Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt (9781452172880)
This verse novel takes a heartfelt look at a high school romance between two girls. Beginning with a fire being set, the book then takes readers back to the beginning as Kate and Tam first notice one another. Kate is a cheerleader with a perfect ponytail. She is angling to be squad captain, but when she agrees to fill in as mascot at the first few games, she discovers she loves being in costume and being funny. Her mother though has high expectations for Kate and isn’t amused. Tam is a tall volleyball player who moves through life being exactly who she is, never veering from that. Her mother is supportive and warm, sometimes too much so. When Kate and Tam admit what they feel for one another, it feels easy and simple, but it’s not for everyone else.
Holt’s verse is expertly written. She gives each of the main characters their own unique voice and feel. Their words at times dance and overlap with one another on the page, but the characters are distinct from one another always. Holt also adds in a Greek chorus of sorts, watching along with the reader and commenting on the story in just the right tone and verse. Holt gives the romance time to really grow, not jumping forward quickly to a full relationship, but allowing them time to linger in liking one another first. It’s a tender way to explore a new relationship on the page.
I love any LGBTQIA+ book for teens that allows love to win in the end. This book is full of hope, brimming with acceptance even as it explores having family members who don’t understand. It is not saccharine or sweet, offering clear reality but also managing to surround our protagonists with the support they need.
A book to cheer for! Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Chronicle Books.
Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman (9781512440003)
The author of As the Crow Flies returns with a queer western story that tells a different tale from the traditional male-focused guns-blazing westerns. This is the story of Flor, also known as the Ghost Hawk, a Latinx woman who steals from stagecoaches with the help of her trained hawk. On one of her heists, she takes a woman hostage looking for a ransom payout. But it turns out that Grace is not wealthy and many don’t understand that she is transgender. The two of them start talking and realize that Grace may be the key to one of Ghost Hawk’s biggest treasures, stealing some crucial documents from some rich confederates. Grace has a perfect Georgia accent, so all they need are some great dresses and plenty of courage.
I fell so hard for this thin graphic novel. I want to have the second book immediately so that I can continue to explore the West with these two amazing women. Gillman’s story is rich and masterful. She offers such empathy to her queer characters, many who are also secondary characters in the story and also pays homage to people of color in the West too. Her notes at the end of the book offer historical details for what she shows on the page, giving context to her characters.
Quite a ride! Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
Frankly in Love by David Yoon (9781984812209)
Frank Li’s parents expect him to date only Korean-American girls. They make racist comments about all other races, even though Frank’s best friend Q is black. So when Frank breaks the rules and starts dating Brit, a white girl, he has to come up with a cover story. That’s where Joy comes in, she is a fellow Korean-American also caught in her families rules and she is also dating a non-Korean. So the two of them create a system where they pretend to date one another while actually dating other people. It’s the perfect plan until it falls apart as Frank learns what love is. Meanwhile, Frank’s family faces health issues and violence. Frank realizes that while his family may never understand him, he loves and needs them in his life.
Yoon has created one of the hottest YA titles of the fall. To my delight, it’s popular for a reason. Yoon’s frank exploration of racism both societal and within one family is refreshingly honest, not ever ducking away from difficult and deep conversations. The interplay of that and other serious topics with an almost rom com escapade of fake dating makes for an intoxicating mix.
Frank Li (whose name is a delight) is a wonderful protagonist. He is immensely smart and not overly naive. His personal take on his heritage and culture grows and changes throughout the novel in an organic way. There are no easy answers offered here, no final moment of clarity. Instead it is all about growth and the ability to understand one another and find connection, even after it has been damaged or severed.
A great teen novel that is a marvelous mix of romance and depth. Appropriate for ages 13-18.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Putnam.
Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks (9781250312853)
Deja and Josie are completing their last night working at the Pumpkin Patch before they leave for college. The two have worked at the Succotash Hut together, perfecting the stirring technique. Josie has won most valuable employee every year but one and is definitely in the running again. He’s also had a huge crush on a girl who works at the pie stand, so it’s Deja’s mission on their last night to get him to actually speak to her for the first time. So the two of them leave the Succotash Hut and head out to find his crush. But it won’t be easy to find her and their quest takes them on a full tour of the Pumpkin Patch complete with delicious snacks like Freeto Pie, S’mores and candy apples.
