Tag: YA

Middle-Grade Mini-Reviews: My Real Name is Hanna and Lifeboat 12

Middle-Grade Mini-Reviews: My Real Name is Hanna and Lifeboat 12

I’ve said many times before but I love a good WWII novel.  I don’t know what it is about this time period that I find so fascinating, even after studying it for years in college.  And, thanks to the DBC, I’ve actually started reading more Middle-Grade and younger YA.  I saw My Real Name is Hanna and knew I had to read it. A hot second later, Lifeboat 12 popped up on Netgalley and I requested it too.

Thank you to NetGalley, Mandel Vilar Press, and Tara Lynn Masih for My Real Name is Hanna and Netgalley, Susan Hood, and Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers for Lifeboat 12. I enjoyed both books and am happy to post these honest reviews.

My Real Name Is Hanna
My family told stories. We swallowed them in place of food and water. Stories kept us alive in our underground sanctuary. The world continued to carry out its crimes above us, while we sought just to remain whole below.

Hanna’s story is set in Ukraine which made me assume her town would have been subject to Soviet occupation–I know significantly less about the countries that came under the rule of the Soviet Union since Between Shades of Gray is the only novel I’ve read of this time period (though I am interested in more if you want to leave me suggestions in the comments!).  Instead, Hanna’s town, while briefly occupied by the Soviet army, spent more time under Nazi rule.  Of course, anti-Semitism wasn’t new with the Nazis–there were already anti-Semites in town whose feelings were exploited by both the Soviets and Nazis.

The book is told in three parts—The Shtetele, The Forest, and The Caves. The Shtetle sets the stage—Hanna’s family is more privileged than many, with a nice house and a father who is respected and needed for his skills by the non-Jewish families in town. When the book opens, the war has already started but is just beginning to touch Hanna and her family. Rumors begin and mysterious people show up to hide in Hanna’s barn. Hanna is just turning fourteen—that age where so much of her remains a child still, and yet she is old enough to begin to understand what is happening. Old enough to be pulled into the secrets necessary to keep her family and her people safe.

When the town is no longer a safe place, Hanna’s family flees to the woods, to an abandoned cabin. The family has to stay inside most of the time, prepared to flee at any moment. While food was scare in the town, in the forest is where the march to hunger really begins. The family must ration food and even their own energy since they cannot consume enough calories to keep them on their feet all the time. As the Nazis move in, the family and several neighbors from a nearby cabin are forced literally underground, into an extensive network of caves.

The real family this story is based on lived the last 511 days of the war in an underground cave system, with the women and children living entirely underground, never seeing sunshine or feeling even the slightest breeze. Hanna’s family is much the same, with her father or uncle venturing out very rarely to obtain whatever food they might possibly find to bring back to the starving families below ground.

Even underground, the family lives in fear of being caught and is, at one point, walled in to the cave by townspeople.  Even before this moment, many of the townspeople were not just bystanders but actively participated in the hunting down and killing–either outright or through starvation or deportation to the ghettos and camps–of their neighbors.  My Real Name is Hanna is realistic in this regard and does not hide that neighbors are turning each other in.  On the flip side, there are characters who help the family hide, at great cost and risk to themselves.  This is perhaps the aspect of the book that may be the most troubling to younger readers—while the history here is accurate and a topic worth discussion, it is something that would require discussion with parents or other adults reading the book. May we be encouraged, and encourage younger generations, to chose to be the helpers in the face of injustice, even when the cost to ourselves is high.

My Real Name is Hanna sits somewhat squarely in between Middle-Grade and YA (in my opinion). The audience for this book is probably right around middle school readers, with mature fourth to fifth graders able to handle the writing and themes, though too far into high school and the writing may feel a bit young for older readers. This is a book I recommend, particularly for those who are interested in areas like the Ukraine, which is featured less in WWII fiction than areas like France or even Poland yet suffered heavy losses—only 5% of Ukranian Jews survived, only 2% of Western Ukranian Jews with almost no families intact. It is a book with a powerful message of responsibility for our neighbors—this is a book to be discussed, not simply read.

Published: September 15, 2018 (September 18th for Kindle), available for pre-order now from Mandel Vilar Press
Author: Tara Lynn Masih (@taralynnmasih)
Date read: August 26, 2018
Rating: 3 ¾ stars

Lifeboat 12
Lifeboat 12 is a middle-grade novel in verse told from the point of view of a survivor of the S.S. City of Benares, a boat carrying children being evacuated from London that was sunk by a German U-Boat in September 1940.

Lifeboat 12 is also structured in three parts—Escape, Adrift, and Rescue. Escape sets up the dangerousness of life in London during the Blitzkrieg, Ken’s feeling of being unwanted by his stepmother, and the boarding and sinking of the ship. Adrift is the story of the eight days the survivors spent at sea. And Rescue is exactly what it sounds like—it is the boy’s return home, a return from the grave for their parents had been notified they had been lost at sea. While these three sections make for a hefty book—336 pages—because the story is told in verse, this was a quick read. Hood’s poetry lends the story a spare quality—the narrator is a twelve year-old boy so there are no flowery turns of phrase here. Each of the words seemed chosen for maximum impact, so that I might have only read fifty words on a page, yet the scene was as richly set and the characters as alive as if they were right next to me. The poetry also lent a more dramatic air—with portions of the book feeling as if they were pulled straight from an adventure novel.

Ken is a charming narrator—he’s a boy’s boy, obsessed with planes and always willing to give some help to a pal. Unlike most other narrators in WWII books I’ve read, Ken’s family is poor—I feel like I’ve read novels where everyone was effected by wartime rationing and scarcity, but I’m not sure I’ve read a book where the main character was poor before the book started—where liver was once or twice a week luxury. He represented an under-represented class in WWII narrators. He also doesn’t have a perfect family life—he’s fairly convinced his stepmother can’t stand him and this plan to send him to Canada is partly just to get him out of the house since she doesn’t like him. My heart ached for him when he talked about feeling unloved—while Ken does realize she cares for him by how she reacts when he comes home, my one criticism of Lifeboat 12 is that more wasn’t done with this relationship. With so many kids coming from blended families, books with boys Ken’s age who come to realize that their stepmothers really do care feel necessary.

I knew Lifeboat 12 was based on a true story, but I didn’t realize just how closely Hood stuck to the truth until I read the Author’s Note and afterward. Ken Sparks was a real survivor and the book is based on Hood’s interviews with him as well as her extensive research on the S.S. City of Benares. The Note and afterward are necessary reading—if you pick up this gem, you can’t stop reading at the end of the novel.

Because it is so closely based on fact, I recommend Lifeboat 12 for kids (or adult middle-grade readers) who like books about historical events and adventure tales. The sinking of the S.S. City of Benares was another event I had no knowledge of—Lifeboat 12 was an enjoyable introduction to the event (if one can say learning about a devastating loss of life is in any way enjoyable). This is Hood’s first middle-grade novel after a successful career as a picture book author. I can’t wait to see where she goes next for her middle-grade-and-up readers.

Published: September 4, 2018 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (@simonandschuster)
Author: Susan Hood (@shoodbooks21)
Date read: September 7, 2018
Rating: 4 ¼ stars

Featured Image credit: Jonas Jacobsson

Listen Here: He Said/She Said, We Are Okay, and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Listen Here: He Said/She Said, We Are Okay, and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

I’ve been on a tear with audiobooks recently so, without further ado, here are three I’ve finished in the last few weeks.

He Said/She Said
Synopsis: He Said/She Said follows Kit and Laura, alternating between their early days of dating to today, ten plus years’ married. Kit is a solar eclipse chaser and, at one of the first festivals where he invites Laura into the fold, Laura interrupts a rape. The repercussions of that rape and the interruption are continuing some fifteen years later when Kit breaks their years of hiding to travel for another eclipse, leaving Laura pregnant at home.

This is a book I probably should have done a bit more research on before diving in, though I’m not sure even that would have prepared me for this book. All I knew going in was that it was on Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer 2017 Reading Guide and it was about solar eclipse chasers—a timely choice since there was the total solar eclipse last summer in the United States. I actually tried to start the book a few times on Kindle but kept not being able to get into it before it was due at the library again. I finally gave up on reading it and reserved the audiobook.

