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!
“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.”
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.
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.
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!
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.
It’s “seasonal” friends Deja and Josiah’s last night working at the local pumpkin patch, and their nostalgic feelings are running high. For four years, they’ve worked together at the Succotash Hut, bonding over corn and lima bean stew. Now they’re seniors, and it’s time to trade gourds for college textbooks. But Josiah has one last wish to fulfill before the pumpkin patch is in his rearview mirror forever: introduce himself to Marcy, the mysterious Fudge Shoppe Girl who he’s been crushing on for the last four falls. Deja is more than willing to help him in this quest, especially as it means making the rounds of the patch’s many delicious snack stands. But there are several obstacles standing between Josiah and his true love, including an escaped billy goat named Buck, a candy apple-stealing middle school hooligan who keeps targeting Deja’s treats, and his own confusing emotions. By the time the tired twosome finally track down Marcy, they discover that things have shifted between them, and what each of them thought they wanted has changed over the course of one last memorable journey around the pumpkin patch. This charming autumnal-themed graphic novel is brimming with light romance, cute banter and of course, pumpkin-flavored treats. Fans of Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks will be pleased by their timely, tasty collaboration that is destined to both steal hearts and whet appetites!
Aspiring chef Emoni Santiago has a lot on her plate (no pun intended!) It’s senior year, and she’s still not sure if college is in the cards. She so busy juggling school, her greasy spoon job, her demanding elective cooking class, and her baby girl Emma that college seems like a distant dream. If she’s going to make it to graduation, the only person she can count on is herself. Because as much as her grandmother ‘Buela loves Emoni and Emma, she also needs a life of her own. And Emoni’s father, who chooses to live most of the year in Puerto Rico, seems more like a drop-in uncle than a dad. And her baby’s daddy, Tyrone? Even though he takes Emma every other weekend, his petty jealousies just makes Emoni tired. The only place she feels truly alive is behind the stove in ‘Buela’s kitchen. There she stirs up food that feeds the stomach AND the soul. Could that be her ticket out of the corner life has crowded her into? Maybe, but only if she’s willing to take the helping hand offered to her by strict Chef Ayden and crush-worthy new boy Malachi. Award winning author and poet Elizabeth Acevedo’s sophomore novel is a heartwarming delight, penned this time around in sparkling prose that brings the sights, sounds and smells of ‘Buela’s kitchen and Emoni’s class trip to foodtastic Spain to delicious life. Come for the recipes, stay for the swoony romance and complex character relationships. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you May 2019.
Sixteen year old Bri has a dream–to be as big as her legendary rapper dad, Lawless. He was shot and killed just as he was about to go nuclear, and Bri intends to finish what he started. She’s got her best friends Sonny and Malik cheering her on, and fierce Aunt Pooh lining up rap battles for her. But it can be hard to create lines and spit rhymes when she is constantly worried that her hard working mom Jay might slide back into drug addiction, or whether or not they have enough money to pay both the electric AND the grocery bills. When her big break finally happens, it comes at great personal cost. Bri is assaulted by a racist security guard at school, and she fights back the only way she knows how–through words. Her song “On the Come Up” goes viral, and soon Bri’s catchy chorus is being sung by every kid at school and she is being courted by the same manager who made her dad famous. But when her song is used a weapon against her and other black and brown kids, Bri has to make some hard choices about life, love, family and fame that threaten to silence her dream forever.
Teen peeps, however much you loved Starr in The Hate U Give (and I know, we all loved her A LOT) you are going to be blown away by Bri. Hats off to Angie Thomas, who defied the sophomore slump with this classic, yet totally fresh story of a talented neighborhood girl who makes good by staying true to herself. There’s a lot going on, but it never feels forced, as Thomas effortlessly weaves issues of racial profiling, gang violence, feminism, implicit bias and LGBTQ acceptance into Bri’s compulsive, page-turning story. The cast of complex secondary characters defy stereotypes at every turn (tough Aunt Pooh, loving mom Jay, wise brother Trey, goofy friend Sonny, serious friend Malik, Grandma and Granddaddy in their matching outfits) and are so well drawn that they could all star in their own spin-offs. And the music! Rap mavens and hiphop newbies alike will delight in reading about and then going to listen to Bri’s top five “goats” (greatest of all time): Biggie, Tupac, Jean Grae, Lauryn Hill and Rakim. Bri’s own original lyrics are so tight, you’ll just wish you could hear the actual beats. Really, the only thing missing is a soundtrack. Which I’m sure will be addressed in the movie–as there is no way in heck this awesome-in-every-way novel (set in the same universe as The Hate U Give) isn’t going to follow its wildly popular predecessor to the big screen. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you February 2019.
Jane McKeene, daughter of a white woman and a black man, is learning the fine art of zombie killing at Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls in Baltimore County. Ever since the dead rose up at the Battle of Gettysburg, the States quit fighting each other and began fighting the revenants. The government then created “combat schools,” where black and brown-skinned teens are taught etiquette and sword play in order to become dutiful “Attendants” for wealthy white families and protect them from zombie attacks. Jane is thisclose to graduating with honors and returning to her beloved home in Kentucky, when she and her arch frenemy Kate Deveraux are forced to take on a “special assignment” in the wild, uncivilized western frontier. There they learn that the fragile national peace wrought by the bloody efforts of their peers and comrades is in serious jeopardy, and that zombies are actually the last things they should be afraid of. With all of this going on, Jane has absolutely no business falling for two boys who couldn’t be more different. But the heart wants what the heart wants, as they say, and if Jane survives the rapidly amassing zombie herd, she’ll have decide which boy (if any) gets her still-beating ticker. If I sound cagey or mysterious, that’s because it’s almost impossible to write about this compulsively readable alternate history series opener without giving away the secrets at its core. Ireland spins a page turning tale, while also weaving in lots of subtle and not so subtle allusions to our country’s past and present problems with race, power and corruption. Wielding her fictional pen like a critical sword, Ireland scrutinizes and excoriates the real fake science intended to dehumanize black people, the real boarding schools that were set up to “civilize” Native American children, and how Reconstruction morphed into Jim Crow after the Civil War. Readers who come for the zombies will stay for the sharp social commentary and gleeful skewering of stereotypes. Dread Nation is KILLER.
