How Maya Got Fierce by Sona Charaipotra

Seventeen year old Maya Gera has a love/hate relationship…with garlic. On the one hand, she’s the heir apparent to her Punjabi family’s California garlic farm, a role she’s been groomed for all her life that will guarantee her family’s future legacy and success. On the other hand, garlic, or rather, an agricultural summer course at Rutgers is what’s standing in the way of her realizing her secret dream: an internship at Fierce magazine, “…my bible, my roadmap, my lifelong guidebook” since she was ten. So what does Maya do? Simple! Ditch ”cow camp,” take the internship, and become the journalist she was always meant to be! But Maya discovers it’s not that easy to follow her dreams when it involves lying to friends and family and juggling the hearts of two very different boys who are utterly resolved to win her love and affection. To make matters even more complicated, Maya accidentally-on-purpose is hired on as an assistant editor, NOT an intern because her mentor mistakenly took her for a twenty-something! Whoa. With new obstacles popping up everyday, including a racist boss and a team of mean girls back on the farm who are determined to take her out, Maya has her hands full. Can she pull off the cover story of year while still maintaining the fiction that she has it all under control? Maya may be at her breaking point, but whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and Maya is determined to make her voice, and the voices of all the brown girls she knows and loves, recognized and heard.

This delightful rom-com delves deep into two fascinating worlds that I didn’t know much about: the “Desi farmer” culture in California: ”…dozens of agricultural empires run by old-school Punjabi families, each with it’s own legacy and legend,” and New York City’s cutthroat world of magazine production. As an Indian-American entertainment writer who worked for People and Teen People magazine, Sona Charaipotra (who, full-disclosure, I took a fantastic writing workshop from) knows these cultures inside and out, and layers this tricky love triangle with loads of sensory detail from both settings, until readers can smell the manure and cardamom pods, and feel the adrenaline-fueled tension of the Fierce conference rooms. I loved every late-night-in-the-city-delicious-Indian-food-description minute of it! Get this beach-bag requisite title ASAP from your local library or bookstore.

Slingshot by Mercedes Helnwein

Grace Welles doesn’t see the point of making friends. It’s easier to cultivate jerks. “When people were trying to be nice, there was everything to lose; when they were already assholes to begin with, there was nothing you could say to ruin it. Less pressure. Far more freedom.” She’s not a girl’s girl or a guy’s girl, she’s only out for herself and she likes it that way. Until she meets Wade. She had no idea when she launched a rock at a bully who was about to kick Wade’s butt with her trusty slingshot that she had just saved the love of her life. Wade’s soft where she’s hard, matches her insult for insult and thinks she’s smart. And pretty. Grace is undone. Her whole philosophy of love and how it turns people into idiots has been literally shot down–with her own weapon. “…ever since I’d known him, Wade had been this beautiful and I haven’t even noticed. And now that I did notice it, everything in my body began to hurt all at once. Full blast, like a fire alarm.” Now she’s the idiot. And she likes it. But Grace being Grace has to ruin things. And she does, spectacularly. But how can she move on after being irrevocably changed? Grace is different person, and she’s not sure who that person is, or if she likes her. But hey, there’s no time like the present to find out.

This delightfully aggressive anti-romance-romance is a bold pirate ship in a sea of silly, sappy love stories. Grace is an angry, awesome, wholly unlikeable potty mouth that I instantly adored because she swears like a sailor and never plays it safe, often to her own detriment. Man, I love a train wreck who makes good! Nothing much happens in this novel plot-wise except Grace’s tremendous character growth from a baby brat into a semi-functional teenager, and yet I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. I finished this novel during a sick day home in bed where I paired it with a re-watch of Ghost World and the combo was *chef’s kiss.* Do yourself a favor: ignore the terrible cover and check out amazeballs artist Mercedes Helnwein‘s blisteringly funny and tragic American debut from your local library or indie bookstore.

Private Label by Kelly Yang

Serene Li is super frustrated. She loves being an intern at her mom’s self-named fashion label, LILLY LEE, and can’t wait to start designing clothes of her own. But her mom’s investors insist on watering down Lilly’s designs, calling them “too ethnic” and urging Lilly to sell to a bigger label so they can reap big profits. All Serene wants is for her mom to stand up to the investors so that she can finally be the international sensation Serene knows she is! But then Lily is diagnosed with cancer, and suddenly Serene isn’t just fighting for her mom’s vision, she’s fighting for her life.

