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!

The Grace Year by Kim Liggett

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.

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

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.

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

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.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi



“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)

California Dreamin’ by Penelope Bagieu


After recently becoming completely enamored of Penelope Bagieu‘s Brazen, I was delighted to discover the author had also written this longer form, graphic biography of the indomitable Cass Elliot. Elliot was best known for her role in the Mamas and the Papas, a folk rock band that was famous in the 1960’s. Much has been written about her and the band, especially their dramatic arguments and Cass’s tragic death at age 32. But Bagieu focuses here on the early life of the ground breaking singer, back when she was just Ellen Cohen from Baltimore who was her father’s favorite and loved to sing. With small panels that can barely hold Cass’s big expressive eyes, Bagieu traces her path to fame, from leaving home at nineteen to falling in love with men who didn’t always appreciate her talent, but somehow ended up leading her to new and better singing opportunities. Each chapter is narrated by a person from Cass’s life, from her little sister and her vocal coach, to her father and first (brief) husband. And pretty much everyone in between, including the other members of the Mamas and the Papas. It’s like getting a meet and greet with all the major musicians of that time! While this is some ways a classic music bio, it’s also a terrific story of a woman refusing to squeeze herself into the mold society expected her to fit. Bigger than life and twice as bold, Cass Elliot made her own rules, and this graphic bio will inspire anyone looking for the courage to buck the system and forge their own path.

All Summer Long by Hope Larson


Remember those good old days of summer before you got roped into horrific high school summer projects/jobs/chores? It was just you, your best friend, a couple of bikes and two months of do-nothing stretching out to the horizon.That’s how it always was for Bina. She couldn’t wait until June so she and her best friend Austin could hang at the pool and add points to their Summer Fun Index (scientifically based on number of video games played, movies watched and stray cats petted, of course). But the summer after seventh grade, Austin has traded the Summer Fun Index for soccer camp, and Bina is convinced that her summer is gonna suck–hard. When her parents lock her out of their Netflix account because she’s “watched a summer’s worth of TV in a week,” Bina is forced to hunt down entertainment elsewhere. Oddly enough, without Austin around, Bina discovers that there’s a whole other world out there of cool older girls, indie music and her own untapped inner talents. This utterly endearing, oh-so-true graphic novel about one rising eighth grader’s summer adventures in babysitting, mean-girl-taming and indie-band-watching will make you feel so nostalgic for middle school that I bet you go dig up your Muji Pen Set and find an old notebook to doodle in. A terrifically un-taxing summer read that you’ll finish in an afternoon and think about the rest of the week!

Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl


Near the end of Beatrice’s senior year at posh boarding school Darrow-Harker, her talented, funny boyfriend Jim was found floating facedown in the local reservoir. Ultimately ruled a suicide, the tragic death and devastating aftermath busted up Beatrice and her tribe of besties: cunning Whitley, brainy Martha, cavalier Kipling and master hacker Cannon. Without Jim, they all drifted apart freshman year of college. Now, over a year later, Whitley has called them all back for a birthday bash at her family’s posh mansion. Against her better judgement, Beatrice decides to go, even though she knows it’s bound to stir up old memories and open new wounds. But she can’t help herself. Maybe together they can finally figure out what really happened to Jim that last night. EXCEPT…(and no spoilers here, this all happens in the first 50 pages and is mentioned on the back cover) they drink too much, get in a terrible car accident and die. THE END? Not quite. Turns out they have all landed in a bizarre time loop called the Neverworld Wake, stuck between life and death. Only one of them is allowed back into the land of the breathing, but how can they make that impossible decision? While they argue and flounder, living the same day over and over, Beatrice sees a chance to discover what really happened to Jim once and for all. But she just might have to die in order to finally know the truth. FRIENDS, this wild book is a offbeat, out-of-the-box mind bender that surprised and delighted me at every turn of the twisty plot. It’s both sci-fi and a mystery, a romantic tragedy and a tragic romance. Perhaps that’s to be expected from the author of the peculiar Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but I couldn’t finish that book despite my best efforts, while this one=MIND BLOWN. If you are looking for something fresh to shake up your reading routine, YOU’RE WELCOME.  (And if you’re so inclined, please come back and tell me what you thought about it in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.)

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

Monday Charles and Claudia Coleman are the best of besties. They dress alike, dance alike, and since their names alphabetically come one right after the other on class lists, even always sit together in classes at their Washington D.C. middle school. Monday helps Claudia conceal her dyslexia, while Claudia’s home is a quiet place for Monday to hang out when her own house full of siblings feels too chaotic. They talk about every thing from boys and sex to Go-Go music and dance moves. So when Monday doesn’t show up to the first day of eighth grade, Claudia knows something’s wrong. Monday never misses school. Claudia calls her phone, but it’s disconnected. She drops by Monday’s house, but Monday’s mom just yells at her and slams the door. She tries reporting Monday’s absence to her parents, police and teachers, all to no avail. The only person who seems to know something is April, Monday’s older sister. But she refuses to admit that anything is wrong, saying only that Monday is visiting their aunt or father. Where is Monday? What has happened to her? Why won’t anyone help Claudia find her? As the days and then months pass and Claudia tries desperately get anyone to care about her best friend, she begins to uncover disturbing clues that Monday may have been hiding secrets darker than Claudia can even imagine.  This harrowing, ripped-from-the-headlines story was inspired by #missingDCgirls and the media’s apparent lack of concern for black and Latino teenage girls who go missing. Tiffany D. Jackson seamlessly weaves timely themes about the damaging effects of gentrification on traditionally black neighborhoods and the dangers of overlooking the signs of mental illness throughout this ominously enigmatic page turner. Read it, weep, then become inspired to learn more about these critical issues.

I Am Still Alive by Kate Marshall


Oh my gosh, do I love a good survival story! I mean, real life-and-death kind of stakes where scrappy, puny humans fight against a totally uncaring landscape full of sharp, cold, wet or poisonous obstacles that are either passively or actively trying to kill them. But let’s be clear–I have no desire to start a fire with sticks and moss or skin a squirrel myself.  I just want to read about it from the warm coziness of my couch while drinking tea and munching Cheetos. And it’s totally possible I chomped my way through an entire bag of toxic orange goodness while breathlessly turning the pages of Kate Marshall‘s terrifying tale of endurance and retribution.

Sixteen year old Jess Cooper’s single mom is dead–killed in the same car accident that screwed up Jess’s leg and mangled her face. Jess has no choice but to join her absentee dad, a man whose been off the grid for most of his life and all of hers, in the deep Canadian wilderness. She’s determined to take the first plane she can wave down back to civilization. But that’s before the bad men show up looking for their buried loot. And, you know, murder her dad. (No spoilers–this is all revealed relatively quickly in the first few chapters!) Now all Jess had to do is stay alive long enough to plot her revenge when the men return. But it won’t be easy. Her bum leg makes getting around nearly impossible, she knows next to nothing about living wild, and before they left, the bad men burned her dad’s cabin, along with all his food and supplies, to the ground. Armed with just a few tools she rescued from the ashes and her father’s trusty dog Bo, does Jess have any chance of surviving the brutal Canadian winter? Like a bloodier, more emotionally wrenching version of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet or Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, I Am Still Alive marries unrelenting suspense with surprisingly compelling tips on ice-fishing and bad-man-trap setting. I was completely hooked, and you will be too when Alive comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you July 2018.

Tradition by Brendan Kiely


Jules, a smart and savvy senior at the exclusive and expensive Fullbrook boarding school, has had it up to here with the rampant sexism that is allowed to flourish on campus. This year, she’s on a mission. She’s going to make “Fullbrook Academy women-first for once,” and forget all about last year. Last year when Ethan Hackett cheated on her.  Bax, a bewildered, Midwestern transfer student who just wants to play hockey, is really disturbed by the macho bro-culture at Fullbrook. But he hopes if he just keeps his head down and his eyes shut, he can make it through the season and forget all about last year. Last year when he ruined someone’s life forever. Jules and Bax both need a friend and ally, and they find one in each other. After a raucous, drunken secret party in the woods near the school where Jules and Bax each separately come face to face with sexual assault, they decide that enough is enough. It’s time to confront and dismiss the traditions that Fullbrook has held dear for far too long. Traditions that hurt. Traditions that scar. Together with Jule’s best friend Javi and Bax’s crush Aileen, they plot a way to send everyone at school a message they can’t ignore. What they didn’t count on was not being believed. Not being heard. Tradition may be strong. But they are stronger…

This searing, imperative tale of speaking truth to power by Brendan Kiely, co-author of All American Boys conscientiously tackles issues of classism, homophobia, racism and sexism in a way that feels immediate, raw and sadly all too true. Tradition will challenge all readers to think more deeply about the circumstances and situations they accept as “normal,” and question the sanctioned status quo. A significant #timesup title for our turbulent age.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Penelope Bagieu


Do you know who the powerful Chinese empress Wu Zetian was? Have you ever heard of the three rebel Dominican sisters (Las Mariposas) who defied the dictator Trujillo? Or how about super sexy singer/songwriter Betty Davis? Or passionate Afghan rapper Sonita Alizadeh? ME EITHER, until I read graphic artist Penelope Bagieu‘s candid, colorful, cartoon collection of girl-power-mini-bios. This unputdownable volume of glorious girls and wondrous women, both notable and not-so, is easily one of my favorite books of the year. In just a few short pages, Bagieu chooses the most compelling tids and juiciest bits of each woman’s life and then illustrates them in tiny, perfect panels that completely captures them in all their funny, fierce femininity. Then she closes each story with a stunning full-color, two-page spread that often left me gasping in awe. I loved DISCOVERING volcanologist Katia Kraft, bearded lady Clementine Delait, and Apache warrior Lozen. And I loved learning MORE about astronaut Mae Jemison (did you know she studied medicine before space?) writer Nellie Bly (who basically invented investigative journalism) and collector Peggy Guggenheim (who discovered and financed practically every major twentieth century artist). The historical list of haut and hip goes on and on, and each page is a visual and intellectual delight. Don’t miss amazin’ Brazen!

I Have Lost My Way by Gayle Forman


Three star-crossed teens find their way back to love, family and acceptance in Gayle Forman‘s fate-full new novel. When troubled rising pop star Freya takes a tumble off a low bridge in Central Park and concusses a good looking stranger, she has no idea that the random accident will change the course of her life. When depressed tourist Nathaniel is nailed from above by a gorgeous half Ethiopian, half Jewish girl, he feels like he’s either falling in love or suffering from a head injury (and it’s probably a little of both). When broken-hearted Harun witnesses the girl crash land on the boy by the bridge, his first response is to run. He already has enough on his plate between losing his boyfriend and trying to come out to his devout Muslim family. He doesn’t need the added drama of playing good Samaritan to two complete strangers. But then he recognizes Freya. His ex-boyfriend’s favorite singer. Could she possibly help him find his way back into James’ good graces? His decision to help aligns their stars and sets each one on the road towards their destiny. On their own, they are lost, but together they will find their voice, their courage and their identities again. This heartfelt tearjerker, perfectly populated with diverse characters suffering from and solving problems both unique and universal, will leave you gasping, crying and eventually, smiling. Nobody does the Feels like Forman. Find it, read it, and then share it with anyone you love who might be feeling lost.