Parachutes by Kelly Yang

Clair is a “parachute,” one of the rich Chinese teens who are sent to live on their own in the United States (“We parachute in…get it?”) to attend American high schools in order to avoid taking the brutal gaokao, or Chinese college entrance exams. She’s used to high end luxury, and not at all sure she’s ready to “slum it” at American Preparatory high school in L.A. Dani is a Filipino-American ace debater who attends American Prep on scholarship and cleans houses after school to save for college. She’ll do anything to be chosen to debate at Snider, a national competition that could win her the attention of Yale college scouts. When Clair’s family arranges for her to rent the spare bedroom in Dani’s house, the two girls are forced to reckon with the assumptions and stereotypes they each hold about the other in order to form a bond that just might save them both. This gripping, achingly honest novel thoughtfully explores multiple perspectives of the Asian teen experience, while also delving deeply into issues of class, race, academic cheating, sexual harassment and rape culture. In an author’s note that is as compelling as her novel, Kelly Yang describes her own painful experience of being sexually assaulted, along with the actions she took against her attacker and her ultimate recovery. Don’t be put off by the length, this dramatically powerful page turner will hold your attention until the very last sentence!

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

Jade is about to start her junior year at St. Francis High School, and she hopes this year is different. Maybe this is the year she will finally make a real friend at the mostly white, private high school that she attends on scholarship. Maybe this is the year she will be chosen for the Spanish study abroad program. Maybe this is the year she will learn to speak up about what she really wants and speak out about the things that really bother her. But first she has to complete this new mentorship program called Woman to Women, yet another “opportunity” her white guidance counselor Mrs. Parker has set up for her.

“Sometimes I wish I could say, Oh, no, thank you, Mrs. Parker. I have enough opportunities. My life is full of opportunities. Give an opportunity to someone else. But girls like me, with coal skin and hula-hoop hips, whose mommas barely make enough money to keep food in the house, have to take opportunities every chance we get.”

At first, Jade doesn’t know what to make of her Woman to Woman mentor, Maxine, who arrives late to their first meeting, seems to have boyfriend drama, and lives in a completely different (i.e. rich) zip code. But soon Jade discovers that she and Maxine have more in common than she thought. And through Maxine, Jade gets an opportunity that she actually wants: to showcase her collage art. As she makes her way through junior year, Jade grapples with how to tell her friends, teachers and Maxine the reality of her life, instead of accepting what they think of her without knowing the facts. This powerful, lyrical novel about finding your voice, speaking your truth and standing up for what you believe in was a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King winner, and while I can’t believe I’m only just reading it now, I also can’t think of a better time for everyone to pick it up.

Burn by Patrick Ness

In Patrick Ness‘s fascinating alternate historical fiction, dragons and humans co-exist in an uneasy truce, each side mostly keeping to themselves, until an ancient prophecy threatens to ignite an age old war.

It’s 1957, three years into the Cold War between the United States and Russia. Sixteen year old Sarah Dewhurst and her father Gerald struggle to keep their family farm in Washington state afloat after the death of her mother from cancer. Their lives are made even harder by Deputy Kelby, a racist police officer who harasses Sarah constantly for having a white father and a black mother, and for her friendship with Jason Inagawa, whose family farms nearby and whose mother died in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. But things really come to a head when Sarah’s father hires a dragon to help them with the farm work. The dragon is carrying secret meant only for Sarah that involves an apocalyptic prediction, a swiftly approaching assassin, an FBI investigation and the launching of a Russian satellite. Confused? So is Sarah, but the situation becomes clear pretty quick in this rocket-paced, utterly inventive novel. And just when you think you have a grasp on what’s happening, Ness flips the story again, in the most pleasurably shocking way possible. I “burned”through it in a few days flat, and you will too!

