Sunday, September 24, 2017

Posted by John David Anderson

"It will be awkward at first, but it gets better. You find your people and you make your tribe and you protect each other. From the wolves."
"That's middle school?" I asked her.
She gave me a sad kind of smile. "That's just life," she said.  (13)

Posted is the story of DeeDee, Bench, Wolf, and Frost, the four-friend tribe who have found each other amongst the chaos and awkward that is middle school, specifically Branton Middle School. After an incident that led to the banning of cell-phones, sticky notes became the mode of communication first among their friends, but soon the whole school caught the trend. Notes appeared on their lockers, on doorways, in the bathrooms - and what started off as just notes became vicious. 

As if that wasn't enough, a new arrival, Rose, shifted the balance the group previously had. A girl? In their group? And one as unique as Rose at that? 

Middle school is a minefield. Deciding who to like and not like and who to follow and who to ignore completely. Worrying that you're going to trip while walking down the hall and sprawl all over the floor like a beached starfish. Wondering if you should raise your hand when the teacher asks the hard question and risk exposing your nerdiness for the sake of a few bonus points. Taking every sideways glance as a message, trying to crack the code. Every day you're bound to do something that gets you noticed by the wrong people. Every day you're bound to step somewhere you shouldn't. (99)

This story is a sweet one about belonging - what you do to fit in, stand up, and who your true friends really are in the end. 

“We were back-to-school shopping - gathering the instruments of torture that my teachers would use to slowly bore me to death over the next nine months. I was nervous... It wasn’t that the classes would get harder, or that I would get lost in the labyrinth of halls, or that I might forget my combination and look derpy just standing there, aimlessly spinning the lock, though these thoughts crossed my mind more than twice. No. What scared me most was lunch.” (10-11) 

A great one to add to your upper elementary or middle school classroom library! Also a great one to read as an educator because goodness does this put you right back in the angst of middle-school consciousness! 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Book Stacks: Long Weekend Reads

  Ah, long weekends! Sleeping in, lazy afternoons in the sun, and losing track of time with a good book. And reading so much you save the blogging for later. Here are four books I devoured last weekend and cannot wait to get into the hands of children.

Patina, Jason Reynolds

"...That's kinda what running was to me. A way to shut people up. A way to... I guess, sometimes even shut myself up. Just turn it all off. Leave everything, all the hurting stuff, the unregular stuff that seemed regular to me, in the dust." 
The second in Reynolds' Track series - Patina follows another member of Ghosts' track team, Patina, or Patty. Dedicated "For those who've been passed the baton too young," Patina's volume honors so many young women who are expected to handle it all. Life's difficulties and raw struggles get handed to way too many kids to young, and Patty's story is no different. Patty has always helped with her younger sister Maddy, and especially now so since they live with their Aunt and Uncle and not her mom, who struggles with diabetes, or as she calls it, The Sugar. Patty's to do list centers on her sister, "Make sure Maddy's bathed. make sure Maddy's dressed. Make sure Maddy's fed. Everything." (13-14). Part of Patty's 'everything' is running. Patty has always been a skilled runner, and joining the Defenders, her running team lets her put some serious distance behind her. Fitting in on her track team has been way easier than her new school, Chester Academy, where she feels out of place amongst the rich, white prep school crowd. As there are challenges at home, at school, and at track - you will tear through the pages racing after Patty. 

Be the One: Six True Stories of Teens Overcoming Hardship with Hope, Bryon Pitts

"Healing can come from many places, but it starts and ends with you, the individual who finds the hero inside your own heart."
As a journalist for over 30 years, Bryon Pitts has heard and shared innumerable stories. This collection takes six young voices who answer the question - "How do you explain it, young people who face what seem like insurmountable odds and yet succeed?" (2) Pitts describes, "These are not bootstrap stories of young people who made it on their own. But rather, young people who endured when they had to, sought out others when they could, and managed to stay faithful to their dreams and ambitions when they could very easily have given up. More than survivors, they are overcomers" (4). From Tania Parker, who Pitts met at her charter school when she was eleven years old, to Pappy a teen refugee who fled Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and now works for a relief agency- each story will leave you humbled and inspired. As Pitts writes, "I wanted others... to know they are not alone and know that heroes come in all sizes and ages" (5).

I Am A Secret Service Agent: My Life Spent Protecting the President, Dan Emmett

"Before entering the room, I took a few seconds to think of my wife and family. I said a quick prayer to the effect that if called upon to kill... I would do so quickly and accurately, and President Clinton would live even if I did not. As my prayer ended, I was filled with a calm rage... no matter what, I would do my job to the best of my abilities."  
Dan Emmett served as a Secret Service agent for three presidents, President George H.W. Bush, President Bill Clinton, and President George W. Bush. In this incredible biography, Emmett catalogs his lifelong dream of being a secret service agent ever since seeing them in action when President Kennedy was assassinated. With gripping details, he shares the application process, training, and day-to-day life of various Secret Service assignments. Absolutely fascinating to see more of the inner workings of one of the most heralded agencies in the United States. I wish I could rewind and give this book to so many former students of mine. Step by step, you see what it took to even be selected for the Secret Service, and then all the other duties a Secret Service agent does before they even get close to guarding the President. This book will definitely be passed around quickly from student to student - incredible read!

