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Book Review: The Insiders by Mark Oshiro

Publisher’s description

Three kids who don’t belong. A room that shouldn’t exist. A year that will change everything.

Perfect for fans of Rebecca Stead and Meg Medina, this debut middle grade novel from award-winning author Mark Oshiro is a hopeful and heartfelt coming-of-age story for anyone who’s ever felt like they didn’t fit in.

San Francisco and Orangevale may be in the same state, but for Héctor Muñoz, they might as well be a million miles apart. Back home, being gay didn’t mean feeling different. At Héctor’s new school, he couldn’t feel more alone.

Most days, Héctor just wishes he could disappear. And he does. Right into the janitor’s closet. (Yes, he sees the irony.) But one day, when the door closes behind him, Héctor discovers he’s stumbled into a room that shouldn’t be possible. A room that connects him with two new friends from different corners of the country—and opens the door to a life-changing year full of magic, friendship, and adventure.

Amanda’s thoughts

When I sat down to read this, I still had a long to-do list of tasks. But, oops, I sat there long enough to finish the entire book and all of a sudden it was time to make dinner. Don’t you love when you find a book that engrossing?

Héctor is not loving his new middle school in his new town. He misses San Francisco, his friends, and the school’s drama department. This school doesn’t even have drama! He lands on the radar of the school bully, who really starts to go after Héctor when Héctor says that he’s gay. It so wasn’t a thing at all at his old school, but now that his bully is antagonizing him even more because of this, he’s hesitant to come out to anyone else. He keeps trying to dodge the bully and his crew, eventually hiding out in a janitorial closet. But it’s no ordinary closet—it’s a secret portal/space that links him with two other students seeking refuge—Chinese and Black Juliana, who likes girls, and Filipino and white Sal, who uses they/them pronouns. Small note: Héctor lives in CA, Juliana in SC, and Sal in AZ. Yep, magic. The closet/Room (as they start to call it) seems to be a place that shows up to protect them and provide them with what they need. And the biggest need for all three? To feel like they belong, like they’re accepted, like they have their place in their schools. Together, the three are able to support and help each other. And in non-Room-related school stuff, Héctor begins to become friends with kids who befriended him right away. He goes from lonely, not feeling like he belongs, and wanting to just disappear to learning it’s okay to be himself, to trust new friends, and to ask for help.

Though all three Room kids face uncertainty, confusion, fear, and anxiety, they are all surrounded by support and love. Oshiro’s message is clear: nothing is better than being yourself. Not even a magical Room that appears just when you need it. A heartwarming and fun read.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780063008106
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/21/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

A Case for More Girls’ Sports Teams in YA, a guest post by Emma Kress

While sports books featuring boys have been on shelves for decades, those depicting girls as equally committed and serious about their sport could fit on a much smaller set of shelves. As an English teacher, I taught many female students who were deeply dedicated to their sports, and yet I had few books to place in their hands when they were looking for a book to act as a mirror, rather than a window.

That said, there were a few. When I first started writing Dangerous Play back in 2014, there were several wonderful books featuring sporty girls: Dairy Queen (2006), by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, remains one of my favorite books about a girl athlete; and Miranda Kenneally started publishing books about girl athletes back in 2011. But my athletic girl students wanted more.

Thankfully, this is changing.

Now, there are several wonderful books featuring devoted girl athletes. Just this year, we can add young-adult debuts like Holly Green’s In the Same Boat, Sajni Patel’s The Knockout, and Mariko Turk’s The Other Side of Perfect to our shelves. And last year, I was blown away by Yamile Saied Mendez’s Furia, Sarah Henning’s Throw Like A Girl, and Jennifer Iacopelli’s Break the Fall.

Thrillingly, there are more athletic books featuring non-binary characters too. Check out contemporary young-adult debuts The Passing Playbook, by Isaac Fitzsimmons, and May the Best Man Win, by ZR Ellor.

It’s all the more important that these feminist athletic books exist because in the past, toxic masculinity was as much a part of sports culture as cleats and sneakers. In so many movies and books, not only was there no space left on the page for the serious girl athlete, but we had to swallow casual misogyny along with our Gatorade. Thankfully, that’s changing. Still, there’s more to do.

In the future, I hope we see more books that feature not just female athletes, but diverse teams of athletic girls working together to achieve their goals. Because while the number of books about athletic girls has increased, few depict girls’ sports teams.

After having written Dangerous Play, which seeks to represent a diverse sports team environment, I think it’s safe to say choosing to focus on a single athletic girl rather than a full sports team might be a matter of writerly sanity. Dangerous Play has a 26+-person cast and phew, it was difficult to juggle that many characters let alone develop them.

And yet, I think it’s important to shine a light on the special and intense friendships that can happen on a competitive sports team, especially for girls. I can list dozens of movies that celebrate bromances on the ice, court, or field. I love sports team movies like Miracle, Remember the Titans, Hoosiers, and Friday Night Lights. I cheer louder at that final underdog victory because of those engaging friendships. But where are our movies celebrating underdog girls’ sports teams and their powerful friendships?

