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School Library Journal reviews, part 3

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!

-Nancy

School Library Journal reviews, part 2

I have been reviewing YA books and children’s graphic novels for the School Library Journal magazine for the last two years. 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 250-300 words for each review, and can only share once it has been published with their edits. I’ve now reviewed twelve books for them, I shared six on my previous post, and six now. I feel it helps me as a professional, for when I accepted my job as Head of Teen Services last year, my writing for this blog and for the magazine were pluses in my favor for the library director.

The Map From Here to There

Gr 7 Up: Endearing new couple Paige and Max from The Start of Me and You are back for their senior year in this sequel about friendship and finding life balance. Over the course of a school year, Paige struggles with what choices lay ahead for her after graduation. Despite being happy with Max, she wrestles with which colleges to apply to and saying goodbye to her close-knit group of friends. Her anxiety gets the best of her and her relationship with Max begins to disintegrate; she gets caught up in her head about choices to make in the future and loses sight of how to enjoy the moment she is in. An experienced YA author, Lord captures teenage struggles effectively and shows how senior year is a difficult time for many. Teens are almost at the end of their school career and thinking of the different paths they will soon be taking, yet they need to live in the here and now. Friendship is an important part of the narrative, and the author ably shows that one does not have to choose a relationship over friends, but that they can balance both. Paige’s and Max’s journey is realistic and readers will root for them to reconcile.

Verdict: An appealing romance, at times heavy on the angst, that can stand alone but should be a definite buy where the first book was popular.

Gr 7 Up: Four friends—Ava, CJ, Jordan, and Martha—who have been tight since kindergarten are entering their senior year and beginning to face the realization that they will all be going in different directions. The opening chapter establishes that one will become President of the United States, but readers don’t know which one. Is it Ava, an artist who is struggling with her future choices; CJ, an earnest do-gooder; Jordan, a budding ace journalist; or Martha, a strong young woman who is facing some hurdles in life? As the novel spans a year of their experiences, a red herring is thrown in to muddy the waters as to who the future president could be. Debut author Watson creates four appealing and diverse young women; however, the narrative can seem formulaic and strives hard to check all the boxes, thus feeling like a made-for-TV movie. But this coming-of-age drama has a twist that will throw off readers as to which young woman becomes president, as all are smart and capable, and worthy of the office. Plus, the message of enduring friendships is always important for young people to read.

Verdict: A fun and light read, this book will appeal to teens who like contemporary fiction. A solid purchase.

Aster and the Accidental Magic

Gr 4-7–A move to the mountains results in adventure beyond a young girl’s wildest dreams. A strange species of gigantic birds that reproduce on a 15-year cycle is gearing up for a migration—always a destructive event. To help guide the birds, Aster’s scientist mother is building a robot. Her work takes the family to the mountains, and young Aster is initially distraught when her life is uprooted. But as she explores the countryside, she finds magic and mischief, befriends a seasonal deity, acquires a pet dog, outwits a trickster, and has the adventure of a lifetime. Aster learns to cope with the unexpected and finds solidarity with her family and new friends. The conclusion hints that more fun awaits in future volumes. Featuring simple lines and appealingly bizarre creatures, the art will entice readers. The Alps-inspired landscapes and characters are colored with muted Photoshopped blocks of color, with panels that let the busy narrative flow. At times the style turns anime-like to convey extreme moments.

Verdict: Those who love Luke Pearson’s “Hilda” series will eagerly jump on board the Aster bandwagon.

InvestiGators

Gr 2-5–In the first installment of what promises to be a wildly successful graphic novel series, Green (“Kitten Construction Company”) once again shows off his knack for pun-filled animal tales. Alligators Mango and Brash are friends and secret agents for S.U.I.T. (Special Undercover Investigator Teams), tasked with solving their first case: finding Chef Mustachio, who went missing just before he was about to unveil his latest concoction. These masters of disguise are off and running. But when there’s an explosion at the Science Factory, the duo are asked to look into that mystery, too. No matter where they go, Mango and Brash blend in seamlessly with humans who somehow never notice that they are interacting with alligators who sport vests outfitted with gadgets. Jokes, especially visual puns (“Badges?” “We’re not badgers, we’re alligators!”) and toilet humor, come fast and furious, and the clean, simple cartoon art and paneled layout are easy to follow. Kids who are tickled by Green’s irreverent humor will appreciate the drawing tips that conclude the book.