How Dare the Sun Rise, Sandra Uwiringiyimana 

"I felt the metal barrel on my temple. I waited for the blast. In that moment, I thought it was all over." 
Sandra Uwiringiyimana's memoir How Dare the Sun Rise is an incredible portrait of bravery, survival, and strength. From the Democratic Republic of the Congo, at ten years old Sandra watched her mother and sister be shot by rebels who invaded their refugee camp, killing her sister. She escaped with other surviving family members and eventually resettled in Rochester, New York through the UN refugee program. However, life in the United States wasn't exactly what she envisioned either. Making a home somewhere new and unfamiliar, wrestling with scars of the past, trying to create a life somewhat resembling normal - it was not easy, "I had grown up in a war zone, but life in America, I realized was a different kind of war zone" (171). Sandra takes readers through her story with grace, insight, and a keen eye for justice. Her resilience is humbling, and her activism is inspiring. May we all do more to fight for what is right.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Falling in Love With Graphic Novels

While independent reading is always something I've advocated for and lived by in my classroom - graphic novels were sort of the awkward uncle of my library. I knew they were important to show the variety of text mediums, but my inner voice kept saying "come on, they're really not real books..." There were the notable few, Drowned City, and March that were my go-tos, but my knowledge of graphic novels pretty much stopped there.

So throughout my summer reading, I delved into some graphic novels and am happy to report - I am in love. And that weird voice in my head has been forever silenced. Here are a few of my favorite summer graphic novel reads!

Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

Real Friends is the story of Shannon navigating the complicated waters of friendship. From 2nd grade to middle school - making friends, losing friends - seeing friends go in and out of groups, and being in and out of “the group” herself. She discovers the difficulties of cliques and what true friendship looks like. An incredible memoir via the medium of a graphic novel - Hale & Pham have done an stunning job bringing this to life. The illustrations coupled with the narration and inner thoughts will leave you aching for Shannon and connecting to the greatest difficulties and deepest joys of friendship stories.

Just take a glimpse at one of my favorite (and yet so heart-wrenching) panels:

"I could see why Adrienne might want Jen as a best friend instead of me." 

Any upper elementary or middle school students truly could instantly connect to this story. We've all felt 'other' at some point, and this memoir recounts the ups and downs of that like no other.  What a great book to connect to other novels MG & YA dealing with discussions of friendship, loyalty, self-esteem, and so many other coming-of-age stories.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Book Review: Amina's Voice by Hena Khan

Amina's Voice is an exquisite middle grade novel. Amina, despite her incredible singing voice, and adoration of The Voice finds herself losing the right words both with her friends and her family as she navigates middle school.

Amina's best friend, Soojin, is changing in ways she never expected - she is considering changing her name when her Korean family becomes citizens. And Soojin has been hanging out with Emily, who used to make fun of both of them back in elementary school. Amina struggles to understand why her best friend is changing - and that brings her to question herself a lot too.

Amina faces more confusion when her uncle visits from Pakistan. When her Pakistani-American family believes doesn't seem to match her Uncle's beliefs - is she wrong to follow her heart and her voice?

And on top of all that, her mosque gets vandalized in the middle of the night - leaving her and her community shaken up and confused. How will this tragedy and these changes continue to impact her? Can she find her voice?

A novel that is sweet and touching - every reader will identify with Amina feeling like everything she used to know is just so far off normal. It's always hard to understand how life can change so quickly.

Amina's Voice also marks the hallmark publishing of Salaam Reads, Simon & Schuster's new Muslim youth imprint, which highlights just how powerful it is when a publishing company uses their voice to ensure a wide array of stories and perspectives are brought to the table.

"We need voices and positive characters that counter the negatives in the media," author Hena Khan shared in an interview with the Washington Post, On Khan's blog, she reflected before her book's release about her hope for Amina's Voice, "I hope reading about Amina, and seeing her as a friend, will help foster compassion and tolerance among children of all backgrounds and faiths. And I hope that stories like hers, will help create a generation of kids that will vaguely remember the events of today in the future and wonder how it was ever possible."

Beautiful book I cannot wait to get in the hands of children!

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Book Review: Solo by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess

"To hear him 


is to know

 his hurt 

is volcanic

 is to know

he is capable 

of loving..." 

I wish there was a pre-order service so I can just be charged for every book Kwame Alexander ever writes from now until forever :) Let's just say, Solo does not disappoint. And after Playbook, Crossover, and Booked, Solo brings a unique and wonderful vibe all its own. Still in Alexander's signature verse, but a bit heavier in subject than the previous few I've devoured, I'd lean this selection to my older middle school students and high schoolers.

