Tag Archives: Young Adult books

Dragon Hoops, by Gene Luen Yang

“Ka-Thunk!” Gene Luen Yang was a computer science teacher at Bishop O’Dowd Catholic High School in California who became aware that his school’s basketball team, the Dragons, was in contention for the state championship that year. Gene knew nothing about basketball. He was so skinny as a child that his nickname was Stick. He didn’t like to play sports, and he thought watching sports was boring. On the other hand, he was looking for a subject for his next graphic novel, so he found his way to the school gym to interview Coach Lou Richie.

“Step.” Gene was very careful to keep his life in balance: a quarter of his time for teaching, a quarter of his time for making comics, and half his time for his family. Over the course of the basketball season, as he dug into the life story of the coach and several players, he found that there was more to them than just guys throwing a ball around—although there was plenty of that—but that each person had a complex background and obstacles to overcome. Changes came to Gene’s life, too, forcing him to make a difficult decision that threatened to wreck his tidy schedule, but promised to make a dream come true.

“Paa! Paa! Paa!” In 2007, I was privileged to attend the Printz reception, where American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel ever to win the award for outstanding teen literature. It was a stellar group of honorees that year, and Gene Luen Yang’s acceptance speech was quintessential high school teacher: he prepared a PowerPoint. In his kind and affable manner, he taught a room full of librarians about the history of American bigotry against Asian people. It was eye-opening. In Dragon Hoops, he uses a personal story about his school to reveal the systemic racism and misogyny in the history of basketball, as well as the contemporary struggles of teens from many ethnic groups.

“Swish!” Gene Luen Yang is a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and during his tenure, he encouraged everyone to read something in a format that is outside of their comfort zone. If you are not familiar with graphic novels—or if you absolutely love them— this 2020 autobiography is a great reading experience. Although it is almost 450 pages long, I read it in about 2 hours. The panels are large, the colors are pleasing, and the story flies by. Don’t miss his earlier works, such as American Born Chinese and the two-volume Boxers & Saints, reviewed here. He is also the author and/or illustrator of several series, such as “Superman,” “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” and “Secret Coders,” among many others.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

The Last Cuentista, by Donna Barba Higuera

Petra wanted to be a cuentista, a storyteller, just like her abuelita. When she boards the spacecraft with her scientist parents and her little brother, Javier, she comforts herself that at least she can spend the 380 years of their flight in stasis with all of the world’s mythology and stories being downloaded into her brain. When they arrive at their new planet, she will be the cuentista for a whole new civilization. Then, just as she is being strapped into her pod, she finds out that her parents said no to the storytelling download. She will just have the much more practical botany lessons for the whole flight. Her pod fills with gel, her body functions are stopped, and she is supposed to be asleep. But she realizes that she is still conscious, and there is no way to tell the Caretaker that she is not asleep. She can’t call out, wave her hand, or even move her eyes.

Three spaceships are leaving Earth because a great comet is on a collision course with the planet. The survivors are chosen because of their skills that will be useful for a fresh start on a new Goldilocks planet, but some were selected to live out normal lives—working, caring for the stasis pods, reproducing, and dying—just as they would have on Earth. But 380 years is a long time, and people get ideas, and the isolated culture that lands on the planet may bear little resemblance to the ones who boarded the ship long ago.

The Last Cuentista won both the Newbery Medal and the Pura Belpré Award this past January. From the title and the cover, I was expecting to dive into a traditional South American story with magical realism, but just a few pages in, we were boarding a spacecraft! Somehow, Higuera’s Latina protagonist was able to transport her Hispanic culture into a futuristic setting. The story is filled with the tension of most sci-fi tales dealing with survival in alien landscapes, but the more Orwellian terror of ruthless power structures is what propels our heroine into action.

Higuera uses both the past and the future to show that, although our history is filled with war and tragedy, human beings have also created art, music, and loving traditions that should not be abandoned. The richness of our past is the foundation for building a beautiful and meaningful future.

Highly recommended for young teen to adult.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Rashad left his ROTC meeting, stopping by the convenience store for some chips on his way to the party. Now, what flavor was least likely to ruin his breath, just in case he met that cute girl there? He made a selection, then went to text his friend that he was on his way, when he remembered that he had left his phone in his backpack, so he tucked the chips under his arm and knelt down on the floor to open his backpack. The lady who had been picking out beer in the refrigerator behind him took a step back and fell over him. She went flying, the chips went flying, and so did Rashad. Immediately, a young cop in the store accused him of assaulting the woman, and the store clerk accused him of stealing the chips. Before he knew what was happening, Rashad was in handcuffs on the sidewalk in front of the store being beaten almost to death. Rashad was black. The lady was white, the cop was white, and the clerk was white.

