One Last Word by Nikki Grimes



As summer swings to an end, we could all use a little inspiration (especially after THIS summer) as we head back to school or work. Luckily, we don’t have to look far. Award winning poet Nikki Grimes has created a unique little book BIG on art, history and imagination that will pump up your heart and brain for the challenges of fall. Added bonus? It will fit neatly into that square front pocket of your backpack or briefcase. Because these poems aren’t just for kids or teens. They’re for anyone looking for a light in the darkness.

Using the “Golden Shovel” form, Grimes took lines from famous Harlem Renaissance poets’ work and used them to craft her own original poems that reflect the chaos, complications and hope of our current world, and of the African American struggle in particular. Grimes also asked several of today’s leading African American illustrators (including Christopher Myers, Brian Pinkney, and Javaka Steptoe) to lend their visions to the pages, so each poem is accompanied by an original artwork that further uplifts the work. My personal favorite is this poem by Georgia Douglas Johnson, which in turn inspired an ode to family and endurance by Grimes called “Bully Patrol.” Short biographies of both poets and artists are included in the back in case you want to find out more about these titans of words. I’d honestly be shocked if you didn’t want to read more, or try the Golden Shovel for yourself. Happy reading, writing and autumn-ing!

Dear Martin by Nic Stone


High school senior Justyce McAllister is feeling the heat of being an African American man in 2017. The news is full of stories of unarmed black men being shot by white cops. He’s arrested by a police officer for just walking down the street, when all he was doing was trying to keep his drunk ex-girlfriend from getting behind the wheel of her car. He gets dragged into a frustrating racial argument in his Societal Evolution class with classmates who believe in “colorblindness.” Disgruntled students at his exclusive private school suggest that the only reason Justyce got into Yale was to “fill a quota.” On top of all that, he’s also fighting a strong attraction to his debate partner Sarah Jane, who is smart, funny….and white. Life is becoming beyond complicated, so Justyce seeks out the wisdom of the one person he thinks might understand what he’s going through: Martin Luther King. In a series of poignant letters to Dr. King, Justyce tries to understand why “things aren’t as equal as folks say they are” and how he can keep moving forward when it seems like the whole system is bent on pushing him back. The writing helps, a little. But when Justyce’s world explodes at the end of a gun, his belief in MLK’s philosophy is shattered. Will he answer violence with violence or will he find the strength to rise above and be like Martin? Nic Stone’s debut novel reads like a timely fictional primer of the issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, galvanized by the frank and authentic dialogues that take place between Justyce, his friends and teachers like Dr. Dray, who teaches Societal Evolution. The topical, provocative discussions that take place in Dr. Dray’s class immediately took me back to the heated arguments that reverberated in Ms. Lemry’s Contemporary American Thought class in Chris Crutcher‘s YA classic Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. Like Crutcher before her, Nic Stone is writing about the issues a new generation of teens care about in a raw voice that is undeniably true. You won’t be able to look away. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you October 2017.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi


When Haitian-born Fabiola arrives at her cousins’ house on the corner of American Street and Joy Road in Detroit, she dreams of starting a new life. But after her beloved mother is detained at the airport, Fabiola’s dreams begin to fade. Her aunt and three cousins (Chantal, Donna and Pri) are strange and intimidating, with their weaved hair, strong opinions and tough attitudes. School is confusing with its complicated cliques and strict teachers. Haiti seems very far away: “Nothing here is alive with color like in Haiti. The sun hides behind a concrete sky. I search the landscape for yellows, oranges, pinks or turquoises like in my beloved Port-au-Prince. But God has painted this place only gray and brown.” The one bright spot is her blossoming relationship with Kasim, a smart, funny boy she meets at a club while out with her cousins. Fabiola also takes comfort in her native religion of Vodou, and sets up an altar in her new home where she lights a candle for her mother and prays to the lwas, or spiritual guides, to protect her family and help her understand this peculiar new world. But Fabiola will need more than the guidance of Papa Legba when she is approached by the police to find evidence against Dray, her cousin Donna’s ruthless boyfriend and resident drug dealer. In return for her help, the detectives have promised to look into her mother’s deportation case. Torn between her new family and her old, Fabiola is forced to make a choice that will have devastating consequences, no matter what she decides. This fascinating novel blends gritty realistic detail with lyrical descriptions, resulting in a unique reading experience that beautifully illustrates the pain and difficulty of living between cultures. Readers looking for another story of Haitian/American culture clash should try Fresh Girl by Jaira Placide.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas


Sixteen year old Starr Carter has to navigate two different worlds that couldn’t be further apart: Garden Heights, the poor, mostly black neighborhood where she and her family live, and Williamson, the pricey, mostly white prep school she attends. She is pulled in one direction by her loving but strict family and culture, and the opposite direction by her wealthy school friends and white boyfriend Chris. “…I never know which Starr I should be. I can use some slang, but not too much slang, some attitude, but not too much attitude, so I’m not a ‘sassy black girl.’ I have to watch what I say and how I say it, but I can’t sound ‘white.’ Shit is exhausting.” Will Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air character and Tupac Shakur‘s music are her touchstones as she tries to make peace between her two selves, but she often feels totally overwhelmed with the burden of keeping them separate. When her unarmed childhood friend is Khalil is gunned down right in front of her by a white police officer, Starr’s worlds collide in the worst possible way. Suddenly she is in the spotlight, fighting to defend Khalil’s memory and reputation at home and in front of a grand jury, while feeling angry and exposed at school when her clueless classmates stereotype Khalil as a “a drug dealer and a gangbanger” who “was probably gonna end up dead anyway.” The simmering conflict spirals out of control when the police institute a curfew, tanks roll past Starr’s front door, and Garden Heights becomes a battle zone. Tired of trying to unite her double life, Starr finds her true north when she confronts the police who are trying to block her and her friends from protesting with the strongest weapon of all: her voice. “Everybody wants to talk about how Khalil died…But this isn’t about how Khalil died. It’s about the fact that he lived. His life mattered. Khalil lived! You hear me? Khalil lived!” Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Angie Thomas‘s debut novel is a searingly honest, painfully real examination of racism, police violence, code switching, and the importance of love and family in the face of crisis. Some readers will come away with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what it means to grow up African American in this divided country, while others will find comfort and validation in seeing themselves on the page and being authentically seen. A vital read for all that is coming to a library or bookstore near you February 2017.

Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson


SPOILER ALERT! Before reading about the long awaited and eagerly anticipated conclusion to LHA’s wonderful, wrenching Seeds of America trilogy below, please make sure you have already experienced the awesomeness that is CHAINS and FORGE. Once you have read and fully absorbed Isabel and Curzon’s previous adventures, then by all means, READ ON.

Isabel is exhausted. She and Curzon have been searching for Isabel’s stolen sister Ruth for years now, and the endless journey has a taken a toll on them both. Even though Isabel has forged manumission papers for them, there is always the danger that they could be kidnapped and forced back into slavery. And their close friendship “lay in ashes,” after they fought bitterly over the justness of the Patriot cause. Now the only thing they share is a mutual resentment and desperate need to locate Ruth. Just when Isabel has given up all hope, she and Curzon stumble upon Ruth safe and sound on a farm in South Carolina. Helped by a slave couple who use the confusion of recent Patriot skirmishes to screen their escape, Isabel, Ruth and Curzon flee to Williamsburg, Virgina, where they hope to find food, rest and steady work. But soon they discover themselves on the doorstep of the war, and when Curzon again sides with the Patriots, Isabel is forced to choose a side as well. But which group of white men is she willing to gamble her and Ruth’s freedom on–the slave-owning Patriots or the promise-breaking British? And now that she’s found Ruth, is Isabel really prepared to lose Curzon, the only other person she’s ever trusted besides her family? Whether you love Hamilton or run screaming from the room when you hear the cast recording (I’m firmly in the former group) you will appreciate LHA’s as always meticulously researched milieu, spot-on period dialogue and detailed author’s note. Set during the exciting, unsettling days that lead up to the Battle of Yorktown, ASHES is a deeply satisfying conclusion to an extraordinary historical journey. NTBM! (Not To Be Missed)

