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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

Book Review: Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed: 15 Voices from the Latinx Diaspora edited by Saraciea J. Fennell

Publisher’s description

Edited by The Bronx Is Reading founder Saraciea J. Fennell and featuring an all-star cast of Latinx contributors, Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed is a ground-breaking anthology that will spark dialogue and inspire hope.

In Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed, bestselling and award-winning authors as well as up-and-coming voices interrogate the different myths and stereotypes about the Latinx diaspora. These fifteen original pieces delve into everything from ghost stories and superheroes, to memories in the kitchen and travels around the world, to addiction and grief, to identity and anti-Blackness, to finding love and speaking your truth. Full of both sorrow and joy, Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed is an essential celebration of this rich and diverse community. 

The bestselling and award-winning contributors include Elizabeth Acevedo, Cristina Arreola, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Naima Coster, Natasha Diaz, Saraciea J. Fennell, Kahlil Haywood, Zakiya Jamal, Janel Martinez, Jasminne Mendez, Meg Medina, Mark Oshiro, Julian Randall, Lilliam Rivera, and Ibi Zoboi.

Amanda’s thoughts

This anthology of personal essays has appeal far beyond just a teen audience, especially as many of the essay delve into the years beyond their teens. While I love anthologies, I don’t always read everything in them. I’ll skim some that are less appealing, skip others entirely after just a few sentences, etc. But here, I read all of them. This is a powerful and well put together collection.

The pieces included here cover a lot of ground. They speak of experiences from childhood through adulthood. They include authors from a bunch of places and backgrounds, writing about a wide variety of experiences, showing that, as Julian Randall writes, “There are as many ways to be Latinx as there are Latinx people” (81). Their essays cover things like culture, assimilation, community, belonging, language, religion, wholeness, resilience, and pride. They have complicated relationships to friends, family, places, history, and the idea of respectability. They struggle with being outsiders, with being immigrants, with the weight of expectations, with the presence and absence of people in their lives. They write about being invisible and being seen, about colorism, anti-Blackness, ancestry, power, whiteness, food, travel, acceptance, camaraderie, isolation, mental health, goals, dreams, love, survival, agency, and existence.

This wonderful and deeply personal look into 15 experiences from the Latinx diaspora will give readers plenty to think about and will surely make many readers feel seen and understood as they encounter authors whose lives, feelings, and experiences echo their own. A great collection.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781250763426
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: 09/14/2021
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years

How to Pronounce Quach, a guest post by Michelle Quach

Many years ago, while reading Sideways Stories from Wayside School, I stumbled upon this tidbit in Louis Sachar’s author bio:

When Louis Sachar was going to school, his teachers always pronounced his name wrong. Now that he has become a popular author of children’s books teachers all over the country are pronouncing his name wrong.”

That made me chuckle. I was nine, and teachers had been pronouncing my name wrong for years, too.

My last name is Quach, which, like Sachar, has that elusive hard “ch” sound that has thrown off many, many Americans. I don’t blame them—“Quash” or “Quatch” both seem like perfectly reasonable guesses for a name that looks like Quach. But I didn’t see why I should have a name that sounded like “squash” or “crotch” when I could instead be a much more solid Quach. One that rhymed with nouns of substance, like “lock” and ”rock.”

In spite of the trouble, however, I’ve always liked my name. In one word, it uniquely encapsulates my family’s complicated history—a history that I’ve often found hard to explain.

Quach is an Americanized version of the Vietnamese Quách, which itself is derived from the Chinese surname 郭 (often romanized as Kwok or Guo). It’s common among people like my family, ethnic Chinese who lived in Vietnam for several generations before they immigrated to the U.S. as refugees. We might still be living in Hanoi now if it hadn’t been for the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

So whenever I’ve been asked what I “am,” the answer has been complicated. Growing up, I wasn’t exactly sure how to identify. It wasn’t quite as clean-cut as if, say, my mom were Chinese and my dad were Vietnamese. In reality, both sides of my family are technically Chinese: my ancestors originated in southern China, and the one language that almost all of us still speak is Cantonese. But my grandparents and parents were born in Vietnam—to say that they’re not really Vietnamese is like saying I’m not really American. Vietnamese has been as much part of our household as English.

Still, when I talk to Chinese people, I don’t quite feel Chinese enough, and when I talk to Vietnamese people, I don’t feel quite Vietnamese enough. This is true even when I talk to Chinese- and Vietnamese-Americans, because their histories—where their families came from and how they made their way to the U.S.—are often so different from mine.

It wasn’t until I learned the concept of diaspora that I finally began to feel seen. For the first time, I had the vocabulary to describe my muddled identity, and I learned that my family was less “Chinese” than “overseas Chinese.” Specifically, they were already overseas Chinese before they came to America, and that—with their code-switching between languages, fusion of cultural cuisines, and history of migration and displacement—has always been a distinct and valid way of being Chinese. It also, I realized, happens to be a valid way of being Vietnamese—and a valid way of being American, too.

When I started writing Not Here to Be Liked, I knew I wanted Eliza, the main character, to share my experiences as a child of Asian immigrants, but I wasn’t sure how to approach her background. I wondered if patterning it on my own would require too much explanation, and I briefly considered making her Chinese-American in a way that most readers would already understand. Ultimately, though, I wanted the book to be true to the diversity in the Asian American experience, so I gave her an identity as multifaceted as my own.

I feel incredibly fortunate that I now have the opportunity to write about characters like me, with families like mine. I’m proud to contribute in some small way to the complexity of Asian representation, and I hope that Eliza’s story will resonate with readers like my younger self.

Maybe, if I’m lucky, teachers all over the country will be saying my name, too—the right way.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Lauritta Stellers

Michelle Quach is a Chinese-Vietnamese-American who also spent a lot of time working for student newspapers–including The Crimson at Harvard College, where she earned a BA in history and literature. Currently a graphic designer at a brand strategy firm in Los Angeles, Not Here to be Liked is her first novel.

Buy Michelle’s book at one of her favorite indie bookstores, The Ripped Bodice.

About Not Here to Be Liked

Emergency Contact meets Moxie in this cheeky and searing novel that unpacks just how complicated new love can get…when you fall for your enemy.

Eliza Quan is the perfect candidate for editor in chief of her school paper. That is, until ex-jock Len DiMartile decides on a whim to run against her. Suddenly her vast qualifications mean squat because inexperienced Len—who is tall, handsome, and male—just seems more like a leader.

When Eliza’s frustration spills out in a viral essay, she finds herself inspiring a feminist movement she never meant to start, caught between those who believe she’s a gender equality champion and others who think she’s simply crying misogyny.

Amid this growing tension, the school asks Eliza and Len to work side by side to demonstrate civility. But as they get to know one another, Eliza feels increasingly trapped by a horrifying realization—she just might be falling for the face of the patriarchy himself.

ISBN-13: 9780063038363
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/14/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Book Review: Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab by Priya Huq

Publisher’s description

In this middle-grade graphic novel, Nisrin will have to rely on faith, friends, and family to help her recover after she is the target of a hate crime

Nisrin is a 13-year-old Bangladeshi-American girl living in Milwaukie, Oregon, in 2002. As she nears the end of eighth grade, she gives a presentation for World Culture Day about Bangladesh while wearing a traditional cultural dress. On her way home, she is the victim of a hate crime when a man violently attacks her for wearing a headscarf.

Deeply traumatized by the experience, Nisrin spends the summer depressed and isolated. Other than weekly therapy, Nisrin doesn’t leave the house until fall arrives and it’s time for her to start freshman year at a new school. The night before class starts, Nisrin makes a decision. She tells her family she’s going to start wearing hijab, much to their dismay. Her mother and grandparent’s shocked and angry reactions confuse her—but they only strengthen her resolve.

This choice puts Nisrin on a path to not only discover more about Islam, but also her family’s complicated relationship with the religion, and the reasons they left Bangladesh in the first place. On top of everything else, she’s struggling to fit in at school—her hijab makes her a target for students and faculty alike. But with the help from old friends and new, Nisrin is starting to figure out what really makes her happy. Piece by Piece is an original graphic novel about growing up and choosing your own path, even if it leads you to a different place than you expected.

Amanda’s thoughts

As the publisher’s description indicates, this is a pretty intense read. Bangladeshi American Nisrin lives in the Portland, Oregon area in 2002. While walking home with her best friend Firuzeh (who is Iranian and Black) one day after 8th grade, an angry white supremacist guy accosts them and tears off Nisrin’s headscarf. The attack deeply scars both girls and Nisrin decides that when she returns to school for 9th grade, she will start wearing hijab. She feels safer this way, kind of hidden, and also has a growing interest in Islam, something her grandfather feels is “nonsense” and that they raised to “better than this.” But she begins to investigate Islam on her own, while standing out at school for her hijab. She faces racist teachers, is harassed and bullied, has her scarf ripped off again, and is called a terrorist. Thankfully, there are good things in Nisrin’s life, too. She makes a new friend, Veronica, and patches things up with Firuzeh, who was also deeply affected by the attack, but who feels like Nisrin never bothered to recognize or understand that. In addition to learning more about Islam and committing to wearing hijab, Nisrin learns about her mother’s childhood in Bangladesh and how it shaped her and how she has raised Nisrin. She gets lots of support from her mother and grandmother, as the story goes on, but still butts heads with her grandpa over her choices and growing beliefs.

This is a very emotional and powerful read, with the assault and resulting trauma coloring much of the story. Nisrin’s story touches on choices, pride, permission, acceptance, tolerance, trauma, friendship, and identity. Back matter gives readers a brief overview of Bangladesh in the form of a presentation Nisrin did in 8th grade. My review copy was in black and white, but showed some of the full-color artwork at the end and I’m going to have to at least flip through a finished copy at some point so I can fully enjoy the finished art. This unique graphic novel will educate and resonate with readers. A good addition to collections.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781419740190
Publisher: Amulet Paperbacks
Publication date: 09/14/2021
Age Range: 10 – 18 Years

Book Review: Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi

Publisher’s description

Fourteen-year-old Iranian-American Parvin Mohammadi sets out to win the ultimate date to homecoming in this heartfelt and outright hilarious debut.

Parvin Mohammadi has just been dumped—only days after receiving official girlfriend status. Not only is she heartbroken, she’s humiliated. Enter high school heartthrob Matty Fumero, who just might be the smoking-hot cure to all her boy problems. If Parvin can get Matty to ask her to Homecoming, she’s positive it will prove to herself and her ex that she’s girlfriend material after all. There’s just one problem: Matty is definitely too cool for bassoon-playing, frizzy-haired, Cheeto-eating Parvin. Since being herself hasn’t worked for her in the past (see aforementioned dumping), she decides to start acting like the women in her favorite rom-coms. Those women aren’t loud, they certainly don’t cackle when they laugh, and they smile much more than they talk.

But Parvin discovers that being a rom-com dream girl is much harder than it looks. Also hard? The parent-mandated Farsi lessons. A confusing friendship with a boy who’s definitely not supposed to like her. And hardest of all, the ramifications of the Muslim ban on her family in Iran. Suddenly, being herself has never been more important.

Olivia Abtahi’s debut is as hilarious as it is heartfelt—a delightful tale where, amid the turmoil of high school friendships and crushes, being yourself is always the perfect way to be.

Amanda’s thoughts

I started out just writing a little post-it note review for this book, then realized I wanted to be able to say more and make sure this book gets seen by more eyes. One of the best things this book has going for it is that it’s about a 9th grader and FEELS like it’s about a 9th grader. Sometimes it seems like there’s not much younger YA—and it’s entirely possible I’m just not reading the right things and missing these books—and it was really refreshing to read about a 9th grader. My son just finished 9th grade, and often while reading this book, watching Parvin make missteps and try to figure out who and how to be, I thought, YEP, this feels right.

The summary up there is very thorough. It hits the main plot points. And while the plot and the many issue it tackles was solid and compelling, what makes me really love this book is messy Parvin and her growing group of friends. Parvin’s best friends are pansexual, Korean American Ruth and gay, Mexican American Fabian. They all join the GSA at school, Parvin ostensibly to be a better friend/ally, but also because her crush Matty, who is bi, is in the group. Once Parvin gets it in her head that she needs to tone herself down to make boys like her (thanks, Wesley, you tool), things get complicated. She’s ignoring her friends, being completely inauthentic, and fixating on something she thinks she wants while overlooking other great, interesting people. It’s easy to read this as an adult and think, just be yourself! But in order to “just be yourself” you have to try on a lot of personalities, make a lot of mistakes, and figure out what really matters. And Parvin is well on her way to being that self by the time we leave her.

The fast-paced writing, wonderfully diverse cast, and very realistic and age-appropriate thoughts, choices, and realizations make this a solid read. Smart, funny, and full of heart.

Review copy (finished hardcover) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780593109427
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 05/18/2021
Age Range: 12 – 17 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: Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler

Publisher’s description

Dahlia Adler’s Cool for the Summer is a story of self-discovery and new love. It’s about the things we want and the things we need. And it’s about the people who will let us be who we are.

Lara’s had eyes for exactly one person throughout her three years of high school: Chase Harding. He’s tall, strong, sweet, a football star, and frankly, stupid hot. Oh, and he’s talking to her now. On purpose and everything. Maybe…flirting, even? No, wait, he’s definitely flirting, which is pretty much the sum of everything Lara’s wanted out of life.

Except she’s haunted by a memory. A memory of a confusing, romantic, strangely perfect summer spent with a girl named Jasmine. A memory that becomes a confusing, disorienting present when Jasmine herself walks through the front doors of the school to see Lara and Chase chatting it up in front of the lockers.

Lara has everything she ever wanted: a tight-knit group of friends, a job that borders on cool, and Chase, the boy of her literal dreams. But if she’s finally got the guy, why can’t she stop thinking about the girl?

Amanda’s thoughts

I’m the kind of human who has to have things done faaaar in advance to even begin to control my relatively uncontrolled anxiety. I’m typing this on April 16th. It has been weeks upon weeks of dogs dying, violent allergy reactions resulting in hives all over my face and eyes, worrying about getting a vaccine (first shot down yesterday!), and being just sick over the state of the world, particularly the state of things here in Minnesota. 13 months into the pandemic, 13 months into guiding my teen through distance learning, 13 months of having even MORE reasons to worry than I usually do. One of my adaptive behaviors has been to just seek out wholly enjoyable things. Endless International House Hunters? Check. Only reading books I find completely engaging and enjoyable? SUPER CHECK. Fiction, take me awayyyyyy!

That looong lead in is to say that I enjoyed the heck out of this book and it was totally what I needed as I sat here today swinging my arm around to hopefully stave off Covid arm. I had attempted to start this book earlier in the week, but my new enemy, hives, overtook my face and left me unable to do anything but sit quietly with ice on my face and listen to tv shows. But today! Today I read this book! All in one go! In the sun! With dogs! And for a few hours, I didn’t feel anxious or miserable or even part of reality. So thanks for that, Dahlia Adler!

The summary tells you exactly what you need to know. The plot may not seem big, but as I always harp on, what bigger plot is there than finding out who you are and what you want? Isn’t that so often THE plot of adolescence? Lara realizes that her group of best friends at school may not actually know the real her, especially as it kind of seems like her defining characteristic, according to them, has been that she’s been obsessed with Chase forever. Sort of one-dimensional. She knows she’s so much more than that. But once she starts dating Chase, and being known as “Chase’s girlfriend,” that characteristic seems to overpower everything. But you know who knows the real Lara? Jasmine, who Lara spent the summer hooking up with AND really getting close to.

Only she keeps what happened a secret from her friends. She tries to write it off even to herself as just something they did for fun, constantly coming up with excuses (even in the moment) for why things happened or what they meant or didn’t mean. But she kind of can’t ignore her complicated feelings now that Jasmine goes to her school. They manage to pretend like they don’t know each other, remain relatively distant, AND have soooo much miscommunication. So much. Good lord, girls. TALK TO EACH OTHER. BE HONEST. (I know, I know—easier said than done and also would eliminate the need for most of the story).

I enjoyed getting sucked into Lara’s world and watching her try to figure out what it all means with Jasmine and Chase as well as what being honest with herself might reveal. Lots of undeveloped and unnecessary side characters kind of only crop up when useful, and I really deeply disliked Lara’s best friend (who, I would argue from the vantage point of adulthood, is maybe not even really her friend at all), but this fun, light look at questioning your identity while not necessarily wanting any labels will surely find many readers.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781250765826
Publisher: St. Martin’s Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/11/2021
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

Book Review: Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry by Joya Goffney

Publisher’s description

Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry by debut author Joya Goffney is an own voices story of an overly enthusiastic list maker who is blackmailed into completing a to-do list of all her worst fears. It’s a heartfelt, tortured, contemporary YA high school romance. Fans of Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Kristina Forest’s I Wanna Be Where You Are will love the juicy secrets and leap-off-the-page sexual tension.

Quinn keeps lists of everything—from the days she’s ugly cried, to “Things That I Would Never Admit Out Loud” and all the boys she’d like to kiss. Her lists keep her sane. By writing her fears on paper, she never has to face them in real life. That is, until her journal goes missing . . .

Then an anonymous account posts one of her lists on Instagram for the whole school to see and blackmails her into facing seven of her greatest fears, or else her entire journal will go public. Quinn doesn’t know who to trust. Desperate, she teams up with Carter Bennett—the last known person to have her journal—in a race against time to track down the blackmailer.

Together, they journey through everything Quinn’s been too afraid to face, and along the way, Quinn finds the courage to be honest, to live in the moment, and to fall in love.

Amanda’s thoughts

I totally and completely loved this book. This is one of my top reads of the year so far!

Quinn’s notebook is full of everything—to-do lists, how-to lists, random thoughts, secrets, lies, and so many things she wouldn’t dream of sharing with anyone. When her classmate Carter grabs it instead of his own notebook and takes it home, everything starts to fall apart. The notebook goes missing, someone is blackmailing Quinn into doing things on her various lists, and they’re sharing her personal secrets with the whole school. Even though Quinn still sort of suspects that Carter is behind this whole thing, she teams up with him to do some things on the list and try to track down who has her notebook.

There is just so much to love about this book. The narrative voice is excellent. I was immediately drawn into Quinn’s world and found her so interesting. She’s a complicated character who has built so much of her identity on her lists and her lies. She has a lot going on in her life, beyond just a lost notebook. Her grandma is in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s and Quinn has really complex feelings about that. Her parents are constantly fighting and Quinn is worried what will happen to her small family once she goes to college. She’s one of only a few Black students at her private school and is surrounded by white kids who are racist, throw around the n-word, and repeatedly say that they see Quinn as basically white. And there’s actually a LOT going on in this book about race, including internalized racism, colorism, and dealing with stereotypes and being the exception to stereotypes. She’s lost her best friend of the past decade but is also making new friends.

Carter sees her losing the notebook as a chance to free herself from who Quinn thinks she has to be. And that becomes true because it turns out when your personal secrets get exposed for all to see, it’s hard to hide behind the lies. Quinn experiences real growth over the course of the story, grappling with loyalty, friendship, identity, connection, privacy, and trust. She learns to let herself feel her true feelings, be her true self, because when you’re forced to come clean, you have to stop lying to everyone, including yourself. A fantastic read. I can’t wait to see what else Goffney writes!

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780063024793
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/04/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Book Review: Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee

Publisher’s description

Felix Ever After meets Becky Albertalli in this swoon-worthy, heartfelt rom-com about how a transgender teen’s first love challenges his ideas about perfect relationships.

Noah Ramirez thinks he’s an expert on romance. He has to be for his popular blog, the Meet Cute Diary, a collection of trans happily ever afters. There’s just one problem—all the stories are fake. What started as the fantasies of a trans boy afraid to step out of the closet has grown into a beacon of hope for trans readers across the globe.

When a troll exposes the blog as fiction, Noah’s world unravels. The only way to save the Diary is to convince everyone that the stories are true, but he doesn’t have any proof. Then Drew walks into Noah’s life, and the pieces fall into place: Drew is willing to fake-date Noah to save the Diary. But when Noah’s feelings grow beyond their staged romance, he realizes that dating in real life isn’t quite the same as finding love on the page.

In this charming novel by Emery Lee, Noah will have to choose between following his own rules for love or discovering that the most romantic endings are the ones that go off script.

Amanda’s thoughts

If you like drama, this book is for you! And I don’t say that in any sort of condescending tone. I can’t even begin to count how many times readers have said to me something along the lines of, “I like books with relationship and friend drama/where dramatic things are happening.” It’s exciting. It’s interesting. You can live vicariously through someone else’s drama if you feel like your life is boring, or you can relate and feel a little better to see someone else navigating alllll the drama that can come with growing up.

Noah, who is trans and white, Japanese, and Afro-Caribbean, is in Denver for the summer, spending it with his older brother while their parents navigate the logistics of a cross-country move. Noah runs Meet Cute Diary, a blog that shares stories of trans meet cutes. He thinks of it as “reality-inspired,” making the stories up to help give other trans people uplifting stories of swoon-worthy relationships. But there’s some talk online that Noah makes up all the stories (which, yeah, he does, but he’s presenting them as they he isn’t making them up) and people are starting to turn against Noah and the popular blog. Enter Drew, a cute bookstore boy who suggests he and Noah fake date to provide some fodder for the blog and show a true story. Well, true-ish. True but still fake. Yeah—drama.

Noah and Drew go on all kinds of cute dates and suddenly the line between fake-dating and real-dating has blurred. Enter Devin, who is nonbinary and trying out various pronouns to find the right one. At first Noah and Devin are just friendly, but then it starts to seem like there may be potential for something more. Now what? The blog’s reputation sort of hinges on Noah and Drew currently living out an ideal romantic relationship spawned from their meet cute. What’s a boy to do?!

In addition to all the ups and downs of Noah’s dating life, he’s also experiencing friend drama, with his BFF Becca (at home in Florida) seeming distant and exasperated with Noah. And people continue to attack Noah online and question the veracity of the blog. And his brother’s girlfriend kind of seems like a jerk. And, to top it all off, Noah is only in Denver for this short summer—soon he’ll be moving to his new home in CA leaving behind Devin, Drew, and Becca. What will happen? With everything!

I suspect readers will have FEELINGS about Noah’s various relationships, which are not necessarily the best or the healthiest or the happiest. Lots of self-discovery, exploration, ups and downs, and DRAMA. The story is filled with questionable choices and motivations, lots of self-centeredness, and many missteps—you know, all the stuff that real life is so often filled with. Realistically messy and ultimately happy.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780063038837
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/04/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Between Perfect and Real by Ray Stoeve

Publisher’s description

A moving YA debut about a trans boy finding his voice—and himself

Dean Foster knows he’s a trans guy. He’s watched enough YouTube videos and done enough questioning to be sure. But everyone at his high school thinks he’s a lesbian—including his girlfriend Zoe, and his theater director, who just cast him as a “nontraditional” Romeo. He wonders if maybe it would be easier to wait until college to come out. But as he plays Romeo every day in rehearsals, Dean realizes he wants everyone to see him as he really is now––not just on the stage, but everywhere in his life. Dean knows what he needs to do. Can playing a role help Dean be his true self?

Amanda’s thoughts

Oh, Dean. My heart. This was the kind of book that, once I was finished, I just wanted to hug the main character, or be their parent, or be their friend.

I feel like it’s useful to say that Dean seems like he’s going to be okay, by the end—like he has tons of support and love, like his parents are starting to come around, like his future plans are starting to come together. So even though there’s a fair amount of heartbreak and cruelty and disappointment, Dean will be okay. I know that. And you knowing that before you even start reading may help you.

The very first thing we learn about Dean is that he knows he’s trans—he thinks. And when he gets cast as Romeo in the school play, it just affirms this knowledge. Thanks to lots of YouTube videos, he’s been figuring out his identity over the last many months and wants to transition, but needs to come out first. His best friend Ronnie, who is gay and Black, is completely supportive and cool. His girlfriend Zoe says she loves Dean no matter what his identity. The first teacher he tells immediately asks how he can support Dean. And his parents? Well…. as it is, his mom has never seemed to accept or support his identity, when he just seemed like a “tomboy lesbian.” And his dad may be more accepting, but his mother’s more extreme reactions are the ones that matter. But it’s not just about coming out to friends and family. Dean finds excellent support through a trans teens group, the first place he tries out he/him pronouns and really opens up about his identity. Dean also grapples with how to write his bio for the playbill, what monologue to choose for his NYU auditions, and how to deal with his rich, white, straight classmate Blake, who is an unrelenting ass and constantly harasses and eventually assaults Dean.

It’s a lot. There’s so much up in the air and so much at stake here, and though it’s definitely a rocky path for Dean, he finds the truest, most real version of himself over the course of the story. A powerful, heartfelt, well-written story of identity, community, and friendship. A necessary addition to collections.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781419746017
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: 04/27/2021
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years