Quinn’s dad had died on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Grown-ups often spoke to Quinn in hushed tones, sure that he would live up to the hero image that his dad had left behind. Quinn was told that he was an all-American boy: clean-cut and handsome, a star on the basketball team, and an exemplary older brother. He never knew what to say to them. He and his friends were headed to a party after school, and Quinn wanted to stop by the store on the way there. They waited in the alley while he rounded the corner and stopped short. Some kid lay on the ground in handcuffs with blood all over him, while a cop was beating the snot out of him. The kid looked familiar, but Quinn recognized the cop immediately. It was Paul, his friend’s older brother, who had been like a surrogate dad to him since his father’s death.

Since All American Boys was written by two authors, the audiobook is narrated by Guy Lockard and Keith Nobbs, who do a stellar job alternating chapters between Rashad and Quinn, showing a realistic reaction to the chain of events from a black and a white high school kid’s perspective. Quinn’s English teacher has just come to the end of a unit on Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, and Quinn slowly realizes that, although Rashad is on his basketball team, he hadn’t even known his name. Paul automatically expects Quinn to be on his side, since their families are so close, but once the video of the beating hits the internet and then the news, Quinn is forced to rethink a lot of things.

All American Boys was written in 2015 and won a Coretta Scott King Author Honor and the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature, so why is it being challenged today? The authors depicted a society that was already sick of these incidents, and this was five years before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Both of these boys are good kids; they are both All American Boys.

Reynolds and Kiely

Lest we think that all of racism has been dealt with, and that it’s about people “out there,” and not people near us, here’s a little, tiny incident that happened near me last week. I was in Walmart, scanning the shelves in the wine aisle, when I looked ahead and thought, “Wow, that’s a terrible label. It’s so covered with writing you can’t even tell the name of the wine.” I got up to the bottles and realized that they were turned around to the back. I picked one up and turned it to see BLACK GIRL MAGIC on the front. At first, I was disgusted to think that someone had gone to the trouble to turn the bottles around, so I started turning them back when I saw that all of the bottles, all the way to the wall, were turned around. Then, I was furious. It was either the stocker or someone who had taken a lot of time and energy to make sure that no one saw the name of the wine. How could there be so much casual racism still out there, right in my neighborhood? As I walked to the end of the aisle, I saw a young black woman across the way, choosing orange juice. I was immediately crushed in my spirit, thinking of how it would feel to be just shopping for your family and suddenly be confronted with the fact that someone found your race and gender so offensive that they felt compelled to hide the fact of your existence, as if to make you invisible.

All American Boys, like so many books these days, is being challenged because it might make someone uncomfortable. As if it’s important to make racists nice and comfortable. Book challenges are not just news stories to me; they’re personal. It’s my job to put kids’ books into libraries. I spend my days searching out great books like this one that will build children’s character, to help them to live someone else’s life for a while so that they will develop empathy and become good neighbors to one another, so that they would never, ever try to erase another human being.

This book is highly recommended, although the language is high-school-boy dreadful. Let’s get uncomfortable.

Disclaimer: I listened to a library audiobook of this title—which I put there, by the way. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. Authors’ image originally appeared in the NY Times.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Darius the Great Is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram

Darius the GreatDarius has never met his Iranian grandparents face to face, although he dutifully participates in the incredibly awkward weekly online phone call. Now, however, his babou is seriously ill, and the whole family is boarding a plane in just a few days.

Not that he will be sorry to take a break from the Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy at school, but the trip will throw him into very close quarters with his dad, whose German ancestry and Aryan appearance have earned him the name The Übermensch—but only in Darius’ mind. Darius inherited his mom’s Persian looks, along with his dad’s tendency to clinical depression. The two of them bond each evening over an episode of Star Trek. Otherwise, Darius is convinced that his father thinks of him only with disappointment.

In Iran, where he is called Darioush, his whole family visits the ruins of his namesake’s palace. They stay in Iran long enough to celebrate several Zoroastrian holidays, and Darioush learns to love his grandmother, Mamou, and to be wary of Babou. He makes his first real friend, Sohrab, who is a soccer fanatic and convinces him to play almost every day. Darioush finds out that he is not a bad player; he might even be talented. The depression never leaves, though, and as family dynamics are rearranged, Darius is confused about where he fits in, or if he does at all.