Verdict: Like the heroes of Dav Pilkey’s “Dog Man” or “Captain Underpants,” the Investigators are bound to resonate with kids.

Gr 9 Up–Cariani transforms his popular play into a fully realized YA novel of interconnected vignettes. The third-person narration opens on Ginette and Pete going to look at the stars in their hometown of Almost. Although they are beginning to fall in love, a verbal spat leads to Ginette’s leaving. Every subsequent chapter is a two-person vignette, a short story informed by her walk home past various locations. The couples experience the joys and struggles of love, with a magical realism bent, and not all the stories end happily. Of the ten couples featured–one more than found in the play, and including LGBTQ+ representation–only two characters are teenagers, so this may require some handselling to get YAs to fully connect with the stories. It will be worth it.

Verdict: For New Adult sections, theater enthusiasts, and born romantics, a charming and whimsical collection.

Gr 7-10–Recent valedictorian Rachel has been laser-focused on her goals of obtaining high grades and getting into Northwestern University. Now that summer has arrived, she can finally relax. Reflecting that she had refused to participate in many high school rites of passage, and after finding a self-help book that encourages saying “yes” to new life experiences, Rachel decides to try this approach. She’s quickly out of her comfort zone as she inadvertently becomes involved in a love triangle, reconnects with an old friend, and learns new truths about her classmates. While the John Hughes–esque narrative is rom-com in nature, Culli has crafted a more substantial book than readers might initially guess. She captures teen life and thoughts authentically and shows that the way people present their lives to the public is not always what is truly happening behind the scenes. A strong supporting cast of characters also adds depth.

Verdict: A definite purchase for YA collections, this winning book will have readers considering how a few key decisions could alter their entire lives. Lessons in taking risks, being true to yourself, and not buying into stereotypes create a truly compelling read.

It is a pleasure reviewing for this librarian’s magazine, and I hope to continue doing so in the future!

-Nancy

School Library Journal reviews

I have been reviewing YA books (plus one graphic novel!) for the magazine School Library Journal for a year now, but haven’t really advertised that I was doing so, as this blog mostly revolves around graphic novels, but I thought why not share these great books since I’m (half) boss of this blog! Reviewing has been interesting, as I am limited to 250-300 words for each review, and can only share once it has been published with their edits. All the books have been worthwhile, so afterward I’ve purchased them for my library collections once they are available for purchase.

Better You Than Me by Jessica Brody

Two 12-year old girls, Disney-esque star Ruby Rivera and her biggest fan Skyler Welshman, meet on the set of Ruby’s hit television show and improbably switch bodies by accident. At first, thrilled with the situation, each tween believes the other has the better life in this Freaky Friday-like storyline. Due to various scheduling constraints, the girls plan to meet in several days to switch back. Meanwhile, each girl’s assumptions about one another are put to the test as they struggle to cope with scenarios they never expected and to make the best of their new lives. Brodt takes a common trope and freshens it up with realistic details. Whats starts out as a formulaic plot device evolves into a strong story about appreciating friends and family and making good choices. The alternating chapters with each girl’s perspectives gave each chapter a distinctive voice.

* Review published in the September 2018 issue of School Library Journal on page 102.

Second Star by JM Sullivan

Peter Pan is reconceptualized in this futuristic space fantasy with rogue Captain Hooke crash landing on the mysterious planet Neverland as his crew was mutinying. Ace mechanic Peter and his motley group of deserters take refuge away from the main ship and settle into life away from the devious captain. One hundred years in the future, the Londonierre Brigade receives a transmission from Hooke, and newly appointed Captain Wendy Darling leads her own crew across space to rescue the survivors of the Jolly Rodger. Once they arrive, loyalties are tested and the two crews fight an evil that could consume the universe.

Alternating chapters between Peter and Wendy’s point-of-view establish the character’s backstories, however, the world-building is slow before the story begins to gain momentum in the last half of the book.  Author JM Sullivan works mightily to stay within the classic story’s framework, but sometimes to the detriment of the story. A cliff-hanger sets up the narrative for a sequel, which might allow the series to evolve as it won’t need to hew so closely to the original fairytale.

*The review can be found online here.

All The Walls of Belfast by Sarah Carlson

American teen Fiona travels to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to reunite with her father whom she has not seen since she was a toddler. Having no memories of her older half brothers or her birthplace, Fiona tentatively begins to get to know her family and explores her culture and community. She discovers her Catholic father was formally a key member of the IRA and his bombs killed many people during The Troubles, a time when ethnonationalism led to violence between Catholics and Protestants. Fiona meets Danny, a Protestant who is studying for his school finals and wishes to join the British Army as a nurse against his gangster father’s wishes. The two begin to see one another, but their parents’ pasts threaten their relationship.

Alternating chapters between Fiona and Danny establish their family dynamics, and then allows the reader to root for them as their believable romance blossoms. Author Carlson creates an atmospheric narrative, explaining just enough of the current political and cultural landscape to understand how the walls running through Belfast still affect both communities on either side of it.  The story doesn’t shy away from showing gritty reality and dysfunctional families that are partly due to the conflicts that ended only fairly recently. This contemporary drama has an appealing romance and the nuanced story may push teens to think critically about religious and cultural differences, and ultimately about forgiveness.

 

Cheshire Crossing by Andy Weir and Sarah Andersen

Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Peter Pan’s Wendy are now teens and very misunderstood- no one else believed their wild stories, and they were diagnosed as delusional. However, the teachers at the boarding school Cheshire Crossing believe them and know that each one possesses amazing powers. When the girls’ fantasy worlds collide and Captain Hook and the Wicked Witch of the West band together, the three teens must harness their talents to save humanity. Weir, author of the sci-fi book The Martian, and Andersen known for her funny webcomic Sarah’s Scribbles, may seem an unlikely pair, but they pull it off admirably if not perfectly. The world-hopping is at times confusing and the character of Nanny is unnecessary. Several swear words and references to sex make the tale more appropriate for a YA audience, although the charming illustrations might attract younger readers. The art is appealing, with eye-catching details. A lovely red poppy motif appears throughout the narrative and Anderson uses bold colors to depict the fantasy realms. The epilogue hints that the girls’ adventures are not done, with another familiar villain ready to take center stage.

*Review published in the June 2019 issue of School Library Journal on page 86.

The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

Violet is an out-of-control NYC teen who is shipped off to her mother’s hometown in coastal Maine after her younger brother attempts suicide and her parents try to get a handle on both of their children’s problems. While living with her uncle, Violet is forced to volunteer at the aquarium in town. While there, she makes friends with some of the local teens and begins to research her family’s origins, with help from her new friends Orion and Liv. Supposedly her great-great-grandmother survived a shipwreck and was a founder of the community. Violet’s search for answers about her mysterious ancestor mirrors some of the journey she and her brother Sam are on.

Debut author Drake has created an authentic and romantic tale, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, that shows that life can be embraced again even after enduring a tragedy. Teen sexuality is respectfully addressed with a frankness that is welcomed. The realities of questioning yourself and the deep emotions that go with falling in love are ably displayed with the burgeoning relationship between Violet and Liv. Sibling bonds and the importance of family also balance out this narrative about battling grief and building bridges to a better tomorrow.

* The on-line review can be found here.

Scars Like Wings by Erin Stewart

Ava has endured soul-crushing tragedy- her parents and cousin perished in a house fire, leaving Ava the sole survivor but with terrible burns all over her body. One year late she is released from the hospital after enduring skin grafts and surgeries. Moving in with her aunt and uncle who are grieving the loss of their daughter, Ava is encouraged to go back to high school, but she resists knowing her considerable scars will make it hard to make friends. In a support group, she meets Piper, another burn survivor from her new school, and the two girls bond together while trying to navigate their new realities. Ava is encouraged to get involved with the school play, as she had loved singing and the drama department at her old school. But Ava has to endure the cruelties of some, while also discovering new allies and a resolve she never knew she had.

The research that debut author Stewart did to write such an insightful book about burn recovery is evident. She also capably showed how Ava and her aunt and uncle come together to form a new family unit despite crushing grief. Stewart also captures the highs and lows of teen friendship. An interesting facet of the friendship between Ava and Piper was the often unhealthy dynamic between the two and could push teens to explore where they would draw the line regarding boundaries between friends. Ava’s journey toward healing, both physically and mentally, is thought-provoking. Not all scars are evident to the eye, and this narrative will push readers to think deeply about empathy, hope, and resilience in the face of heartbreak.

*The online review can be found here.

I have another book review that I just submitted, so perhaps down the line, I’ll share again once I have several to post.

-Nancy

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