Yolk by Mary H. K. Choi

Yolk by Mary H. K. Choi (9781534446007)

Jayne has moved from her Texas hometown to New York City to attend design school. Her older sister, June, lives in New York City too, but the two haven’t spoken in years. Jayne has spent a lot of time partying in clubs and bars and sleeping with boys. Now she lives in a horrible tiny illegally sublet apartment without running water or heat, but with a roommate who won’t pay rent, occasionally sleeps with her, and then ignores her. When Jayne and June get back in touch with one another, Jayne finds out that her sister has cancer. Even more, June has taken on Jayne’s identity in order to use her insurance for the surgery she needs. Jayne finds herself loving her sister’s fancy and safe apartment and basically moving in with her. Jayne has her own issues to confront, including her relationship with food, her hatred of her body, and the way she binge eats. As the two sisters grow closer, the truth must be shared between them in order for them both to recover.

Choi has once again created a novel that lays her characters bare before the reader. Jayne is so caught up in her own tragic life story, that it startles her and the reader alike when she must face a true tragedy, her sister’s cancer diagnosis. As Jayne obsesses about her classes, her future career, her awful apartment, her horrible roommate, and her family, she avoids thinking about her eating disorder or facing it at all. Readers will see the evidence of her imbalanced relationship to food, but the extent of the problem is only steadily revealed as the layers are peeled away.

Jayne is a captivating character, full of so much self doubt and self hatred. Her story is full of unflinching honesty paired with the poignant truth of a family who has immigrated to the United States and stands to lose one another along the way. Jayne’s relationships with her mother and sister are so beautifully crafted, they ring with such truth that they are frightening. Choi’s writing is masterful throughout, capturing the tragic, beautiful story of growing up as a Korean-American immigrant.

Heartbreakingly true, riveting writing and stellar characters. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.

We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire by Joy McCullough

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We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire by Joy McCullough (9780525556053)

Em’s older sister was raped by another student at her college following a frat party. After reliving the trauma through the trial of her rapist, Em is incandescent with vindication when the jury finds the rapist guilty on all counts. Em has been an advocate for her sister through the process, becoming a social media figure in the #MeToo movement. Then the judge in the case rules that the rapist will serve no prison time. Once again Em’s entire family is thrown into chaos. Her sister must figure out how to continue going to school and where she can safely live. Her parents are fractured in their responses, smothering and avoiding. Em too must find a new way forward without the trial as her focus. Meanwhile, a clip of her after the trial saying she wants to learn “how to use a sword” has gone viral. As Em makes new friends over the summer, she learns to wield that sword both literally and figuratively as she discovers the life of a fifteenth-century French noblewoman who is a legendary figure who took justice into her own hands and at the point of her own sword.

McCullough’s writing here is just as fine as that of her debut novel Blood Water Paint. She writes such strong young women who deal with rape and derision and yet find a way to fight back in their own personal ways. For Em, her writing is a tool that allows her to cope. She gets caught up in the legend of Marguerite de Bressieux, writing at length, sharing it usually with a new friend who understands her need to stand up and be heard. Em’s writing is included in the book in verse, pairing beautifully with the prose and offering illuminated images alongside some of the poems.

Intelligent and raging, this book deeply looks at the impact of a rape on the survivor and her family. It’s interesting to have Em as the main character, a sister who feels powerless much of the time and must reclaim along with her sister what has been lost to the legal process and its clear biases. It is a look also at the power of art to express fury as well as hope.

Stunning, raw and gorgeous. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy provided by Dutton Books for Young Readers.

The Project by Courtney Summers

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The Project by Courtney Summers (9781250105738)

Lo is a survivor. She was born premature but lived, and she survived the car crash that killed her parents. Her sister, Bea, was always there until after their parents died. Then she disappeared into The Unity Project, leaving Lo with their great-aunt. Now Lo works as an assistant at a magazine, determined to become a writer. She knows there is more happening at The Unity Project than their public face of good deeds for the local community shows. Recognized by a young man at the subway who then killed himself, Lo discovers that he was part of The Unity Project too and that his father believes the Project killed him. Now Lo may have the opportunity to finally uncover what is actually happening at the Project, but as she gets closer to the truth, it may be too much for her to withstand.

Summers follows up her bestseller Sadie with this twisting, mind-bending novel. It is a slow burn of a book, steadily building toward the terrible truth that the reader can only suspect and guess at. Lo, with her physical and mental scars from the accident, is tragically lonely in her life and literally alone. She makes the ideal protagonist for a psychological thriller and also the perfect victim for a cult.

