The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hill

Florian (actually Flora) is a pirate-in-training, a young girl who must disguise herself as a boy in order to survive working for the ruthless Nameless Captain. She works hard and observes closely in order to keep herself and her foolish older brother Alfie alive and under the Captain’s radar. Evelyn is royalty, a member of the Empire’s ruling class, and utterly hopeless at being a lady. When Florian and Evelyn meet on board the Dove, a pirate ship masquerading as a passenger boat, their destinies become intertwined and they pull everyone around them into their star-crossed orbit, including Rake, the Nameless Captain’s righthand man who is hiding a desperate secret; The Pirate Supreme, the noble king (or queen) of all pirates who is determined to bring the Nameless Captain to justice for all of his crimes against the Sea; and finally, the Sea Herself, a mighty, living entity who holds a stake in the survival of all of the above. Meanwhile, an international war is brewing between the island countries of the Empire that could bring a crushing end to life as Sea’s citizens know it. Easy to read, but hard to explain, this finely wrought fantasy delicately weaves themes of colonialism, gender identity, rebellion and romance into a crackerjack plot full of shadowy intrigue, dubious double crosses and grisly maritime murders. Let the Sea sweep you away to a world you could have never imagined in Maggie Tokuda-Hall‘s brilliant debut novel!

The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co, vol. 1) by Jonathan Stroud

Harry Potter meets Scooby Doo in this delightful romp through ghost-ridden London, that was originally published in 2013, and that I took much too long to pick up. In this alternate universe, London is besieged by ghosts, both benign and malevolent, that disrupt everyday life and require constant supernatural maintenance. These tenacious shadows can only be dispatched by young folks, who have both the imagination to see them and the physical capability to do whatever it takes to vaporize them. Enter Anthony, Lucy and George, otherwise known as Lockwood & Co., a three- member, teenaged “psychic investigations agency” who make up in style what they lack in numbers. In this introductory volume, Lucy and Anthony bungle a tricky assignment, which leaves them in monstrous debt and almost out on the street. Luckily (or perhaps not) they are enlisted by a well known and wealthy iron magnate to cleanse his famously haunted country house of ghosts. This job is so big it would not only wipe our their debt, but also allow them to grow their small but scrappy business. But why does this titan of industry want them instead of one of the more established agencies? Too worried about the bottom line to wonder, Anthony, Lucy and George take the case. After all, they just have to make it through the night, and their bill is paid. But what awaits them on the other side of the Red Room door just might have Lockwood & Co joining the ranks of the restless dead before they even have a change to lay down their salt circles! This rollicking tale is full of fun wordplay and genuine scares. And if you fall for Lockwood & Co, there are four more books in the series, enough to distract you all mask-wearing-summer long.

All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson

“Navigating in a space that questions your humanity isn’t really living at all. It’s existing. We all deserve more than just the ability to exist.”

Thirty-three year old writer and activist George M. Johnson‘s powerful coming of age story is both a deeply personal narrative and a robust rallying cry in support of Black queer youth. Johnson recounts specific memories from his childhood and adolescence, and uses each story as a jumping off point to discuss topics ranging from toxic masculinity and gender identity, to the lack of sex education resources for LGBTQ youth. These chapters are interspersed with letters to specific family members who helped support him, including his mom and brother. Not all the memories are joyful. Johnson also writes about the deaths of close family members and beloved friends, and one of the letters isn’t to a nurturing mentor but to a trusted cousin who molested him when he was a child. But through every memory and letter, Johnson emphasizes the right of queer, Black youth to be proud of who they are and to demand their universal right to be seen and heard. By telling his personal story in frank, vulnerable detail, Johnson has created a mighty mirror for LGBTQ teens to see themselves and not only feel known, but loved and accepted.

“It’s time for the world to let queer Black boys unpack their shit. Smile, Black boys.”

Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

Seventeen-year-old Enchanted Jones has big dreams. While she hopes to snag a competitive swimming scholarship for college, her true passion is singing. She knows all the classic R & B hits by heart, but writing her own songs is what gets her through the long days of school and babysitting her younger siblings, while both her parents work to keep her and sister Shea in private school and expensive lessons. So when she meets twenty-eight-year old mega-singer Korey Fields at an audition, Enchanted is, well, enchanted when he hears her voice and invites her and her parents to his next sold out concert. Then Korey asks for her number, and soon they are texting everyday. He promises to give her private singing lessons, help her record her own songs, even release an EP. Enchanted feels like she is falling in love, even though she knows he’s too old for her. But can something that feels so right be that wrong? She finds herself lying to her family, missing school and even breaking up with her best friend over Korey. But things really come to a breaking point after her parents reluctantly agree to let her go on tour with Korey, who’s loving attention turns possessive and then terrifyingly violent. Enchanted is trapped. Korey has cut her off from her friend and family, how can she escape when he’s taken over every aspect of her life? Enchanted will have to draw on her inner warrior mermaid and the spirit of her tough-as-nails Grandma in order to find her way back to herself and uncover the horrific truth about Korey Fields.

Award-winning author Tiffany D. Jackson writes repeatedly in her letter to readers that “this book is not about R. Kelly.” Still, it’s hard to read Enchanted’s story and not think of men like R. Kelly or Dr. Luke. Raw, revealing and heartbreaking, Grown shines a powerful and unflinching spotlight on predatory male behavior, showing it for what it is: sick, wrong and indefensible. Because there is no such thing as a “romantic relationship” between an adult and an underaged child, and the outcomes of these tragic encounters are never the young person’s fault. As Jackson concludes in her letter, “…he knew better.” You will NOT want to miss this gripping, righteous read that is coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you September 2020.

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 a 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’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!