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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

“Who do you think you are?” a guest post by Monica Gomez-Hira

The author at her college graduation.

Growing up, I could not leave my house without my keys, my wallet, and the elaborate blessings by Mami gave me to protect me from el ojo malo—the evil eye.  When I was younger and fidgeting while she drew the sign of the Cross on my forehead before I left for school, I took the idea of the eye literally. It would be something like the Eye of Sauron, spanning the horizon until it landed on me and burnt me to cinders.

It wasn’t until I was older that I understood that the evil eye was actually not our main problem. The evil eye was supposed to be caused by those green with envy, people wanting your possessions, your relationships, your life. But…it seemed presumptuous to even think that about us. We were a working class Latinx family in an area full of them. I couldn’t see that we had anything particularly special.

No. The real problem we always had was way more common. The evil tongue, the whispers that would follow anyone who strayed from the narrow path of whatever was acceptable.  The thing was, unlike the evil eye, the evil tongue was often presented as a positive thing; your community caring enough about you to make sure you watched your step, because if any of us messed up, we might not get another chance to fix it. 

This was doubly true for me as a young Latina. Like my main character, Carmen, I was acutely aware of the assumptions that people made about me, both positive and negative. Sometimes it felt like I only existed within other people’s visions of me. I mean—I tried to do everything right, followed all the rules.  I was a Good Catholic Girl, an honor student who was bound for college on scholarships—but I was also surrounded and fascinated by the girls who weren’t. Girls who talked back to teachers, who wore rings of eyeliner and Spandex bandage dresses (two things I favored as well, but only when I was safely out of Mami’s line of sight.) Girls with wild hair who welcomed the catcalls from boys and even men. (Even back then, I wondered why we never seemed to blame said boys or men for any of this.)

The author, from a photography class

Part of the reason I wrote Once Upon a Quinceañera was to celebrate girls like this—the girls who weren’t like me, desperate for everyone’s approval. Because when I was younger, I believed the stoic wall they presented to the world. And just like so many people around me, my ideas about them were only the surface of the story.

For Carmen, the only way to get herself through the negative assumptions is to pretend she doesn’t care. She walks through the world daring anyone to tell her what they think to her face. She doesn’t care, because she already knows. She knows that a lot of people don’t expect someone like her to go to college, or to have an actual career.  She takes comfort in her summer job playing Belle from Beauty and the Beast. It’s one of the first times that she feels worthy of admiration, even as she acknowledges that the praise and love are for the role she is portraying instead of for herself.

Still, it feels good. 

Unfortunately for Carmen, there is a voice that is louder than the happy shrieks of party going children. The one inside her own brain, hissing the negative stereotypes and comments that we’ve all internalized.  Sometimes, those comments come from the people with good intentions—some of whom love us the most. Carmen feels like she’s fated to make the same mistakes that her parents did—an angry explosion of love that created her and ruined them.  It’s difficult for her to see them as something bigger than their mistakes.

Despite Mami’s incantations and protections, there really isn’t anyway to protect yourself from the world’s assumptions. People are going to think, and occasionally say, whatever they want, and that’s not going to change. In the book, Carmen tries various strategies, from ignoring the speakers to pushing them to further exaggerations so that she could agree with them and show how little it hurt her.

None of that helped at all.

The way that Carmen finally moved past her locked in beliefs about herself and other people was to allow for the fact that, well, people are complicated, and nothing is the sum totality of what they are. Not a bad history, not a terrible mistake, not a slip off the narrow path to success, not living down to everyone’s worst opinion of you.

This is hard. And for a part of the book, Carmen retreated behind her negative history like a shield.  Sure, it didn’t make her happy, but it kept her safe. Or so she thought.

The price of this safety was high. A betrayal of her own ambitions. An inability to risk.

I know Carmen’s dilemma well. It’s always easier to agree with the voice that asks, “who do you think you are?” when you do anything. That voice was my constant companion while I wrote this book. Honestly, it still is.

It’s hard for Carmen to admit what she really wants in Once Upon a Quinceañera. To risk being told, yet again, “Who do you think you are?” It would have been easier for her to hide behind the role of Belle forever, or worse, to hide in the idea that she’s doomed because of where she comes from, and who she’s afraid she really is.

But ultimately, the only way she can create her own happily ever after is to face down the negative external voices, and more importantly, the negative internal voice, by daring to say “I’m here. I belong. And I’m worthy.”

That’s the blessing I needed. In fact, it’s the evergreen blessing I always need as there is some new person to jeer “who do you think you are?” and so there is always the need to say “I am worthy” every time I leave the house.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Nicole Lamkin

Monica Gomez-Hira is the daughter of Colombian immigrant parents, the wife of an Indian immigrant, the mother of a half Latina/half Indian daughter, and the quintessential Jersey girl who loves her salsa as much as her Springsteen. After getting her BA in English at Wellesley College, Monica spent most of her professional life surrounded by books, and the people who love them. She began her career working for literary agencies, moved to publicity and editorial at Simon & Schuster and Random House, and most recently was a Children’s Lead at Barnes & Noble. She lives with her family in Minneapolis, MN. Once Upon a Quinceañera is her first novel.

About Once Upon a Quinceañera

Perfect for fans of Jenny Han and Jane the Virgin, this immediately accessible and irresistibly fun #ownvoices rom-com debut will spin readers into an unforgettable summer of late-night dancing, broken hearts, second chances, and telenovela twists.

Carmen Aguilar just wants to make her happily ever after come true. Except apparently “happily ever after” for Carmen involves being stuck in an unpaid summer internship. Now she has to perform as a party princess! In a ball gown. During the summer. In Miami.

Fine. Except that’s only the first misfortune in what’s turning out to a summer of Utter Disaster. 

But if Carmen can manage dancing in the blistering heat, fending off an oh-so-unfortunately attractive ex, and stopping her spoiled cousin from ruining her own quinceañera—Carmen might just get that happily ever after—after all.

ISBN-13: 9780062996831
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/02/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Book Review: Reckless, Glorious, Girl by Ellen Hagan

Publisher’s description

The co-author of Watch Us Rise pens a novel in verse about all the good and bad that comes with middle school, growing up girl, and the strength of family that gets you through it.

Beatrice Miller may have a granny’s name (her granny’s, to be more specific), but she adores her Mamaw and her mom, who give her every bit of wisdom and love they have. But the summer before seventh grade, Bea wants more than she has, aches for what she can’t have, and wonders what the future will bring. 

This novel in verse follows Beatrice through the ups and downs of friendships, puberty, and identity as she asks: Who am I? Who will I become? And will my outside ever match the way I feel on the inside?

A gorgeous, inter-generational story of Southern women and a girl’s path blossoming into her sense of self, Reckless, Glorious, Girl explores the important questions we all ask as we race toward growing up.

Amanda’s thoughts

Oh, how I hope middle schoolers pick up this book. Beatrice is asking the biggest question: who am I? Having recently survived parenting a human through middle school, I am convinced that, in general, there is no worse age, no worse time, no worse everything than middle school. What a hard age. Hagan deftly captures how complicated this age is, and how all-consuming the questions of identity and fitting in can be.

I loved this book for a lot of reasons, and one of the biggest is Beatrice’s relationship with her grandma (Mamaw) and her mom. It’s loving and inspiring and accepting even when it’s challenging and frustrating and disappointing. With her Mamaw, she has a wonderful role model for embracing eccentricity and being yourself, whoever that is. She encourages Beatrice not to observe life from the sidelines, but to get right in there and live life.

Beatrice longs to show people more of who she really is, the parts that no one ever sees, her multitudes and complexities. She’s feeling a pull between her old self and the new self she maybe wants to be. She knows she sometimes mimics who she’s with, that she changes depending on who she’s around and the expectations. She’s worried about shaving, bras, periods, dating, kissing, and popularity. She wants to be noticed, to be really seen, to be liked by a boy. She does and feels all these things in the company of two totally accepting and unique best friends, friends who let her grow and change and make mistakes. Listen, for middle school? that’s a great depiction of friendship.

