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Three Resources That Shaped the World of THE IVORY KEY, a guest post by Akshaya Raman

When I set out to write THE IVORY KEY, I wanted to write a fun fantasy adventure book with puzzles and treasure hunts and a fractured family. But as I began to infuse more elements of my own culture into the book, it became clear that I was going to be digging farther into India’s vast and fascinating history than I ever imagined. THE IVORY KEY isn’t a historical fantasy, but a lot of elements, small and large, did in fact come from the real world. Not all of what I researched actually made it into the book, but I wanted to share three resources that were invaluable in helping me build the world and story of THE IVORY KEY.

The Code Book by Simon Singh

When I was around 11 or 12 years old, visiting my grandparents in India, I found a book left behind by one of my uncles. I’d grown up reading the mystery books my parents passed down to me (Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, The Famous Five etc.) so of course I was immediately intrigued by something called The Code Book. The title alone seemed to promise curious secrets hidden within its pages, so I grabbed it and cracked it open at once. I didn’t realize at first that it was a nonfiction book detailing the history of cryptography, but it was so entrancing that I read the whole thing that summer, even though a lot of the historical context was lost on me at that time.

I didn’t realize how much of an impression this book left on me until I started working on THE IVORY KEY and I could recall with startling accuracy several passages on codes from this book. Some of the puzzles the siblings find—including a polyalphabetic substitution cipher—were things I originally learned about from The Code Book. And since then, I’ve reread it several times, incorporating additional details into THE IVORY KEY duology.

Sanrachna: Magic of Ancient Architecture

On a random day several years ago, as I was scrolling through Netflix, I stumbled onto a collection of docuseries created by Epic TV, an Indian television channel. I’d been spending hours researching Indian history online, trying to find answers to specific questions like “what did the inside of this fort look like?” or “what kind of food was common in this region in this time period?” I wanted to know these details so I could more accurately build the world of Ashoka, and I’d been struggling to find the specificity I wanted. And I was so shocked to discover that there were entire series devoted to answering exactly these questions, in a visual format, with explanations from actual historians and scholars.

There are several shows that I loved on Epic, but one that stood out to me was Sanrachna, which showcased the architecture of India. It delves not only into the history, but the engineering behind the constructions, explaining how ancient architects used science to naturally cool down buildings during the hot months or used the understanding of how sound travels to devise a clever alarm system where a small noise made in one part of the fort could be heard half a mile away. When I incorporated some of these elements into my world, I explained it away with magic. But the real magic is that these kinds of technological achievements actually existed in the real world centuries ago.

Family members

I wrote a book about a complex family so it feels unfair to not mention the ways in which my own family shaped the story I was trying to tell.

My maternal grandmother is recognized within our family and local community for preserving and chronicling a lot of old Tamil traditions. She is a wealth of knowledge and I loved being able to call her and ask her about archaic practices. She told me stories about fragrant wildflowers that grow on riverbanks, petals laden with tiny snakes that had to be carefully removed before they could be harvested. She told me about nearly forgotten herbal medicines and treatments for snake bites and other injuries and ailments. And she was very patient (and a bit bewildered) as she answered my many questions about the organization and structure of temples and how one might, say, break into one.

But another unexpected resource was a book written by my paternal great-grandfather, TG Aravamuthan, a scholar who studied ancient Indian coins. A few years ago, right as I was starting to work on THE IVORY KEY, my dad ordered a used copy of his grandfather’s book online. To our utter shock and delight, it turned out to be a signed copy—and even more surprisingly, the book talked about the influence of Mediterranean countries on Indian currency. While THE IVORY KEY takes place entirely in Ashoka, a country inspired by ancient India, their western neighbor, Lyria, is inspired by the old Greek and Roman empires. In a strange twist of fate, my great-grandfather had written about the very thing that I was researching at that moment, and I loved incorporating some of the details and motifs he wrote about into the world and currency of Ashoka.

Meet the author

Photo Credit: Emily Gillaspy

Akshaya Raman fell in love with writing when she wrote her first story at the age of ten. Though she graduated from UC Davis with a degree in biology, she gave up pursuing a career in science to write books. She is a co-founder and contributor to Writer’s Block Party, a group blog about writing and publishing, and has served on the planning teams of several book festivals. She lives in the Bay Area with an actual scaredy cat, and in her free time, she enjoys baking, traveling, and watching too much reality TV.


