, I read this thinking, “Quinn, come on. You’re doing all the relationship ‘stuff’ but are just too scared to call it that and feel the feelings!” But the teen stuck inside of me was like, “Yesss, Quinn, I feel you. Hide from those feelings. Blow things up yourself before you can get hurt or disappoint someone!” Especially because Quinn has anxiety and that good ol’ anxiety brain loves to churn everything around until everything seems fraught with peril and sure to implode.

Tarek and Quinn’s relationship has lots of ups and downs, which, again, feels so realistic and makes for a great read. They go from surface level friendship to a deeper and true friendship to so much more.

I also love how mental health is dealt with in this story. Quinn has OCD and generalized anxiety. Tarek has depression. They talk openly about medication, therapy, being diagnosed, the hard days, symptoms, and getting better. We love to see it!

Full of humor and heart and, yes, love, this is a fantastic story about being brave, being imperfect, learning, trying, changing, growing, and taking chances. An excellent look at vulnerability, trust, and self-exploration.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781534440272
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date: 06/08/2021
Age Range: 12 – 18 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: Antipodes by Michele Bacon

Publisher’s description

antipodesWhen Erin Cerise steps off her plane in Christchurch, New Zealand, she’s determined to overcome her losses of swim team captainship, her boyfriend Ben, and her reputation. Her mother is certain studying abroad will regain Erin’s chances of a good future. Once Erin meets her uninspiring host family and city, though, she’s not so sure.

Before Christchurch, Erin wasn’t always intense and focused. When had her priorities gone upside down?

Now, Erin balks at NZ’s itchy school uniforms, its cold houses, and her hosts’ utter inability to pronounce her name correctly. Christchurch does boast amazing rock climbing, gorgeous scenery, and at least one guy who could make her journey worthwhile—if she lets him.

With months ahead of her, Erin slowly begins to draw on the years behind her, one step back into her memories at a time. As she rebuilds herself from the other side of the world, she finds that although her life has been turned upside down and she’s far from home, every way she moves takes her closer to where she came from.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

When Erin moves from Chicago to New Zealand to study abroad, it’s mainly because she’s fleeing what has gone on in her life. It seems like a drastic move, but one her parents fully support. They’re already mortified at her behavior and choices, and besides, studying abroad will help make Erin’s college applications unique. And if she’s going to get into Columbia (and eventually get into med school, become a doctor, make lots of money, and have a perfect life), she’ll need something to help her stand out. Just a handful of weeks ago, her life had been different. Erin had felt like she had it all—a great boyfriend, her swim team spot, and excellent college prospects. But that was before she gained viral fame for an embarrassing and hardly life-ending incident. Now, everything is different.

 

Erin’s time in New Zealand opens her eyes to a lot of things. Erin is extremely privileged and totally unimpressed with her host family, their home, and really all of Christchurch. Her parents, both lawyers, have always been very intense and focused on Erin’s success and her future. Her mother lives for to-do lists and goal-setting. She wants Erin to use her time in New Zealand not to sightsee but to focus on being exceptional and unique. It doesn’t take Erin long in New Zealand to start to understand there is more to life than a constant fixation on goals she never even set for herself. Before long, she’s cast aside her cello, is excelling on the much more relaxed than she’s used to swim team, taking fun classes she never had time to consider before, and falling for a boy who falls far outside the bounds of what her parents would consider acceptable. For the first time in her life, Erin is being asked—and is asking herself–about what she enjoys, what she is interested in, and where she’d like her future to take her. These are confusing revelations, and Erin feels a bit lost as she navigates a new world not just far from home but free of expectations and demands. 

 

It may take readers a while to warm to Erin, who is spoiled and entitled, but her journey toward understanding herself and breaking free from her parents’ rigid rules is a genuine one full of heart and excitement. This engrossing story of self-discovery is bolstered by the unique (Erin’s mother would like that word) setting of New Zealand and a great cast of secondary characters who come to support and encourage Erin in ways it felt like no one at home truly did. An excellent and engaging look at what we can gain when it feels like everything is lost. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781510723610
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Publication date: 04/03/2018

Book Review: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Publisher’s description

poet XFans of Jacqueline Woodson, Meg Medina, and Jason Reynolds will fall hard for this astonishing #ownvoices novel-in-verse by an award-winning slam poet, about an Afro-Latina heroine who tells her story with blazing words and powerful truth.

Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about.

With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself. So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out. But she still can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This book was fantastic. It took me a little bit to warm up to Xiomara, not because of any flaws in the writing or characterization, but because Xiomara is a tough nut to crack—she keeps most everyone at a distance, is quick to fight, and is slow to reveal what she’s all about. But once this novel in verse really gets going—watch out! You won’t be moving anywhere until you’ve finished the whole thing.

 

15-year-old Dominican American Xiomara is used to being judged, harassed, and viewed only as a body with curves, not just from the male gaze, but even from her own mother. She’s close to exactly two people in life, her twin brother, whom she lovingly just calls Twin, and their best friend, Caridad. They are the only ones who really know anything about her, and even they don’t get to know it all. Xiomara’s mother goes to Mass daily and is extremely disappointed in Xiomara’s disinterest in church, confirmation classes, and religion. She’s very strict,but Xiomara has found ways around her rules to try to live the life she wants. She joins a poetry club at school while pretending to be at confirmation classes. She also begins seeing Trinidadian Aman, a kind, compassionate, music-loving classmate who is always ready to hear one of her poems. Her mother makes it clear that her sexuality is something to be repressed, to be ashamed of, to be denied, but Xiomara is having all of these first feelings for Aman, and not even the scolding voice of her mother in her head can override her beginning to make her own decisions and define her body and her sexuality on her own terms. But she has to keep all of this secret from her mother—just like Twin has to keep his relationship with a boy a secret. Everything begins to unravel when Xiomara’s mother sees her kissing Aman, and then further escalates when she finds Xiomara’s poetry notebook. Learning how to trust and how listen to her own voice—to find power not just in words but in the power of her words—is a rough road for Xiomara, but it’s also one filled with wonder, joy, and revelations. Powered by Xiomara’s strong but vulnerable voice, this intense, poignant, and extraordinary novel is a must for all collections.

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062662804
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/06/2018

Book Review: American Panda by Gloria Chao

Publisher’s description

An incisive, laugh-out-loud contemporary debut about a Taiwanese-American teen whose parents want her to be a doctor and marry a Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer despite her squeamishness with germs and crush on a Japanese classmate.

At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth—that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.

But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?

From debut author Gloria Chao comes a hilarious, heartfelt tale of how unlike the panda, life isn’t always so black and white.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

american pandaI LOVED this book. It was on my list of books I’m most looking forward to this year and it totally delivered.

At only 17, Mei is a first-year pre-med student at MIT. Her Taiwanese immigrant parents should be proud of her. She should be excited to be in college and on the path to her career. Except her parents only sparingly dole out praise and Mei doesn’t actually want to be a doctor. Her debilitating fear of germs is one roadblock, sure, but it’s more that she just really has no interest in this career; she’d love to own a dance studio instead. But her parents pressure her and expect certain things. After all, all it took for her (now doctor) brother to be disowned was him falling in love with a Taiwanese-American woman who has endometriosis and may have trouble conceiving. Mei’s mother is endlessly critical of her (telling her that no man wants a panda—lazy, round, and silly—her body-shaming is incessant), micromanaging her life and making it clear that anything other than the plans her parents have laid out for her are unacceptable. Mei longs for freedom now that she’s in college, but it’s hard to achieve with your parents constantly checking in and criticizing.

 

 

Despite the pressures, Mei can’t help but live her own life, one that she has to keep secret from her judging parents. She dances, teaches dance, spends time doing things other than studying, shadows a doctor and HATES it, reconnects with her brother, and falls for the charismatic Darren Takahashi, a Japanese-American classmate. Keeping so many things secret is hard on Mei, who is struggling to figure out how to exist in multiple cultures, how to carve out her own life, and to figure out where her parents end and she begins. After years of convincing herself that what she wants doesn’t matter, that fulfilling her duties is what’s important (even if it makes her miserable), Mei begins to see there may be another path. But making her way along it won’t be easy.

 

Though the pacing was sometimes a little off (with extraneous scenes/characters that didn’t particularly move the story along), overall this was a fantastic read. Mei is a great character—funny, awkward, determined, and conflicted—and the plot of how to straddle cultures as a child of immigrants will appeal to many readers who can relate, as will the story of wanting to make your own choices but not being sure how to go about that. Mei’s voice is strong and determined, in spite of what her controlling parents have tried to impose. I loved seeing her begin to stand up for herself and surround herself with people who got to see who she truly was. I can’t wait to see more from Chao!