These two very talented teen book creators have designed an amazing graphic novel together. They take the Midwestern pumpkin patch experience of corn mazes, picking pumpkins, and treats and turn it into a quest for love that is charming and enticing. It’s very rare to find a teen book that is this seasonal. When you read this one though, you can almost smell the cinnamon autumnal scents on a breeze.
The two main characters are wonderful. They have a clear chemistry on the page. Deja is bisexual, having dated several of the other workers at the Patch over the years. Josie is marvelously shy except with Deja with whom he really shows his personality. The entire book is a delight of a read thanks to these two characters who are such a joy to spend time with.
A tremendous graphic novel that I dare you not to “fall” for. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.
Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai (9780062229236)
Hang has lived with the fact that she was responsible for her little brother being taken away to American in the last days of the Vietnam War. She had hoped for them both to be taken together, but instead he was ripped screaming from her. Now, six years later, Hang has come to the United States herself and is determined to find her little brother by following the only clue she has, an address on a card. Not finding anyone at the address, Hang is helped by an urban cowboy, LeeRoy, who longs to ride in rodeos and follow his dreams. LeeRoy is quickly caught up in Hang’s quest and the two of them discover her brother with some lucky help along the way. But that is just the beginning of a summer spent laboring on a farm together, learning about the work of being a cowboy, and finding ways to connect their pasts and their present.
The first chapters of the this book and many of them throughout are so laced with pain and ache that readers will feel it in their own bones. Lai tells the story of Hang in bursts of memory, escaping from the tight hold Hang has over them. The reader and Hang are powerless as the searing memories escape, glimpses of the truth and eventually the full story of a girl strong enough to survive pirates, parasites, icy water, and war. Lai takes two very unlikely protagonists and creates a love story for them, one that captivates with its honesty and originality.
Hang is one of the most remarkable protagonists I have read in years. Far from being broken by her wartime trauma, she continues to fight back, literally at times. She is raw, sarcastic and not defined by her past, but still continuing to be haunted by what happened. She is complicated and so profoundly human. Lai made a brave and smart choice to write Hang’s accented English with Vietnamese typography, echoing Hang’s own notebook that tells her own English is pronounced. Readers will struggle along with Hang at first, but join LeeRoy in understanding her quickly.
Painful and traumatic, this book is filled with sweat, work and more than a little love. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperCollins.
Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali (9781534442726)
Zayneb keeps a diary with two types of things in it. There are marvels, something that is extraordinary and wonderful. Then there are oddities, which perplex, confuse or concern. Zayneb has always been someone willing to take on the world, something that gets her in trouble at times. So of course, she is the one willing to confront her racist teacher and ends up suspended and even pulling one of her classmates into trouble along with her. Zayneb ends up leaving for Doha, Qatar, to get an early start to her spring break. On the trip there, she meets Adam. Adam also does a marvels and oddities journal, but he is harboring a deep secret. He has recently been diagnosed with MS, the same disorder that took his mother’s life. Still, he is intrigued with Zayneb just as she is with him. While they are both Muslim, they don’t see life in the same way, though they are both busy putting on fronts for one another and not showing who they truly are.
Ali takes racism towards Muslims on in a very direct way. She shows microaggressions and other forms of aggression very effectively, demonstrating how each and every day as a girl wearing a hijab, Zayneb is subtly and directly attacked and questioned. But Ali doesn’t rest there, she also shows how to combat it, giving Zayneb tons of resilience and plenty of anger. Zayneb is a wonderful character because of the depth of her passion for being an activist and standing up for herself and for others. She is simply a kick-ass character. Adam on the other hand, is quieter and protective of those he loves in a different and gentler way. He too wrestles with questions and concerns, bearing the burden so as not to bother others until he can’t handle it alone any longer. He is a great foil for Zayneb’s character.
The city of Doha is also a character in the book. It comes alive with its markets and museums, public spaces and private homes. There is a beautiful sense of the city, one that none of the characters take for granted. It is not seen as a perfect place. Zayneb still has to confront overt racism there as well.
A romance that is strengthened by a focus on racism and a firm stance on being yourself. Appropriate for ages 13-18.
Reviewed from copy provided by Salaam Reads.
The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen (9781250191922)
Released July 30, 2019.
