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!
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.
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!
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.
High school sophomores and best friend group Abby, Brit, Christine and Sasha have had it up to HERE with the empty tampon dispensers in their school’s bathrooms. What’s a girl supposed to do if she forgets her essential supplies? Isn’t it the school’s responsibility to stock these vital necessaries used by 50% of the population? Activist minded Abby thinks so, so she launches a giant demonstration to draw attention to the issue. There’s only one problem–she brings her friends into it without asking their permission, putting them all at risk for suspension. Can Abby do an abrupt about-face and win back her best buds’ trust, while still holding the school accountable for supporting menstrual rights? This sweet, funny graphic novel was inspired by the creators wish to normalize periods and stop them from being such a taboo topic. But it’s also a delightful friendship story, full of secret crushes, awkward flirting and the highest of high school drama. If you grew up reading Raina Telgemeier or Shannon Hale, you’re going to love Go with the Flow. Period! (hee hee!)
Adunni has a lot to say: about her beloved mother’s untimely death, her drunk father’s plan to sell her away as a third wife to a taxi driver, and her secret dream to someday graduate from college and become a teacher. The problem is, no one wants to hear from the fourteen year old daughter of a unemployed Nigerian widower. So Adunni is going to do whatever it takes to make her voice LOUDING so that no one will ever be able to dismiss her again. And if that means running away, or taking a job in a mansion where the Big Madam beats her, then so be it. She’s not afraid to work and she’s not afraid to stand up for herself. Luckily, her verve and nerve catch the attention of a few folks who are in a position to help, like the kind hearted chef in Big Madam’s kitchen, and Big Madam’s neighbor who knows what it’s like to have her opinion silenced. Adunni may get her louding voice sooner than she thinks!
This stunning debut, written in Adunni’s unique and vibrant first person voice, may have been published adult, but it’s going to be popular with any teen who’s ever dreamed big or who knew in their heart that they were better than the limited circumstances life had handed them. Dare’s nuanced depiction of Nigerian society and class reminded me of Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. And although it’s a completely different setting, Adunni also reminded me Judith, the bright young protagonist of Edith Summers Kelley’s 1923 novel Weeds, about a smart Appalachian girl who tries to rise above her means. Adunni is completely unforgettable and I can’t wait for you to meet her! While most schools and public libraries are closed at the moment, The Girl with the Louding Voice is available as an e-book and on audio. Stay home, wash hands, and read books!
We’ve all heard the story of Joan of Arc: French teen girl hears voice of God telling her to save France from the English, chops off hair, learns to wield a sword and ride a horse, fights in a bunch of battles, gets captured by the enemy, and is burned alive as a heretic. But in The Language of Fire, Hemphill, master of the verse novel (Your Own, Sylvia, Wicked Girls) has unmasked the mythical martyr and revealed the stubborn, scared girl who challenged the religious patriarchy and led a skeptical country out of war.
In 1425, Joan, or Jehanne as she called herself, was only thirteen when she claimed to hear God command her to deliver France from English oppression. France and England had been fighting for almost a hundred years over the succession of the French crown, and now Jehanne believed she was being summoned by God to help put the rightful French king on the throne. There was only one problem. Who was going to follow an illiterate peasant girl with no knowledge or experience into battle? With utter sincerity and innocent piety, Jehanne slowly convinces powerful knights and land owning dukes that she is telling the truth. Impossibly, she manages to build an army large enough to challenge the occupying English troops and inspire the true French heir to come out of hiding.
Using spare free verse, Hemphill illustrates Jehanne’s short, intense life, full of the highest highs and the lowest lows imaginable. The greatest impression I was left with at the end of this book was how much the men who ruled Jehanne’s world were afraid of her. Afraid of a poor, young girl who might know more than they did, who was more favored by God than they were. And because she dared to question their authority–not for herself, but for the God she believed in–she lost her life. A detailed author’s note describes what Hemphill condensed or changed from the historical record, a chronology of the Hundred Years’ War, and a list of further reading.
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.
Prim Adele Joubert and brash Lottie Diamond could not be more different. Adele is green-eyed and rule -abiding. Lottie is blue-eyed and law-breaking. Adele tries to work within the system of their British boarding school, desperate to be friends with the “right” kind of girls, while Lottie gave up caring what people thought of her long ago. But despite their differences, they are both mixed race girls trying to survive in the strict, 1965 class system of the British protectorate of Swaziland. “We are one people divided into three separate groups: white people, mixed race people, and native Swazis. Each group has their own social clubs and schools, their own traditions and rules.” When Adele is dumped by her frenemies and forced to room with Lottie, she is shocked to discover how smart and funny she is, and ashamed of how she used to talk about her behind her back. The girls connect by reading aloud a precious copy of Jane Eyre to each other, finding comfort in the similarities between Jane’s situation and theirs–all of them trapped in a system of patriarchy and oppression that will not allow them to realize their full potential. But what’s more important is what Adele discovers the day Lottie takes her outside the school walls to visit a Swazi village. There she uncovers a secret about her mother’s past that causes her to question everything she’s ever believed about herself, her people and her country. The South African landscape is gorgeously realized in descriptive swaths of color and light. Malla Nunn’s vivid and atmospheric writing thoroughly incorporates timeless themes of family, friendship, class warfare and abuse of power into a ripping good story. Fans of historical fiction, boarding school books, and female solidarity will swoon over this summer read that takes you far way, while also bringing you home.