Recap: Solo is the story of Blade Morrison, the 17-year-old son of a rockstar who just wants thing to be normal. His father is an addict and seems to get in the way of anything that could possibly be good for Blade, whether his high school graduation speech or his relationship with his girlfriend Chapel. Making things even worse, his sister, Storm, ends up sharing a long-kept family secret during a fight with Blade that shakes him to his core. Yearning for the truth, he seeks out his roots in Ghana and continues on his quest, solo, to understand who he is and who he wants to be. With many wise characters along the way, Robert, Joy, and Sia, the richness of this journey to understand yourself and how you fit into family is one so many can identify with. Being written in verse, with songs that Blade both writes and listens to (very Sheffield-esque), and text messages throughout - it all joins together to create this dynamic, fluid structure that is Blade's voice and Blade's story.

You'll definitely want this in your classroom!

A few more of the lines that make me fall in love with words and books all over again...

"She likes to get real close, eyelash close."

"Don't haiku me, Blade. I want an epic." 

"My family stands for too much and not enough.

Too much celebrity, not enough dignity."  

"We are the sum 

of moving parts

 and adjustable hearts." 


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Book Review: Undefeated by Steve Sheinkin

The books I end up learning the most from are the ones I never expected. Or should I say, under-expected?

Undefeated caught my eye earlier this year, more for the history than the sports connection, but because it was all about football... I kept moving other books in ahead of it on my to-read pile as I had the 'eh... sports...' reaction I tend to have around sports books. I figured I'd get to it later and then now it's July and goodness gracious, do I wish I'd opened it sooner!

Steve Sheinkin is a legend all his own, though I'm embarrassed to admit this is my first Sheinkin book. (I've now added all of his books to my Goodreads TBR list). WOW, is he a non-fiction writer to end non-fiction writing! MENTOR TEXT ALERT. The sources, narrative-esque storyline, graceful text splits, so many beautiful writerly moves!

OK - so now that I'm done word-vomiting and have confessed my sports reading problem, let's get to the good stuff - the book.

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team.

Why should you read this book? 

1. Have you ever heard, read, or seen in detail stories of how families were forcibly moved by U.S. troops? Not just numbers and stats, but actually a multi-generational family story of lineage and the wreckage U.S. troops and policy caused?

2. Can you imagine being schooled by a military leader in the army that conquered your family's lands?

3. Did you know that the most iconic football strategy and moves as we know it today came not from a big state school or private university, but from the innovations of a much smaller team, the Carlisle Indian School?

4. Have you ever been betrayed by a close friend, mentor, or ally?

5. Did you know that Olympic gold medals could be taken away, without cause for recourse even if done so unjustly? Did you know Jim Thorpe's were?

Undefeated tells a lot of stories - football stories, Carlisle stories, U.S. Government stories. It shares the joy of victory and the agony of defeat. It shares the pain of military and cultural attacks on Native American life. It shares the interconnected nature of many iconic historical figures and how they all individually impacted Thorpe's life and career.

But most importantly, Undefeated has a non-sugar-coated portrayal of  one slice of our shared history as Americans. It's not all neat and happy endings, and all people's stories deserve to be told. History doesn't always end with justice, but we need to see and learn from these examples so that the past does not continue to be prologue. In seeing such betrayal and pain, may we learn something from those who have come before us.

In the classroom, I'd say this novel would be great for 7th grade and up, possibly 6th - you'd know your kiddos best! Great as a whole-class mentor text for a non-fiction research novel, shared inquiry unit in LA or SS, and for book clubs/independent reading. Happy reading!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz

I am a HUGE fan of Kate Schatz. So when I spotted this now worldwide Rad Women book (don't know how I'd missed it!) I snatched it up immediately! Much like her previous bestseller, Rad American Women A-Z, which was on my favs list in 2015 - this brings the stories of so many women to light that we all should know! I love the interconnectedness that this worldwide approach brings, and I feel like I'm learning about so many women that should be household names (which begs the questions... why aren't they? and how do we get to that point?). Major thank you to Kate Schatz and incredible illustrator Miriam Klein Stahl (your papercut illustrations are beyond amazing!) for this beautiful second collection of Rad Women, please keep collaborating!

In approachable 1-2 page summaries, you'll learn the stories of 40 incredible women side-by-side their papercut illustration, and a notable quote from each of them highlighted. In the back too, is a list of 250 more women - can you say research project time? Or Volume 2, I hope? :)

While every single woman is pure heroine material - some of the most "What?!!" moments I had while reading this book to just give you a sampling of the amazingly Rad Women you'll meet -

Friday, July 7, 2017

Book Review: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

Y'ALL. I think we may be reaching a peak book-year here in 2017. The 2017 releases I've had the pleasure of reading thus far are not playing and majorly raising the MG/YA bar! 

When Dimple Met Rishi is just the latest 5+ star YA I've gotten my hands on and the sweetest coming of age/not-love-love story. So many things to LOVE about this book. You know how you know it's top shelf? I started this, cooked dinner (read this while waiting for things to pre-heat, boil, etc.), and was also able to read while video games, tv shows, and everything else was background for the evening- and lost zero focus! You will be enraptured that quickly and completely! And of course, stayed up past my bedtime book-goodness level to finish it in one sitting (so, so, so good!)!