“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up…What those rich people don’t always know is that broken and forgotten neighborhoods were first built out of love.” So begins Ibi Zoboi’s inventive, wildly entertaining “remix” of Jane Austen‘s classic Pride and Prejudice. In this contemporary take on the British Regency classic comedy of manners, the five Haitian-Dominican, working class Benitez sisters (Janae, Zuri, Marisol, Layla and Kayla) are crazy curious when their new, rich black neighbors, the Darcy brothers (Darius and Ainsley) move into the renovated brownstone across the street. Second eldest sister Zuri is especially suspicious, since she considers any and all changes to her beloved Bushwick, Brooklyn neighborhood as nefarious attempts at gentrification. While Zuri initially manages to resist the prickly charms of Darius, her romantic older sister Janae falls head over heels for Ainsley. But when Ainsley breaks Janae’s heart, Zuri unleashes the full force of her righteous sister rage on the Darcys, freezing them out of her family and neighborhood. It’s only when Zuri accidentally runs into Darius while on a campus tour of Howard University that she begins to see a different side of the youngest Darcy brother. Maybe a “bougie” black boy and a self-proclaimed “hood rat” can find some common ground after all. Maybe they can even fall in love…
Zuri and Darius’s heated discussions over being “bougie,” “ghetto” or “not black enough” are reflective of conversations being had all over this country by black and brown teens trying to define their identity instead of having it defined for them by a prevailing white, Western culture. The streets of Bushwick come alive through the sounds and smells of Mama Benitez’s cooking, the colorful cast of neighbors who live on the block, and the lyrical lines from Zuri’s poetry journal. Zoboi’s newfangled version of an old fashioned story of love and class and race is stunningly unique and utterly timeless, all at once. Don’t miss it! (And for more Ibi Zoboi awesomeness, read her debut, American Street, which was one of my top 5 YA books of 2017)
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!
Monday Charles and Claudia Coleman are the best of besties. They dress alike, dance alike, and since their names alphabetically come one right after the other on class lists, even always sit together in classes at their Washington D.C. middle school. Monday helps Claudia conceal her dyslexia, while Claudia’s home is a quiet place for Monday to hang out when her own house full of siblings feels too chaotic. They talk about every thing from boys and sex to Go-Go music and dance moves. So when Monday doesn’t show up to the first day of eighth grade, Claudia knows something’s wrong. Monday never misses school. Claudia calls her phone, but it’s disconnected. She drops by Monday’s house, but Monday’s mom just yells at her and slams the door. She tries reporting Monday’s absence to her parents, police and teachers, all to no avail. The only person who seems to know something is April, Monday’s older sister. But she refuses to admit that anything is wrong, saying only that Monday is visiting their aunt or father. Where is Monday? What has happened to her? Why won’t anyone help Claudia find her? As the days and then months pass and Claudia tries desperately get anyone to care about her best friend, she begins to uncover disturbing clues that Monday may have been hiding secrets darker than Claudia can even imagine. This harrowing, ripped-from-the-headlines story was inspired by #missingDCgirls and the media’s apparent lack of concern for black and Latino teenage girls who go missing. Tiffany D. Jackson seamlessly weaves timely themes about the damaging effects of gentrification on traditionally black neighborhoods and the dangers of overlooking the signs of mental illness throughout this ominously enigmatic page turner. Read it, weep, then become inspired to learn more about these critical issues.
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.
Will’s older brother Shawn was shot and killed two days ago: “Blood soaking into a/T-shirt, blue jeans, and boots/looks a lot like chocolate syrup/when the glow from the streetlights hit it./But I know ain’t/nothing sweet about blood.” Reeling with anger and grief, Will attempts to follow the unspoken Rules of his neighborhood: 1) No crying. 2) No snitching. 3) Revenge. ‘They weren’t meant to be broken/They were meant for the broken/to follow.” While his mother sleeps, Will sneaks out of his apartment with his brother’s gun, determined to hunt down the person who killed Shawn and close the circle of vigilante justice. But Will finds his mission delayed when the elevator annoyingly keeps stopping on each floor. His irritation quickly turns to confusion and fear when he realizes exactly who is getting on the elevator with him. In a kind of bizarro, Dickens Christmas Carol scenario, Will is visited floor by floor by the spirits of folks in his life who have died from gun violence–from his school yard crush to the father he never knew. Trapped in the elevator and surrounded by death, Will has to decide by the ground floor if he’s still ready to trade in his future in order to avenge his brother. This suspenseful nail-biter of a novel is written entirely in free verse, which makes it move at the speed of lightning while also giving dreadful pause on each page. Rising YA star Jason Reynolds (who’s just been long listed for the 2017 National Book Award) has penned a provocative page turner about family, tradition and the cycle of violence that will stick in your throat and lodge in your heart for days to come. Landing in a library, bookstore or e-reader near you October 2017.