Jo Kuan, aspiring milliner and essayist, has been called a lot of things in her seventeen years, most of them insulting. But as a Chinese American woman living in 1890’s Georgia, she’s forced to swallow her pride and not be a “saucebox” if she hopes to survive in Atlanta’s ruthless and segregated society. “Chinese people can’t afford to be sauceboxes, especially Chinese people who are trying to live undetected.” However, one label that she would happily accept is that of “writer.” So when the opportunity to author an anonymous advice column in the local paper presents itself, she dives straight in, writing caustically funny commentary that holds up an unflattering mirror to the white faces of Atlanta’s elite, causing chaos of the most unmannerly kind. As she tries to keep a lid on her secret identity, she’s also juggling her day job as a lady’s maid to a spoiled, vain debutante while attempting to keep a roof over her head and that of Old Gin, a poor but proud horse trainer and her adopted Chinese grandfather. It all comes to a head when Jo simultaneously uncovers the origin of her birth, has her identity unmasked by an unexpected ally, and falls in love. Can she keep all the threads of her complicated life securely knotted, or will they slip away like the velvet ties on her favorite hat? This utterly original historical fiction by Stacey Lee is an absolute delight, from its crackling humor and unusual setting, to Jo’s headstrong character and the slowly unraveling mystery of her genesis. Jo bravely and realistically challenges the restrictive norms of her time period, including women’s suffrage and the deplorable treatment of people of color in the post Reconstruction south. Jo Kuan reads like a diverse, divine incarnation of Jo March, and today’s teens couldn’t hope for a more audacious, assertive and all around awesome hero than the salient Ms. Kuan. Hats off to Stacey Lee, The Downstairs Girl is downright ingenious! Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you August 2019.
Prim Adele Joubert and brash Lottie Diamond could not be more different. Adele is green-eyed and rule -abiding. Lottie is blue-eyed and law-breaking. Adele tries to work within the system of their British boarding school, desperate to be friends with the “right” kind of girls, while Lottie gave up caring what people thought of her long ago. But despite their differences, they are both mixed race girls trying to survive in the strict, 1965 class system of the British protectorate of Swaziland. “We are one people divided into three separate groups: white people, mixed race people, and native Swazis. Each group has their own social clubs and schools, their own traditions and rules.” When Adele is dumped by her frenemies and forced to room with Lottie, she is shocked to discover how smart and funny she is, and ashamed of how she used to talk about her behind her back. The girls connect by reading aloud a precious copy of Jane Eyre to each other, finding comfort in the similarities between Jane’s situation and theirs–all of them trapped in a system of patriarchy and oppression that will not allow them to realize their full potential. But what’s more important is what Adele discovers the day Lottie takes her outside the school walls to visit a Swazi village. There she uncovers a secret about her mother’s past that causes her to question everything she’s ever believed about herself, her people and her country. The South African landscape is gorgeously realized in descriptive swaths of color and light. Malla Nunn’s vivid and atmospheric writing thoroughly incorporates timeless themes of family, friendship, class warfare and abuse of power into a ripping good story. Fans of historical fiction, boarding school books, and female solidarity will swoon over this summer read that takes you far way, while also bringing you home.
Amanda, or “Mads” as her friends call her, is not that into kissing. It’s usually too awkward, handsy or wet. No big deal, she has enough to fill her days without worrying about locking lips. There’s minor league baseball games and trash TV with her dad, Mass on Sunday with her mom, and after hours adventures with her best friend Cat every weekend. But then a mysterious phone call turns her comfortable world upside down. Mads discovers a hidden family secret that suddenly sheds new light on her lack of kissing enthusiasm. With Kiss Number 8, Mads begins to understand that maybe it’s not the act of kissing itself, but WHO she’s kissing that’s the problem. Author Colleen AF Venable and illustrator Ellen T. Crenshaw have hit a home run when it comes to portraying uber-realistic teen characters and their equally confused and conflicted parents. Venable’s deft dialogue sings, while Crenshaw’s eloquently drawn black and white facial expressions capture every turbulent emotion that Mads and her friends experience. This funny, poignant graphic novel about figuring out who you are while navigating parental expectations, friendship loyalties and religious beliefs should be at the top of your summer reading list!