Darius is one of the most lovable characters ever written. I had purchased this book for the library, of course, but had not read it until it won awards in January’s ALA Youth Media Awards. I started this teen-boy novel dubiously, but was drawn in when it opened in the tea shop where Darius works. I thought I was a dedicated tea drinker, but this guy is a serious tea connoisseur. His passion for tea is woven throughout the entire book. Once he got to the part about watching Star Trek every day, I was in. Throw in Zoroastrianism, which I find fascinating, and the fact that Darius reads The Lord of the Rings whenever he has a moment of quiet, and I was ready to adopt this kid. He is also a tender and loving older brother, although his sister’s precocity does cause some realistic sibling tension.

A complete change in environment sometimes allows us to have a new perspective on things that are so familiar that we can’t see them anymore, and tragedies force us all to grow and change. Perhaps saying goodbye to Sohrab revealed deeper feelings than Darius expected. Perhaps confronting his dad revealed the struggling man beneath the Übermensch. Perhaps going home will never be the same.

Family, culture, love, and the desire to belong fill this coming-of-age novel that is very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo

Poet XXiomara Batista’s Dominican mother never wanted to marry or have children. She wanted to be a nun. She loves her kids, but she is distraught that Xiomara is delaying her confirmation at church, and when she finds out that Xiomara has been asking Father Sean challenging questions, she clamps down on her even harder.

Xiomara hates it when the boys make comments about her curves when she walks down the street in Harlem. She is tall, with wild hair, and she holds back the world with her fists and tough talk. She pours her heart into her very private poetry notebook: her doubts about God, her confusion about her mother and father’s relationship, her hesitant forays into growing up, her fears for her brother, and her timid and hopeful feelings for a boy named Aman. They share a love of music. She lets him hear some of her poetry, and he names her X.

Her mother would never allow this.

Elizabeth Acevedo has written this semi-autobiographical novel in verse, with a couple of school essays woven in. The poetry allows X’s love of words to express the struggles of a young woman who loves her immigrant parents, but who cannot be true to herself without hurting them. Her voice is at once fragile and fierce, exploring cultural divisions, first love, faith and doubt, and the human need to speak freely and openly to the world. When a lid is screwed down more and more tightly while pressure continues to build, an explosion is inevitable.

Recommended for middle teens to adults, with a bit of strong language and sexual content. Caution: May cause spontaneous versifying and a sudden urge to participate in a poetry slam. Ironically, the last line of this novel is “And isn’t that what a poem is? A lantern glowing in the dark,” which I read by lantern light during a power outage from Hurricane Florence.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Bridge of Clay, by Markus Zusak

Bridge of ClayThere were five of them, the Dunbar boys. Their mother had died, their father had left, and they communicated their anguish and fierce love through their fists. Matthew, the oldest, tells the story of how he taped up Clay’s feet so that he could run punishing, barefoot races where Rory cursed at him and tackled him on the track. Meanwhile, Henry piled up gambling wins, and Tommy, the youngest, added one pet after another to his menagerie. They couldn’t seem to finish high school, but they could all play the piano. Their mother had seen to that. She had also soaked them in the words of Homer, just as her father had read the Iliad and the Odyssey to her before he planned her flight from the Nazis of Europe to her new home in Australia.

In his first novel in over a dozen years, Markus Zusak courses through the generations of one family, weaving a web of strings that all find their end in Clay, the sensitive, quiet Dunbar brother, the one who loves his parents’ stories and treasures them up in his heart. Clay, who brutally abuses his body when he runs, fights, and works. His brothers say that he is “in training,” but to what purpose? His brothers don’t even know how much he loves Carey, the new girl who is an apprentice jockey at the downtrodden racetrack near their house, or how he meets her every Saturday night in the middle of a field, chastely exchanging hearts and dreams.