Instagram: @akshraman

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About The Ivory Key

In this epic YA fantasy debut, magic, a prized resource, is the only thing between peace and war. When magic runs out, four estranged royal siblings must find a new source before their country is swallowed by invading forces. The first in an Indian-inspired duology that’s perfect for fans of There Will Come a DarknessThe Gilded Wolves, and We Hunt the Flame.Vira, Ronak, Kaleb, and Riya may be siblings, but they’ve never been close or even liked each other that much. Torn apart by the different paths their lives have taken, only one thing can bring them back together: the search for the Ivory Key, a thing of legend that will lead the way to a new source of magic. Magic is Ashoka’s biggest export and the only thing standing between them and war with the neighboring kingdoms—as long as their enemies don’t find out that the magic mines are nearly depleted.

The siblings all have something to gain from finding the Ivory Key, and even more to lose if they don’t. For Vira, the Ivory Key is the only way to live up to the legacy of her mother, the beloved former maharani. Ronak plans to get out of his impending political marriage by selling the Ivory Key to the highest bidder. Kaleb has been falsely accused of assassinating the former maharani, and this is the only way to clear his name. And Riya needs to prove her loyalty to the Ravens, the group of rebels that wants to take control away from the maharani and give it to the people. With each sibling harboring secrets and conflicting agendas, figuring out a way to work together may be the most difficult task of all. And in a quest this dangerous, working together is the only way to survive.

ISBN-13: 9780358468332
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/04/2022
Series: Ivory Key Duology
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years

Book Review: Violets Are Blue by Barbara Dee

Publisher’s description

From the author of the acclaimed My Life in the Fish Tank and Maybe He Just Likes You comes a moving and relatable middle grade novel about secrets, family, and the power of forgiveness.

Twelve-year-old Wren loves makeup—special effect makeup, to be exact. When she is experimenting with new looks, Wren can create a different version of herself. A girl who isn’t in a sort-of-best friendship with someone who seems like she hates her. A girl whose parents aren’t divorced and doesn’t have to learn to like her new stepmom.

So, when Wren and her mom move to a new town for a fresh start, she is cautiously optimistic. And things seem to fall into place when Wren meets potential friends and gets selected as the makeup artist for her school’s upcoming production of Wicked.

Only, Wren’s mom isn’t doing so well. She’s taking a lot of naps, starts snapping at Wren for no reason, and always seems to be sick. And what’s worse, Wren keeps getting hints that things aren’t going well at her new job at the hospital, where her mom is a nurse. And after an opening night disaster leads to a heartbreaking discovery, Wren realizes that her mother has a serious problem—a problem that can’t be wiped away or covered up. 

After all the progress she’s made, can Wren start over again with her devastating new normal? And will she ever be able to heal the broken trust with her mom?

Amanda’s thoughts

Barbara Dee is writing some of the best middle grade out there. Fact.

Here’s the problem that Wren’s mom is struggling with, the problem referenced up in the summary but not explicitly said: she’s addicted to opioids. And she’s Wren’s only parent around (her dad is in NY with his new wife and kids), so things are ROUGH for Wren. But you’d maybe never know that. She’s pretty self-sufficient, doesn’t really let on to others how bad her mom has gotten (and Wren doesn’t know what her mom is doing—she just knows she’s sleeping/out of it a lot, lying, missing work, and not really being on top of the whole “mom” thing), and she just kind of muddles along. Also, she is just a kid. She misses or misunderstands lots of signs that something serious may be happening with her mom, but she’s in 7th grade; it’s not her job to be monitoring her mother for drug use. Wren is busy with her own life, adjusting to her new school (and friends and classmates) and getting really into doing special effects makeup, including for the school play. And she’s adjusting to her new family situation, with her dad halfway across the country from her, with a new wife and baby twins. Wren’s mom doesn’t want her to “talk behind her back” to her dad, so Wren never expresses any concerns about what’s going on with her mom to her dad.

