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Book Review: Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee

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 June 2017 issue of School Library Journal. I am SO EXCITED to now be able to rave to everyone about this book. 

 

tash heartsTash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee

ISBN-13: 9781481489331 Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers Publication date:06/06/2017

★ Gr 9 Up—Seventeen-year-old Kentucky filmmaker and Tolstoy superfan Tash Zelenka’s summer takes an unexpected turn when her web series, Unhappy Families (a modern adaptation of Anna Karenina) goes viral. The newfound fame causes tension between Tash and her best friend Jack, who also works on the series. Tash is easily caught up in the increased social media attention, her fans’ expectations, and the criticisms. She is also grappling with her complicated relationship with her sister, Klaudie, who drops out of acting in the series to more fully enjoy her last summer before college. Plus, Tash must deal with her flirtation with vlogger Thom, her confusing feelings for Paul (Jack’s brother and Tash’s other best friend), and her worries about the end of the series and her impending college applications. Tash is also beginning to come out to people as romantic asexual and needs to figure out how to share her identity with Thom, whom she will be meeting soon at the Golden Tuba independent web awards. Tash and her group of artsy theater friends are vibrant, creative, and thoughtful. They may not always totally understand one another, but their admirable and complicated friendships have so much heart. The much-needed asexual representation plays a significant role in the story, with readers privy to Tash’s thoughts on identity and conversations with friends about what the term means. VERDICT Funny, well written, and compulsively readable, this will especially appeal to readers with an interest in web series. A strong choice for YA shelves.

Book Review: Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity by Kristin Elizabeth Clark

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 September 2016 issue of School Library Journal.

 

jess-chunkJess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity by Kristin Elizabeth Clark (ISBN-13: 9780374380069 Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publication date: 11/08/2016)

Gr 9 Up—Immediately after graduation, Jess and her best friend, Chunk, embark on a road trip from San Jose, CA, to Chicago. Trans teen Jess has tried to fly under the radar, but now she’s ready to show her true self. Where better to make her debut than a surprise appearance at her transphobic dad’s wedding to her mom’s former best friend? The road trip uncovers many worries, tensions, and truths. Jess is concerned for her safety and nervous about passing. Her friendship with Chunk—who really hates the taunting and judgmental nickname and would prefer to be called Chuck—is on the rocks, too. He’s spending the trip texting another girl while growing increasingly irritated at Jess’s utter self-absorption. For someone so aware of names, image, and identity, Jess is extremely insensitive, especially when it comes to weight. It takes seeing (and overhearing) Chuck interact with new people for Jess to understand her feelings and begin to see beyond herself. Though it relies on an engaging premise, the novel is a mixed bag. Some things are true simply because readers are told they are (such as a significant revelation about Chuck that’s barely addressed). Chuck and Jess avoid some really big conversations that would reveal more about themselves and their relationship. Much like their friendship, the ending feels superficial. VERDICT Despite its flaws, this is still a useful addition to collections because of its rare multifaceted picture of a trans girl with a story that is about more than just coming out.

Book Review: As I Descended by Robin Talley

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 July 2016 issue of School Library Journal.

 

as i descendedTALLEY, Robin. As I Descended. 384p. ebook available. HarperCollins Publishers. Sept. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062409232.

Gr 10 Up—Something wicked comes to Virginia’s elite Acheron Academy in this modern retelling of one of Shakespeare’s darkest works. Overachiever and second-most-popular girl Maria, who is bisexual, and her scheming girlfriend, Lily, who is disabled and a lesbian, are determined to have Maria win the coveted Kingsley Prize, which guarantees entrance into any college and will enable the couple to stay together after high school. A séance reveals cryptic prophecies and opens the door to a plethora of spirits, leaving the girls unable to control their own action. Their cruel and manipulative plans to unseat the most popular girl are just the first of many schemes that go horribly wrong. Before long, Maria and Lily are not the only ones admitting to interacting with spirits. Students are having bad dreams, hearing phantom noises, and seeing ghosts. The couple’s desire for power grows, and what looked like ruthlessness now seems like madness. As the tragedy unfolds, no one at Acheron is safe—least of all Maria and Lily. Talley’s novel is ambitious but successfully so. The work address racism, classism, and homophobia, all couched in a horror retelling of Macbeth. Notably, all four of the main characters—Maria, Lily, Mateo, and Brandon—are not straight. Those familiar with the source material will not be surprised at how the story plays out, but knowing the eventual outcomes does not diminish Talley’s dark tale about fate and ambition. VERDICT A highly recommended, absorbing read with wide appeal.—Amanda MacGregor, Great River Regional Library, Saint Cloud, MN

Book Review: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

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 April 2016 issue of School Library Journal.

 

art ofGr 9 Up–-Only David Piper’s two best friends know a big secret, and as puberty brings rapid changes to the teen’s body, the clock is ticking for the chance to tell the Pipers that David is really a girl. David shares narrating duties with Leo, a tough transfer student  uninterested in friendships. After Leo stands up for the frequently bullied David, the two slowly become friends, though neither could have guessed how much they actually have in common: Leo, who used to be called Megan, is transgender, too. When word gets out about Leo, he flees, remembering what happened at his old school, and goes in search of his birth father. David accompanies him, returning home having had an opportunity to live a few days as Kate, David’s true self, and ready to tell her parents who she really is. Leo’s and David’s stories are painful and complicated. The novel is filled with transphobic slurs, bullying, physical violence, and nasty reactions from other characters. In most cases, someone points out how cruel, unfair, or incorrect these offensive assertions are. Both Leo and Kate have supportive, loving families (even if Leo’s mother is otherwise a nightmare) and increasingly supportive friends. The book ends on a positive note, especially for Kate, who has longed to be visible. Pacing issues and the curious choice to misgender Kate throughout most of the book despite her announcement on page one that she’s a girl mar this otherwise well-written book. VERDICT: An important addition to collections for its first-person perspectives on the experiences and inner lives of transgender teenagers. –Amanda MacGregor, Great River Regional Library, St. Cloud, MN

 

ISBN-13: 9780374302375

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Publication date: 05/31/2016

Book Review: Sea Change by Frank Viva

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 March 2016 issue of School Library Journal.

 

VIVA, Frank. Sea Change. 120p. TOON Graphics. May 2016. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781935179924.

sea changeGr 5–8—Twelve-year-old Eliot could not be less excited about being shipped off to Point Aconi, in Nova Scotia, where he will spend the summer helping his great-uncle Earl on a fishing boat. Even though he is quickly embraced by a small group of neighborhood kids, led by the intriguing Mary Beth, life in Point Aconi is worse than he imagined—which is impressive, as a teacher formerly noted his “dark” imagination. Slowly, Eliot adjusts. He works hard, spends hours reading aloud from Earl’s extensive library, makes his uncle proud, and kisses Mary Beth. His summer is spent fishing, swimming, and exploring. Despite all the fun, Eliot realizes that life is far more complicated than he thought. He begins to understand the politics behind a strip-mining coal company looking to buy up the properties in Point Aconi. And when Mary Beth confides a secret to Eliot, one she begs him not to reveal, he has to make a hard choice. Though he loves his summer in Point Aconi and hopes to return, he begins to look forward to going back home, where he can just be a kid again. This is more of a highly illustrated novel than a typical graphic novel, and Viva’s bold, simple illustrations are whimsical and bring to life the story’s unique characters. Viva plays with text, too, sometimes placing it at a slant, piling it in a pyramid, or using it to create pictures. VERDICT The unconventional format of this funny, poignant coming-of-age story will appeal to fans of comics and graphic novels.—Amanda MacGregor, Great River Regional Library, Saint Cloud, MN

Book Review: The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle

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 January 2016 issue of School Library Journal.

redstarFEDERLE, Tim. The Great American Whatever. 288p. ebook available. S. & S. Mar. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481404099.The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle

Gr 10 Up –In the six months since his sister was killed in a car accident, Quinn has hardly left his bedroom. He hasn’t gone to school or talked to his best friend and has barely interacted with his heartbroken mother. He hasn’t turned on his phone, either, knowing the last text his sister sent before running a red light was to him. Urged on by his best friend, Geoff, Quinn reluctantly emerges from his isolation just in time to meet a cute boy, turn 17, rediscover his passion for writing screenplays, and uncover some big secrets about the people he thought he knew best. He also gets some advice from a former idol, a neighbor turned Hollywood screenwriter: forget the rules of what’s expected in a script and just write the truth. For Quinn, who seeks solace in his daydreamy scripts with imagined conversations and outcomes that he can control, this is a hard pill to swallow, especially as he’s learning some truths he’s not really sure he likes. Even under the weight of grief, Quinn’s conversational and charming narrative voice effervesces, mixing humor and vulnerability in typical Federle style. Quinn’s story is at turns sad, funny, awkward, and endearing as he figures out friendship, romance, coming out, and moving on. VERDICT Federle’s YA debut about life’s unscripted moments has wide appeal and is an essential purchase for all collections. Readers will be instant fans of the funny and honest Quinn.–Amanda MacGregor, Great River Regional Library, St. Cloud, MN

Review from This Month’s School Library Journal: Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans by Don Brown

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 August 2015 issue of School Library Journal.

 

drowned cityBROWN, Don. Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. illus. by Don Brown. 96p. bibliog. ebook available. notes. HMH. Aug. 2015. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780544157774.
Gr 7 Up–A murky watercolor storm spreads across pages, darkening and becoming more ominous as it builds in Brown’s deeply affecting look at Hurricane Katrina. Dynamic sketches capture shocking scenes, such as residents fleeing down claustrophobic highways as the 400-mile-wide storm looms in a nearly completely dark spread. Brown depicts broken levees, flooded homes, and inhabitants scrabbling to not drown in their attics. A stunningly powerful spread shows water everywhere and two lone people trapped on a roof. The images demonstrate the utter devastation and despair while the at times spare text powerfully reveals the voices of the victims. The many failures of President Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Mayor Ray Nagin, and others are repeatedly noted, as is the heroism of various organizations and ordinary people. Brown walks readers through the ghastly conditions at the Superdome, the horrors of hospitals with no electricity, and the nightmarish reality of dead bodies everywhere. The story becomes grimmer at every turn: ineffectual police and rescue efforts, looting, the lack of housing for rescued victims, and 5,000 missing children. The muted watercolors effectively capture the squalid and treacherous conditions of every inch of New Orleans. The final pages show the rebuilding efforts but note the lasting effects of vastly decreased populations.

