Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Tough Terrain: Why & How I Craft Story for Connection & Compassion, a guest post by Heather Mateus Sappenfield

“How then might storytelling earn its adaptive keep?” asks noted science writer Brian Greene in Until the End of Time. Exploring the evolution of sharing stories on a purely scientific level, he posits several theories. Among these, that story allows us to practice experiences prior to encountering them, aiding survival. Another theory states that story allows us to gather information about others (the roots of gossip), also facilitating survival. There’s certainly been proof of late that reading fiction generates empathy, and the more literary and realistic the narrative, the more empathy it generates. And empathy leads to understanding, compassion, even kindness. As an author, my instinct (and hope) is that reading stories offers a blend of these elements, so I craft my narratives toward this end.

                Tweens running in hallway, licensed via Shutterstock

Younger readers, with their agile minds, are primed for these experiences as they decipher and define their worlds and their roles within them. Adults frequently try to shield kids from life’s difficulties. But here’s the rub: Kids usually hear about them anyway, through snippets of adult conversation, the media, or interactions among peers. Often these moments comprise their first, impressionable experiences with challenging topics, shaping the adults they become. By reading books that explore difficult issues, kids have the opportunity to learn about, experience vicariously, and practice mentally, these hard subjects in nurturing ways, preparing them for positive encounters later in life. Young Adult and especially Middle Grade books are often dismissed as simple, yet they are vital seeds for fertile minds. With The River Between Hearts, I learned that writing a MG novel that explores tough terrain is no easy task.

The paradox of writing for younger readers, especially with first-person narration, is that…well…I’m older. Much older. So before I could begin writing this book, I spent over a year getting to know my protagonist, almost-eleven-year-old Rill, and her friend Perla. Along the way, I hung out with live kids their age, listening, observing, and noticing, especially what I didn’t hear or see. Frequently in MG books, the protagonist has special powers or is highly intelligent, a genius even, and quite mature, and the story revolves around these special attributes solving the riddles of the world. I love, love books like this, yet because my book would explore difficult topics occurring in our world today and because I hoped to generate the most empathy, I wanted the characters to seem real.

For example, kids, a lot of teens and, yes, many adults, don’t discuss their emotions. Usually they don’t even fully understand them. So if they do encounter them, it’s through physical sensations or actions. This lack of self-awareness became the major conflict for Rill as she dealt with the loss of her dad. Once I realized this, I knew she’d be an unreliable narrator. Not by design, but by unconscious denial. This realization lifted the lid on a marvelous tool kit.

                Silhouette at sunset, licensed via Shutterstock

With Rill in denial, I could write about grief in a nuanced way, providing clues for the reader that are revealed via her naïve actions and revelations. Mistakes were imperative, they’re how we learn, so Rill makes many—in her speech, her actions, her relationships. Stuck in denial, bad at school and words, Rill becomes an unintimidating guide for readers who understand more than she does. When she barrels toward a mistake, the reader knows better, and this creates suspense. By keeping Rill’s vocabulary and intellect realistic and by having her discover things through action rather than a special gift, I could draw upon her senses, inviting the reader in physically, and this sets the stage for deeper empathy. As with the real world, the story offers no simple answers; tidiness would have fractured its integrity. My hope is that upon this unintimidating footing, readers can then explore immigration and grief and their consequences for kids as kids would realistically view and experience them. Ironically, I’ve had the pleasure of glowing reviews from older teens and adults, who, because of this realism, are able to read the story with nostalgia.

All this took about five years of revising and tweaking and revising. Of checking with a lower school director to clarify that fourth-graders would use the word “lady” not “women;” of catching and eradicating the darned moments when my adult perspective or flowery language had crept in; of working with former immigrant students to get the details true. And herein lies a contradictory yet delicate aspect of craft: While the narrative remained honest in voice and action, it needed to be subtly guided by a nurturing, reassuring meta-narrator. This was the hardest part, instilled through sentence and story structures, consistent chapter length and the occasional subtle word. My hope is that The River Between Hearts creates safe, realistic terrain for Rill and Perla to learn, grow and adapt, and for younger readers (and readers of all ages) to learn, grow, and adapt with them.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Katherine Schmidt Photography

Heather Mateus Sappenfield has written two YA novels and a literary short story collection. Her books have earned many accolades, among them a MPIBA Reading the West Award nomination, a Ben Franklin Awards Silver Medal, an AudioFile Magazine Earphones Award, a SOVAS Awards Nomination, and finalist for the Colorado Book Awards. The River Between Hearts releases February 1 as runner-up for the Kraken Prize at Fitzroy Books.

Heather loves adventures, especially in the Rocky Mountain landscape that’s been her lifelong home. As part of women’s teams, she’s won 24-hour mountain bike races and road bicycling’s Race Across America—San Diego, California to Atlantic City, New Jersey. She’s also competed in the Mountain Bike World Championships; ski instructed for Vail Resorts; loves backcountry ski touring; and is a wife and mom. Her toughest and bravest adventures, though, occur while writing stories!

Website – https://heathermateussappenfield.com

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/HeatherMateusSappenfield

Twitter – https://twitter.com/alpineheather

About The River Between Hearts

On an ordinary Monday, Rill Kruse left for third grade with a dad, but when she came home, he’d been stolen. By a river. One year and thirteen days later—on the first morning of summer vacation—Rill still insists he’s on his way back home.

