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.
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.
Though I am grateful for many things this Thanksgiving weekend, one item that tops my list is Sharon G. Flake’s new collection of short stories and poems featuring teenage boys and their angst. She is one of the hippest authors for teens around, and a new title from her is ALWAYS cause for celebration. This book is a companion piece to one of her earlier works, Who Am I Without Him? Short stories about girls and the boys in their lives (a title I have successfully shopped to so many teens I’ve lost count), and provides the adolescent 411 from the dudes’ POV. Navigating issues from teen marriage and suicide, to neighborhood politics and hot moms who attract unwanted attention, these guys struggle to make sense of the world around them while trying to solve that most maddening of mysteries—what makes girls tick? Flake also dishes up some hot poetry in this collection, including this excerpt from the title poem, “You Don’t Even Know Me”: You tell me to quit fronting,/ You ask who I think I am,/Pretending/That I’m better than you know I really am./…You know/I’ve been wondering lately,/Trying to figure out just how it could be/That we call each other brother,/And you still don’t know a thing about me/ There’s some surprises here, too. I like all the stories, but my favorite just might be “Fakin’ It,” about a last-chance boy who’s been kicked out of every one of his relatives’ homes and is now about to be kicked out of his aunt’s house, a six million dollar lottery winner. Despite her new money and resources, she still has old-school rules and he still can’t seem to follow them no matter how many chances she gives him. Unusual and unsettling because we like to think money solves everything, I just can’t get that story out of my head. So if you want to be moved to tears, laugh out loud, or be lit up with surprise, then this is YOUR book.
On a spring day in 1955, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was dragged from the bus by two adult police officers, called “Thing” and “Whore,” and put in a jail cell. She was scared out of her mind, but she was tired of being told she was less than just because of the color of her skin and the texture of her hair. From her activist-minded teachers, she knew it was her constitutional right to sit where she wanted on the bus, and the entire Montgomery police force couldn’t change that. So she dared to challenge the city’s segregated bus laws that demanded an entire row of African Americans must get up if even just one White person wanted to sit down. This happened nine months before Rosa Parks made her famous protest, and I KNOW you’ve heard of her. So why hasn’t history also made much of Claudette? The answer may surprise you…Author Philip Hoose takes you right to the tumultuous center of the Civil Rights Movement with this true story of a girl who fought back even when no one would fight for her. The most powerful words in the book come from Colvin herself, who shares the pain and fear of her frightening experience and its aftermath firsthand. “The lock fell into place with a heavy sound. It was the worst sound I ever heard. It sounded final. It said I was trapped…I didn’t know if anyone knew where I was or what had happened to me. I had no idea how long I would be there…” This is one of the best bios for YA’s around, and don’t just take my word for it—the National Book Award Foundation just named it the 2009 winner in the Young People’s Literature category.
In the summer of 1995, D, Neeka and our unnamed narrator (we’ll just call her “Me”) are trying to figure out what it means to be “grown” in their Queens, NY neighborhood while the music of their idol, Tupac Shakur, provides the soundtrack to their unusual friendship. Neeka and Me have lived on the same block forever, but D just appears one day, a foster kid with the wrong kind of shoes and the wrong color eyes. D likes to “roam,” taking the subway and bus to new neighborhoods, meeting people and gathering experiences. Neeka and Me are suspicious of her at first, but soon D’s sweet half smile and easy demeanor win them over. Something clicks between them and before they know it, they are “Three the Hard Way.” D convinces them to venture off the block, slipping out from under the watchful eyes of their mothers and into everyday adventures. They share pizza, secrets, and the pain that comes from worrying about their favorite rapper who seems to understand exactly how they feel yet can’t keep him self out of harm’s way. Ironically, D and Tupac slip out of Neeka and Me’s life around the same time, and the girls realize that while they loved them both, they didn’t really know either of them at all. For D, all that mattered was that Neeka and Me cared about her, and she cared about them. “I came on this street and y’all became my friends…I talked about roaming and y’all listened. I sat down and ate with your mamas and it felt like I was finally belonging somewhere.” When the time comes to say goodbye, they all understand that their lives are better for having known each other. This gentle story about faith, friendship and family being the people you chose will sit quietly in your heart and head long after the last page is turned.
Micah is a liar. That is a fact. And the only thing you can be absolutely sure of in this dark, sexy thriller from Aussie author Larbalestier. For Micah, lying has become second nature, a way to distract herself from her outsider status, her parents’ indifference, the tiny NYC apartment that feels too small for her restless spirit. For Micah, there is only one truth. But it’s buried so deeply beneath all her lies she isn’t sure anyone would believe her if she ever found the courage to tell. “I am often in trouble. Mostly for things I have not done. I can’t expect to be believed. I am the girl who cried wolf.” Only two things calm her—running and spending time with her secret love Zach. Secret because he’s popular and she’s not. Secret because he has a real girlfriend who proudly calls him her own. But when Zach goes missing and later turns up dead, he and Micah’s relationship comes to unwelcome light. Suddenly Micah finds herself at the center of a storm of malicious gossip, unsubstantiated rumors and chilly silences. No one wants to find out what happened to Zach more than Micah, but to do so she’ll have to face some hard truths about herself, some of which are quite nasty indeed. Micah is a liar. That is a fact. But everything else in this suspenseful page-turner could be the truth or could be a lie, and it’s up to you, dear reader, to figure out which is which. With a surprise twist smack in the middle and a delightfully unreliable narrator, Liar is a delectably disturbing story from start to finish. My only complaint is the cover–the girl shown here looks nothing like the way Micah is described: half black and half white with short, curly hair. However, that’s small potatoes compared to how much I enjoyed this roller-coaster of a chill ride. (Editor’s Note: Shortly after this review and others were written, Justine’s publisher Bloomsbury decided to change the cover to more accurately reflect the narrator’s race.)
Three very different girls + three contrasting points of view = one compelling day-in-the-life novel. Leticia is the kind of girl who doesn’t mind doing just enough work to get by and wants nothing more than to keep her “silk-wrapped, hand-painted, custom-designed, three-quarter-inch, square-cut nails with the sparkling faux diamonds” intact. Dominique is a serious, hard-driving basketball player who maintains her grades only to avoid being benched. Trina is a gifted painter and a fashionista who may shake her booty at the boys passing by but has big plans when it comes to pursuing her artistic dreams. One morning at school, Trina accidentally brushes too close to Dominique, who’s just found out she’s been benched due to a low grade in Mr. Hershheiser’s class. Wild with misdirected rage, Dominique swears to her girls that she will beat the unsuspecting Trina to a bloody pulp after school, even as Trina, who barely knows Dominique and has no idea what she’s done, sashays innocently on down the hall. Gossip girl Leticia views the whole thing from a safe corner and can’t wait to spread the word to everyone (except Trina) about the girl fight that’s gonna go down at 2:45 today. Tensions build as the school day progresses. Will Leticia tell Trina and risk being branded a snitch? Will Dominique cool down before the after school showdown? Will Trina catch wind of the fight and high tail it her Juicy pink booty out of there? Only time will tell and the minutes are ticking away…this slim novella packs more lyrical language and edge-of-your-seat suspense in its 170 pages than most books do in twice that page count. RW-G is a poet of the real, and she manages to be both wonderfully expressive and deeply street smart using an economy of words. I particularly dug Leticia’s sarcastic analysis of A Separate Peace: “I see how it all relates to my life because every other day I’m up a tree pushing some loser to his eventual death, then breaking out into a soliloquy about it. Don’t you just love the classics?” A tiny, terrifically written tome whose outcome is both disturbing and disturbingly real.
When Octavia thinks about her grandma Mare, the first word that comes to mind is “embarrassing.” Instead of being the cozy type of grandmother who bakes cookies and does the Sunday paper crossword puzzle, Mare “has long fake nails and a croaky hoarse drawl, and she’s always holding a long, skinny cigarette…She’s loud and bossy and she drinks bourbon with lemon juice at dinner. She has a low-slung, two door red coupe…and walks everywhere else on strappy high-heeled sandals.” As far as ‘Tavia’s concerned, the less time she spends with outspoken Mare the better! But now her parents have volunteered Octavia and her snooty older sister Tali to accompany Mare on a summer road trip South to a mysterious family reunion, and neither of them is very happy about it. Octavia stopped getting along as sisters with Tali a long time ago, and the prospect of having to deal with her in the close quarters of Mare’s car seems not only uncomfortable but practically impossible. But soon Octavia sees a whole new side of her outrageous grandma as Mare starts spinning tales of her time in the WAC (Women’s Army Corp.) during WWII to pass the time in the car. Almost against their will, the sisters are drawn into Mare’s sweeping story of bravery, sacrifice, prejudice and pain. As the journey continues, both girls begin to soften towards each other and Mare as they begin to understand the role the past has played in shaping their present. There’s nothing I like better than a good inter-generational story—as long as the oldster on the scene isn’t some sappy, wise Yoda-type figure dispensing advice. And Mare couldn’t be less like that. She’s smart, sassy and utterly cool. But she also admits her mistakes, never sets herself up as a role model, and allows her granddaughters to see her weaknesses and insecurities. I loved how Tanita Davis wove together the contemporary with the historical and showed how they connect through two generations of strong African American women. And if you want to read another great story about the contributions of African American women during WWII, check out Sherri L. Smith’s Flygirl.