Teens who have followed the NXIVM cult news will recognize elements of that cult in this one. The book steadily tightens the noose around Lo while revealing Bea’s personal experience in the cult years earlier. From idyllic love to control to brutality and abuse, the mental anguish is intense. It is a book full of turns and twists, lies and prophesies, love and survival.

Amazingly raw and gripping, this tense novel is dizzying. Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Wednesday Books.

Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (9781984815682)

Della has always been taken care of by her older sister, Suki. The two of them stayed together after their mother went to prison and they moved in with her mother’s boyfriend. That boyfriend did something horrible to Della, so the sisters fled. Now they are in foster care together, being really taken care of for the first time in their lives. Suki has always been Della’s protector so what happens when Suki suddenly is the one who needs help and caring for? Della is willing to talk in court about what happened to her, but Suki wants to be silent. Della is good at being loud, sometimes being too loud or swearing in class. It’s time for Della to use her voice to stand up for what they both need, but also to listen to her sister in a new way too.

This book is seriously one of the best of the year. Period. Written by an author who is consistently impressive, this is a book that is stunningly good. Bradley gives a voice to those who have experienced child abuse, showing them that they are more than the abuse, more than that trauma. It is a book that doesn’t duck what happened to these sisters, but builds towards the awful truth, warning readers that it is coming and then dealing with it when it happens. It removes the stigma of the trauma in a way that is full of compassion and empathy, giving space for assault and for the recovery from it.

Bradley’s writing is exceptional. She does so much with the voice of Della, making her both a clarion call to be heard and listened to, but also giving her a realistic vocabulary of swear words and a way to deal with them in a book for children. This book is beyond impressive. It is important and vital: a book to be shared with children and adults, an example of what children’s literature can be at its highest level.

Bravo! One of the best of the year, if not one of the best of all time. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from library copy.

Twins by Varian Johnson

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Twins by Varian Johnson, illustrated by Shannon Wright (9781338236132)

Maureen and Francine are twins who have always been in the same classes, participated in the same activities and had the same group of friends. But sixth grade is different. The girls are in different classes and don’t even spend a lot of time together after school any more. Maureen finds herself hanging out with their friends at the mall but not with Francine, who’d rather be called Fran now. Maureen is struggling with marching for the cadet troop she is part of, so in order get extra credit for her grade, she is encouraged to run for a class office. Fran too is planning to run for president. So the battle grounds are set when Maureen decides to run for president too to prove that she can be just as brave and outgoing as Fran. The problem is that she might not be after all!

In this graphic novel, Johnson, himself a twin, captures the dynamics of close siblings perfectly. The two sisters go back and forth between adoration, supportiveness, strife and anger. It makes for a dynamic book that really looks at the differences between twins, the way feelings get hurt and how that can play out in larger decisions. That difference between the two girls is explored throughout the book, giving it layers and eventually showing how differences can make them both stronger for each other too.

I reviewed this from an unfinished galley, so my copy did not have full-color images throughout. The art throughout the graphic novel shows the relationship between the two girls and their emotions clearly. The pages are filled with diverse characters.

Sure to be popular, this graphic novel appears light but has lots of depth to explore about sisterhood. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

Robobaby by David Wiesner

Robobaby by David Wiesner

Robobaby by David Wiesner (9780544987319)

In a world of robots, a family gets a new delivery. Cathode has gotten a new baby brother called Flange. The baby comes in a box, advertising it as a new model. Quickly, Cathode’s parents start to assemble the new baby, but it seems that babies have gotten more complex since Cathode was assembled. The parents call on an uncle to come and lend a hand in building Flange. Though Cathode offers to help, she is pushed to the side as Uncle Manny starts to work. But he doesn’t follow the directions and with some “improvements” and a lack of software updates, it all goes wrong. With help from her dog, Cathode steps in, follows the directions, and does the software updates. Finally, there is a newly assembled baby in the family. But wait, there might be another surprise for this family!

Wiesner has won multiple Caldecott Awards and Honors. This picture book is a bit of a departure from his more serious books, offering a merry look at a robotic land where families are much the same as they are now. Cathode is a great character, undaunted by being ignored and willing to make her own choices. The text is strictly speech bubbles, allowing the illustrations to shine and the pacing to be wonderfully brisk.

The illustrations are done in watercolors that glow on the page, filled with the light of robot eyes and a white glowing floor that lights everything. The comic book framing of the illustrations works well as the action picks up, offering glimpses of what is about to go wrong before it actually does.

An engaging look at robots, STEM and sisterhood. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Clarion Books.

The Sisters of Straygarden Place by Hayley Chewins

The Sisters of Straygarden Place cover image

The Sisters of Straygarden Place by Hayley Chewins (9781536212273)

Mayhap lives with her two sisters in Straygarden Place, a magical mansion that caters to all of their needs. The house feeds them, tucks them into bed at night, and gives them anything they wish for. But the house can’t bring back their parents, who disappeared into the tall silver grass that surrounds the house seven years ago. Now Winnow, the oldest of the sisters, has entered the grass herself. When she returns, she is different: her eyes are turning silver and she is unable to speak. Mayhap in particular seems to upset Winnow, so Pavonine, the youngest cares for her. Meanwhile, Mayhap is determined to figure out how to save her sister. She encounters a mysterious other girl in the house, one who claims to have been there a long time and who is connected with the house. As Mayhap begins to unravel the mystery of the house, she must face the truth about herself and her sisters and what has been stolen from them all.

Chewins has created a delicious mystery here. It’s a marvelously constricted mystery, set in a house that no one dares leave, surrounded by sentient grass, and filled with strange contraptions, rules and delights. It’s the ideal book for a pandemic lockdown, sharing much of the qualities of our lives over the past few months. Chewins has created a truly eerie setting, the grass whispering at the windows and the house revealing spaces that the girls never knew existed. The clues are glimpses into their own past as well as that of the house itself.

The entire book is filled with marvelous details. There are the dogs who climb into the girls’ heads so that they can sleep. There are the carpets that thicken to provide padding or move to carry Mayhap to a new part of the house. There are delightful meals provided by the house, that can be clues as well. And a coffee-scented library that makes one want to linger with the living card catalog. Mayhap herself is a grand heroine, willing to sacrifice herself for her sisters and determined to understand what is actually happening to them all.

A genre-breaking book that is a fantasy-mystery with Victorian delights and horrors that will enter your dreams. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick.

The Daughters of Ys by M. T. Anderson

Daughters of Ys by M. T. Anderson

The Daughters of Ys by M. T. Anderson, illustrated by Jo Rioux (9781626728783)

Based on a Briton folktale, this graphic novel takes us to the fantasy world of Ys. There, two sisters grow up together in a castle crafted by their mother at the edge of the sea. The two sisters each have elements of their mother’s personality, but when their mother dies the two drift apart. Rozenn, the eldest and heir, is most comfortable out on the moors with the animals. Dahut though enjoys the castle and figures out how to control the sea monster that protects their city from attacks from the sea. Dahut must make dark choices to keep her power flowing, something she resents as Rozenn spends her time away from court. When that darkness attacks Ys, secrets are revealed and battles waged.

Intriguing and fascinating, this graphic novel is marvelously dark and twisted. Anderson focuses on the two sisters, leaving the weak king to his own devices. The two are very different, one abandoning her station and the crown while the other sacrificed herself to keep Ys vibrant and safe. At the same time, Rozenn remains the pure and natural one while Dahut must do the dirty work of power. The question of who is the heroine of the book is haunting.

The art is equally unique, moving from brightness to almost murky underwater colors. The illustrations follow the story perfectly, becoming almost oppressive as the choices made come back to challenge both sisters. The two sisters on the page are depicted very differently too, showing one beautiful but plainly adorned while the other wears finery and jewels.

Rich, dramatic and wild. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by First Second.

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon (9781534449671)

Yolanda’s family has lived on the pecan farm for generations, but they aren’t accepted by the townsfolks who call the brujas, or witches. Yolanda herself seems to have not gotten a magical gift though. Her younger sister has hers, with bees flying around her head and the ability to make plants grow and flower. It’s similar to her Wela’s gift with butterflies. Now though, Yolanda’s family is dwindling with only her sister and grandmother left. As her grandmother falls into a strange sleep, Yolanda sets out on a journey across their property. Joining her is her ex-best friend, her sister whom she also isn’t really speaking to, and a boy who may have a big crush on Yolanda. The grass has magically grown over the last few days, obstructing the view across their land, lengthening the journey to several days rather than hours, and putting real dangers in their path. They must all work together, Wela included, to complete the journey and find the answers to their family puzzle.

Impossible to summarize in any way that makes sense, this novel is a marvel of natural magic, connection to a place, and an in-depth exploration of a family. The connection to nature is evident throughout the novel both in the way that characters can work their magic with insects and plants but also through the grass that grows and the way the land stretches to create a world to explore. Throughout the book there is an intensity, a focus that allows the strange world to become solid and real.

A large part of that intensity is Yolanda herself, a character who holds grudges and demands to walk her own path, even if it’s foolish. She has lost contact with the people she had been closest to in the world, her best friend and sister, and had also lost connection with her grandfather before his death. The journey is just as much about her finding a way back to these people as it is about solving the larger family puzzle.

Strange and unique, this magical realism novel is an enticing summer read. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from copy provided by McElderry Books.