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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the author

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

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

Website: http://www.jenpetroroy.com

Twitter: @jpetroroy

Instagram: @jpetroroy

About LIFE IN THE BALANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: This Is How We Fly by Anna Meriano

This Is How We Fly

Publisher’s description

A loose retelling of Cinderella, about a high-school graduate who—after getting grounded for the whole summer—joins a local Quidditch league and finds her footing, perfect for fans of Dumplin’Fangirl, and everyone who’s read and adored Harry Potter. 

17-year-old vegan feminist Ellen Lopez-Rourke has one muggy Houston summer left before college. She plans to spend every last moment with her two best friends before they go off to the opposite ends of Texas for school. But when Ellen is grounded for the entire summer by her (sometimes) evil stepmother, all her plans are thrown out the window. 

Determined to do something with her time, Ellen (with the help of BFF Melissa) convinces her parents to let her join the local muggle Quidditch team. An all-gender, full-contact game, Quidditch isn’t quite what Ellen expects. There’s no flying, no magic, just a bunch of scrappy players holding PVC pipe between their legs and throwing dodgeballs. Suddenly Ellen is thrown into the very different world of sports: her life is all practices, training, and running with a group of Harry Potter fans. 

Even as Melissa pulls away to pursue new relationships and their other BFF Xiumiao seems more interested in moving on from high school (and from Ellen), Ellen is steadily finding a place among her teammates. Maybe Quidditch is where she belongs. 

But with her home life and friend troubles quickly spinning out of control—Ellen must fight for the future that she wants, now she’s playing for keeps. 

Amanda’s thoughts

First of all, OF COURSE J.K. Rowling is a disgusting human and her horrible TERF-y takes have made me divest myself of all my HP paraphernalia. I now have a visceral reaction of UGH whenever I see a HP reference (and somedays it feels impossible to get through a book without some kind of HP reference cropping up). So if you feel like me, here’s what I hope you will do: Understand that this book here is about playing quidditch, which, yes, is from the world of HP, but that’s it—it’s not some kind of love letter to a now VERY problematic franchise. I will totally admit to letting this book sit on my shelf for a bit because I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it because of the simple fact that it’s something to do with HP. Please be better than me and just immediately get this book and start reading. This book is wonderful.

If you’re looking for a book that’s brimming with feminism and politics and messy friendships, this book is for you. Summer after senior year is supposed to be Ellen’s last chance to super bond with her friends before they all split up for college. Instead, her best friend Xiumaio basically cuts her loose on graduation day, claiming a need for more space. Combined with the fact that life at home is challenging—Ellen has a contentious relationship with her stepmother and totally feels like her family just wants her gone already—Ellen feels totally alone, like everyone thinks they’d just be better off without her.

Probably because she’s feeling so lost, she agrees to give playing quidditch a chance. Ellen has never been into sports of any kind and doesn’t exactly seem psyched, but Melissa, her other BFF, is into it, so at least they can spend a little time together. Once Ellen basically gets grounded for life (stepmom issues), quidditch practice and games become her only source of human interaction. Before long, she’s making new friends, trying new things, and finally maybe finding her people and her place. But it’s not all sunshine. Melissa seems to be pulling away now, too, ditching Ellen for a new quidditch friend. Ellen doesn’t know who to turn to as she experiences new things and has lots of feelings about what’s going on during this surprisingly eventful summer.

I adored the fiercely feminist conversations in this book, the great representation (Ellen is Mexican American and not entirely sure how she feels about gender things, identity-wise), the engaging look into the world of quidditch teams, and the super messy friendships, relationships, and family issues. I finished the book wishing I could hang out with Ellen and her friends. A super real look at the weird liminal space between high school and college. Don’t miss this one!

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780593116876
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 12/15/2020
Age Range: 12 Years

Book Review: Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh

Every Body Looking

Publisher’s description

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

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

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

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

Amanda’s thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

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

Book Review: My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee

My Life in the Fish Tank

Publisher’s description

From acclaimed author of Maybe He Just Likes You and Halfway Normal comes a powerful and moving story of learning how to grow, change, and survive.

