Sasha was an agender, white, private schooled teenager who loved invented languages, web comics and wearing skirts with vests. Richard was a straight, black, public schooled teenager who loved pulling pranks, hanging out with his friends and working with little kids. One afternoon in November 2013, they were both riding the 57 bus in Oakland, California, complete strangers who had never met before. Sasha had drifted off, and Richard was goofing around with his friends. When he was dared by his friend Jamal to touch a cigarette lighter against the sleeping Sasha’s skirt, Richard was horrified when the fabric he expected to smolder and go out, instead burst into a deadly fireball. Sasha was burned on 22% of their body, and Richard was arrested. What happened next is a fascinating true story of pain, forgiveness, race, gender and socio-economic class that will inspire and enlighten anyone who reads it. Dashka Slater‘s crisp, journalistic prose paints a fully rounded picture of both teens and where they came from, allowing readers to see the incident in a full 360 degree view. Slater took a sensationalistic headline and turned it into an utterly engrossing, deeply human story that will challenge perceptions and change hearts.
Olga, Julia’s kind, dutiful older sister, is dead. Hit by a truck while crossing the street, Olga has ascended to sainthood while Julia is left here on earth to compete with her sister’s perfect memory. Julia is far from perfect. She eats too much, reads too much, thinks too much. While Olga did no wrong, Julia can’t seem to get anything right, at least not in the eyes of her mother. All she wants to do is escape her hometown of Chicago and go somewhere, anywhere else. Julia’s raw emotions, that spill across the page like blood and soak every chapter like tears, are immediate and authentic: “I’m so frustrated, I don’t know what to do with myself. Sometimes, when I feel like this, I want to break things. I want to hear things shatter. My heart beats so fast and hard that I can hardly breathe, and I wonder if anything will get better. Is this really the way my life is going to be?” When Julia uncovers some clues that Olga wasn’t quite as perfect as everyone thought, she’s torn. Does she tell her mother that her perfect Mexican daughter was actually just a regular girl? Or does she let her mother continue to revere Olga, even as she keeps expecting Julia to meet her impossible standards? Julia’s experiences of love, sex, depression and homecoming simultaneously define a classical bildungsroman while also breaking its traditionally white dude mold. Erika Sanchez‘s singular debut about the pressure of cultural norms, the pain of not fitting in, and the anguish of not being able to make yourself understood is a loud, proud, universal anthem to the outsider. Read it and feel known. (Oh, and just FYI, it was also a National Book Award finalist.)