A Shot at Normal by Marisa Reichardt

Sixteen-year-old Juniper Jade dreams of two things that feel like they will never happen: getting kissed by a boy and being vaccinated. While meeting floppy-haired, brown-eyed Nico at the public library takes care of the kissing part, the vaccinations are another story. Juniper’s parents believe in organic food, homeschooling and no immunizations for Juniper and her younger siblings Poppy and Sequoia. They think that childhood vaccines for diseases like measles and whooping cough cause autism in kids, and come laden with aluminum, formaldehyde and mercury poisoning. When Juniper contracts a bad case of the measles that lands her in the hospital, her parents still won’t budge, even though doctors try to explain to them that their fears are not only unfounded, but completely false. Then Juniper learns that a baby in their small southern California town has died after contracting measles. Juniper is devastated, convinced that the baby’s death is her fault. She vows that she’s going to do whatever it takes to get vaccinated, even if she has to sue her parents to do it. But that is easier said than done, and soon Juniper finds herself tangled up in a confusing legal mess. When Nico and his mom step in and offer to help, Juniper decides move forward with her plan, even though she is terrified about what it could mean for both her family and her future.

Author Marisa Reichardt’s sophomore novel couldn’t be more timely, as many people are weighing the potential consequences of getting the COVID-19 vaccine after a long, difficult year of national quarantine. Juniper’s story is nuanced, neither portraying her parents as villains nor her as a perfect hero. But while the issue may be complicated, the science is clear: vaccinations save lives, and the side effects are rarely worse than impact of NOT receiving the shot! For those who want more information after reading Juniper’s fictional story, check out these links:

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/vaccines/art-20048334

https://www.doh.wa.gov/YouandYourFamily/Immunization/Children/ChildhoodFAQ

https://www.vaccines.gov/get-vaccinated/for_parents/five_reasons

Love is a Revolution by Renee Watson

Seventeen year old Nala is looking forward to a relaxing summer before senior year. Her plan includes experimenting with different hairstyles, hanging out with her cousin-sister-friend Imani and best friend Sadie, and Netflix & chill. But all that goes out the window after she lays eyes on Tye at an “Inspire Harlem” teen activist event. He’s cute, smart and funny, and while Nala doesn’t “believe in love at first sight…in this moment, I am ready to profess my love for Tye Brown.” Tye is also passionate about social justice, one thing that Nala could take or leave. Sometimes it seems like all her friends are in a competition to prove how “woke” they are, and Nala isn’t even interested in playing the game. But now that she’s crushing hard on Tye, Nala finds herself pretending to be way more into activism than she actually is to win his approval. How long can Nala keep up the facade of being a social justice warrior before Tye finds out the truth? And if he does, will he still like the real Nala? Nala is terrified to find out, especially since she’s no longer sure who the “real” Nala is. Between falling for Tye, procrastinating on her college applications and trying to find her place in her family and friend groups, she has lost her self and her voice. Nala might have to take time to know and love herself before she can understand and love Tye. “Self-love is radical love…Today, I’ve started my own revolution.”

Thoughtfully exploring issues of body positivity, racism and virtue signaling, Renee Watson’s warm, character-driven ode to self love validates and uplifts any teen who’s ever tried to fit in, felt left out, or is at crossroads with their identity. This is one Revolution you won’t want to miss!

Girl, Unframed by Deb Caletti

Sydney is leaving boarding school for the summer to visit her movie star mother, Lila Shore, in San Francisco. Lila can be fun, but she can also be needy, insecure and mean. Sydney hopes this visit will be different, but already she has “a bad feeling, even before I left home. A strong one.” Her feelings are confirmed when she meets Lila’s new boyfriend, Jake. He’s domineering, aggressive and defensive, especially when Sydney starts asking about the huge framed artworks that mysteriously appear and disappear from the rented luxury beach house they’re staying in. Both Lila and Jake also make regular, uncomfortable comments about Sydney’s appearance, that she “looks a lot older” than fifteen, and that she’s acting like “Miss Sexy” in that “tight shirt.” Sydney, who “wasn’t in that part of womanhood yet where your body was something you were supposed to keep one nervous eye on all the time, like a bank balance, ” is quickly disgusted by both of them, especially after they start fighting when they think she’s gone to bed. Thank god for Nicco, the smart, artistic boy she meets at the beach. Her blossoming romance with him just might save her summer. But why is there always an unmarked black car parked across the street from the beach house? Why does Lila suddenly have all these bruises that she tries to hide with makeup? When Sydney finally learns the answers to those questions, her world shatters and nothing will ever be the same again–between her and Lila, between her and Nicco, but mostly between the woman she is now and the girl she used to be.

I couldn’t put down this riveting novel that thoroughly explodes the myths and stereotypes surrounding female sexuality and power. Sydney constantly questions how she feels about her body and her appearance, wondering if being attractive to men is a strength or a liability. “Sexy was something you wanted to be. Sexy was something you should never be.” This is a book about finding your voice, taking back your power and, to paraphrase Margaret Atwood, never letting the patriarchy grind you down. You will find yourself framing the world in a different way after reading Girl, Unframed.

Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado

“I imagine being kissed about a hundred times a day.” Hopeless romantic and proudly plus-sized Charlie Vega wonders how much longer she’ll have to wait for her first kiss. Here she is, going on seventeen, and her lips are still virginal. It doesn’t help that her gorgeous best friend Amelia is lusted after by every guy and girl at school, that her super skinny mom has a more active dating life than Charlie, and that the hot jock she has a crush on only seems interested in her for her history notes. Charlie knows she should celebrate her curves, but sometimes that’s hard to do when it seems like she’s always standing in the shadow of Amelia’s runway-ready bod. Then there’s her mom, who has turned into a completely different person since Charlie’s dad died. Now all she cares about is working out and dieting, and the pressure she puts on Charlie to lose weight is crippling. But then Charlie meets Brian, who’s just as smart, kind and slightly insecure about his body as she is. It’s a match made heaven, until Charlie lets the worst of her insecurities get the best of her. Can Charlie learn to truly believe in herself and trust that Brian cares for her as much as she cares for him? This culturally rich, sweet love story between a Latinx girl and a Korean boy is full of fun, flirty firsts: kisses, love and finding your voice. There’s no chance, fat or thin, that you won’t fall head over heels for Charlie Vega. And three big cheers for debut author Crystal Maldonado for creating such a fierce, fly, fan-fiction-writing heroine!

Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas

The phenomenal Angie Thomas has given us an early Valentine’s Day gift with this kick ass origin story of Maverick, the boy who grows up to be Starr’s strict, kind father in The Hate U Give.

Maverick Carter has been doing a pretty good job of being the man of the family since his father Adonis went to prison. His older cousin Dre, his smart, beautiful girlfriend Lisa, and his hard working mom help keep him on the straight and narrow, even when his best friend King tries to convince him to sell hard drugs and get more involved in the King Lords gang. Even though he could use the extra cash, Dre makes Maverick steer clear and instead take a job stocking groceries at Mr. Wyatt’s store. Then Maverick’s world is shaken by three cataclysmic events: he finds out that his one-night- stand with homegirl Iesha has resulted in a baby that is one hundred percent his; one of his beloved friends is murdered; and then Lisa tells him she’s also pregnant with his child. Devastated by loss and exhausted by life as a new father, Maverick’s grades start to slip and his bank account empties. Suddenly getting back into the gang life is looking like the only way out. Will Maverick get sucked back into the King Lords? Fans of The Hate U Give know exactly what path Maverick takes, but this stunning story of love, grief and choices stands on it’s own even if you haven’t read THUG.

It was such a joy to read this book alongside my copy of The Hate U Give, and meet these characters again as their younger selves. Reading about the fate of certain characters broke my heart, while others made it sing. And just like in The Hate U Give, there’s plenty of Tupac references to go around, including the title, which is a play on the title of Tupac’s book of poetry, The Rose that Grew From Concrete. Whether you are an Angie Thomas newbie or die hard fan of her writing, you will definitely want to pick (up) this irresistible Rose!

Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt

Meryl Lee Kowalkski is lost. It’s 1968, the war is raging in Vietnam, and her best friend Holling Hoodhood just died in a freak car accident. There was no time to say goodbye. It happened “just like that.” Now Meryl Lee can see nothing in front of her but the Blank, and it’s utter nothingness threatens to swallow her whole. And what’s making the Blankness worse is that her parents think that attending St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls for 8th grade is just the thing to get Meryl Lee back on track. Overwhelmed by rich mean girls, field hockey confusion and a small-minded teacher named Mrs. Connolly who’s out to get her, Meryl Lee just feels like giving up.

Matt Coffin is lost. It’s 1968, he’s heard about the war in Vietnam, and he tries not to think about the last time he saw his best friend Georgie alive. There was no time to say goodbye. It happened “just like that.” Matt had to run or suffer the same fate. Now Matt wanders from place to place, always on the lookout for food, shelter and work. But it’s hard to find someone willing to take you on when you don’t have a permanent address. Overwhelmed by poverty, guilt and no place to call home, Matt just feels like giving up.

Enter Dr. MacKnockater, the kindly yet steely headmistress of St. Elene’s. Her iron will and open heart will help make Meryl Lee and Matt each feel a little more found. Dr. MacKnockater takes Matt in and gives him a home, while encouraging Meryl Lee find the Resolution she needs to overcome Obstacles (namely field hockey and Mrs. Connolly). But Matt is running from a terrifying past that not even Dr. MacKnockater can save him from. While Meryl Lee struggles to overcome the Blank and Matt struggles to overcome his distrust of well, humanity, they form an unlikely bond that may just end up saving both of them.

Just Like That is Gary D. Schmidt at his absolute best. Full of quirky characters, gentle humor and sharp plot twists, this is a insta-classic to be savored and enjoyed again and again. If you’re seeking a warm historical novel to curl up with on a snow day, look no further–you’ve found your match 🙂

2020 Top Five

Dear Teen Peeps,

What year it’s been! And with the disturbing and unprecedented events of last week, 2020 continues to cast a long, dark shadow over 2021. Lucky for us, we have books to help us understand our feelings and escape our sometimes claustrophobic living spaces. Like many of you, I spent most of the 2020 school year on Zoom: teaching remotely, checking in with friends and relatives, performing booktalks and consulting with students. So I couldn’t wait to get off the screen and READ. I read 79 books this year! (and I do mean book books–I didn’t want to spend more time on screens reading e-books)

I read so many books that I didn’t even get around to reviewing them all! Sorry, Rules for Being a Girl and Watch Over Me. I really did like you a lot, but sometimes this year, it was just too difficult to corral my anxious thoughts into a review. But both of you helped me escape from the real world for a little while, and for that, I’m very grateful!

Like in 2019, I haven’t read nearly as much YA as I wanted to/should have, so here is a leaner, meaner list of my top five best YA reads of 2020. 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 beloveds elsewhere, like the New York Times. Click on the title to go right to the review and happy 2021! May we all enjoy health, happiness and peace in the coming year.

Burn by Patrick Ness

Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Feder

Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang

Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh

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

Super Fake Love Song by David Yoon

Seventeen year old third-generation Korean-American Sunny Dae is a nerd with a capital “N.” Founder and front-man of the popular video channel “DIY Fantasy FX,” he creates home-made props for LARP use with his two equally nerdy best friends Jamal and Milo. Even though he gets picked on by bullies and ignored by his family, Sunny is fairly happy with his solid geek status. Until he meets Cirrus Soh, a beautiful and cosmopolitan new transfer student, who he is assigned to show around school. Suddenly his nerdiness seems utterly unacceptable. So when Cirrus drops by with her parents to meet Sunny at home, he shows her his older brother Gray’s old room (full of heavy metal posters and guitars on stands) instead of his own (full of supplies for his LARP props). Naturally, Cirrus thinks that Sunny is a burgeoning rock star. Naturally Sunny allows her to believe that. And naturally, that leads to all sorts of hilarious and heartbreaking complications. Now Sunny has to dress the part, learn to play the guitar and recruit his reluctant friends to be in his “band,” all to keep Cirrus from discovering that he’s really an all-out Poindexter. It’s pretty hard at first, but the longer he keeps it up, the more Sunny starts to like this metal-head version of himself. Is this who he really is? Or is Sunny lying to himself as much as he’s lying to Cirrus? David Yoon’s fun follow-up to his spectacular debut Frankly in Love is more rom-com than drama-rama, and full of his signature pitch-perfect dialogue. It’s a perfect winter break read for both nerds AND rockstars!

New York Times YA Debuts

Dear Teen Peeps, some of you may have noticed that I haven’t posted to RR AT ALL since, like, September. That’s because of a little thing called Hybrid Teaching in the Time of COVID (which I know you all know about, since you are on the other side of the screen) AND because I was working on this sick short list of outstanding YA debut novels. These first time authors have really brought it with these unique tales of identity, love, fame and heartbreak. Take a look and see what you think–it’s not too late to add these to your holiday wish lists!

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.