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Book Review: Almost Flying by Jake Maia Arlow

Publisher’s description

In this unabashedly queer middle grade debut, a week-long amusement park road trip becomes a true roller coaster of emotion when Dalia realizes she has more-than-friend feelings for her new bestie.

Would-be amusement park aficionado Dalia only has two items on her summer bucket list: (1) finally ride a roller coaster and (2) figure out how to make a new best friend. But when her dad suddenly announces that he’s engaged, Dalia’s schemes come to a screeching halt. With Dalia’s future stepsister Alexa heading back to college soon, the grown-ups want the girls to spend the last weeks of summer bonding—meaning Alexa has to cancel the amusement park road trip she’s been planning for months. Luckily Dalia comes up with a new plan: If she joins Alexa on her trip and brings Rani, the new girl from her swim team, along maybe she can have the perfect summer after all. But what starts out as a week of funnel cakes and Lazy River rides goes off the rails when Dalia discovers that Alexa’s girlfriend is joining the trip. And keeping Alexa’s secret makes Dalia realize one of her own: She might have more-than-friend feelings for Rani.

Amanda’s thoughts

Let’s just all admit that I’m really overusing the word “delightful” these days. If it doesn’t actually make it into every review I post, it certainly makes it into my notes. I guess I’m only reading things I find, in some way, delightful. This is not a word I use much in my regular, not-review-writing life. But here we are. So. Guess what this book is? Yep. Delightful. A delight.

This book does such a great job showing Dalia really working through some things. She’s grappling with three main things this summer leading into 8th grade: being ditched by her former best friend, accepting her father’s new relationship, and understanding her feelings for Rani, a new girl on her swim team. Those are three really, really big things, but Arlow gives Dalia plenty of space to work through her feelings while also taking her on a fun amusement park adventure. And it’s actually directly because of this adventure that Dalia is able to figure out how she feels about all these things. She’s on this road trip with Alexa, her soon-to-be stepsister who just finished her first year of college, and Alexa’s BFF, Dhruv. When Dhruv references his boyfriend and then when Alexa’s girlfriend joins them for part of the trip, Dalia begins to hesitantly ask them questions about how you know if you like someone and how to know if that someone might like you back. The “someone” isn’t hypothetical—it’s Rani. But Dalia’s worried that if she tells Rani she likes her in that way, she may blow her one and only friendship. Dalia gets lots of great advice and support from her new, older friends. And you can probably guess that things turn out okay for Dalia, since I’m finding everything so delightful and all.

Readers will appreciate watching Dalia sort out her new feelings about just so many things (liking Rani, her dad’s announcement that he’s getting married, her old friendship with Abby, and more). This book is fun, sweet, and has such great characters. Definitely a must-have for middle school library collections.

Review copy (finished hardcover) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780593112939
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 06/08/2021
Age Range: 10 – 14 Years

Book Review: How It Ends by Catherine Lo

Publisher’s description

how it endsThere are two sides to every story.
It’s friends-at-first-sight for Jessie and Annie, proving the old adage that opposites attract. Shy, anxious Jessie would give anything to have Annie’s beauty and confidence. And Annie thinks Jessie has the perfect life, with her close-knit family and killer grades. They’re BFFs . . . until suddenly they’re not. Told through alternating points of view, How It Ends is the story of a friendship from first meeting to breakup, set against a tumultuous sophomore year of bullying, boys, and backstabbing.

Catherine Lo makes her debut with an honest, nuanced tale about the intricacies of female friendship.

 

 

Amanda‘s thoughts

I always want more YA friendship stories. Friendship, especially in high school, can be so messy. You can grow close so fast, or get ditched, or have fights, or change friend groups, or be obsessed with each other. There’s a lot of ebb and flow to teen friendships. Lo captures all of those things in this look at Jessie and Annie’s sophomore year.

 

Smart, studious Jessie suffers from “terminal loneliness.” Made into an outcast by her former friend and now mean girl, Courtney, Jessie has put up with years of being called “Lezzie Longbottom” and being otherwise ignored by her classmates. Isolated Jessie has anxiety, depression, and frequent panic attacks. Her mother has done a lot to try to “fix” Jessie over the years–therapists, medication, etc–everything, that is, except really talk to her. Jessie feigns interest in video games and comics so she can linger on the periphery of a group at lunchtime, but hasn’t had a real friend in years.

 

Annie is new to town and hates her new life in suburbia. She doesn’t get along with her new stepmom and her stepsister basically ignores her. Annie spies Jessie that first day at school and thinks she’s “beautifully uncool.” That’s all it takes to draw her to Jessie. Jessie thinks Annie is the coolest person ever and can’t understand why she’d want to be friends with her. The girls instantly become best friends. But before long, Annie grows friendly with the girls who’ve bullied Jessie in the past and starts to pull away from Jessie. “We don’t have to do everything together,” she tells her.

 

During their time drifting apart, both girls experience big things. Annie begins to date Scott, who Jessie has a crush on (and a lot of STUFF goes on with that relationship). Jessie’s anxiety, depression, and panic attacks ramp up. She’s constantly sneaking pills to help calm her down. It’s her own prescription, but her mother keeps the pills locked up and doles them out sparingly, the idea being that Jessie should learn how to cope with her anxiety, not need pills to get her through the things that make her anxious (like sitting with the mean girls at lunch). Jessie’s mental health issues become a big part of the story. She desperately wants to keep her issues a secret (a feeling that no doubt stems from her mother’s less-than-helpful understanding of anxiety, being medicated, and feeling ashamed). Her mother encourages her to tell Annie what’s going on to help “explain” some of how she’s been behaving. Yes, her anxiety colors some of how she behaves and reacts, but her mother seems to think that Jessie’s mental health struggles are responsible for the fallout of this friendship. As you might guess, I don’t really love how mental health is addressed here. Her mother goes about things in the wrong way. She’s encouraging shame and stigma and the notion that needing medication is some kind of failing. Then, her mother makes a REALLY BAD CHOICE and suddenly Jessie’s secret is out. And before long, Annie’s big secret is out too (avoiding spoilers here, people). Both girls become victims of rumors and gossip (in high school? No way!) and make repeated attempts to reconcile their friendship, but it isn’t that simple anymore.

 

For the most part, I liked this book. I did want to see more of just how Annie and Jessie become so close. They’re kind of instantly and inexplicably drawn to each other (which definitely happens in real life) and we’re told they’re best friends, but I wanted to see more of how that happened. We know time passes because we’re told it does, but I felt like we missed huge chunks of the time they’re growing closer. I did appreciate how swiftly and thoroughly their friendship fell apart—that felt very real—and getting to see how each girl reacted and what each did while not friends with the other. I really felt for Annie and the things she has to go through basically alone and the way she ends up very ostracized and angry. I also empathized with Jessie, who is more or less all alone without Annie and uncertain how to get through her days without panic attacks taking over. The girls’ story isn’t simple—it’s not like they’re friends and then they’re just not. Lo presents a nuanced look at friendship and shows how their pasts and their home lives affect them. A thoughtful look at the ways friendships can start, end, and all the things in between.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544540064

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 06/07/2016