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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
Eleanor and Park meets Taylor Swift in super cool Vice News correspondent Mary H.K. Choi’s sophomore novel. Pablo Neruda Rind (“Rind like India. Not, like, mind.”) is a twenty year old college dropout working in an upscale New York City bodega. He struggles to make rent while hosting an Instagram account that poses sneakers with offbeat snacks, and assiduously avoids questions about his finances from his Korean doctor mom and Pakistani playwright dad. When Carolina Suarez, aka Leanna Smart, international pop idol, stops by his store to stock up on sour gummies, sparks fly. Pablo is instantly smitten. But the fragile thread of their starcrossed connection threatens to snap under the weight of his student debt, her mega-fame and their shared indecision about the future. As romance gives way to reality, Pablo and Lee are forced to “adult,” even as Pablo laments, “Most days I can barely human.” Choi’s pithy, juicy dialogue and diverse, complicated characters impeccably embodies the anxiety, creativity and social media savvy of the modern youth scene. The portrayal of Pablo’s nontraditional, mixed race family and his place in it is also particularly well done. Packed with current fashion, food and gaming references that will either date or immortalize it, Permanent Record is a funny and deeply felt love letter to New York, international snack foods and family ties.
Jo Kuan, aspiring milliner and essayist, has been called a lot of things in her seventeen years, most of them insulting. But as a Chinese American woman living in 1890’s Georgia, she’s forced to swallow her pride and not be a “saucebox” if she hopes to survive in Atlanta’s ruthless and segregated society. “Chinese people can’t afford to be sauceboxes, especially Chinese people who are trying to live undetected.” However, one label that she would happily accept is that of “writer.” So when the opportunity to author an anonymous advice column in the local paper presents itself, she dives straight in, writing caustically funny commentary that holds up an unflattering mirror to the white faces of Atlanta’s elite, causing chaos of the most unmannerly kind. As she tries to keep a lid on her secret identity, she’s also juggling her day job as a lady’s maid to a spoiled, vain debutante while attempting to keep a roof over her head and that of Old Gin, a poor but proud horse trainer and her adopted Chinese grandfather. It all comes to a head when Jo simultaneously uncovers the origin of her birth, has her identity unmasked by an unexpected ally, and falls in love. Can she keep all the threads of her complicated life securely knotted, or will they slip away like the velvet ties on her favorite hat? This utterly original historical fiction by Stacey Lee is an absolute delight, from its crackling humor and unusual setting, to Jo’s headstrong character and the slowly unraveling mystery of her genesis. Jo bravely and realistically challenges the restrictive norms of her time period, including women’s suffrage and the deplorable treatment of people of color in the post Reconstruction south. Jo Kuan reads like a diverse, divine incarnation of Jo March, and today’s teens couldn’t hope for a more audacious, assertive and all around awesome hero than the salient Ms. Kuan. Hats off to Stacey Lee, The Downstairs Girl is downright ingenious! Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you August 2019.
High school senior Frank Li has never had a girlfriend. His big sister Hanna made the mistake of falling in love with a non-Korean, and now his parents act as though she died. Frank knows that should his heart follow the same path, he will no doubt suffer the same fate. But since “Korean-Americans make up only 1 percent of everyone in the Republic of California, out of which 12 percent are girls my age, which would result in a dating pool with only one girl every three square miles,” Frank feels doomed to a life of celibate solitude. Enter Brit Means, Frank’s sexy Calculus classmate. Brit is hot, smart and white. Frank couldn’t be more astonished when he discovers Brit is as into him as he is to her. He also knows he can never introduce her to his racist parents. So Frank concocts a complicated scheme in which he dates Brit, but tricks his parents into thinking he’s really dating his Korean friend and neighbor Joy Song. Joy goes along with this because she’s secretly dating Wu Tang, a Chinese jock who her parents would never accept. What starts out as a bad idea gets immeasurably worse when Frank realizes that he just might actually like Joy after all. Could his fake date end up being his true love? Only time will tell, but Frank’s is running out as senior year rushes onward, college acceptances roll in, and long hidden family secrets rise to the surface.
Debut author David Yoon, husband of the writerly wonderful Nicola Yoon, fearlessly tackles issues of inter-generational race relations, privilege, and the deeply uncomfortable and often untenable situation of being stuck between two cultures, while being very, very funny. “The K in KBBQ stands for Korean. As does the K in K-pop, K-fashion or K-dramas. There’s of course no such thing as ABBQ, A-pop or A-dramas.” Frank is a smart, confused, of- the-moment teenage guy who’s just trying to understand life, love and his place in the world. “There are tribes within tribes, all separated by gaps everywhere. Gaps in time, gaps between generations. Money creates gaps…if there are that many micro-tribes all over the place, what does Korean even mean? What do any of the labels anywhere mean?” No matter who you are or where you come from, you are going to find something to LOVE about Frank Li. Coming to a library, bookstore or Kindle near you September 2019.
Ballers Nasir and Bunny have always been tight, as close as brothers. They play basketball together at Whitman High, and even the fact that Bunny is a far better player doesn’t break their bond. But then Bunny (so nicknamed “Because I got hops,”) is recruited by snooty private school St. Sebastian’s, and just like that, their connection is broken. Now on opposing teams, Nasir and Bunny have stopped speaking to each other. Then Nasir’s troubled cousin Wallace steps into the middle of this silent feud and makes it even worse. Turns out Wallace has some serious gambling debts that need to be paid, debts so big he and his grandma are about to get thrown out of their apartment because of the money he lost. So Wallace starts pressuring Nasir to get some dirt on his ex-friend Bunny that Wallace can use to influence his high school basketball bets. Nasir knows it’s wrong, but shouldn’t Bunny pay for leaving him and Whitman behind? Told in alternating chapters between Nasir and Bunny, this timely, tragic tale of love and basketball is chock full of riveting game and relationship drama that perfectly illustrates and underscores the racial, class and community struggles that are playing out across urban high schools all over America. You won’t be able to stop turning pages until the final buzzer sounds!
Three generations of Indian and Indian American women laugh, cry, break up and make up in this past-to-present story of mothers and daughters, sisters and cousins. Tara and Sonia Das begin life as dutiful Indian daughters, but soon veer off onto nontraditional paths after arriving in New York with their parents in 1973. Beautiful, insular Tara wants to pursue an acting career, while her younger sister Sonia becomes a feminist firebrand. When a personal tragedy transforms their lives forever, both girls find themselves at odds with their conventional mother, Ranee, who is confused and even offended by some of their life choices. Fast forward to the near present. When Tara’s daughter Anna joins forces with Sonia’s daughter Chantal at their exclusive Manhattan private school to create a safe space for modest girls, their mothers’ and grandmothers’ DNA shines through, proving that one can be a strong Indian woman AND a proud American at the same time. There’s also loads of romance, travel, cultural misunderstandings and identity epiphanies that any reader will be able to relate to. Mitali Perkins‘ emotionally resonant work could not be more relevant as our divided nation argues endlessly about tangled policies that will decide the uncertain future of our innovators, poets and Dreamers. Read it, and feel the distance close.
Naeem has run out of choices. Failing out of school and picked up for shoplifting with a bag of weed in his backpack, the Muslim teen is forced to turn informant for a pair of detectives looking for terrorists nests in the vibrant, immigrant NYC borough of Queens: “I love Queens. I love its smells, its layout. Maybe because its so big and prairie flat, the wild moody sky overhead. The blocks start to spread, stretching to all these other neighborhoods–Corona, Woodside, Flushing, Bayside. On and on the borough stretches. Northern Boulevard, pas the frayed silver flags of the car dealers, the jagged skyline of Manhattan rises like some wrecked and far-off city, a jagged Kryptonite kingdom, comic-book surreal.”At first Naeem feels awkward, sure that everyone can see right through what he’s doing. But soon he is dipping in and out of internet cafes and neighborhood mosques like a pro, checking browser histories on public computers and making small talk with the imams who wonder where this new bright young volunteer suddenly came from. He discovers he has a talent for making himself seen, yet not seen: “The best thing about being a kid at the back of the room is you’re already a spy. You know how to fake it. The other guys who are…involved could never do what I can. I’ve got all the moves, the feints, the angles. I know how to rearrange my face, make it attentive…Half listen while a camera coolly spools inside my head.” He’s even making enough money from the dubious enterprise to enroll in summer school and boost GPA. But Naeem still feels guilty spying on his own community. Even though he tries to tell himself he’s one of the good guys, it gets harder and harder, especially when the detectives ask him to focus in on an old friend. No Naeem has to decide which side he’s on and who’s using who. Because nothing about this situation is what it seems. Author Marina Budhos has penned a richly atmospheric read full of vivid neighborhood descriptions and complicated character motivations that couldn’t be more relevant as this brutal xenophobic election season comes to a close. This nuanced depiction of surveillance and profiling is a timely must-read for anyone who’s ever felt targeted or anyone who’s ever considered themselves safe from become a target. In other words, all of us.
This is a book about black holes and bright suns and multiverses. There are pink headphones, red neck ties and vinyl records. Someone has to stay and someone ends up leaving. There are no car chases, but there’s plenty of kissing and one fist fight. Poetry and physics are discussed, along with a smattering of philosophy. Kurt Cobain is mentioned and so is Eddie Vedder. Karaoke is performed, laws are broken and a grown man weeps. (You might, too. I know I did.)
This is a book about taking chances, stepping up and dreaming big: “We are capable of big lives. Why settle? Why choose the practical thing, the mundane thing? We are born to dream and make the things we dream about.” It is about coincidences and regret. It’s about being Korean and being from Jamaica and being all too human. It’s about practical Natasha and idealistic Daniel, and how they fell in love one NYC day despite being in the wrong place at the worst possible time. But mostly, happily, crazily, it’s a book about hope. This stunning new heartbreaker of a novel from the author of Everything, Everything brilliantly turns the tired old cliche of “love at first sight” upside down and asks the provocative question, can you scientifically make someone fall in love with you? Look for the surprising answer in a library, bookstore or e-reader near you November 2016.
“My disease is as rare as it is famous. It’s a form of Severe Combined Immunodeficiency…basically I’m allergic to the world…I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years.” Biracial teen Maddie believed she had gotten used to her sanitary, white-walled world. She had learned to accept the limits of her sterile existence, her only friends being her mother, her nurse Carla, her books and the Internet. She could even forget sometimes that the tropical flowers and plants in the heated sunroom were all made of plastic. But then tall, acrobatic Olly moves across the street and opens up a whole new world to Maddie right outside her vacuum-sealed door. At first he just throws rocks at her window and holds up silly messages in his. But then they graduate to emails and share their deepest secrets: Maddie tells Olly about her disease and Olly confesses his own troubling situation–his father is abusive and his whole family suffers from his angry outbursts. Soon email is not enough, and Madde convinces Carla to help her sneak a throughly decontaminated Olly into the house when her mother isn’t home. Before long they are holding hands and even kissing like two normal teenagers in love. Maddie knows this blissful experience can’t last forever. What if her mother finds out? What if she gets sick? But how can she possibly go back to her life the antiseptic way it was before? Now that she realizes everything she is missing, everything she has is no longer enough. “I was happy before I met him. But I’m alive now, and those are not the same thing.” This modern day Romeo & Juliet story is already #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list, which doesn’t surprise me one iota. Managing to strike both an unconventional and classic tone, this slow burning romance drops two shocking bombshells in a row, leaving readers lovesick one moment and stunned the next. ALL the things are in Everything, Everything and you won’t be able to stop turning the perfectly paced pages until you find out what fate has in store for these two star-crossed lovers. Enjoy–I envy anyone reading it for the first time!
Pakistani American teenager Kamala Khan wishes she could just be like everyone else. She’s tired of the kids at school making fun of her culture and her Muslim parents’ strict rules. “Why do I have to bring pakoras to school for lunch? Why am I stuck with the weird holidays? Everyone else gets to be normal. Why can’t I?” But one night, after sneaking out to a party that her parents forbid her to attend, her wish to be someone else comes true in a way she could never have imagined. When Captain Marvel, Iron Man and Captain America appear to her in a sea of fog and ask who she wants to be instead of Kamala Khan from Jersey City, she quickly replies, “Right now? I want to be beautiful and awesome and butt-kicking and less complicated.” In other words, she wants to be like Captain Marvel herself. But when the fog clears and her wish is granted, Kamala discovers that her new shape shifting abilities have made her life more complicated, not less. While she does manage to pull off a pretty heroic rescue, she also accidentally destroys her school locker room when her “embiggen” powers get away from her. “What does it mean to have powers? To be able to look like someone I’m not? What if I don’t fit into my old life anymore? Like it’s a pair of pants I’ve just outgrown? Would I still be Kamala?” As Kamala struggles to answer these questions, she and her friends are drawn into a battle with shady villain known only as “The Inventor.” Does Kalmala have what it takes to bring down the Inventor? Maybe…if she learns to believe in herself as much as she does her beloved Captain Marvel Carol Danvers. “I’m not here to be a watered-down version of some other hero…I’m here to be the best version of Kamala.” This fresh, funny, thought provoking graphic novel featuring a realistic teen who turns the superhero stereotype upside down makes a terrific read alike to Gene Yang’s equally awesome Shadow Hero.
High school junior Lara Jean Song doesn’t know who is more surprised when the secret love letters she wrote to all her old crushes suddenly show up in their mailboxes: her or all the boys she’d loved before. Now Lara Jean is in the uncomfortable position of having to admit to old friend Peter and her sister’s ex-boyfriend Josh that in the past she nursed mad crushes on them both. It’s so awkward that Lara Jean proposes to Peter that they launch a “fake” romantic relationship so that Josh doesn’t find out the real truth: that she’s STILL nursing a mad crush on him even though he just broke up with her older sister Margot, who is convientely attending college in Scotland. Lara Jean thinks she’s salvaged the situation until the inevitable happens–she starts having feelings for Peter, and she suspects he might be having them for her, too. But she also still likes Josh. And with Margot coming home from college in just a few short weeks, Lara Jean knows she needs to make a decision before circumstances make the decision for her. While this sister love triangle may look and sound like a romance, it’s also a smart coming of age story about a girl not only figuring out who she LOVES but also who she IS. What does it mean to be the middle sister in a family where her Korean mother died too young and her white father is raising Lara and her two sisters on his own? Who do you talk to about your love life when your mother is gone and your oldest sister and dearest confidante is a million miles away? Funny, tender and true, this romantic family drama mash-up will be cherished by fans of Judy Blume, Gayle Forman and Sarah Dessen.