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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

There’s Something About Insta-Love, a guest post by Phil Stamper

Growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, I was obsessed with rom coms. My mom and I had a habit of playing the same few VHS tapes on repeat for months at a time: While You Were Sleeping, Runaway Bride, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail—I couldn’t get enough. So, a couple decades later, it’s probably no surprise that my own brand of storytelling would rely heavily on the rom com format: memorable meet-cutes, fast-paced romance, a set of obstacles along the way.

But as an author of queer YA, I get to take it one step further. I can break the trope apart and put it back together the way I want—celebrating the similarities and differences of queer love in all its forms.

In The Gravity of Us, Cal’s entire life is uprooted when he’s thrown into the drama of the world’s first human mission to Mars. Meanwhile, cute-boy-next-door Leon struggles to live in the shadows of his astronaut mother’s greatness. When they find each other, sparks fly. This is partially because Leon’s bold sister assumes the role of instigator and matchmaker from day one, but it’s also because neither character struggles with their identity on the page.

As an avid reader of queer books for teens, I find that in a lot of queer romance stories, characters spend most of the page time coming to terms with their identity. Of course, this makes a lot of sense—YA books are coming of age stories, and for queer people, coming out and coming of age often go hand in hand. But while I love those stories, I kept hearing about queer teens who were confidently out, who’d been fully supported by their family and their community since they were kids.

When I wrote The Gravity of Us, I wanted to show what a queer teen relationship could look like between two boys who neither struggled with their identities nor experienced any homophobia on the page. It’s aspirational, sure, but that’s the point of a rom-com. I wrote this book during the 2016 election, which made this story feel even more radical and important. In this way, I got to lean into the idea of insta-love (or more accurately, insta-attraction plus a whirlwind romance) and give teens a queer love story they could fall for instantly.

Speaking of insta-love, this is probably a good time to note that as a teen, I fell for just about every boy I met in roughly thirty seconds. Sure, rom coms trained me to expect love to simply fall into my lap in incredible circumstances, but it wasn’t until I started writing As Far As You’ll Take Me—which, unlike Gravity, is a story steeped in identity—that I understood why I was so quick to fall.

I first realized I was gay when I was in first grade, which is… early. By the time I came out at age eighteen, I’d spent twelve years—two thirds of my life—trapped in the closet. At this time, there weren’t a ton of movies, books, or TV shows with queer characters, and the ones that did always ended in death or tragedy. (Thanks, Brokeback Mountain!) Like Marty, my rural farm town wasn’t exactly the most accepting place. Like Marty, I grappled with religion and family and self-hate and anxiety. And like Marty, once I started to move beyond my repressed past, I took risks, I made mistakes, and…I fell for the first guy who gave me a scrap of attention.

I couldn’t really parse my emotions then, but looking back, it makes so much sense. I had spent twelve years drowning in denial and fear, convinced I would never find love, but when I got to college, I met other queer people and found allies for the first time ever. Sure, movies had told me that gay people only experienced a tragic ending… but here I was, a functioning gay human having my own meet-cutes and rom-com moments. I started to feel hope for the very first time—and I was going to do anything to hold onto it.

This, too, is represented in As Far As You’ll Take Me, when Marty quickly falls for health-conscious Pierce and gets his first taste of love. As Pierce starts to pull away, Marty believes changing himself is the only way to hold onto his new boyfriend, and he experiences disordered eating as a result. This was something I had firsthand experience with too, so, I guess you could say Marty and I both had an insta-love problem.

Between both of my books, you’ll find themes of love at first sight, or insta-love, whatever you’d like to call it. That trope is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but in both stories, I got the opportunity to pay homage to classic 90s love stories, break the trope apart, and share two distinct, but honest, experiences.

More than anything, I hope that honesty comes through on the page and speaks to every teen who falls in love too fast—or wishes they could.

Meet the author

Phil Stamper is the author of The Gravity of Us. He grew up in a rural village near Dayton, Ohio. He has a B.A. in Music and an M.A. in Publishing with Creative Writing. And, unsurprisingly, a lot of student debt. He works for a major book publisher in New York City and lives in Brooklyn with his husband and their dog. Visit him online at www.philstamper.com or @stampepk.

About As Far As You’ll Take Me

The author of The Gravity of Us crafts another heartfelt coming-of-age story about finding the people who become your home—perfect for fans of Becky Albertalli.

Marty arrives in London with nothing but his oboe and some savings from his summer job, but he’s excited to start his new life—where he’s no longer the closeted, shy kid who slips under the radar and is free to explore his sexuality without his parents’ disapproval. 

From the outside, Marty’s life looks like a perfect fantasy: in the span of a few weeks, he’s made new friends, he’s getting closer with his first ever boyfriend, and he’s even traveling around Europe. But Marty knows he can’t keep up the facade. He hasn’t spoken to his parents since he arrived, he’s tearing through his meager savings, his homesickness and anxiety are getting worse and worse, and he hasn’t even come close to landing the job of his dreams. Will Marty be able to find a place that feels like home?

ISBN-13: 9781547600175
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/09/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 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

Book Review: Charming as a Verb by Ben Philippe

Publisher’s description

Charming as a Verb

From the award-winning author of The Field Guide to the North American Teenager comes a whip-smart and layered romantic comedy. Perfect for fans of Nicola Yoon and Jenny Han. 

Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger can charm just about anyone. He is a star debater and popular student at the prestigious FATE academy, the dutiful first-generation Haitian son, and the trusted dog walker for his wealthy New York City neighbors. But his easy smiles mask a burning ambition to attend his dream college, Columbia University.

There is only one person who seems immune to Henri’s charms: his “intense” classmate and neighbor Corinne Troy. When she uncovers Henri’s less-than-honest dog-walking scheme, she blackmails him into helping her change her image at school. Henri agrees, seeing a potential upside for himself.

Soon what started as a mutual hustle turns into something more surprising than either of them ever bargained for. . . .

This is a sharply funny and insightful novel about the countless hustles we have to keep from doing the hardest thing: being ourselves.

Amanda’s thoughts

If, for some reason, you were to click on my name and read a bunch of my reviews in a row, you might think, good lord, she just looooves everything. But you know what? I don’t. I abandon probably three times as many books as I finish. If a book isn’t something I’m enjoying, unless I think it’s an actively harmful or horrible book, I’ll just set it aside and move on. I’m going to use my blog time to say, hey, look at this GREAT book. Reviews that just could be summed up as “this book was fine, I guess” don’t serve anyone. SO, that said, guess what? Yep! I looooooved this book.

Haitian American Henri is always hustling, beaming his Smile at everyone, but reserving his real smile for the few that really know him beyond his school persona. He runs a dog walking company that’s not so much an actual company as it is just him with a more professional looking front to get more business. Henri juggles the dogs, school, debate team, and preparing to hopefully attend Columbia, his dream school (well, maybe his. Definitely his dad’s dream school). His dad’s their building’s super and his mom recently traded in her life as a paralegal to become a firefighter. Black and poor, Henri knows he doesn’t have the same opportunities or connections that help his classmates at the Fine Arts Technical Education Academy sail easily through life, but he keeps working hard and Smiling, hoping it all pans out.

Senior year ends up holding many surprises, the biggest (and best) being Corinne, his upstairs neighbor and the most intense girl in his class. She blackmails Henri into helping her revamp her image as someone less uptight and socially awkward, hoping it will improve her college recommendation letters. And while Henri is game, he has no idea what he’s in for. Turns out that Cori is not just brilliant but totally and bluntly honest, hilarious, and almost always gets what she wants (usually thanks to a series of note cards to study from and exceedingly detailed multi-point plans). What starts as a weird transaction between the two turns into a real friendship (and more) as they get to see each other beyond the labels, preconceived ideas, and Smiles. But Henri messes it all up (and I mean ALL of it) when he makes a terrible choice that he justifies as evening the playing field but really is just SO. BAD.

This book has everything going for it. The conversational tone, the standout characters, the excellent (and rocky) romance… everything. I’m a fast reader. Generally my approach is that I have to read as fast as I possibly can so I can keep flying through my TBR pile. But if I take the time to slow down, to make sure I’m really reading and not just skimming, to be sure I’m enjoying every well-crafted sentence and clever exchange, then I know I am loving a book. I stretched this one out over three afternoons, just so I could keep dipping back into Henri and Cori’s world. A completely satisfying, engaging, and memorable read.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062824141
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/13/2020
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Book Review: Where We Go From Here by Lucas Rocha

Publisher’s description

An absorbing debut novel about three gay friends in Brazil whose lives become intertwined in the face of HIV, perfect for fans of Adam Silvera and Bill Konigsberg.