When twelve-year-old Zinnia Manning’s older brother Gabriel is diagnosed with a mental illness, the family’s world is turned upside down. Mom and Dad want Zinny, her sixteen-year-old sister, Scarlett, and her eight-year-old brother, Aiden, to keep Gabriel’s condition “private”—and to Zinny that sounds the same as “secret.” Which means she can’t talk about it to her two best friends, who don’t understand why Zinny keeps pushing them away, turning everything into a joke.

It also means she can’t talk about it during Lunch Club, a group run by the school guidance counselor. How did Zinny get stuck in this weird club, anyway? She certainly doesn’t have anything in common with these kids—and even if she did, she’d never betray her family’s secret.

The only good thing about school is science class, where cool teacher Ms. Molina has them doing experiments on crayfish. And when Zinny has the chance to attend a dream marine biology camp for the summer, she doesn’t know what to do. How can Zinny move forward when Gabriel—and, really, her whole family—still needs her help?

Amanda’s thoughts

The summary up there is pretty thorough and hits most of the main plot points of the story. What you need to know, what you can’t really learn from the summary, is how nuanced and emotional this story is. Many families choose to keep something like a mental illness private/secret/a family matter. I’m not here to judge people doing that (though, we all know I’m super open about our mental health issues here and think being open helps eliminate stigma and leads to more help for everyone) because mental illness is hard, family can be hard, choices are hard, and so on. But certainly for Zinny, being told to keep it private that her older brother is bipolar and in a treatment facility really destroys her.

Zinny’s parents become distant and shut down as the family tries to get through this hard time without really talking to one another about it or being open. Her mother shows signs of depression and takes a leave from her job as a teacher. Her father is always at work. No one makes dinner or takes care of things, leaving Zinny to feel like she should cook, get groceries, and so on. Her secrecy drives a wedge between her and her best friends, leaving her feeling even more isolated and alone. Her older sister is dealing with their brother’s diagnosis and absence differently than Zinny is, so she also feels a loss of kinship with her sister. She’s confused, ashamed, upset, and still not entirely clear what’s happening. Her feels even worse when she hears her mom straight up lie about her brother (he’s back at college and doing great!).

While all of that is really hard, surprising good things happen. Dee doesn’t leave Zinny alone and despairing. She gives her a great science teacher, Ms. Molina, who lets Zinny come help in her classroom during lunch, who supports her without overtly making it about what’s happening at home, and who encourages Zinny to be making connections and continuing to live her life. Dee also gives Zinny a group of new friends, a lunch bunch of other middle school kids dealing with rough issues. While Zinny isn’t thrilled to be in this group at first, she gets a lot out of those connections and finds not just kids who are also experiencing difficult times, but kids who want to be her friend, who include her, and who show her it’s okay to be dealing with family issues. Her family is struggling, but Zinny is surrounded by support and true caring. And while her parents definitely make missteps along the way (as a parent, I can safely say we all do, even if we’re certain we’re trying to do our best), they all work together to figure out how to get through this time.

Flashbacks to both happier times and moments with Gabriel that illuminate how long his mental illness went undiagnosed create a bigger and better picture of Zinny’s family. Given how many children are most certainly dealing with mental illness at home or with someone close to them, this is a much needed book that shows how hard and scary it can be, but also how much help there is and how much hope there is. Zinny’s story moves from feeling like they’re all just barely surviving this upheaval to seeing how everyone learns to function more honestly and healthily in this new reality. It’s hardly news to say that mental illness affects the entire family, but it’s so important that we see the ways this can happen and understand that it’s okay to be affected and to need to figure out a way forward. An important read and highly recommended.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781534432338
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 09/15/2020
Age Range: 9 – 13 Years

Book Review: The Wise and the Wicked by Rebecca Podos

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, which originally appeared in an issue of School Library Journal

Gr 9 Up—A desperate search for the truth leaves 16-year-old Ruby Chernyavsky with more questions than answers as she untangles years of family lore and begins to understand that stories have more than one side. Ruby knows that the women in her family, long removed from their ancestral home in the woods in Russia, once possessed powerful magic. Ruby and her sisters grew up steeped in the family lore, stories of this magic, and the reminder to stay hidden and safe. Once in their lifetimes, the women in her family travel ahead to be in the body of their future selves at whatever age they will die. This is called their Time, and whatever they see is inevitable. But when Great-Aunt Polina dies, Ruby and her relatives learn that Polina’s vision was wrong. Ruby, who has seen her Time, must know: Can she alter her fate? When she falls for a boy with family secrets of his own and begins to confide in her long-absent mother, the stories and folklore become even more complicated. Ruby questions who the real villains are in these passed-down tales. Suddenly everything becomes about finding the courage to determine her own story and what she is willing to lose as she balances choices, consequences, and risks. Podos weaves an intricate plot full of mystery and folklore that will make readers race toward the satisfying but not-yet-tied up conclusion. 

VERDICT A beautifully rendered story about sacrifice, vengeance, survival, secrets, and lies. Recommended for all collections.

ISBN-13: 9780062699022
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 05/28/2019

Book Review: Love and Other Curses by Michael Thomas Ford

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, which originally appeared in an issue of School Library Journal

love and otherLove & Other Curses by Michael Thomas Ford (ISBN-13: 9780062791207 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 04/09/2019)

Gr 9 Up—Sam Weyward, a gay teen in rural New York, knows that if he falls in love before his fast-approaching 17th birthday, the generations-long family curse will kill his love interest. Living with his magic-practicing grandma, great-grandma, and great-great-grandma (the Grands) and his 1980s metal–loving father, he can never forget about the curse. But he finds distraction with drag queens at the gay bar Shangri-La, the family ice cream stand, mysterious phone calls, and Tom Swift, a trans boy staying at the lake this summer. As his friendship with Tom, who is straight, grows more complicated, Sam wonders if the curse can be broken. While there is a lot to enjoy about this book, like the vivid setting and appealing premise, the unhealthy relationship between Sam and Tom, and the often-unchecked transphobia make this a troubling, offensive, and potentially harmful story. Tom is repeatedly deadnamed, misgendered, and outed (with Sam, among others, committing these offenses). The fixation on Tom’s body and transition feel voyeuristic and turn him into a one-dimensional character just used for Sam’s own development. Sam and the rest of the cast get to be vibrant and complex, with Sam supported and loved both by his biological family and his chosen family of drag queens who are helping him find his drag identity. Tom is miserable, angry, rejected, lacking support, and ultimately forced to present as female—a painful trajectory without much hope. VERDICT Though this novel is funny and highly readable, the tragic trans narrative makes it one to skip.

Kids Can Handle Big Decisions . . . If the Adults Get Out of the Way (But Also Don’t), a guest post by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

(CW: Assisted suicide.)

First, a million thanks to Teen Librarian Toolbox for hosting me. I appreciate your work so much!

(Important note: this blog post can’t tackle the social and legal issues around assisted suicide. Too much complexity for 900 words. We’re just gonna go with it.)

Lake Superior, Duluth, MN, where WRECK takes place. Photo credit: Kelly Tekler

Lake Superior, Duluth, MN, where WRECK takes place. Photo credit: Kelly Tekler

In Wreck, Tobin has a lot of choices to make—ones most high school juniors don’t generally make, thank goodness. She’s choosing what to do with her future, which is typical, but she also has to choose how to interact with her dad, Steve. Thanks to his ALS, which is complicated by frontotemporal dementia, he’s unpredictable on his best days and impossible on his worst. Is she going to be a crabby teenager, or will she show him compassion (or will she do both, which seems pretty traditional for a teenager, as well as what most humans would do)?

Eventually she also has to choose what to do (and how to feel) when Steve makes decisions about his own death. Steve’s choice is an awful thing for her to face—it’s an awful thing for a grown-up to face—but she legally becomes a criminal when she helps him carry out his wish to be free. That’s a heavy and unnecessary burden for a seventeen-year-old.

I can hear the outraged voices now: she’s too young for such a difficult choice! She can’t make such an adult decision! She has no idea what she’s doing!

Um. No, she’s not. Yes, she can. Yes, she does.

Yes, Tobin is young. No, human brains don’t mature until they’re in their mid-twenties. But Tobin understands a lot about two fundamental parts of being human: she knows about love, and she knows about loss.

Fundamentally, Tobin makes her decision to help her dad out of love, because they have loved each other fiercely for all of Tobin’s life, and she wants him to be out of both physical and mental pain. Her knowledge of loss is more of a mystery to the reader (and to her, really): she doesn’t acknowledge the large loss she’s already suffered, nor that it’s affected her in more ways than she’ll cop to. However, when it comes down to her decision to help Steve, she knows more than most of us because she’s lived with loss for much of her life. She knows she can cope.

