I have been reviewing YA books and graphic novels for the School Library Journal magazine since 2018. I enjoy getting a sneak peek at some titles that will be coming out, as I order both genres for my library. Reviewing is different than writing for my personal blog, as I am limited to 200-300 words for each review, and can only share once it has been published with their edits. The magazine wishes to be transparent with descriptions regarding race, so people don’t default to thinking characters are white, so any physical descriptions of characters are now required in the review. I’ve now reviewed eighteen books for them- here are my first six and my second set of six.
Junk Boy by Tony Abbott
Gr 9 Up–Bobby Lang lives on the edge of town in a dilapidated house with his father, who is disabled and continuously drunk. The kids at school call Bobby Junk, a cruel reminder of the junk-filled property he lives on, and he tries to be invisible at school to avoid the bullying. His story is told in free verse and readers are privy to his thoughts as he ruminates on his lonely life. By accident, he witnesses a moment of violence against his classmate Rachel when her mother discovers her with her girlfriend. Bobby and Rachel bond over their outsider status, and her friendship gives him hope where earlier he felt none. Seasoned YA author Abbott crafts a nuanced story about an unlikely but desperately needed friendship between two outsiders. Both Bobby and Rachel are dealing with weak and abusive parental bonds and the damage this does to them is capably shown. Readers will cringe over what Rachel’s mother tries to force on her daughter because of her sexuality, and will hopefully be pushed to think critically about how words and actions affect others. The narrative also respectfully shows positive aspects of religion and getting mental health assistance.
VERDICT This novel-in-verse has an engaging male POV, and would be a good read-alike for those who enjoyed Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down. The message of breaking through barriers to reach out for help and being an empathetic friend are important themes for teens to understand, and makes this a definite buy for YA collections.
Bearmouth by Liz Hyder
Gr 8 Up–Newt is a young miner, described early on as “not a boy nor yet a wimmin,” who lives and works in a mine named Bearmouth. All the boys and men there are trapped by low wages, cruel management, and a draconian religion, thus dooming them to a life of servitude. The miners develop a family underground with Newt being especially close to Thomas, who is teaching the young miner to read. When a new worker named Devlin is added to their crew, Newt is wary yet drawn to him. Devlin begins to plant seeds of revolution in Newt’s mind, so when a secret is revealed and their way of life is challenged, Newt’s eyes are opened to how very trapped they all are. Debut author Hyder gives Newt a distinctive voice. The prose is written phonetically, as if Newt is sharing the story with what little knowledge of writing they have. It’s a challenge to get into the rhythm of this writing style, which may be off putting to readers, but the world-building is strong, as life in the claustrophobic mines seems to be a cross between a dystopian future and the Victorian era. There is a scene with the threat of sexual assault. Physical appearance isn’t often described, though Devlin is white and Thomas has brown skin.
VERDICT A unique story that will take readers a while to get used to. This book might be a hard sell to teens, but for those who are ready for a fresh narrative, this gripping story of hope, friendship, and revolution will be worth it.
Amelia Unabridged by Ashley Schumacher
Gr 8 Up–Amelia and Jenna, best friends since middle school, attend a literary festival after graduation, since they share a passion for “The Orman Chronicles,” a series written by the young and enigmatic N.E. Endsley. While there, curly-haired Jenna meets the author—but Amelia doesn’t, driving a wedge between the two friends just as Jenna leaves for a trip to Ireland before they start college together in the fall. While overseas, Jenna dies in a car accident, leaving her parents and Amelia grief-stricken. Soon afterward, Amelia receives a rare copy of “The Orman Chronicles” in the mail, and she is sure Jenna is behind it. She tracks the book down to an eclectic bookstore in Michigan, where she meets the elusive author, who goes by Nolan. Schumacher’s lovely debut will have romantics swooning over blonde-haired, blue-eyed Amelia and black-haired Nolan’s love story. These two teens have endured loss and family trauma, but both have found acceptance and family elsewhere, and bring out the best in each other. The novel is also an ode to the love of reading and how books can provide the magic and comfort needed during difficult times.
VERDICT Recommended for all YA collections. Readers will root for these resilient protagonists who face heartbreak and must make tough choices.
The Salt in our Blood by Ava Morgyn
Gr 8 Up–The summer before her senior year, Catia discovers that her grandmother Moony, who has been raising her, has died in her sleep. With nowhere else to turn, Cat reluctantly reaches out to her estranged mother, Mary, who brings her daughter back to her apartment in New Orleans. Her mother has been grappling with bipolar disorder for years, with extreme highs and lows that made parenting Cat impossible. A mixture of gritty realism and fantasy are intertwined unevenly as Cat moves between solving the mystery of her mother’s past and interacting with other-worldly beings. Cat begins a healthy romance with a multi-racial young man who proves to be a good balance to her dysfunctional family dynamic. Tarot cards, mysticism, and religion tie in together as Cat unearths a secret from Mary’s past that explains some of her behaviors and sets Cat on her own path of discovery. Morgyn creates an atmospheric narrative that tackles some facets of mental illness and how some youths end up taking a parental role in their relationship with a mother or father. An author’s note explains Morgyn’s connection with Mary’s secret and includes the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Cat and her family are white.
VERDICT This magical realism story would be a good addition to larger collections and might prove welcome to those who do not have traditional households.
She’s Too Pretty To Burn by Wendy Heard
Gr 9 Up–In this thriller, Mick, a blonde junior on the high school swim team and on the outs with her mother, begrudgingly attends a party with a friend and meets Veronica, a Chicana photographer with an edge. The two girls quickly hit it off, with Veronica taking a photograph of Mick immediately after their first kiss that becomes a sensation on Instagram, allowing her to break into the art world. Veronica introduces Mick to her best friend Nico, a 20-year-old brunette who creates subversive art in their San Diego region, and the two teens become willing participants in his illegal art installations. However, soon they are in over their heads as several murders and a raging fire occur and they become pawns in a larger scheme. Heard capably explores the tipping point in which a group can move from righteous anger to destruction when they let the adrenaline of the moment overtake reason. At what level do you go from political activist to eco-terrorist? Heard also captures the extreme highs and lows of teen romance. The imbalance in Veronica and Mick’s relationship could push teens to explore where they would draw the line on romantic boundaries and consent.
VERDICT This psychological thriller is sure to be popular with teens. A sapphic romance with elements of art, danger, and obsession, it is recommended for all YA library collections.
Lucy Clark Will Not Apologize by Margo Rabb
Gr 9 Up–Lucy Clark, a 16-year-old junior in boarding school in Texas, is mourning the loss of the grandmother who raised her, as her parents’ globe-trotting life has prevented Lucy from ever living with them. Alone and bereft, she becomes best friends with Dyna, but when the girls are involved in an altercation with some bullies, Lucy is suspended from school and sent to New York City to live with a cousin and work for an elderly woman named Edith. Lucy is immediately swept up in a mystery as Edith believes someone is trying to kill her. An eccentric group of suspects is revealed, and, in an implausible twist, Dyna joins Lucy in New York and the girls piece together the clues of who is trying to kill Edith. This story feels more like a cozy mystery for adults that was modified to fit a YA audience. The theme of creating a family of choice versus a family of origin is certainly worthwhile, but the trope of absentee parents in YA novels is taken to an extreme here. While the whimsical tone and the multigenerational connections are a plus, the mystery is far-fetched. Little description of Lucy and Dyna’s appearances is given in the narrative.
VERDICT This mystery might take some hand-selling by librarians but would be a good fit for teens who feel misunderstood and yearn to be heard.
It is a pleasure reviewing for this librarian’s magazine, and I hope to continue doing so in the future!
April 4, 2021 at 12:25 pm
Lovely succinct reviews, Nancy! It’s fascinating to hear about the needs and restrictions of a journal that force your hands when reviewing. I like how honest and positive you are with your verdicts too. Thanks for sharing these with us. 😀
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April 5, 2021 at 1:35 pm
Thanks, Lashaan! I try hard to be as positive as I can because reviews in these magazines influence buying purchases for libraries, and I wouldn’t want to dissuade someone from buying it. On the other hand, I need to be honest, so it is a balance!
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April 6, 2021 at 10:42 pm
I love that you write for the School Library Journal and whenever I read your reviews I’m always impressed. I am (as will come as NO surprise to anyone) a verbose person. Some may even say I’m hyperverbal XD. And that comes through in my writing! So to say so much in so little is always an impressive feat in my eyes. There’s a song by U2, “Cedars of Lebanon,” where Bono sings from the perspective of a war correspondent. He sings, “The worst of us are a long drawn out confession / The best of us are geniuses of compression.” I think of that often as I write…because I have no idea how to get to that place, the “geniuses of compression” place. It’s just not in my wheel house. But I am always impressed by those who can do it and you nail it.
Also, I feel I need to place Ashley Schumacher’s ‘Amelia Unabridged’ on my to-read list now. But I have to save it for a time when I’m ready to cry!
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April 7, 2021 at 6:53 pm
Thanks Michael! I love those lyrics of Bono, plus “Squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline”.
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April 8, 2021 at 9:26 am
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh, YES! You know the song! I love it!!!!
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