Amanda, or “Mads” as her friends call her, is not that into kissing. It’s usually too awkward, handsy or wet. No big deal, she has enough to fill her days without worrying about locking lips. There’s minor league baseball games and trash TV with her dad, Mass on Sunday with her mom, and after hours adventures with her best friend Cat every weekend. But then a mysterious phone call turns her comfortable world upside down. Mads discovers a hidden family secret that suddenly sheds new light on her lack of kissing enthusiasm. With Kiss Number 8, Mads begins to understand that maybe it’s not the act of kissing itself, but WHO she’s kissing that’s the problem. Author Colleen AF Venable and illustrator Ellen T. Crenshaw have hit a home run when it comes to portraying uber-realistic teen characters and their equally confused and conflicted parents. Venable’s deft dialogue sings, while Crenshaw’s eloquently drawn black and white facial expressions capture every turbulent emotion that Mads and her friends experience. This funny, poignant graphic novel about figuring out who you are while navigating parental expectations, friendship loyalties and religious beliefs should be at the top of your summer reading list!
Adolescence isn’t fun for anyone. But it’s particularly awful for the girls of Garner County, a rural community that seems vaguely colonial or dystopian. Sixteen year old girls are sent away from home and forced to endure the “Grace Year,” twelve months of living rough in the wilderness with little access to fresh food, water or bedding. In addition, they must also avoid the Poachers, a shadowy group of disenfranchised men whose favorite activity is to hunt down Grace Year girls, dismember them and sell their appendages on the black market. Supposedly their teenage bodies “emit a powerful aphrodisiac,” and are therefore highly prized as “medicine” by the lovelorn and love scorned. Families willingly send their daughters out into certain danger because they believe that the fear and deprivation ensures the girls will “release” their “magic,” returning docile and ready to marry. But Tierney’s not having it. A tomboy who’s been indulged by her father and scolded by her mother, she’s hurtling head on into the Grace Year, determined to understand its secrets and take away its power. But what she quickly comes to see is that within the boundaries of the Grace Year, the usual rules don’t apply. Not only are friends enemies, and enemies friends, but Tierney discovers there are powerful factions who are deeply invested in maintaining the violent Grace Year tradition, not matter what the cost. And Tierney’s life may very well be the price.
This complex, haunting novel pays lovely homage to The Handmaid’s Tale, Lord of the Flies, The Lottery and A Clockwork Orange while still managing to be it’s own truly original beast. And beastly it is, with poachers waiting to pounce and gory death lurking behind every tree trunk. But it also overflows with fascinating flower lore, forbidden love and fierce feminism. I finished this one in a lather, dying to know Tierney’s fate. Startling truths come to light in nearly every chapter, and the final one’s a shocker! Kim Liggett ties up each plot twist in a neat, if bloody bow, and I found the conclusion exceedingly satisfying. Devotees of Holly Black, Kelly Link and Libba Bray will want to snatch up The Grace Year when it comes to a library or bookstore in September 2019.
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.
Way back in the day when Amazon was still just an online bookstore, I was hired to write freelance reviews of YA novels (which sadly, are now long gone from the site.) In one of my very first assignments, I was sent three ARCs: Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, Monster by Walter Dean Myers and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Yeah. If you know YA literature at all, you know that those were the BIG THREE, the titles that ushered in the new golden age of YA lit by dealing frankly with issues of race, sexual identity and sexual assault while also being universally accessible and beautifully written. They broke the ground for Angie Thomas, John Green, Libba Bray, Jason Reynolds and basically every other modern YA author you know and love.
All of these books have continued to resonate with teens, but in particular, the popularity of Anderson’s Speak has grown exponentially. It won multiple awards, was made into a movie and is taught in high schools all over the country. And in 2018, twenty years after the publication of the original book, Laurie Halse Anderson and artist Emily Carrol have transformed it into a simply spectacular graphic novel.
Speak the Graphic Novel tells the now classic story of Melinda, a high school freshman who has stopped talking because she was raped at a party the summer before ninth grade. She is shunned by former friends and ignored by her busy parents. The only adult who shows her any positive attention is her art teacher, the goatee-ed Mr. Freeman, who instructs her to to take one subject (a tree) and “explore it in every way possible until you figure out how to make it say something, express an emotion.” Both Melinda and her tree evolve over the course of the school year until she finally finds her voice again and confronts the boy who assaulted her. Melinda’s voice is sardonic, self composed and darkly humorous in a way that felt revolutionary when Speak first came out, and continues to today.
Carroll has taken that voice and embellished it with her own ominous , shadowy style, full of close ups of mouths that smile, spit, snarl and snicker, all mocking Melinda’s own lips that rarely open and are dry and scabby from biting. Faces melt, eyes go black and panels flow like blood into each other, visually depicting the pain Melinda won’t voice. The pages lighten as spring approaches, except the two page spread where Melinda confronts her rapist and does everything she was too stunned to do before–screams, hits and says “NO!” in one long, savage word bubble that bursts into a dozens of sharp triangles. Like her tree, Melinda survives, grows, and renews herself, refusing to give up even when the pages go dark.
Fans of Speak will find their old friend freshly and inventively interpreted, while newcomers will fall under Carroll’s dark spell immediately, only resurfacing to go back to the beginning and read again before heading to their school library to check out the original. Do not miss this brilliant reimagining of one of the most celebrated books in YA history!
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.
“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)