Mike is a quiet guy. Minds his own business, keeps his nose clean, doesn’t rock the boat. When his dad announces that they are moving from Wisconsin to Virginia for his job, Mike just goes with the flow. His new high school in Somerdale is fine. His friends Ronald, Jared and Terry are fine. Grace Fellowship, the church his family starts attending, is fine. His art teacher is a jerk and this one bully Victor always gives him some grief. But it’s nothing he can’t handle. And then one day Mike is assigned to work on a French project with new guy Sean. Which should also be fine. But it’s not. Instead, it’s amazing. With Sean, Mike feels like he can finally be himself. The version of himself that he has pushed down for so long he had practically forgotten it existed. But when Mike and Sean dare to be themselves for just one night, the world hits back in a big way and Mike has to decide if he wants to live a “just fine” life or a messy, real life with the all the joy and pain that comes with it. This quietly powerful book, by newcomer Rafi Mittlefehldt, moved me to tears with its’ spare, poignant prose and nuanced message of self love and acceptance. Set in a conventional suburban world that we all recognize, this compelling novel is both a love story and a brutal indictment of families and communities that still don’t affirm or recognize the individuality and strength of LGBTQ teens. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you September 2016.
What if the Underground Railroad was actually a REAL railroad? That’s the question author Colson Whitehead asks in this allegorical historical fiction about one slave woman’s quest for freedom in a twisted version of America that is both fantastical and horribly real. Cora is only a teenager. But she feels a thousand years old, due to the brutal living conditions she must endure as a field slave on the Randall plantation. When another slave named Caesar asks her to run away with him, she refuses at first, thinking of how her own mother escaped the plantation and left her alone to fend for herself. But after she is savagely whipped for trying to save a child from being beaten, she decides she has nothing left to lose. Through an abolitionist network, Cora and Caesar are given passage on the Underground Railroad, a secret subterranean railway that carries runaway slaves across the Southern states to freedom. But not always safety, as the two soon discover. Instead of the liberty she imagined, Cora instead experiences nightmarish scenarios at each stop that mirror actual historical events, from insidious medical experiments to celebratory Friday lynchings. And all the while, she is being ruthlessly stalked by the slave catcher Ridgeway, who has sworn to bring her back to Randall no matter what, because her mother was the only slave who ever escaped his clutches. Each time Cora thinks she has found a place of safety, it is viciously snatched away. Does she have any chance in this merciless world where black girl’s lives are worth less than a crate of rum? Cora may just be a teenager. But she is also a survivor.
This beautiful, devastating novel may have been published for an adult audience, but the powerful, precise prose reads like a timeless classic that should be experienced by everyone over the age of 14. I have no doubt that this book will find it’s way onto hundreds of high school reading lists and college syllabi by the end of next year, alongside the writings of Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. But despite it’s insta-classic feel, readers can also easily draw parallels between Cora’s endless trials and our current racial and social ills, including Stop and Frisk, hate speech and anti-immigrant rhetoric. While this book often made me soul sick, I couldn’t wait to finish it to discover how Cora’s extraordinary journey concluded. And because The Underground Railroad is the latest pick for Oprah’s Book Club, you should have zero problems getting a copy asap from your local library, bookstore or on your e-reader. Want more? Listen to this outstanding interview between Colson Whitehead and Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.
Never heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Welcome to the club. Luckily for those of us not in the know, National Book Award finalist Patty McCormick has penned a fascinating biography of the little known German Lutheran minister who was a big part of an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a traditionally trained and educated theologian, philosopher and pastor who came of age just as Germany was gearing up for WWII. After his beloved brother was killed during WWI, Bonhoeffer dedicated his life to God and the pursuit of peace. He traveled around the world, including the United States, where his beliefs were challenged and influenced by other religious cultural practices. He read and was inspired by the writings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and soon become convinced that “the church wasn’t a historical institution; it was a living community that could transcend national, ethnic, class and even religious boundaries. The ‘church’ was not a building or an organization; it was a force for good, alive all around the world.” As Hitler rose to power in Bonhoeffer’s native Germany, and Bonhoeffer’s Jewish friends began to suffer, Bonhoeffer knew that despite his avowed pacifism, he had to do everything in his power to bring about the end of this evil man. So he joined together with his brother-in-laws in a secret conspiracy to rid Germany of the Fuhrer. Bonhoeffer’s part was to sneak damning evidence of Nazi atrocities out of Germany to other European nations to convince them to overthrow the dictator. In fact, Bonhoeffer was the first person to send documented proof from Germany to Geneva, Switzerland about Hitler’s plan to exterminate the German Jews. How successful was Bonhoeffer in his efforts and how close did the men come to realizing Hitler’s murder? That is the compelling, page turning true story McCormick tells in this slim volume that you could probably finish in a weekend (like I did!).