A League of Their Own is pretty much it. Bend It Like Beckham is wonderful, but only depicts the friendship of two members of the team. Ditto for Bring It On. And while I love A League of Their Own, it came out twenty-nine years ago. In this age of real-life GOATs (Greatest Of All Time athletes) like Simone Biles, Lindsay Vonn, Lisa Leslie, Serena Williams, and the entire US Women’s National Soccer Team we can do better. We need to do better.

Solidarity and sisterhood are critical parts of my feminism. And, while I adore a good romance, I think for most teens, romantic relationships aren’t the defining relationships of their teen years—friendships are. And friendships can be so much more complex and intense when we place them inside the pressure cooker of a competitive and grueling sport.

Athletes on school teams practice several hours every day during the season. Pre-season is filled with pick-up games, demanding tryouts, and “two-a-day” practices. Then, there are the long road trips on stinky school buses. Anyone who has participated in a school play or spent long hours in a newspaper or yearbook office knows the sort of friendships that can bloom during those endless nights. There’s something about those long hours that fosters inside jokes and shorthand slang, made-up dances and elaborate handshakes. There’s an everyday intimacy that develops: you know what someone looks like when they fail a test or forget to eat; you know how they like to sit and the words they overuse. When this shared time is over a shared passion, real intimacy and trust develop. Sports only heightens these connections. Team athletes see each other at their most physically powerful and most physically vulnerable. When they work together to beat the odds, stretch their limits, and claim that trophy, they create a world in which they are all the main characters. They create a world in which power and victory are shared.

I believe that for feminism to move forward, we must be intersectional. What better way to examine intersectional feminist friendships than through a sports team? Let’s see girls of color, trans girls, body-positive girls, queer girls, and girls from varied socio-economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds on the same teams. If we want to see a future of greater equality and empathy, we need to give the teen girls of today books in which they see groups of diverse girls laughing together, crying together, and working together toward a common goal. If we want to see a future of greater equality and empathy, perhaps we might start by imagining worlds in which the glory is shared.

After all, girl power is best with friends.

Meet the Author

Photo credit: Erin Summerill

Emma Kress is a long-time educator and 2014 finalist for NY State Teacher of the Year. She’s a graduate of Vassar College, Columbia University’s Teachers College, and the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her family in Saratoga Springs, NY. Dangerous Play is her debut novel. You can find her on Twitter and TikTok @emma_kress and Instagram @kress.emma, or at www.emmakress.com

About Dangerous Play

Designer: Aurora Parlagreco; Artist: Laura Callaghan

A fierce team of girls takes back the night in this propulsive, electrifying, and high-stakes YA debut from Emma Kress

Zoe Alamandar has one goal: win the State Field Hockey Championships and earn a scholarship that will get her the hell out of Central New York. She and her co-captain Ava Cervantes have assembled a fierce team of dedicated girls who will work hard and play by the rules.

But after Zoe is sexually assaulted at a party, she finds a new goal: make sure no girl feels unsafe again. Zoe and her teammates decide to stop playing by the rules and take justice into their own hands. Soon, their suburban town has a team of superheroes meting out punishments, but one night of vigilantism may cost Zoe her team, the championship, her scholarship, and her future.

Perfect for fans who loved the female friendships of Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie and the bite of Courtney Summer’s Sadie.

ISBN-13: 9781250750488
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Publication date: 08/03/2021
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

Why Girls’ Social Struggles Intensify During Adolescence and The Inspiration Behind BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends), a guest post by Jessica Speer

Friendships can be challenging, especially during adolescence. When you ask women to recall their preteen and teen social lives, a consistent pattern emerges. There are stories of enduring friendships but also uncomfortable social memories. Women share stories of exclusion, drama, loneliness, fitting in, and friendships lost.

And this rings true for girls today.  A UCLA study of 6,000 sixth-graders found that two-thirds changed friendships during their first middle school year. The majority of adolescents report feeling lonely at some point.

When my daughters entered their tween years, friendship struggles started to emerge. This reminded me of my struggles and the experiences of so many. As a social scientist, this piqued my curiosity. What is it about adolescence that intensifies social struggles, especially for girls?

I dove into books and research on the subject. I talked to experts. What I found was a confluence of events that create an environment primed for social struggles. Tweens learn how to navigate complex social groups alongside the physical, emotional, and intellectual changes that go along with puberty. And all of this happens as peer acceptance grows in importance and confidence levels drop.

Confidence drops

Puberty is a turbulent time for confidence in all genders, but girls experience a more significant dramatic drop. Claire Shipman, Katty Kay, and JillEllyn Riley, authors of The Confidence Code for Girls, found that girls’ confidence levels drop by 30% between the ages of 8 and 14. The authors contribute much of this drop to newly formed habits such as overthinking, people-pleasing, and perfectionism. This lack of confidence ripples through girls’ relationships and increases the likelihood of self-doubt, social anxiety, and risk avoidance.