This is a thoroughly male story, and even the wonderful female characters are seen through the eyes of the men, who are honorable, angry, heartbroken, loving, and tough. As Matthew’s account moves backward and forward in time, certain motifs run throughout the book: Homer and racehorses, music and Michelangelo, painting and clothes pegs. The animals all have Greek names, beginning with Hector the cat and ending with the inimitable mule, Achilles. The Monopoly games are epic. Male habits that confound women are brilliantly portrayed, such as talking to one another side by side while looking away into the distance or punching a brother instead of saying, “I’m sorry” or “I love you.” As a matter of fact, the unapologetic level of testosterone is startlingly outside of today’s gender-fluid YA literary norms. Furthermore, this novel deals with far more mature themes than are usually found in teen books, such as terminal illness, marriage, divorce, guilt, and life-changing regret. Death is almost as much a character in this novel as it was in The Book Thief.

Bridge on the PorchI first met Markus Zusak at the ALA convention in Washington, D.C., in 2007, when The Book Thief won a Printz Honor medal. That was a banner year for the Printz reception. The winner was Gene Luen Yang, the first author to win a Printz for a graphic novel, and the honor recipients were Zusak, John Green, Sonya Hartnett, and M.T. Anderson. At that time, the Printz Committee had all of the authors give speeches, so we were agog. Even before that evening, however, the Mock Printz Club from our library— almost all teenage girls— met Markus in the lunchroom, and since all of the seats were taken, he asked  whether he could eat lunch with us on the floor in the stairwell. Um, yes! You have never seen such a group of giddy girls—older and younger—and he was completely kind and chatty. It was the highlight of the conference.

Zusak’s style in Bridge of Clay was beautiful, and I enjoyed all of the story, but the ending slew me. I had no idea of what was coming, so gently and shockingly, and it took me a long time to recover. Everything fell into place, and I just loved those Dunbar boys.

@RHCBEducators

Disclaimer: I read a bound manuscript of this novel, sent to my colleague by the publisher, and ever so generously lent to me first. Bridge of Clay will be published in October, 2018. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

When Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Manon

When Dimple Met RishiDimple couldn’t believe that her Indian parents had allowed her to attend the summer Insomnia Con at San Francisco State University. Perhaps all her years of arguing with them had finally convinced them that girls could attend college in order to pursue a career, not just to seek a husband. Whatever the reason, here she was, basking in the sunshine at SFSU, ready to build her dream app and win the competition. Suddenly, her daydream was interrupted by a male voice saying, “Hello, future wife. I can’t wait to get started on the rest of our lives!” She threw her cup of Starbucks at him.

While Dimple had been rebelling against her parents’ expectations all her life, Rishi had been dedicated to more than fulfilling his. As the oldest son, he felt that it was his obligation to carry on his culture’s traditions, the old ways that he loved and honored. Although he was an artist and had no interest in computer science, he planned to go to MIT and succeed in business. And although he also had no interest in coding or creating websites, he agreed to go to Insomnia Con to meet his chosen bride, the daughter of his parents’ old friends.

As Dimple worked to recover from her parents’ deception, Rishi struggled to understand that Dimple had never heard of him. While they are still reeling, they are both forced to move forward in the competition and to cooperate with the other students who have traveled from all over the country, hoping to win the prestigious award and the chance to market their invention. These two children of immigrants find their worldviews challenged by this six-week stint away from their families and their comfortable communities. Fortunately, they are both super cute.

This fast-paced, romantic, coming-of-age story is as delightful as its cover. Even the secondary characters go through life changes as adolescents try their wings in this pre-college experience. There is a bit of off-page sex. Menon explores the values and challenges of cultural traditions, class distinctions, parent-child relationships, and being true to oneself while acknowledging that parents are sometimes unexpectedly wise. If you’re looking for a teen novel with, as they say, “all the feels,” this is it. Recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert

Hazel WoodWhile Alice was growing up, her mother, Ella, moved them around every six months or so, trying to outrun the bad luck. Friends around them would get hurt, or strange people would approach Alice, and Ella would know that it was time to move on. In all those years, Alice never met her grandmother, a famous author, nor had she read her book, even though she loved to read. As a matter of fact, she had never even seen a copy. It was not for lack of trying. Alice had haunted used book stores, scoured online, and followed up every possible trail to obtain a copy of The Hinterlands, but they were always gone before she got there. Although she couldn’t read her grandmother’s dark fairy tales, their effects still seemed to follow them everywhere.