Fie is one of the Crow class, despised and ignored by all of the other classes. Denied the right to have a home other than the open road or any weapons to defend themselves with, they are hated because their class alone is immune to the plague. They serve to come into villages and homes, remove the plague dead and cleanse the space, firing up a funeral pyre away from town. So when Fie’s clan finds themselves caught up in royal court intrigue with the crown prince and his double, who faked their own deaths, Fie is not amused. The only people she cares about are her clan, so the two interlopers despite their charm, mean nothing to her. When an offer is made to save the Crows and give them protection though, Fie knows that she must make it truly stick and gets the prince himself to swear a Covenant oath on it. Now she just has to get them to safety in time before they are all killed.
Owen has woven an incredible world in her debut novel, which is the first in a series. I’m always impressed when an author can toss readers directly into the story with almost no exposition to help and it all works and makes sense. The world building is unique and fascinating, creating both a wide world to explore but also a microcosm of several people as they navigate their fractured and magical society. The magic too is interesting, using bones and teeth to create witchery is wonderfully gruesome and delightfully in keeping with the entire book’s themes. Particularly welcome is a deft use of LGBTQIA+ throughout the novel in the society and several characters.
The character of Fie is also compelling. She is a young woman haunted by the loss of her mother by killers on the open road. She has powers but they are in their infancy and her destiny is to become a chieftain among her people. She is armed with a biting sarcasm that lights up the story like flames, and a deep understanding of what is wrong with the world. Her connection with Tavin grows organically throughout the story and adds its own heat to the book.
A great new voice in YA fantasy, this novel is dark, bloody and compelling. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Henry Holt.
Laura Dean Keep Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (9781250312846)
Freddy is dating the most popular girl at school. She is exactly the person you want to date, pretty, sexy, charming, and makes you feel like the center of her world. Until you aren’t, which happens pretty often. Laura keeps on cheating on Freddy, breaking up with her, and then asking Freddy to get back together. Freddy knows that it’s not ideal and so do all of her friends. When the two girls break up again, Freddy’s best friend Doodle encourages her to see a medium (who is also a great dungeon master too) to get advice. The medium agrees with all of Freddy’s friends, break up with Laura Dean. But it’s not that easy and as their relationship heats up again, Freddy risks her friendships to continue to be with the intoxicating Laura Dean.
This graphic novel beautifully captures a captivating but toxic romantic and sexual relationship. Tamaki has created several brilliant characters who avoid any kind of stereotype and are written as individuals. In particular, I appreciated Doodle, one of the only teen characters I have seen in a novel that avoids using a cell phone. As a parent of this type of teen, it is refreshing to see a character do this so organically. Fans of Dungeons & Dragons or other tabletop gaming will love the DM as a medium and the use of gaming as a way to connect on multiple levels.
The art is a great complement to the story line. Filled with touches of pink, the art takes small moments and tiny focal points to tell a robust story. Just the images of Freddy’s shoes walking alone after a break up speak so beautifully of loneliness. The characters themselves are also vividly depicted in the art, from Freddy alone on her rumpled sheets to Doodle’s body language when she is being neglected.
An exceptional LGBTQ graphic novel that talks openly about toxicity in relationships and the importance of friendships. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo (9780062662835)
In her second novel, Acevedo cements her place as a master author for teen readers. Emoni’s life has not been easy, getting pregnant as a freshman in high school was not part of her plan. Now as a senior, her life is filled with work, caring for her daughter, and taking care of her Abuela. There is room too for her love of cooking, but not enough room for big dreams for her future. When a culinary class is offered for the first time at her school, Emoni hesitates to apply even though she longs to. The class includes a trip to Spain, which Emoni knows she will not be able to afford, nor could she leave her daughter or ask that of her grandmother. Still, she signs up for the class. It’s not easy, learning to not improvise in the kitchen but follow the rules and recipes. She can’t add the small touches that make her cooking magic. As Emoni opens herself up to new experiences, her life begins to open in other ways too, allowing herself to find romance and new connections.
In this novel, Acevedo gifts us with a story in prose where you can see her skill as a poet shining through often, taking words and making them dazzling. The fierceness of her first book is still here, with some of the short chapters taking on issues like racism and poverty. The entire work is such an incredible read. Emoni takes up a place in your heart and mind, insisting on being heard and believed.
The portrayal of a young mother who is ferociously caring and loving of her daughter, is something not seem often in our society. Emoni stands as a character speaking for women, a teen caring not only for her daughter but also standing alongside her grandmother as they care for one another. Throughout the book, there is a strong sense of community and extended family that are supportive of Emoni and her dreams.
A stellar and important read, let’s hope this one wins more awards and attention for Acevedo. Appropriate for ages 16-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperTeen.