Imposter Syndrome and Other Confessions of Alejandra Kim by Patricia Park

“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!

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!

New York Times YA Debuts

Dear Teen Peeps, some of you may have noticed that I haven’t posted to RR AT ALL 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!

I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez

Olga, Julia’s kind, dutiful older sister, is dead. Hit by a truck while crossing the street, Olga has ascended to sainthood while Julia is left here on earth to compete with her sister’s perfect memory. Julia is far from perfect. She eats too much, reads too much, thinks too much. While Olga did no wrong, Julia can’t seem to get anything right, at least not in the eyes of her mother. All she wants to do is escape her hometown of Chicago and go somewhere, anywhere else. Julia’s raw emotions, that spill across the page like blood and soak every chapter like tears, are immediate and authentic: “I’m so frustrated, I don’t know what to do with myself. Sometimes, when I feel like this, I want to break things. I want to hear things shatter. My heart beats so fast and hard that I can hardly breathe, and I wonder if anything will get better. Is this really the way my life is going to be?” When Julia uncovers some clues that Olga wasn’t quite as perfect as everyone thought, she’s torn. Does she tell her mother that her perfect Mexican daughter was actually just a regular girl? Or does she let her mother continue to revere Olga, even as she keeps expecting Julia to meet her impossible standards? Julia’s experiences of love, sex, depression and homecoming simultaneously define a classical bildungsroman while also breaking its traditionally white dude mold. Erika Sanchez‘s singular debut about the pressure of cultural norms, the pain of not fitting in, and the anguish of not being able to make yourself understood is a loud, proud, universal anthem to the outsider.  (Oh, and just FYI, it was also a National Book Award finalist.)

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina

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.

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

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.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

When Piddy Sanchez hears that “Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass,” she’s stunned. What could she have possibly done at her new high school to anger a girl she’s never even met? Piddy doesn’t really need this aggravation on top of keeping up her high grade point, working weekends at Salon Corazon and navigating a sexy but strange new relationship with her old neighbor and ex-nemesis Joey Halper. What is Yaqui’s problem with her anyway? Piddy is never sure, but her mother’s best friend Lila has a theory: “You’re going to be better than that, and that’s what kills her, Piddy. That’s what makes her burn with hate. She can already see you’re winning. You’re going to get an education and use your brain…Ay, Piddy, one day you’ll be so far away from Parsons Boulevard, you’ll think you dreamed this hellhole.” But as the situation escalates from a thrown milk carton in the cafeteria to an actual showdown on the street, Piddy realizes she’s going to have to do something drastic. But what? Does she dare narc on the meanest girl in school? And what will happen if she does? Friends, I have a new book crush and it’s Piddy Sanchez. Piddy’s heartbreakingly real struggles to extricate herself from Yaqui’s senseless bullying will ring true to anyone who’s ever been a target, and inspire anyone who’s ever witnessed bullying to stand up and speak out. The infusion of Latino/a culture and the setting of Queens, New York were especially interesting to this New York reader as I never see enough books featuring characters of color in urban settings where their background isn’t the main focus of the story.  Get your a** in gear and check this one out of your local public or school library ASAP!

Chopsticks: a novel by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral

Seventeen-year-old Gloria Fleming is a beautiful young piano prodigy who’s still mourning the death of her mother when she was ten and chafes under her widowed father’s strict rules. Frank Mendoza is the impetuous young artist who moves in next door and sweeps Gloria off her feet with his sensuous drawings, paintings of flowers and romantic mix discs. When Gloria’s father forces her to go on a European concert tour, the two are devastated, and Gloria rebels the only one she knows how–by turning each classic composition into a version of Chopsticks. Gloria and Frank correspond throughout the disastarous tour with IM and postcards, while Gloria’s performances continue to deteriorate. Finally Gloria’s frustrated father is forced to bring her home, and the star crossed pair can’t wait to be reunited. But Gloria’s homecoming isn’t at all what she imagined. Teetering on the edge of madness, Gloria must finally face the fact she hasn’t been entirely truthful to herself about the role Frank has played in her life and his fate in her uncertain future. A romantic mystery told entirely in objects, photos, IM’s and handwritten notes, CHOPSTICKS will remind readers of a certain generation (that would be X) of an awesome little book called Griffin & Sabine, which also chronicles the meandering journey of  pair of misbegotten lovers who are kept apart by strange circumstances beyond their control. The gut-wrenching ending will have you flipping back to the front to comb the pages for clues and understanding, and be prepared to argue about what actually happened with your best friend, who you will be giving it to as soon as you’ve finished. Although CHOPSTICKS has an accompanying tumblr & app, this provocative and hugely entertaining mixed media (book? collection? picture narrative?) stands strongly on it’s own four piano legs. (I’m VERY interested in what you teen people think of this one–leave me your thoughts in the comments)

Riding Invisible by Sandra Alonzo, illustrated by Nathan Huang

Fourteen-year-old Yancy Aparicio is miserable. His big brother Will is a clearly a psycho, but no one seems to notice how dangerous he really is. Will is charming and manipulative to their parents, while being cold and cruel to Yancy, and no matter what Will does, their parents keep giving him more chances. So when Will cuts the tail off Yancy’s horse Shy in a fit of rage, Yancy decides he’s had enough. He packs his bags, saddles up Shy and heads for the hills. He also takes his journal, where he writes and draws about his journey, including small comic panels about Will, his parents, and his cute crush from school, Christi. The journey is hard, made worse by the fact that Yancy has no real plan for his future. He can’t just keep running from Will forever, but how can he convince his well-meaning parents that Will is the one who needs to be sent away, not him? Sometimes it feels like he’s the invisible son, and the only one his parents really see is Will. This modern day Western is full of unexpected accidents, suspenseful near misses and miraculous saves, with the tone and flavor of two of my other fav rodeo-ish reads. I’m also loving this trend of the illustrated novel for dudes, like Wimpy Kid all grown up. Sandra Alonzo‘s words and Nathan Huang‘s crisp, blocky B&W sketches mesh perfectly–I really felt like I was reading Yancy’s personal journal. Know of any other cool illustrated novels you think I should check out? Leave me the titles in the comments.

The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

red umbrella
In 1961, fourteen-year-old Lucia Alvarez lives a charmed life on the beautiful island country of Cuba. She loves reading the latest fashion magazines, daydreaming about her crush Manuel and planning her up-coming quincenara with her best friend Ivette. But storm clouds are gathering. President Fidel Castro has ordered factories to be shut down and churches closed. Lucia has noticed that many of her friends, included Ivette, have started attending the Jovenes Rebeldes youth political meetings sponsored by Castro’s government. There are soldiers on every corner. And her father’s boss at the bank has suddenly been arrested and taken away. At first, Lucia doesn’t understand why her parents don’t support the government revolution that promises to make everything better for everyone. “I couldn’t believe how judgmental Papa was being…Castro had no choice but to have the government take over many of the businesses so that there wouldn’t be so much corruption. It was all for the benefit of the country, and everyone was expected to pitch in and help. What harm was there in that?” But when her father is arrested for “hoarding” their family valuables instead of turning them over to the government and Lucia witnesses an unspeakable act of violence in the local park, she realizes her parents are right not to trust Castro’s Revolution. “Before, I didn’t want to think about people being jailed, killed or forced to leave their homes. I thought those people must have done something wrong or just didn’t love Cuba enough. But now I knew better…Castro was, in one way or another, eliminating those who didn’t agree with him.” And now Lucia has to accept an even harder truth—her parents are sending her and her little brother Francisco to the United States to keep them safe from the forced “youth brigades” that separate children from their parents. The last thing Lucia sees as her plane takes off for a foreign place called “Nebraska” is her mother’s bright red umbrella, the only speck of color in a sea of parents frantically waving goodbye to their children. Will she ever see her parents or Cuba again? “It was no use pretending this was an ordinary trip. We weren’t choosing to come here, and we had no idea when we’d be going back home.”

Good historical fiction introduces you to some intriguing tidbit of the past that somehow didn’t make it into your history textbook. That’s what Christina Diaz Gonzalez does with this oh-so-interesting debut novel. I had never heard of Operation Pedro Pan, the underground organization that helped over 14,000 children and teens get out of Cuba and into the United States in the early 1960’s. I was completely fascinated by the true aspects of Lucia’s story and immediately started looking up more information about Cuba during that time period (another hallmark of good hist. fic—it makes you want to dig up more facts on the topic!) In addition to her top notch research, Gonzalez’s depiction of Lucia and Francisco’s culture shock when they join their Nebraska foster family left me laughing and cringing at the same time. Like the scene where Mrs. Baxter, their Nebraska sponsor, has Lucia to put Tabasco sauce on her eggs: “ ‘Oh my, you don’t like it? Mrs. Baxter’s eyebrows were scrunched together. “I thought you liked spicy food. I read that in Mexico they put it on everything…’ ‘Ughmm.’ I cleared my throat. ‘In Cuba, we no eat spicy food. Mexico yes, Cuba no.’ Even my ears felt hot.” You can easily see why this hip hist. fic. needs to be put on your TBR list ASAP.

Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Pena

mexican white boy“He’s Mexican because his family’s Mexican, but he’s not really Mexican. His skin is dark like his grandma’s sweet coffee, but his insides are as pale as the cream she mixes in.” Danny Lopez is torn between the private school world of his divorced white mother and the San Diego barrio of his Mexican father’s family. Feeling like he doesn’t fully belong in either, he focuses on his passion for baseball, and improving the erratic pitches that have kept him off the prep school team. When his mother decides to go live with her wealthy white boyfriend in San Francisco, Danny opts instead to spend the summer with his father’s family in San Diego. There he meets Uno, a trash-talking half black, half Hispanic kid, also with a divorced mom. Uno understands Danny’s split background and helps him use his fast pitch to cook up hustles at local ball fields. These two boys have Big League dreams. But they’ll both have to learn to come to terms with their mixed heritages and the confusing roles their absentee dads have played in their lives before they can achieve their goals. Matt de la Pena scores a home run with this richly characterized story of two boys struggling to discover the sort of men they want to be. Full of authentic, raw dialogue liberally peppered with Spanish, de la Pena’s follow-up to his thought provoking first novel Ball Don’t Lie is powerfully reminiscent of Paul Griffin’s Ten Mile River and Coe Booth’s Tyrell.  An unexpectedly lyrical and poignant read about teens from the wrong side of the tracks trying to make good.

Arana, vol. 1: Heart of The Spider by Fiona Avery & Mark Brooks

She’s smart, she’s fast, and she’s supadupa-fly–except for the fact she’s a spider! Just don’t call her Spider-Girl, she’s Anya Corazon, aka Arana, the Latina teen who just happened to be in the right place at the right time to score the kinds of acrobatic moves that would make Spider-man look about as scary as a Daddy Long-Legs. Now that she’s working for the mysterious WebCorps, with tall dark Miguel as her Muse, Anya is slowly learning how to harness her Hunter powers in order to trap WASPS, a shadowy criminal underground organization that operates outside society and the law. But how is she going to bust chops, find a decent superhero costume (one of the funniest sequences in the book) and maintain a B+ average at the same time? This first volume of Arana’s adventures is fast-paced and full of laughs, while not giving readers all the answers about Anya’s uncertain future, which is why you’re gonna want to score Arana Volume 2: In The Beginning and Arana Volume 3: Night Of The Hunter as well. And if you like Anya, check out the other titles in the Marvel Age/Adventures imprint. This imprint has always been been near and dear to my heart since it was the one to launch Runaways.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising A pampered only child, Esperanza is used to getting her way around her father’s affluent Mexican ranch, Rancho de las Rosas. But when her father is killed by bandits and her greedy uncles swoop in and take the land away from her mother, Esperanza must find her core of inner strength and be brave in the face of great adversity. Because now, she and Mama have nothing and must immigrate to the United States to work. But the Great Depression is going on, and the only work to be found is migrant farm work–hard, back breaking labor that ruins smooth hands and lines faces. Esperanza learns that class, honesty and integrity have nothing to do with how many dresses or servants you have, but how you live your life and treat those around you. Esperanza wants to believe that she can conquer this new way of life, but when Mama gets sick, it’s hard to keep going. But her name means hope–and that has to stand for something. Based on the events that took place in her family, Pam Munoz Ryan’s simple story provides a warm, wise, empowering message for girls everywhere.

The Afterlife by Gary Soto

The AfterlifeIn a few memorable days, Chuy makes it a point to fulfill all the dreams he’s ever had as a 17 year old chico growing up in the barrios of Fresno, California. He asks out a beautiful girl, gets great seats to a Raiders game, and tells his mother how much he really loves her. Why is Chuy doing all this now, when he never had the courage to do it before? Because on page 2 of Soto’s daring novel, Chuy is knifed to death on the dirty bathroom floor of a club, and as his spirit begins to float away, Chuy decides to make the most of his quickly dissolving Afterlife. A sort of Lovely Bones for guys (and the girls who love them)

The Air Down Here: Tales of a South Bronx Boyhood by Gil Alicea with Carmine DeSena

When Gil Alicea was 16 years old, he wrote 115 short essays about what it was like to be a Puerto Rican teen growing up in the South Bronx projects. Get Gil’s take on drugs, violence, school and gangs. See the stuff he sees everyday through the b&w photos he took of his neighborhood. Switch off the “Real World” for one night and instead take a trip to Gil’s side of the subway tracks. It may be more “reality” than you can handle.