The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf

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The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf (9780593302279)

Aniyah and her brother are new in the foster-care system. At ten-years-old, Aniyah grew up in a family where they worked hard to placate her father’s temper and eventually hid from him with her mother and little brother. Now her mother is gone, but Aniyah knows she isn’t gone forever. When Aniyah hears that a new star has been found in the sky, she knows that it is her mother transformed. But the international contest to name the star will get it wrong! Aniyah, her brother and two of the other foster kids in the house set out on a wild Halloween-night journey to London and the Royal Observatory to make sure that the star is named after Aniyah’s mother after all.

This is the second book by the author of the award-winning The Boy at the Back of the Class. It is a story of familial abuse and terror, but told through the eyes of a ten-year-old whose mother tried to shelter her from what was actually happening. Aniyah has stories built around all of the noises she heard, from “moving furniture” to “playing hide and seek.” It makes the truth of the matter all the more haunting for readers who will understand what happened to Aniyah’s mother long before the character does.

It creates a deep tenderness between the reader and the main protagonist. Aniyah and her little brother are voices of pure innocence in the book, accompanied by other children who have been warned not to reveal the truth to her. Their lengthy experience in foster care contrasts profoundly with Aniyah’s demonstrating to the reader how special their foster mother is and how traumatic many of the children’s lives are.

A fine weaving of grief, innocence and trauma. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel by Jason Reynolds

Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel by Jason Reynolds, art by Danica Novgorodoff (9781534444959)

The original verse novel by Reynolds won many awards, including a Newbery Honor, Printz Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor. I was hesitant to take a look at the graphic novel version of the book, wondering how it could work. While the graphic novel does not improve the book (because how could it), instead it is like a new jazz version of the original, taking the story and transforming it into something similar but altogether different. This new graphic version is incredible, just as moving, tense and personal as the original.

Readers who may hesitate at picking up a verse novel will find this new version more approachable. Beautifully, Reynold’s wring is intact here, so many of his important lines and statements left to speak directly to the reader. Novgorodoff manages to transform the work with her art. She sweeps the pages with watercolor blues, fills violent parts with blood spattering red, highlights Will on his elevator journey through death and hope using color and light.

Amazing, transformative and fully in honor of the original work. Appropriate for ages 12-16.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

Cover image for These Violent Delights

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong (9781534457690)

This whirlwind of a novel is a grand retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Juliette Cai is in line to inherit the Scarlet Gang, one of the two gangs who rule 1920’s Shanghai. Juliette has spent the last few years in New York City, making her both a native of Shanghai but also partly an outsider. Upon her return to Shanghai, strange things start happening. A contagion is sweeping the city, causing those who catch it to tear out their own throats. Juliette is determined to figure out what is actually happening, a desire that causes her to have to work with her former lover, Roma, who is the heir to the White Flowers, the rival gang. After being brutally dumped by him, Juliette is wary of whether Roma is telling the truth. But when his own sister succumbs to the contagion, the two begin working together in earnest, encountering murder, death, monsters and much more.

This book is full of so much depth and such brilliant world building that it is nearly impossible to believe it’s a debut novel. Gong writes with real skill here, managing the pacing of the book beautifully, slowing it at appropriate times and allowing it to dash madly at others. The result is a book that sweeps up readers, offering them a glimpse of a fictional Shanghai that dazzles. Gong also riffs on the original very cleverly, not tying herself too tightly to Shakespeare but close enough that there are glimpses of that tale throughout the book.

The two main characters are marvelously driven and willing to kill people along the way. Gong does not soften the ongoing blood feud or what it has cost both Juliette and Roma. She also makes Juliette the one more likely to resort to direct violence, which is dynamite. The puzzle at the heart of the book is complicated and strange, leading directly to the next book in the series.

A dynamite first book in a dazzling fantasy series. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy provided by Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Accidental by Alex Richards

Accidental by Alex Richards

Accidental by Alex Richards (9781547603589)

Johanna lives with her maternal grandparents after her mother’s tragic death in a car accident when Johanna was a toddler. Now at age sixteen, she is starting to resent how dull and stifling her life is. Even worse, her grandparents don’t have any pictures of her mother out and never speak about her. So when Johanna gets contacted by her father for the first time, she decides to meet with him. He shares pictures of her mother, who looks like just like Johanna. More importantly, he shares the truth of how Joanna’s mother died, something that her grandparents lied to her about. As a toddler, Johanna found a gun in the house and accidentally shot and killed her mother. Now Johanna must find a way to cope with her grandparents’ lies, her relationship with her father, and her newfound guilt and responsibility around her mother’s death.

This timely novel deals with gun violence from a unique and fascinating perspective, that of an unsecured gun left to be found by a child. The novel wrestles with responsibility for the tragedy as well as the importance of truth to allow families to heal. Richards gives Johanna a robust support system that gives Johanna and the reader hope to move forward through the situation. The strain of discovering her own role in the tragedy is made worse by it being discovered by everyone at her school and online bullying.

Johanna is a strong and resilient protagonist navigating one of the most terrible situations. Richards doesn’t let up, putting her character through horrible times in the novel, revealing who truly loves her in the end but also showing Johanna’s incredible tenacity and growth along the way.

A gripping look at gun violence that is ultimately full of hope. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Kent State by Deborah Wiles

Kent State by Deborah Wiles

Kent State by Deborah Wiles (9781338356281)

Two-time National Book Award finalist Wiles takes a deep look at the Kent State shooting in 1970. Using oral histories and articles from the incident, Wiles writes a searing book that looks at the various viewpoints at play in 1970 in Kent, Ohio and the nation. Beginning a few days before the shooting, Wiles sets the stage and captures the tensions between the town, the college, and the National Guard. As the tragedy looms, the horror of the moment grows. Still, when the shooting happens in the book, though one knows what is about to occur, it is written with so much empathy that it is almost like learning about it for the first time.

Brace yourself for this one. Wiles doesn’t pull any punches here. She allows all of the voices to speak, almost a chorus of the times, speaking about the draft, the Vietnam War, the incredible pressures on college students, the attitudes of the town, and the expectations for the National Guard. Her writing is a dramatic mixture of poetic verse, social justice, historical quotes, and passion.

It is great to see Wiles also entwine the voices of Black students into her story. So often forgotten or assumed to be included, they speak with a clarion voice here, insisting on being heard. Even more importantly, their perspective draws a clear line between what happened in history and the shootings of Black Americans happening today.

Incredible writing and strong historical research make this much more than regular historical fiction. Appropriate for ages 13-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (9781481438254)

Released October 24, 2017.

When Will’s older brother Shawn is murdered in front of him, Will knows what he has to do. He follows the rules that Shawn taught him. No crying. No snitching. Get revenge. So Will gets a gun out of Shawn’s dresser in the room that they used to share and heads out of the apartment. But on his ride down to the lobby in the elevator, Will finds himself on a unique experience. On the sixth floor, Buck enters the elevator. Buck, who gave Shawn the gun that Will has in his pants waist. Buck, who had been killed. As the elevator continues down floor by floor, other dead people enter. There is the girl that Will saw killed when he was a child. There are family members who were killed. All of them followed the rules. All of them have a message for Will. All share Will’s story, but how will his story end?

This book is quite simply a masterpiece. Written in verse that captures the guilt, sadness and fear of all of the losses and the violence on the streets, the book sings a mournful cadence that gets into your blood. It’s a book that you can’t stop thinking about. One that asks far more questions than it answers, asking both Will and the reader about what they would do. Nothing presented here is simple or clear. It is all muddled, confusing, filled with grief and loss, revenge and pain.

It takes a great author to craft a story in an elevator. Write it in verse that soars, then tighten the experience to one room, one long ride into the future and choices that have to be made. The verse is exceptional, the voice of Will and his ghosts are a clarion call to peace and breaking the rules. But can Will hear them in time?

Moving and deep, this verse novel is one of the best. Get this into the hands of teens, particularly reluctant readers who will discover they love poetry after all. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

ARC provided by Simon & Schuster.

Be the Change by Arun Gandhi

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Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Evan Turk (InfoSoup)

Arun lives in a village with his grandfather. The purpose of life in the ashram was to work in service for one another. For Arun, that meant following his grandfather’s rules as well and the hardest for Arun was not to waste. One day, Arun grew tired of his vow not to waste and threw an almost worn out pencil away into the grass. When he asked for a new pencil that night, his grandfather said that he had had a fine pencil just that morning. He went on to explain that the thing of importance was not the pencil but Arun himself. So Arun set off after dark to find the pencil nub in the grass. Still, it would take more teachings from his grandfather for Arun to finally connect wasting nothing with nonviolence as Arun works to define what passive violence actually is.

In a lesson ideal for our time of large consumption and rude political discourse, this picture book is a gentle salve. It speaks of small moments of choice actually shaping our persona and our ideas. One small pencil nub is actually a decision to live without excess and without damaging others. The message is delivered through the curious eyes of a young boy who asks the questions that readers will also have. This is a lovely and accessible look at the teachings of Gandhi.

Turk’s illustrations are lush and patterned. He uses collage at times, fabric folds popping off the page. Gorgeous colors fill nature with purple trees, silver rimmed clouds, the glow of orange understanding after a darkness of shadow.

This second picture book about Grandfather Gandhi is a treat and offers opportunity for discussions about waste and care for others. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum.

 

The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

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The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis (InfoSoup)

Alex has never been the same since her older sister was murdered three years earlier. She finally started to feel something when her sister’s killer went free. Alex’s response to that was vengeance and murder and now Alex knows that she can’t ever leave the small town she has grown up in since it would not be safe for those around her. She just wants to go through the rest of her life with her head down and not be noticed. Inadvertently though, she starts to make a friend. Peekay, short for Preacher’s Kid, volunteers at the animal shelter with Alex and slowly they become friends. Peekay enjoys drinking and fooling around and brings Alex into a social group where she had never belonged before. Meanwhile, Jack is finding it impossible to keep Alex out of his head despite the attentions of another girl who uses him on the side of her own relationship. Still, Alex may have been better off isolated as her violence starts to emerge again.

Wowza. This book blew me away from the aspects of both content and writing. McGinnis writes with a beauty that is surprising and enticing. Her words capture emotions with an intensity that has the reader feeling them at a visceral level. Here is Alex in Chapter 11 describing losing her sister:

It swings from twine embedded so deeply that my aorta has grown around it. Blood pulses past rope in the chambers of my heart, dragging away tiny fibers until my whole body is suffused and pain is all I am and ever can be.

McGinnis keeps her writing filled with tension, desire, understanding and amazement. She recognizes the incredible need for connection that we have even as we destroy as well. This is humanity on the page in all of its complexity.

It is also feminism, a feminism that burns and blazes, one that looks beyond makeup and clothing to the women and girls underneath. It is a feminism that speaks to the anger inside that wants to fight and battle the darkness in society, the brutality against women and the dangers that surround girls. And because it speaks clearly to that anger, it is breathtaking in its audaciousness, in the actions that Alex takes, and the bravery and violence she embodies.

Violent and beautiful, this novel is about the complexities of being female and alive. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley received from HarperCollins and Edelweiss.

 

Review: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (InfoSoup)

Rashad is just minding his own business, getting chips after school, when he is suddenly accused of shoplifting after a white woman trips over him. He ends up being brutally beaten by the police officer in the store and has to be hospitalized. At the same time, Quinn is heading out to a party with his friends from school and witnesses the beating first hand. Quinn considers the officer involved and his younger brother close personal friends and struggles with what he has seen. A video of the incident goes viral and Rashad finds himself at the center of the Black Lives Matter discussion. Both Rashad and Quinn have to figure out whether they are willing to stand up for change and what that means for each of them.

I have heard incredible praise for this book and it is all completely true. Reynolds and Kiely tell their story in alternating chapters, each narrated by one of the two teens. The book is so strong, the voices of each of the narrators are distinct and clear. The book fights stereotypes over and over again. It is done with care and consideration, each choice that is made fights against what our culture believes to be true. It is done though with such certainty too that the reader doesn’t notice that the very structure of the story itself is part of its message.

This is a stunning read. The authors do not duck away from the complexity of the questions being asked, instead adding nuance in some instances. Rashad’s father is a police officer and the story of why he left the force will resonate and show just how insidious societal racism is even in the African-American community itself. The two main characters also face difficult decisions but very different ones. The book is difficult, challenging and vital.

This is a must-read book for teens. It would make a great platform for important discussions that need to continue in America. Brave, incredible and riveting. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from library copy.