High school senior Frank Li has never had a girlfriend. His big sister Hanna made the mistake of falling in love with a non-Korean, and now his parents act as though she died. Frank knows that should his heart follow the same path, he will no doubt suffer the same fate. But since “Korean-Americans make up only 1 percent of everyone in the Republic of California, out of which 12 percent are girls my age, which would result in a dating pool with only one girl every three square miles,” Frank feels doomed to a life of celibate solitude. Enter Brit Means, Frank’s sexy Calculus classmate. Brit is hot, smart and white. Frank couldn’t be more astonished when he discovers Brit is as into him as he is to her. He also knows he can never introduce her to his racist parents. So Frank concocts a complicated scheme in which he dates Brit, but tricks his parents into thinking he’s really dating his Korean friend and neighbor Joy Song. Joy goes along with this because she’s secretly dating Wu Tang, a Chinese jock who her parents would never accept. What starts out as a bad idea gets immeasurably worse when Frank realizes that he just might actually like Joy after all. Could his fake date end up being his true love? Only time will tell, but Frank’s is running out as senior year rushes onward, college acceptances roll in, and long hidden family secrets rise to the surface.
Debut author David Yoon, husband of the writerly wonderful Nicola Yoon, fearlessly tackles issues of inter-generational race relations, privilege, and the deeply uncomfortable and often untenable situation of being stuck between two cultures, while being very, very funny. “The K in KBBQ stands for Korean. As does the K in K-pop, K-fashion or K-dramas. There’s of course no such thing as ABBQ, A-pop or A-dramas.” Frank is a smart, confused, of- the-moment teenage guy who’s just trying to understand life, love and his place in the world. “There are tribes within tribes, all separated by gaps everywhere. Gaps in time, gaps between generations. Money creates gaps…if there are that many micro-tribes all over the place, what does Korean even mean? What do any of the labels anywhere mean?” No matter who you are or where you come from, you are going to find something to LOVE about Frank Li. Coming to a library, bookstore or Kindle near you September 2019.
Readers of this blog know that while I love me some graphic novels, I’ve never been a huge superhero comic fan. The one exception is Marvel’s Runaways, which captured my heart way back in 2007. That’s why I was THRILLED to discover that hotshot romance author Rainbow Rowell has penned a new chapter in the timeline of do-good teens whose parents are big villainous baddies! (SPOILERS AHEAD: Only keep reading if you are already well versed in the Runaways universe. Otherwise, head back to the beginning.)
At the end of the original series, The Runaways fell apart. Alex and Gert died, Molly went to middle school, and Carolina headed to college. As Nico slums it in a cheap apartment, trying to decide her next move, she is stunned when Chase shows up, a nearly dead Gert in tow. Turns out Chase decided to time-machine it to Gert’s death, hoping to bring his buxom, lavender-haired love back to life. Once Gert is revived, (and over being really pissed that she missed two years of action) she’s ready to rally the troops and restore the Runaway’s badass reputations. The only problem is that no one seems terribly interested, which throws Gert into a deep depression. Why did Chase rescue her only to have re-lose the only family she has left? It’ll take a geriatric baddie to bring the gang together and set them back on the superhero path! Fans and newbies to the series alike will find much to love in this delightful reboot. Volumes 1-2 are out now, and Volume 3 comes out Apil 23rd, so hightail it to your nearest library or bookstore for immediate Runaways gratification!
Adolescence isn’t fun for anyone. But it’s particularly awful for the girls of Garner County, a rural community that seems vaguely colonial or dystopian. Sixteen year old girls are sent away from home and forced to endure the “Grace Year,” twelve months of living rough in the wilderness with little access to fresh food, water or bedding. In addition, they must also avoid the Poachers, a shadowy group of disenfranchised men whose favorite activity is to hunt down Grace Year girls, dismember them and sell their appendages on the black market. Supposedly their teenage bodies “emit a powerful aphrodisiac,” and are therefore highly prized as “medicine” by the lovelorn and love scorned. Families willingly send their daughters out into certain danger because they believe that the fear and deprivation ensures the girls will “release” their “magic,” returning docile and ready to marry. But Tierney’s not having it. A tomboy who’s been indulged by her father and scolded by her mother, she’s hurtling head on into the Grace Year, determined to understand its secrets and take away its power. But what she quickly comes to see is that within the boundaries of the Grace Year, the usual rules don’t apply. Not only are friends enemies, and enemies friends, but Tierney discovers there are powerful factions who are deeply invested in maintaining the violent Grace Year tradition, not matter what the cost. And Tierney’s life may very well be the price.
This complex, haunting novel pays lovely homage to The Handmaid’s Tale, Lord of the Flies, The Lottery and A Clockwork Orange while still managing to be it’s own truly original beast. And beastly it is, with poachers waiting to pounce and gory death lurking behind every tree trunk. But it also overflows with fascinating flower lore, forbidden love and fierce feminism. I finished this one in a lather, dying to know Tierney’s fate. Startling truths come to light in nearly every chapter, and the final one’s a shocker! Kim Liggett ties up each plot twist in a neat, if bloody bow, and I found the conclusion exceedingly satisfying. Devotees of Holly Black, Kelly Link and Libba Bray will want to snatch up The Grace Year when it comes to a library or bookstore in September 2019.
Ari just knows his future calling is to play in an indie pop band with his best friends, not work from the crack of dawn every day in his family’s struggling Greek bakery. But until he can convince his parents of that and scrape together enough rent money, he’s stuck at home making sourdough rolls. Then cute, tall Hector applies for an job behind the counter and suddenly baking sourdough isn’t so bad. Soon they are spending more and more time together, as Ari shows Hector the ropes and Hector grows closer and closer to Ari’s family. When the time comes for Ari to fully turn over the baking reins to Hector and take off for the club stages of big city Baltimore, he finds it’s not as easy as he thought. But before Ari can figure out what his heart is telling him, a terrible accident blows up his relationship with Hector and drives them apart. Can Ari make a new future for himself while finding his way back to Hector? This tender romance of a graphic novel, drawn with just a touch of manga and shaded in tones of turquoise blue, is sweetly reminiscent of another classic blue-tinted love story near and dear to this reviewer’s heart. Ari’s messy, tousled hair and Hector’s wide, welcoming smile won me over instantly, and I waited with bated breath for these two boys to figure out that what they were feeling was more than just a summer crush. Tasty extras include a recipe for the Kyrkos Family Bakery’s Famous Sourdough Rolls and a finger-snapping summer playlist of beachy songs from Hector to Ari. Fans of Rainbow Rowell, David Levithan and Nicola Yoon looking for a new swoon, your wait is over! Pluck this Bloom asap from your nearest library or bookstore!
Dear Teen Peeps,
Some of you may have noticed that I did not post to RR AT ALL the whole month of January. No, it wasn’t because I was hibernating or binging Russian Doll while the slush piled up and the temperatures flip-flopped. It was because I was working on this tidy round up of some of the latest YA fantasy for the New York Times. Bickering gods, assassin nuns, passionate freedom fighters and aristocratic spies await within the pages of these epic alternate histories! We call it “crossover” because these books have appeal for both teen AND adult reader. So take a peek at the reviews and let me know–do you think these titles fit the bill? All four fantastical tales can be snatched up NOW at your local library or bookstore.
Aspiring chef Emoni Santiago has a lot on her plate (no pun intended!) It’s senior year, and she’s still not sure if college is in the cards. She so busy juggling school, her greasy spoon job, her demanding elective cooking class, and her baby girl Emma that college seems like a distant dream. If she’s going to make it to graduation, the only person she can count on is herself. Because as much as her grandmother ‘Buela loves Emoni and Emma, she also needs a life of her own. And Emoni’s father, who chooses to live most of the year in Puerto Rico, seems more like a drop-in uncle than a dad. And her baby’s daddy, Tyrone? Even though he takes Emma every other weekend, his petty jealousies just makes Emoni tired. The only place she feels truly alive is behind the stove in ‘Buela’s kitchen. There she stirs up food that feeds the stomach AND the soul. Could that be her ticket out of the corner life has crowded her into? Maybe, but only if she’s willing to take the helping hand offered to her by strict Chef Ayden and crush-worthy new boy Malachi. Award winning author and poet Elizabeth Acevedo’s sophomore novel is a heartwarming delight, penned this time around in sparkling prose that brings the sights, sounds and smells of ‘Buela’s kitchen and Emoni’s class trip to foodtastic Spain to delicious life. Come for the recipes, stay for the swoony romance and complex character relationships. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you May 2019.
It’s no small task to take an iconic piece of prose, break it down into a graphic format and also manage to say something new. But that’s exactly what Ari Folman and David Polonsky did in this utterly arresting transformation of one of the world’s most beloved texts, The Diary of Anne Frank. As many of you already know, Anne Frank was a Jewish teenage girl who kept a diary from 1942 to 1944 while living in hiding from the Nazis with her family in Amsterdam. The original diary is full of wry observations, silly asides and bursts of teenage angst, rage and sadness. Folman and Polonsky condensed and edited down Anne’s well-known words, instead using highly expressive character faces and richly designed two page spreads to further convey her thoughts, fears and dreams. The results are vivid, moving and in some ways, even more intimate than Anne’s prose entries. Seeing Anne’s jealousy of her perfect sister Margot depicted on a single page of devil/angel poses or the two sets of bickering parents drawn as fire breathing dragons adds a fascinating new dimension to a classic many know by heart. Both a compelling true story and stunning work of art, Anne Frank’s Diary is a book you’ll want to own so you can pore over the full color pages again and again.
Dear Teen Peeps,
Like in 2017, I haven’t read nearly as much YA as I wanted to/should have, due to a number of tedious, adult-ing reasons. So in the category of better late than never, here is a leaner, meaner list of my top five best YA reads of 2018. I mean, I could have dragged the list out to ten, but that would have taken away from the absolute awesomeness of these five, utterly top-notch books. Please note that there has been absolutely no attempt to balance this list by age, gender or genre. These are just my “from-the-gut” favorites of the books I read this year. Also, since I am lucky enough to get paid to review in publications other than this lovely blog, I reviewed some of my favorites elsewhere. In fact, I reviewed THE POET X, which was my hands down, favorite book of 2018 in every way, shape and form, for The Horn Book Magazine, a professional publication for librarians and other people who still dig kids and YA lit. Click on the title to go right to the review and happy New Year!
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Penelope Bagieu
Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi
Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl
Speak the Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll
Way back in the day when Amazon was still just an online bookstore, I was hired to write freelance reviews of YA novels (which sadly, are now long gone from the site.) In one of my very first assignments, I was sent three ARCs: Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, Monster by Walter Dean Myers and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Yeah. If you know YA literature at all, you know that those were the BIG THREE, the titles that ushered in the new golden age of YA lit by dealing frankly with issues of race, sexual identity and sexual assault while also being universally accessible and beautifully written. They broke the ground for Angie Thomas, John Green, Libba Bray, Jason Reynolds and basically every other modern YA author you know and love.
All of these books have continued to resonate with teens, but in particular, the popularity of Anderson’s Speak has grown exponentially. It won multiple awards, was made into a movie and is taught in high schools all over the country. And in 2018, twenty years after the publication of the original book, Laurie Halse Anderson and artist Emily Carrol have transformed it into a simply spectacular graphic novel.
Speak the Graphic Novel tells the now classic story of Melinda, a high school freshman who has stopped talking because she was raped at a party the summer before ninth grade. She is shunned by former friends and ignored by her busy parents. The only adult who shows her any positive attention is her art teacher, the goatee-ed Mr. Freeman, who instructs her to to take one subject (a tree) and “explore it in every way possible until you figure out how to make it say something, express an emotion.” Both Melinda and her tree evolve over the course of the school year until she finally finds her voice again and confronts the boy who assaulted her. Melinda’s voice is sardonic, self composed and darkly humorous in a way that felt revolutionary when Speak first came out, and continues to today.
Carroll has taken that voice and embellished it with her own ominous , shadowy style, full of close ups of mouths that smile, spit, snarl and snicker, all mocking Melinda’s own lips that rarely open and are dry and scabby from biting. Faces melt, eyes go black and panels flow like blood into each other, visually depicting the pain Melinda won’t voice. The pages lighten as spring approaches, except the two page spread where Melinda confronts her rapist and does everything she was too stunned to do before–screams, hits and says “NO!” in one long, savage word bubble that bursts into a dozens of sharp triangles. Like her tree, Melinda survives, grows, and renews herself, refusing to give up even when the pages go dark.
Fans of Speak will find their old friend freshly and inventively interpreted, while newcomers will fall under Carroll’s dark spell immediately, only resurfacing to go back to the beginning and read again before heading to their school library to check out the original. Do not miss this brilliant reimagining of one of the most celebrated books in YA history!
Sixteen year old Bri has a dream–to be as big as her legendary rapper dad, Lawless. He was shot and killed just as he was about to go nuclear, and Bri intends to finish what he started. She’s got her best friends Sonny and Malik cheering her on, and fierce Aunt Pooh lining up rap battles for her. But it can be hard to create lines and spit rhymes when she is constantly worried that her hard working mom Jay might slide back into drug addiction, or whether or not they have enough money to pay both the electric AND the grocery bills. When her big break finally happens, it comes at great personal cost. Bri is assaulted by a racist security guard at school, and she fights back the only way she knows how–through words. Her song “On the Come Up” goes viral, and soon Bri’s catchy chorus is being sung by every kid at school and she is being courted by the same manager who made her dad famous. But when her song is used a weapon against her and other black and brown kids, Bri has to make some hard choices about life, love, family and fame that threaten to silence her dream forever.