It’s not until things get REALLY bad for her mom that Wren really knows what’s going on. She’s been in survival mode for so long, just trying to keep everyone happy, not make problems, and pretend she’s always fine, that it feels like a LOT to suddenly have other people stepping in to help her and clarifying what’s happening.

While her mother’s opioid addiction is the most Important part of this story, there are many smaller important parts that also feel so significant to Wren. Negotiating new friends in middle school is almost always fraught with lots of peril, and Wren has ups and downs with her new classmates as she tries to figure out who’s nice, who seems fake, and who’s maybe just misunderstood. And her whole obsession with special effects makeup is pretty cool. She’s always watching tutorials and practicing on her friends and her mom. I loved this interest for her, given her very real need to be interested in wearing a mask, becoming someone else, changing your story, etc.

Like all of Dee’s others books, this one handles the more mundane and relatable just as seriously and skillfully as the heavy and specific. Both are shown as significant. For many middle schoolers, they have a lot going on in their home lives, a lot that they may be hiding. For Wren, we see her get through what she can alone, while feeling confused and not necessarily well cared for, but we also see her surrounded by support, love, and, eventually, help. A great read.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781534469181
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 10/12/2021
Age Range: 9 – 13 Years

The Best of Both Worlds, a guest post by Maisie Chan

My debut novel Danny Chung Sums It Up opens with Danny stealth drawing a Druckon – a mutant duck with a Chinese dragon’s head. Danny thinks it’s the “best of both worlds.” I didn’t realize this duality was a theme of the book until someone else pointed it out. There is a sense throughout the book of belonging in two different spaces for diasporic heritage children such as Danny. And indeed for myself, a British Chinese writer living as someone who looks Asian, in a country where there you don’t see Asians on TV or in books.

The title of my novel is a little play on words. Danny Chung doesn’t think he is good at math, sums are not his thing and he has some things to say about it all. He is definitely not the model minority stereotype that is often seen of Asian kids: geeky, glasses wearing, uncool…Danny is really cool (he just doesn’t realize it yet), he draws fantastic comics and has a fantastic imagination.

Being universal versus being specific

When writing the novel, I had two things in the back of my mind. Firstly, I wanted any young reader to relate to Danny no matter what gender they were, what ethnicity or nationality. Danny is a child who wants to be his own person and not always bow to the expectations of his parents or wider society. The universal themes of the book could be about many children that are in school navigating friendships and family life. Secondly, I wanted to center a British Chinese family rather than have just one token British Chinese boy. There are little details I put into the book such as the Chinese characters always taking their shoes off, the fight to pay the restaurant bill and many more things that I have witnessed between Chinese families around the world. Danny is quick to tell us that all Chinese people are not the same. Even though the book brings forth microaggressions as a normal occurrence, and particular Chinese family ways of thinking in the ‘Chinese Way’ – the novel really sets out to debunk and question ideas that there is only one kind of Chinese person.

Nai Nai is based on my friend’s grandmother who arrived in my hometown of Birmingham, U.K. when she was aged 92. She was short, very wrinkly, and full of life even at that age. She was strong and very brave in my eyes for making such a trip so late in her life. Nai Nai was also based on my own grandmother Wai Ping who I met in my late 20s. I used to stay at her house overnight so we could get to know each other but we couldn’t speak each other’s language, I didn’t speak Cantonese and her English was fairly limited. However, we could communicate. I myself moved to a country where I couldn’t speak the language, I arrived in Taipei during my mid-twenties and had to point to photographs of food to make myself understood. Again, that experience taught me that humans can get along, they can make friends with someone who is different from them. And this plays out when Nai Nai makes a best friend in Mrs. Cruikshanks. There is a sharing of culture and of emotion as the two ladies find out what the best of each other’s world is. Mrs. Cruikshanks sharing her love of bingo and Nai Nai sharing her exotic fruits. In today’s divisive society, I felt that a story such as this one was important. There are so many stories made up of fear of the ‘other,’ fear of the ‘foreign’ – a sense of them and us – I hope my novel usurps those notions that someone is better than anyone else.

My friend’s grandmother, who Nai Nai is based on.

I think my novel is also a timely book, as hate crimes against Asian Americans, and anyone who looks Chinese have increased massively. The linking of Covid-19 with sinophobia around the world has created and reimagined the idea of ‘otherness’ and ‘yellow peril’ – Danny Chung Sums It Up is a book about hope, about kindness and acceptance. Danny and his family experience joy and there are many moments of laughter and lightness in the book in a time that has been very heavy for many Asians around the world.

Stealth learning and entertaining at the same time

The best of both worlds for me means that I can tell a narrative centering a British Chinese family, however there is also a story that will educate but also entertain. Danny Chung has creativity as part of its heart. Danny’s love of drawing is integral to who he is, and the book has many of his drawings throughout. And as the title suggests there may be a smidgen of math too – the book has something for everyone! It has something for readers who are fond of math and for those who aren’t! I like to call it ‘stealth learning’ – in Danny Chung, the reader might learn about a family a little different to their own, or they may learn about an interesting math topic, or about some yummy food they’ve not heard of before.

I hope that when readers finish Danny Chung Sums It Up they feel a little more hopeful about humanity and perhaps about themselves.

Meet the author

Maisie Chan is a British Chinese author. She has written early reader books for Hachette and HarperCollins; a collection of fairy tales, myths, and legends in Stories From Around the World for Scholastic; as well as many stories for The Big Think, a well–being curriculum based around stories for elementary school children. She also started the group Bubble Tea Writers to support and encourage new British East and Southeast Asian writers in the UK. When Maisie isn’t writing, she enjoys yoga, dim sum, and singing really loud. She has lived in the U.K., U.S., and Taiwan. Originally from Birmingham, Maisie now lives with her family in Glasgow.

To learn more about author Maisie Chan, visit her website maisiechan.com or on social media via Twitter @maisiewrites and Instagram @maisiechanwrites.

About Danny Chung Sums It Up

A touching and funny middle-grade story about a boy whose life is turned upside down when his Chinese grandmother moves in

Eleven-year-old Danny’s life is turned upside down when his Chinese grandmother comes to live with his family in England. Things get worse when Danny finds out he’ll have to share his room with her, and she took the top bunk! At first, Danny is frustrated that he can’t communicate with her because she doesn’t speak English—and because he’s on the verge of failing math and Nai Nai was actually a math champion back in the day. It just feels like he and his grandmother have nothing in common. His parents insist that Danny help out, so when he’s left to look after Nai Nai, he leaves her at the bingo hall for the day to get her off his back. But he soon discovers that not everyone there is as welcoming as he expected . . .

Through the universal languages of math and art, Danny realizes he has more in common with his Nai Nai than he first thought. Filled with heart and humor, Danny Chung Sums It Up shows that traversing two cultures is possible and worth the effort, even if it’s not always easy.

ISBN-13: 9781419748219
Publisher: ABRAMS
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

The Strength in Family Stories, a guest post by Alda P. Dobbs

I didn’t have much as a kid – no roller skates, no video game console; no summer trips to Disneyland, or winter outings to the ski slopes. What I did have, though, was a collection of family stories that had been handed down from my mother and grandmother. They were stories rich with history, stories of survival, and stories that opened doors I’d never imagined. Hearing these stories in my youth and telling them became part of me, my identity, so much so that I considered becoming a writer.  However, since English was my second language, I found that math and science came easier in school, and so I put away my dreams of being a writer and studied to become an engineer instead.

Thirty years later I decided to chase my dream of being a writer and to finally tell the stories that had fascinated me as a child. But when I sat down in front of my blank screen with fingers itching to type away, I couldn’t bring myself to press the first key. I had unanswered questions. Had the events of my old family stories truly happened? Had the truth behind one of my favorite tales, the one about my great-grandmother escaping the Mexican Revolution, been stretched to give her story an edge? At first, sensing the daunting research effort required to confirm the family tale, I wanted to dismiss the whole thing. I told myself that stories from a different time and culture would not appeal to a young American audience.

But this story spoke to me. It nagged me and begged to be told. Before typing the first word, I raised my sleeves and dug into every book I could find, and every story that had been passed down through the generations to me about the Mexican Revolution. I had to be certain my great-grandmother’s tale of survival was true.

 Alda’s great-grandmother, Juanita Martinez

The story took place during the bloodiest year of the Mexican Revolution – 1913. My great-grandmother was nine years old when the Federales attacked her village, forcing her, her father, two younger siblings, and two cousins to cross the scorching desert by foot all the way to the United States border. Once at the international bridge, their entry into the new country across the Rio Grande was denied, along with hundreds of other refugees. I recall listening to my great-grandmother’s story, mesmerized, especially by the part about when they learned the Federales were on their way to the border town to slaughter the refugees for not having joined their army. My grandmother would go on to tell me of the panic her mother had described when the rush of mounted Federales approached the border town’s small hills. Every man, woman, and child made a run for the bridge, only to find its gates shut. My great-grandmother would recall the fright in her father’s eyes as well as the feeling of being overjoyed when the American soldiers swung the gates open. She’d always describe the story so well, I felt as if I too had run across that same bridge. My grandmother would always remind us of the immense gratitude my great-grandmother felt toward the United States for having given her family refuge.

After months of reading over forty books on the Mexican Revolution and sorting through hundreds of old newspapers and photographs, I found an article that reported my great-grandmother’s story exactly as she’d told it. Except it wasn’t hundreds of people who’d tried to run across the bridge like she’d stated, it was thousands. Over six thousand, in fact. Everything else, the desperation, the pleading, and the rage of the Federales, was exactly as she’d recounted it.

Family stories like my great-grandmother’s, along with Mexican folk music, called polka-corridos, taught me to understand the various roles women played in the revolution, bringing me closer to my roots and shaping the way I saw myself and the women in my family. The Mexican Revolution was a fight for land and freedom, but the women in it also fought for their rights. Back then, women and children lived in a society wrought by racism, classism, sexism, and violence. But with the revolution came changes in how women saw themselves and their purpose in the war. There were soldaderas, women who followed their soldier husbands or family members into battle, making sure they were fed and cared for. There were soldadas, women warriors, who picked up arms and joined the federal government or fought as a rebel, with some rebel women attaining ranks as high as general. Many women, however, were like Petra and her family – either too old or too young to fight in the revolution. Their strife was different. They faced persecution, forced conscription, famine, and the destructive effects of traveling in  desert. Their goal  was survival and the peace offered north of the Rio Grande River. Unfortunately, many young women in Latin America continue to have childhoods like Petra’s. They face violent drug wars, poverty, and illiteracy, while gender and socioeconomic barriers continue to exclude them from many opportunities.

Although my grandmother and great-grandmother are no longer living, writing and publishing my book, Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna, has brought me closer to them than ever before. I believe it’s because I’ve retold their stories. I’ve collected fragments of their histories and assembled them, making me feel whole and better understanding myself. I now understand how these horrific events shaped my culture and my views and changed the landscape of two nations forever. 

Family stories carry rhythms filled with echoes from the past. I’ve learned that these rhythms are better appreciated when they come from family stories rather than history books. When we listen to a family story, its personal connections make us more sensitive and attuned to its rhythms. This helps us develop empathy towards other cultures, other histories, and even our own past. It leads us to know and understand ourselves better in the present. By strengthening our connection with our ancestors, we make way for our humanity to flourish and touch others in our present and in our future.

There’s nothing like a family story to shed light on the perils and trials of our ancestors. My own history, like many others’, is not taught in school nor in books, and it’s our duty to reach into the past and bring out its wisdom and strength and pass it on to the next generation. There’s much to be learned from the adversities and afflictions our ancestors endured and overcame. This knowledge empowers us when we realize we too carry the same bravery, strength, and resilience to face current challenges and misfortunes. It is our responsibility to teach our children that the light of our ancestors shines within us all, and if we pay attention, it’ll guide us to build new histories with a brighter tomorrow.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Kathleen O. Ryan

Alda P. Dobbs is the author of the upcoming novel Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna. She was born in a small town in northern Mexico but moved to San Antonio, Texas as a child. Alda studied physics and worked as an engineer before pursuing her love of storytelling. She’s as passionate about connecting children to their past, their communities, different cultures and nature as she is about writing. Alda lives with her husband and two children outside Houston, Texas.






About Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna

Based on a true story, the tale of one girl’s perilous journey to cross the U.S. border and lead her family to safety during the Mexican Revolution

It is 1913, and twelve-year-old Petra Luna’s mama has died while the Revolution rages in Mexico. Before her papa is dragged away by soldiers, Petra vows to him that she will care for the family she has left—her abuelita, little sister Amelia, and baby brother Luisito—until they can be reunited. They flee north through the unforgiving desert as their town burns, searching for safe harbor in a world that offers none.

Each night when Petra closes her eyes, she holds her dreams close, especially her long-held desire to learn to read. Abuelita calls these barefoot dreams: “They’re like us barefoot peasants and indios—they’re not meant to go far.” But Petra refuses to listen. Through battlefields and deserts, hunger and fear, Petra will stop at nothing to keep her family safe and lead them to a better life across the U.S. border—a life where her barefoot dreams could finally become reality.

ISBN-13: 9781728234656
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 09/14/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Love & Other Natural Disasters by Misa Sugiura

Publisher’s description

This delightfully disastrous queer YA rom-com is a perfect read for fans of Jenny Han, Morgan Matson, and Sandhya Menon.

When Nozomi Nagai pictured the ideal summer romance, a fake one wasn’t what she had in mind.

That was before she met the perfect girl. Willow is gorgeous, glamorous, and…heartbroken? And when she enlists Nozomi to pose as her new girlfriend to make her ex jealous, Nozomi is a willing volunteer.

Because Nozomi has a master plan of her own: one to show Willow she’s better than a stand-in, and turn their fauxmance into something real. But as the lies pile up, it’s not long before Nozomi’s schemes take a turn toward disaster…and maybe a chance at love she didn’t plan for.

Amanda’s thoughts

Will I ever get sick of the “fake dating” trope? Nope. Never. There’s just so much room for so many things to go wrong with this probably pretty awful idea. And in this book, things both go as planned and hoped for and in completely surprising (to the characters) directions.

Nozomi, who is queer and Japanese American, is excited to leave Illinois for the summer and spend it with her uncles in San Francisco, helping out at the museum where one of her uncles works. It’s a chance for a summer of transformation, where no one knows her and she can be/become whoever she feels like being. And after she meets Willow, who’s devastated from a recent breakup, the person Nozomi decides to become is Willow’s fake girlfriend. Maybe they can make Willow’s ex, Arden, realize what she’s missing out on. Except, uh-oh, Nozomi actually super likes Willow and hopes that the fake dating will lead to real dating. Definitely a great plan when the girl you’re fake dating is obsessively sad about her ex, right? Right….

Meanwhile, there’s a lot of other things going on. Nozomi’s parents are divorcing and there’s a lot she doesn’t know and a lot she needs to process. Her grandmother, also in San Francisco, is dealing with increasingly bad dementia and the family is trying to convince her to move to an assisted living complex. Nozomi loves her grandma but also knows that her grandma has held incredibly homophobic views and Nozomi worries she will never be able to let her grandma know her full self. And then there’s Dela, a surly teenage artist who Nozomi ends up spending a lot of time with after she accidentally ruins some of Dela’s art installation. Oh, and Dela is now dating Arden, Willow’s ex. Got all that?

The “natural disasters” part of this title is apt. So much of this book is like watching something bad coming from far away and being like, come on, you see this thing is going to come stir everything up or knock things over, get to safety! But instead of safety—making reasonable choices like not desperately hoping a girl hung up on her ex will like you—the characters just walk right into the oncoming storm. And you know what? That’s adolescence, right? And for a while things go okay. And even unexpectedly great. Maybe. Kind of. Because a weird thing that happens when you get excited because no one knows you and you can be anyone, the funny thing that you end up learning is that it’s always best to be yourself. That being who other people try to make you or pretending doesn’t feel good. Nozomi has to grapple with understanding what she actually wants. She has to think about how to be the best version of herself. And, most importantly, she learns that it’s okay to follow your heart, even when that path changes, and not to give up on people. Things don’t always go how you think they will and love doesn’t always solve everything. A great read with lots of depth, humor, and heart.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062991232
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/08/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

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: Thanks a Lot, Universe by Chad Lucas

Publisher’s description

A moving middle-grade debut for anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t belong