Quick Summary: Dimple Shah is setting up for her perfect summer - post-high school graduation and waiting for college to start (she'll be heading to Stanford). She is looking forward to Insomnia Con 2017 - a web development conference/camp at a local college. She is from a conservative Indian family, and while she is a proud, independent young woman with her career (not marriage) on the brain, her mother emphasizes looks and marriage, and well, finding her that perfect match. Rishi Patel is her complete opposite - he is also from a traditional Indian family but cherishes those traditions. He's heading to MIT in the fall and excited that his parents have arranged for he and Dimple to meet at Insomnia Con. But what he doesn't know... is that she doesn't know about any of this, not him, not the arrangement, not anything. This darling story... well... you'll have to read to see just exactly how that plan works out :) 

From friendship to romance and heartbreak, career choices to religious choices, honoring tradition to modernizing values, from the moment coffee gets thrown to the final Insomnia Con awards - you will be up past your bedtime too! 

And I can't close without just talking about the writing. Menon has a gift and craft for YA unlike many voices in the genre - it is fresh, genuine, and sounds entirely like the conversation you hear in classrooms and in the hallways of school everyday. I'm lacking a word other than real, but for kids (8th grade+ I'd say) who are looking for that book to hook them, this very well may be it! 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Book Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone (ARC)

There are not enough stars in the galaxy to give to this book. Thank you Nic Stone & Crown for giving #bookodyssey the chance to preview an ARC (Release: Oct 2017). If only we could require common reading for, well, everyone! As moving as it is heartbreaking, as inspiring as it is tragic and rage-inducing, may this book help us grapple with the questions and answers we all must face, together.

Quick Summary: Dear Martin tells the story of Justyce, an All-American high-school teen on top of it all. He's kind, friendly, smart, and hard-working. An Atlanta prep-school student, he is looking forward to his Ivy League Future that he's worked so hard for. But after being handcuffed and punched by a cop while trying to help his ex-girlfriend get home safely - his world shifts. While he did get released, afterwards he started to notice all these things he hadn't before. He doesn't fit in in his mostly-white upper-class prep school, and also feels out of place in his old neighborhood. He starts journaling to Dr. Martin Luther King to process and try to live the way he thinks Dr. King would if in his place. As Justyce continues his day-to-day, from debates in school classes to off-campus parties, from decisions about girls to his family (mom) back home- Justyce tries to act as Dr. King would, but it gets harder and harder with each passing slight. After continued incidents with classmates, things escalate in an incident with an off-duty copy... and you'll have to read for the rest.

Without sharing too much (you need to pre-order this, yesterday) here's a few things that make this book so incredible: 
  • Nic Stone's opening Dear Reader note. I'm talking a full-page origin story. It's so rare for authors to disclose feelings of vulnerability - thanks to this added gift, I feel like I know Nic and the heart of this book so much closer before even beginning.

Book Review: Shadow Girl by Liana Liu (ARC)

Dear Reader,

Remember that fabulous #BookOdyssey I started telling you about? Well, it has brought even more gifts of ARCs to share with fellow #sisterhoodofthetravelingbooks educators round the country!

OK - so Shadow Girl by Liana Liu (Release: December 2017, you'll want to pre-order!).

Shadow Girl is the story of Mei, devoted daughter and hard-working student who just graduated high school. After being a camp counselor, babysitter, and tutor in previous years, she accepts a summer position to be a live-in academic tutor for Emma, the youngest daughter of the Morrison family. During the summer, the Morrison family lives at their house on Arrow Island, so with an offer for double her normal pay, a beach-side home with a pool, and her own room, Mei is soon saying goodbye to the city!

While it sounds like a dream set-up... is it really that great of a place? Why did the mother ask if she was superstitious? Why did she not get to meet Emma before she arrived? What really has happened on this island? In this house? To this family?

Some things I really love about this book (and I loved every single page!):

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Book Review: Pashmina by Nidhi Chanai (ARC)

I've recently joined a MG/YA tribe, #BookOdyssey, which among many other wonderful collaborative camaraderie - has granted me the opportunity to preview and visit with some wonderful ARCs!

The first of my #bookodyssey reads is thus the incredible Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani. I highly recommend you snatch this up when it's released October 3 (or pre-order!)

When it arrived I believe I squealed in delight as I eagerly dove right in! (My boyfriend could probably approximate the sound as he laughed and said, I know what you're doing tonight!).

Huge thank you to Gina from :01 First Second for the ARC and the sweet note! I can't wait to pass it on to fellow #BookOdyssey mates! #Sisterhoodofthetravelingbooks

Until then - here's what I want to share that I love most about Pashmina. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Couros Life Lessons Challenge: You Are What You Read

Earlier this month, George Couros (everyone's #EduCrush), posted a challenge on twitter to expand on some life lessons from the post "30 Things About Life Everyone Should Learn Before Turning 30." Having not hit the 30 benchmark yet, it was pleasant to realize some of this I have a good handle on, while others... definitely need some work. But hey, lifelong learning is life-long, right?