“It must be complicated, being a person with a conscience.” Fifteen year old Morgan is “cold.” She doesn’t know what it’s like to put herself in someone else’s shoes, because the only feet she’s ever cared about are her own! That’s why when her parents finally get fed up with her self serving ways and decide to send her to a boarding school for “troubled teens,” Morgan makes a break for it. She meets a girl named Janelle at the airport who looks a lot like her, give or take a few pounds. She convinces lovelorn Janelle, who’s being sent to live with her rich aunt and uncle in order to separate her from her bad news boyfriend, to switch identities. With Janelle off in a love nest, Morgan is free to skip boarding school and take her place. Then the games really begin, as Morgan successfully convinces Janelle’s family that she is their niece, while running scam after scam that soon line her pockets with rolls of cash. But nothing good lasts forever. Morgan knows that sooner or later her parents or the real Janelle are going to show up feeling pretty angry and looking for answers. Does she have what it takes to pull off one last big con and head off in the sunset for fresh hunting grounds? You may not like Morgan, but you’re sure to be rooting for her by the surprising end of this snappy thriller. The plot is preposterous, but that’s precisely what makes it so much fun. Think Harriet the Spy meets The Grifters (I know I’m dating myself here, but trust me, they’re CLASSICS.) Coming your way this August, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered to get you through the dog days of summer.
Three tweens walk into a tavern: a Christian, a Jew and an African. Too young to drink, they instead make miracles and take on the King of France with their devoted dog, a resurrected greyhound named Gwenforte. What sounds like the beginning of a classic joke or a superhero origin story is actually a fresh, irreverent all-ages take on the Middle Ages by A Tale Dark and Grimm author Adam Gidwitz. Jeanne, William and Jacob meet unexpectedly at a tavern in France when each has been expelled from their respective communities. Peasant Jeanne is arrested by mercenary knights who suspect she has raised her dog from the dead, monk-in-training William is forced to leave his monastery after losing his temper and splitting a solid stone bench many times his weight, and Jacob, a young Jewish boy with healing in his hands, is on the run after vengeful Christians burn his family’s village to the ground. Their talents are recognized by a giant red headed monk named Michelangelo di Bologna, who convinces the three miracle workers to join him on a secret quest to save thousands of copies of Talmuds, a Jewish holy book, that have been ordered to be burned by the Christian King of France. Can they do it? Three kids, a dog and a crazy monk? The only people who know the answer to that question are the folks gathered at the tavern bar who are taking turns telling the parts of the tale that they know or have witnessed. Lean in, pull up a ginger beer and listen close as they share the story of Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog. This Canterbury Tales meets X-Men is a raucous, incredibly well-researched story that includes everything from flatulent dragons to meaningful and enlightening discussions about history and religion. With a detailed author’s note and gorgeous illustrations from artist Hatem Aly, you couldn’t find a better action/adventure intro to medieval religion than this book! (Except maybe this one🙂 Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you September 2016.
Carson already knows it’s going to be a bummer summer. His aloof therapist mom has moved them from the not so mean streets of Manhattan to the boring wilds of small town Montana, where they are tasked with taking care of Carson’s dying alcoholic dad who abandoned them years ago. Carson’s feelings about his father have been on lockdown for so long that they only way he knows how to deal is by making bad puns and staying far away from anyone or anything that might make him open up. Enter Aisha, a smart, pretty African American lesbian who’s just been tossed out of her house for being gay and is looking for a couch to surf. Aisha makes Carson feel feelings that he’d forgotten he even had, and even though she’s so not interested in being his girlfriend, she just might be his first real friend. They bond over their lack of family ties and the Porcupine of Truth, a prickly craft project that represents their shared skepticism of spirituality. Their new friendship is tested when Carson discovers a box in the basement of his dad’s house that provides clues to the roots of his dad’s alcoholism and why he hit the road so long ago. Turns out Carson’s grandfather had the same case of itchy feet and Carson is determined to find out why. Armed with his grandfather’s journal, the Porcupine of Truth and $100, Carson and Aisha set out in Aisha’s Dodge Neon on a cross country journey of personal discovery that delights, saddens and surprises them both. This sweet, funny road trip of a novel is perfect for warm weather reading. If family drama, highway hijinks and realistic relationships are your thang, than throw this lime green lovely in your beach bag.