And WOW was there a difference. Where I was feeling ambivalent about reading the book, the audiobook brought this thriller to life for me—the voices of Laura and Kit were chosen well and I’m a sucker for a novel set in Britain read with accents (really, I think any book set outside the United States is almost always better on audio for this reason). I was immediately sucked into Laura’s anxiety over her life in hiding with Kit, Kit’s near-obsession with chasing solar-eclipses now placing them at risk since the impending eclipse means he will be partially coming out of total hiding, like the sun moving out of the moon’s shadow—a metaphor that I suppose only works if solar eclipses lasted the years Kit and Laura have been in hiding.

I should probably have guessed from the title but the central action revolves around a rape accusation—a rape interrupted by Laura during an eclipse fifteen years prior. (Hence my suggestion that I probably should have done research on this one—all the trigger warnings for rape, misogyny, and gaslighting.) In an unexpected turn of events, Laura winds up befriending the victim, Beth, until that friendship places Laura and Kit’s lives in danger. As Kit and Laura tentatively step out of hiding, the events of that day and the players involved come crashing back into their lives.

I think I’ve said this before, but I’m pretty good at predicting where a book, movie, or show is going to go. It drives my boyfriend a little crazy when we’re watching something on television and I can predict what’s about to happen, sometimes down to the way the characters say whatever the big reveal is. He Said/She Said had more than one twist I found surprising—Kelly kept me on the edge of my seat and had twists that were shocking, though not so farfetched as to be implausible. Indeed, even what points Kelly was going to make—is she really going to suggest a woman would lie about rape? Is Men’s Rights really going to make an appearance in this book?—weren’t entirely clear through significant portions of the book. There were moments where I couldn’t stop myself from listening, even though I wasn’t sure if what was about to happen was going to make me angry. Kelly’s agenda wasn’t clear until almost the end of the book—something that is rare and made this book all the more gripping.

The majority of my “reading” of audiobooks is done in the car. The sign of an excellent audiobook is if I choose it over a physical book once I get home. I couldn’t put He Said/She Said down and wound up cleaning my entire house and eating meals staring into space just so I could keep the last half of the audiobook playing. I recommend this one if you can handle the triggers and may be re-listening to this one with the boyfriend if we have a long drive coming up.

Published: June 6, 2017 by Minotaur Books (@minotaur_books)
Author: Erin Kelly (@erinjelly)
Date read: February 17, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

We Are Okay
Synopsis: We Are Okay follows Marin, a college student at an unnamed college in New York as she prepares to stay in the dorms over the Winter Break. As you come to learn through Marin’s flashbacks and conversations with a high-school friend/possible former sweetheart who has come to visit, Marin has no other home, having lost her grandfather shortly before she was to start college. The novel explores the reaches of grief, though as the reader comes to understand, Marin’s grief is complicated by the complicated person she discovered her grandfather to be only upon his death.

I can see why this book was an award winner but for me it was sort of a mellow come-down since I started it the same day I finished He Said/She Said. It was good, but it wasn’t exciting—it’s a slow burn, one that never really ignited for me, though I think this is a book that is deserving of its accolades. I probably just wasn’t in the right place at the right time for this book since it is one to savor rather than devour, and I was in a devouring mood.

I don’t know how the author, Nina LaCour, identifies and I don’t want to label her. What I can say is that she is married to another woman and they have a child together, so at a minimum, her orientation is not strictly heterosexual. I mention this (awkwardly) because I do think it is important to read diverse books and books that speak to the experience of traditionally marginalized populations. In this way, We Are Okay fits into the category of #ownvoices. As the reader swiftly comes to recognize, Marin also doesn’t identify solely as straight and, from what she says as you go further into the book, probably identifies as a lesbian. I say “probably” because Marin’s sexuality is in no way the point of the book, so she doesn’t really talk much about how she identifies on the orientation spectrum. While I valued The Miseducation of Cameron Post (amazing book—you should read it) and Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit (okay, but not as good as Cameron Post), those books were mostly about what it was like to come out and live out. Even Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, while broader in scope, addressed the sexuality question head-on as a major theme (also amazing and Lin-Manuel Miranda reads the audiobook and, at one point, laments having to learn about Alexander Hamilton which made me pause the book and cry laughing…but I digress). In We Are Okay, Marin is not straight but that’s really the point of the book. Instead, we have a girl who is grieving, whose grief is compounded by losing, at the same time, what was likely her first meaningful romantic relationship. We Are Okay is a book you could easily flip the sex of Marin’s partner and hardly notice a difference. In other words, We Are Okay is powerful in its lack of fanfare—Marin is (probably) a lesbian and that’s hardly worth noting except it’s entirely worth noting and celebrating. We have a book with a lesbian main character acting exactly like heterosexual teenager grieving her grandfather. There is both a universal experience (grief) and a lesbian character presented as simply living her life—exactly as life is. There is representation that matters and there are themes that are universal. We need the Cameron Posts but we also need the books with diverse characters in books that aren’t just about coming out. While We Are Okay didn’t hit the high note for me at the time, I do think this is a valuable book that is well-written and is one I recommend for fans of diverse books and/or YA.

Published: February 14, 2017 by Dutton Books (@duttonbooks)
Author: Nina LaCour (@nina_lacour)
Date read: February 18, 2018
Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
Synopsis: On the last night of 1983, Lillian Boxfish finds herself taking a walk through New York City, reminiscing the good times and the bad, remembering what she was like as the highest paid woman ad-writer of her time, as a poet, as a broken woman, and as she is now—not entirely whole, not entirely all-right, but certainly not like any old lady you know.

Keeping with the theme of “okay” books and moving to the other end of the age spectrum, I also listened to the audio of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk earlier in the month. The voice for the audio is fantastic—she sounds like the octogenarian Lillian without having a voice that sounded grating or shrill or like the voice actor was trying to sound “old.” With the narrative itself, I have gotten the sense from a few other readers that Lillian Boxfish is a book that several readers gave up on—I do think it takes over a third of the way in until the book picks up sharply. The first third or more is a veeeeeery slooooooow setting of the stage and introduction of Lillian’s character so that when she meets her future husband, the reader experiences a shift of a startling magnitude—it isn’t that Lillian is being inconsistent, but rather, you see how what you thought of Lillian—how what she thought of herself—wasn’t entirely accurate. How others can have a profound and lasting impact on us, even after they are gone.

The struggle with this book, however, is that the first third provides so little payoff that it is hard to feel like continuing to read (or listen) is worth the time—you don’t see that back-end payoff coming, ever. I will admit that if any of the books I had on my hold list for audiobooks had come available at the time, I’m not sure I would have stuck this one out. The first third to half was a driving-only audiobook. The second half swiftly became the laundry-folding, shower-cleaning can’t-put-down variety.

Lillian as a narrator is tongue-in-cheek funny and is the kind of old lady I think I’d like to be. Her snappy one-liners were really the highlight of the book for me. Some of my favorite samples:

“His expression was sheepish enough to supply a Highland village with wool and milk. I cocked a loaded eyebrow.”

“Most of what we consider beauty is manufactured. But the fact of that manufacture does not make it unbeautiful.”

“For though I was raised Protestant, my true religion is actually civility.”

“One need not believe in something for it to happen anyway.”

“Choice is an illusion promoted by the powerful.”

If you’ve got time to invest, Lillian Boxfish may be worth your time but this is ultimately a take-it-or-leave-it book for me.

Published: January 17, 2017 by St. Martin’s Press (@stmartinspress)
Author: Kathleen Rooney
Date read: February 8, 2018
Rating: 3 stars

Header photo credit : Lee Campbell

Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

“They had a plan, but we’ve carried out our own plan. They wanted the children to be abandoned like junk in a warehouse, but we opened a school. They wanted them to be like cattle in a stable, but we’ve made them feel like people.”

“And what use has that been? All the children in the September transport have died.”
“It was worth it. Nothing has been in vain. Do you remember how they used to laugh?….”
“But it lasted such a short time—“
“Life, any life is very short. But if you’ve managed to be happy for at least an instant, it will have been worth living.”
“An instant! How short is that?”
“Very short. It’s enough to be happy for as long as it takes a match to be lit and go out.”

