It’s Spring Break 2009, and college freshman besties Dani and Zoe have made plans to meet up in New York City. Dani invites new friend Fiona along, and at first all is well. But if two is company, then three’s a crowd and soon Fiona’s worldly cynicism and snarky impatience begins to drive a wedge between Dani and Zoe. Especially after a budding flirtation between Zoe and Fiona blossoms into something more. Can this friendship be saved? Or is this newly formed threesome doomed to die on the vine? The Tamaki cousins have done it again in terms of subtly and sensitively bringing a very specific moment of growing up to universal life. As they navigate famous NYC landmarks and neighborhoods, Dani, Fiona and Zoe wrestle with how they are viewed and how they are viewing themselves, with those viewpoints changing from page to page, from conversation to conversation. So many familiar and charmingly awkward moments around identity, class and gender play out that between the triad that you won’t be able to stop smiling and nodding in recognition. As someone who lived in NYC from 1997-2021, I remember the city of 2009 very well, from the shopping at St. Marks to the giant Virgin sign in Times Square. It is all faithfully and beautifully replicated in this graphic novel–in three-color, double-paged spreads of lilac, cream and black. I miss that version of NYC, and deeply appreciated being transported back. And whether you are a rock solid New Yorker, or have only done the tourist route, I’m betting you will also be transported by Roaming.
Ahhh, thirteen! It is the best of ages (Finally a teenager! Finally some independence!) and the worst of ages (“What the heck is going on with my body?” “Why are my friends acting so weird?”) Author/illustrator Dan Santat sweetly and hilariously examines the ups and downs of thirteen in this graphic memoir of his first time overseas. Dan is a quiet kid who’s learned that the best way to survive middle school is to keep his mouth shut and his head down. Luckily, as someone who loves to draw and and dream, that’s not too hard. But when his parents decide he needs to broaden his horizons by taking a three week trip to Europe with some of his classmates the summer before high school, Dan is is forced out of his shell in a big way. Confronted by new sights, sounds, smells and feelings, at first Dan is overwhelmed by the sheer size of the world outside his small California town. Then after exploring Paris and climbing the Eiffel Tower, Dan not only finds his people (Braden and Darryl), but he begins to find his footing. When his camera dies, he turns to his sketch book and starts drawing all his first time memories. (Remember friends, in 1989 there weren’t any cell phones!) He even works up the courage to start talking to Amy, a cute girl from another school. But then Dan starts worrying about what will happen when he gets home. Will he still be the same old awkward Dan? Or can he be someone new?
This heartfelt memoir is packed with Santat’s specific middle school memories that will be universally true for anyone who is, or ever was, thirteen: Being embarrassed by parents. Being mercilessly teased by friends about someone you have a crush on. Feeling on top of the world when the person you like likes you back, and devastated when they don’t. In thrall to older kids who seem to know so much more, even though they are only a few years ahead of you. Discovering you’re stronger, cooler, smarter, kinder, braver than you thought. It’s all here, and no current or post adolescent will leave these pages without feeling seen. The author’s note, actual photos and acknowledgements will be especially delightful for Gen-Xers like me, who are Santat’s peers and remember this time very well (I was 16 in 1989. I KNOW. GAWD.) Please make sure to find this wonderful tome at your nearest library or bookstore ASAP! You won’t be sorry.
“I wish I had a normal name, like Jane or Chetna or Soo-hee. A name that at least looks like what I’m supposed to be.” Alejandra Kim (“Ale”) feels like she has spent her entire existence stuck between two worlds: between her “super-Korean face” and “super-Spanish first name”; between her Korean ethnicity and Argentinian culture; between her gritty Jackson Heights, Queens neighborhood and her bougie Manhattan private school. No matter where Ale goes, someone is either messing up her name or making assumptions about her background, or both. Now its senior year and eight months since her father died in a subway accident. Sad, confused and angry, Ale is just trying lay low and make it through until spring when college acceptances come in. She wants to go to Whyder, a small, exclusive private college in Maine where she hopes to finally reconcile the two sides of herself and stop feeling like an imposter in her own life. But when her white best friend Laurel starts a petition to remove a teacher who mocked Ale’s name, Ale is thrown into the middle of a politically correct firestorm that will force her to confront all the choices she’s made up to this point–and pick a side.
As a proud former Queens dweller (1997-2021) and long time faculty member in independent schools, I can say with complete conviction that author Patricia Park‘s heartfelt and often hilarious depiction of Ale’s two worlds is perfectly spot-on. Each page had me rolling my eyes in knowing recognition. Ale kept me laughing and crying with her insecure and snarky first person voice, and the full cast of secondary characters, from her overly earnest friend Laurel to her pragmatic cousin Michael, were so engaging that they could have each had their own novel. Ale’s story is for everyone, but especially for anyone who has ever felt like a stranger to their own history. Do not miss this smart, funny novel coming to a library or bookstore near you this February!
Have you ever felt like you woke up in the wrong body? That’s how M feels, except she KNOWS it’s the wrong body: suddenly she exists when only a moment before she felt nothing at all. When she opens her eyes for the first time, she is told by her creator, Dr. Frances Ai, that she is Maura–Frances’s sister, who died in a lab accident. Frances was able to work her scientific magic to bring Maura back from the dead–except, despite being in her body, M doesn’t remember being Maura at all. Luckily, Maura still exists as a ghost, appearing to M through mirrors, instructing her on how to act and what to say, so that M can convince Frances that she has Maura back. But Frances knows something is wrong, and M does too. How can she truly enjoy being alive when her life is not her own? And if she tells Frances the truth, will the doctor make good on her claim to take M apart and start over? This character-driven, Frankenstein-adjacent take on self and sisterhood is moody, broody and deeply felt. M’s painful realization that it isn’t enough to just be somebody, that she must be herself no matter what, will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt like they were stitched up in the wrong skin. Debut author/illustrator Talia Dutton‘s sweeping black, white and deep teal tones and classic comic style effectively portray Frances’s determination, Maura’s verve and M’s shifting sense of self. M might be for monster, but it’s also for marvelous.
Seventeen year old Maya Gera has a love/hate relationship…with garlic. On the one hand, she’s the heir apparent to her Punjabi family’s California garlic farm, a role she’s been groomed for all her life that will guarantee her family’s future legacy and success. On the other hand, garlic, or rather, an agricultural summer course at Rutgers is what’s standing in the way of her realizing her secret dream: an internship at Fierce magazine, “…my bible, my roadmap, my lifelong guidebook” since she was ten. So what does Maya do? Simple! Ditch ”cow camp,” take the internship, and become the journalist she was always meant to be! But Maya discovers it’s not that easy to follow her dreams when it involves lying to friends and family and juggling the hearts of two very different boys who are utterly resolved to win her love and affection. To make matters even more complicated, Maya accidentally-on-purpose is hired on as an assistant editor, NOT an intern because her mentor mistakenly took her for a twenty-something! Whoa. With new obstacles popping up everyday, including a racist boss and a team of mean girls back on the farm who are determined to take her out, Maya has her hands full. Can she pull off the cover story of year while still maintaining the fiction that she has it all under control? Maya may be at her breaking point, but whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and Maya is determined to make her voice, and the voices of all the brown girls she knows and loves, recognized and heard.
This delightful rom-com delves deep into two fascinating worlds that I didn’t know much about: the “Desi farmer” culture in California: ”…dozens of agricultural empires run by old-school Punjabi families, each with it’s own legacy and legend,” and New York City’s cutthroat world of magazine production. As an Indian-American entertainment writer who worked for People and Teen People magazine, Sona Charaipotra (who, full-disclosure, I took a fantastic writing workshop from) knows these cultures inside and out, and layers this tricky love triangle with loads of sensory detail from both settings, until readers can smell the manure and cardamom pods, and feel the adrenaline-fueled tension of the Fierce conference rooms. I loved every late-night-in-the-city-delicious-Indian-food-description minute of it! Get this beach-bag requisite title ASAP from your local library or bookstore.
Serene Li is super frustrated. She loves being an intern at her mom’s self-named fashion label, LILLY LEE, and can’t wait to start designing clothes of her own. But her mom’s investors insist on watering down Lilly’s designs, calling them “too ethnic” and urging Lilly to sell to a bigger label so they can reap big profits. All Serene wants is for her mom to stand up to the investors so that she can finally be the international sensation Serene knows she is! But then Lily is diagnosed with cancer, and suddenly Serene isn’t just fighting for her mom’s vision, she’s fighting for her life.
Lian Chen is super frustrated. Ever since his family moved to California from Beijing, his mom won’t get off his back about becoming an engineer. She lectures and texts him day and night about his grades, and wants him to take an early admission test to get into MIT while he’s still in high school. Which would be fine–except Lian could care less about engineering. His true love is stand-up comedy, and he’s determined to make his onstage dreams a reality. But he’s terrified to tell his parents the truth, especially since he knows the reason his mom is so hard on him is because she lost her own florist business in China, and will do anything to assure Lian’s success in the United States.
When Serene and Lian meet cute in an after school Chinese club, sparks don’t exactly fly–at first. But as the two begin to share their secret hopes with each other, they become each other’s lifelines, and then, something even more. But Serene’s mom is still dying, and Lian’s mom is still a tyrant. Can true love help Serene and Lian overcome their family obstacles and set them on the path to making their dreams come true? Fans of Project Runway, Next in Fashion or Standing Up will adore this sweetly sad/funny romance full of good vibes and flirty banter that is destined to be THE YA book of the summer! Out this month, be sure to snag a copy for your beach bag from your local library or bookstore.
