As a proud GenX librarian, I had no choice but to crowd surf head-on into former Nirvana and current Foo Fighters band member Dave Grohl’s big-hearted and name-dropping memoir. Starting with his accident-prone childhood (“We always joked that the doctors at Fairfax County Public Hospital (in Virginia) were on a first name basis with me”) and first crush (“Sandi…Ice-blue eyes, feathered blonde hair, and a smile so blinding it could have charged every Tesla from Brentwood to Beijing, had Teslas existed in 1982,”) Grohl takes us through his young adulthood as the drummer for the touring punk band Scream, to his big break being asked to join Nirvana, and into his slow but steady climb to rock star royalty as the lead singer and founder of the Foo Fighters. Though I enjoyed reading the numerous celebrity connections Grohl made on his way to the top, (Iggy Pop, Tom Petty, Paul McCartney, Joan Jett and Barak Obama are just a few) the best part of the book by far are Grohl’s rambling reminiscences of his time touring with Scream. Just seventeen years old, Grohl dropped out of school with his mom’s blessing and started touring across the United States, Canada and Europe on a shoestring (and sometimes starvation) budget in a beat up van with his equally talented and broke bandmates. Playing the famed CBGB‘s one night when he wasn’t even legally old enough to enter, and crashing on a friend’s cousin’s living room floor after a raucous post-show party the next, Grohl spins an intoxicating On the Road -esque musician’s odyssey that feels like it could have only happened in the pre-Internet late 80’s. The text is peppered with photos of Grohl’s quirky and fun postcards to his mom, which also make his story seem sweetly quaint as texts and emails have replaced letters and postcards. This is totally one to read with your parents, as long as you don’t mind them pulling up Nirvana Unplugged and getting all nostalgic on you.
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Ray Carney is a small-time furniture salesman just trying to get by, who is constantly tempted by the easy payday of the criminal life in this fascinating historical fiction by Colson Whitehead. Ray knows that if he wants to keep his little family safe and prosperous in 1960’s era Harlem, he needs to focus on his day job–owning and running a respectable furniture store that caters to middle class Black families. But he keeps being pulled into his after-midnight job–fencing stolen goods that his ne’er-do-well cousin Freddy occasionally drops in his lap. Despite Ray’s guilt about sliding into the hood lifestyle that characterized his shifty father’s life, this situation works just fine, until Freddie’s smart mouth pulls them into a questionable job that could not only expose Ray’s criminal side to the world, but could have fatal consequences for them both. Full of crackling period dialogue and unexpectedly interesting fun facts about (wait for it) couch fabric and furniture advertising, this story of crime, family and revenge is lots lighter than Whitehead’s last two novels and darkly funny. Harlem Shuffle blends a top notch plot with a richly atmospheric stetting that ensures you’ll not only be highly entertained, you’ll also learn something.
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.
Incredible Doom, vol. 1 by Matthew Bogart & Jesse Holden
It’s 1991, and Allison is desperate to escape her domineering dad, a mean, petty mid-level magician who forces her to act as his show assistant long after she has outgrown the role. She finds some relief when she discovers how to post to the local BBS (bulletin board system) by using the landline to dial in through her dad’s computer. There she meets sweet Sam, and they hatch a plan to get her out her house and away from her dad’s rages. Meanwhile, across town, Richard is the new kid in school. He used to have a tight crew back home but here, he can’t seem to catch a break. He’s become the target of a nasty local bully who’s escalated his attacks to the point of spraying Richard’s house with a BB gun in the middle of the night. Just when he thinks he’s reached his breaking point, Richard receives a mysterious note in his locker with directions on how to access a BBS called EVOL. He dials in and is introduced to Evol House, a community of outsider teens living on their own and led by tough, fearless Tina, who confronts the bully and teaches Richard “how to stay sane in this town…You listen to music. You come to Evol House. And you make shit.” How these four teens end up coming together is the satisfying conclusion of volume 1 of this affecting, minimalist graphic novel about the early days of the Internet. For those of us old enough to remember (I was a high school senior 1991) the Internet was initially a welcoming space where you could find like minded people and form community. While that still happens, as writer and critic Roxane Gay recently pointed out, much of the community spaces of Internet have been crowded out by cancel culture. Despite it’s somewhat dark title and sharp, angular art, Incredible Doom is an ultimately hopeful reminder of what the Internet was to kids and teens looking for connection, and what it could still be for those willing to wade through the cancelling, consumerism and contradiction to find the community waiting on the other side. I’m looking forward to Volume 2, and can’t wait to see what Matthew Bogart and Jesse Holden do next! Â
Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee
Valora Luck has always been a risk taker. She and her twin brother Jamie were trained as acrobats by their enterprising Chinese Ba, so she has no fear of heights and relishes the attention of a big crowd. Valora and Jaime were separated after the death of her British Mum and Chinese Ba–he went off to see the world as a coal shoveler on ocean liners, while she stayed back in London to be a ladies maid for the crabby old Mrs. Sloan. But when Mrs. Sloan dies unexpectedly, Valora decides to take her biggest risk yet: pose as Mrs. Sloan and use her pre-purchased tickets to board the Titanic, where she hopes to convince her brother, part of a team of Chinese men working in the ship’s boiler rooms, to ditch his job and come with her to America. Once on board, she plans to pitch her Chinese twin acrobatic act to Mr. Albert Ankeny Stewart, part owner of the Ringling Brothers Circus. Surely he has the power and influence to get her and Jamie into the US, despite the Chinese Exclusion Act? Valora knows that that her plan is full of holes and at any point, could go terribly wrong. But she’s willing to take that gamble since the potential payoff is so high. There’s just one factor she could never have considered: a hidden iceberg with the Titanic’s name on it. And suddenly all her big dreams come down to one thing–basic survival.
There have been many books written about the Titanic, but Stacey Lee’s inspired combination of Chinese culture, circus lore and performance, race and class issues, sibling politics and high fashion is nothing short of brilliant. Valora’s lyrical first person narration is captivating and contrary, full of daring dreams and understandable self doubt. This story starts with a bold move and ends, as you might expect, with a heroic act of bravery and love. If you’re in the mood for an adventurous summertime read, set sail with Luck of the Titanic!
A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia
In 1860 Louisiana, the plantation-owning Guilbert family has fallen on hard times, at least according to eldest son and heir Lucien. Though they still maintain their palatial home, land and slaves, Lucian’s business failures and growing debt have put the property at risk. Lucien is now dependent on Byron, his son, to make a good match and marry the respectable Eugenie Duhon, who’s hand comes with a sizable dowry. Lucien’s mother, Madame Sylvie, the aged matriarch of the ironically named Le Petit Cottage plantation, is not so worried. Years ago she buried her dead husband’s gold in a secret location in the cane fields and when the time is right, she will tell Lucien where to dig. Until then, she is more concerned with her legacy. Madame Sylvie has hired a French painter to come to Le Petit Cottage in St. James parish and paint her portrait, so that future generations of Guilberts will see her noble likeness and appreciate the many sacrifices she has made to maintain the Guilbert family reputation.
Like many people of their time, the Guilberts believe that everything they have was earned by themselves, when in reality, it is made possible by the enslaved people that are born, work and die on their plantation. They do not recognize the humanity of enslaved people, nor would it ever occur to them to do so. People like Marie and Louise, twin sisters who serve as housemaids and are the product their mother being raped by one of Lucien’s French business associates. Like Lily, the cook who rarely speaks, and never about her beloved son Jesse who Lucien callously murdered when he believed Jesse and Byron to be too close as children. Like Thisbe, who was taken from her family in the fields when she was only six years old, given the name of Marie Antoinette’s dog and made to be Madame Sylvie’s hands and feet. She is never to speak or have a thought of her own, though the one thing Madame can’t control is her quick mind. But a reckoning is coming, in the form of a party to celebrate Madame’s finished portrait, where all will be revealed, including the location of the hidden gold and the true Guilbert family legacy that Madame Sylvie has tried desperately to ignore, despite the fact that the violent, shameful evidence of it is all around her.