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon



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.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


What if the Underground Railroad was actually a REAL railroad? That’s the question author Colson Whitehead asks in this allegorical historical fiction about one slave woman’s quest for freedom in a twisted version of America that is both fantastical and horribly real. Cora is only a teenager. But she feels a thousand years old, due to the brutal living conditions she must endure as a field slave on the Randall plantation. When another slave named Caesar asks her to run away with him, she refuses at first, thinking of how her own mother escaped the plantation and left her alone to fend for herself. But after she is savagely whipped for trying to save a child from being beaten, she decides she has nothing left to lose. Through an abolitionist network, Cora and Caesar are given passage on the Underground Railroad, a secret subterranean railway that carries runaway slaves across the Southern states to freedom. But not always safety, as the two soon discover. Instead of the liberty she imagined, Cora instead experiences nightmarish scenarios at each stop that mirror actual historical events, from insidious medical experiments to celebratory Friday lynchings. And all the while, she is being ruthlessly stalked by the slave catcher Ridgeway, who has sworn to bring her back to Randall no matter what, because her mother was the only slave who ever escaped his clutches. Each time Cora thinks she has found a place of safety, it is viciously snatched away. Does she have any chance in this merciless world where black girl’s lives are worth less than a crate of rum? Cora may just be a teenager. But she is also a survivor.

This beautiful, devastating novel may have been published for an adult audience, but the powerful, precise prose reads like a timeless classic that should be experienced by everyone over the age of 14. I have no doubt that this book will find it’s way onto hundreds of high school reading lists and college syllabi by the end of next year, alongside the writings of Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. But despite it’s insta-classic feel, readers can also easily draw parallels between Cora’s endless trials and our current racial and social ills, including Stop and Frisk, hate speech and anti-immigrant rhetoric. While this book often made me soul sick, I couldn’t wait to finish it to discover how Cora’s extraordinary journey concluded. And because The Underground Railroad is the latest pick for Oprah’s Book Club, you should have zero problems getting a copy asap from your local library, bookstore or on your e-reader. Want more? Listen to this outstanding interview between Colson Whitehead and Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely


Rashad is African American, an aspiring artist, the son of a police officer and a member of the ROTC. Quinn is white, a loving big brother, the son of a soldier who died in Afghanistan, and a member of a winning basketball team. Both boys find their understanding of the world challenged when Rashad is brutally beaten by a cop for a crime he didn’t commit outside a neighborhood store, and Quinn witnesses it from the sidewalk. Quinn is shocked and devastated to realize that the cop who beat Rashad is actually the older brother of his best friend.  Rashad is shocked and devastated to realize that the beating has brought up a painful incident in his father’s past that paints him in a new and disappointing light. In the week following the incident, Rashad and Quinn begin questioning the safety and fairness of the society they thought they knew.

Rashad: “I wasn’t sure what to do about any of it, or if I even wanted anyone else to do anything on my behalf. The looks on my friends’ and family’s faces–it hurt me to see them that way. Especially knowing that it hurt them to see me this way. I didn’t deserve this. None of us did. None of us.”

Quinn: “I wasn’t going to stand there and and pretend I knew what life was like for Rashad. There was no way. We lived in the same goddamn city, went to the same goddamn school, and our lives were so very goddamn different…Nobody wants to think he’s being a racist, but maybe it was a bigger problem, like everyone was just ignoring it, like it was invisible.”

With quiet lyricism and unexpected poetry, co-authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely help readers make sense of “the problem we all live with” with empathy and a serious appreciation for just how deep our biases run and how much we are trying–as a community, as a people, as a nation–to overcome them. This wise, timely book is thought-provoking, philosophical, and a call to action that anyone who reads it will have a hard time ignoring.

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon



“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!