When Rill’s cat, Clifford, leads her to the family tree fort on the mountainside, she discovers a stowaway, Perla, who appears to be on the run. As Rill considers the events that led Perla to this moment, she embarks on an adventure that tests her understanding of the world and forms a friendship that defies boundaries. The lessons Rill learns nudge her—and all those she loves—toward healing.

Runner-up for The Kraken Prize

ISBN-13: 9781646032068
Publisher: Fitzroy Press/Regal House Publishing
Publication date: 2/01/2022
Age Range: 9 – 14 Years

Falling in Love with the Terrible Years, a guest post by Nina Moreno

When I set out to write my second book, I told myself it wouldn’t be sad this time. Not that Don’t Date Rosa Santos is necessarily what I’d call a Sad Book, but Rosa definitely goes through it. (Chapter 30 is still rough for me too.) And anyone who has read her story or the acknowledgments at the end knows that I was going through it, too. I sold my book one month before finding out about my dad’s cancer diagnosis. He would pass away only four short months later. I achieved my dream…while drowning in grief. And for the next two years, whenever I was interviewed or discussing my book, it meant talking about Cuba and loss—his and mine—over and over again.

So, no. I was not going to write about grief this time. I would finally write that YA romance I’d been daydreaming about for years. The kind of swoony romantic story I loved reading and getting lost in as a teen. It would be funny and tropey and full of heart. It would star two ex-best friends rediscovering each other and themselves as they dealt with all the questions and expectations of their senior year. And after writing and living vicariously through perfectionist Rosa Santos with the straight As and academic prowess, I would explore someone a little closer to home instead. That’s when Luisa Patterson stumbled onto the page with a sleepy, stubborn growl after staying up way too late reading fanfics and webtoons. She’s got a cat who accidentally became an influencer, a killer gaming computer setup, ADHD, and solid C average. She hates school, but now she’s got a whole world of academic expectations on her shoulders after her genius older sister becomes a teen mom. Now this middle child—and granddaughter of immigrants who got to fly under the radar until now—is facing the pressure to become exceptional and live up to her mother’s success just as an unfinished bucket list and the (very cute) boy next door show up again. Perfect. I had my fun, love story. No loss or grief this time. Definitely some angst, of course, but this one would be filled with quests and flirting. A total party.

And then that very cute (but sad) boy looked my way and I knew.

Processed with VSCO with j1 preset

You join a club when you lose someone vitally important to you. It’s not a club anyone wants to be in necessarily, but we recognize each other. Dead dad club, you might hear some of us grimly joke as we brace for Father’s Day or birthdays. A random Wednesday when you wonder if you’re forgetting the sound of his voice. And after one look at Sam Alvarez, I knew this boy was in that awful club, too.

Just as it is for so many teens, Sam and Luisa’s senior year of high school is a head-on collision between the past and a still very fuzzy picture of their future. They’re getting hit with wave after wave of nostalgia while racing toward some unknown tomorrow. Remember all of it because everything is about to change! But when you lose a parent at eighteen and have to watch your other parent become a widow, it’s tough to feel sentimental about the present moment or get excited about homecoming. Sam simply wants to survive this first year after loss—the terrifying gauntlet of firsts without his dad—and prove to the world that it’s okay that all of his plans after high school have changed.

And just across the street is Luisa—his former best friend and the girl he hasn’t talked to ever since he made the total mistake of falling headfirst in love with her back in seventh grade.

Middle school and first love can be brutal.

Luisa’s trying to hurry up and become someone new (and shiny) before it’s too late. She’s bracing for impact against way too many deadlines just as Sam is trying to keep his head above water. They’re both standing right on the edge of so much change, so neither have time to play pretend or remember. So what happens when a relic of the past finds them? What do you do when you’re suddenly faced with all of your old hopes and romantic ideas of how these supposedly best-years-of-your-lives were supposed to go? These two ex-best friends can’t help but wonder if there’s still time to find joy when you’re caught between becoming and surviving.

Because maybe there’s no time like the present.

So, yeah, I wrote about grief again. Sam’s and mine. Maybe yours. And yet…Our Way Back to Always is absolutely that swoony, tropey love story I always hoped to write. Because life—even in the terrible years––can be really funny like that.

Meet the author

Nina Moreno graduated from the University of Florida and writes about disaster Latinx teens & tweens chasing their dreams, falling in love, and navigating life in the hyphen.  Her first novel, Don’t Date Rosa Santos, is available now from Little Brown for Young Readers and was a Junior Library Guild Selection, Indie Next Pick for teen readers, and SIBA Okra Pick. Her upcoming YA novel, Our Way Back to Alwaysis out October 19, 2021 with LBYR. And her MG debut, Join the Club, Maggie Diaz, will be available from Scholastic in 2022. 

About Our Way Back to Always

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before meets Morgan Matson in this effervescent romance about childhood best friends reconnecting that’s full of sunny days, warm nights, first kisses, and mended hearts.

Luisa (Lou) Patterson grew up across the street from Sam Alvarez in the small, quirky town of Port Coral. They used to be inseparable—spending every holiday together, shooting silly YouTube videos, and rescuing stray cats. But then middle school happened, including the most disastrous (and embarrassing) serenade ever, and Lou and Sam haven’t talked in the four years since. Sam is now the golden boy with plenty of friends, while Lou is an introverted romantic who’s happy playing video games and writing fan fiction. But it’s also the summer before their senior year, and life is knocking on Lou’s door.