VERDICT This astonishingly powerful look at one of America’s worst disasters is a masterful blend of story and art and a required purchase for all libraries.–Amanda MacGregor, Great River Regional Library, St. Cloud, MN

 

Review From This Month’s School Library Journal: The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

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 August 2015 issue of School Library Journal.

 

sleeperGaiman, Neil. The Sleeper and the Spindle. illus. by Chris Riddell. 64p. ebook available. HarperCollins/Harper. Sept. 2015. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9780062398246.

Gr 7 Up–Snow White meets Sleeping Beauty in this fairytale mash-up where things are not what they seem. When three dwarfs learn of a sleeping plague spreading throughout the land, they alert their queen. The queen, already feeling that marriage means the end of her ability to make choices in her life, gladly postpones her wedding, grabs her sword, and sets off with the dwarfs to get to the bottom of the magical curse. On their way, they encounter throngs of cobweb-covered sleepers. To their surprise, the slumbering masses talk in their sleep and eventually begin to lumber after them. The team forges ahead to the castle, where they find the sleeping princess and an old woman. The queen’s kiss, shown in a sumptuous spread, wakes the princess. The quest turns out to be just what the queen needs to be reminded of the choices she has. Riddell’s spectacularly intricate ink drawings, gilded with gold, bring Gaiman’s inventive story to life. Each page is packed with marvelous details—vines claustrophobically twist everywhere and expressions convey far more emotion than the words let on. Gaiman’s narrative about strength, sacrifice, choice, and identity is no simple retelling; he sends readers down one path then deliciously sends the story veering off in an unexpected direction. The only downside—the tale ends far too soon.

VERDICT This highly recommended visually stunning twist on two classic fairy tales will be well received by fans of graphic novels and fantasy stories.–Amanda MacGregor, Great River Regional Library, St. Cloud, MN

Review From This Month’s School Library Journal: About a Girl by Sarah McCarry

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 June 2015 issue of School Library Journal.

 

about a girl★ 06/01/2015
Gr 10 Up—The conclusion to the “Metamorphoses” trilogy (St. Martin’s) follows Tally to a small town outside of Seattle where she seeks out her maybe-father to learn more about her past and her family. The place feels full of magic and people who intrigue her. Tally has a hard time thinking straight here, and her dreams are filled with vivid and terrifying images of blood. She falls for the mysterious Maddy, a girl who seems to hold the answers to her many questions. Based loosely on the story of Jason and the Argonauts, the protagonist’s journey reveals far more about her family than she could have imagined. Maddy keeps saying “no pasts,” but as Tally learns, the past is everywhere—the past is then and now. The stunning, densely packed story is full of as much intoxicating poetry as meticulous scientific explanations. Tally’s initial prim and rather academic narration becomes richer and more dreamlike as her story unfolds. This edgy, smart, and challenging title combines mythology, punk rock, science, a quest, feminism, art, dreams, and the power of stories and storytelling with unforgettable results. The well-developed cast of characters is racially and sexually diverse. The emphasis on the importance of female relationships—as family, as lovers, and as friends—is a welcome exploration of the many levels of intimacy. The book can be read as a stand-alone, but will certainly send new readers looking for the previous books in the series. VERDICT A highly recommended and breathtakingly read for sophisticated readers.

In the Most Recent Issue of SLJ

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 March 2015 issue of School Library Journal.

 

Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries–From Joan of Arc to Malcolm X by Jeff Fleischer

ISBN-13: 9781936976744

Publisher: Zest

Publication date: 3/3/2015

Gr 9 Up—This collection of 50 revolutionaries spans continents and centuries. The profiles start with Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca and end with civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. Others include George Washington, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Geronimo, Malcolm X, and Cesar Chavez. As Fleischer mentions in his introduction, some figures are clearly heroes while others are obvious villains, but “most fall somewhere in between.” The entries are a few pages long, detailing major accomplishments and lasting influence, with photos and text boxes that add context or highlight interesting facts. Arranged chronologically, the book is heavy on male revolutionaries, particularly at the beginning, with only nine women featured. Though brief, the chapters are still dense and somewhat tedious. The pictures are accompanied by lively captions, such as “Boudica, mid-harangue” or “Emma Goldman is not interested in your nonsense.” Unfortunately, this same energetic spirit wasn’t injected into the text. VERDICT The concept is better than the content, but readers looking to research a specific person or movement will find this compilation suitable for their needs.