In 1943 Louisiana, nineteen-year-old Ida Mae Jones wants nothing more than to contribute to the war effort like her big brother Thomas. She’s tired of serving on the home front, where all women can do is save bacon fat for machine grease or donate their silk nylons for parachutes. Like her father before her, Ida Mae has the flying bug and won’t be happy until she’s piloting a plane for Uncle Sam. There’s just one lil’ problem: Ida Mae is an African American woman, and although black men are allowed to enlist and serve in segregated units, women are not welcome as pilots or soldiers in the United States Army. But just when Ida Mae has given up all hope of realizing her dream, she hears about the WASP, or Women Airforce Service Pilots program. Due to the shortage of able-bodied men, the Army needs female pilots to ferry planes across the US to drop-off points where they can then be flown overseas to the battlefields and Ida Mae is determined to become one of those women. To the horror and dismay of her friends and family, armed with just her father’s forged pilot’s license and her light skin, she enters the WASP training program as a white female pilot. Her fear of being found out is quickly eclipsed by the thrill of flight and the close friends she makes at the training center. But her family and her roots are never far from her mind. Exposure as a black woman would mean expulsion from the program, criminal arrest, or worse. Can Ida Mae make it as a black woman in a white man’s Army? Will she even want to after facing discrimination, ridicule and the death of a dear friend? Sherri L. Smith’s fourth novel is a high flying historical adventure, full of thrills and spills, but also jam packed with fascinating historical facts about the amazing WASP and their unique brand of heroism.
“I was chained between two nations.” When Isabel Finch’s mistress dies, she is sold to a New York Loyalist family instead of being granted her freedom as was promised in the old lady’s will. Bound to a cruel new Tory mistress who delights in tormenting her, Isabel is initially tempted to join forces with Curzon, the enslaved message boy of a rebel leader who believes in the patriots’ cause. However, it isn’t long before Isabel discovers that neither Tory nor Patriot is interested in granting slaves their freedom, and if she wants her independence, she’ll have to take it for herself. Armed with only her wits and the memories of her lost family, Isabel learns to play both sides against each other for the highest of stakes: her future. Giving readers an intimate portrait of the sights, sounds and smells of New York in the tense six months leading up to George Washington’s famous Delaware crossing, this suspenseful hist. fic. had me turning pages with breathless anticipation to see how Isabel was going to engineer her escape. Friends, this prose MOVES—would you expect anything less of rock star YA author Laurie Halse Anderson of Speak and Fever 1793 fame? But this isn’t just an adventure story. It is also a tale of bravery, passion and fear featuring a smart, courageous heroine who is impossible to forget. (I just knew it would be good, especially with that cover that looks like it’s straight out of a Kara Walker exhibit!) This novel pairs perfectly with another of my fav titles that kicks it Revolutionary War-style: Octavian Nothing, vols. 1 & 2. Read ‘em all together for the total AmRev experience!
I already know what you’re going to say: “Jen! Why do you post about books that aren’t coming out for MONTHS, knowing full well I won’t be able to get my hot little hands on them anytime in the near future?” I know, I feel your pain and I apologize, but I just couldn’t wait to share my joy after reading the sequel to Octavian Nothing, the most amazing historical fiction ever. I was gifted with an early review copy and promptly sped through the 500+ pages in just a few days, dying to know what became of the experimental slave man-child raised by 18th century philosophers who used him as an example to prove that an African slave had all the same intellect and reason as a European man. After escaping his captors with the help of his tutor, Dr. Trefusis, at the end of the first book, now Octavian and the good doctor find themselves trapped in the besieged city of Boston, where resources are scarce and the rebels await just outside the city’s fortifications. Then Octavian hears that Lord Dunmore, the exiled Tory governor of Virginia, has issued a proclamation that promises freedom to all slaves who will join with his troops against the rebels. So Dr. Trefusis and Octavian travel to Norfolk, Virginia, where Octavian joins the Royal Ethiopian Regiment, in service to the King of England. But Octavian has a hard time fitting in with the rest of his escaped colleagues, as his exquisite manners and proper speech make him seem fussy and prim. In addition, the REG seems to spend more time sitting around and waiting in the hold of a stinky ship as they do actually fighting their former slave masters. Soon Octavian begins to wonder, “Rebel or Redcoat, were there none who needed to use us sufficiently to save us?” Beautifully written in the vernacular of the 18th century, this throughly researched sequel both stands alone and also answers all the questions readers had at the end of the first volume of Octavian’s unusual history. The action is fierce, the philosophy thought-provoking, and the characterizations complex and compelling. The incomparable M.T. Anderson poses questions about the meaning of liberty and the relativity of loyalty in the midst of war, while making connections between the American Revolution and the society we live in today. While they are in no way easy or quick reads, if you are a student of history or life, it would be well worth your while to read both volumes of the Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.
Tyrell’s life is in the trash—literally. Everything he owns fits in two black garbage bags. His dad’s doing time, his moms makes endless excuses about why she can’t get a job, and he and his little brother are living in one of the rattiest, roachiest family shelters around. But even though he’s down, don’t count Tyrell out. He’s still got his girlfriend Novisha on his side, and if he can only get ahold of his dad’s DJ equipment, he just might be able to throw down the party of the century, and make enough dough to get outta the shelter and back into the projects. Will Tyrell make it? Only God knows, but He sure ain’t been doing Tyrell any favors lately, so the only person Tyrell can count on is himself. Coe Booth’s debut novel for older teens reminds me of the work of my fav author E.R. Frank. (Both Booth and Frank are social workers who have worked with at risk teens) Tyrell is so real you won’t be able to believe he’s fiction. And his desire to do good in the face of overwhelming odds cuts through the tired stereotype of the fast-talking street thug who’s just trying to get over. Walk a few blocks of the Bronx in Tyrell’s kicks, and see what it’s really like living on the streets.
On the surface, seventh graders Kirsten and Walk couldn’t be more different. Kirsten is an overweight secret eater who hides her unhappiness over her parents’ constant fighting behind mountains of candy bars and bags of potato chips. Walk is a smart loner trying to make it as one of the only black students in Kirsten’s mostly white private school. But they become unexpected friends when Walk stands up for Kirsten when she is falsely accused of stealing a teacher’s wallet. When they each begin to talk about their new friendship at home, their families become suspicious, and neither Kirsten nor Walk can understand why. Is it because Kirsten is white and Walk is black? While that seems to be the rationale at first, there is another reason their parents don’t want them to become friends, a secret that will shake the growing tree of their relationship to its very roots when they find out. What looks like a benign school story from its innocent, colorful cover is actually a pretty deep read that will challenge the way you think about race and economic class, and help you understand that even though they often try to convince you otherwise, adults mess up too. And if you haven’t read her stuff before, you’ll definitely want to go back and check out Choldenko’s hip historical fiction, Al Capone Does My Shirts.
Everyday Maleeka Madison dreads going to school. She already knows that the other kids are going to tease her about her home-made clothes, her good grades and her black, black skin. Even though it makes her hate herself, she bows and scrapes to the reigning teen queen, Charlese, because she gives Maleeka her brand-name, cast-off clothes to wear. But Char makes Maleeka pay by turning her into the butt of every joke and forcing Maleeka to give her answers to each day’s homework. When a new teacher with a skin disorder challenges Maleeka to celebrate her blackness instead of hide from from it, Maleeka starts to wonder if she can break away from Charlese’s vicious circle. But Char doesn’t plan on giving up her homework slave without a fight, and Char plans with her last act of defiance against the new teacher who gave Maleeka confidence, to take Maleeka down with her. I guess I’m a little out of it, guys, because I don’t remember high school being this cruel. But this is still a good, good book about learning to like yourself no matter what anyone else says.
African American children’s poet Nikki Grimes has tried her hand at prose with this short but sweet novel of 1960’s Harlem. Seen through the pages of 14 year old Jazmin’s journal, the neighborhood comes alive with Jazmin’s descriptions of her older sister CeCe, who’s too young to be so jaded, and Aunt Sarah, a neighbor who shows up with lots of steaming “leftovers” when money is tight for Jazmin and CeCe. Jazmin knows she’s going to be a real writer someday if she can just get past the school counselor who wants to keep her in vocational classes and the mother who abandoned her to foster homes and poverty. Told in a jazzy, lyrical voice, Jazmin’s Notebook just sings with Nikki Grimes’ poetical turn at prose. Make sure to jot down this title in YOUR notebook next time you’re looking for something good to read.