The Librarian of Auschwitz is a fictionalized account of Dita Kraus, a real-life teenager who survived the family camp in Auschwitz. While in the camp, she risked her life as the “Librarian,” managing the eight books that had been smuggled into the camp and used in the school as well as the “living books”—people who knew certain stories so well that they could be called upon to recite them as if they were reading the tale. Being caught with the books was sufficient cause to be shot on sight, and yet Dita and others risked their lives to keep these books and educate the children of Auschwitz.

While The Librarian of Auschwitz is written on the reading level of a YA book with teenagers as the majority of the main characters, it is still highly readable as an adult reader. This isn’t a bubbly, romance-y YA. Though different stylistically, The Librarian of Auschwitz reminded me of The Book Thief—another well-written book that takes the Holocaust and its death and vicious ideologies and presents them in age-appropriate, though unsanitized ways. By its very subject matter, this book is brutal—but brutal in ways that are appropriate for older middle school through high school readers. The language and events are not dumbed down—it is clear what is happening and there were many times I teared up and had to take a minute—including when an arriving solider stood to finally announce that Bergen-Belsen, the camp Dita had been transferred to, was liberated in the name of Great Britain and her Allies.

Historical Fiction
Historical fiction set during WWII in the European theater, when done well, is one of my favorite genres. I adore All the Light We Cannot See (even if that makes me cliché) and last year inhaled Konar’s Mischling. When a few friends started posting on Instagram about Librarian of Auschwitz, I knew I had to read it.

Several of the characters featured in The Librarian of Auschwitz were real or were closely based upon real people. It names and tells the stories of many of the ordinary, extraordinary people who lost their lives in Auschwitz.  I had never heard of Fredy Hirsch, the almost forgotten almost-hero of the family camp. I was not very aware of the Resistance operating within the camps, the almost uprisings. Fredy was simultaneously the light of the family camp school and an ordinary man. He could easily have been your kid’s soccer coach or the guy who leads bootcamp at my gym. And he was killed at roughly the same age I am now.

#NeverForget and White Nationalism
Holocaust Remembrance Day was a few weeks ago, with the usual posts of #NeverForget. And yet, it feels as if we have forgotten.  It feels as if the farther we get away from the events of the 1930s and ‘40s, the easier it is to see the Holocaust as another fact to be memorized in history class. Currently there is a bill pending in Poland to ban referring to Auschwitz and other death and concentration camps in Poland as “Polish camps.” We distance ourselves and we forget. The Nazi machine ran because ordinary people were willing to serve as the nuts and bolts, the cogs that ran the machine. We tell ourselves it wouldn’t have been us, yet we are no different than the majority of Europeans—or even Americans—who willfully ignored or refused to believe what was happening. Or knew it was happening and were complicit in their silence. Feel free to disagree if you want, but the torches of Charlottesville tell me I’m right.

The sheer number of lives lost is so huge as to feel not real at times. And lost in these numbers is often the horrific way over six million people lost their lives to the racist machine that was Nazi Germany and its collaborators. We remember the number who died but not how, or even why. With the Holocaust fading in collective memory, with its events becoming less known and thus less shocking, the scourge of white nationalism is again making public its face.

Books like The Librarian of Auschwitz are vital tools in the moral battle in which we now find ourselves, knowingly or not. Dita Kraus was a real child—a child—who was taken from her home, herded into a train car, starved, tortured, beaten, and nearly killed (and not for lack of trying on the part of the Nazis). It is important that we see that behind these astronomical numbers and the vicious and morally wrong ideologies there are people—children—whose lives were and are again being threatened.

I put The Librarian of Auschwitz in the same category as Refugee. If we are to raise a kinder, more just generation immediately after ours, we must have books like this. We must read them, we must share them, and we must ensure they are taught.

Throughout history, all dictators, tyrants, and oppressors, whatever their ideology—whether Aryan, African, Asian, Arab, Slav, or any other racial background; whether defenders of popular revolutions, or the privileges of the upper classes, or God’s mandate, or martial law—have had one thing in common: the vicious persecution of the written word. Books are extremely dangerous; they make people think.

It’s easy to avoid books set in the Holocaust as “too depressing.” To an extent, all books set in the death camps are bleak, or at least they are if they are accurately written. And yet, as much as any book set in the time can be, The Librarian of Auschwitz is hopeful. Just as the books served as a bright spot in the lives of the children, so too is this book a bright spot within Holocaust literature. It is a book of resistance and love, match sparks amidst the darkness of the camps. Even if you find this time period difficult to read about, I recommend The Librarian of Auschwitz. The YA reading level make it a bit easier to read than some others and it is vitally important, more than ever, that we read stories of what happens when we allow racist ideologies to take hold—it starts on the fringe and then you look up and realize the entire cloth has unraveled, the fringe become the mainstream. We still have time.

Published: October 10, 2017 by Henry Holt & Company (@henryholtbooks)
Author: Antonio Iturbe, Translator: Lilit Thwaites
Date read: January 28, 2018
Rating: 4 ¾ stars

Header photo credit :


Review: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green


“I was beginning to learn that your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell.”

“No, it’s not, Holmesy. You pick your endings, and your beginnings. You get the pick the frame, you know? Maybe you don’t choose what’s in the picture, but you decide the frame.”

Turtles All the Way Down is the story of Aza Holmes, a sixteen year old Indianapolis high school student with a crazy best friend and a raging complex of anxiety disorders.  Throughout Turtles, Aza vacillates between being defined and driven by her anxiety, OCD, and grief for her departed father and  having moments of peace, during which she watches stars and eats Applebees with Davis Pickett, son of an eccentric billionaire who’s gone missing, and her best friend Daisy Ramirez, internet-famous author of Star Wars fanfic.  With a focus on Aza but eyes on Davis and Daisy as well, Turtles is ultimately a story of what it means to be resilient, even when everything — your family, your friends, life circumstances, and even your own brain chemistry– are fighting against you.

A John Green Book
I’ll admit. I’m one of those cliché people that loved The Fault in Our Stars (and to be further cliché—that’s the book and most definitely not the movie). I was so into it that I even finished listening to the audiobook on the way to a wedding and arrived a mess—red faced and sobbing before the wedding ever started. I was that girl who googled “An Imperial Affliction” and was disappointed to learn it was not a real book.

I then eagerly read Looking for Alaska and was disappointed and could never get into Paper Towns. My burning love for John Green ignited by TFIOS quickly fizzled and revealed itself as a mere flash-bang rather than an enduring fire. So it was with some hesitation that I even checked out Turtles All the Way Down from the library. And yet, Turtles is the closest I’ve found Green to come back to TFIOS—I’d even go so far as to say that Aza Holmes, in all her flawed glory, feels more authentic than Hazel and Augustus.

With that said, Turtles All the Way Down is still, 100% a John Green book. As Preston Yancey noted on an early episode of the What Should I Read Next podcast, YA should be vibrant and intense—the colors are bright and the feelings are feelings. The dialogue that happens in a John Green book is unlikely to happen anywhere else—it’s snappy and intelligent in ways that normal conversation is occasionally, but not all the time. Because of this, Turtles feels inauthentic in the best way—mental illness and grief aside, this is the world as it should be—the dialogue crackles, the air is crisp, and everything has meaning.

Aza’s Anxiety and OCD
Speaking of mental illness, Green himself apparently has OCD and anxiety so his writing these into the character of Aza feels authentic—an #ownvoices of a different type.

“And we’re such language-based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume that it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracize and minimize. The term chronic paid captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt. And the term crazy arrives at us with none of the terror and worry you live with.”

Aza’s thought spirals could easily feel overdone and stereotypical but Green pulls them back from this edge. Aza, for all her self-loathing and flaws, remains likeable. She breaks your heart as you watch her hurting, wanting to pull her back from the prison her mind has made for her. (Wanting to pull her away from the damn hand sanitizer.) In my experience working with and being friends with people with mental illness, Turtles All the Way Down felt like an accurate portrayal of these disorders that didn’t stray into sensationalism or stereotype, nor is Aza ultimately defined by her mental illness.

Supporting Characters
Aza’s love interest in the book was sweet and conveniently rich, making Davis the perfect John Green character. He was wiser and kinder than I remember sixteen year old boys being—though, as an aside—my recent spate of YA novels has me wondering if everyone was really having this much sex in high school and I just didn’t know about it (arguably, likely) or if the feeling that all these YA characters are more grown up than I was at their age is partly a function of the earlier and earlier sexualization of American teenagers.