Brian has always been anxious, whether at home, or in class, or on the basketball court. His dad tries to get him to stand up for himself and his mom helps as much as she can, but after he and his brother are placed in foster care, Brian starts having panic attacks. And he doesn’t know if things will ever be “normal” again . . . Ezra’s always been popular. He’s friends with most of the kids on his basketball team—even Brian, who usually keeps to himself. But now, some of his friends have been acting differently, and Brian seems to be pulling away. Ezra wants to help, but he worries if he’s too nice to Brian, his friends will realize that he has a crush on him . . .
But when Brian and his brother run away, Ezra has no choice but to take the leap and reach out. Both boys have to decide if they’re willing to risk sharing parts of themselves they’d rather hide. But if they can be brave, they might just find the best in themselves—and each other.

Amanda’s thoughts

As you know, I get a lot of book mail here. I spend a lot of time sorting it, reading summaries, paging through to read a bit, and deciding what I want to read for potential review. I usually have a pile of “for sure read” among all my other piles, but sometimes those books sit for along time before I get to them, and then their summaries get buried under hundreds of others in my head. All of this is to say, this book has been in my “for sure read” for a while, but by the time I got to it, I didn’t remember much about why I’d pulled it. I’m so glad I DID pull it to read. It’s a really well done middle grade book about boys, friendship, families, emotions, vulnerability, trust, mistakes, coming out, and so much more. It also felt really fresh and unique, which is difficult for a book to achieve!

13-year-old Brian is quiet and anxious. He has social anxiety and, over the course of the story, also begins having panic attacks. He’s a really complicated and quietly funny kid who has some rough stuff going on at home. When we meet him, his dad has fled into hiding from the police and his mother attempts suicide with her stockpile of pills for mental health issues. She ends up in the hospital, which leaves Brian and his 9-year-old brother alone. They get put into foster care and Brian, who has been holding back so much, finally snaps. He punches his bully at school and takes off with his brother, running away and going on a small adventure while he processes what is happening in his life.

It’s from here, after these moments, that his life, while still immensely difficult and unfair, starts to be filled with love and support from all directions. One of his teachers takes in Brian and his brother, and her teenage son begins to bring Brian out of his shell as they bond over basketball, grief, loss, and more. Ezra, the other main character in this book (who also shares narration duties) has always been friendly with Brian, but makes a real effort to be there for him, standing up to the other kids who are being mean to Brian or talking trash about him, helping find him when he’s missing, and truly making Brian feel seen and supported. Ezra also has a crush on Brian and eventually confesses this to him and comes out to his friends and his sister.

The overwhelming message of this book is that it’s okay to be a mess and to cry. It’s okay to tell people you are going through hard things. It’s okay to rely on others to help you and support you. Themes of love, support, and acceptance are strong, as is the message that you are not your mistakes or bad choices. An emotional book full of heart.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781419751028
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: 05/11/2021
Age Range: 10 – 14 Years

Book Review: Lucky Girl by Jamie Pacton

Publisher’s description

A hilarious and poignant reflection on what money can and cannot fix

58,642,129. That’s how many dollars seventeen-year-old Fortuna Jane Belleweather just won in the lotto jackpot. It’s also about how many reasons she has for not coming forward to claim her prize.

Problem #1: Jane is still a minor, and if anyone discovers she bought the ticket underage, she’ll either have to forfeit the ticket, or worse . . .

Problem #2: Let her hoarder mother cash it. The last thing Jane’s mom needs is millions of dollars to buy more junk. Then . . .

Problem #3: Jane’s best friend, aspiring journalist Brandon Kim, declares on the news that he’s going to find the lucky winner. It’s one thing to keep her secret from the town — it’s another thing entirely to lie to her best friend. Especially when . . .

Problem #4: Jane’s ex-boyfriend, Holden, is suddenly back in her life, and he has big ideas about what he’d do with the prize money. As suspicion and jealousy turn neighbor against neighbor, and no good options for cashing the ticket come forward, Jane begins to wonder: Could this much money actually be a bad thing?

Amanda’s thoughts

When Jane realizes she holds the winning ticket to a massive lottery ($58 million), it should maybe seem like her path forward is obvious: CASH THAT THING! But she’s only 17, so it’s both illegal for her to cash it and to have bought it in the first place. She might be able to find someone she trusts over 18 to pass it off to—they could cash it, maybe split some of the money—but it’s not just that simple. Every option seems fraught with lots of drawbacks, especially her most obvious option, her mother, who’s a hoarder. Jane can just picture her burying their already crowded house in more STUFF with access to that kind of money. And then there’s the fact that Jane’s been looking into the lives of other lottery winners and discovering that many of them become full of drama and tragedy after cashing their winning ticket. OH, and her best friend, Bran, is leading the charge for trying to track down who the winner is while the entire town gossips and speculates while they wait for the winner to come forward.

This is a short and fast-paced read, with Jane’s many hesitations bringing so much depth to the story of “girl wins lottery.” I love her friendship with Bran, her thoughtfulness, and what she ultimately ends up doing. I am also now the founder of the I Hate [NAME REDACTED] club. Go read the book—I bet you’ll have no problem realizing who I am talking about and joining me. Pacton does a great job of drawing out this will-she-or-won’t-she story and giving readers plenty to think about as Jane struggles with what to do. Short, sweet, and satisfying.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781645672081
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 05/11/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: When You Get the Chance by Tom Ryan and Robin Stevenson

Publisher’s description

Follow cousins on a road trip to Pride as they dive into family secrets and friendships in this contemporary novel—perfect for fans of David Levithan and Becky Albertalli.
As kids, Mark and his cousin Talia spent many happy summers together at the family cottage in Ontario, but a fight between their parents put an end to the annual event. Living on opposite coasts—Mark in Halifax and Talia in Victoria—they haven’t seen each other in years. When their grandfather dies unexpectedly, Mark and Talia find themselves reunited at the cottage once again, cleaning it out while the family decides what to do with it.
Mark and Talia are both queer, but they soon realize that’s about all they have in common, other than the fact that they’d both prefer to be in Toronto. Talia is desperate to see her high school sweetheart Erin, who’s barely been in touch since leaving to spend the summer working at a coffee shop in the Gay Village. Mark, on the other hand, is just looking for some fun, and Toronto Pride seems like the perfect place to find it.
When a series of complications throws everything up in the air, Mark and Talia—with Mark’s little sister Paige in tow—decide to hit the road for Toronto. With a bit of luck, and some help from a series of unexpected new friends, they might just make it to the big city and find what they’re looking for. That is, if they can figure out how to start seeing things through each other’s eyes.

Amanda’s thoughts

This book was good fun. I’ll say more, obviously, but sometimes a quick little review like that should sell it, when combined with the summary up there of the story. It was good fun and features characters who are vibrant, interesting, and grow satisfactorily over the course of this short book. Also, I loved the length of this book! That might seem like a silly thing to be psyched about, but it was just the right length. Probably one of my most frequent feelings about books is that it was just a little too long, or, in some cases, way too long. Part of that is my reaction because my goal in life is to blow through as many books as humanly possible, and shorter books makes that easier, but part of that reaction is because some stories just should be shorter. Anyway. This book: fun, great characters, perfect length. So go read it.

Okay. Fine. A bit more. I love that this book is about cousins, and that maybe we should think they will be instant best friends, despite their years of estrangement, because Mark is gay and Talia is queer, but they’re not. They butt heads, they make assumptions, and they don’t always understand each other—not to mention they both can be kind of insufferable. But they’re family, going through a tough time for their families, and together with their parents and grandma, are going to have to work it out. I really also loved how neatly the authors got the parents out of the picture so that Mark, his 10-year-old sister Paige, and Talia could have their adventures. Family crisis? Bye, parents! I also adored all of the characters they met on their way to Toronto for Pride. Also, Talia and Erin’s relationship (together for three years, breaking up, maybe, now that high school is over) was super relatable and allowed them both to investigate their MANY complicated feelings and needs.

A fun little adventure that will probably leave you wishing you had a Paige in your life. Full of family drama, new experiences, and the very real teenage desire to both discover new things and have comfortable things stay the same.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780762495009
Publisher: Running Press Book Publishers
Publication date: 05/04/2021
Age Range: 13 – 18 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