When she found out that her new school project partner, Ellery Finch, was a fan of her grandmother, Alice was disgusted. The internet was filled with Hinterland fan fiction, chat rooms, and entire blogs devoted to speculation on her grandmother’s dark world, all of which Alice thought was nuts. Besides which, Finch was crazy rich, with all the privileged blindness that entailed. Thing is, as she got to know him, he was just so darned nice that it was hard to push him away. The day that she came home to find her mother gone, the apartment filled with a green and rotting smell, and a chilling clue left on her pillow, Alice ran to Finch, knowing that he could somehow guide her to her grandmother’s home, the Hazel Wood, and from there into the heart of the Hinterlands.

Ripping back the Disney façade that fairy tales have assumed for the past few decades, debut author Melissa Albert weaves a creepy tale that teams the Grimm brothers with the Unseelie Court, together punching a hole in the twenty-first century space-time continuum. There are a few meta-fictive elements, giving the reader a complicit chuckle without distracting from the immersive experience. Dreams turn to nightmares, no one can be trusted, and reality is illusion.

Garnering six starred journal reviews, The Hazel Wood is poised to hit it big when it is released in January, 2018. Written for older teens and adults, there is some strong language throughout. This is one of the most engrossing and compelling books I’ve read in a long time, and if you like fantasy or fairy tales—as I surely do— you will not want to miss it. Read it with the fire going and the lights on.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Still Life with Tornado, by A.S. King

still-life-with-tornadoSarah has decided not to return to school late in her senior year of high school. Nothing new ever happens; nothing is original there. As an artist, Sarah craves originality. She begins to follow a homeless artist named Earl around town, where she is often joined by ten-year-old Sarah or twenty-three-year-old Sarah. This is no hallucination; other people can see the alternate Sarahs as well. Her father doesn’t recognize ten-year-old Sarah, but her mother nearly passes out.

Her parents try to gently steer Sarah back to school, but she very openly and stubbornly refuses to go. She is dealing with something that will not come out in the open, but she keeps thinking about a drawing that her classmate, Carmen, had made at school. It was a tornado, and it just looked like a gray funnel cloud, but as Carmen said, people only see the outside of a tornado, but it could be hiding all kinds of things inside. The last thing Sarah’s older brother, Bruce, had said to her before he left the family nine years ago was, “You can always come stay with me, no matter where I am.” Why did he say that?

A.S. King has triumphed again in writing a beautiful, heartbreaking, coming-of-age story with an element of magical realism that works seamlessly with her nitty-gritty, deeply flawed characters. The reader yearns for Sarah to unravel her past, to expose what happened to send her into her current spiral, and to value her own artistic genius again. King explores the different forms that abuse can take and the relationships between siblings who experience abuse differently, as well as the lasting love that cannot be destroyed by all the pain.

King is one of my “always” authors. I read everything she writes, and she never goes wrong. Another King favorite of mine from a male perspective is Everybody Sees the Ants. Still Life with Tornado is for older teens and adults, and has strong language throughout.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

All Our Pretty Songs, by Sarah McCarry

ImageTwo girls without fathers grow up as if they were sisters, even though their mothers are now estranged. Aurora is beautiful and popular, while the unnamed narrator is strong and mean, a typical punk rocker. Their love seems to be unbreakable until the night they hear Jack play his guitar. His music is almost magical, drawing his audience into his spell, leaving rooms full of people silent and rapt. The narrator falls deeply in love, and for the first time in her life, she is tortured by the fear that a man will choose Aurora’s beauty over her. At the same time, Aurora is following in her mother’s footsteps by spiraling downward into serious drug use, clinging to a hideous older man who provides her with the dangerous substances she believes will help her to find her dead father in some other realm.  The narrator is desperate to save her.

McCarry’s debut novel is lyrically written, her gorgeous words drawing pictures on the page. At times, it was difficult to know whether certain scenes were drug trips or magical realism, since she slid from descriptions of ordinary parties in apartment buildings to bacchanalia in mystical forests and back again. The narrator’s emotions are forceful, and for the most part, worthy, but her task is to learn to love other people enough to let go, even if that means being completely alone.

This book is supposed to be the first part of a trilogy, but it stands on its own perfectly well — although the ending is somewhat ambiguous. The frequency and descriptions of drug use are overwhelming, even sickening, at times. There are two body types: thin and emaciated. The darkness of the dreams and the evil characters are truly frightening. As far as Printz-worthiness is concerned, the writing is certainly excellent, but the story itself was sometimes confusing and perhaps not as fleshed-out as some of the other contenders. Ms. McCarry is definitely a writer to watch, although I think I’ll wait for something not quite so agonizing next time.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews