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.
Though I have not posted nearly as much as I hoped to this year, I simply cannot miss the opportunity to wax poetic about what my RR Top Ten Titles from 2010-2019 are. For those of you keeping score at home, this is my SECOND decade post, I also posted my top ten books from 2000-2009. (THAT’S how long Reading Rants has been around–this blog is about a million in dog years.) Last time, I focused on what I thought were the most under appreciated titles, but this time I want to explore how these 10 books have earned their shelf space in the YA canon, are relevant to teens today and possess the staying power to stick around well into the next decade.
With climate change reform at the top of our list of national and global priorities, Ship Breaker is more relevant than ever. Both a riveting adventure and a grim environmental warning, this story of a orphan scavenger trying to survive in a future world decimated by hurricane and flood has grit and hope in equal measure. A perfect companion to Greta Thunberg’s TED Talk.
Though it suffers from headless girl cover syndrome, Libba Bray’s outstanding satire of teenage pageant contestants stranded on a island after their plan crashes en route to the Miss Teen Dream contest, was way ahead of it’s time. As I wrote back in 2011: “…as the days go by and no plane or ship appears, the girls…start to ask each other questions like, why do girls always seem to say “sorry” whenever they happen to express a strong emotion or feeling? And what does “act like a lady” mean anyway? They begin to think, “Maybe girls need an island to find themselves. Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching them so they can be who they really are.” Beauty Queens brilliantly foreshadowed the current #MeToo movement that has all of us questioning long standing gender stereotypes, the male gaze and outmoded beauty norms.
Monument 14 makes my list because it is simply my best, never-fail recommendation. I have never had a student return this story of 14 kids trapped in a Wal-mart store in Colorado while the apocalypse rages outside, without them raving about it and demanding the sequel (of which there are two more) It has fast-paced action, unrequited romance, non-stop suspense, and zombies of course. It’s just a perfect, all-around package for any one looking for an immersive, satisfying read about the collapse of modern civilization. I haven’t stopped hand selling and replacing worn out copies of it since I read it back in 2012, and I don’t think I ever will. How this has not been made into a Netflix our limited HBO series, I DON’T KNOW.
Honestly, I can’t say it better now than I did in 2013: “While this exceptional work will no doubt help gazillions of readers understand the complexity behind religious wars and personal freedoms, it can also be appreciated as a swiftly paced adventure peopled with men, women and gods who bring this fascinating period of Chinese history to bloody life. I was blown away by both the richly illustrated package and the timeless message. Read them in the order the title suggests, (first Boxers, then Saints) and then pass them along to everyone you know.” Arguments over religious freedoms and differences are still tearing us apart in 2020, so we need Yang’s GN masterpiece now more than ever.
I’ll Give You the Sun still feels fresh as it is one of the only YA novels I’ve ever read that perfectly encapsulates what it means to be an artist, live an artistic life and what it feels like when that artistic passion is lost. Plus the writing is just so, so lovely. In 2014 I wrote: “I’ll Give You the Sun is the most delicious, word-juicy tome I have ever read. I underlined so many gorgeous sentences and passages that the pages of my copy are practically phosphorescent with highlighter. You’ll want to squeeze it like an orange in order to get every golden effervescent drop into your brain.” and I still stand by that!
All American Boys is the powerful collaboration between authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely that provides profound perspective around a situation that has become terribly familiar to anyone reading current headlines: the beating (or shooting) of an African American man by a white police officer. Looking at the situation from all angles and taking into account many nuances that the news often fails to address, Reynolds and Kiely created a novel that has given schools, families and students a way to discuss and process America’s complicated racial issues. While we’re not much closer to solving the problem, this book continues to help us try.
“This beautiful, devastating novel may have been published for an adult audience, but the powerful, precise prose reads like a timeless classic that should be experienced by everyone over the age of 14. I have no doubt that this book will find it’s way onto hundreds of high school reading lists and college syllabi by the end of next year, alongside the writings of Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson.” (2016) Plus, Pulitzer Prize Winner. So, ’nuff said.
I said in 2017, “This innovative thriller that starts at the end, and ends at the beginning, is exquisitely executed. Each meticulously plotted detail leads the reader deeper and deeper into a dizzying labyrinth of truth, lies and shocking consequences.” Fraud scored 5 starred reviews, and I think it’s hire-wire plotting and complicated antiheroine will continue to find friends, especially when recommended to mystery and thriller fans. Plus it’s homage to the classic The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith doesn’t hurt!
Take a look at all the gold on that cover–that tells you that The Poet X is going to be in print for a long, long time. It is hands down one of the best books I’ve ever read, and pretty much everyone else in the world agrees. This “arresting portrait of a young poet coming into her own” won every major (and minor) award out there, including the Prinz Award, the National Book Award and the Carnegie Medal. And I’m pretty proud of the fact that one of it’s many starred professional reviews (for The Horn Book) was mine!