Increased reliance on peers

While confidence is dipping, adolescents are also in the midst of the developmental phase that shifts their reliance on family to a reliance on peers. During this period, friendships begin to replace family as tweens’ primary source of identity and support. Social conformity becomes a typical response to the urgent need to fit in and be accepted into a new replacement “family.”

This process of finding a new group, as psychologist Lisa Damour shares in her book, Untangled, is nothing less than a strategy for survival. Cliques and social drama are often anxiety-fueled behaviors to manage the transition from family as the primary social support to finding a sense of belonging in peers.

Seeking identity

As kids look more to peers to find support and belonging, they need to figure out where they fit in the sea of students, groups, and activities. During adolescence, kids begin to explore their social world, including who their friends are, what they wear, and what activities they do. They start to question, experiment with, and shape their identity.

In early elementary school, friendships often form based on proximity, such as being in the same class or the same neighborhood. Starting in late elementary school and middle school, friendships begin to form based on shared interests and deeper feelings of acceptance. The pursuit of identity ripples into friendships and prompts changes.

“At a time when identity is so very insecure, kids need everything in their lives – shoes, friends, Instagram posts- to project the image of self they’re working so hard to construct. Any deviation is far too dangerous to tolerate. It’s also why old elementary school friendships so commonly and brutally come to an end in sixth or seventh grade – an event that can feel completely mysterious to the person who’s left behind,” explains author Judith Werner in her book, And Then They Stopped Talking to Me.

Physiological Changes

Bubbling beneath the surface of all of this, the physiological changes in adolescence amplify the intensity of teens’ emotions and experiences. The limbic system, or the emotional brain, ramps up quickly in puberty, while the executive functioning part of the brain responsible for self-regulation and self-control lags. During adolescence, we feel our feelings most deeply, which creates enduring memories. As described by psychologist Laurence Steinberg in Age of Opportunity, “the hormones released in puberty affect our “sensitivity thresholds,” how reactive we are to things that happen to us and what we feel.”

Inspiration for BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships

To say a lot is going on developmentally during adolescence is an understatement. It is a period of tremendous change and growth. An enduring pandemic adds another level of change to this already complex phase.

During my research, I uncovered insights about friendship that I thought would help tweens. To make sure these ideas resonated with girls, I started Project Friendships, an after-school program focused on social-emotional skills and awareness. The honest feedback, stories, and voices from program participants shaped BFF or NRF from start to finish.

Friendship requires a variety of skills that take time and practice to develop. It’s a messy process filled with change, mistakes, and misunderstandings. My hope is that BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends) serves as a warm and compassionate guide as girls journey through their social worlds.

Meet the author

Jessica Speer is the author of BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships, which grew out of her friendship program that strengthens social awareness and helps kids learn to navigate common struggles. She has a master’s degree in social sciences and focuses her research and writing on social-emotional topics for kids and families. To learn more, visit www.JessicaSpeer.com or @jessica_speer_author on Instagram, @speerauthor on Twitter, or @JessicaSpeerAuthor on Facebook.

About BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships by Jessica Speer

Friendships are tough to navigate, even for adults. The preteen years can be particularly sticky, but we’ve got your back! Packed with fun quizzes, colorful illustrations, and stories about girls just like you, BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends) is the ultimate interactive guidebook to help you learn the ins and outs of friendship. Explore the topics of gossip, bullying, and feeling left out, along with ways to strengthen the friendships that mean the most to you.

ISBN-13: 9781641701952
Publisher: Familius
Publication date: 08/17/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Jay’s Gay Agenda by Jason June

Publisher’s description

From debut novelist Jason June comes a moving and hilarious sex-positive teen rom-com about the complexities of first loves, first hookups, and first heartbreaks—and how to stay true to yourself while embracing what you never saw coming, that’s perfect for fans of Sandhya Menon and Becky Albertalli. 

There’s one thing Jay Collier knows for sure—he’s a statistical anomaly as the only out gay kid in his small rural Washington town. While all his friends can’t stop talking about their heterosexual hookups and relationships, Jay can only dream of his own firsts, compiling a romance to-do list of all the things he hopes to one day experience—his Gay Agenda.

Then, against all odds, Jay’s family moves to Seattle and he starts his senior year at a new high school with a thriving LGBTQIA+ community. For the first time ever, Jay feels like he’s found where he truly belongs. But as Jay begins crossing items off his list, he’ll soon be torn between his heart and his hormones, his old friends and his new ones . . . because after all, life and love don’t always go according to plan. 

Amanda’s thoughts

Life is fine if a little boring for Jay. He’s headed into his senior year and is the ONLY out gay kid in his entire small school. He came out in 9th grade and figured that, statistically, SOMEONE else had to eventually come out. Maybe he’d make some gay friends. Maybe he’d meet a cute boy. Or maybe he’d remain the only out kid through all of high school. When his parents announce they’re moving to Seattle, he’s psyched to leave rural Washington behind, even though it means leaving his best friend, Lu. But she has Chip, her boyfriend, and besides, it’s time for Jay to go from third wheel to the main character in his own story.

Jay, a huge fan of making lists, makes a Gay Agenda—stuff like make gay friends, hook up with a cute boy, go to a dance, etc. He figures that all of these things are maybe achievable now that he’s no longer in LGBTQuarantine (his term!). But guess what? It turns out that if you move to a much larger city and meet a lot more people who are queer, not only is that list achievable, it’s easy for that list to get really complicated and messy. He’s taken under the wing of genderqueer Max, a new friend who dubs himself a gay guide for Jay. Together, they begin to plan the homecoming dance, which, uh-oh, coincides with the dance back home that he promised Lu he’d come back for. But that’s a problem for Future Jay. Right Now Jay is busy juggling two boys he likes, college guy Tony and high school classmate Albert. What could go wrong?

Well… before long Jay isn’t being honest with Lu or Albert. Max isn’t being honest with Jay. And Tony isn’t being honest with Jay, either. Let downs, lies, backstabbing, reveals, and general catastrophes ensue, leading Jay to eventually understanding that maybe experiences and relationships should be something more than just an item to check off a list. Jay, like all teens, makes bad choices, mistakes, and hurts people. And that’s totally a normal part, unfortunately, of growing up. With a little help and deep thought, Jay learns that it’s what you do after the mistakes that really count. He begins to make amends and figure out who he really is and what he really wants, with the help of some new lists, like the Apology Agenda and the Jay Agenda.

A fun and messy look at what happens when things don’t go as planned when it comes to love, friendship, and finding yourself.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780063015159
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/01/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 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: Kate in Waiting by Becky Albertalli

Publisher’s description

From #1 New York Times bestselling author and rom-com queen Becky Albertalli comes a buoyant new novel about daring to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight in love, life, and, yes, theater.

Contrary to popular belief, best friends Kate Garfield and Anderson Walker are not codependent. Carpooling to and from theater rehearsals? Environmentally sound and efficient. Consulting each other on every single life decision? Basic good judgment. Pining for the same guys from afar? Shared crushes are more fun anyway.

But when Kate and Andy’s latest long-distance crush shows up at their school, everything goes off-script. Matt Olsson is talented and sweet, and Kate likes him. She really likes him. The only problem? So does Anderson.  

Turns out, communal crushes aren’t so fun when real feelings are involved. This one might even bring the curtains down on Kate and Anderson’s friendship.

Amanda’s thoughts

As always with books by Becky Albertalli, this was a total delight. This may even be my favorite book by her. I loved the rapid-fire dialogue that only best friends can really pull off. This book is funny, sweet, a little bit sad, and totally authentic.

BFFs Kate and Andy love having communal crushes. It’s more fun that way. And, I mean, what could go wrong? Enter Matt, their communal crush from theater camp, who suddenly moves to their town and throws everything into chaos. They both keep crushing on him, unsure if he’s straight or gay, though it doesn’t really matter, but communal crushes don’t necessarily go anywhere or turn into anything. But when it turns out that both Kate and Anderson really like like him, they make a pact to be happy for each other if something comes of it and to not do something silly like let a boy come between them.

You see where this is going, of course. But the predictability of that part of the story doesn’t ruin anything. They’re all such great characters and have such interesting interactions. And even though it may feel like the story is just about “oooh, we both like the same boy, what will happen?” it’s about so much more—the love in an intense friendship, changing relationships, surprise crushes, families, divorce, siblings, theater, and more.

I finished the book wishing I was part of Kate and Anderson’s best friends’ gang, reminiscing about my own communal crushes, and totally satisfied with how Kate and Andy’s stories wrap up. My new favorite Becky Albertalli book? I think so.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062643834
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/20/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Teen Friendship: It’s Complicated, a guest post by Kit Frick

Photo credit: Simon Maage on Unsplash

When I was a teen, I clung tight to my small, close-knit friend group. I liked to describe the sandstone walls that surrounded us as “Abercrombie and Fitch High School,” and by nature and by nurture, I did not fit in with the mainstream aesthetic. Social interactions with anyone outside of my little group of misfits made my anxiety spike big time. It didn’t matter how kind or thoughtful the other person was being; I was convinced that niceness was a trap. I lived with the pervasive fear that anyone and everyone was judging me. Sometimes, they probably were. Most of the time, I was my own harshest critic.

I was a few weeks into my life on a residential college campus in New York when a worldview-shattering realization hit: I had spent the last few weeks talking to strangers, sometimes strangers with backgrounds and experiences very different from my own, and the world had not ended. Quite the opposite—I was building an expansive, life-affirming network of new friends. I was newly nineteen, and for the first time, I wasn’t consumed by social anxiety.

I’m known for writing YA thrillers, but my books are also about complicated female friendships. I put my characters through a lot, but in a way, they’re lucky: they learn to foster important peer relationships outside of their comfort zones earlier than I did, and thank goodness for that, because these friendships are key to these teen girls’ ability to save themselves from the perilous situations I’ve written them into.

Amanda and Rosalie, the co-protagonists in All Eyes on Us, begin the novel at serious odds. These two girls from opposite sides of Logansville, West Virginia have pretty much nothing in common aside from the intense, harmful pressure they’re being subjected to by their families and communities. Pressure that has driven both of them into staying in unhealthy relationships with real estate heir and town golden boy, Carter Shaw.

When Rosalie and Amanda are targeted by an anonymous harasser out to get Carter and take the girls down with him, they come together to end their stalker’s reign of terror. I have to give it to Rosalie especially; Amanda hates her when the book begins, and Rosalie knows it. Amanda’s only seeing a small sliver of the truth, but Rosalie’s actions, while justified by the physical and emotional necessity to shield herself from the conversion “therapy” she’s already been subjected to as a younger teen, are nonetheless hurting Amanda. And if I were Rosalie as a teen, I don’t think I would have allowed myself to trust Amanda’s olive branch when it comes. I probably would have run for the hills, and without the uneasy alliance the girls form, who knows where they would have ended up. (Nowhere good!)

I Killed Zoe Spanos also explores an unlikely friendship between two teen girls—this time bonded by a search for truth and justice. When local teen Zoe Spanos goes missing, Anna Cicconi confesses to playing a role in her death and the concealment of her body, but her story is riddled with holes, and teen true crime podcaster Martina Green is determined to uncover the truth and get justice for Zoe’s family. Here’s the thing, though: Martina isn’t convinced of Anna’s innocence, just that Anna couldn’t have killed Zoe in the way she described to police. Either the wrong girl is in juvie awaiting trial, or what Anna did is a lot worse than the accident she confessed to. Throughout the course of the novel, Martina puts her friendship with Zoe’s younger sister Aster in jeopardy in her quest for the truth, and Anna allows herself to trust Martina, despite the reality that Martina’s not necessarily out to exonerate her. It’s a lot. Way more than I would have been capable of dealing with as a teen, where the most explosive fall-out in my friend group involved a punk rock hoodie. Don’t ask.

Photo credit: Simon Maage on Unsplash

As a writer of YA thrillers, it’s important to me to not just write girls into peril, but to also allow them to fight their way out of danger. Often that involves high-stakes relationship building, and I think that has a lot to do with my own adolescent experiences as a very timid relationship-builder. I would not have fared well in one of my own books, okay? Don’t drop Teen Kit in a thriller; it’s going to end badly. But fiction allows us to explore our shortcomings as well as our successes. And important teen topics shouldn’t be limited to realistic YA contemporary. Genre fiction allows us to write about issues important to real teens—such as complex female friendships—against the backdrop of thrills, chills, and twisty mysteries. Thrillers can be both an escape and a space for social engagement. This capacity to “walk and chew gum” is part of what makes engaging with the genre so exciting to me as a creator writing for a teen audience.

Meet Kit Frick

Photo credit: Carly Gaebe, Steadfast Studio

Kit Frick is a novelist, poet, and MacDowell Colony fellow from Pittsburgh, PA. She studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA from Syracuse University. When she isn’t putting complicated characters in impossible situations, Kit edits poetry and literary fiction for a small press and edits for private clients. She is the author of the young adult thrillers I Killed Zoe SpanosAll Eyes on Us, and See All the Stars, all from Simon & Schuster / Margaret K. McElderry Books, as well as the poetry collection A Small Rising Up in the Lungs from New American Press. Kit is working on her next novel.

BUY LINKS:

Signed pre-orders from Riverstone books: https://riverstonebookstore.indielite.org/pre-order-signed-copies-kit-fricks-new-book

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/i-killed-zoe-spanos-kit-frick/1134080087

Bookshop.org: https://bookshop.org/books/i-killed-zoe-spanos/9781534449701

IndieBound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781534449701

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1534449701/

SOCIAL:

Website: https://kitfrick.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/kitfrick

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

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

About I Killed Zoe Spanos

For fans of Sadie and Serial, this gripping thriller follows two teens whose lives become inextricably linked when one confesses to murder and the other becomes determined to uncover the real truth no matter the cost.

What happened to Zoe won’t stay buried…

When Anna Cicconi arrives to the small Hamptons village of Herron Mills for a summer nanny gig, she has high hopes for a fresh start. What she finds instead is a community on edge after the disappearance of Zoe Spanos, a local girl who has been missing since New Year’s Eve. Anna bears an eerie resemblance to Zoe, and her mere presence in town stirs up still-raw feelings about the unsolved case. As Anna delves deeper into the mystery, stepping further and further into Zoe’s life, she becomes increasingly convinced that she and Zoe are connected—and that she knows what happened to her.

Two months later, Zoe’s body is found in a nearby lake, and Anna is charged with manslaughter. But Anna’s confession is riddled with holes, and Martina Green, teen host of the Missing Zoe podcast, isn’t satisfied. Did Anna really kill Zoe? And if not, can Martina’s podcast uncover the truth?

Inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Kit Frick weaves a thrilling story of psychological suspense that twists and turns until the final page.

ISBN-13: 9781534449701
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication date: 06/30/2020
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

Book Review: My Eyes Are Up Here by Laura Zimmermann

Publisher’s description

My Eyes Are Up Here is a razor-sharp debut about a girl struggling to rediscover her sense of self in the year after her body decided to change all the rules.

If Greer Walsh could only live inside her head, life would be easier. She’d be able to focus on excelling at math or negotiating peace talks between her best friend and . . . everyone else. She wouldn’t spend any time worrying about being the only Kennedy High student whose breasts are bigger than her head.

But you can’t play volleyball inside your head. Or go to the pool. Or have confusingly date-like encounters with the charming new boy. You need an actual body for all of those things. And Greer is entirely uncomfortable in hers.

Hilarious and heartbreakingly honest, My Eyes Are Up Here is a story of awkwardness and ferocity, of imaginary butterflies and rock-solid friends. It’s the story of a girl finding her way out of her oversized sweatshirt and back into the real world.

Amanda’s thoughts

It’s not right to say that I’ve been in a reading slump. I’ve been in a life slump (I write, gesturing at everything all around us causing these feelings). Books are, as they always have been, where I seek refuge. But I set aside a lot of them these days because they just aren’t right. I find myself reading horror, because it’s so far removed from reality, or books on depression, because why not really lean into this. I shift my TBR pile around like maybe I will make it land in some magically appealing configuration that will engage me long enough to get out of my own head.

Not only did this book do just that, but getting out of her own head is something that Greer, the main character here, also needs to do. I won’t say she overthinks things, but she is rather consumed with thoughts about her boobs. Her best guess is she’s a 30H, and her boobs quite literally get in the way of her life. They are both physically uncomfortable and mentally?… theoretically?… emotionally? uncomfortable. She’s worried they’re all people can see when they look at her and she spends her life hiding under giant sweatshirts, trying to make herself smaller or maybe invisible.

I was a hardcore My So-Called Life fan. It came out when I was around 17 and felt so SEEN by it. One of the best lines is, “So when Rayanne Graff told me my hair was holding me back, I had to listen. ‘Cause she wasn’t just talking about my hair. She was talking about my life.” For Greer, it’s not her hair, it’s her boobs. But the same idea applies. She sticks to what she knows she’s good at—school and really only being friends with the outspoken and argumentative Maggie. She sort of gets used to living a smaller life than she’d maybe like because she’s being held back, because she’s holding herself back.

But a cute (and funny and smart) new boy, Jackson, seems to maybe like her, and Greer definitely likes him, but she can’t imagine actually pursuing things with him because her boobs will get in the way. Again. Like, she panics at the idea of physical intimacy and possibly ever revealing just what’s under the big sweatshirts. And she worries her boobs are all anyone notices (though she really needs to give Jackson more credit because he’s pretty much a perfect YA novel boyfriend). And she even backs out of going to a formal dance with him because there is no way she will ever find a dress that will fit her body.

Greer is rather shocked to find out she has an aptitude for volleyball and that she actually wants to make the team. But again, it’s her body that holds her back. All of her bras seem horrible and completely mess up her ability to play the game. Even when she finally gets a good bra, the team jersey is just WAY too tight for her to wear. Eventually Greer has to decide if she’s going to let her body stop her from experiencing life or just learn to deal with what she has and see what happens.

While this is so much about self-esteem and bodies, it’s also about finding new interests and making new friends. Greer learns to see herself as a team of girls (and not just literally as part of a volleyball team of girls), she learns how to stand up for other girls and let other girls have her back. And while it’s easy to say things like “all bodies are good bodies” and want someone to feel nothing but 100% positive about 100% of the pieces that make up a body, we all know it’s much more complicated than that. It’s complicated for me as an adult, never mind how complicated it was for me at 15, like Greer. Greer talks about finding YouTubers who share her experience and how one isn’t angry at her body but is angry on behalf of her body (she doesn’t need her body to be “better” or different, but she needs the world to be better and different), and for the most part, much of how Greer feels reflects that—she wishes she could find better bras, that clothes come truly made for a bigger variety of shapes, that society’s obsession with women’s bodies isn’t the way it is. But she also really would like her body to be different, to cause her less physical pain, to fit better, to feel better. She’s not ashamed so much as she’s 15, so much as she’s built so unlike anyone around her, so much as she’s just trying to figure out how to fit in her own body—the way so many of us have to figure this out.

Not only is this book well-written with great banter and interesting secondary characters, but I suspect it will speak to all readers in SOME way, since it’s very likely we all have a “thing” we obsess over or grapple with with our own bodies. A smart and honest look at the various ways we hide ourselves as well as an empowering look at strong friendships. Highly recommended.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781984815248
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 06/23/2020
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

Book Review: A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

Publisher’s description

A timely, accessible, and beautifully written story exploring themes of food, friendship, family and what it means to belong, featuring sixth graders Sara, a Pakistani American, and Elizabeth, a white, Jewish girl taking a South Asian cooking class taught by Sara’s mom.

Sixth graders Sara and Elizabeth could not be more different. Sara is at a new school that is completely unlike the small Islamic school she used to attend. Elizabeth has her own problems: her British mum has been struggling with depression. The girls meet in an after-school South Asian cooking class, which Elizabeth takes because her mom has stopped cooking, and which Sara, who hates to cook, is forced to attend because her mother is the teacher. The girls form a shaky alliance that gradually deepens, and they make plans to create the most amazing, mouth-watering cross-cultural dish together and win a spot on a local food show. They make good cooking partners . . . but can they learn to trust each other enough to become true friends? 

Amanda’s thoughts

Here’s the really easy way I will sell this middle grade book at my school: If you enjoyed Save Me a Seat by Gita Varadarajan and Sarah Weeks, check this out! Save Me a Seat has been a local reading award nominee so many of our older students have read and enjoyed it.

Sixth grade is a rough time. I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to survive when my kid was in sixth grade. There’s so much going on. For many, it means a new school, new friends, likely drifting apart from old friends, and often an increased awareness of family issues and the world around them. These are all true things for Sara and Elizabeth. Both feel a little out of place in their suburban Maryland middle school. Sara is new to public school after years at an Islamic school. Now she’s one of very few Muslims at her school. And Elizabeth is being ditched by her best friend, in addition to worrying about if her British mother ever intends to become a citizen or may go back to England. When the two girls meet, their friendship is not immediate. It’s not some kind of instant relief or intimate understanding of the other. They are friendly-ish, on their best days, and maybe not cut out to be friends at all, on their worst days. After all, Elizabeth’s possibly former BFF is constantly saying horrific racist things to Sara, and does she really want to be friends with someone who could call a girl like that her best friend?

But they connect over cooking, and as they begin to get to know each other beyond surface impressions and quickly hurt feelings, they begin to really like one another. Their mothers become friends, too, as they both study for the citizenship test (Sara’s mother is from Pakistan). They learn about each other’s religions (Judaism and Islam), backgrounds, and families while preparing for their schools’ international festival and a cooking competition. Both girls deal with many large issues—Elizabeth’s mother is depressed after the death of her own mother and her father is often gone for work, while Sara knows that her family is not doing well financially. Having one really good friend helps both girls feel better about life in middle school, and the adults do the work of figuring out their issues and reassuring the girls that things will be okay.

I particularly value this story for showing how complex making a new friend can be, but showing characters who push through their discomfort and hesitations to make a real connection. Another strength of this story is that secondary characters work through their own issues and learn to be better friends, showing both growth and working to unlearn what they may hear at home. A valuable look at friendship, family, and fresh starts.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780358116684
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 05/12/2020
Age Range: 10 – 12 Years


Little Gangs, a guest post by Lauren McLaughlin

I was supposed to be on a book tour right now for my YA novel, Send Pics. But, like every other author with a book hitting the shelves right now, I’m in lock down. So instead of hanging out with librarians, booksellers and fellow book nerds, I’m hunkering down with my family. Instead of reading aloud to a classroom full of teenagers, I’m homeschooling my ten-year-old daughter (using the loosest possible definition of “homeschooling”).

One of the reasons I was looking forward to getting out into the world and talking about Send Pics was because at heart it’s a story about friendship. Not just one-on-one friendship, but group friendship. It’s about the little gangs we form and how they get pressed into service in surprising ways. Friend groups are often forged in good times through shared interests (choir, sports, partying, etc), but it’s when things go awry that a loose association of buddies becomes a life raft.

Throughout my life, I’ve had a handful of little gangs, from the the neighbourhood kids I played with as a child, to the mother’s group I meet up with for dinner—and mutual support—every month. Along the way, I’ve drifted into and out of little gangs that were of such intense connection and intimacy it seems odd that they’re not all still a part of my daily life. But time, circumstances, and the natural arc of life have their way. It’s not permanence that defines these little gangs, it’s intensity.

So it was interesting, but not really surprising, when, in the midst of a global pandemic, two of my former little gangs reached out for Zoom chats within a week of each other. The first was a group of singers from my high school choir. I’ve kept in loose contact with a few of them over the years, but I haven’t hung out with the whole gang since the eighties! We span three different countries and four time zones. Staring at these familiar faces arrayed in a grid on my laptop, it felt like I was back in the high school music room. I half expected our old choir master to step in and tap on her music stand. We got each other caught up on the basics—jobs, families, etc—but there was no formality,  no politeness. We got straight into the heart of the matter, sharing our fears and frustrations, and looking for ways we could help each other. Lockdown has strained all of us in different ways, and the urge to reach out (even when thousands of miles made it physically impossible) was overwhelming. 

We could have done this at any time over the past ten years. Video conferencing is not exactly new. I think there was something about the pandemic that made us yearn for that connection, for that sense of belonging. We are a social species. For all our talk of American individualism and our tendency to worship lone heroes, we need each other.

In Send Pics, varsity wrestling captain Tarkin Shaw drugs and photographs his classmate Suze Tilman then uses the nude pictures to blackmail her into a sexual relationship. It’s a fictional story, but the crime is common enough. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras, the influence of alcohol, and the illusory sense of invincibility conspire to put teenagers (especially teen girls) in a great deal of danger. When I first came up with the idea, I dove into the data on these types of crimes. Time and again, I found parents, teachers, coaches, even law enforcement, rallying around the perpetrators while the victims were blamed, disbelieved, and, in some cases, driven out of town. I wasn’t about to sugar coat my story. It wouldn’t have been realistic to portray the town rallying around the victim when the perpetrator was a popular all-state wrestling champion. But as soon as I decided to pit Suze against the whole town, I discovered that I couldn’t bring myself to leave her completely on her own. Maybe it was a subconscious attempt to protect my own psyche from a story that would have been too dark. But no sooner did I sketch out the foundations of the story, than a little gang emerged. Of course Suze wouldn’t be completely on her own. She’d have her friends. While everyone else is conspiring to discredit and shame her, she finds shelter in her little gang of four. They may be vastly outnumbered but the strength of their bond is equal and opposite to the forces working against them. “Shields up” is their motto, their defiant stance against an unfair, unjust world they’re only beginning to understand. 

As we all hunker down in our social isolation, trying to keep the virus at bay—a virus we still don’t fully understand—don’t we need our little gangs too? I’ve read about people forming Zoom meet ups and WhatsApp groups with neighbours they no longer pass on the street since lockdown began. They just need that sense of connection, of belonging. Last week I Zoomed with my old “Happy Hour” gang, a group of New Yorkers I haven’t hung out with since I moved to London ten years ago. We’ve added spouses and children and a grey hair or two, but for all that’s changed, the group dynamic was the same. We could have been sipping martinis in the East Village. This weekend, I’m Zooming with my choir friends again. Nothing has materially changed since our last Zoom. I doubt anyone will have much in the way of news. But that’s not the point. We’re here for each other. That’s what it’s about. And even if the forces working against us are a gazillion particles of virus we can’t even see, and even if our only defence is our isolation, at least for a little while we can slip back into our little gang and say, hey, shields up. I’ve got your back.

Meet Lauren McLaughlin

LAUREN MCLAUGHLIN is the author of Send PicsThe FreeScored, and Cycler. She has also written the children’s pictures books Wonderful You and Mitzi Tulane Preschool Detective, both of which feature adoptive families. She is an adoptive mother herself. Prior to her career in fiction, she spent ten years in the film business. She produced commercials and music videos for such artists as Nas, The B52’s, the Spin Doctors, and Monie Love, then went on to write several screenplays, including Prisoner of Love starring Naomi Campbell, Specimen starring Mark Paul Gosselaar, and Hypercube (the sequel to the cult favorite Cube). She also produced American PsychoBuffalo 66, and several other feature films. She is a member of the improv comedy troupe Amorphous Horse, which performs in a variety of venues in and around London, UK. 

You can follow Lauren at:

www.laurenmclaughlin.net

Twitter: @LaurenMcWoof

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lauren.mclaughlin.books

Instagram: @laurenmclaughlin3

About Send Pics

At Jonesville High, casual misogyny runs rampant, slut-shaming is a given, and school athletes are glorified above all else. Best friends Suze, Nikki, Ani, and Lydia swear they’ll always have each other’s backs against predatory guys—so when Suze suddenly starts dating wrestling star and toxic douchebag Tarkin Shaw, it’s a big betrayal.

Turns out, it’s not a relationship—it’s blackmail. At first, Suze feels like she has no choice but to go along with it, but when Tarkin starts demanding more, she enlists the help of intelligent misfits DeShawn and Marcus to beat Tarkin at his own game. As Marcus points out, what could possibly go wrong?

The answer: everything. And by the time the teens realize they’re fighting against forces much bigger than the Tarkin Shaws of the world, losing isn’t an option.

ISBN-13: 9781948340267
Publisher: Dottir Press
Publication date: 04/21/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Praise for Send Pics

“A gritty read for a woke generation” — Kirkus Reviews

A relentless and fierce thriller crossed with an incisive story of gender, class and race. It grabs and grabs and never lets go. —CORY DOCTOROW, author of Little Brother and Radicalized

McLaughlin has crafted a compelling novel that is somehow both timely and timeless: a perfect storm of topical issues affecting our society―and especially connected teens―today, but also an enduring lesson in empathy which reminds us that the truth behind the clickbait headlines often is hidden. —E.C. MYERS, author of the Andre Norton Award–winning Fair Coin, Quantum Coin, The Silence of Six, and more