In going through the list, one has especially rung true for me in my path as an educator and as a woman finding her place in this world. Not shocking? It's about books :) 
2. You are what you read. If your body is a reflection of what you eat, then your mind is a reflection of what you read and study. Fill it with good stuff--not candy, like social media.
Now, after a long day, it's super easy to Netflix binge until you fall asleep, or scroll Facebook and Instagram wondering what you'd do if you got paid the salary of a normal (non-educator) adult - but really, what good is that? And I'd love to tell you a story about how I have such a great reading routine - how I read 30 minutes every night like my reading log suggests, but let's be real - it's messy! Some days I read nothing. Some days I read for a whole afternoon because I go to Barnes & Noble and forget I have other things to do once I start previewing an incredible book.
Whatever your reading story is, however and whenever you read - just know there is no one way to be a reader. If you think you aren't going to finish it anyway so what's the point (I definitely went through this post-college, so burned out I barely read anything not required of me for work)- Just read. How much you get through will shock you! I went from reading nothing to reading EVERYTHING because as you'll soon remember as you turn the pages - how else can you learn all of the incredible lessons our generation and so many others has to offer? 
There is nothing we are going through now that in some iteration, someone hasn't been through before. To summarize Tai Lopez's incredible Tedx talk - What if someone asked if you wanted to learn from all of history and the present era's greatest leaders, thinkers, writers, artists personally - of course you'd say yes! So the books that they write? Let's dig in. It doesn't all have to be professional reading. Heck, I've read the bachelorette's tell all (you've got to balance your reading diet too!). The main things is - the right book at the right time - magic. And books give is a uniquely accessible, poignant, and permanent wisdom unlike any other.

Need some motivation? Jump on Goodreads to track your reading & set a personal goal with the Goodreads Reading challenge! Already a voracious reader looking for more? Try the #sixtybooks challenge or the centurian if you're up for 100! There's something for everyone! 
So in the spirit of booklove, here are 11 of my non-YA, non-education reads, that have made me, me.  I hope you find wisdom in some of these - and please share yours! 

Grace Bonney's In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs
An incredible collection of over 100 leading women. A gift to women and men of all ages everywhere to see such an incredible array of accomplishments, brilliance, and creativity. It's having a room full of the 100+ most powerful creative and entrepreneurial forces in the palm of your hand.

Atul Gawande's Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
This one came at just the right time as I've struggled watching a dear family member decline in health. An interesting perspective to see a surgeon struggle with the line of medicine, and as he says, what truly matters in the end.

Dalai Lama & Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams' The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World 
Two world leaders, coming together for the Dalai Lama's birthday to write this book as a gift to the world. Yes, please! Takes the reader through their conversations about impediments to joy and tenants that create more joy through the stories of their lives, the context of their faiths, and experience of history. Such a gift to all of us.

Brene Brown's Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent & Lead
We all feel out of sorts at sometime or another. That we're not smart enough, or good enough, or adequate in some way - Brene Brown takes those voices of our conscience and brings them to the table to chat. 

Amanda Lovelace's The Princess Saves Herself in This One 
Fully a child of the Disney machine - this is a coming into your 20s-30s book if I ever saw one. Life is not a Disney movie, shine on anyway, you beautiful diamond!

Sebastian Junger's War
Must read for every American. After being embedded in an incredibly dangerous unit for 15 months - follow Junger in the day to day of modern warfare.

Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
I need to recognize for a second here my blindspot for far too long having the privileges afforded with being a white woman. This book is one of many that has shaped my understanding of systematic racism, discrimination, and structural inequities both historic and modern that have such immense consequences for us today.

Sherman Alexie's Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories
Sherman Alexie. Lots of him. Read every single one, love them even more.

Susan Cain's Quiet 
Game-changer. The power of quiet in a world that doesn't stop talking - YES. Can we make another called the Power of Reading in a world that doesn't read?

Mary Oliver's A Thousand Mornings
"For some things, there is no wrong season..." In a very difficult time, a friend sent me this collection. I now may own just about every Mary Oliver piece ever published.

Melody Warnick's This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place Where You Live
Moving nearly every year since college (average American moves 11.7 times in their lifetime), making a new place home is something I am very familiar with. But still, there's always that nagging "Where do I belong?" and "Should I put roots down if this isn't my forever spot?" feeling - Enter Melony Warnick, who moves often too - and her study of place and moving and home-going - it's like having coffee with a great friend and hearing all about her sabbatical.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Book Review: North of Happy

A Delightful Read
2 cups foodie
1 3/4 cup young love
12 ounces grief
3 slices of identity crisis
1 pinch of alpha-male jealousy
1 lake of bioluminescent plankton
2 plane tickets
2 tsp. fate

From the prologue's "The Perfect Taco" recipe, each chapter begins with a recipe to get your palate ready (structure reminiscent of Sheffield's Love is a Mix Tape, flipping food for the music).

We meet Carlos, who is a well-off teenager living in Mexico City (dual citizen of Mexico & the United States), getting ready to head off to college in the states and then return to his father's business. His older brother, Felix, has been estranged from the family as he made his own path, traveling the world. Their quest to find the perfect taco takes Carlos through all kinds of place he hasn't ever gone in Mexico City. A day of such joy with his brother unfortunately ends in tragedy.