But I digress. Davis was lovely and just the right amount of wounded and imperfect to be the foil for Aza. The Aza-Davis relationship differed markedly from Hazel-Augustus and, despite his immense wealth, Davis felt like a more well-rounded character than Augustus. (Augustus felt too perfect, except for the part where he was…you know, dying). I appreciated how Green resolved the Aza-Davis relationship—it was believable rather than forced, when the easy temptation (especially in YA) is for the happily-ever-after.

Aza’s best friend Daisy was perhaps one of my favorite characters, though one I remain a bit conflicted about. She had many of the hallmarks of the manic-pixie-dream-girl (hence the conflict), though her character revealed the growth in Aza, not a boy. Daisy was Alaska, but far less wounded, better fleshed-out, and a writer of Chewbacca fanfic.  (Her life motto—“Break hearts, not promises.) She was snappy and funny, quirky in the way I wanted to be but certainly never was in high school.   Turtles is told from Aza’s viewpoint, so part of the reason Daisy kept the manic-pixie-dream-girl vibe for so long was, frankly, because that’s the role Aza relegated her to. Daisy busts this mold to an extent part of the way through the book, when she chews out Aza for being self-absorbed—so caught in her spirals that she doesn’t see the hardship Daisy has been living with. While I doubt Green would do it, I would love a Daisy novella about this same time period so that we see Daisy as she sees herself. I want more of her.

The Ending
I’m going to be intentionally vague here so I don’t think there needs to be a spoiler warning. I’m not exhaustively versed in his body of work, but the voice, perspective, and final words are not a choice that I think we’ve seen Green make as readers. I go back and forth on whether I found the way this choice provided closure comforting or if it would have been better to leave the book more open-ended.   There are many books that I want to know what happened after the book, though having gotten that to an extent here, maybe we are better off not always knowing. The grass is always Greener….(Sorry. But not really.)

If you find John Green or YA generally to be too much, this isn’t going to be the book for you. Green goes new places with Aza, but his voice and his writing remains true to what has made him the popular author he is. If you can handle the occasional YA and/or want to start a John Green book but don’t want to start with the one everyone talks about where the kids are all dying of cancer, then I absolutely recommend Turtles All the Way Down. The topic is serious but the dialogue makes it feel lighter and a thread of hope for Aza runs through the entire book. I listened on audio and found the voice to be a good match for the story—I may even use an Audible credit to purchase my own copy of the audiobook to re-listen.

Published: October 10, 2017 by Dutton Books (@duttonbooks)
Author: John Green (@johngreenwritesbooks)
Date read: December 23, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Mini Reviews: Dear Martin & I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Joanna Kosinska

Over the last few weeks, two of the books I read seemed worthy of discussion here but I struggled independently and for different reasons over both in what to write about them for a full post.   I don’t know that I will do this often but today is going to be a mini review of both. (And, it turns out, they share a book birthday! #serenedipity).

First up is Dear Martin by Nic Stone.

Justyce McAllister is a top student at one of the best prep schools in Atlanta. He also happens to be one of the only black students in the almost-entirely-white school. In the first chapters of the book, Justyce is aggressively detained by a white police officer over a misunderstanding—an encounter that leaves Justyce shaken. He begins to write letters to Martin Luther King to process through what it would mean to live by Dr. King’s nonviolent principles in a world that still seems hell-bent on forcing subjugation or violent confrontation on African Americans. A second encounter leaves Justyce grieving and grappling with the media spotlight.

The Hate U Give parallels
In many ways, Dear Martin, is strikingly like The Hate U Give—this is, in fact, one of the reasons I wasn’t sure I could do a full post justice. Many of the social justice issues I raised and linked to in that post apply equally. Justyce, like Starr, is one of the only black students at an all-white private school, has a white love interest, experiences micro-aggressions on a daily basis, and becomes a witness to an officer-involved shooting. Despite all of these commonalities, Dear Martin still feels fresh, relevant, and far from repetitive.

Dear Martin goes places The Hate U Give doesn’t—Justyce himself is detained by the police, he becomes hopeless enough that he’s drawn to a gang, he’s maligned in the media as a thug—this being the justification for an officer shooting at Justyce and his friend. Where the major characters in The Hate U Give were all either living in the poor areas Starr lives or, at best, a middle class neighborhood, Justyce finds himself surrounded by a world of money. With this change and the events that throw Justyce unwittingly into the spotlight, Stone is able to explore more fully the ideas of black “respectability” and the idea that, at the end of the day, when it comes to many encounters with white authority/law enforcement, a rich black teenager is just another black man and is just as likely to be killed by police.

I highly recommend Dear Martin for anyone who read and enjoyed The Hate U Give. I also recommend it for readers who were intimidated by THUGDear Martin is about half the length and I flew through it in a day. If you’re still not sure what the deal is with Black Lives Matter—why its necessary—or what micro-aggressions look like, Dear Martin is an easy place to start. Justyce and the supporting characters in the book are believable and mostly likeable (except the ones who aren’t supposed to be). The book is tightly written with both YA and adult appeal.

Published: October 17, 2017 by Crown (@crownpublishing)
Author: Nic Stone (@getnicced)
Date read: December 15, 2017

Next is I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, a National Book Award Finalist for YA Fiction.

First generation Mexican-American teenager Julia (not Jewel-ia) needs to get out of her parents’ house where the combined weight of her parents’ expectations and the perfection of her older sister is slowly crushing her to death in her roach-infested apartment. Until Julia’s sister dies and Julia begins to discover things about her sister that she just can’t let go. The deeper she digs, the harder life gets, the more Julia spirals until it seems there’s no way out. Was her sister’s death her fault? Can Julia ever feel free?

Hot-button Themes
Through Julia’s story, Sanchez is able to introduce scenarios that get at why many immigrants risk everything to leave their homes to come to the US, the dangers inherent in trusting coyotes to lead you across the border, the pressures many immigrant families place on their children, the extreme poverty many immigrants live in (particularly those without status who are then more vulnerable to exploitation), and the stigma of mental illness—both generally and within specific communities. Sanchez handles each of these with aplomb and gentleness, particularly the last.

Why Not a Full Review?
I’ve mentioned a few times that certain books—again, THUG—aren’t written for me. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy them but that at the end of the day I’m not the audience the reader had in mind when she wrote a book. I can learn from these books but I’ll never be able to fully identify with the main characters.   I still chose to review books like THUG in hopes that my blog might lead someone to pick them up who wouldn’t have previously, while acknowledging that my review would not be able to do full justice to the lived experience of those who look like and live like the characters. There are things I will never truly understand, as a woman with all of the privileges except the gender one.

My inability to fully review a book like this was never more true than with I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. The book has short conversations and ideas expressed in Spanish that went almost entirely over my head. There were also some significant cultural themes that I knew enough to recognize there was something happening that I didn’t fully understand. My reading of this book was likely only the top of the iceberg.

Representation Matters
With that said, I believe down to my bones that representation matters. That we need books like I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Dear Martin, THUG, and American Street—books that are written by people of color about people of color and the unique struggles they continue to face in this country. Everyone deserves to see themselves in the pages of a book and there are not enough opportunities for non-white teenagers to see themselves in books of this caliber. For white audiences, these characters embody the grey of the black-and-white news stories on “illegal immigrants”* and yet another African American slain by cops for chewing his gum the wrong way in the “wrong” neighborhood (re: the nice one). I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter should be read by first generation Latinx teenagers who can’t remember the last time they saw someone who looked and talked like them in a book. It should also be read by the white woman who doesn’t have close friends without status, because even she should have exposure to these themes.

Published: October 17, 2017 by Knopf (@aaknopf / @knopfteen)
Author: Erika L. Sanchez (@erikalsanchez)
Date read: December 6, 2017

*Do not get me started on how it is impossible for a human being to be illegal.

Review: Refugee by Alan Gratz


They only see us when we do something they don’t want us to do, Mahmoud realized. The thought hit him like a lightning bolt. When they stayed where they were supposed to be—in the ruins of Aleppo or behind the fences of a refugee camp—people could forget about them….

Mahmoud’s first instinct was to disappear below decks. To be invisible. Being invisible in Syria had kept him alive. But now Mahmoud began to wonder if being invisible in Europe might be the death of him and his family. If no one saw them, no one could help them. And maybe the world needed to see what was really happening here.