Within the walls of the Nameless City, there are the conquerers and the conquered. The city is re-named each time it is taken over, but none of the names last for long, and none of the conquerers ever ask the citizens what they want. Kaidu, the bookish son of one of the current conquerers, is in training to become a warrior, which isn’t going so well. Rat, a conquered native, is a streetwise orphan who lives by her wits and is always hungry. They strike up an uneasy alliance when Kai sneaks out of his dormitory to explore the busy city on his own and soon becomes lost. Rat shows him the way home and reluctantly agrees to teach him her patented mode of getting around town quickly–by racing over rooftops–in exchange for food. It turns out that Kai is a much better runner (and friend) then he is fighter, and the two discover they have more in common than they ever would have thought. But when Rat gets wind of a plot that could help drive Kai and his kind from the Nameless City, she has to decide if her new friendship is worth more than her city’s freedom. Kai and Rat’s kinetic, shy-high exploits and hotly competitive relationship are expertly depicted by amazeballs graphic novelist Faith Erin Hicks in breathless panels that ooze with color. This cross-cultural adventure (which seems to be set in or inspired by medieval China) feels contemporary and fresh, despite it’s historical-ish frame. If you dig Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, don’t hesitate to take a trip to the Nameless City (the first in a new series).
Stubborn, hard working high school seniors Crystal and Amber know what it’s like to make sacrifices. They have done without their whole lives, since their gambling addicted mom spends her paycheck on lottery tickets instead of groceries and their lazy stepdad spends more time passed out on the couch than he does working his pizza joint job. So when one sister accidently gets pregnant, they know that they have no one to turn to but each other. When Natalie is born, the sisters swear to stick together and raise her no matter what. They manage to stay in school by using the services of the school run daycare, while Crystal pumps gas and works on cars at the local garage and Amber washes dishes at their aunt’s bar. It’s hard but they’re making it work until Crystal’s head is turned by a guidance counselor who suggests she apply to a vocational college in another state with a special car restoration program. At first, Crystal scoffs at the idea. After all, “People like me work at gas stations their whole lives, go to cruise-ins with their cars and join softball leagues for fun.” But then she decides to apply just to see what happens, and to her great shock, gets in. Now she has to choose between staying in Portland with her sister and helping with Natalie or following her college dreams to Kansas. As the day of her final decision draws closer, Crystal struggles to justify her choice and to keep hidden a devastating secret that could destroy her relationship with Amber and Natalie forever. This solidly written, utterly realistic novel that details the day-to-day life of one working class white family on the brink of change is full of piss, vinegar and heart. There are so many engrossing particulars that pulled me in as a reader that are worth mentioning, but among my favorites were how Crystal had to use her junkyard dog Bonehead as a poor woman’s alarm system and let him sleep in her muscle car each night so it wouldn’t get stolen, and how Crystal and Amber hid their mom’s lottery winnings in small bills throughout the house so she wouldn’t spend it all at once. This family and their all-too-real problems stole my heart—and it will steal yours to when it comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you October 2016.
Anyone who has ever picked up a pen and dreamed of creating their own graphic novel is bound to be inspired by graphic novelist Sara Varon‘s latest charming short comic collection. Originally published in 2003, these eighteen vignettes are now accompanied by personal notes that detail her inspiration and who the different characters symbolize, giving a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the artist. Everything from the divine (the process of beekeeping!) to the mundane (a day in the life series) are represented here, along with all the in between stuff: friendship, heartbreak, and lots of and lots of eating delicious things. If you like food, animal folks and fun, or have an interest in the creative process (which is lovingly detailed in each and every story) then you are going to want to wrap yourself up in Sweater Weather.
Noah Keller, a pretty ordinary kid except for his “Astonishing Stutter,” is stunned when he comes home from school one day and his parents announce they are leaving their hometown of Oasis, Virginia and heading to one of the grimmest places on earth in 1989: East Berlin behind the Berlin Wall. While his mother explains that the family is going to Germany for six months so that she can study German children’s speech problems for her graduate degree, Noah is suspicious. If his mother is just conducting research, why do they all have to change their names? Why aren’t they allowed to talk about anything serious within the walls of their new apartment? And why can’t he go to school with other East German children? The less information his parents share, the more Noah’s doubt grows until he decides to investigate the strict boundaries of his new world on his own. With the help of his downstairs neighbor Claudia (who he dubs “Cloud”) Noah begins to ask some questions whose answers may put his entire family in terrible danger. Because in Noah’s new reality, no one is who they seem. Who are Noah’s parents, really? Who is Claudia? And how can Noah find out the truth without hurting everyone he loves? This unusual, fable-like mystery, set in the near past and chock full of fascinating facts about the claustrophobic, formally Communist East Berlin will captivate readers with it’s intriguing premise and cryptic characters. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you October 2016.