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.

Parachutes by Kelly Yang

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!

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

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.

Go With the Flow by Lily Williams & Karen Schneemann

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!)

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare

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!

The Language of Fire: Joan of Arc Reimagined by Stephanie Hemphill

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.

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

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.

When the Ground is Hard by Malla Nunn

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.

Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw

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!