Noor and Salahudin are two Pakistani teenagers who live in Juniper, California, a small military town on the edge of the Mojave desert. Noor is a straight A student who works part time in her uncle’s liquor store and has dreams of becoming a doctor. Sal helps his parents run a small motel and fills his journal with stories and poems. Pulled together by their small immigrant and Muslim community, they were best friends–until Noor admitted to Sal six months ago that she was falling in love with him. Sal, worried that Noor’s feelings would ruin their lifelong friendship, pulled back and the two have barely spoken since. But they need each now other more than ever. Noor’s mean, petty uncle is doing everything he can to block her escape to college and keep her working in the liquor store, while Sal’s mother is succumbing to untreated kidney disease as his father drinks to escape. The bills are piling up and Sal doesn’t know what to do. When he is offered an illegal way to get out from under his family’s crushing debt, Sal takes it, even though it means lying to Noor and undermining their fragile new relationship. Every choice Noor and Sal are presented with seems to result in a dead end. As Noor says to Sal, “…it feels like too much. I think about the shit we’ve read in school. Those books all about one problem. A kid who’s bullied. A kid who’s beaten. A kid who’s poor. And I think of us and how we’ve won the shit-luck lottery. We have all the problems.” Can Noor and Sal survive in a world where the odds are stacked against them? Maybe–if they can learn to truly trust each other and their faith.
Sabaa Tahir’s searing, gritty novel poignantly highlights the injustice of racism and poverty while celebrating the strength and resilience of youth, family and faith. It’s also a breathtaking love story. Noor and Salahudin, who take turns telling their devastating version of the American Dream in alternating chapters, are unforgettable characters who are as instantly iconic as Ponyboy and Cherry, Eleanor and Park, Hazel and Gus or Maddy and Olly. While the main characters’ titular rage is palpable and their circumstances dire, there is a nugget of hope in the form of Sal’s mother Misbah, who’s loving, lyrical voice glows in short vignettes. And Noor’s running playlists of alternative songs and bands will be deeply appreciated by lovers of grunge and rap alike. Destined to be one of the biggest YA novels of the year, you will want to use all your power to nab a copy of All My Rage, coming to a e-reader, bookstore or library near you March 2022.
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!
Seventeen year old third-generation Korean-American Sunny Dae is a nerd with a capital “N.” Founder and front-man of the popular video channel “DIY Fantasy FX,” he creates home-made props for LARP use with his two equally nerdy best friends Jamal and Milo. Even though he gets picked on by bullies and ignored by his family, Sunny is fairly happy with his solid geek status. Until he meets Cirrus Soh, a beautiful and cosmopolitan new transfer student, who he is assigned to show around school. Suddenly his nerdiness seems utterly unacceptable. So when Cirrus drops by with her parents to meet Sunny at home, he shows her his older brother Gray’s old room (full of heavy metal posters and guitars on stands) instead of his own (full of supplies for his LARP props). Naturally, Cirrus thinks that Sunny is a burgeoning rock star. Naturally Sunny allows her to believe that. And naturally, that leads to all sorts of hilarious and heartbreaking complications. Now Sunny has to dress the part, learn to play the guitar and recruit his reluctant friends to be in his “band,” all to keep Cirrus from discovering that he’s really an all-out Poindexter. It’s pretty hard at first, but the longer he keeps it up, the more Sunny starts to like this metal-head version of himself. Is this who he really is? Or is Sunny lying to himself as much as he’s lying to Cirrus? David Yoon’s fun follow-up to his spectacular debut Frankly in Love is more rom-com than drama-rama, and full of his signature pitch-perfect dialogue. It’s a perfect winter break read for both nerds AND rockstars!
Dear Teen Peeps, some of you may have noticed that I haven’t posted to RRÂ AT ALLÂ since, like, September. That’s because of a little thing called Hybrid Teaching in the Time of COVID (which I know you all know about, since you are on the other side of the screen) AND because I was working on this sick short list of outstanding YA debut novels. These first time authors have really brought it with these unique tales of identity, love, fame and heartbreak. Take a look and see what you think–it’s not too late to add these to your holiday wish lists!
Clair is a “parachute,” one of the rich Chinese teens who are sent to live on their own in the United States (“We parachute in…get it?”) to attend American high schools in order to avoid taking the brutal gaokao, or Chinese college entrance exams. She’s used to high end luxury, and not at all sure she’s ready to “slum it” at American Preparatory high school in L.A. Dani is a Filipino-American ace debater who attends American Prep on scholarship and cleans houses after school to save for college. She’ll do anything to be chosen to debate at Snider, a national competition that could win her the attention of Yale college scouts. When Clair’s family arranges for her to rent the spare bedroom in Dani’s house, the two girls are forced to reckon with the assumptions and stereotypes they each hold about the other in order to form a bond that just might save them both. This gripping, achingly honest novel thoughtfully explores multiple perspectives of the Asian teen experience, while also delving deeply into issues of class, race, academic cheating, sexual harassment and rape culture. In an author’s note that is as compelling as her novel, Kelly Yang describes her own painful experience of being sexually assaulted, along with the actions she took against her attacker and her ultimate recovery. Don’t be put off by the length, this dramatically powerful page turner will hold your attention until the very last sentence!
In Patrick Ness‘s fascinating alternate historical fiction, dragons and humans co-exist in an uneasy truce, each side mostly keeping to themselves, until an ancient prophecy threatens to ignite an age old war.
It’s 1957, three years into the Cold War between the United States and Russia. Sixteen year old Sarah Dewhurst and her father Gerald struggle to keep their family farm in Washington state afloat after the death of her mother from cancer. Their lives are made even harder by Deputy Kelby, a racist police officer who harasses Sarah constantly for having a white father and a black mother, and for her friendship with Jason Inagawa, whose family farms nearby and whose mother died in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. But things really come to a head when Sarah’s father hires a dragon to help them with the farm work. The dragon is carrying a secret meant only for Sarah that involves an apocalyptic prediction, a swiftly approaching assassin, an FBI investigation and the launching of a Russian satellite. Confused? So is Sarah, but the situation becomes clear pretty quick in this rocket-paced, utterly inventive novel. And just when you think you have a grasp on what’s happening, Ness flips the story again, in the most pleasurably shocking way possible. I “burned”through it in a few days flat, and you will too!
It is 1945, and Japan is struggling to sustain their military might in the face of advancing American troops. Taro, a young Japanese pilot, has just joined a unit of kamikaze, pilots who volunteer to fatally “body-crash” their planes into American warships. Hana, a school girl and seamstress, is a member of the Nadeshiko unit, young women who are assigned to wait on and tend to the kamikaze pilots at the local military base until the day they are assigned to take their last flights. Hana has sadly become used to seeing the doomed young men come and go, and tries not to become attached. But when Taro arrives at the barracks with his violin case, Hana finds herself smitten with the young musician and his music. Every day that bad weather keeps Taro’s plane grounded is another chance for their love to bloom. Each of them has sworn to do their duty for their families, their country and their people. Can true love flourish even in the face of certain death? This utterly compelling and richly detailed historical fiction is the inspired work of Sherri L. Smith, author of Flygirl, one of my all time favs. While her research wowed me as librarian, it’s Smith’s beautifully imagined forbidden love story that really made me swoon. By showcasing a culture where the deepest of feelings can be conveyed by a look, a song, or a weighted silence, Smith has inadvertently crafted the perfect social distance romance for our quarantined times.
I am seriously sports adverse. You might even call me allergic. So, it turns out, is award winning and all around awesome graphic novelist Gene Yang. That’s why he was surprised to find himself writing a graphic memoir about, well, basketball.
Gene didn’t even know much about The Dragons, the basketball team at Bishop O’Dowd Catholic high school where he taught math. But when he starts hearing his students talking about how this is the year for the Dragons, he senses a story. And what a story it is! Gene finds himself caught up, just like the rest of the school, in the drama of the Dragon’s 2014 basketball season. A team that always makes it to the California State Championship, but never seems to seal the deal, the Dragons are determined to win this year, and Yang invites himself along for the ride. Interspersed between the personal stories of the individual players, their charismatic coach Lou Ritchie, and fast paced season games, are captivating chapters on the origins of basketball and famous games and players from basketball history. (I can’t even believe I wrote that last sentence.) Each time a character makes a major decision, in basketball or in life, Yang shows them taking a step: across a line, across a street, or into the future. It’s a quiet, yet powerful visual that underscores the fact that the most monumental changes are often initiated by the smallest act. Suspense builds not only as readers race to the end to see if the Dragons will win State, but also to see what happens to Mr. Yang, who’s undergoing his own personal crisis regarding his calling as a teacher and an artist.
I have always been an unabashed fan of Gene Yang, and I’m clearly not the only one. I think everything he creates is outstanding. Each book is better than the last, and I think, how can he possibly top THIS one? By making a person with NO sports gene CARE ABOUT BASKETBALL AND BAWL LIKE A BABY THROUGH THE WHOLE LAST CHAPTER, that’s how. I don’t care who you are or what you like to read, you will love this book. Coming to a library or bookstore near you just in time for March Madness, 2020.
Eleanor and Park meets Taylor Swift in super cool Vice News correspondent Mary H.K. Choiâ€™s sophomore novel. Pablo Neruda Rind (â€œRind like India. Not, like, mind.â€) 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 â€œadult,â€ even as Pablo laments, â€œMost days I can barely human.â€ Choiâ€™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 Pabloâ€™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.