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481499101
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 02/06/2018

Book Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

Publisher’s description

i am not yourThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian meets Jane the Virgin in this poignant but often laugh-out-loud funny contemporary YA about losing a sister and finding yourself amid the pressures, expectations, and stereotypes of growing up in a Mexican-American home. 
 
Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family.

But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role.

Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.

But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first kiss, first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out. Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Julia is blunt, funny, sneaky, and also fairly miserable. Her sister, Olga, was recently killed and Julia feels more off-kilter than ever. She’s grieving, of course, but also intensely feeling her parents’ disappointment in her and trying to find ways to get a little breathing room, especially in respect to her judgmental and strict mother. All Julia wants to do is graduate and move to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a writer, but it’s hard to feel like that dream could become a reality since her parents think a good daughter would be happy to continue living at home and attending community college. That’s what Olga did, and especially as far as her mother is concerned, Olga was perfect. Julia, who talks back, is unabashedly a feminist, and isn’t particularly concerned with consequences, knows she is far from her parents’ ideal. She carries that weight while trying to just live her life in spite of her grief and her increasing depression. And while Julia certainly doesn’t think she has her own life figured out, she did think she had Olga’s nailed: boring secretary who attends one class at a time and was her parents’ pride and joy. But while trying to get to know her now dead sister a little better, Julia must face the fact that she didn’t actually know her sister at all–that no one in their family did. Julia assembles clues based on her limited findings and follows them until she is able to put together a more realistic picture of who Olga was. 

 

Overall, I liked this book. Julia is a complex character. Her struggles as a first generation American teenager and as someone living in poverty are just as complex and well-drawn as she is. However, once I realized the part mental health would play in her story, I wanted more from it: I wanted it woven in throughout, instead of just kind of dropped in, and explored more fully. The plot suffers a bit from being overstuffed—not that she can’t have multiple things happening in her life at once (friends issues, grieving her sister, her first real boyfriend, mental health stuff, a trip to Mexico)—I kept wanting Julia to either really hone in on the mystery with her sister OR explore her grief and hopes for her own life more fully, something to make the plot feel tighter to me. Maybe it just needed to cover less time. At any rate, as a character-driven reader, Julia’s emotionally complicated journey held my attention even when the plot meandered. Her desire for something bigger in life as well as the reveal that people aren’t necessarily what they seem will resonate with teen readers. 

 

ISBN-13: 9781524700485
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 10/17/2017

Book Review: What Girls Are Made Of by Elana Arnold

Publisher’s description

what-girls-are-madeThis is not a story of sugar and spice and everything nice.

When Nina Faye was fourteen, her mother told her there was no such thing as unconditional love. Nina believed her. Now Nina is sixteen. And she’ll do anything for the boy she loves, just to prove she’s worthy of him. But when he breaks up with her, Nina is lost. What is she if not a girlfriend? What is she made of?

Broken-hearted, Nina tries to figure out what the conditions of love are. She’s been volunteering at a high-kill animal shelter where she realizes that for dogs waiting to be adopted, love comes only to those with youth, symmetry, and quietness. She also ruminates on the strange, dark time her mother took her to Italy to see statues of saints who endured unspeakable torture because of their unquestioning devotion to the divine. Is this what love is?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

There are people who are going to read this book and judge Nina harshly. Here is who I suspect those people will be: people who are not teenage girls; people who have never been teenage girls; people who completely forgot what it’s like to be a teenage girl; people who literally cannot imagine being a teenage girl; and people who don’t understand the realities of teenage girls. Reading this book requires being aware of the fact that being a teenage girl means processing, internalizing, and subverting a lifetime of your gender being socially constructed. It means bending and breaking under the weight of expectation. It means digging deep to find your worth when you’re surrounded by an entire world that tries to define it for you. It means being fed conflicting and dangerous messages, then being left to untangle them, alone, and find out the truth for yourself. Being a teenage girl is not easy; Elana Arnold shows us exactly why in this stunning and thoughtful book.

 

Nina is told by her mother, at age 14, that love is always conditional—that there is no such thing as unconditional love. She’s not just talking about romantic love; her mother tells her that she could stop loving her at any time for any number of reasons. Nina spends the next few years grappling with this statement. For her, in her relationship with Seth, love is very conditional and involves games. Or, I should say, it’s conditional from Seth’s perspective. As far as Nina is concerned, her love is unconditional. Her love of Seth is worshipful. She admits that all of the decisions she makes are based on Seth, and she knows “it isn’t okay to care this much about a boy. I know it’s not feminist, or whatever….” But knowing something and applying that knowledge are two different things. They have been dating for three months and Nina has made him her whole world. It is uncomfortable to see her so absorbed in this not particularly satisfying relationship—not because I feel she is being foolish, but because I recognize my teenage self in her choices and feelings. Maybe that’s the best summary of being a teenage girl: it is uncomfortable.

 

Nina volunteers at a high-kill dog shelter (I fully admit I had to skim the parts that talked about surrendering, harming, and killing dogs). She mentions a few times that she was ordered to volunteer as part of an incident from last year—an incident that we don’t learn the truth of until quite late in the book. There is a lot to be said about Nina and working at the shelter, about how, much like the attention-deprived dogs, she just wants someone to love her, to choose her. There are also entire papers just begging to be written about women’s bodies, what fills them and empties from them, and metaphors dealing with her large but often empty home, her mother’s miscarriages, and Nina’s own abortion.

 

Between the main narrative of Nina’s story are short pieces mainly about virgins, martyrs, and saints. These are stories Nina’s mother told her and are stories of sacrifice, unconditional love, and the happily ever after that comes from dying for what you are devoted to. Nina is writing these, along with other short pieces, for an English assignment, only she doesn’t think she can bear to share them with her teacher. I suppose some readers may be inclined to skim them, not seeing them as integral to the main story, but skipping them would be a mistake. These stories, which have left such impressions on Nina, are powerful, important, and revealing. As Nina’s mother says at one point, “As long as there have been women, there have been ways to punish them for being women.”

 

This meditation on the idea of unconditional love—whether it is, indeed, unconditional, whether this idea is dangerous or appealing (or both), and determining who sets conditions and why—is devastating, smart, complex, and utterly real. Nina is aching, learning, screwing up, holding on too long, letting go, bending, breaking, and recreating. Arnold shows us that none of that is simple. It’s not easy, in any way, but she is doing it all, largely alone. She is hurting and growing and being. She is becoming. Her story is so painfully familiar and common and will surely resonate with readers. A powerful and unforgettable look at the things that define teenage girls.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781512410242

Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group

Publication date: 04/01/2017

Book Review: Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood

Publisher’s description

wild swansThe summer before Ivy’s senior year is going to be golden-all bonfires, barbeques, and spending time with her best friends. For once, she will just get to be. No summer classes, none of Granddad’s intense expectations to live up to the family name. For generations, the Milbourn women have lead extraordinary lives-and died young and tragically. Granddad calls it a legacy, but Ivy considers it a curse. Why else would her mother have run off and abandoned her as a child?

But when her mother unexpectedly returns home with two young daughters in tow, all of the stories Ivy wove to protect her heart start to unravel. The very people she once trusted now speak in lies. And all of Ivy’s ambition and determination cannot defend her against the secrets of the Milbourn past…

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Confession: I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump. I started and then quit 4 books before settling on this one. My life is kind of bonkers right now, and my TBR pile stands a good chance of killing someone should it tip over, so when I sit down to read, I want it to be engrossing. I don’t like writing negative reviews, or meh reviews, here on TLT. I get to choose what I review. So why waste my time on things that feel like I’m slogging through them? All of this is to say that WILD SWANS absolutely snapped me out of my slump. Big time.

 

“Granddad says all the Milbourn women are extraordinary

Amelia, the Shakespeare professor up at the college, says cursed

Judy, the bookseller down at the Book Addict, says crazy

Here in Cecil, girls are still expected to be nice. Quiet. All sugar. Maybe a little spice.

But not us. We Milbourn women are a complicated lot.” 

 

Those first few lines roped me right in.

 

Ivy is 17 and looking forward to (for once) a low-key summer. Those plans come crashing to a halt when her estranged mother appears. Ivy lives with her grandfather (called Granddad or the Professor) and has since her mom bailed on her as a toddler. Erica, Ivy’s mom, has had NOTHING to do with her since then. Granddad is letting Erica and her two girls move in with them for a bit while she tries to get back on her feet. Ivy’s curious about her two half-sisters, Grace and Isobel, but not looking forward to seeing Erica. It’s immediately clear that Erica is a MESS. She’s cruel, selfish, oblivious, and, worst of all, has been lying to her girls saying that Ivy is their aunt, not their big sister. Nice. Of course, Cecil is a tiny town, so it doesn’t take long for gossip or truth to circulate.

 

Ivy feels she’s “utterly ordinary.” She comes from a long line of woman who excelled in the arts—and who also died young and tragically. Granddad is always pushing for her to take more classes, submit her poetry, always do more or be better. The long history of heavy pressures—of success but at what cost, of mental illness, of accidental or intentional death—is rarely discussed. Granddad certainly doesn’t see how the burden of the family legacy and his own pressures could be causing Ivy harm.

 

There is a lot I love about this book, but the things I love best are Ivy’s friendships. She has three best friends–Claire, Abby, and Alex. Mexican American Alex and his mother live in Ivy’s granddad’s carriage house. They’re basically family. Tension arises when Alex begins to have feelings for Ivy that go beyond the realm of their brother-sister relationship. Ivy isn’t feeling it–or maybe she is, but she won’t let herself feel it because she’s too afraid of what it might do to their friendship. Alex is hurt by her rejection, and that hurt multiples when Ivy begins to date biracial Connor, a poetry protege of her granddad. Ivy’s friend Claire is GREAT. She’s my new book best friend. She’s outspoken and brilliant and unabashedly a feminist. She nudges Abby and Ivy toward conversations on sex, slut-shaming, fat-shaming, birth control, feminism, agency, loyalty, and double standards. She has no problem calling people on their garbage. She supports other girls—she and Ivy have a pact not to talk trash about other girls. The girls are GREAT. Ivy feels annoyed at the expectation that she be “nice.” Claire, who is bi, makes sure no one defaults to heteronormative comments. And both girls speak up when Abby has trouble accepting that her 6-year-old sister Ella (formerly Eli) is transgender. All of the other stuff–the disastrous days with Erica, the new sibling issues, the boy drama–make this book extremely interesting and well-done, but it’s the friendship that I’m here for. Give me more of this, please, YA novels. Girls TOTALLY sticking up for each other, looking out for each other, having frank conversations about huge issues. MORE. PLEASE. 

 

This well-written book full of strong characters and complicated relationship will fly off the shelves. It will appeal to readers who like family drama, romances, great friendships, and stories about the pressures of being a teenager. Totally on my top books of the year list. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781492622161

Publisher: Sourcebooks

Publication date: 05/03/2016

#MHYALit: Pushed Too Hard: Academic Pressure and Mental Health Concerns, a guest post by Cindy L. Rodriguez

Today we are glad to have Cindy L. Rodriguez, author of WHEN REASON BREAKS, joining us to talk about depression, pressure, and expectation. Visit our hub to see all of the posts in the #MHYALit series. 

 

MHYALitlogoofficfialI have always been a rabid overachiever.

 

I started kindergarten early and skipped the sixth grade, so I was only twelve when I started ninth grade and sixteen when I started my freshman year at the University of Connecticut. There, I was a good student (3.0 GPA), even while juggling a full course load every semester and more than full-time hours at The Daily Campus, the student-run newspaper, where I was a reporter, then news editor, then managing editor. In the summers, I interned at newspapers, which helped to land a job at the Hartford Courant after graduation. Three years later, I got a job as a researcher at The Boston Globe. I was working for one of the biggest newspapers in the country, for the Spotlight team, no less, at the age of twenty-three.

 

And then I completely unraveled.

 

The job wasn’t working out, and the editors wouldn’t move me into a new position. I stuck it out for as long as I could because I was grateful to be at The Boston Globe and figured I could fix this. But I couldn’t. I started to experience every symptom of depression, but I pushed on without seeking medical attention for almost two years because I thought I could fix it. I couldn’t. Depression, I would learn, runs in my family, and my experience in Boston was the trigger. But, it was just a job, right? Nope. It was my entire identity. I was a journalist. My best friends were journalists. I saw everything in the world as a possible newspaper article. Every step I took personally, professionally, academically led me to Boston, and then I hit a wall.