Action figures are a part of WRECK, too!

Action figures are a part of WRECK, too!

What carries Tobin through all of her grief—including her decision—is the love of people older than her who help her make these big decisions. She has her great-uncle Paul, who clearly values her (and also understands loss), and she has Ike, a family friend who becomes a brother. Especially with Ike, Tobin can sort things out, feel her feelings, and figure out what’s next.

Tobin is also allowed to make decisions—which isn’t something all teens get to do. She isn’t forced into anything (with the exception of who will be her guardian, once Steve isn’t), and she isn’t sheltered from her dad’s choice. She has the knowledge she needs about the situation, and she responds to Steve out of love and understanding, rather than duty or a forced adherence to convention.

This is one of the ways kids become caring adults—first, they’re influenced by people who model both caring behavior and critical thinking, and second, they’re surrounded by safety. Tobin is safe to explore her thoughts and feelings with Steve, Paul, and Ike, and that safety allows her to come to her empathetic decision.

When I started writing for teens, I committed to giving my protagonists an older person they could rely on, because I had a couple in my high school years—a person who’s not a parent, usually. In Sky, Morgan has her grandma. In Beautiful Music, Gabe has his neighbor John. In Original Fake, Frankie has his boss and idol, Uncle Epic. Tobin has the same thing in Ike and Paul. Teenagers need to see evidence that not all grown-ups are assholes (if they are inclined to think they are), and that there are people interested in what they have to say. Some adults actually do recognize that yeah, teens are learning, but they’re pretty smart to start with.

If Tobin was a real person, she wouldn’t be able to recognize all the implications of her choice right away. A grown-up might not even be able to do that. But I don’t think she’d regret her choice, because she was helping someone she loves be free of pain. Hopefully Real Tobin would also have the support of those who love her, and they’d affirm her decision, even as they were sad about it. I know lots of teens and young adults who’ve been in really tough situations. Those who’ve come through it have been the ones with a circle of caring folks around them. Book Tobin does what she does, even though it will devastate her, because it’s the right thing to do, and because she’s got support.

There’s all the difference in the world between being forced into the fight and walking in with your head held high. Steve chooses. Tobin chooses. We all deserve that right.

Meet Kirstin Cronn-Mills

kirstinKirstin Cronn-Mills writes young adult novels and nonfiction for high school libraries. Her books have received both state and national recognition. She lives in southern Minnesota with her family, where she teaches and wishes she lived closer to Lake Superior.
Find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

About WRECK

wreckSometimes loss has its own timetable.

Set on the shores of Lake Superior, Wreck follows high school junior Tobin Oliver as she navigates her father’s diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

Steve’s life as a paramedic and a runner comes to an abrupt halt just as Tobin is preparing her application for a scholarship to art school. With the help of Steve’s personal care assistant (and family friend) Ike, Tobin attends to both her photography and to Steve as his brain unexpectedly fails right along with his body.

Tobin struggles to find a “normal” life, especially as Steve makes choices about how his own will end, and though she fights hard, Tobin comes to realize that respecting her father’s decision is the ultimate act of love.

Wreck wrecked me. Kirstin Cronn-Mills has a singular way of getting inside characters heads and making their stories come to life. This book will make you cry.” —Bill Konigsberg, award-winning author of The Music of What Happens?

“A provocative, unflinching, and emotionally-complex deep dive into mortality and loss while Tobin and her father grapple with almost unfathomable decisions. A wrenching and empathetic look at the tumultuous waters and seemingly bottomless grief that can interrupt an otherwise placid life.” —Amanda MacGregor, Teen Librarian Toolbox

“This book has heart and empathy as vast and deep as the Great Lake on which it’s set.” —Geoff Herbach, award-winning author of Stupid Fast and Hooper

“Every so often a book comes along that is so sharp, so moving, so real, and so good, you want to press it into everyone’s hands and say, Read this! READ THIS!” —Courtney Summers, author of Cracked Up to Be, on Beautiful Music for Ugly Children

“A kind and satisfyingly executed portrait.” —Kirkus Reviews

ISBN-13: 9781510739031
Publisher: Sky Pony
Publication date: 04/16/2019

See Amanda’s review here