Dear Frankly in Love, while I can’t predict the future, I’m pretty sure that your subtle, funny, compassionate portrayal of “inter-generational race relations, privilege, and the deeply uncomfortable and often untenable situation of being stuck between two cultures” is going to speak to readers for years to come. While you are in some ways an of-the-moment book, being published during a #weneeddiversebooks period of growing representation of authors of color, you also have all the hallmarks of a classic. You are both popular and literary, are serious but don’t take yourself too seriously, and packed with fully rounded characters that embody universal themes that anyone can relate to. In short, you are the perfect book to round out this decade, and to set the bar high for the next one!
Did the fall get away from me or what? No post since September lets you know this has been my busiest school year ever. Non-stop lessons for my middle school students on digital literacy, news bias and trolling, plus my own writing projects have left me with precious little time to post about my favorite books. But I do have them! Like in 2018, I haven’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 2019. 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. 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 and The Horn Book Magazine, a professional publication for librarians and other people who still dig kids and YA lit. Click on the title to go right to the review and happy New Year!
It’s “seasonal” friends Deja and Josiah’s last night working at the local pumpkin patch, and their nostalgic feelings are running high. For four years, they’ve worked together at the Succotash Hut, bonding over corn and lima bean stew. Now they’re seniors, and it’s time to trade gourds for college textbooks. But Josiah has one last wish to fulfill before the pumpkin patch is in his rearview mirror forever: introduce himself to Marcy, the mysterious Fudge Shoppe Girl who he’s been crushing on for the last four falls. Deja is more than willing to help him in this quest, especially as it means making the rounds of the patch’s many delicious snack stands. But there are several obstacles standing between Josiah and his true love, including an escaped billy goat named Buck, a candy apple-stealing middle school hooligan who keeps targeting Deja’s treats, and his own confusing emotions. By the time the tired twosome finally track down Marcy, they discover that things have shifted between them, and what each of them thought they wanted has changed over the course of one last memorable journey around the pumpkin patch. This charming autumnal-themed graphic novel is brimming with light romance, cute banter and of course, pumpkin-flavored treats. Fans of Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks will be pleased by their timely, tasty collaboration that is destined to both steal hearts and whet appetites!
Eleanor and Park meets Taylor Swift in super cool Vice News correspondent Mary H.K. Choi’s sophomore novel. Pablo Neruda Rind (“Rind like India. Not, like, mind.”) is a twenty year old college dropout working in an upscale New York City bodega. He struggles to make rent while hosting an Instagram account that poses sneakers with offbeat snacks, and assiduously avoids questions about his finances from his Korean doctor mom and Pakistani playwright dad. When Carolina Suarez, aka Leanna Smart, international pop idol, stops by his store to stock up on sour gummies, sparks fly. Pablo is instantly smitten. But the fragile thread of their starcrossed connection threatens to snap under the weight of his student debt, her mega-fame and their shared indecision about the future. As romance gives way to reality, Pablo and Lee are forced to “adult,” even as Pablo laments, “Most days I can barely human.” Choi’s pithy, juicy dialogue and diverse, complicated characters impeccably embodies the anxiety, creativity and social media savvy of the modern youth scene. The portrayal of Pablo’s nontraditional, mixed race family and his place in it is also particularly well done. Packed with current fashion, food and gaming references that will either date or immortalize it, Permanent Record is a funny and deeply felt love letter to New York, international snack foods and family ties.
Poor Freddy! No matter how much attention she pays to her popular, super hot girlfriend, Laura Dean, LD just keeps breaking her heart. Her friends Doodle, Eric and Buddy are tired of seeing her so upset and consoling her every time Laura Dean decides to take a powder. Freddy doesn’t know why she keeps taking Laura Dean back, but she does, even though Laura only wants to hang out on her schedule, and doesn’t really share any of Freddy’s interests or hobbies. Freddy finally writes in to Anna Vice, an internet advice columnist, in a desperate attempt to understand her rollercoaster relationship. But before Anna can write back, Laura Dean pulls a stunt that finally shows Freddy once and for all the kind of person she truly is. Now Freddy has to decide if this time, she’ll be the one doing the breaking up.
This smart, super realistic graphic novel sprung from the head of Mariko Tamaki, author of the awesome This One Summer (with Jillian Tamaki), Emiko Superstar and some terrific Lumberjanes, among many others. Tamaki’s characters are so authentic, so completely recognizable, that if you are or ever were in high school, you will recognize yourself or someone you know. It’s so refreshing to read a story with LGBTQ characters who are just living their lives like any other teenager in an accepting environment (well, as accepting as high school can be for any one!) Freddy even pokes fun at this in her email to Anna: “I’m aware that I should be grateful that I have the ability to get broken up with and publicly humiliated the same as my hetero friends. I am progress.” Rosemary Valero-O’Connell‘s pink-tinted artwork perfectly captures Freddy’s fragile feelings of love and the rose colored glasses through which she sees the world–until the truth about Laura Dean rips them off. You won’t want to miss this utterly true take on high school romance and relationships, which is out right NOW!
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.
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.
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!