With her older sister having given up a scholarship to Princeton to have a baby and work at the local botanica, all of their mother’s expectations are now riding on Lou’s shoulders. She’s retaking her SAT’s, signed up for way too many AP classes, and her sights set on colleges with fancy names like Duke and Vanderbilt. But when she finds the bucket list she and Sam wrote together as kids, before Sam’s father was diagnosed with cancer, she’s shocked to see that she hasn’t accomplished any of the goals she’d set for herself. Go to a party? Nope. Pull the greatest prank of all time? Still no. Learn how to be a really good kisser? Definitely not.

​Torn between the future that her mother, sister, and younger self planned for her, Lou sets out to finish the list, and in a stroke of destiny or fate, Sam decides to tag along. Still trying to stay afloat amid the grief of losing his father, Sam himself is staring down a future that feels all too close, and is coming far too fast. But with the bucket list to guide them, Sam and Lou might just be able to find a way through the future, and also a way back to each other.

ISBN-13: 9780759557475
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 10/19/2021
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

Debuting with Death, a guest post by Jessica Vitalis

When I was drafting what would turn out to be my debut novel, “The Wolf’s Curse,” I couldn’t have predicted that it would come out during a worldwide pandemic. With the entire world facing unimaginable levels of loss and grief, a Grim Reaper retelling might not seem like an auspicious beginning for my career.

But if it’s one thing writing this story taught me, it’s that processing grief isn’t only about resilience: It’s about rituals. It’s about community. It’s about hope –– the possibility that we might heal and, in so doing, find some measure of future happiness.

How we do that varies not only from person to person but from culture to culture. In North America, burials and cremations are the norm, along with funerals that allow loved ones to gather in remembrance of the departed. These rituals are part of our attempts to say goodbye, to come to terms with our grief. Having grown up in the United States, I thought these rituals were more or less the norm around the world.  But in researching death rituals while writing “The Wolf’s Curse,” I learned that they vary widely across cultures.

For example, some Tibetan Buddhists practice sky burials, where their bodies are left outside for birds and animals, thereby freeing the soul and continuing the circle of life. The Malagasy people of Madagascar have joyful ceremonies known as the “Turning of the Bones,” where approximately every five years, they perfume and/or rewrap their dead in fresh shrouds and dance near the tombs, and the Tinguian dress their dead in finery and seat them in a chair with a lit cigarette. One South American tribe is said to eat pieces of their dead to absorb their spirit, and the people of Kirbati exhume the skulls of the deceased to preserve and display in their homes.

Despite the many different traditions around the world, the rituals I encountered all share one common element: They bring comfort to the living. This realization was pivotal to writing “The Wolf’s Curse,” which is set in an early Renaissance-era seaside village. 

In my fictional world, the people believe that stars are actually lanterns lit by their loved ones once they reach the Sea-in-the-Sky and sail into eternity. The deceased are buried in boats with feathers, fishing gear and the other supplies they’ll need to make their journey. When my 12-year-old character loses his grandpapá and embarks on a journey to complete the old man’s Release ceremony, he’s stalked by a mythical Great White Wolf and ends up learning life-changing truths about the Wolf –– and about the nature of death.

The story is a twist on a Grim Reaper narrative, and it certainly explores grief and loss, but it also explores community, friendship and, most of all, the hope that comes with healing. The traditions and rituals might look different than the ones you and I are used to, but the emotions — the need for human connection and healing — are universal. Although I never could have foreseen the trials this year would bring, I’m grateful for the chance to share a story that might infuse a little more of this connection and healing in all our lives.

Meet the author

Jessica Vitalis is a Columbia MBA-wielding writer. She brings her experience growing up in a nontraditional childhood to her stories, exploring themes such as death and grief, domestic violence, and socio-economic disparities. An American expat, she now lives in Canada with her husband and two precocious daughters. She loves traveling, sailing and scuba diving, but when she’s at home, she can usually be found reading a book or changing the batteries in her heated socks. “The Wolf’s Curse” is her debut novel.

About The Wolf’s Curse

Shunned by his fearful village, a twelve-year-old apprentice embarks on a surprising quest to clear his name, with a mythic—and dangerous—wolf following closely at his heels. Jessica Vitalis’s debut is a gorgeous, voice-driven literary fantasy about family, fate, and long-held traditions. The Wolf’s Cursewill engross readers of The Girl Who Drank the Moon and A Wish in the Dark.

Gauge’s life has been cursed since the day he cried Wolf and was accused of witchcraft. The Great White Wolf brings only death, Gauge’s superstitious village believes. If Gauge can see the Wolf, then he must be in league with it.

So instead of playing with friends in the streets or becoming his grandpapa’s partner in the carpentry shop, Gauge must hide and pretend he doesn’t exist. But then the Wolf comes for his grandpapa. And for the first time, Gauge is left all alone, with a bounty on his head and the Wolf at his heels.

A young feather collector named Roux offers Gauge assistance, and he is eager for the help. But soon the two—both recently orphaned—are questioning everything they have ever believed about their village, about the Wolf, and about death itself. 

Narrated by the sly, crafty Wolf, Jessica Vitalis’s debut novel is a vivid and literary tale about family, friendship, belonging, and grief. The Wolf’s Curse will captivate readers of Laurel Snyder’s Orphan Islandand Molly Knox Ostertag’s The Witch Boy.

ISBN-13: 9780063067417
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/21/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Holding out for a Hero: Why I used Greek Mythology to write about modern gender violence, a guest post by Kyrie McCauley

In We Can Be Heroes, three friends navigate a devastating loss due to gun violence and their own anger in its wake. They decide to turn this anger into art and activism, painting illegal murals to raise awareness for what happened—and also to demand accountability.

Image Description: a stack of books
Image Source: author

Beck, Vivian, and Cassie create murals based on Greek mythology, and include portraits of Cassandra, Circe, Helen, Ariadne, Andromeda, and Medusa. They’re finding a way to tell Cassie’s story to the world by channeling these myths we already know so well.

The thing about the women in these myths is that they aren’t usually the center of the story. They’re a side quest, or the hero’s motivation, or they’re even written as the villain. Essentially, they’re a lesson to be learned, which is unfortunately how we still frame a lot of violence against women today.

Today we tell stories of true crime in a similar way. We have podcasts and shows and thrillers, flashing news stories that highlight the incident without any context about gender violence. The act is sensationalized, a cautionary tale at best, and sometimes even presented as entertainment. And what about the victims themselves? Often, the person gets lost in the narrative. But the stories we tell about violence matter. Especially when 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Especially when the presence of a gun in a situation of domestic violence increases the risk of homicide by 500%.[1]

Image Description: a graphic with text and sunflower petals
Image Source: Canva

In We Can Be Heroes, I bring Cassie back after her death as a ghost haunting her friends and seeking justice for what happened to her. Cassie sees her community briefly mourn her and then move on, without ever confronting the events that led to her death. Her community is better at mourning a loss than preventing one, and doesn’t seem to care to change.



Cassie was the victim of murder, but also of people turning away from the signs of an unhealthy relationship with escalating danger. The red flags were ignored or rationalized. There are patterns of violence against women in Greek mythology, too, and I wanted to highlight those similarities while telling Cassie’s modern story. The first mural the girls paint is of the prophetess Cassandra, who saw the future but was ignored, just like those red flags in Cassie’s relationship were missed.

Image Description: a stone statue of a woman
Image Source: Unsplash

I’ve listened to hundreds of stories from survivors of violence, as an advocate, a counselor, a friend. And the thing that always struck me was the echo in the room. There was the trauma itself, infuriating on its own, and then there was the follow up: not being believed. There is a lot of frustration with systems that fail victims of violence again and again.

At one point, Cassie wishes: “If only this world loved living girls as much as it loves dead ones.” I think we are good at rallying around a tragedy, but we have a lot of work to do in preventing one. And it starts with listening to and believing victims of violence. We Can Be Heroes is about reclaiming our stories. Was Medusa really the monster? Why was Andromeda sacrificed to Cetus, the sea creature? How do we talk and write about the tragic heroine?

Image Description: a graphic with text and sunflower petals
Image Source: Canva

Who gets to be called a hero? In this book, it is the teen girls. By bringing Cassie back as a ghost and giving her a point of view, I got to let her tell her own story—not just as a passive, haunting specter, and not just as another statistic, but as a furious young woman grieving the life that was stolen from her. She wants justice, but she’ll settle for vengeance. It felt good to give Cassie and her friends the rage they have so earned. And it felt good to make them fully the center of their story. The victim and the hero are the same, and if anyone is going to avenge Cassie, she will do it herself, with the help of her righteously angry friends.

By using figures from Greek mythology, and reframing the stories we tell about violence, I got to make Cassie’s message clear: We are the heroes of our own stories, and no one is allowed to rewrite us.

Meet the author

Image Description: author photo Kyrie McCauley
Image Source: author


Kyrie McCauley spent her childhood climbing trees in dresses and reading books during class. She is the author of If These Wings Could Fly, recipient of the 2021 William C. Morris Award. Kyrie holds a Master of Science in Social Policy from the University of Pennsylvania, and has worked in advocacy and development for non-profit organizations. She lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with her family, three rescue cats, and a dog that eats books and is never sorry.


Author Website: kyriemccauley.com
Resources on Violence: https://www.kyriemccauley.com/resources
Author Twitter: @kyriemccauley
Author Instagram: @kyriemccauley


About We Can Be Heroes

We Can Be Heroes

Kyrie McCauley, author of the William C. Morris YA Debut Award winner If These Wings Could Fly, delivers a powerful contemporary YA novel about the lasting bonds of friendship and three girls fighting for each other in the aftermath of a school shooting. Perfect for fans of Laura Ruby and Mindy McGinnis.

Beck and Vivian never could stand each other, but they always tried their best for their mutual friend, Cassie. After the town moves on from Cassie’s murder too fast, Beck and Vivian finally find common ground: vengeance.

They memorialize Cassie by secretly painting murals of her around town, a message to the world that Cassie won’t be forgotten. But Beck and Vivian are keeping secrets, like the third passenger riding in Beck’s VW bus with them—Cassie’s ghost. 

When their murals catch the attention of a podcaster covering Cassie’s case, they become the catalyst for a debate that Bell Firearms can no longer ignore. With law enforcement closing in on them, Beck and Vivian hurry to give Cassie the closure she needs—by delivering justice to those responsible for her death.

ISBN-13: 9780062885050
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

The Music that Heals Us, a guest post by Jennie Wexler

Boxes of vinyl records sat untouched in my parents’ storage room, begging to take their rightful place on a decades-old turntable covered in a thin layer of dust. During my last visit, I asked my father if I could take a couple of albums, hoping to display my favorites on shelves in my own home. I thumbed through a box, my eyes landing on instantly recognizable artwork. All four Beatles dressed in colorful costumes behind a large bass drum bearing the words, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. Licensed to Ill’s rear end of a jet plane crash daring us to take a ride with the Beastie Boys. Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchel, and Noel Redding on the other end of a fish-eye lens asking us, Are You Experienced? Tommy. Led Zeppelin IV. Dark Side of the Moon.

I wanted them all.

It wasn’t right – iconic masterpieces lying dormant in a cold storage room. Music that was meant to be consumed as a story. Not a single track, but a cohesive album of notes and chords that all belonged together, that built upon one another. As my fingers ran along the edges of each album, long-forgotten memories bubbled to the surface of my mind.

“Who is this?” my father asked, his green eyes flicking to me in the rearview mirror, as the opening notes of Strawberry Fields Forever poured out of the speakers and filled our 1984 Toyota. When I was a little girl, my father turned long car rides into musical quizzes, knowledge that would imprint on my developing brain and stay with me throughout adulthood.

“The Beatles,” my tiny five-year-old voice proclaimed, pride swelling in my chest. I didn’t know a lot, but I knew music and more importantly, I felt a sense of awe as I listened. My father ensured I was immersed in the sounds of the sixties and seventies, the pure rock that came out of those decades. He owned guitars and amps, picks lying haphazardly around our house, ready to be put to use whenever the mood struck. He strummed while I sang Can’t Find My Way Home, one of our favorite songs, the memory still vivid today, a blanket wrapped tightly around my shoulders. Whenever I hear that Blind Faith tune, it feels like home, safe, a hug from my father. When you share an intense love for a song with someone, it’s an unspoken bond, a knowing of what speaks to both of your hearts.

When I entered high school, music became more than a cool riff or relatable lyrics. It was a lifeline. Two months into my freshman year, a car accident claimed the life of my friend at just fifteen years old. Everything I understood to be true was shattered in one phone call and I struggled to understand the concept of gone. My grief was unshakeable, heavy, and relentless. I don’t know if it was my father’s intention to ease my pain or just a way for him to connect to his shell of a daughter, but one day he brought home a CD for me – Help! by The Beatles. We owned it on vinyl, but he knew I only consumed music on my CD player, and he wanted me to have my own copy. The next week he came home with Revolver. The week after that was Rubber Soul. A new Beatles CD appeared every week until I had a complete collection. Every week I climbed an inch further out of my grief, the music breathing life back into my colorless world.

I began writing WHERE IT ALL LANDS as a way to process the grief from my teenage years that still grabbed hold of me unexpectedly, even as I became an adult and started my own family. I wanted to write the story I needed in high school – a story that could help a teen cope with an upheaval in their lives. Losing a young peer is not only devastating, it’s shocking. For years I’ve unsuccessfully attempted to untangle my complicated feelings about loss. Writing WHERE IT ALL LANDS was another attempt, another way to try to heal. All three main characters share an intense love of music and they depend on their favorite songs to guide them through difficult times. For me, like the characters in WHERE IT ALL LANDS, music is the one constant throughout my life that has comforted me and helped me find meaning in the face of tragedy.

Today, music still guides me. My father’s vinyl records are displayed in my office, the same songs, like dependable old friends, continuing to inspire me after so many years. Every song tells a story, and every piece of music is a time machine – a way to remind me of a forgotten moment or a hug from my father just when I need one. But music isn’t my only salve. Writing, reading, and art are the tools that help me chip away at life’s unanswered questions. Just like me, I hope teens today can pick up a book, stare at a piece of art, or listen to their favorite songs when they need to make sense of their complicated worlds.

Meet the author

Jennie Wexler spent the first part of her career producing and writing scripts for television shows appearing on VH1, Bravo, and The Travel Channel. Jennie’s debut novel, WHERE IT ALL LANDS, will be released from Wednesday Books on July 6th, 2021. She is an SCBWI member and lives in New Jersey with her husband, son, and Havanese puppy. You can follow her on twitter @jenwex or on IG @jenniewexler.

About Where It All Lands

Sliding Doors-esque novel that reveals how our choices define us and how no matter the road, love can find its way.

Stevie Rosenstein has never made a true friend. Never fallen in love. Moved from city to city by her father’s unrelenting job, it’s too hard to care for someone. Trust in anything. The pain of leaving always hurts too much. But she’ll soon learn to trust, to love.

Twice.

Drew and Shane have been best friends through everything. The painful death of Shane’s dad. The bitter separation of Drew’s parents. Through sleepaway camps and family heartache, basketball games and immeasurable loss, they’ve always been there for each other.

When Stevie meets Drew and Shane, life should go on as normal.

But a simple coin toss alters the course of their year in profound and unexpected ways.

Told in dual timelines, debut author Jennie Wexler’s Where It All Lands delivers a heartbreaking and hopeful novel about missed opportunities, second chances, and all the paths that lead us to where we are.

ISBN-13: 9781250750044
Publisher: St. Martin’s Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/06/2021
Age Range: 12 – 18 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

Recent and Upcoming Young Adult Debuts That Grapple With Grief, a guest post by Kate Norris

This has been a year full of loss. Even those who have been lucky enough not to have lost loved ones are still grieving lost jobs, opportunities, friendships, holidays, favorite spots, and anticipated once-in-a-lifetime events like in-person proms and graduations.

Grief is one of the major themes of my debut young adult historical sci-fi novel, When You and I Collide, although I never could have anticipated (and never would have wished for) its release to arrive during a global pandemic, when we’ve all lost so much. But considering the year we’ve had, I wanted to take this opportunity to share my experience writing grief, as well as highlight some other recent and upcoming young adult debut novels that grapple with loss.

Part of the reason I enjoy writing for and about teens is that the emotional palette is all neon—every problem feels life-or-death, each crisis world-ending. That’s why it feels like such fertile creative territory when a character at an age where they’re ill-equipped to deal with tragedy encounters a devastating loss. It’s a bit like that old paradox: what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immoveable object? How do we endure the unendurable?

In my novel, the main character, Winnie—whose life is still shaped by her mother’s death eight years earlier—is so unable to cope with the loss of the boy she loves from afar that she transports herself to an alternative reality where he survived the accident she witnessed. Of course, this ends up causing a whole host of other problems.

I’m most interested in explorations of grief beyond just sadness: grief that manifests as rage or delusion, grief that’s been allowed to fester, maladaptive grief as a destructive force. The death of Winnie’s mother—and Winnie and her father’s shared guilt and grief over that loss—both unites them and puts a wall between them.

Grief can’t be simply escaped. But over the course of the book, the aftermath of new tragedy helps Winnie finally make peace with her earlier loss.

I think that reading—and writing—can be a sort of practice for living, and that vicariously experiencing the tragedies of fictional characters can help provide catharsis for our own. That’s my hope, at least.

Here’s a (non-exhaustive!) list of five debut novels released in late 2020 or expected in the first half of 2021 that I’m excited for, as well more info about my own. Please add more titles in the comments!

Title: Who I Was with Her

Author: Nita Tyndall

Publisher: HarperTeen/HaperCollins

On Sale Date: September 15, 2020

ISBN: 9780062978387, 0062978381

Ages: 14 and up, Grades 9 and up

Type of Loss: Death of Girlfriend

Publisher’s Summary: “There are two things that Corinne Parker knows to be true: that she is in love with Maggie Bailey, the captain of the rival high school’s cross-country team and her secret girlfriend of a year, and that she isn’t ready for anyone to know she’s bisexual.

But then Maggie dies, and Corinne quickly learns that the only thing worse than losing Maggie is being left heartbroken over a relationship no one knows existed. And to make things even more complicated, the only person she can turn to is Elissa—Maggie’s ex and the single person who understands how Corinne is feeling.

As Corinne struggles to make sense of her grief and what she truly wants out of life, she begins to have feelings for the last person she should fall for. But to move forward after losing Maggie, Corinne will have to learn to be honest with the people in her life . . . starting with herself.”

Title: When You Look Like Us

Author: Pamela N. Harris

Publisher: Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins

On Sale Date: January 5, 2021

ISBN: 9780062945891, 0062945890

Ages: 14 and up, Grades 9 and up

Type of Loss: Disappearance of Sister

Publisher’s Summary: “When you look like us—brown skin, brown eyes, black braids or fades—people think you’re trouble. No one looks twice at a missing black girl from public housing because she must’ve brought whatever happened to her upon herself. I, Jay Murphy, can admit that, for a minute, I thought my sister, Nicole, got too caught up with her boyfriend—a drug dealer—and his friends. But she’s been gone too long now.

If I hadn’t hung up on her that night, she’d be spending time with our grandma. If I was a better brother, she’d be finishing senior year instead of being another name on a missing persons list. It’s time to step up and do what the Newport News police department won’t.

Nic, I’m bringing you home.”

Title: Amelia Unabridged: A Novel

Author: Ashley Schumacher

Publisher: Wednesday Books/Macmillan

On Sale Date: February 16, 2021

ISBN: 9781250253026, 1250253020

Ages: 12 to 18

Type of Loss: Accidental Death of Friend (car accident)

Publisher’s Summary: “Eighteen-year-old Amelia Griffin is obsessed with the famous Orman Chronicles, written by the young and reclusive prodigy N. E. Endsley. They’re the books that brought her and her best friend Jenna together after Amelia’s father left and her family imploded. So when Amelia and Jenna get the opportunity to attend a book festival with Endsley in attendance, Amelia is ecstatic. It’s the perfect way to start off their last summer before college.

In a heartbeat, everything goes horribly wrong. When Jenna gets a chance to meet the author and Amelia doesn’t, the two have a blowout fight like they’ve never had before. And before Amelia has a chance to mend things, Jenna dies in a freak car accident. Grief-stricken, and without her best friend to guide her, Amelia questions everything she had planned for the future.

When a mysterious, rare edition of the Orman Chronicles arrives, Amelia is convinced that it somehow came from Jenna. Tracking the book to an obscure but enchanting bookstore in Michigan, Amelia is shocked to find herself face-to-face with the enigmatic and handsome N. E. Endsley himself, the reason for Amelia’s and Jenna’s fight and perhaps the clue to what Jenna wanted to tell her all along.

Ashley Schumacher’s devastating and beautiful debut, Amelia Unabridged, is about finding hope and strength within yourself, and maybe, just maybe, falling in love while you do it.”

Title: The Valley and the Flood

Author: Rebecca Mahoney

Publisher: Razorbill/Penguin

On Sale Date: February 23, 2021

ISBN: 9780593114353, 0593114353

Ages:

Type of Loss: Death of Friend

Publisher’s Summary: “Rose Colter is almost home, but she can’t go back there yet. When her car breaks down in the Nevada desert, the silence of the night is broken by a radio broadcast of a voicemail message from her best friend, Gaby. A message Rose has listened to countless times over the past year. The last one Gaby left before she died.

So Rose follows the lights from the closest radio tower to Lotus Valley, a small town where prophets are a dime a dozen, secrets lurk in every shadow, and the diner pie is legendary. And according to Cassie Cyrene, the town’s third most accurate prophet, they’ve been waiting for her. Because Rose’s arrival is part of a looming prophecy, one that says a flood will destroy Lotus Valley in just three days’ time.

Rose believes if the prophecy comes true then it will confirm her worst fear—the PTSD she was diagnosed with after Gaby’s death has changed her in ways she can’t face. So with help from new friends, Rose sets out to stop the flood, but her connection to it, and to this strange little town, runs deeper than she could’ve imagined.”

Title: The Half-Orphan’s Handbook

Author: Joan F. Smith

Publisher: Imprint/Macmillan

On Sale Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 9781250624680, 1250624681

Ages: 14 to 18

Type of Loss: Death of Father (by suicide)

Publisher’s Summary: “It’s been three months since Lila lost her father to suicide. Since then, she’s learned to protect herself from pain by following two unbreakable rules:

1. The only people who can truly hurt you are the ones you love. Therefore, love no one.

2. Stay away from liars. Liars are the worst.

But when Lila’s mother sends her to a summer-long grief camp, it’s suddenly harder for Lila to follow these rules. Potential new friends and an unexpected crush threaten to drag her back into life for the first time since her dad’s death.

On top of everything, there’s more about what happened that Lila doesn’t know, and facing the truth about her family will be the hardest part of learning how a broken heart can love again.”

Title: When You and I Collide

Author: Kate Norris

Publisher: Philomel Books/Penguin

On Sale Date: June 8th, 2021

ISBN: 9780593203033, 0593203038

Ages: 12 and up, Grades 7 and up

Type of Loss: Death of Mother (earlier in childhood, car accident), Possible Death of Friend/Love Interest

Publisher’s Summary: “Sixteen-year-old Winnie Schulde has always seen splits—the moment when two possible outcomes diverge, one in her universe and one in another. Multiverse theory, Winnie knows, is all too real, though she has never been anything but an observer of its implications—a secret she keeps hidden from just about everyone, as she knows the uses to which it might be put in the midst of a raging WWII. But her physicist father, wrapped up in his research and made cruel by his grief after the loss of Winnie’s mother, believes that if he pushes her hard enough, she can choose one split over another and maybe, just maybe, change their future and their past.

Winnie is certain that her father’s theories are just that, so she plays along in an effort to placate him. Until one day, when her father’s experiment goes wrong and Scott, the kind and handsome lab assistant Winnie loves from afar, is seriously injured. Without meaning to, Winnie chooses the split where Scott is unharmed. And in doing so, finds herself pulled into another universe, an alternate reality. One that already has a Winnie.

In this darkly thrilling novel that blends science and war with love and loss, some actions just can’t be undone.”

Meet the author

 Photo credit: Bridget Caswell Photography

Kate Norris received her MFA from Ohio State University, where she taught creative writing and served as fiction editor of The Journal. Her work has appeared in One Teen Story, The Threepenny Review, Sycamore Review, and Iron Horse Literary Review, among others. She currently lives and writes in Cleveland, Ohio with her partner and their mini-menagerie of dogs. When You and I Collide is her first novel. Find her online at katenorriswrites.com, on Twitter @kate_writes, and on Instagram and TikTok @katenorriswrites.

Book Review: Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Feder

Publisher’s description

Part poignant cancer memoir and part humorous reflection on a motherless life, this debut graphic novel is extraordinarily comforting and engaging.

From before her mother’s first oncology appointment through the stages of her cancer to the funeral, sitting shiva, and afterward, when she must try to make sense of her life as a motherless daughter, Tyler Feder tells her story in this graphic novel that is full of piercing—but also often funny—details. She shares the important post-death firsts, such as celebrating holidays without her mom, the utter despair of cleaning out her mom’s closet, ending old traditions and starting new ones, and the sting of having the “I’ve got to tell Mom about this” instinct and not being able to act on it. This memoir, bracingly candid and sweetly humorous, is for anyone struggling with loss who just wants someone to get it.

Amanda’s thoughts

It’s been 8 years since my dad was killed in a car accident. Sometimes I absolutely cannot handle anything that deals with parental death. But I’d been looking forward to this book for a long time, so when it showed up at my house, I dropped everything and read it. I’m so glad I did.

Grief is a weird thing. It changes all the time, it’s intensely personal while also being so universal, and you have to still try to live your regular life while hauling it around. Feder’s book captures all of that and so much more.

When Tyler’s mother feels some abdominal pain, no one knows that indicates their lives will be forever changed. She’s eventually diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer, and eventually that diagnosis morphs to stage 4 uterine cancer. They all try to remain optimistic, but it isn’t long before it’s very clear to Tyler and her family that her mother will not survive this. As her mother undergoes treatment and begins to fade, Tyler is still going to college and trying to compartmentalize her life enough to power through each day. Eventually, of course, as we know this is a dead mom memoir, the cancer spreads, hospice is called, and her mother dies.

But then what? Sure, they have the logistical pieces of meeting with the rabbi and the funeral director. But, seriously, then what? How do you go about daily life? Tyler shows us the ups and downs, the setbacks and little steps forward, the pain and laughter and unexpected moments. Much of the story is told in a traditional graphic/comic format, but there are small breaks in the narrative that offer up lists or comparisons or little snippets of grief life. There’s a chart of items to have on hand for making a good cry a great cry. There are illustrations of misery yoga, depictions of things that died when her mom died, cliche grief remedies that actually work, types of sadness, and dos and don’ts for dealing with a grieving person.

While this is about watching someone you love die and life after loss, it’s also just a really beautiful love letter to her mom. Her mom seems like she was awesome. I was worried this book would wreck me, but that wasn’t the case. I mostly just nodded my head in recognition at her feelings, admired the close relationship Tyler and her mother had, and appreciated the candid, warm, cathartic feel of the whole thing. The mileage varies on everyone’s grief, but this story full of so much love and honesty will be a comfort to many.

Review copy (finished book) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525553021
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 04/14/2020
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

Book Review: Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry

Publisher’s description

The Torres sisters dream of escape. Escape from their needy and despotic widowed father, and from their San Antonio neighborhood, full of old San Antonio families and all the traditions and expectations that go along with them. In the summer after her senior year of high school, Ana, the oldest sister, falls to her death from her bedroom window. A year later, her three younger sisters, Jessica, Iridian, and Rosa, are still consumed by grief and haunted by their sister’s memory. Their dream of leaving Southtown now seems out of reach. But then strange things start happening around the house: mysterious laughter, mysterious shadows, mysterious writing on the walls. The sisters begin to wonder if Ana really is haunting them, trying to send them a message—and what exactly she’s trying to say.

In a stunning follow-up to her National Book Award–longlisted novel All the Wind in the World, Samantha Mabry weaves an aching, magical novel that is one part family drama, one part ghost story, and one part love story.

Amanda’s thoughts

Only two months and a few dozen books into 2020 and I’m ready to call something one of my favorite books of the year? Yes, yes I am. This stunning book is easily the best thing I’ve read so far this year.

After their sister Ana falls to her death, the remaining Torres sisters, Jessica, Iridian, and Rosa, survive only because they have to. Rosa looks for meaning with animals, particularly in an escaped hyena she feels certain has something to do with her dead sister’s spirit. Iridian hides out in books and writing, haunted by her final words to Ana. And Jessica spends her time with the worst possible boy to be with. They see snippets of things that point to Ana somehow being back, wanting something, needing something, though they’re not sure what her message is.

The power and beauty of this book is in the lovely writing and the magnificent, unforgettable characters. This is a story about what happens when girls become ghosts, when girls become animals. This is about what happens when girls embrace anger, when girls attack, when girls grow sick of the imprints men leave upon them. This is about aching, desperate, trapped, screaming girls. This is a warning and a celebration of what happens when girls become feral, become hunters, when girls decide they are not sorry. This haunting story is about sisterhood and death, about power and pain, and about confronting men and boys who are meddling cowards and abusers. A fierce story of heartbreak, grief, connection, and the complications of the human heart. Absolutely not to be missed.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781616208967
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Publication date: 03/24/2020

Ages 14-18

Book Review: The Whispers by Greg Howard

Publisher’s description

whispersA middle grade debut that’s a heartrending coming-of-age tale, perfect for fans of Bridge to Terabithia and Counting By 7s.

Eleven-year-old Riley believes in the whispers, magical fairies that will grant you wishes if you leave them tributes. Riley has a lot of wishes. He wishes bullies at school would stop picking on him. He wishes Dylan, his 8th grade crush, liked him, and Riley wishes he would stop wetting the bed. But most of all, Riley wishes for his mom to come back home. She disappeared a few months ago, and Riley is determined to crack the case. He even meets with a detective, Frank, to go over his witness statement time and time again.

Frustrated with the lack of progress in the investigation, Riley decides to take matters into his own hands. So he goes on a camping trip with his friend Gary to find the whispers and ask them to bring his mom back home. But Riley doesn’t realize the trip will shake the foundation of everything that he believes in forever.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

11-year-old Riley’s mother always told him a story about wish-granting Whispers that live in the woods behind their South Carolina home. Just leave them a tribute, tell them your heart’s desire, and the Whispers, who know all the secrets in the universe, will take care of you. When Riley’s mother disappears, he desperately hopes this story isn’t just fiction.

 

Riley’s mom has been missing for four months when we meet Riley. He’s repeatedly interrogated by a detective but can’t come up with any other details to help them find her—Riley was at home playing, his mother was napping, there was a mysterious car nearby, then she was gone. They keep going over the details, and Riley has no hope that the detective, who he thinks is incompetent, will ever find his mom. It’s up to him. It’s up to the Whispers in the woods behind his house. They must know where his mom is.

 

Riley, a self-professed mama’s boy, has been miserable since she disappeared. He’s started wetting the bed (which he refers to as “my condition”), his father hardly acknowledges him, and the bullying and teasing he’s always faced at school has gotten worse. He has one good friend, biracial Gary, and a protector in an older neighbor, Dylan, but beyond that, is alone. He’s carrying the heavy weight of guilt, worried that he somehow drove his mother away with his “other condition,” which is how he refers to the fact that he likes boys. He thinks that he’s being punished for this.

 

Deciding to take things into his own hands, Riley heads into the woods with Gary and Gary’s younger brother to camp, hoping to maybe hear more from the Whispers, who have been speaking to him lately. They tell him that “she’s here.” Believing them, believing that she’s in those woods, Riley heads deeper into the forest. He offers the ultimate tribute to the Whispers, but will it be enough for them to reveal where she is?

 

Readers will tear through this story, with many questions along the way. Is Riley hiding something from the detective? Or from the reader? What’s really going on with his neighbor, Dylan? Who is Kenny from Kentucky? What happened in the shed? Does the unlikely helper he encounters in the woods know something about his mother? Everything is eventually revealed and answered, and what readers learn will likely send them scrambling back to reread the story through new eyes. A moving, thoughtful examination of trauma, grief, and the power of imagination. 

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525517498
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 01/15/2019