Ian has just been diagnosed with HIV.

Victor, to his great relief, has tested negative.

Henrique has been living with HIV for the past three years.

When Victor finds himself getting tested for HIV for the first time, he can’t help but question his entire relationship with Henrique, the guy he has — had — been dating. See, Henrique didn’t disclose his positive HIV status to Victor until after they had sex, and even though Henrique insisted on using every possible precaution, Victor is livid.

That’s when Victor meets Ian, a guy who’s also getting tested for HIV. But Ian’s test comes back positive, and his world is about to change forever. Though Victor is loath to think about Henrique, he offers to put the two of them in touch, hoping that perhaps Henrique can help Ian navigate his new life. In the process, the lives of Ian, Victor, and Henrique will become intertwined in a story of friendship, love, and self-acceptance.

Set in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this utterly engrossing debut by Brazilian author Lucas Rocha calls back to Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys series, bringing attention to how far we’ve come with HIV, while shining a harsh light on just how far we have yet to go.

Amanda’s thoughts

TL; DR: GET THIS BOOK ON YOUR ORDERS AND TBR LISTS.

Originally published in 2018 in Brazilian Portuguese, this powerful look at three young men and the different stages they are at in dealing with and accepting their own HIV statuses and those of people they love stands out because of the complicated feelings of its main characters.

Those feelings easily transfer to the reader. When Henrique and Victor get involved, Henrique doesn’t disclose his HIV positive status to Victor, even when they sleep together. Henrique justifies this choice because they have protected sex and because his viral load is undetectable at this point, meaning he can’t transmit the virus. Unsurprisingly, Victor is upset at this revelation, and still goes to get tested, to be on the safe side. It’s there at the clinic he meets Ian, who just found out he is HIV positive. He connects Ian with Henrique, knowing that even though he’s currently upset with Henrique, he will be a good shoulder to lean on as Ian grapples with his new status.

It’s reductive to say that this novel is just about processing feelings regarding HIV, but in this very character-driven story, it really is about learning, understanding, working through, sharing, and accepting these feelings. Ian feels guilty and stupid and scared. Henrique is still reeling from a horrible betrayal from a former boyfriend. Victor feels betrayed by Henrique and at one point has a melt down, telling Henrique that his HIV status is his fault, that it’s a consequence for his choices, for not being “careful.” Friends in the boys’ atmosphere are supportive, loving, reassuring, and accepting. Throughout the story, Ian and others are reminded that HIV is no longer necessarily a death sentence. Readers learn about the virus, with lots of talk about treatments (now generally much simpler than in the past), side effects, self-care, futures, and precautions. Though initially Ian encounters a medical practitioner who doesn’t exactly make him feel reassured about any of this, for the most part, doctors and therapists are great, providing information and hope. Even a very ugly incident regarding someone exposing one of the characters’ HIV status is handled in a way that emphasizes the love, support, and acceptance these characters are fortunate to have (despite not necessarily seeing that love from their families of origin or even sharing their status with them).

This emotional read shows that already complicated relationships can become more complicated when HIV is involved, but that that diagnosis doesn’t spell doom and gloom for the characters. Rocha lets his characters make mistakes, learn, fight, grow, change, accept, hurt, heal, and love. An educational, affirming story full of hope and love.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781338556247
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 06/02/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in an issue of School Library Journal

Gr 9 Up—Two high school seniors find their voices and first love in this enemies-to-lovers story told from dual perspectives. Brusque and controlling filmmaker Rachel Recht, a Jewish scholarship student at the prestigious Royce School, wants nothing to do with Sana Khan, cheerleading captain and model human being. But when a literal run-in forces them to work together on a film, their tense relationship morphs into something beautiful and unexpected. As they collaborate, they begin to share their most private feelings. Sana, who is Muslim, reveals that she’s been having a crisis about her future, hasn’t sent her down payment to Princeton, and has secretly applied to a fellowship. Rachel knows she’s NYU-bound if the scholarship funds come through, but her future is in jeopardy if she can’t get this last film finished. Working together on this project about a woman forging her own path could be transformative for both, if only they could stop arguing and misjudging each other’s intentions. Determined to find success on their own terms, the ambitious girls learn to stand up for themselves as they challenge, support, and infuriate each other. Immensely readable with strong characters and quick, clever dialogue, this romance has real depth. Though there is no question that the girls will end up together, it’s a joy to watch them fumble toward their eventual happy ending. As much about finding yourself as it is about finding love, this smart, feminist story shows that expectations shouldn’t dictate the future. 