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi

National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds‘ galvanizing remix of professor and historian Ibram X. Kendi‘s book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America , is a propulsive examination of race and racism in America, written for a teen audience, but really for everyone. Reynolds moves through American history at full tilt, using humor periodically as a sharp edged sword, to question everything we’ve been taught about famous Americans, from Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglas, to Abraham Lincoln and Angela Davis. By utilizing a framework defined by Kendi (“The antiracists try to transform racism. The assimilationists try to transform Black people. The segregationists try to get away from Black people.”) Reynolds shakes up traditional and stereotypical views of our American icons and shows readers the source of racist ideas and how to challenge them. Reynolds pauses on the page when the sheer onslaught of racist ideas and oppression becomes too much, and pushes readers forward when they try to relax back into their more comfortable and familiar versions of presidents and change makers. It’s a book that is almost more experienced than “read,” especially in our turbulent here and now. It’s also a perfect starting place for self-education around race and racism, as the extensive reading list is one of the best I’ve seen for teen people. Ready to take action, or need inspiration to keep going? START HERE.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

This prequel to the super popular Hunger Games Trilogy reveals the diabolical origins of Panem president Coriolanus Snow, and how he evolves into the tyrannical despot we love to hate. (Note: this post assumes pre-knowledge of the Hunger Games books and/or movies. If you have no clue what those are, click here) Coriolanus Snow was once just an eighteen year old boy, desperate to keep his genteel poverty a secret. The Snows were a powerful family before the war. But now with both his parents dead, and the unpaid taxes on the family’s penthouse building up, he needs a miracle to keep himself, his cousin and grandmother alive. Enter Lucy Gray, a sly and talented tribute from District 12. The government has decided to assign promising Academy students as mentors to the tributes of the 10th Hunger Games, and Coriolanus is tasked with guiding Lucy. Since she is small and young, he doesn’t have high hopes for her at first. But as the two of them start to strategize, he begins to admire, and then fall for her beautiful singing voice and strong will to live. He even convinces the powers that be to add betting privileges, along with food and water pledges to the bare-bones Game structure in order to help Lucy survive longer. Is it possible for Coriolanus to win the Games and Lucy too? Perhaps, but devotees of the series know it won’t be easy. There is no room for love or mercy in the brutal Capitol of Panem, where the snakes don’t just come in reptile form! While this tome was a bit too bleak for me during our current crisis, fans will likely be gratified by the grimly satisfying ending.

Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Feder

What do you do when you find out that your mom and best friend is dying of cancer? Weep with sadness? Rage at the unfairness of it all? Yes, and sometimes even write a stunningly good graphic memoir about it. Now ten years after Tyler Feder‘s mom died during her sophomore year of college, she has written a frank, poignant and even funny road map of how to navigate being in the “dead mom club.” Tyler Feder’s mom Rhonda was awesome. She had a signature pixie hair cut, made amazing Halloween costumes and birthday decorations, and loved perfumed hand lotion and scary carnival rides. Feder’s choice to render her sad family history in a soft pastel pink palette helps soften the blow of seeing effervescent Rhonda lose her dark mop of hair and descend into sickness. With the benefit of healing time, Feder is even able to seed her story of grieving with gentle humor. There’s tips on “how to make a good cry a great cry,” “Dead Mom: The App,” and a “My mom died young reaction Bingo board.” The section on the family sitting shiva after Rhonda’s death is my favorite, where Feder lovingly details the strangeness of her terrible new state of motherlessness, but how friends and family helped her through. Good for both a cry and a laugh, Dancing at the Pity Party is perfect for anyone who’s ever lost a loved one, or loves someone who has.

Bloom by Kenneth Oppel

It happens quickly. One spring day, everything in Anaya’s hometown of Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, is fine. The next, jagged, coarse black grasses start growing everywhere, choking out the all the local vegetation and emitting a poisonous pollen that makes people sneeze and cough. Anaya’s father, a botanist with the Ministry of Agriculture, suspects the terrible plants may be biologically engineered weapons. But if so, who unleashed them? Because it’s not just Salt Spring Island that’s infected, it’s the entire globe. All across the world the black grass is growing and morphing, turning into killer lilies that shoot bullet-like seeds, and buried flesh-eating pods that lurk beneath the soil, ready to open and swallow down unsuspecting souls in a single gulp. Anaya’s dad believes he knows a way to destroy the killer grass. But he has to travel to a remote island in order to create the antidote. Meanwhile, Anaya and her friends Petra and Seth have discovered that the bizarre plants don’t seem to make them sick the way they make everyone else. In fact, they seem impervious to the grasses’ deadly pollen and acid sap. And suddenly the Canadian military is very interested in their surprise immunity. What does it all mean? Where did the killer grass come from? Why are three random Canadian teenagers immune to this global terror? And can Anaya’s dad find the cure before being eaten alive? While some of these questions are answered, many more are raised in this jaw-dropping, bio-horror series opener by master of suspense Kenneth Oppel. For those of you who prefer to immerse yourself in books that reflect our current situation instead of escape it, this page-turning, fast-paced pandemic thriller is for you. I flew through it, gasped at the cliff-hanging ending, and then rejoiced when I saw that I only had to wait until this fall to see what happens next. Run, don’t walk to your nearest e-reader or local library website to give this Bloom a sniff (just don’t get too close!)

The Blossom and the Firefly by Sherri L. Smith

It is 1945, and Japan is struggling to sustain their military might in the face of advancing American troops. Taro, a young Japanese pilot, has just joined a unit of kamikaze, pilots who volunteer to fatally “body-crash” their planes into American warships. Hana, a school girl and seamstress, is a member of the Nadeshiko unit, young women who are assigned to wait on and tend to the kamikaze pilots at the local military base until the day they are assigned to take their last flights. Hana has sadly become used to seeing the doomed young men come and go, and tries not to become attached. But when Taro arrives at the barracks with his violin case, Hana finds herself smitten with the young musician and his music. Every day that bad weather keeps Taro’s plane grounded is another chance for their love to bloom. Each of them has sworn to do their duty for their families, their country and their people. Can true love flourish even in the face of certain death? This utterly compelling and richly detailed historical fiction is the inspired work of Sherri L. Smith, author of Flygirl, one of my all time favs. While her research wowed me as librarian, it’s Smith’s beautifully imagined forbidden love story that really made me swoon. By showcasing a culture where the deepest of feelings can be conveyed by a look, a song, or a weighted silence, Smith has inadvertently crafted the perfect social distance romance for our quarantined times.

Go With the Flow by Lily Williams & Karen Schneemann

High school sophomores and best friend group Abby, Brit, Christine and Sasha have had it up to HERE with the empty tampon dispensers in their school’s bathrooms. What’s a girl supposed to do if she forgets her essential supplies? Isn’t it the school’s responsibility to stock these vital necessaries used by 50% of the population? Activist minded Abby thinks so, so she launches a giant demonstration to draw attention to the issue. There’s only one problem–she brings her friends into it without asking their permission, putting them all at risk for suspension. Can Abby do an abrupt about-face and win back her best buds’ trust, while still holding the school accountable for supporting menstrual rights? This sweet, funny graphic novel was inspired by the creators wish to normalize periods and stop them from being such a taboo topic. But it’s also a delightful friendship story, full of secret crushes, awkward flirting and the highest of high school drama. If you grew up reading Raina Telgemeier or Shannon Hale, you’re going to love Go with the Flow. Period! (hee hee!)

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare

Adunni has a lot to say: about her beloved mother’s untimely death, her drunk father’s plan to sell her away as a third wife to a taxi driver, and her secret dream to someday graduate from college and become a teacher. The problem is, no one wants to hear from the fourteen year old daughter of a unemployed Nigerian widower. So Adunni is going to do whatever it takes to make her voice LOUDING so that no one will ever be able to dismiss her again. And if that means running away, or taking a job in a mansion where the Big Madam beats her, then so be it. She’s not afraid to work and she’s not afraid to stand up for herself. Luckily, her verve and nerve catch the attention of a few folks who are in a position to help, like the kind hearted chef in Big Madam’s kitchen, and Big Madam’s neighbor who knows what it’s like to have her opinion silenced. Adunni may get her louding voice sooner than she thinks!

This stunning debut, written in Adunni’s unique and vibrant first person voice, may have been published adult, but it’s going to be popular with any teen who’s ever dreamed big or who knew in their heart that they were better than the limited circumstances life had handed them. Dare’s nuanced depiction of Nigerian society and class reminded me of Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. And although it’s a completely different setting, Adunni also reminded me Judith, the bright young protagonist of Edith Summers Kelley’s 1923 novel Weeds, about a smart Appalachian girl who tries to rise above her means. Adunni is completely unforgettable and I can’t wait for you to meet her! While most schools and public libraries are closed at the moment, The Girl with the Louding Voice is available as an e-book and on audio. Stay home, wash hands, and read books!

Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

In 1727, a group of men and boys set out on a fowling mission from the island of Hirta, which is part of the St. Kilda archipelago. Every summer, males from the village are rowed out and dropped off on a nearby “stac” or small uninhabited rocky island, to catch, kill and preserve enough seabirds to sustain the village through the winter. They were supposed to stay there for only a few weeks. But as the weeks turn into months and no boat comes, they can only assume the worst–that the world has ended and somehow they have been left behind. It is up to Quilliam, a level headed boy of middling years, to comfort the younger children with stories and challenge the adults to act against mad “Minister” Cane, who has deemed himself priest, judge and jury over everyone. Cane also happens to own the only tinderbox , and exploits his power ruthlessly. But even in the darkness, there is humor and hope as the boys make a raft, give each other honorific titles, and share what supplies they have left. Who will survive the coming winter and dwindling food supply? And what has happened to their village? Has the world really ended? The reason why no one comes to rescue the fowling crew until nine months later is actually sadder and more devastating than any writer could ever make up. In this lyrical and enlightening novel based on true events, McCaughrean, a 2008 Printz winner and 2020 Printz finalist for THIS book, seems to be channeling all our fear and anxiety about being separated, while giving us unforgettable characters who maintain their hope, no matter what. As we all hunker down and and settle into online learning and social distancing, you will either want to read books that reflect and help you cope with our new reality, or enable you to escape it altogether. This title definitely falls under the first category, so read it for inspiration on how other folks coped with unprecedented situations, and keep washing those hands!

The King of Crows by Libba Bray

CONCLUDING-BOOK-IN-A-SERIES-SPOILER ALERT! This is the LAST book in the Diviner series, if you have not read books 1, 2 & 3 STOP NOW and go treat yourself. If you are prepared to wade into the multi-layered plot of book 4, then carry on!

The Diviners have overcome great odds to come together in order to defeat the slippery and scary King of Crows. But they are losing their mojo and their mentors. Uncle Will has been murdered by the terrifying Shadow Men, and Sister Walker’s been arrested. Having discovered slick businessman Jake Marlow is keeping the door between the living and the dead open with his terrible Eye gadget, fueled by Diviner energy (poor Sam!) Evie, Henry, Jericho, Ling, Memphis, Isiah and Theta decide to confront him at Sarah Snow’s memorial in Times Square and make him see that the Eye spells nothing but destruction. But before they can, Jake Marlow places a bounty on their heads, and now everyone is looking for the Diviners. They scatter with a hasty plan to meet up in Bountiful Nebraska, where a girl named Sarah Beth has appeared in a vision to Isiah, asking for the Diviner’s help. On their far-flung, split-up travels to Bountiful, Ling and Jericho follow a band of all-female barnstormers; Evie, Theta, Sam and Isiah join the circus; while Memphis and Henry get stuck in a flood along the Mississippi River. And always at their heels: the dead. The hungry, angry ghosts who do the King of Crows’ bidding. Who will win the final showdown between the army of dead and the army of Diviners? Only this crackerjack of a conclusion can tell, and does, in great epic sweeps of twentieth century American history and folklore. Action-packed and utterly decadent, this last volume satisfies on all accounts, and was well worth the wait. I’ll say no more, and leave it up to you to enjoy!

The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh by Candace Fleming

Charles Lindbergh, the famed aviator who was the first person to cross the Atlantic in an airplane in 1927, is often considered an American hero. Biographer Candace Fleming delves into his questionable and contradictory character, revealing a single-minded loner who, despite his bravery and mechanical genius, often found himself on the wrong side of history because of his outlier politics.

A self taught pilot and engineer, Lindbergh rose to fame after he successfully flew from New York to Paris in a single engine, canvas and wood constructed airplane called The Spirit of St. Louis (so named because the nine investors who provided the money for the plane were St. Louis- based businessmen.) That flight turned him into a huge celebrity. Along with the cash prizes and lucrative consulting contacts, it also set Lindbergh up for life financially. His fame and money were what undoubtedly led to his first child being kidnapped and held for ransom, a sad and shocking chapter of his life that ended in tragedy. As he aged, Lindbergh became enthralled by and involved in movements that are now seen as dangerous and deeply wrong, including eugenics and Nazism. His less extreme but still polarizing anti-immigrant rhetoric and “America First” beliefs are shared by many mainstream political organizations today. Although Lindbergh became a staunch environmentalist towards the end of his life, helping to save endangered species and eco-systems, he never quite admitted that many of his earlier stances were elitist and inhumane. Fleming saves the most shocking revelations of Lindberg’s life for last, telling a story of family secrets so melodramatic, it almost seems made up.

Fleming’s account is balanced, based on piles of research and Lindbergh and his wife Anne’s own diaries. She makes no judgements but just shares the facts, written in her clean, approachable prose and organized into short, fast paced chapters. I didn’t particularly like Lindbergh while I was reading about him, but I was fascinated by the larger-than-life events that shaped him. Though his politics were very problematic, there is no denying his life was unusual enough to grab any biographer’s interest. I’m just glad it snagged Candace Fleming’s! Coming to a library or bookstore near you February 2020.

Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang

I am seriously sports adverse. You might even call me allergic. So, it turns out, is award winning and all around awesome graphic novelist Gene Yang. That’s why he was surprised to find himself writing a graphic memoir about, well, basketball.

Gene didn’t even know much about The Dragons, the basketball team at Bishop O’Dowd Catholic high school where he taught math. But when he starts hearing his students talking about how this is the year for the Dragons, he senses a story. And what a story it is! Gene finds himself caught up, just like the rest of the school, in the drama of the Dragon’s 2014 basketball season. A team that always makes it to the California State Championship, but never seems to seal the deal, the Dragons are determined to win this year, and Yang invites himself along for the ride. Interspersed between the personal stories of the individual players, their charismatic coach Lou Ritchie, and fast paced season games, are captivating chapters on the origins of basketball and famous games and players from basketball history. (I can’t even believe I wrote that last sentence.) Each time a character makes a major decision, in basketball or in life, Yang shows them taking a step: across a line, across a street, or into the future. It’s a quiet, yet powerful visual that underscores the fact that the most monumental changes are often initiated by the smallest act. Suspense builds not only as readers race to the end to see if the Dragons will win State, but also to see what happens to Mr. Yang, who’s undergoing his own personal crisis regarding his calling as a teacher and an artist.

I have always been an unabashed fan of Gene Yang, and I’m clearly not the only one. I think everything he creates is outstanding. Each book is better than the last, and I think, how can he possibly top THIS one? By making a person with NO sports gene CARE ABOUT BASKETBALL AND BAWL LIKE A BABY THROUGH THE WHOLE LAST CHAPTER, that’s how. I don’t care who you are or what you like to read, you will love this book. Coming to a library or bookstore near you just in time for March Madness, 2020.

The Language of Fire: Joan of Arc Reimagined by Stephanie Hemphill

We’ve all heard the story of Joan of Arc: French teen girl hears voice of God telling her to save France from the English, chops off hair, learns to wield a sword and ride a horse, fights in a bunch of battles, gets captured by the enemy, and is burned alive as a heretic. But in The Language of Fire, Hemphill, master of the verse novel (Your Own, Sylvia, Wicked Girls) has unmasked the mythical martyr and revealed the stubborn, scared girl who challenged the religious patriarchy and led a skeptical country out of war.

In 1425, Joan, or Jehanne as she called herself, was only thirteen when she claimed to hear God command her to deliver France from English oppression. France and England had been fighting for almost a hundred years over the succession of the French crown, and now Jehanne believed she was being summoned by God to help put the rightful French king on the throne. There was only one problem. Who was going to follow an illiterate peasant girl with no knowledge or experience into battle? With utter sincerity and innocent piety, Jehanne slowly convinces powerful knights and land owning dukes that she is telling the truth. Impossibly, she manages to build an army large enough to challenge the occupying English troops and inspire the true French heir to come out of hiding.

Using spare free verse, Hemphill illustrates Jehanne’s short, intense life, full of the highest highs and the lowest lows imaginable. The greatest impression I was left with at the end of this book was how much the men who ruled Jehanne’s world were afraid of her. Afraid of a poor, young girl who might know more than they did, who was more favored by God than they were. And because she dared to question their authority–not for herself, but for the God she believed in–she lost her life. A detailed author’s note describes what Hemphill condensed or changed from the historical record, a chronology of the Hundred Years’ War, and a list of further reading.