 

I was a failure with no Plan B.

 

I have openly discussed my depression before and my concerns about how the disease is underdiagnosed and undertreated in minority communities and young adult fiction.

 

Today, I want to talk about expectations, mental health, and young people. In my case, no one pushed me. My parents were always supportive and proud but never once suggested I try harder or do more. I own this. It’s who I am. I set goals and want to achieve them, and when I was young, learning something new or achieving something felt great and left me asking, “What’s next?”

 

I’m still like this. I set goals and want to achieve them. I always ask, “What’s next?” because I am a life-long learner and want to explore and grow until the end. But, now that I am older, wiser, and have reaped the benefits of medication and therapy, I know when I’m doing too much. I’m better at recognizing when I need to say “no” or when I need to alter my plan because it is jeopardizing my mental health.

 

But, as a parent and educator, I worry that we are creating and endorsing high-stakes external triggers that could harm the young people we care so much about—our children, our students.

 

Today, many schools choose academics over recess. We have competitive preschool programs in some communities and none in others, ensuring unequal access to educational opportunities and the continuation of the achievement gap. We expect students to read by the end of kindergarten and do hours of homework in elementary school. We separate students into honors classes by middle school. The division becomes more severe in high school, with students pushed into honors and AP classes. Many high school students graduate early and already have college credits. The collective message is that average is not good enough. Overachievement is the norm, and college is required for success. The pressure to perform is immense for all students, and many have significant, added obstacles connected to poverty. About 25 percent of high school freshman fail to graduate on time. And those who “make it?” About 45 percent of first-time undergraduates who matriculated in the fall of 2008 did not earn a degree after six years.

 

We are pushing young people harder than ever, and to what end?

 

In this New York Times article, college counseling centers reported that more than half of their clients have severe psychological problems, and that anxiety and depression are now the most common health diagnoses among college students.

 

I see the faces behind the statistics in my classroom, in the hallways, at book signings, and in my home. My daughter cried over math homework when she was in the first grade. At a meeting, a seventh-grade boy’s parents harped on the one B on his report card for band. A sixth-grade girl held her head in her hands during last year’s state testing. When I asked if she was okay, she stared at the screen, tears in her eyes, and said, “I don’t know how to do this.” When a young woman asked me to sign my book for her, I spotted a semicolon tattoo on her wrist. When one of my college students talked about his personal narrative essay, I spotted scars all over both of his arms.

 

I see myself in them. And I worry about them. And I wonder what I can do as a mother, teacher, and writer.

 

I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve decided on a few things. I will always stress effort, stamina, and process over achievement in my home and classroom. I will always openly talk about not being perfect, how I am average at some things, and downright horrible at others. I will always tell them about my brother, who is an auto mechanic, and my sister, who is an artist, and how there are multiple ways to be intelligent. I may even write a YA novel set in a technical school because where are those? More than anything, I will always openly talk about and write about having and managing depression so that young people realize it’s common and treatable—that they, too, can survive it, manage it, and continue to accomplish things in life without losing themselves in the process.

 

About When Reason Breaks

when reasonA Goth girl with an attitude problem, Elizabeth Davis must learn to control her anger before it destroys her.

Emily Delgado appears to be a smart, sweet girl with a normal life, but as depression clutches at her, she struggles to feel normal.

Both girls are in Ms. Diaz’s English class, where they connect to the words of Emily Dickinson. Both are hovering on the edge of an emotional precipice. One of them will attempt suicide. And with Dickinson’s poetry as their guide, both girls must conquer their personal demons to ever be happy.

In an emotionally taut novel that is equal parts literary and commercial, with a richly diverse cast of characters, readers will relish in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and be completely swept up in the turmoil of two girls fighting for their lives.

 

Meet Cindy L. Rodriguez

cindyrodriguez2Cindy L. Rodriguez is a former journalist turned public school teacher and fiction writer. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU and has worked as a reporter at The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe. She and her daughter live in Connecticut, where she teaches middle school reading and college-level composition. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books on 2/10/2015. She is a founder of Latin@s in Kid Lit and a member of the We Need Diverse Books team. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.