As Carlos tries to cope with his brother's death, he forges his own path separating from his family's expectations, following his brother's guiding voice (while also being petrified of the fact that he's hearing & talking to his dead brother). He finds himself immersed in his passion (food) and meeting a new passion (Emma). When his worlds collide, Emma steadies him. But will their love last? Will he be successful in his new endeavor? Will he be able to stop hearing his brother's voice? Will he return to Mexico or stay in the States? Will he befall the same tragedy his brother's life was ended by? Read to find out! Such a sweet, charged read with incredible characters.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Book Review: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

This story is of Sal (Salvadore), a high school senior, will break your heart over and over. But it's worth it!

Sal and his friend Sam (best friends from forever) journey with Fito, another friend of Sal's as they both try to figure out and escape their present situations and plan for their future in college. Sal is adopted, but has long been beyond family to his adopted father, Vicente, and his extended Mexican-American family (and he's especially close to his grandmother, Mima). As Sal wonders what his 'bio' dad has imprinted on him, he struggles with figuring out how much of his identity is under his ability, versus how much 'nature' will takeover. Among his greatest fear is that he cannot control who he will become, that he carries the legacy of someone he doesn't even know as oppose to his father who has raised him all these years.

As YouTube vlogger perpetualpages shares in her review:

"I found this to be a powerful story about the families we make for ourselves and the families who claim us in return. It's about the beautiful sometimes messy ways that humans love each other, and about allowing yourself to walk the path you make for yourself." 

Of all the things to love in this book, the relationship between Sal and his adopted father Vicente is epic. In much the same way as Wonder, full of precepts and wise anecdotes, I would buy a book of just Vincente's advice. For instance, in one of the first fights Sal gets in, defending his father's honor - what does his father have to say in reply? "It's not a good idea to jump into the sewer to catch a rat." (14). All the dad expressions - "Sometimes I love you both so much that I can hardly bear it." (252). I just want to send a father of the year award his way.

Areas of immense depth in Inexplicable Logic:

Dealing with Hatred:
By Sexuality-
"My dad is a man. He has a name... So if you want to call him something, call him by his name. And he's not a f......" (9)
By Race & Ethnicity-
"I'm also a Mexican-American. I don't think that makes me a taco bender. I don't think that makes me a beaner. I don't think that makes me a spic. And I don't think that makes me an illegal."[Sal's Father] (21)

Learning How to Cope:
With Grief-
"Silent tears falling down both of their faces. The world had changed. And this new world was quiet and sad." (152) ; "I'd watched them all in their beautiful courage. I'd watched them as they struggled through their hurts and their wounds." (441)
Nature vs. Nurture -
"It was as if I, the Sal I knew, just went away and another Sal entered my body and took over... it all happened in an instant, like a flash of lightning, only... it was coming from somewhere inside me... that scared me." (9)

Learning How to Love: 
"We had to see people because sometimes the world made us invisible. So we had to make each other visible." (354)
"But my father... He'd tamed me with all the love that lived inside him."(15). 

"I didn't know how to tell her that I wasn't all those beautiful things she thought I was. That things were changing, and I could feel it but couldn't put it into words. I felt like a fraud." (58)

In summary: a read absolutely for the high school classroom - a must in every library and classroom! 

P.S. Worth the read and/or including in an author's craft lesson/text set- author interview on Entertainment Weekly where Sáenz explores more of the book's background and origin: 
 “A lot of people say that I don’t write plot, I just write people. But that really isn’t true. I just don’t hit you over the head with the plot. That’s all.”

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Book Review: Life in a Fishbowl by Len Vlahos

Life in a Fishbowl was a totally unexpected read for me. I'd seen it mentioned on a few 'must read' lists, but I started with lots of 'bleh, another Internet drama/reality TV drama book.' No offense to Vlahos, I just get skeptical of the 'oh-no-the-Internet!' YAs. Surprisingly, it was far more than that. While a bit jumbled with lots of moving pieces that I'm not sure always fit together, it was a fascinating read!

Summary: Jackie and Megan are two sisters, who like many, have their disagreements. For the most part, they put aside their drama when they find out their father (Jared) is dying of a brain tumor and has auctioned his life off to the highest bidder online to help leave his family with financial peace. While at first fearing the nefarious people who want to hunger-games-style fight-to-the-death/human-hunt with Jared, the reality TV show they end up with ($5 million deal) ends up having a whole slew of complications of its own. As Jackie and Megan band together with their mother (Deirdre), they learn who true allies are - and there are lots of bizarre subplots that somehow, while entirely outlandish, seem totally possible in this world Vlahos' created.

Overall: Interesting commentaries on Reality TV, Social Media, Right to Die Movements, Terminal Illnesses, Internet/Gaming Culture, Religious Institutions, Family, Privacy, Community - but it's almost as though too many things prevent you from really focusing in on any one area. Would be a great selection for readers loving high-energy, drama filled pieces.

"D, I'm going to die. No matter what we do, I'm going to die. Let's at least cash in." (98)

Twists of intrigue: (Spoilers coming... just a friendly warning)  

Book Review: The Playbook by Kwame Alexander

Kwame Alexander - how many awesome books can one person write, really? I hope a zillion, because I am so grateful for each new piece, and this one did not disappoint!

