“The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?”
After spending six weeks in a teen psych ward as the result of a severe panic attack, Riley is hoping to start over at a new school. But after a first day spent dodging the questions and stares of both curious and outright cruel classmates, Riley feels completely discouraged. It seems as though it’s going to be just as hard being in the closet as gender fluid in public school as it was in private school. So Riley sits down and starts an anonymous blog as a place to put all their feelings of sadness, anger and confusion about identifying as a girl one day and a boy the next. The blog helps, as does Riley’s blossoming friendship with geek-turned-football-player Solo and a shy flirtation with the enigmatic, blue-eyed Bec. But then an internet troll starts stalking Riley’s blog, hinting that he or she knows who Riley is and where they go to school. Riley is terrified because if anyone discovers that their father is conservative Congressman Cavanaugh who is currently running for re-leection, the entire campaign could be compromised. But when Riley is forced to speak out about after being assaulted, Riley realizes that nothing is going to feel right until they finally confess to both their new friends and family about being gender fluid. Because it shouldn’t matter if Riley identifies as a boy or a girl when the most important thing Riley identifies as is human. This ground breaking debut shines a bright light on gender fluidity that is bound to educate and illuminate anyone who reads it. Riley’s biological gender is never revealed, and while that annoyed me at first, I quickly realized that my binary thinking only narrowed my imagination and the options of who and what Riley could be as a person. The more I read, the less it mattered and by the end I truly didn’t care. Riley had emerged as a fully formed character with quirks and desires and emotions, and their biological gender was the least of their multifaceted personality. For more information on transgender and gender fluidity issues, check out these resources recommended by author Jeff Garvin: Trans Lifeline, National Center for Transgender Equality and Transgender Law Center.
It is 1945 and WWII is coming to a messy, brutal end. Germany is being squeezed by the Allies on both sides (British and American troops from the west, Russian troops from the east) and panicked civilians and refugees are desperate to escape the war torn country. Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse haunted by the loss of her family, is trying to save anyone who crosses her path, no matter how impossible their circumstances may be. Florian, a Prussian assistant curator, is traveling to the coast with a precious object that if discovered, could topple the entire Third Reich. Emilia, a sixteen year old Polish girl, is looking for a savior even as she hides a secret that could either ruin or redeem her, depending on who she trusts with the truth. And Alfred is a vain young Nazi in training, trying to hide his cowardliness behind a gruff curtain of superiority, even as he finds his slim grip on sanity slipping away. These four young people find their fates intertwined when they all board the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German refugee transport ship that is supposed to carry them to safety. But the unlucky Gusloff is torpedoed by Russian submarines and sank on January 30th, 1945. Over 9000 people perish. Who among the four fleeing teens survives the icy waters and overcrowded lifeboats to start a new life in a new land–if any? Award-winning author Ruta Sepety‘s historical fiction could not be more timely as countries around the world wrestle with the question of how to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria today. Told in four intense, original voices, this masterful and heartrending tale about a little known WWII tragedy will help readers empathize with the plight of refugees throughout history. Don’t miss this boat when it comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you February 2016.