VERDICT This well-written and supremely satisfying romance should be in all collections

ISBN-13: 9781250299482
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication date: 06/11/2019

Book Review: Road Tripped by Pete Hautman

Publisher’s description

In this captivating story about loss, love, and changing your ways, National Book Award­–winning author Pete Hautman imbues the classic road trip novel with clever wit and heartfelt musings about life and death.

Steven Gerald Gabel—a.k.a. Stiggy—needs to get out of Minnesota. His father recently look his own life, his mother is a shell of the person she used to be, and his sort-of-girlfriend ghosted him and skipped town. What does he have left to stick around for? Armed with his mom’s credit card and a tourist map of Great River Road, Stiggy sets off in his dad’s car.

The only problem is, life on his own isn’t exactly what he expected and, soon enough, he finds himself at a crossroads: keep running from his demons, or let them hitch a ride back home with him.

Amanda’s thoughts

I’m a huge fan of Hautman’s work. I’m also a huge fan of character-driven stories where the plot isn’t really grand or intricate. I’ve said it a million times, but just throw some interesting characters together and let them yammer at each other and ruminate on life and I’m good. That’s plenty for me. Because meeting people, interacting, learning, growing, thinking, rethinking, processing… that’s actually a lot of plot. The plot of “how do I do this whole being a person thing and what on earth am I supposed to think or do or say” is huge and one we can all relate to.

I always like a good road trip book. Stiggy sets off on his own, but spends the majority of his trip meeting people who both literally and metaphorically make him change course. He leaves Minnesota because everything is just really crummy and seems to have no point. His father recently died by suicide, his girlfriend totally ghosted him, and he pissed off his only real friend. Sick of everything and the king of negativity and bad attitudes, Stiggy takes off with a vague destination in mind, some cash, his mom’s stolen credit card, and his dad’s iPod full of old music. Along the way he meets colorful characters who force him to think about things he’d rather not address, like: What are you mad about? Do you know who you are? These people make him think about connections, about the nature of friendship, and other philosophical stuff.

Interspersed with the chapters about his road trip are chapters from his past that inform readers about his relationship with Gaia, a quick-to-anger, emotionally confusing Goth girl a year younger than he is. Their relationship is pretty low-key—they hang out a lot, just sort of aimlessly driving and listening to music. They talk, but there’s a lot they don’t know and don’t understand about each other. When Gaia up and decides to move to Wisconsin to live with a friend, Stiggy is totally thrown for a loop. Gaia offers him nothing, then leaves. He hopes to reconnect with her on his road trip, but it’s clear that he has a lot of work to do on himself before he could ever be ready to have any kind of meaningful relationship. That’s clear to us, the readers, but also seems to become clear to Stiggy as his trip goes on.

Stiggy undertakes his road trip partially because he doesn’t want to think about a lot of things. But, of course, his road trip becomes all about thinking about stuff, no matter how hard he avoids it. What else is there to do while driving through the Midwest but think? Readers who like reluctantly introspective characters who are ultimately good dudes just making lots of mistakes (otherwise known as “growing up”) will be rooting for Stiggy to find a way to ditch his nihilistic attitude and avoid the path in life his father took. And while he learns and grows and changes, he does so in ways that may not even be obvious to him (but are to readers). He doesn’t have particularly profound revelations or come back to Minnesota a new man. But, forced to confront the junk he’d been swerving away from, he now has the potential to change and maybe even the impetus. Hand this to readers who like stories with strong (and sometimes not necessarily super likable) characters.

(The content warning for this book: Stiggy’s father dies by suicide. It is mentioned multiple times, including multiple references to how he died. Readers may want to skip a chapter entitled “Groundhog Day,” which includes a graphic description of his death. )

Review copy courtesy of the author

ISBN-13: 9781534405905
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date: 05/14/2019

Book Review: Flight Season by Marie Marquardt

Publisher’s description

flightFrom Marie Marquardt, the author of Dream Things True and The Radius of Us, comes a story of two teenagers learning what to hold on to, what to let go of, and that sometimes love gets in the way of our plans.

Back when they were still strangers, TJ Carvalho witnessed the only moment in Vivi Flannigan’s life when she lost control entirely. Now, TJ can’t seem to erase that moment from his mind, no matter how hard he tries. Vivi doesn’t remember any of it, but she’s determined to leave it far behind. And she will.

But when Vivi returns home from her first year away at college, her big plans and TJ’s ambition to become a nurse land them both on the heart ward of a university hospital, facing them with a long and painful summer together – three months of glorified babysitting for Ángel, the problem patient on the hall. Sure, Ángel may be suffering from a life-threatening heart infection, but that doesn’t make him any less of a pain.

As it turns out, though, Ángel Solís has a thing or two to teach them about all those big plans, and the incredible moments when love gets in their way.

Written in alternating first person from the perspectives of all three characters, Flight Season is a story about discovering what’s really worth holding onto, learning how to let go of the rest, and that one crazy summer that changes your life forever.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I am always a fan of slightly older YA characters, as we don’t see a ton of them. I was pleased to see that this novel takes place the summer after Vivi’s first year of college, and I bet teen readers will be drawn to that, too.

Vivi graduated high school as valedictorian, with a 4.9 GPA, and headed to Yale. Now, one year later, her life is a mess. She’s on academic probation and desperately needs this summer internship at a university hospital if she has any hope of remaining a student at Yale. Things are not off to an auspicious start, as Vivi realizes she has a “weak constitution” and can’t stand the sight of any bodily fluids or medical procedures. That might complicate her whole plan to become a doctor. She and her mother are staying in Florida at a friend’s beach house. Her mother bills it as a fun change of scenery, something they both need, in light of Vivi’s dad’s recent death. But it’s more than that: since his death, her mother has fallen apart. She hasn’t been paying the bills and they basically have no money left. Suddenly Vivi, who has never wanted for anything, has to come to terms with the reality of their new situation and get a paying job in addition to her internship.

Then there’s the issue of TJ. They work together at the hospital and Vivi finds him both completely frustrating and totally attractive. TJ juggles the hospital with studying to be a nurse and working at his family’s Brazilian restaurant. Circumstances put them together more than they expected to be and make them unable to deny what is unfolding between them.

The third narrator of the story,  Ángel Solis, is a Guatemalan teenager in the hospital with a heart infection. Ángel helps bring TJ and Vivi together, and all three come to learn more about each other, their backgrounds, their differences, and their similarities.

This moving, well-written story examines tough topics like grief, loss, immigration, privilege, and illness. It’s a slow-burn romance, but also a great and lovely look at friendship. Complex, beautiful, heartbreaking, and surprisingly joyful, this enjoyable read successfully presents three narrators who have such standout voices and bring so much to the story and one another’s lives. A great read. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781250107015
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: 02/20/2018

 

Book Review: Here, There, Everywhere by Julia Durango and Tyler Terrones

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of School Library Journal

 

here thereHere, There, Everywhere by Julia Durango and Tyler Terrones (ISBN-13: 9780062314031 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 12/19/2017)

Gr 9 Up—A seemingly lackluster small town becomes more appealing when two musically inclined teens fall in love and realize their time together in Buffalo Falls, Illinois may be shorter than they think. Jesús Bjorn Gunderson (who goes by Zeus), his World War II—obsessed little brother Manuel (whom Zeus calls Grub), and their mother leave Chicago to pursue her dream of opening a vegetarian café. While delivering food to a nursing home, Zeus meets Rose Santos, who’s there playing piano. Zeus begins to volunteer at the nursing home as a way to hang around Rose more, and it doesn’t take long for them to start dating. Their fun summer filled with dates to the county fair, a polka fest, a psychic, and more takes an uncertain turn when Rose reveals that she may go away to a music conservatory in the fall and when Zeus learns his mother may want to move them back to Chicago. They try to abide by the rule of one of their elderly friends—just enjoy today—but that’s easier said than done. The charming Buffalo Falls is populated with vibrant characters—from Zeus’s new friends to the residents of the nursing home—but Zeus and Rose feel underdeveloped. The plot begins to lose steam midway through, and the couple’s dialogue often feels stiff. The story takes some unexpected turns, especially regarding the nursing home patients, and the exhilaration of first love feels realistic if somewhat rushed to fit the compact time line. VERDICT This sweet but unremarkable romance is an additional purchase.