With photographs from Thai Neave (insta: shootinghoops), Kwame Alexander pairs inspirational quotes and anecdotes along his 52 rules in the book. While the number of rules make it sort of impossible to remember them all, the greater message you walk away with is belief - in hard work, persistence, grit and perseverance.

With powerful, inspiring content and a format that is airy, easy to access, and breathable - this book is a great piece for readers of any grade, I'd say probably especially grades 4-8, & beyond depending on the interest and reader.

Subdivided into sections: Warm-Up: The Rules, 1st Quarter: Grit, 2nd Quarter: Motivation, Halftime: Passion, 3rd Quarter: Focus, 4th Quarter: Teamwork and Resilience, & Overtime, each thematically plays back so well into the advice given in the poems, stories, and quotes along the way.

PS - One of the things I love most, not even related to the text, but the way Alexander publishes his books - they always have the most unique physical pieces that really make the whole experience of reading his books creatively minded from cover to cover - the textured lining paper - THE BEST. (It may be hard to see in the picture, but i promise you the little basketball-esque edges are indeed there) Such a nice tactile addition to run the theme in every sense possible!

"Champions Train. Chumps Complain" (9) 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Dear Starr, you are a brilliant, beautiful and incredible character the world is lucky to have cataloged through these pages. Your complexity as a young woman -- navigating socio-economic, racial, geographic, and gendered identity lines, spaces, and institutionalized, systematic, discriminatory power and privilege dynamics -- is everything the world needs to read. As Booklist noted in their review, The Hate U Give is "an inarguably important book that demands the widest possible readership."

Dear Angie Thomas, your genius and your craft is just other-worldly. As a debut novel - it's more than clear why 13 publishers fought for you! Undoubtedly you have millions of lifelong fans from this novel, myself included. I am at a loss to describe just how deep Starr's complex characterization runs and holds onto you as a reader. And her friends and family so vividly come to life with each line of dialogue and narration. As a reader, it's so cliche to say "I feel like I'm right there!" but REALLY, you are with Starr. You're with her in Garden Heights as she tries to prove herself 'cool' to Kenya's judging eyes. You're with Starr in her swanky school as she switches from Garden Heights to Williamson, traveling between her worlds in multiple aspects. You're with her as she is hurt by Hailey's ignorance and denial of her systematic privilege and racism, and with Starr as she struggles to figure out where her place is in the fight for justice for herself, her friends, and her community. #StarrforPresident

And my last set of notes I need to write - Dear Reader who has yet to read this book... honestly - just stop reading this and go get yourself a copy! OK, or maybe I suppose keep reading and then go get a copy. That works too. This novel - from the police shooting to all of the micro-aggressions, the divisions by class, race, and socio-economics - gang warfare, addiction, privilege and inequity, systematic oppression and discrimination - there is just so much in this novel, where to even begin.

Every page of this book holds brilliance- I just want to highlight a few of my favorite things!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Book Review: Here We Are: 44 Voices Write, Draw, and Speak About Feminism for the Real World - Edited by Kelly Jensen

"Feminists come in every shape, size, form and background. What unites feminists is the belief that every person, regardless of gender, class, education, race, sexuality, or ability - deserves equality. This is a movement about embracing differences and encouraging change that benefits all facets of society." 

So begins the introduction to this incredible anthology! From playlists (listening as I write now), comics, poetry, stories and more - this truly is intersectional feminism at its finest. While written for teens, the pieces really transcend age. Reading this book is what I imagine a non-sorority sorority could be (one without drama and hazing, just a true sisterhood where we all are working towards actual equality for all) - all in a book! I can just imagine the incredible possibility getting this in the hands of young women.

From memories of grandmothers and the histories of feminism - to modern stories of love, action, and finding feminism (whatever it means to that particular author) - this collection offers so many "Yes!" points it's unreal. To just give you a glimpse (go get yourself a copy!), some favorite lines I'm still sitting with:

1. "My reading rebellion may have taken place a long time ago, but it still feels relevant. It's not a silly pursuit to read beyond what's handed to you, to seek out new voices and leap over the usual books everyone's already talking about and see what you can find on your own... There is power in what we choose to consume as readers, and there is power in what we choose to amplify, celebrate, and share." -Nova Ren Suma, p. 199

2. "Feminism is about advocating for equality for all women, not just people you're comfortable with. It's about standing for people who are other than you, and amplifying their voices, instead of standing against them or speaking for them." - Rafe Posey, p. 69

3. "Daring to want something and going after it is a feminist act... When you're ambitious, you want to do something, and that very act reshapes the world." Shveta Thakrar, p. 175

4. "I like to think that my grandmother offered Millay's poems to me as a charge: to be bold, to speak my mind, to embrace my passions" -Malindo Lo, p. 5

5. "This is how you first learn what it is to be a girl. Soon, there'll be more incidents. Teachers in the halls, asking if you're sure you want to wear that to school, if you shouldn't go home and change."      -Sara McCarry, p. 123

6. "She has not yet taken 'no' for an answer from the world. But I know she is entering into this world. Adolescence and adulthood will try to steal that 'wide-openness' from her, and the world will tell her she can't do everything" - Matt Nathanson (about his daughter), p. 19

7. "Wherever you are right now, I promise you that someone else has been exactly there" Anne Theriault, p. 29

8. "Women are taught to measure [success] by the number on the scale. Men are taught to measure it by their accomplishments and achievements" -Lily Myers, p. 44

9. "Nothing about pain is likable.. If a character breaks the likability contract with some readers... she forfeits their sympathy and support... Are we telling them they have to hide their pain and act likable to be loved?" -Courtney Summers, p. 55-57

10. Judgments by Pomona Lake (p.71) - This photo says a million words.

Book Review: Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson

Y’all, every time I think the incredible suite of 2017 new releases just can’t get any better, they do. There is so much magic - can we all as a nation just take a breath, read a few books (or a zillion?), and then start up again?