A calm came over Lito, as though he’d come to some sort of understanding, some decision. “I see it now, Chabela. All of it. The past, the present, the future. All my life, I kept waiting for things to get better. For the bright promise of mañana. But a funny thing happened while I was waiting for the world to change, Chabela: It didn’t. Because I didn’t change it. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.

According to UNICEF, almost fifty million children are uprooted from their homes, with 28 million fleeing conflict in places like Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan. Refugee tells the story of one such child—Mahmoud, feeling Aleppo after his home is destroyed—interspersed with the story of a Jewish child, Josef, on the MS St. Louis in 1939 and Isabel, a Cuban child fleeing for Miami in 1994. Refugee puts faces on the millions of children who, throughout the modern era, have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in lands not their own.

Briefly, if you are unfamiliar—the MS St. Louis was a ship containing over six hundred mostly-German, mostly-Jewish passengers fleeing a fledgling Nazi Germany. Though the ticketholders held valid Cuban visas, by the time the ship arrived, the visas had been used as a political tool and were cancelled, through no fault of the ship’s occupants. Cuba and the United States ultimately turned them away. The ship’s passengers wound up unloading in Belgium, France, and the UK. Many of the Jews aboard the ship were later rounded up as Germany invaded France and Belgium, with many perishing in concentration camps. Josef was a fictional passenger on this ship.

For many years in the modern era, particularly in the nineties, many Cubans fled their home countries in search of a better life—a life with enough food and education for their children. The “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” rule, in place until very recently, essentially held that if a Cuban was picked up at sea (with wet feet), he or she would be returned to Cuba via Guantanamo Bay. If the refugee made it to the coast of Miami—had “dry feet” when caught, he or should would be granted amnesty. Thousands upon thousands fled, with an untold (large) number drowning on the way. Isabel is one such child, fleeing Cuba in a ramshackle boat held together with string and chewing gum.

The current Syrian refugee crisis is one of the largest refugee crises of the modern era, with over thirteen million Syrians displaced, including five million outside of the country. Mahmoud tells the story of one such boy whose family chose to take the risk and leave, walking, swimming, and nearly drowning their way through Turkey, Macedonia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany.

Everything is Connected
As is common with a book like this, you begin to realize that the stories are connected—both in theme as well as with tangential characters. I won’t say more about the characters because I don’t want to spoil that part. From reading, however, I kept having a line from Ecclesiastes come back to me—“There is nothing new under the sun.” The current Syrian refugee crisis is nothing the world has not seen before. The question is whether we will behave better this time—when the modern MS St. Louis comes to our shorts, teeming with Syrian refugees, will we do better this time? Or will we send them back to almost certain death? I am afraid, with the current political climate and the most recent iteration of the travel ban, that we are headed to a repeat of history. History does not look kindly upon those who turned away the MS St. Louis, and I do not see how it will look kindly upon us for these failures.
Middle Grade Books
I typically struggle a bit with middle-grade books since they don’t tend to hold my attention. Thematically, I usually enjoy books with a bit more struggle than is appropriate for the typical middle-grade book. Language and writing are also vital for a book to hold my interest. Middle grade can thus rarely fully capture me—which is fine; these books aren’t really made for me.

With that said, I had no such struggles with Refugee. Though the language stayed on-grade for middle-grade readers, it held my attention and I fairly well devoured this one. The day after I finished, I recommended it to a coworker as a book he could read with his son, since it would capture both of their interests. This is considered a young YA or mature Middle-Grade book and would thematically be a bit much for the younger end of the YA spectrum.

Gratz includes a lengthy author’s note with his sources and explanations of how he developed certain characters (For example, Josef’s father is an amalgam of two actual passengers on the MS St. Louis).  While I am not usually a fan of white authors telling the stories of people of color (as Mahmoud and Isabel are), Gratz seems to have taken pains to ensure accuracy and to be culturally respectful.

Additional Recommended Reading
I read this book for the Diverse Books Club books this month. Other books in the “flight” of books included Inside Out & Back Again and Music of the Ghosts. I loved the first and the review is here. I’m starting the second this week and can’t wait to dive in—it is set in Cambodia when people were fleeing the Khmer Rouge. I don’t know enough about the time in history and reading accurate historical fiction is one of my favorite ways to begin to learn more.

I also highly recommend Exit West—It is still my favorite book of the year so far and would have received a glowing, five-star review on this blog if I hadn’t read it several months before actually starting to write these reviews. Though the country is unnamed, the crisis so closely mirrors Syria as to essentially clearly be about the current crisis. Exit West raises interesting scenarios—in Refugee and in history, the US was able to turn away the MS St. Louis. Countries like the US are still able to turn away current Syrian refugees, while countries within the contiguous EU are currently trying to control the flood. In Exit West, doors appear to take refugees across borders. By going through a door, they are suddenly in London, San Francisco, etc.  Exit West imagines a world were we have to live with and address refugees who cannot be kept out.

Published July 25, 2017 by Scholastic Press (@scholasticinc)
Author: Alan Gratz
Date read: October 12, 2017
Rating: 5 Stars, in the running for top five books of the year

Review: Trell by Dick Lehr


Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review.  Thank you to Candlewick Press, Dick Lehr, and LibraryThing for sending me an advance reader copy.  All opinions are my own.

Around the time I started to walk, I also started asking Daddy the same question at the end of our weekly visits. Every time, the same question, like if you put a word bubble next to me in every photo from when I was a toddler through elementary school, the question was the same, year after year.

“Daddy,” I would ask, “when you comin’ home?”

Based on an actual event in Boston in 1988, Trell tells the story of a man wrongfully convicted for the murder of a child from the point of view of his teenage daughter. Since shortly after her birth, Van Trell Taylor (“Trell”) has only known her father in jail. For the last fourteen years he has insisted on his innocence to no avail. After legal avenues prove to be dead ends, Trell begins to hound a local, washed up investigative reporter to revisit the rush to convict her father. As Trell and the reporter begin to uncover serious flaws in the conviction, they come to realize that someone else doesn’t want the truth to come out and will do anything to stop them.

White Savior
While technically well written and well paced, the story in Trell is, in many ways, less about Trell and her family and more about the role of the reporter in the story. This isn’t terribly surprising since the Dick Lehr, the author of Trell is a former investigative journalist on the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe.

This set up raised a bit of a conundrum with me. I’m typically leery of white authors trying to write the stories of black communities; however, in the case of Trell, the book is loosely autobiographical. Lehr himself re-investigated the 1988 shooting death of teenager Tiffany Moore in Boston as a reporter at the Boston Globe. As a result of that reporting, the wrongful conviction of Shawn Drumgold was overturned in 2003 after he had served fourteen years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. Rather than tell this story as a straight autobiography from the position of the white reporter, Lehr reimagined the story from the point of view of a family member of the wrongfully convicted man. This choice made the story more compelling and enabled Lehr to write it as a YA book, though of course this also meant a white man was writing the voice and story of a black teenage girl. He does, as far as I could tell, manage to avoid anything seriously problematic in his writing of Trell. She is one of the only black kids at an all-white school she goes to on scholarship, but this is a trope Angie Thomas is also guilty of in The Hate U Give, so it’s a little hard to fault Lehr for using this one—and this is also a reality for a lot of kids wanting to escape neglected schools in the inner-city.

In the course of developing the relationship with the reporter, Trell becomes interested in journalism. These bits are a touch cheesy (not over the top—this is YA after all, so the bar is a bit higher for it be over the top) and contribute to the overall “journalist will save us” vibe. Lehr does do a good job making Trell be the driving force—it isn’t the journalist uncovering clues. Rather, he’s the one showing Trell certain techniques and where to look so that she is usually the one making the discoveries, not the journalist. If this weren’t the case, I think I’d have more problems with the book. Lehr clearly made an effort so that, while the book is all about the journalism, it’s also all about Trell.

The “White Savior” aspect of the book would probably bother me more if I didn’t know Lehr himself investigated the Drumgold conviction and contributed to its being overturned. This story and the role journalists played in uncovering injustice deserve to be told and Lehr is one of the better ones to do it.