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds



Matt hasn’t been doing so well since his mom passed away from cancer. Once a stellar home chef, now he can barely look at his mom’s recipe book. Instead he orders take-out, worries that his dad is drinking too much, and listens to Tupac’s “Dear Mama” over and over. When Matt is gently encouraged by his neighbor and local funeral director Mr. Ray to take a job at the funeral home assisting with services, he is shocked to realize that instead of “reliving my mom’s funeral everyday,” the job is actually helping him heal. “I liked watching other people deal with the loss of someone, not because I enjoyed seeing them in pain, but because, somehow it made me feel better knowing that my pain isn’t just mine. That my life isn’t the only one that missing something it will never have back.” It’s at a funeral that Matt meets Love Brown, a girl who has lost everything but still manages to see the sun behind the rain. A girl who truly understands how he feels. And that’s when the Boy in the Black Suit learns to stop grieving and start living (and Loving:) again. This heartfelt story of devotion and mourning by the author of When I Was the Greatest will feel comfortingly familiar to anyone who’s ever fallen in love or lost a beloved someone. (And honestly, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep the Kleenex handy.)

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


I do not know if these hands will become
Malcolm’s–raised and fisted
or Martin’s–open and asking
or James’s–curled around a pen.

With a beginning that is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ DAVID COPPERFIELD, acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson guides readers through her early life using lyrical prose poems that evocatively describe the people and places that influenced her illustrious writing career. As her family moves from Ohio to South Carolina and eventually Brooklyn, New York, young Jackie never loses sight of the one thing she wants more than anything else: to become a writer. Every heads-up penny found/and daydream and night dream/and even when people say it’s a pipe dream…!/I want to be a writer. Even when reading doesn’t come as easily to her as it does to big sister Dell, Jackie doesn’t give up and is encouraged by the picture books by John Steptoe she takes out from the library. I’d never have believed/that someone who looked like me/could be in the pages of a book/that someone who looked like me/had a story. When she can’t make the words work, (Words from the books curl around each other/make little sense/until/I read them again, the story/settling into memory.) Jackie memorizes stories and quickly moves on to creating her own. Her first book is a stapled collection of butterfly poems, but we already know it will not be her last. Even though Brown Girl Dreaming covers Woodson’s childhood, I don’t know if I buy that this book is only a children’s title. Her clean, lyrical poems have a classic feel that can easily be enjoyed by readers of all ages. And anyone who’s ever yearned to be a writer will especially appreciate the longing that comes through on every page. This achingly wistful, heartfelt tome is a both a personal story and a universal one. It is the origin story of one writer and all writers. And it pairs beautifully with Marilyn Nelson’s How I Discovered Poetry.

I keep writing, knowing now/that I was a long time coming.

How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson



Friends, it’s National Poetry Month, so I snagged this tidy collection of fifty autobiographical unrhymed sonnets by acclaimed poet Marilyn Nelson and spent a sublime afternoon in the spring sun absorbing it. I’ve loved Nelson’s work ever since I read A Wreath for Emmett Till, her gorgeous homage to the life and death of a young boy whose callous murder helped spark the Civil Rights movement. This meticulously arranged selection of poems highlight different moments from Nelson’s childhood and adolescence in the 1950’s, each one an intimate little insight into what it was like to be constantly uprooted due to her father’s Air Force enlistment, to be the only black girl in her class or black family on the military base, to wonder and worry when she heard adults mention “The Red Menace” or “hide drajen” bombs. Both a snapshot of a person’s life and an unforgettable time period in American history, How I Discovered Poetry is also tribute to the power of words arranged in lines and stanzas and couplets. The last two poems actually made me gasp aloud, not only because of the thought-provoking content, but with admiration that Nelson could say so much with just a few well-chosen, well-placed words: “I say to the dark:/Give me a message I can give the world./Afraid there’s a poet behind my face,/I beg until I’ve cried myself to sleep.” Get thee to a library and check out Nelson’s work pronto, but if all you’ve got at the moment is an Internet connection and a thirst for beautiful turns of phrase, take a minute to drink in some poetry from this fine selection of websites:

Poetry Foundation
Poetry Out Loud
Power Poetry
Poetry 180
Poetry from Teen Ink

Pinned by Sharon G. Flake


Autumn and Adonis couldn’t be more different. Autumn is a top wrestler, one of the few girls in the league. She’s always a winner on the mat, but when report cards come out, her weakness is revealed: she can’t read on grade level. “I’m a great cook and wrestler…but reading—that’s gonna take me down. I try not to think about it. Or read too often. That way I feel better about myself.” Adonis is a straight-A student, who volunteers in the library and is constantly called on to tour officials and administrators around the school. He’s always a leader when it comes to grades, but when he comes out from behind his desk, his weakness is revealed: he can’t walk. A birth defect left him without legs but not without resilience. “I know who I am. I know what I am capable of accomplishing. I do not dull my light so other people will feel better about themselves.” But despite their differences, Autumn is determined to make Adonis hers. And Adonis is equally determined to keep his wheelchair as far away from Autumn as possible. “I do not like aggressive girls.” But after Autumn is cut from the team because of her failing grades and starts volunteering in the library, Adonis sees another side of the “dumb” girl he scorned, and wonders if he was wrong about her. “Autumn does not cheat. She speaks to everyone. Besides wrestling, smiling is her favorite activity.” It’s possible that there’s hope for these polar opposites yet. Sharon Flake turns the stereotypes of the school jock and the scholarly nerd on their heads with this sensitive portrayal of two teens trying to fulfill their destinies in spite of their physical and mental deficits. Because of Flake’s uncanny ability to write the way teens really speak, you’ll be pinned by PINNED before you know it!

Dust Girl: The American Fairy Trilogy, bk. 1 by Sarah Zettel



What would you do if you found out that your long lost dad was a high ranking fairy prince? That’s the situation that Okie teen Callie finds herself in during a hard core dust storm in 1935 Kansas. After the “worst dust storm ever recorded” seemingly swallows up her sweet-tempered Mama, Callie is left shaken and full of questions. But not alone. The storm spit out a mysterious man named Baya who tells Callie that Mama is not just a struggling single mother trying to manage a dying hotel and raise her headstrong daughter. Instead she is the abandoned wife of a prince from the Unseelie Court who has been imprisoned for daring to marry a human. With Baya’s help, Callie sets out to find both Mama and her real father and untangle her strange genealogy before she herself is captured. Because the storm has raised more than dust. It has also lifted the curtain between Callie’s world and the world of the Fey, and now that Callie’s fairy family has located her, they want her back with them whether she wants to go or not. But Callie’s not going anywhere without Mama. This fast paced hist. fic/high fantasy mash-up will blow your wig off with it’s killer combination of period detail and scary fairies. Within these wholly original pages, there’s everything from giant carnivorous grasshoppers to enchanted dance competitions that only end after everyone has boogied themselves to death. A perfect genre blender to blow the dust off your summer reading brain.

Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson


Forge
Fifteen-year-old Curzon Smith, freed slave and former traveling companion of the stubborn Miss Isabel Finch, gets himself in quite a fix when he saves the life of a Patriot boy soldier during the fall of 1777. The result of that one selfless act causes him to become a member of the 16th Massachusetts regiment of the Continental Army on the eve of what is to be one of the most grueling experiences of the Revolutionary War: Valley Forge. But what his stalwart companions don’t know is that the terms of Curzon’s freedom aren’t as cut and dried as they seem. And when his former master turns up at Valley Forge, Curzon will need his lost angel Isabel to give him the courage to take back his freedom and once again make it his own. (If I sound a bit cagey, I don’t want to give too much away, as this wonderfully twisty-turny tale is full of juicy surprises of both the good and bad variety.) This stand-alone sequel to Chains can be read either before or after Isabel’s story, but I strongly suggest reading both. Teen peeps, let me be clear: I really like Chains. But I LOVE Forge. I don’t know if it’s Curzon’s perfectly executed teen voice, or Anderson’s easy prose that makes the history go down like buttah, or a magical combination of both, but Curzon has my heart as much as Isabel has his.