Lian Chen is super frustrated. Ever since his family moved to California from Beijing, his mom won’t get off his back about becoming an engineer. She lectures and texts him day and night about his grades, and wants him to take an early admission test to get into MIT while he’s still in high school. Which would be fine–except Lian could care less about engineering. His true love is stand-up comedy, and he’s determined to make his onstage dreams a reality. But he’s terrified to tell his parents the truth, especially since he knows the reason his mom is so hard on him is because she lost her own florist business in China, and will do anything to assure Lian’s success in the United States.

When Serene and Lian meet cute in an after school Chinese club, sparks don’t exactly fly–at first. But as the two begin to share their secret hopes with each other, they become each other’s lifelines, and then, something even more. But Serene’s mom is still dying, and Lian’s mom is still a tyrant. Can true love help Serene and Lian overcome their family obstacles and set them on the path to making their dreams come true? Fans of Project Runway, Next in Fashion or Standing Up will adore this sweetly sad/funny romance full of good vibes and flirty banter that is destined to be THE YA book of the summer! Out this month, be sure to snag a copy for your beach bag from your local library or bookstore.

Family of Liars by E. Lockhart

In 2014, this book by criminally awesome mastermind E. Lockhart came out and I was blown away and unable to reveal a single thing, because to say anything was to spoil everything. Now the prequel to this book has come out (or will come out May 2022) and I am AGAIN blown away and AGAIN, can say very little because this deliciously nasty little package is just one big SPOILER. What I can say is that if you loved Liars, you will love this. What I can say is that this prequel delves into the teenage pasts of Cady’s mom (Penny) and her two sisters (Carrie and Bess) and that this story is eldest sister Carrie’s. What I can say is that Sinclair family’s curse didn’t start with Cady and likely doesn’t end with her either. Here in Carrie’s story of where it all began to go so wrong there is love, madness, corruption, addiction, loyalty, fear and doubt. So much doubt. Carrie will tell you “On the outside, I am gray-eyed and butter blonde…I have the confident walk and good shoulders of an excellent softball player…I fix my sister’s problems. Those are the qualities anyone can see.”

“But my insides are made of seawater, warped wood and rusty nails.”

Now an adult, Carrie is tormented by what happened the summer she was seventeen, when she met a gorgeous, careless boy while still in mourning for the person she loved best. Her entire life has been colored by the secrets created and the betrayal committed that summer, secrets that can never be told and betrayals that can never be forgiven. Once you see the tragic connections that tie Cady and Carrie’s stories together, you can never unsee them. These are lies that bind.

Run, don’t walk to pre-order this monstrous gem that’s coming your way 5/3/22.

All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir

Noor and Salahudin are two Pakistani teenagers who live in Juniper, California, a small military town on the edge of the Mojave desert. Noor is a straight A student who works part time in her uncle’s liquor store and has dreams of becoming a doctor. Sal helps his parents run a small motel and fills his journal with stories and poems. Pulled together by their small immigrant and Muslim community, they were best friends–until Noor admitted to Sal six months ago that she was falling in love with him. Sal, worried that Noor’s feelings would ruin their lifelong friendship, pulled back and the two have barely spoken since. But they need each now other more than ever. Noor’s mean, petty uncle is doing everything he can to block her escape to college and keep her working in the liquor store, while Sal’s mother is succumbing to untreated kidney disease as his father drinks to escape. The bills are piling up and Sal doesn’t know what to do. When he is offered an illegal way to get out from under his family’s crushing debt, Sal takes it, even though it means lying to Noor and undermining their fragile new relationship. Every choice Noor and Sal are presented with seems to result in a dead end. As Noor says to Sal, “…it feels like too much. I think about the shit we’ve read in school. Those books all about one problem. A kid who’s bullied. A kid who’s beaten. A kid who’s poor. And I think of us and how we’ve won the shit-luck lottery. We have all the problems.” Can Noor and Sal survive in a world where the odds are stacked against them? Maybe–if they can learn to truly trust each other and their faith.

Sabaa Tahir’s searing, gritty novel poignantly highlights the injustice of racism and poverty while celebrating the strength and resilience of youth, family and faith. It’s also a breathtaking love story. Noor and Salahudin, who take turns telling their devastating version of the American Dream in alternating chapters, are unforgettable characters who are as instantly iconic as Ponyboy and Cherry, Eleanor and Park, Hazel and Gus or Maddy and Olly. While the main characters’ titular rage is palpable and their circumstances dire, there is a nugget of hope in the form of Sal’s mother Misbah, who’s loving, lyrical voice glows in short vignettes. And Noor’s running playlists of alternative songs and bands will be deeply appreciated by lovers of grunge and rap alike. Destined to be one of the biggest YA novels of the year, you will want to use all your power to nab a copy of All My Rage, coming to a e-reader, bookstore or library near you March 2022.

This Will Be Funny Someday by Katie Henry

Sometimes seventeen year old Izzy feels like her life is one big bad joke. Her power parents are too busy to spend time with her. Her older sibs treat her like an afterthought, if they notice her at all. Her boyfriend Alex pays almost too much attention to her, constantly texting and asking where she is and what she’s doing. Izzy can’t decide if his attention is flattering or claustrophobic. And she has no one to talk to about any of this since her best friend Naomi dropped her after she started dating Alex. It’s almost enough to make a girl…become a stand up comedian? Unassuming Izzy is the least likely person to step into the spotlight. But when she accidentally stumbles into a Chicago comedy club while dodging her stalker boyfriend, she discovers that all the secret thoughts she has, but never gives voice to, are actually funny when blurted into a microphone. She even picks up a new crew of older friends, who think she’s in college (and she doesn’t bother to correct them.) Suddenly Izzy has a gratifying new way to express all the emotions she’s stuffed down for so long, and it feels AMAZING! But how long can she maintain the web of lies she’s been telling to Alex, her family and new friends in order to feed her stand-up habit? It’s not long before her two worlds collide, and Izzy is forced to step out from behind her stage persona and admit the hard truth about who she really is. If you enjoyed The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Crashing, then you will race through Izzy’s side-splitting story faster than you could re-binge either of those shows! Hilarious and refreshingly honest, This Will Be Funny Someday is about learning how to stand up for yourself in life, love and comedy, no matter who is heckling you from the back row.

Lucy Clark Will Not Apologize by Margo Rabb

Sixteen year old Lucy Clark feels like she is always apologizing for something–for taking up space, for not being able to get over her grandmother’s death, but mostly for resenting her parents, who have created a self-help empire with no room for their own daughter. Lucy had always lived with her Nana while her parents toured to promote their business. Now that Nana has died, Lucy is forced to attend a second rate Texas boarding school, where she is tortured by mean girls until she finally pushes back–a little too hard. Before she knows it, Lucy is suspended and sent to live in New York City to live with her largely absent cousin and set up with a part-time job caring for a “mentally impaired” elderly woman. But instead of being frail and confused, Edith Fox is smart, stylish and a whiz when it comes to all things plants and gardens. She just has one problem: someone is trying to murder her and she needs Lucy to help her discover who it is. As Lucy starts to investigate, she becomes convinced that if she can get to the bottom of Edith’s wild assertions, “It would prove I wasn’t bad. I could be trusted. I could find out the truth about myself. About who I really was.” Maybe by solving Edith’s mystery, Lucy will also solve the mystery of how she has ended up so far away from the person she wants to be. This cozy, quirky puzzler of a novel, set in a soft-focus fairy tale Manhattan and full of fascinating flower lore, is the perfect summer read for anyone wondering how they fit in: with their friend group, their family or a post-pandemic world that is suddenly wide open and full of possibilities.

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

High school senior Evie Thomas was a compulsive romance reader and true love aficionado–until her dad cheated on her mom and they got a divorce. Now Evie wishes “I could go back to being the girl who thought her parents, especially her dad, could do not wrong…I used to believe in happily-ever-afters because they had one.” Grieving the end of her parents’ marriage, Evie declares war on love, and decides once and for all to get rid of her beloved romance novel collection. But a funny thing happens when she drops off her books at the little free library near her L.A. neighborhood. Evie meets an odd old woman who insists she take a used book from the library called Instructions for Dancing. Then shortly after she returns home, she begins seeing visions of the end of strangers’ love affairs. All she has to do is catch a random couple kissing, and suddenly she sees their whole relationship unfold in her head until it ends–badly. Hoping to stop the visions, she decides to follow the book’s directions and take dance lessons from the studio listed in the back. And that is where she meets tall, dark and handsome X, who threatens to sweep her off her feet with his witty banter and dashing good looks. But Evie flatly refuses to fall for his many charms. Hasn’t she seen for herself that love never works out, even when it seems like a sure thing? They are signed up for a dance contest by their instructor, and suddenly Evie finds herself spending way too much time with X’s gorgeous self. She will not fall in love! She will not! But the universe and the little free library lady have something else in mind for Evie, and if she’s not careful, she’ll find her cynical heart cracked wide open. Queen of Swoon Nicola Yoon’s effervescent third novel about love, loss, friendship and family, will leave your toes tapping and your heart yearning. I sobbed like a baby when I turned the last page, and you will too when it comes to a library, bookseller or e-reader near you June 2021.

A Shot at Normal by Marisa Reichardt

Sixteen-year-old Juniper Jade dreams of two things that feel like they will never happen: getting kissed by a boy and being vaccinated. While meeting floppy-haired, brown-eyed Nico at the public library takes care of the kissing part, the vaccinations are another story. Juniper’s parents believe in organic food, homeschooling and no immunizations for Juniper and her younger siblings Poppy and Sequoia. They think that childhood vaccines for diseases like measles and whooping cough cause autism in kids, and come laden with aluminum, formaldehyde and mercury poisoning. When Juniper contracts a bad case of the measles that lands her in the hospital, her parents still won’t budge, even though doctors try to explain to them that their fears are not only unfounded, but completely false. Then Juniper learns that a baby in their small southern California town has died after contracting measles. Juniper is devastated, convinced that the baby’s death is her fault. She vows that she’s going to do whatever it takes to get vaccinated, even if she has to sue her parents to do it. But that is easier said than done, and soon Juniper finds herself tangled up in a confusing legal mess. When Nico and his mom step in and offer to help, Juniper decides move forward with her plan, even though she is terrified about what it could mean for both her family and her future.

Author Marisa Reichardt’s sophomore novel couldn’t be more timely, as many people are weighing the potential consequences of getting the COVID-19 vaccine after a long, difficult year of national quarantine. Juniper’s story is nuanced, neither portraying her parents as villains nor her as a perfect hero. But while the issue may be complicated, the science is clear: vaccinations save lives, and the side effects are rarely worse than impact of NOT receiving the shot! For those who want more information after reading Juniper’s fictional story, check out these links:

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/vaccines/art-20048334

https://www.doh.wa.gov/YouandYourFamily/Immunization/Children/ChildhoodFAQ

https://www.vaccines.gov/get-vaccinated/for_parents/five_reasons

Love is a Revolution by Renee Watson

Seventeen year old Nala is looking forward to a relaxing summer before senior year. Her plan includes experimenting with different hairstyles, hanging out with her cousin-sister-friend Imani and best friend Sadie, and Netflix & chill. But all that goes out the window after she lays eyes on Tye at an “Inspire Harlem” teen activist event. He’s cute, smart and funny, and while Nala doesn’t “believe in love at first sight…in this moment, I am ready to profess my love for Tye Brown.” Tye is also passionate about social justice, one thing that Nala could take or leave. Sometimes it seems like all her friends are in a competition to prove how “woke” they are, and Nala isn’t even interested in playing the game. But now that she’s crushing hard on Tye, Nala finds herself pretending to be way more into activism than she actually is to win his approval. How long can Nala keep up the facade of being a social justice warrior before Tye finds out the truth? And if he does, will he still like the real Nala? Nala is terrified to find out, especially since she’s no longer sure who the “real” Nala is. Between falling for Tye, procrastinating on her college applications and trying to find her place in her family and friend groups, she has lost her self and her voice. Nala might have to take time to know and love herself before she can understand and love Tye. “Self-love is radical love…Today, I’ve started my own revolution.”

Thoughtfully exploring issues of body positivity, racism and virtue signaling, Renee Watson’s warm, character-driven ode to self love validates and uplifts any teen who’s ever tried to fit in, felt left out, or is at crossroads with their identity. This is one Revolution you won’t want to miss!

Girl, Unframed by Deb Caletti

Sydney is leaving boarding school for the summer to visit her movie star mother, Lila Shore, in San Francisco. Lila can be fun, but she can also be needy, insecure and mean. Sydney hopes this visit will be different, but already she has “a bad feeling, even before I left home. A strong one.” Her feelings are confirmed when she meets Lila’s new boyfriend, Jake. He’s domineering, aggressive and defensive, especially when Sydney starts asking about the huge framed artworks that mysteriously appear and disappear from the rented luxury beach house they’re staying in. Both Lila and Jake also make regular, uncomfortable comments about Sydney’s appearance, that she “looks a lot older” than fifteen, and that she’s acting like “Miss Sexy” in that “tight shirt.” Sydney, who “wasn’t in that part of womanhood yet where your body was something you were supposed to keep one nervous eye on all the time, like a bank balance, ” is quickly disgusted by both of them, especially after they start fighting when they think she’s gone to bed. Thank god for Nicco, the smart, artistic boy she meets at the beach. Her blossoming romance with him just might save her summer. But why is there always an unmarked black car parked across the street from the beach house? Why does Lila suddenly have all these bruises that she tries to hide with makeup? When Sydney finally learns the answers to those questions, her world shatters and nothing will ever be the same again–between her and Lila, between her and Nicco, but mostly between the woman she is now and the girl she used to be.

I couldn’t put down this riveting novel that thoroughly explodes the myths and stereotypes surrounding female sexuality and power. Sydney constantly questions how she feels about her body and her appearance, wondering if being attractive to men is a strength or a liability. “Sexy was something you wanted to be. Sexy was something you should never be.” This is a book about finding your voice, taking back your power and, to paraphrase Margaret Atwood, never letting the patriarchy grind you down. You will find yourself framing the world in a different way after reading Girl, Unframed.

Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado

“I imagine being kissed about a hundred times a day.” Hopeless romantic and proudly plus-sized Charlie Vega wonders how much longer she’ll have to wait for her first kiss. Here she is, going on seventeen, and her lips are still virginal. It doesn’t help that her gorgeous best friend Amelia is lusted after by every guy and girl at school, that her super skinny mom has a more active dating life than Charlie, and that the hot jock she has a crush on only seems interested in her for her history notes. Charlie knows she should celebrate her curves, but sometimes that’s hard to do when it seems like she’s always standing in the shadow of Amelia’s runway-ready bod. Then there’s her mom, who has turned into a completely different person since Charlie’s dad died. Now all she cares about is working out and dieting, and the pressure she puts on Charlie to lose weight is crippling. But then Charlie meets Brian, who’s just as smart, kind and slightly insecure about his body as she is. It’s a match made heaven, until Charlie lets the worst of her insecurities get the best of her. Can Charlie learn to truly believe in herself and trust that Brian cares for her as much as she cares for him? This culturally rich, sweet love story between a Latinx girl and a Korean boy is full of fun, flirty firsts: kisses, love and finding your voice. There’s no chance, fat or thin, that you won’t fall head over heels for Charlie Vega. And three big cheers for debut author Crystal Maldonado for creating such a fierce, fly, fan-fiction-writing heroine!

Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt

Meryl Lee Kowalkski is lost. It’s 1968, the war is raging in Vietnam, and her best friend Holling Hoodhood just died in a freak car accident. There was no time to say goodbye. It happened “just like that.” Now Meryl Lee can see nothing in front of her but the Blank, and it’s utter nothingness threatens to swallow her whole. And what’s making the Blankness worse is that her parents think that attending St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls for 8th grade is just the thing to get Meryl Lee back on track. Overwhelmed by rich mean girls, field hockey confusion and a small-minded teacher named Mrs. Connolly who’s out to get her, Meryl Lee just feels like giving up.

Matt Coffin is lost. It’s 1968, he’s heard about the war in Vietnam, and he tries not to think about the last time he saw his best friend Georgie alive. There was no time to say goodbye. It happened “just like that.” Matt had to run or suffer the same fate. Now Matt wanders from place to place, always on the lookout for food, shelter and work. But it’s hard to find someone willing to take you on when you don’t have a permanent address. Overwhelmed by poverty, guilt and no place to call home, Matt just feels like giving up.

Enter Dr. MacKnockater, the kindly yet steely headmistress of St. Elene’s. Her iron will and open heart will help make Meryl Lee and Matt each feel a little more found. Dr. MacKnockater takes Matt in and gives him a home, while encouraging Meryl Lee find the Resolution she needs to overcome Obstacles (namely field hockey and Mrs. Connolly). But Matt is running from a terrifying past that not even Dr. MacKnockater can save him from. While Meryl Lee struggles to overcome the Blank and Matt struggles to overcome his distrust of well, humanity, they form an unlikely bond that may just end up saving both of them.

Just Like That is Gary D. Schmidt at his absolute best. Full of quirky characters, gentle humor and sharp plot twists, this is a insta-classic to be savored and enjoyed again and again. If you’re seeking a warm historical novel to curl up with on a snow day, look no further–you’ve found your match 🙂

New York Times YA Debuts

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!

Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

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.