High school senior Frank Li has never had a girlfriend. His big sister Hanna made the mistake of falling in love with a non-Korean, and now his parents act as though she died. Frank knows that should his heart follow the same path, he will no doubt suffer the same fate. But since “Korean-Americans make up only 1 percent of everyone in the Republic of California, out of which 12 percent are girls my age, which would result in a dating pool with only one girl every three square miles,” Frank feels doomed to a life of celibate solitude. Enter Brit Means, Frank’s sexy Calculus classmate. Brit is hot, smart and white. Frank couldn’t be more astonished when he discovers Brit is as into him as he is to her. He also knows he can never introduce her to his racist parents. So Frank concocts a complicated scheme in which he dates Brit, but tricks his parents into thinking he’s really dating his Korean friend and neighbor Joy Song. Joy goes along with this because she’s secretly dating Wu Tang, a Chinese jock who her parents would never accept. What starts out as a bad idea gets immeasurably worse when Frank realizes that he just might actually like Joy after all. Could his fake date end up being his true love? Only time will tell, but Frank’s is running out as senior year rushes onward, college acceptances roll in, and long hidden family secrets rise to the surface.
Debut author David Yoon, husband of the writerly wonderful Nicola Yoon, fearlessly tackles issues of inter-generational race relations, privilege, and the deeply uncomfortable and often untenable situation of being stuck between two cultures, while being very, very funny. “The K in KBBQ stands for Korean. As does the K in K-pop, K-fashion or K-dramas. There’s of course no such thing as ABBQ, A-pop or A-dramas.” Frank is a smart, confused, of- the-moment teenage guy who’s just trying to understand life, love and his place in the world. “There are tribes within tribes, all separated by gaps everywhere. Gaps in time, gaps between generations. Money creates gaps…if there are that many micro-tribes all over the place, what does Korean even mean? What do any of the labels anywhere mean?” No matter who you are or where you come from, you are going to find something to LOVE about Frank Li. Coming to a library, bookstore or Kindle near you September 2019.
Readers of this blog know that while I love me some graphic novels, I’ve never been a huge superhero comic fan. The one exception is Marvel’s Runaways, which captured my heart way back in 2007. That’s why I was THRILLED to discover that hotshot romance author Rainbow Rowell has penned a new chapter in the timeline of do-good teens whose parents are big villainous baddies! (SPOILERS AHEAD: Only keep reading if you are already well versed in the Runaways universe. Otherwise, head back to the beginning.)
At the end of the original series, The Runaways fell apart. Alex and Gert died, Molly went to middle school, and Carolina headed to college. As Nico slums it in a cheap apartment, trying to decide her next move, she is stunned when Chase shows up, a nearly dead Gert in tow. Turns out Chase decided to time-machine it to Gert’s death, hoping to bring his buxom, lavender-haired love back to life. Once Gert is revived, (and over being really pissed that she missed two years of action) she’s ready to rally the troops and restore the Runaway’s badass reputations. The only problem is that no one seems terribly interested, which throws Gert into a deep depression. Why did Chase rescue her only to have re-lose the only family she has left? It’ll take a geriatric baddie to bring the gang together and set them back on the superhero path! Fans and newbies to the series alike will find much to love in this delightful reboot. Volumes 1-2 are out now, and Volume 3 comes out Apil 23rd, so hightail it to your nearest library or bookstore for immediate Runaways gratification!
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.
Ari just knows his future calling is to play in an indie pop band with his best friends, not work from the crack of dawn every day in his family’s struggling Greek bakery. But until he can convince his parents of that and scrape together enough rent money, he’s stuck at home making sourdough rolls. Then cute, tall Hector applies for an job behind the counter and suddenly baking sourdough isn’t so bad. Soon they are spending more and more time together, as Ari shows Hector the ropes and Hector grows closer and closer to Ari’s family. When the time comes for Ari to fully turn over the baking reins to Hector and take off for the club stages of big city Baltimore, he finds it’s not as easy as he thought. But before Ari can figure out what his heart is telling him, a terrible accident blows up his relationship with Hector and drives them apart. Can Ari make a new future for himself while finding his way back to Hector? This tender romance of a graphic novel, drawn with just a touch of manga and shaded in tones of turquoise blue, is sweetly reminiscent of another classic blue-tinted love story near and dear to this reviewer’s heart. Ari’s messy, tousled hair and Hector’s wide, welcoming smile won me over instantly, and I waited with bated breath for these two boys to figure out that what they were feeling was more than just a summer crush. Tasty extras include a recipe for the Kyrkos Family Bakery’s Famous Sourdough Rolls and a finger-snapping summer playlist of beachy songs from Hector to Ari. Fans of Rainbow Rowell, David Levithan and Nicola Yoon looking for a new swoon, your wait is over! Pluck this Bloom asap from your nearest library or bookstore!
Some of you may have noticed that I did not post to RR AT ALL the whole month of January. No, it wasn’t because I was hibernating or binging Russian Doll while the slush piled up and the temperatures flip-flopped. It was because I was working on this tidy round up of some of the latest YA fantasy for the New York Times. Bickering gods, assassin nuns, passionate freedom fighters and aristocratic spies await within the pages of these epic alternate histories! We call it “crossover” because these books have appeal for both teen AND adult reader. So take a peek at the reviews and let me know–do you think these titles fit the bill? All four fantastical tales can be snatched up NOW at your local library or bookstore.
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.