Award winning author Rita Williams-Garcia has penned a mesmerizing and meticulously researched anti-Gone with the Wind that never looks away from the unvarnished reality of the institution of slavery in the United States. In her illuminating author’s note, RWG explains that her story focuses on the white plantation owners rather than the enslaved people who worked their land because the fact is that racism is a white problem, not a Black one: “Take the free and enslaved Black people out of it. While they would be present in the story, I wouldn’t task them…to prove themselves extraordinary or human. Instead I would look at a family whose livelihood insisted on slavery, and the enduring legacy of racism handed down to their heirs, regardless of their connection to an Antebellum past.” Unlike anything RWG has written before (and trust me, I’ve read every one) this extraordinary historical fiction will give you a true understanding of America’s slave-holding past and how it ties into our racially divided nation today, while also being an utterly compelling and thrillingly dramatic epic that showcases the contradictory, stubborn and ultimately hopeful nature of our flawed human condition. DO NOT MISS IT!
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:
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!
Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas
The phenomenal Angie Thomas has given us an early Valentine’s Day gift with this kick ass origin story of Maverick, the boy who grows up to be Starr’s strict, kind father in The Hate U Give.
Maverick Carter has been doing a pretty good job of being the man of the family since his father Adonis went to prison. His older cousin Dre, his smart, beautiful girlfriend Lisa, and his hard working mom help keep him on the straight and narrow, even when his best friend King tries to convince him to sell hard drugs and get more involved in the King Lords gang. Even though he could use the extra cash, Dre makes Maverick steer clear and instead take a job stocking groceries at Mr. Wyatt’s store. Then Maverick’s world is shaken by three cataclysmic events: he finds out that his one-night- stand with homegirl Iesha has resulted in a baby that is one hundred percent his; one of his beloved friends is murdered; and then Lisa tells him she’s also pregnant with his child. Devastated by loss and exhausted by life as a new father, Maverick’s grades start to slip and his bank account empties. Suddenly getting back into the gang life is looking like the only way out. Will Maverick get sucked back into the King Lords? Fans of The Hate U Give know exactly what path Maverick takes, but this stunning story of love, grief and choices stands on it’s own even if you haven’t read THUG.
It was such a joy to read this book alongside my copy of The Hate U Give, and meet these characters again as their younger selves. Reading about the fate of certain characters broke my heart, while others made it sing. And just like in The Hate U Give, there’s plenty of Tupac references to go around, including the title, which is a play on the title of Tupac’s book of poetry, The Rose that Grew From Concrete. Whether you are an Angie Thomas newbie or die hard fan of her writing, you will definitely want to pick (up) this irresistible Rose!
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 🙂
2020 Top Five
Dear Teen Peeps,
What year it’s been! And with the disturbing and unprecedented events of last week, 2020 continues to cast a long, dark shadow over 2021. Lucky for us, we have books to help us understand our feelings and escape our sometimes claustrophobic living spaces. Like many of you, I spent most of the 2020 school year on Zoom: teaching remotely, checking in with friends and relatives, performing booktalks and consulting with students. So I couldn’t wait to get off the screen and READ. I read 79 books this year! (and I do mean book books–I didn’t want to spend more time on screens reading e-books)
I read so many books that I didn’t even get around to reviewing them all! Sorry, Rules for Being a Girl and Watch Over Me. I really did like you a lot, but sometimes this year, it was just too difficult to corral my anxious thoughts into a review. But both of you helped me escape from the real world for a little while, and for that, I’m very grateful!
Like in 2019, I havenâ€™t read nearly as much YA as I wanted to/should have, so here is a leaner, meaner list of my top five best YA reads of 2020. Please note that there has been absolutely no attempt to balance this list by age, gender or genre. These are just my â€œfrom-the-gutâ€ favorites of the books I read this year.Â Also, since I am lucky enough to get paid to review in publications other than this lovely blog, I reviewed some of my beloveds elsewhere, like the New York Times. Click on the title to go right to the review and happy 2021! May we all enjoy health, happiness and peace in the coming year.
Burn by Patrick Ness
Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Feder
Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang
Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh
The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall