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Book Review: Violets Are Blue by Barbara Dee

Publisher’s description

From the author of the acclaimed My Life in the Fish Tank and Maybe He Just Likes You comes a moving and relatable middle grade novel about secrets, family, and the power of forgiveness.

Twelve-year-old Wren loves makeup—special effect makeup, to be exact. When she is experimenting with new looks, Wren can create a different version of herself. A girl who isn’t in a sort-of-best friendship with someone who seems like she hates her. A girl whose parents aren’t divorced and doesn’t have to learn to like her new stepmom.

So, when Wren and her mom move to a new town for a fresh start, she is cautiously optimistic. And things seem to fall into place when Wren meets potential friends and gets selected as the makeup artist for her school’s upcoming production of Wicked.

Only, Wren’s mom isn’t doing so well. She’s taking a lot of naps, starts snapping at Wren for no reason, and always seems to be sick. And what’s worse, Wren keeps getting hints that things aren’t going well at her new job at the hospital, where her mom is a nurse. And after an opening night disaster leads to a heartbreaking discovery, Wren realizes that her mother has a serious problem—a problem that can’t be wiped away or covered up. 

After all the progress she’s made, can Wren start over again with her devastating new normal? And will she ever be able to heal the broken trust with her mom?

Amanda’s thoughts

Barbara Dee is writing some of the best middle grade out there. Fact.

Here’s the problem that Wren’s mom is struggling with, the problem referenced up in the summary but not explicitly said: she’s addicted to opioids. And she’s Wren’s only parent around (her dad is in NY with his new wife and kids), so things are ROUGH for Wren. But you’d maybe never know that. She’s pretty self-sufficient, doesn’t really let on to others how bad her mom has gotten (and Wren doesn’t know what her mom is doing—she just knows she’s sleeping/out of it a lot, lying, missing work, and not really being on top of the whole “mom” thing), and she just kind of muddles along. Also, she is just a kid. She misses or misunderstands lots of signs that something serious may be happening with her mom, but she’s in 7th grade; it’s not her job to be monitoring her mother for drug use. Wren is busy with her own life, adjusting to her new school (and friends and classmates) and getting really into doing special effects makeup, including for the school play. And she’s adjusting to her new family situation, with her dad halfway across the country from her, with a new wife and baby twins. Wren’s mom doesn’t want her to “talk behind her back” to her dad, so Wren never expresses any concerns about what’s going on with her mom to her dad.

It’s not until things get REALLY bad for her mom that Wren really knows what’s going on. She’s been in survival mode for so long, just trying to keep everyone happy, not make problems, and pretend she’s always fine, that it feels like a LOT to suddenly have other people stepping in to help her and clarifying what’s happening.

While her mother’s opioid addiction is the most Important part of this story, there are many smaller important parts that also feel so significant to Wren. Negotiating new friends in middle school is almost always fraught with lots of peril, and Wren has ups and downs with her new classmates as she tries to figure out who’s nice, who seems fake, and who’s maybe just misunderstood. And her whole obsession with special effects makeup is pretty cool. She’s always watching tutorials and practicing on her friends and her mom. I loved this interest for her, given her very real need to be interested in wearing a mask, becoming someone else, changing your story, etc.

Like all of Dee’s others books, this one handles the more mundane and relatable just as seriously and skillfully as the heavy and specific. Both are shown as significant. For many middle schoolers, they have a lot going on in their home lives, a lot that they may be hiding. For Wren, we see her get through what she can alone, while feeling confused and not necessarily well cared for, but we also see her surrounded by support, love, and, eventually, help. A great read.


Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781534469181
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 10/12/2021
Age Range: 9 – 13 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

Book Review: Kate in Waiting by Becky Albertalli

Publisher’s description

From #1 New York Times bestselling author and rom-com queen Becky Albertalli comes a buoyant new novel about daring to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight in love, life, and, yes, theater.

Contrary to popular belief, best friends Kate Garfield and Anderson Walker are not codependent. Carpooling to and from theater rehearsals? Environmentally sound and efficient. Consulting each other on every single life decision? Basic good judgment. Pining for the same guys from afar? Shared crushes are more fun anyway.

But when Kate and Andy’s latest long-distance crush shows up at their school, everything goes off-script. Matt Olsson is talented and sweet, and Kate likes him. She really likes him. The only problem? So does Anderson.  

Turns out, communal crushes aren’t so fun when real feelings are involved. This one might even bring the curtains down on Kate and Anderson’s friendship.

Amanda’s thoughts

As always with books by Becky Albertalli, this was a total delight. This may even be my favorite book by her. I loved the rapid-fire dialogue that only best friends can really pull off. This book is funny, sweet, a little bit sad, and totally authentic.

BFFs Kate and Andy love having communal crushes. It’s more fun that way. And, I mean, what could go wrong? Enter Matt, their communal crush from theater camp, who suddenly moves to their town and throws everything into chaos. They both keep crushing on him, unsure if he’s straight or gay, though it doesn’t really matter, but communal crushes don’t necessarily go anywhere or turn into anything. But when it turns out that both Kate and Anderson really like like him, they make a pact to be happy for each other if something comes of it and to not do something silly like let a boy come between them.

You see where this is going, of course. But the predictability of that part of the story doesn’t ruin anything. They’re all such great characters and have such interesting interactions. And even though it may feel like the story is just about “oooh, we both like the same boy, what will happen?” it’s about so much more—the love in an intense friendship, changing relationships, surprise crushes, families, divorce, siblings, theater, and more.

I finished the book wishing I was part of Kate and Anderson’s best friends’ gang, reminiscing about my own communal crushes, and totally satisfied with how Kate and Andy’s stories wrap up. My new favorite Becky Albertalli book? I think so.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062643834
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/20/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: The Love Curse of Melody McIntyre by Robin Talley

The Love Curse of Melody McIntyre

Publisher’s description

Perfect for fans of Becky Albertalli and Nina LaCour, this #ownvoices romantic comedy from New York Times bestselling author Robin Talley has something for everyone: backstage rendezvous, deadly props, and a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to True Love.

Melody McIntyre, stage manager extraordinaire, has a plan for everything.

What she doesn’t have? Success with love. Every time she falls for someone during a school performance, both the romance and the show end in catastrophe. So, Mel swears off any entanglements until their upcoming production of Les Mis is over.

Of course, Mel didn’t count on Odile Rose, rising star in the acting world, auditioning for the spring performance. And she definitely didn’t expect Odile to be sweet and funny, and care as much about the play’s success as Mel.

Which means that Melody McIntyre’s only plan now is trying desperately not to fall in love.

Amanda’s thoughts

Here’s the thing: there’s a lot going on in this great book, but ultimately, my review comes down to just simply saying THIS WAS ADORABLE. And while that statement may not have much depth, the book sure does. And I’ll talk about all that good stuff in a second, but for now, if this is all the further you read, know that the excellent romance as well as just the whole vibe of this book is ADORABLE. Goodness knows we could all use something this cute, sweet, real, and satisfying these days.

Mel, who is bi, LOVES theater. She takes her role as stage manager VERY seriously and hopes to go to college for stage management. I was never a theater person, but one of my high school BFFs was a stage manager and went to college for technical theater, and as a result so much of Melody’s taskmaster no-nonsense approach felt very real to me. Anyway. After Mel’s girlfriend, Rachel, breaks up with her at the worst possible moment, Mel’s crew team convinces her to maybe swear off relationships for the next play. They’re a very superstitious bunch and are worried that maybe Mel in a relationship is a curse (they are very big on curses and countercurses). Mel, who has dated a fair amount of people, agrees to this, figuring it can’t be that hard.

Obviously, enter someone she can’t help but fall for, right?

Suddenly, Mel is keeping secrets from her crew, hiding her relationship, not being totally honest with her new girlfriend, and wondering if the onslaught of accidents and mishaps are all because she’s in love.

Now, if you’re an adult reader, here’s what you need to do: remember being a teenager? Everything was always so intense, so significant, so meaningful. So you might read this and be like, wait, they’re really all taking this idea of a curse so seriously? Yes, they are. They’re teenagers. It makes sense. Everyone in this story really does get bent out of shape because of curses and their chaotic effects. Teen readers may just roll with this, but adults, we need to get past whatever issues we may have with that and remember wishing at 11:11, or pinning all your hopes on things like “if the next car that goes by is red, he totally likes me,” or feeling jinxed, etc.

I loved Melody’s dads and their support of her theater passion. I loved the relationship between Mel and Odile, her new girlfriend who is so much more than she seems (and is questioning what exactly her identity is–she knows she’s queer, but she’s figuring a lot out). And I loved the huge cast of diverse, interesting characters.

I read this book pretty quickly, as the countdown to the play format really keeps things moving. It was fun, cute, and completely satisfying. An excellent recommendation for all fans of contemporary fiction.

PS—Be ready to go down a Les Mis rabbit hole on YouTube once you finish the book. My poor family.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062409263
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 12/01/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Morgan’s Mumbles: Recent Impactful Performances, by Teen Contributor Morgan Randall

Trigger warning: mention of racism/violence/sexual assault

Over the past few weeks, I have been lucky enough to be able to experience some amazing productions put on by my college. While they all took place virtually I was so thankful for the experience of being able to see work that actively was a voice for those hurting and in need of it. Two amazing performances come to mind right away, these also being the two most recent, a dance performance titled “(Re)Current Unrest” and the play “La Ruta”.

(Re)Current Unrest

(Re)Current Unrest is a dance piece created by Charles Anderson, which calls to attention the issue within our nation (and the world) of turning a blind eye to racism and hate. It shows how desensitized we have become to acts of violence towards other people. Watching the piece gave me shivers, and I am really grateful that a lot of my classes focused on talking about the performance the week following us watch it. Something really symbolic throughout the whole piece is there are often moments where the names of innocent people who have been killed for the color of their skin are said allowed and the company as a whole laughs through the names. It really shows how our culture has become so numb and oblivious to these blatant acts of hatred. One of my classmates said how it reminded her of how we oftentimes say “we laugh so we don’t cry.” And I think that has become so common within our society that now we oftentimes forget to cry, we just laugh because we never fully process these traumatic experiences since they happen so frequently.

La Ruta

La Ruta, the play I got to watch/read, was written by Isaac Gómez who used real testimonies and stories of the femicide occurring in Juarez, Mexico. The play follows the story of a young girl, 16 years old, and how that impacts her family and those who work with her. I was lucky enough to be able to read the script prior to seeing the performance, which allowed me to have a lot of time to analyze the story. However, it was hard for me to do because this story is based on very real, very traumatic events. It discusses things including sexual assault, murder, and kidnapping of women in Juarez. And this is a very real thing, that is still ongoing. The images of the pink crosses, for the missing girls, is something that haunts me in a way that I don’t think I was ever aware of prior to seeing this piece.

Things like this are often left out of modern media, and I think it is amazing to finally see people using their voices to shed light on horrific situations in our world so that the audiences can go out and enact change. I am so thankful to be apart of a culture that emphasizes the importance of telling stories of those who often don’t get their voices told. I am excited to see more pieces come out, and the other art that is created to shine a light on situations that the modern media glosses over. I encourage you to, if you are in a safe mental space to do so and do not feel like it will cause harm to you, find pieces (these or others) that shed light on heavy topics and watch them. Become more educated, and then share them so others can do the same.

Morgan RandallTeen Contributor

Morgan recently graduated high school and is currently enrolled to attend college in the fall getting her BA in Theatre and Dance with an emphasis on Design and Technology. She loves theatre, writing, reading, and learning. But something that has always been important to her is being a voice for those who feel like they don’t have one, and being a catalyst for change in any way possible.

Book Review: Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta

Publisher’s description

ra6Debuting on the New York stage, Zara is unprepared — for Eli, the girl who makes the world glow; for Leopold, the director who wants perfection; or for death in the theater.

Zara Evans has come to the Aurelia Theater, home to the visionary director Leopold Henneman, to play her dream role in Echo and Ariston, the Greek tragedy that taught her everything she knows about love. When the director asks Zara to promise that she will have no outside commitments, no distractions, it’s easy to say yes. But it’s hard not to be distracted when there’s a death at the theater — and then another — especially when Zara doesn’t know if they’re accidents, or murder, or a curse that always comes in threes. It’s hard not to be distracted when assistant lighting director Eli Vasquez, a girl made of tattoos and abrupt laughs and every form of light, looks at Zara. It’s hard not to fall in love. In heart-achingly beautiful prose, Amy Rose Capetta has spun a mystery and a love story into an impossible, inevitable whole — and cast lantern light on two young women, finding each other on a stage set for tragedy.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

echo after echoThere are loads of teens this book will appeal to, like theater fiends, fans of mysteries and thrillers, readers looking for a good romance, and teens in search of good LGBTQIA+ rep (specifically lesbian and bisexual here), or a Jewish main character, or a Latina character. The downsides of this book are that the story drags a bit in places and there is sometimes just too much of the play and its rehearsal and not enough exploration of the characters. But those are minor quibbles. I loved this book because I really had no idea what to think about the mystery part for most of the story.

 

When Zara gets the opportunity to star in Echo and Ariston, a play she has loved since she was 12, she packs up her life, leaves her senior year after only a few weeks, and moves to New York. She’s quickly thrust into the world of the Aurelia Theater, with a creepy genius director (Leopold) who is prone to visions showing him how to direct his plays, and a close-knit group of people who have worked together for years. There relationships are all complicated, full of break-ups, secrets, betrayals, and more. Zara is drawn to Eli, a 19-year-old assistant lighting designer, though it takes the girls a while to be bold enough to show one another how they really feel. Eli is sort of Zara’s saving grace in all of this. The play is demanding, starring with movie star Adrian Ward is complicated (he’s not against playing up their relationship for publicity, but Zara, not yet used to the spotlight, isn’t interested), and Zara increasingly feels like she can’t trust anyone around her. After two deaths occur, Eli and Zara start digging for answers, but it’s hard to know who to believe in this world full of people who play pretend for a living.

 

The mystery of who is behind these deaths, and who might be next, will be enough to propel readers through the slow parts. Zara and Eli’s relationship is intense, drawn-out, and passionate. It’s also threatened by everything going on with the play and the theater’s employees. As detailed above, this novel has a wide appeal, but theater aficionados will relish this deep dive into the intense and complex world of theater. A good choice, too, for readers looking for books on the older end of YA–the main characters are older teens (with Eli being out of high school and Zara not attending) and nearly everyone else is out of their teens. This is a great choice for all collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780763691646

Publisher: Candlewick Press

Publication date: 10/10/2017