Teen peeps, however much you loved Starr in The Hate U Give (and I know, we all loved her A LOT) you are going to be blown away by Bri. Hats off to Angie Thomas, who defied the sophomore slump with this classic, yet totally fresh story of a talented neighborhood girl who makes good by staying true to herself. There’s a lot going on, but it never feels forced, as Thomas effortlessly weaves issues of racial profiling, gang violence, feminism, implicit bias and LGBTQ acceptance into Bri’s compulsive, page-turning story. The cast of complex secondary characters defy stereotypes at every turn (tough Aunt Pooh, loving mom Jay, wise brother Trey, goofy friend Sonny, serious friend Malik, Grandma and Granddaddy in their matching outfits) and are so well drawn that they could all star in their own spin-offs. And the music! Rap mavens and hiphop newbies alike will delight in reading about and then going to listen to Bri’s top five “goats” (greatest of all time): Biggie, Tupac, Jean Grae, Lauryn Hill and Rakim. Bri’s own original lyrics are so tight, you’ll just wish you could hear the actual beats. Really, the only thing missing is a soundtrack. Which I’m sure will be addressed in the movie–as there is no way in heck this awesome-in-every-way novel (set in the same universe as The Hate U Give) isn’t going to follow its wildly popular predecessor to the big screen. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you February 2019.
A full FIFTEEN YEARS (!) after the publication of her romantic fantasy EAST, author Edith Pattou has written a swoony sequel (aptly entitled WEST, natch) in which Rose hits the road again looking for her lost love. (Spoiler alert: this is a true sequel. If you haven’t read EAST, head over here or your nearest library and check it out before reading further.) Three years have passed since Rose married her enchanted white bear, now a handsome gent named Charles. They have a tiny, smart baby named Winn, and are entirely, deliriously happy. Cue the storm clouds. Happiness never made a good story better, so Rose’s old nemesis, the Troll Queen (who was supposed to be dead, but as we know from every Bond movie EVER, villains always get one more life) has pulled herself together and is orchestrating the end of the world from her newly formed ice castle. But first she must assuage her broken heart by busting Rose’s. In short order, Charles is lost at sea and Winn is kidnapped, both acts the result of the Troll Queen’s black magic. Once again, Rose must travel to the four corners of the earth to rescue her baby, retrieve her lost love and also save the world from Aagnorak (Trollish for “apocalypse,” and probably a creative take on this word.) CAN SHE DO IT? All signs point towards yes, as this sequel is just as comforting, approachable and gently told as it’s predecessor. If this old world is getting you down and you need a soft pillow of escapism, you could do much worse than curl up with EAST and WEST and have yourself a nice little fantasy-fest. For all those white bears out there and the girls who love them, this one’s for you. 😉
Jane McKeene, daughter of a white woman and a black man, is learning the fine art of zombie killing at Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls in Baltimore County. Ever since the dead rose up at the Battle of Gettysburg, the States quit fighting each other and began fighting the revenants. The government then created “combat schools,” where black and brown-skinned teens are taught etiquette and sword play in order to become dutiful “Attendants” for wealthy white families and protect them from zombie attacks. Jane is thisclose to graduating with honors and returning to her beloved home in Kentucky, when she and her arch frenemy Kate Deveraux are forced to take on a “special assignment” in the wild, uncivilized western frontier. There they learn that the fragile national peace wrought by the bloody efforts of their peers and comrades is in serious jeopardy, and that zombies are actually the last things they should be afraid of. With all of this going on, Jane has absolutely no business falling for two boys who couldn’t be more different. But the heart wants what the heart wants, as they say, and if Jane survives the rapidly amassing zombie herd, she’ll have decide which boy (if any) gets her still-beating ticker. If I sound cagey or mysterious, that’s because it’s almost impossible to write about this compulsively readable alternate history series opener without giving away the secrets at its core. Ireland spins a page turning tale, while also weaving in lots of subtle and not so subtle allusions to our country’s past and present problems with race, power and corruption. Wielding her fictional pen like a critical sword, Ireland scrutinizes and excoriates the real fake science intended to dehumanize black people, the real boarding schools that were set up to “civilize” Native American children, and how Reconstruction morphed into Jim Crow after the Civil War. Readers who come for the zombies will stay for the sharp social commentary and gleeful skewering of stereotypes. Dread Nation is KILLER.