Policing Black Communities
Lehr is sensitive to the climate and the realities of the view of the police in communities where Trell lives. When a significant crime happens today in a community of color, we all shake our heads with the news pundits and question why no one called the police sooner or why seemingly no one will come forward now. Lehr addresses this head on at one point, with Trell explaining how people have seen police misconduct in person in many of these communities or known someone affected by police misconduct. When you add the penalties that come from “snitching,” there is very little reason for many people to trust the police’s ability to do the right thing or, even if they are, to protect them.

This wasn’t something I ever thought about until relatively recently. In many ways, the death of Mike Brown and my friendships with an African-American woman and a biracial Latinx woman were what started to open my eyes. Issues like those in Trell, The Hate U Give, and American Street were not ones that ever would have crossed my radar when I was the intended audience of YA books. I wish I had been able to read books like these when I was in high school, rather than having to read adulthood to really see the injustices faced by communities of color, including injustices at the hands of law enforcement.

The book is clearly a YA book and is readable for ninth grade and up—possibly a little younger for advanced readers. Language-wise, I don’t recall anything offensive. So long as a juvenile reader is prepared for the thematic elements in Trell, this book would appeal to a slightly younger audience than something like The Hate U Give or American Street, though I think it also holds the attention of older YA readers. Because of where Trell lives and how the homicide happened, there are repeated references to drug use and gangs—nothing graphic (no one actually does drugs in front of Trell) but also not subtle. Drugs and gangs aren’t glorified and one of the characters who lives in a house where a lot of the drug dealing and gang activity happens clearly wants to get out. I probably would have found this book shocking when I was in school but with everything on television, kids today are substantially less sheltered than I was twenty years ago. I don’t personally think there’s anything problematic here.

It wouldn’t be a book review on this blog without a comment on the writing. Lehr writes like a journalist, even when writing narrative fiction. This isn’t a bad thing—each word is carefully chosen, the sentences are clear, and the narrative moves forward in a coherent and deliberate pace, with a clear climax and resolution. There’s nothing flowery in Lehr’s writing but there’s also nothing distracting. This isn’t a book where I felt I wanted to re-read sentences but it’s also not a book that made me wish he’d had a better editor.

Trell isn’t a perfect book but it’s still one worth reading. I probably won’t keep my copy but I hope it gets into good hands in the Little Free Library I’m going to drop it off in. I’m glad I read it and do see myself recommending it. I think it raises important issues that are still immediately timely and it’s also an easier book to recommend on these issues if I know someone will be put off by the language in something like American Street.

Shawn Drumgold Sources
Original Boston Globe article raising concerns with conviction
Drumgold awarded $5 million for wrongful conviction

Published: September 12, 2017 by Candlewick Press (@candlewickpress) (Happy Book Birthday, Trell!)
Author: Dick Lehr
Date read: September 2, 2017
Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Review: American Street by Ibi Zoboi


My cousins are hurting. My aunt is hurting. My mother is hurting. And there is no one here to help. How is this the good life, when even the air in this place threatens to wrap its fingers around my throat? In Haiti, with all its problems, there was always a friend or neighbor to share in the misery. And then, after our troubles were tallied up like those points a the basketball game, we would celebrate being alive.
But here, there isn’t even a slice of happiness big enough to fill up all these empty houses, and broken buildings, and wide roads that lead to nowhere and everywhere.

Seventeen year-old Fabiola and her mother came to America to live with her cousins and aunt, to start over with the “good life” in America. Yet, as Fabiola crosses into customs, her mother is left on the other side, detained and not able to enter. Fabiola is forced to go on without her, to begin to live the “good life” without her mother. Yet this “good life” isn’t anything like Fabiola imagined. Fabiola must learn to navigate life in Detroit as she seeks help from her spirit guides to make her family whole again.

Audience and Privilege
While I’m rating American Street as a four-star book, this is another book, much like The Hate U Give that ultimately wasn’t for me. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it—I absolutely did and plan to recommend it within my friend-group widely. That’s also not the say the author doesn’t want white readers, but simply to say that at the end of the day, if I hadn’t enjoyed this book, it’s not my place to review it poorly. The experiences of Fabiola and her cousins in American Street are representative of real lives—people who live lives I cannot imagine and who make choices I have never had to make, largely because of the color of my skin and the place of privilege I occupy. If I didn’t like the book because I didn’t relate to it or understand it, then that is reflective of me and not the book.

(FTR–I do appreciate the irony in my reviewing books written by authors of color while simultaneously questioning white authors who write about the experiences of people of color as with Trell and Killers of the Flower Moon. There are enough white authors trying to speak for people of color that I never want to take someone else’s place to speak their story. Even in reviewing books, there are inherent biases at play—even as I try to be aware of my privilege and how it can drive my reactions to books, no one is completely aware of or able to separate themselves from their privilege.)

I did not, however, want to skip reviewing this book. While I don’t have a large audience, I do want my blog to serve as a place to find books you might otherwise not read. I try to read widely and have pretty diverse taste (so long as its well-written!) so it is my hope that there is a little something from everyone here.

With that in mind, I decided to go ahead and review American Street so that perhaps, Reader, you might pick it up when you would have otherwise missed it. I wouldn’t have picked it up myself if Jennifer Latham, author of Dreamland Burning, hadn’t recommended it during her author chat for the MMD book club at the beginning of the summer.

One of the things that made American Street so powerful for me was the author’s use of a limited point of view to tell a far wider-reaching story than the reader realizes at the beginning. The entire story is told from the point of view of Fabiola, a recent immigrant from Haiti whose mom is detained when they try to return to the United States where Fabiola was born seventeen years before. Because there are some ways in which it is obvious—clothing, makeup, culture—that Fabiola is Naïve—with a capital “N”—it is easy to see only those little things and miss the forest for the trees. Because the reader’s view is limited by Fabiola’s ability to experience and grasp what is going on around her, the events of the end of the book are all the more shocking. Fabiola didn’t see them coming and so, to a large extent, I didn’t either. I’m fairly good at picking up surprising twists or at least knowing one is coming, and I did not see where this book was going to go until I was almost on top of it. And then I desperately wanted to be wrong. Zoboi’s use of point of view here was masterful and not something that is this well done very often.

Characters and Magical Realism
To make sense of the word around her, Fabiola connects the people around her to her lwas, or Haitian spirit guides. For some characters, this makes them more sympathetic and adds a layer of richness to the character development—her cousin Donna is Ezili-Danto—the lover and the beauty who is also the warrior. Two sides, one person. For others, like Bad Leg, the homeless man across the street, seeing him as the lwa Papa Legba imbues the book with a layer of magical realism that then opens the door to events that are not entirely realistic, yet still fit within the larger scheme and story of the book.

Immigrant Experience
Much of the charm of American Street comes down to Fabiola’s experiences as being out of her culture.   While the slips are frustrating to Fabiola, they are charming to the reader and serve to remind readers how young she is–both literally and in experience.  Fabiola, while naïve, has been well-loved by her mother and well-cared-for. Her cousin’s home—literally on the corner of American and Joy streets—was the Promised Land where everything would better. So when Fabiola is dropped into this intersection, without her mother, into a foreignness she did not expect, she has to remind herself to be happy, to smile because this is the “good life.”

My heart aches for her in these moments. I know what it is to have small disappointments result from my expectations not meeting reality, but the magnitude for Fabiola is staggering. For Fabiola, it is another earthquake—the foundations cracked, the earth roiling under her feet. Yet even in Haiti during the earthquake, she had friends and neighbors, her mother. Here she has no one. Fabiola has to navigate not only what it means to become an American but also how to life a life different and more disappointing than the one she imagined for herself when she and her mother planned to come to America, all without seeming ungrateful to her cousins and aunt who barely have enough to provide for another mouth.

Like The Hate U Give or, to a slightly lesser extent, When Dimple Met Rishi, this is a YA book that skews towards older/heavier themes. Some of the common elements of YA are here—Fabiola is besotted with Kasim, a teenage boy equally smitten with her. He “invades” her every thought and takes her on some dates that teenage boys would do well to take notes on. The limited sex scenes are just that—very limited—and tastefully vague. I don’t think there’s much to worry about there.

My labeling the book as being more of an older YA book, however, stems from the larger themes. Here as in Sing, Unburied, Sing, there are characters selling drugs, yet as with Ward’s characters, these characters are nuanced, with good reasons to be making these choices (even if they are, ultimately, the wrong choices). There is also violence throughout the book, as the neighborhood is rough and Fabiola’s cousin Donna is in a volatile, abusive relationship. These themes and violence would make me hesitate to recommend the book to anyone under sixteen, and even then, if a teenager were reading this, this would be a book to read and unpack together.

This is a book I highly recommend, particularly for people who are trying to read more diversely. Fabiola is lovely and it is difficult for the reader not to feel deeply empathetic for her and want the best for her. The events of the book are rough, but frankly, so is life for many teenagers living in Detroit in 2017. The book is well-written, though the dialogue is accurate for how teenagers would speak (so the vocabulary would be NSFW).

Reviews by people of color
If this review intrigued you, you should also check out the reviews from Rich in Color and Epic Reads.

Published: February 14, 2017 by Balzer + Bray (@balzerandbray), an imprint of HarperCollins (@harpercollinsus)
Author: Ibi Zoboi (@ibizoboi)
Date read: September 3, 2017
Rating: 4 ¼ Stars

The beautiful metal print in the background of the picture in this post is by artist A’Driane Nieves.  Her work can be found here.

Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust


Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to Flatiron Books and Top Shelf Text for sending me an advance reader copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Scared? She had never wanted to admit when she was scared. Mina was never scared, or so she had believed. “I’m only scared it won’t work,” Lynet said, her throat dry from having been silent for so long. She stared straight ahead at the outlines of the dangling willow leaves. I’m scared I won’t be enough. “I’m scared that some wounds can’t be healed.”

“Some wounds never heal,” Nadia said. She shyly reached for Lynet’s right hand, turning it over so her palm was facing up. “But many do.”

In this feminist re-telling of the Snow White fairy tale, the kingdom is ruled by King Nicholas, still grieving his lost wife, and clinging to Lynet, the daughter who looks just like her. In the background stands Mina, the stepmother with the heart of glass crafted by her father, unable to love or to be loved. Just as Lynet is starting to discover who she is and who she wants to be, her father is gravely injured during a hunting accident. When Nicholas dies, Mina and Lynet are pitted against one another—after all, only one can be queen. Told in alternating views between Mina and Lynet, Melissa Bashardoust upends the tropes of the evil stepmother and the shrinking violet princess to bring a story of what it means to be true to oneself and to love and be loved.

Reading Level—Writing and Themes
The writing in Girls Made of Snow and Glass is simple—the reading level is 7th grade and up, yet the story is crafted well enough to hold the interest of an adult reader, even with the somewhat low reading level. The tone and pitch of the writing match classic fairy tales without erring to the side of being sing-songy in wording. The simple writing never distracts from the overall story and the pace is perfect—not too fast or too slow.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass is not a Grimm fairytale by any stretch. There is limited violence (there is one particularly violent scene almost at the end when the battle between good and evil comes to a climax, but it is not terribly graphic) and no romantic overtures beyond kissing. Thematically, Bashardoust manages to convey more complicated concepts than you would typically find in a novel written at a middle school reading level, yet she handles them in ways that feel accessible to parents and children exploring and talking about these themes.

Being at home in your own skin
Lynet, born as her mother was dying and eerily similar to the departed queen, chafes against the expectations placed on her—the requests that make her feel as if she is being forced into the mold of her mother. There are several instances where Bashardoust raises Lynet feeling this way—

Lynet was overlooking the courtyard now, but she still felt like she was running from something, and that if she stopped, it would catch her. It was a restless feeling, an itch that made her feel like her skin didn’t fit over her bones correctly. She thought that she might leap out of herself and become someone new, and then she’d be at peace.

The feelings Lynet has—of not feeling like she is herself in her own body, feeling that her forced outsides don’t match her insides—seem like they would have resonance with a teen who identifies as LGBTQ or has friends who do. Lynet feels that to embrace these feelings would be to disappoint her father, whom she loves dearly.

In other scenes, Lynet grows closer to Nadia (the newly arrived surgeon for the castle, slightly older than she), she marvels that Nadia can be a stoic surgeon in the castle and also her caring, radiant friend. Later, Lynet is put in the position of forgiving Nadia and having to decide if she trusts her. Lynet’s experiences with Nadia speak volumes about female friendship. Bashardoust avoids the trope of the Mean Girl altogether—she presents Nadia making a significant mistake, one that she had reasons to make but was still altogether an error, but owning her mistakes. The error-apology-acceptance storyline is one that isn’t often done well in literature aimed at teen girls but shines here. Bashardoust handles these revelations and lessons gently, hitting the balance between being subtle and still being clear enough that the message hits home. Ultimately, the relationship between Lynet and Nadia looks like it will become something more than just friendship—Bashardoust writes this beautifully and tenderly without unnecessary handwringing about what this might mean. Lynet and Nadia just are and the book is better for it.

Loving and being loved
While Lynet is, in many ways driven and initially defined by her relationship with her father, the main relationship in the book is between Lynet and her stepmother, Mina. Mina feels incapable of loving anyone or being loved in return. Mina’s limitations here harm and confuse them both, with Mina discounting her feelings for Lynet and Lynet feeling that her stepmother has only ill will towards her.

I never had stepparents so I give my opinions here with that caveat. Amazon classifies the book, among other options, within the subcategory of “Blended Families”—while this isn’t a category that immediately occurred to me, it’s absolutely appropriate. Mina and Lynet make mistakes—both in their expectations and desires of what they want the other to be. I don’t want to give anything away, but here too, there is so much fodder for good discussion of what it means to be family and love a family member who might not be blood-related to you.

Free will
With everything going on when you’re a teenager, it is easy to feel that you don’t have agency over your own life. Everyone from your parents and friends to society generally have expectations and labels. It sometimes feels easier to go with the flow and forget that you have choices. One of the strengths of Bashardoust’s tale is that her characters are ultimately the masters of their own destinies. This is not Snow White saved by seven (little) men. While the women in the story—Lynet and Mina in particular but Nadia as well—have to grapple with the impact caused by the actions of the men in their lives, how those choices impact them and what they do next is entirely within their control. I wanted to stand up and cheer. Bashardoust’s characters are believable—they absolutely have flaws—but they have power (figuratively and literally), they make choices, and they live with the consequences. Mothers, here are some good role models for your daughters.

Accessible Feminism
(I’m going to start by saying that I generally identify as feminist. That’s a loaded word and I’m not going to unpack it here, but I do feel it’s worth saying so that the next part doesn’t come across as possibly sarcastic.)

I knew going into this book that it was a feminist re-telling of Snow White. I wasn’t sure how that would fit in with the dwarves (spoiler….there are no dwarves) or what it would mean for the evil stepmother character. I was expecting, frankly, to be a little hit over the head with the moral lessons (otherwise, why emphasize that it’s so feminist).

I was pleasantly surprised with how beautiful the story of Girls Made of Snow and Glass ultimately was. The “F” word appears nowhere in the book—there are no asides or speeches about feminism or girl power. Instead, Bashardoust simply depicts women and girls who have agency, have self-respect, and make choices that affect themselves and others. There is no fanfare over the feminism here, it just is. The book is better for not having made a fuss, but rather presented the themes and the powerful female characters as just the way things are. Because frankly, women having agency and power is/should be just the way things are.

Throughout Girls Made of Snow and Glass there are little gems that can spark great discussion between parents and children about being comfortable in your own skin, the expectations people (often unfairly) have of you, and what it means to be a friend (even when you’ve been betrayed or been the betrayer). The moral lessons never feel overbearing but are cleverly and clearly conveyed so that there is no missing the message.

Even though I am not a parent (or even close to becoming one), I adored this book. It was an empowering and fun read, well worthy of my time investment.

Published: September 5, 2017 by Flatiron Books (@flatiron_books)
Author: Melissa Bashardoust
Date read: August 19, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ Stars

Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas


I open my mouth to respond. A sob comes out. Daddy is moved aside and Mama wraps her arms around me. She rubs my back and speaks in hushed tones that tell lies. “It’s alright, baby. It’s alright.”

The Hate U Give explores the aftermath to a girl, a family, and a community after one of their own—a black teenage boy named Khalil—is brutally murdered by a white cop. The novel follows sixteen-year old Starr, a witness and passenger in the car the night of the murder, as she struggles to find her voice and what it means for her to be a black teenager living in 2017.

Not For Me
I hesitated in writing this review—The Hate U Give isn’t about me and it isn’t for me. Even if I hated this book (which I absolutely don’t), it wouldn’t really be my place to say that anymore than it’s my place to critique “Lemonade.”

They. Weren’t. Made. For. Me.

In fact, I decided early on that if I were going to give this book any less than five stars, that I would simply refrain from rating it at all. Turns out, that wasn’t a problem.

The Hate U Give sucked me in quickly with a fast-paced narrative and a likeable main character who was easy to identify with, even as a white person who did not grow up in anything like Starr’s neighborhood. Starr is studious, funny, and athletic—she has universal appeal and it is easy for most readers to see something of themselves in her. I didn’t identify whatsoever with her love of basketball, but her studiousness and teenage worries over friends hit home for me.

There are, however, many things in the book that will likely make a white audience uncomfortable—the foremost example to me being Starr’s father’s lauding of the Nation of Islam. It is to Thomas’s credit that she wrote a book that can be so universally read; but at the end of the day this is a book for black readers. It should make you squirm a little if you’re white. That squirming can be good for you—why does this make you uncomfortable? Is the reason you’re uncomfortable about you or is what’s happening here actually wrong? (Spoiler alert: the answer is probably the former).

I do think this is a book everyone should read so (obviously, since you’re here) I went ahead with my planned review, with the recognition that there is probably a lot that went over my head and that I didn’t understand that would resonate with a black audience. It felt like the lesser of two evils to review the book and hopefully bring it more attention than to refrain. (Feel free to disagree with me in the comments.)

The title “The Hate U Give” comes from a Tupac reference to “Thug Life”—The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone. The hate, the vitriol, even the malignant neglect the vast majority of white society gives to African Americans starting when they are very young ultimately comes back to effect everyone. It isn’t just the black community that is hurt by Khalil’s death in this book. Through Starr and her siblings, the effects of the murder reach into their predominantly white school. Parts of the city literally burn as riots break out.

To be sure—my point here is not “treat black people nicer so that you can have nicer things yourself, dear white person.” However, it is shockingly easy for white America to look at the problems coming from predominantly black and poor neighborhoods and blame the people that live there without ever thinking about white America’s systemic racist policies and decisions that resulted in the ghettoization of black Americans. White people are not innocent of the problems that created black ghettos; therefore, white people are not innocent of the resulting poverty and crime.

It is hard to ignore the larger societal issues at play when Thomas gives you the back story of why Khalil may have been selling drugs before his murder and why another character named DeVonte joined a gang. It’s not so easy as their making bad decisions or being bad people. Thomas doesn’t completely exculpate them, but by putting specific, likeable faces on issues like drug dealing and gang-banging, she invites her reader to question their biases to see that good people can make bad decisions for good reasons. And that these same people are far more than what a single bad decision defines them as.

Michael Brown. Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland.
Through the experiences of Starr, Thomas puts a face on those left behind when black people are murdered by those who are sworn to serve and protect. To be sure—each of the more than one thousand African Americans killed by cops each year has a story, a name, and people who love them. Unfortunately, with talking heads screaming at each other in the media, the story the reader gets here with Khalil is not one we get to see for the vast majority of those murdered, at least not without a lot of effort to dig and cut through the crap. We don’t see Michael Brown’s struggle to provide for his family, even though he isn’t yet a man himself. We don’t see the agony the witnesses in the Eric Garner case went through to decide whether to testify or not—and the danger of any decision to “snitch” that might result. We don’t see the impact, months later, on the family of Sandra Bland. Not like this. Not in this detail.

Through fictional Khalil, Thomas brings home every name that crossed the headlines over the last few years and reminds us that each black boy and each black woman was, at the end of the day, human and loved. That it is a tragedy when any life is taken at the hands of the police.

Time Capsule Book
Because of its timeliness it is easy to see why some critics are referring to The Hate U Give as a new classic and a book with staying power. I’m not sure I agree it is a classic, largely because there are many references to things like Tumblr that are quickly going to become dated. To me, the book read like a “Time Capsule” book. By that, I mean The Hate U Give is a snapshot in time of 2017 where this real, pervasive injustice is happening far too often in modern society. This book will stand through time as representative of where we are as a country and a people now. I could certainly be wrong (and would not be disappointed if I am!); it is just difficult for me with the speed at which technology changes to see many modern books as “classics” if the technology and references in them are going to become dated and lost in a few years. I loved the Jessica Darling books as a teen myself, but they don’t hold the same appeal to the YA audience today because so many of the little situations that arise wouldn’t happen nearly the same way today with the advances in technology we’ve made since the ‘90s. Because of this, I see The Hate U Give as less likely to be studied the way we study Jane Austen now in 2217, though it absolutely deserves attention and should (and, I hope, will) stand the test of time as a powerful snapshot of society in 2017.

Things Black People Deal With But Shouldn’t Have To 101
Though this book certainly wasn’t written with a white audience in mind, Thomas is masterful at explaining things like code-switching to the audience—

I should be used to my two worlds colliding, but I never know which Starr I should be. I can use some slang, but not too much slang. Some attitude but not too much attitude, so I’m not a sassy black girl. I have to watch what I say and how I say it. But I can’t sound “white.” Shit is exhausting.

—without sounding heavy-handed to those who already know what things like code-switching are. If I did not have mixed-race friends who consciously moderate their accent based on their audience, I don’t know that I would know what code-switching is, and I certainly didn’t know what it was when I was in high school.

As a black student at a predominantly white school, Starr has to be aware of how she comes across—because black children are seen as more culpable and less innocent than white ones, because she is one of a handful of black kids in her school and therefore her actions will be imputed to all black people (but only her negative actions, of course), because she doesn’t want to affirm stereotypes. Starr thinks more about her state of being on a daily basis than most white folks likely do in a month.

This short explanation plus the extended examples of code-switching in The Hate U Give are but one example of Thomas making the book accessible to readers of all ages so that maybe those who aren’t familiar with these ideas can begin to see all of the little ways people of color experience life differently, through no fault of their own. (Thomas also expertly explores the harm of microaggressions through one of Starr’s friendships).

While we (white folks) should be doing more hard work to root out our biases and discover our blind spots, I do think books like The Hate U Give can be a good non-threatening way to begin to recognize issues like microaggressions. Regardless of whether you are beginning because you are actually a young adult for whom this book was written or whether, like me, you grew up sheltered in a predominantly white town, it is often less threatening to be confronted with something you are wrong in through narrative fiction. This doesn’t mean you get to stay in your safe fictional world forever; however, it is better to begin with something like The Hate U Give than to never begin. Reading books like The Hate U Give teaches readers empathy and I defy you to read this book and not feel for Starr, Khalil’s family, and their community, regardless of where you stand on Black Lives Matter.

Fangirling hard for Bahni Turpin
I listened to The Hate U Give on audio. I would be remiss if I did not rave about the excellent choice of narrator for Thomas’s work. Even before listening to this book, I had an audiobook voice crush on Bahni Turpin, the narrator here. I would listen to her read food ingredient labels. She also read A Piece of Cake, a memoir I read earlier in the year by Cupcake Brown, a woman who grew up in the foster system and was a heavy drug user for years before getting clean and becoming an attorney. Admittedly going from the voice of drugged-out, screaming Cupcake to having that voice also be Starr threw me a little for a loop. I had to remind myself for the first few minutes that Starr was a good girl in this story. (Case in point for my undying love of Bahni Turpin—the fact that Bahni is one of the readers is what pushed me to use my most recent audiobook credit on Hum If You Don’t Know the Words.) Bahni is genius as Starr and makes the audiobook for The Hate U Give a real standout. She is breathtaking in her voice acting as teenage Starr and moved me to tears several times.

If this weren’t already abundantly clear, I think this is a book everyone should read. Because of some language and violence, the book skews a little older YA than most of its genre-mates but still has a strong appeal and well-developed narrative for adult readers.

Author: Angie Thomas (@angiethomas)
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (@balzerandbray) (imprint of HarperCollins @harpercollinsus)
Audiobook narrator: Bahni Turpin (@prospertunia)
Date Published: February 28, 2017
Date Read: July 9, 2017
Rating: 5 stars