It’s the summer of 1977 in Queens, New York and situations both inside and outside seventeen-year-old Nora Lopez’s life are threatening to explode. Outside the tiny apartment Nora’s single mom works day and night to hold onto, it is the hottest summer on record. Arsonists are setting random fires around the city that are keeping the firemen like Nora’s best friend Kathleen’s dad busy day and night. There is a serial killer on the loose calling himself “The Son of Sam” who murders young couples in their cars and sends terrifying letters to the newspapers that give Nora nightmares. A city-wide blackout encourages a wave of crime that causes tempers to flare and feelings of fear and racism to flourish. Meanwhile, closer to home, Nora’s younger brother Hector, always a troublemaker, seems to be getting worse. A violent drop-out with a drug addiction, Hector rages at Nora, physically strikes their mother and rarely comes home at night. Nora is worried that he is possibly one of the city’s destructive arsonists. But she stuffs her misgivings deep inside, afraid of what telling the truth will do to her already fractured family. “How can you make people understand about brothers who hit and spit? How do you explain why you listen at your own door before going in? How do you explain that it’s not only parents who beat kids, but sometimes the other way around, too?” Nora longs to ask her father for help, but he has a new family in Manhattan and only calls on holidays to hear good news, not problems. The only bright spot in Nora’ life is her blossoming romance with her deli co-worker Pablo. His dreamy good looks and positive attitude give Nora hope. But when Hector takes his brutality to a new level and her mother loses her factory job, Nora pulls away from Pablo, afraid to draw him into her family drama. She’s never felt so alone, and wishes her mother didn’t always expect her hold everything together. “Shouldn’t she be able to take better care of us? Isn’t that what adults are supposed to do? Take care of their kids? Shield them from stuff? Pay bills? Why is everything the other way around for us?” Can Nora learn to ask for the help she needs before her entire world combusts? The novel takes it’s title from a well known disco song, but while Nora escapes to the club to forget her problems, the music can’t save her. I have deep love for Meg Medina’s books because they are set in my beloved Queens (my neighborhood of Forest Hills gets a shout out for it’s historical Tudor houses and because it was sadly a notorious site of one of the Son of Sam murders) and her teen characterizations are spot on. The feelings she conveys are honest and authentic, and her descriptions of NYC back in the day will make the 70’s come alive for you. Nora is a complex, original character who will bring your summer to its knees when you get your hands on this hotter than hot novel in March 2016.
Dan’s divorced mom has never had the best taste in men, Dan’s dad included. So when she tells Dan that she has arranged a hardcore camping trip for him and her newest beau Hank so that they can “get some quality guy time in,” Dan is obviously less than thrilled. Dan is sure that Hank is going to be just “another one of Mom’s freeloading man-child boyfriends eating all our food, shedding body hair in the shower, and stealing money out of my change jar.” At least Dan is able to convince his sarcastic brainiac best friend Charlie to come along as a buffer. But Charlie has other ideas–“You need to convince Hank that he’s in way over his head with the stepdad thing. Be creative. Have fun with it.” So the boys plan a serious of disasters intended to drive Hank as far away from Dan as possible. These include, but are not limited to: an extreme B.O. situation, a puking event, and an intense case of flatulence + diarrhea + poison ivy–all while trying to survive in woods “Man vs. Wild” style. After putting himself through bodily fluid hell, Dan hopes that will be enough to make Hank head for the hills. But when the camping team is forced to scatter due to a crazed bear attack, Dan and Hank have to depend on each other to make it out of the woods alive, and Dan starts to wonder if his scorched butt campaign was really the smart way to go. This scatologically funny comedy could only have come from the hilariously warped brain of screen writer Don Calame. The last time I was so completely amused and grossed out simultaneously was when I read his equally raunchy and highly entertaining Swim the Fly trilogy (which I recommend unequivocally to anyone aged 14+) If you appreciate witty dialogue, drawn out fart jokes and quick tips about how to survive in the woods with minimal supplies (and honestly, who doesn’t?) you are going to want to catch, snare or trap Dan vs. Nature when it comes to library, bookstore or e-reader near you April 2016.
Happy New Year, teen peeps! Here is my top ten list, delivered like a baby 2016 to your email, Twitter or Pinterest right on January 1. Please note that there has been absolutely no attempt to balance this list by age, gender or genre. These are just my “from-the-gut” favorites of the books I read this year. (While I love all my Top Ten books the same, I just might love DIME a tiny bit more:) Click on the title to go right to the review.
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Dime by E.R. Frank
Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schmitz
Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond
What do a brother and sister in 1935 Nazi Germany, two homeless boys in 1935 Philadelphia and a young Latino girl in 1942 California have in common? A magical harmonica and the hope that lives within it. In Pam Munoz Ryan’s epic, all-ages novel, the power of music unites these young people across time and space as they each awaken the sleeping enchantment that is embedded in the deceptively simple instrument.
Twelve-year-old music prodigy Frederick and eighteen-year-old nursing student Elisabeth were once the closest of siblings, but they have grown apart due to Elisabeth’s new found fascination with the German chancellor Adolf Hitler. Elisabeth believes in Hitler’s propaganda about about a “pure” race with no physical or mental flaws and Frederich, who was born with a large purple birthmark on his face, wonders how his sister can accept an idea that essentially brands him as an outsider in his own country. When their father is picked up by Nazi soldiers while Elisabeth is away, Frederich must embark on dangerous journey to save him, his only comfort the strange and beautiful harmonica he found in an abandoned warehouse.
Mike and Frankie have been living at The Bishop’s Home for Friendless and Destitute Children since their Granny couldn’t take care of them anymore. Their only solace is each other and the old piano that Mile knows how to play from Granny’s many lessons. When a rich stranger arrives and offers to adopt them both because of Mike’s musical talent, the boys think their ship has come in. But when the situation turns out to be more complicated than Mike thought, he decides to sacrifice his own happiness in order to save his brother by auditioning for Hoxie’s Harmonica Wizards, a traveling harmonica band that takes in young musicians and pays for their keep. Maybe the family will love Frankie more if Mike leaves. But before his final audition, Mike learns a secret that threatens to destroy the plan riding on his skill with the beautiful harmonica he found in an old music shop.
Ivy is devastated when she learns that her family is leaving Fresno for a new home outside of Los Angeles. She was supposed to play her beloved harmonica in a radio show with her class, but now she must leave all her friends and start over at a farm that her father is taking care of for a family that has been sent to a Japanese internment camp. When she is pulled into a frightening situation where she must come to the aid of the Japanese family who provided her family with their new home, the only thing that soothes her fear is the music she plays on her harmonica.
The three stories converge on one night in 1951. How do Frederick, Mike and Ivy find each other and what brings them together? I wouldn’t dream of denying you the incredible satisfaction of finding that answer out for yourself. A hopeful, lyrically written story about the magic of the everyday and how one person, no matter how young, can make a difference. Whether you are six, sixteen or sixty, everyone should read Echo.
Ruth would do anything to get out of Gran’s “old person smelling” house, but the results are disastrous when cute Ray Stevens offers a sleepover with benefits. Dora wishes she had a place she could call home because no matter how kind Dumping’s parents are, she can never forget that she is a guest in their house due to her father’s inability to stay away from the bottle. Dumpling always wears a red ribbon on the end of her braid for luck, but it doesn’t save her from what fate has in store. Alyce is torn between the two worlds of professional ballet and commercial fishing, and making a choice means disappointing one of her divorced parents. Hank is forced to take his two younger brothers on the run in order to find out where he truly belongs. This group of disenfranchised Alaskan teens living on the edges of their white, Athabaskan and Inupiat communities in the 1970’s end up coming together in complicated and unexpected ways that will delight and surprise readers. Based on the debut author’s own experiences growing up in Alaska, this character-rich, poetically-written, all-ages read will be available at a library, bookstore or e-reader near you February 2016.
Rashad is African American, an aspiring artist, the son of a police officer and a member of the ROTC. Quinn is white, a loving big brother, the son of a soldier who died in Afghanistan, and a member of a winning basketball team. Both boys find their understanding of the world challenged when Rashad is brutally beaten by a cop for a crime he didn’t commit outside a neighborhood store, and Quinn witnesses it from the sidewalk. Quinn is shocked and devastated to realize that the cop who beat Rashad is actually the older brother of his best friend. Rashad is shocked and devastated to realize that the beating has brought up a painful incident in his father’s past that paints him a new and disappointing light. In the week following the incident, Rashad and Quinn begin questioning the safety and fairness of the society they thought they knew.
Rashad: “I wasn’t sure what to do about any of it, or if I even wanted anyone else to do anything on my behalf. The looks on my friends’ and family’s faces–it hurt me to see them that way. Especially knowing that it hurt them to see me this way. I didn’t deserve this. None of us did. None of us.”
Quinn: “I wasn’t going to stand there and and pretend I knew what life was like for Rashad. There was no way. We lived in the same goddamn city, went to the same goddamn school, and our lives were so very goddamn different…Nobody wants to think he’s being a racist, but maybe it was a bigger problem, like everyone was just ignoring it, like it was invisible.”
With quiet lyricism and unexpected poetry, co-authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely help readers make sense of “the problem we all live with” with empathy and a serious appreciation for just how deep our biases run and how much we are trying–as a community, as a people, as a nation–to overcome them. This wise, timely book is thought-provoking, philosophical, and a call to action that anyone who reads it will have a hard time ignoring.
It’s not easy being a sixteen year old orphan in 1964 Ontario. But it’s even harder when you’re a brown-skinned girl who’s just lost the only home you’ve ever known. When the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls goes up in smoke one terrifying night, Malou is thrust out into the wide world with just $138, a shopping bag full of used clothing and a hospital bracelet with the words, “Baby Fox.” With her only clue being the hospital address, Malou boards a bus to the tiny town of Parry Sound, where she hopes to solve the mystery of her birth. She quickly finds a room to rent and a cleaning job to pay for it, but it’s rough being on her own for the first time in her life. “Alone is a hard thing to be. There is not enough inside my own head to fill all the hours it would take to live alone. Especially without books.” As she starts investigating her background, Malou begins noticing and meeting other teenagers in town who look an awfully lot like her. Soon Malou finds herself entangled in an local secret that is far more complicated than she ever could have imagined. I tore through this fast paced and plotty novel in about twenty four hours, completely engaged by Malou’s singular voice and the riddle she is trying to solve. If you find yourself in a reading slump, this captivating historical identity mystery is the perfect antidote!
Almost seventeen-year-old-wanna-be-screenwriter Quinn Roberts has become very anti-social–“..which is what happens when your big sister gets killed in a car wreck, right outside the school on the day before Christmas break.” So, yeah. Now it’s summer, and things have just gotten worse. Quinn and his mom are subsisting on a steady diet of sorrow and Healthy Choice frozen dinners. Finally driven out of his house by a broken air conditioner and his concerned friend Geoff, Quinn shrugs off his grief long enough to take a shower and attend a college party where he meets a sexy older college guy named Amir who makes his heart go pitter pat. Did I mention Quinn is gay? He is, even though “I’m still not out. It just seems like a hassle to come out. I want to just be out.” Amir is a great distraction to what’s really going on with Quinn, which is a) once again, his sister and best friend Annabeth died b) the last text he sent to Annabeth was something he wishes he never had to think about again c) he is terrified to complete his application to a prestigious film program without her sarcastic but loving support. Without Annabeth’s direction, will the screenplay of Quinn’s life just die in development? This raucous dark comedy is full of author Tim Federle‘s trademark witticisms–I couldn’t stop chuckling and underlining such gems as these while I read:
“I became enamored of the idea of having my own little pool. I was going to make it in the shape of a Q, and the slash at the bottom of the Q was going to be the hot tub.”
“If you don’t know what hangover feels like, congrats. You’re smarter than I am. It’s like a sledgehammer eloped with a swing set and they honeymooned in your head.”
Sometimes Quinn’s voice is a little too frenetic as the wisecracks just keep coming hard and fast page after page with no rest in between. But what the reader quickly realizes is that Quinn has to keep quipping in order to maintain his sanity. Because once he really looks at what has happened to family and asks himself some hard questions about his part in it, there’s no going back. And there’s nothing really funny about that. While you sadly have to wait until March 2016 to experience the witty stylings of Federle’s YA debut, there’s no time like the present to check out his equally diverting Better Nate Than Ever books!