The message to be yourself, to be free, to not let others define you, and to not hide yourself away comes across loud and clear as we watch Beatrice fumble her way through early adolescence. This novel in verse will speak to many who so totally and completely relate to how Beatrice is feeling. She’s yet another middle grade character I want to give a hug and say, I know this is hard, but you will be okay. Thankfully, she has wonderful people in her life to do this. A beautifully written book with an empowering message.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781547604609
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/23/2021
Age Range: 8 – 11 Years

Book Review: Love Is a Revolution by Renée Watson

Publisher’s description

From New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Renée Watson comes a love story about not only a romantic relationship but how a girl finds herself and falls in love with who she really is. 

When Nala Robertson reluctantly agrees to attend an open mic night for her cousin-sister-friend Imani’s birthday, she finds herself falling in instant love with Tye Brown, the MC. He’s perfect, except . . . Tye is an activist and is spending the summer putting on events for the community when Nala would rather watch movies and try out the new seasonal flavors at the local creamery. In order to impress Tye, Nala tells a few tiny lies to have enough in common with him. As they spend more time together, sharing more of themselves, some of those lies get harder to keep up. As Nala falls deeper into keeping up her lies and into love, she’ll learn all the ways love is hard, and how self-love is revolutionary. 

In Love Is a Revolution, plus size girls are beautiful and get the attention of the hot guys, the popular girl clique is not shallow but has strong convictions and substance, and the ultimate love story is not only about romance but about how to show radical love to the people in your life, including to yourself.

Amanda’s thoughts

Everyone knows the best way to start a relationship is with a bunch of lies, right? I mean, what could possibly go wrong? And if the boy you’re lying to lists “liars” as one of his pet peeves, it will probably be okay when you DO fess up to lying, right? RIGHT?!

It’s the summer before senior year and Nala is excited to hang out with Sadie, her best friend, and Imani, her cousin-sister-friend (Nala lives with Imani and her parents). She’s got it all planned out. But, as so often happens, nothing ends up going as she planned. Imani and Sadie are spending tons of time with Inspire Harlem, an organization that does community projects and raises awareness about social issues. Nala isn’t part of the group, but through an Inspire Harlem event, she ends up meeting Tye, a cute boy who is super into activism. Nala tells what she feels are small lies, but those lies become the basis for their relationship and become increasingly difficult to maintain the more they hang out. Does Tye like Nala for who she really is or who he thinks she is? Can he even really know her when she’s keeping her real self hidden? And even more importantly, can Nala even know herself in all this mess?

I loved this book for a lot of reasons. It’s full of passionate, dedicated, activist teens. Though Nala doesn’t live with her mother, one of the best parts of this story is how much of a role family plays. From Nala’s relationship with her aunt and uncle whom she lives with to all the time she spends with her grandma (and her grandma’s hilarious and great friends) to the many family get-together scenes, family is important. But most important? The idea of learning who you are, of forgiving yourself for missteps, of loving yourself, of being confident in exactly who you are. Throughout the story Nala learns that it’s not important what a cute boy thinks about her—it’s important what SHE thinks about HERSELF. I love how she eventually prioritizes figuring herself out and loving herself.

You can never go wrong picking up a book by Watson, but this book is really spectacular for its emphasis on growth, love, family, and truth. A great story about finding yourself.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781547600601
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/02/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Book Review: The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold

Publisher’s description

In this magical middle-grade novel, ten-year-old Gabrielle finds out that America isn’t the perfect place she imagined when she moves from Haiti to Brooklyn. With the help of a clever witch, Gabrielle becomes the perfect American — but will she lose herself in the process? Perfect for fans of HURRICANE CHILD and FRONT DESK.

It’s 1985 and ten-year-old Gabrielle is excited to be moving from Haiti to America. Unfortunately, her parents won’t be able to join her yet and she’ll be living in a place called Brooklyn, New York, with relatives she has never met. She promises her parents that she will behave, but life proves to be difficult in the United States, from learning the language to always feeling like she doesn’t fit in to being bullied. So when a witch offers her a chance to speak English perfectly and be “American,” she makes the deal. But soon she realizes how much she has given up by trying to fit in and, along with her two new friends (one of them a talking rat), takes on the witch in an epic battle to try to reverse the spell. 

Amanda’s thoughts

I loved this. Hand this to readers who like mostly realistic stories with just a bit of magic. Yes, the bad witch plays a big part in the story and Gabrielle’s new friend is a talking rat who wishes he were a rabbit, but it’s MOSTLY realistic.

Readers start out seeing a bit of Gabrielle’s life in Haiti. She is happy and loved, but like many, the hope is to be able to go to America. But instead of going there with her parents, Gabrielle has to go alone, to live with her relatives. And while she’s still so excited about the many opportunities and riches she has heard she will find in America (and, endearingly, she is most excited about free school), she’s worried. She fears she won’t fit in or understand things, so when a witch confirms for her that indeed no one will like her, Gabrielle begins to make some bad deals. The kids definitely are mean to her at school—they’re racist and prejudice and make fun of her—and Gabrielle decides that she will trade losing something small in return for the witch granting her some wishes. Before long, Gabrielle has lost her Haitian accent and is speaking perfect English, she’s fitting in better (thanks to wishing to be “100% pure American”), and she even gets the long, straight hair of her dreams and brand name clothes! Sounds great (maybe), right? Everything comes at a price, and those prices are hardly “small.”

Gabrielle’s story asks what you would give up in order to fit in and shows the dangers of losing yourself. Full of bravery, friendship, strength, and resourcefulness, this story of immigration, identity, and acceptance is one all collections should have.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780358272755
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 02/02/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Uncovered: Masks That Reveal Who We Are, a guest post by Matt Wallace

In another time I might have started this by asking if you, the reader, have ever worn a mask, perhaps for Halloween or to a masquerade-themed party. That is, of course, an irrelevant question. It’s even a laughable one at this point. We all wear masks now, some of us more stringently than others. Of course, for folks from certain cultures and countries, wearing a mask for public health reasons is nothing new or particularly shocking. It is, in fact, entirely commonplace for many. For others, masks have been and are a major adjustment. Some of us react more reasonably than others to this adjustment.

It didn’t really hit me that I have a novel coming out featuring a largely masked protagonist and the extra significance of that in the year 2021 until I sat down to compose this essay. I looked at the cover of my debut middle-grade novel, BUMP, and the face of the young girl smiling through the mask she wears, perfectly and joyously depicted by artist Kat Fajardo. I started thinking about what that character’s mask means, both to her and in a much larger sense.

It is a strange time to write about wearing masks, to say the least. However, it may also be the perfect time to examine and explore what masks mean to us, in different ways and different cultural contexts. We often use “wearing masks” as a metaphor for hiding one’s true self, either out of fear, insecurity, necessity, or even duplicity. These connotations give the very idea of masks, especially as an everyday fixture, an already negative foundation before we even get into the larger issues surrounding them today.

I was raised to view masks very differently. I was raised on professional wrestling, both the American style and the quintessentially Mexican style known as lucha libre. The enmascarado is the particular variety of Mexican wrestler, or luchador, who dons an often colorful mask, or máscara, as the central symbol and costume of their wrestling persona. These masks can draw a direct line and lineage back to the time of ancient Aztec warriors. They have been and are used to represent animal essences, gods, heroes, and heroines. Traditionally, the enmascarado not only wrestles in their mask, they live their entire public life inside that mask. It is inseparable from their identity. It even becomes the public identity of entire families and generations, often handed down from parent to child along with the corresponding ring name. To lose one’s mask is the ultimate disgrace.

In BUMP, the protagonist, MJ, is a young girl who is dealing with grief and feelings of total isolation. She’s lost her main connection to what she perceives as her identity, and what’s left of that sense of self is derided every day by bullies at school. She is given the máscara of a fallen luchador to wear as her own, along with their name. The mask gives her a new sense of identity. It does not replace who she is, but reinforces and gives her a new outlet for her self. It also inducts her into a community of like-minded individuals who become her new family. The mask and the persona it represents allows her to become more than she ever thought she could be.

Returning to the cover I mentioned, it was so important to all of us to depict MJ smiling as she flies through the air above the wrestling ring, to really see the joy she’s taking in what she’s doing and who she is and also who she is becoming. It was important to me for children of color, particularly little girls like my nieces, to see a character like that, to see themselves reflected in it. MJ’s mask doesn’t inhibit that, it amplifies it in a very special way. It’s a symbol of culture and heritage and belonging. It’s the garb of a warrior who is larger than life. It is equal parts superhero cape and flag.

More people could learn from that, especially at a time when masks are vital to public health, safety, and even survival. They could learn that a mask is not inherently a way to stifle or hide one’s identity, or restrict their freedom of expression and choice. In fact, choosing a mask can be a liberating experience. It can be opting into a culture of solidarity and celebration. It can enhance and clarify one’s own identity in a million different ways and with a million different individualistic shades. The right mask doesn’t cover up who you are, it announces it to the world.

Luchadores wear their masks proudly. Every day, they strive to be the kind of people who earn the masks they wear, because those masks are a symbol of what is best in all of them.

Meet the author

Matt Wallace is the Hugo–winning author of Rencor: Life in Grudge City, the Sin du Jour series, and Savage Legion. He’s also penned over one hundred short stories in addition to writing for film and television. In his youth he traveled the world as a professional wrestler, unarmed combat, and self-defense instructor before retiring to write full-time. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Nikki. You can visit him at www.matt-wallace.com.

About Bump

A moving and triumphant middle grade contemporary debut from award-winning author Matt Wallace about a heroic young girl—who dreams of becoming a pro wrestler—learning to find courage and fight for what she loves. Perfect for fans of Kelly Yang, Meg Medina, and Jason Reynolds’ Track series!

MJ knows what it means to hurt. Bruises from gymnastics heal, but big hurts—like her dad not being around anymore—don’t go away. Now her mom needs to work two jobs, and MJ doesn’t have friends at school to lean on.

There is only one thing MJ loves: the world of professional wrestling. She especially idolizes the luchadores and the stories they tell in the ring. When MJ learns that her neighbor, Mr. Arellano, runs a wrestling school, she has a new mission in life: join the school, train hard, and become a wrestler.

But trouble lies ahead. After wrestling in a showcase event, MJ attracts the attention of Mr. Arellano’s enemy at the State Athletic Commission. There are threats to shut the school down, putting MJ’s new home—and the community that welcomed her—at risk. What can MJ do to save her new family?

ISBN-13: 9780063007987
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/26/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Bump by Matt Wallace

Publisher’s description

A moving and triumphant middle grade contemporary debut from award-winning author Matt Wallace about a heroic young girl—who dreams of becoming a pro wrestler—learning to find courage and fight for what she loves. Perfect for fans of Kelly Yang, Meg Medina, and Jason Reynolds’ Track series!

MJ knows what it means to hurt. Bruises from gymnastics heal, but big hurts—like her dad not being around anymore—don’t go away. Now her mom needs to work two jobs, and MJ doesn’t have friends at school to lean on.

There is only one thing MJ loves: the world of professional wrestling. She especially idolizes the luchadores and the stories they tell in the ring. When MJ learns that her neighbor, Mr. Arellano, runs a wrestling school, she has a new mission in life: join the school, train hard, and become a wrestler.

But trouble lies ahead. After wrestling in a showcase event, MJ attracts the attention of Mr. Arellano’s enemy at the State Athletic Commission. There are threats to shut the school down, putting MJ’s new home—and the community that welcomed her—at risk. What can MJ do to save her new family?

Amanda’s thoughts

A very long time ago, way back in the 1980s, I was a child who liked to watch professional wrestling. I liked the theater of it all, I liked the huge personalities with weird names (Hulk Hogan! Macho Man! Junkyard Dog! Rowdy Roddy Piper! Sgt. Slaughter!), and I liked watching it with my brother, my dad, and my uncle. I just now googled “professional wrestlers of the 80s” and seeing all of those photos of wrestlers totally threw me right back to being young and shouting at the tv over the moves, booing the “bad guys,” and being amazed that they could do such amazing moves. All of this is to say that I was a kid a loooong time ago, but reading about MJ and her love of wrestling reminded me of that childhood and that amazement.

12-year-old Mexican American MJ is a 6th grader in middle school. She doesn’t really have any friends and is frequently bullied by the meanest girl on her gymnastics team and her minions. MJ was bullied by her so much, in fact, that she didn’t go out for the team this year. All she really wants to do is hide out and watch Lucha Dominion, a pro-wrestling show, which helps connect her with her dad, who is, as she says, “gone.” Wrestling is there for her even if her dad isn’t. It’s a great stroke of luck that the new place she and her mom live in is right next door to Mr. Arellano, who runs a wrestling school (and whose niece is MJ’s favorite luchadora). MJ convinces her mom to let her start training at the school, where she not only finds that wrestling is just as fun as she’d expected it to be, but she’s finally making friends. When she begins wrestling as the masked Lightning Girl, MJ finds herself becoming a star of the weekly shows.

But it’s not all sunshine. There’s a nefarious state athletic commission inspector determined to shut down the school. And there’s some drama with a new friend. And then there’s the whole issue of how MJ is dealing with her father being “gone.”

While centered around wrestling, this is a very relatable story about belonging, friendship, family, and falling down and getting back up again. MJ is a great character who is brave, determined, and interesting. This will be a fun one to recommend for how unique it is while still having such relatable emotions and experiences.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780063007987
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/26/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: This Is How We Fly by Anna Meriano

This Is How We Fly

Publisher’s description

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

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

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

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

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

Amanda’s thoughts

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

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

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

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

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

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

Book Review: Super Fake Love Song by David Yoon

Super Fake Love Song

Publisher’s description

From the New York Times bestselling author of Frankly in Love comes a young adult romantic comedy about identity and acceptance. Perfect for fans of John Green and To All the Boys I’ve Love Before.

When Sunny Dae—self-proclaimed total nerd—meets Cirrus Soh, he can’t believe how cool and confident she is. So when Cirrus mistakes Sunny’s older brother Gray’s bedroom—with its electric guitars and rock posters—for Sunny’s own, he sort of, kind of, accidentally winds up telling her he’s the front man of a rock band.

Before he knows it, Sunny is knee-deep in the lie: He ropes his best friends into his scheme, begging them to form a fake band with him, and starts wearing Gray’s rock-and-roll castoffs. But no way can he trick this amazing girl into thinking he’s cool, right? Just when Sunny is about to come clean, Cirrus asks to see them play sometime. Gulp.

Now there’s only one thing to do: Fake it till you make it.

Amanda’s thoughts

Is David Yoon my new favorite author? I think so. I absolutely adored Frankly in Love and couldn’t wait to read this new one. If you know me even a little bit, you know my anxiety drives me to have everything done as far in advance as possible. I’m writing this on December 4 and all of my December posts for TLT are done and all of January is planned out. The day this review publishes, I also have my favorites of 2020 list publishing. I just had to squeeze in a review of this book because I loved it SO MUCH and because it definitely goes on that favorites list.

The easy comparison (that the publisher makes and that will likely occur to most readers) is to John Green, but I’m not even sure how relevant that comparison is to actual teens anymore. Yoon’s characters are quick-witted cerebral nerds who will make you want to be their best friends, and, for me, do the impossible: make me nostalgic for all the best parts of high school. (It’s maybe only now, in my 40s, that I can even see that there were any best parts.) When I was a teenager, I was a cynical punk who wanted to do nothing but go to shows, work on my zine, and argue about things. When my husband was a teenager, he was a philosophical D&D dork who made weird music and wore a cape. I think we both would’ve wanted to be best friends with Sunny Dae.

Here’s my favorite line from the book: Sunny and Cirrus are talking and she says, “It begs the question, What person isn’t just a made-up thing in the first place? Is it the fakery that makes us real? Is anything real?” And while that may sound like the kind of eye-roll-inducing conversation we all had as teens and thought was so deep, guess what? It is deep. Is there anything innate about our personalities or are we all just amalgamations of our interests and influences and ideals and emulations etc? And in Sunny’s case, is he actually faking being “cool” and interesting or is he indeed cool and interesting? Is changing our personalities and interests really in any way being “fake” when there’s nothing any more “real” about our previous identities or personalities or interests? How do you become who you are?

As I said in my review of Yoon’s previous book, I’m a hard one to make laugh, as a reader. Cry, sure, at the drop of a hat. But laugh? Rarely. But with this book, I laughed and laughed. I made note of brilliant lines. I went back and read clever conversations. I got completely sucked into the story and felt right there with the characters. I was shoving my fist right in there with theirs and shouting, “To metal!” I can’t say enough positive about this really smart, empathetic, and hilarious look at identity, friendship, preconceived notions, high school, and missteps. One of my very favorite reads this year.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781984812230
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 11/17/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Big, Funny, and Proud, a guest post by Rebecca Elliott

That’s my character Haylah in my book Pretty Funny for a Girl. And I don’t necessarily mean “big” in the physical sense, although Haylah (known as “Pig” to her friends) is dealing with body confidence issues surrounding her plus-size figure. She’s big in her personality, ambitions, opinions, and passions. I wrote the character as a reaction to the message we are so often spoon-fed—that girls are pretty, meek, innocent, and sweet, or else they are slutty and objectified. Either way, girls are passive and not yet a fully formed thing, and when they are, they’re past their best.

WHAT A LOAD OF BALL-BAGS!

This narrow description, consistently shoved in our faces by the media and society, literally fits NO teenage girl I have ever met. EVER.

Girls are exciting and passionate and strong and ambitious and fierce and wonderfully weird and a hundred different things in any given moment. And girls are funny. So frickin’ funny. Yet often the girls who know they’re funny, know they’re clever, know their personality is brighter and bigger than any room could possibly hold still feel like a no one. Why? Because the crappy societal pressures, ever more present in today’s Instagrammy world, tell them they don’t live up to the impossible and downright dull expectations we put on girldom.

Using stand-up comedy, which is a big fear for a lot of people, seemed like a good way to explore my main character’s bravery, not in a dystopian-hero-saving-the-world kind of way, but in more of a relatable way. Even if it’s not a career readers are interested in, I think there’s so much in stand-up that teens can identify with: the intense vulnerability and the desire to be noticed and heard but not to be judged. Plus it’s a good excuse to make a lot of jokes and hopefully make readers laugh. Because, as Haylah says, “When you find the funny in this serious world that is so often full of pain and cruelty, it’s like discovering a diamond in a cave of crap. It’s precious.”

So aside from my own life-long love of comedy, this is another reason why I chose to have Haylah deal with both body image and her confidence as a comedian at the same time. Because girls are already in many ways standing on a stage feeling like the world is staring at them and judging them, and I wanted my character to voluntarily take that leap onto centre stage and find the confidence to proudly be herself, to say, “This is me, with all my perfect imperfections, and dammit I have a voice and deserve to be heard!”

I very much didn’t want the body image thing to be the central theme of the book. So often when plus-size female characters are the main protagonists of books and movies, their weight is the major factor, the main narrative hook to hang everything else from. But guess what: when you are bigger, that usually isn’t the main thrust of your own narrative  (and I certainly never wanted to lead her towards some “happy” ending where she loses the weight and all is well with her world—like thin people have it all sorted too!).

Yes, Haylah feels that she’s big and at times wrestles with the way that makes people perceive her, but for the most part she’s quite happy with herself and what she thinks about way more than the way she looks is her ambition to do something amazing—become a stand-up comedian. I only wish that the way we look, particularly for teenagers, could take a back seat to the way more important stuff, like our passions and ambitions.

Whilst, as with most of us, Haylah may always struggle a little with her body confidence, I think she’d also say that one of the coolest realisations as a feminist is that there is no right or wrong way for a girl to look, to dress, to act, so be you big, small, loud, shy, “masculine,” “feminine,” high-heeled and preened, DM-wearing and pierced, and anything and everything in-between and outside—it’s ALL GOOD, and it’s all beautiful. We are sold, particularly on social media, the ideal of “perfection,” whereas the message should, of course, and particularly in respect to teenagers already bombarded by judgement and pressure, be that YOU ARE PERFECT REGARDLESS. By getting on stage and being the girl she is, nothing more, nothing less, Haylah isn’t proving that she thinks herself perfect, but that she’s happy in her own skin; as Sophia Bush so eloquently put it, “You are allowed to be both a masterpiece and a work in progress, simultaneously.”

So I hope one of the central themes of the books is screw the haters, screw the ridiculous expectations of society and social media, the only opinion of you that matters is your own opinion. So be whoever the hell you want to be and be proud—shoulders back, tits out, and go show the world who you really are.

I hope the book resonances with readers, and particularly those closest to my heart—the gobby, opinionated, wildly inappropriate, larger-than-life girls who make you laugh until you pee your pants. The girls who need to shake off society’s ridiculous expectations of them, jump under the spotlight and crack on with joyously wobbling their funny bits in the face of life.

Meet Rebecca Elliott

REBECCA ELLIOTT is an author and illustrator of many picture books and The Owl Diaries early chapter book series. Pretty Funny for a Girl is her first YA novel. She earned a degree in philosophy and once did a brief stint in a dull office. Now, she enjoys eating angel delight, loudly venting on a drum kit, and spending time in her sunny garden. She lives in England with her family, some chickens, and a cat named Bernard.

Find Rebecca’s book at Bookshop.org: https://bookshop.org/books/pretty-funny-for-a-girl/9781682631478

Rebecca’s site/social:

https://www.rebeccaelliott.com/

https://www.instagram.com/rebecca_elliott_author/

Facebook

@BecElliott

About Pretty Funny For a Girl

Pretty Funny for a Girl

A candid and laugh-out-loud journey of family, friends, and fierce mistakes.

Haylah Swinton is an ace best friend, a loving daughter, and an incredibly patient sister to a four-year-old nutcase of a brother. Best of all, she’s pretty confident she’s mastered making light of every situation—from her mom’s new boyfriend to unsolicited remarks on her plus-sized figure. Haylah’s learning to embrace all of her curvy parts and, besides, she has a secret: one day, she’ll be a stand-up comedian star.

So when impossibly cool and thirstalicious Leo reveals he’s also into comedy, Haylah jumps at the chance to ghost-write his sets. But is Leo as interested in returning the favor? Even though her friends warn her of Leo’s intentions, Haylah’s not ready to listen—and she might just be digging herself deeper toward heartbreak. If Haylah’s ever going to step into the spotlight, first she’ll need to find the confidence to put herself out there and strut like the boss she really is.

Rebecca Elliott’s hilarious and authentic narrative voice is sure to capture readers’ hearts as her plus-sized, teenage heroine navigates learning to love the body she’s in while dealing with friends, family, and boys.

ISBN-13: 9781682631478
Publisher: Peachtree Publishing Company
Publication date: 10/01/2020
Age Range: 12 – 16 Years