I’ve read Renée Watson before, This Side of Home is one I love, and Piecing Me Together just blows it out of the water. So here’s the the setup for Piecing Me Together: Jade, a high school junior lives in Oakland with her mom and Uncle E.J. Jade is enrolled at a fancy prep school and takes the bus across the city every day. While many people try to reach out to her to invite her to all kinds of opportunities and programs, the “fixing” and “saving” ethos annoys her more than anything else. She does not want to be fixed, saved, or given more ‘opportunities’ - she just wants to be successful and reach her goal of college.

So when a counselor brings up a program, Woman to Woman, even though she doesn’t want one more ‘opportunity,’ she participates because this one comes with the carrot of free college after 2 year successful participation, and that is something she just cannot pass up.

Even though she feels out of place at school, this year she meets Sam, who also rides the bus - and while their friendship at times gets rocky, she soon learns much more about friendship than she first expected.

Jade's relationship with her Woman to Woman mentor, Maxine, also starts off rather rocky, but shows Jade a lot more about herself and what being an ‘adult’ and ‘making it’ truly means. Being in Woman to Woman, even thought at first she was skeptical, comes to be a great asset to Jade as the novel continues.

Without saying more more for spoiler's sake - let me just say I LOVE THIS BOOK. Y'all, a YA book with a female lead not being just about a love interest!!!!!!! We have a young woman who is finding her sense of identity, purpose, and community -  figuring out how to all of her pieces come together- worrying about things other than just boys? GASP. There are many things to love, but Renée Watson, thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving Jade more depth than YA affords most women.

Some favorite lines (trust me, you will not regret this read!):

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Book Review: The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera

I think my heart just might explode. There are so many INCREDIBLE YA books coming out in early 2017 - I keep thinking there's no way this streak of 5-star books can last and then BOOM. Lilliam Rivera's The Education of Margot Sanchez ups the game once again. Can I get a 10-star award?

OK - so here's the gist. Margot, who lives in Riverdale in the Bronx (she describes it as "rich adjacent" (34)), is from a Puerto Rican immigrant family. Her father operates two grocery stores in the Bronx, which she ends up working at for the summer because she charged a shopping spree on his credit card without permission. It's not like stealing is a norm for her - but now attending a fancier prep school, she's trying to survive and jump up the social ladder to make her home there, and fit into everyone's idea of what you should do, be, and look like (hence the shopping spree). Just as she was starting to fit in with the 'in crowd' and invited to spend her summer at the Hamptons with her prep school friends, she got caught while shopping for her new wardrobe. So now instead of scheming her way into this prep school world, she's stuck at her dad's store working to pay back her debts. A story of so many things, but primarily one of finding your way through all the complications and contradictions that life has to offer - she straddles a lot of difficult situations. Does she hang with the prep school boy that she thinks is her key to 'making it' or a new 'local' love interest? Old friends or new friends? Family or... going it alone? Her true self, or who everyone else thinks she should be?

SO MANY EMOTIONS. We feel you Margot. This story is about everything big picture, yet also the finest of details at the same time (which makes it such a page turner that you won't be able to put it down, really!). Strongly rooted in location, the setting primes the questions the novel inevitably poses about gentrification. Beautifully weaving Spanish and English, the language too symbolizes the choices she faces. And exploring issues of education, class, race, love, family, community, and belonging, this novel is a true bildungsroman - as Margot works to figure out who she is, who she once was, and who she wants to be.

This novel also fills my heart in a whole other kind of way as a reader and educator too on top of just being an amazing novel - LOVE having a Latina lead in YA! Diversity in publishing, among other industries, clearly has lots of work to do, and Rivera with this novel has added a beautiful novel to the YA cannon. The blog HelloGiggles called out the stats - noting that "According to the 2015 publishing statistics from the Cooperative Children's Book Center, only 2.4% of books portrayed Latinx characters." While universal themes will always create a common bond in every story no matter the background, I am so glad I'm following Margot Sanchez and no one else in this story. We need to do far better than 2.4%.

Their post quoted Rivera on the matter too: "We have an administration that is doing all they can to silence our voices and deport our families... They are desperate to dictate who gets to write this narrative, to tell the story, to make history. My story may be a coming-of-age story, but it is also a story about gentrification and assimilation. It is an American story and — regardless of who is currently in power — I believe there is a place for the novel, and for so many others, to be heard.”

I cannot wait to read more of Rivera's (she was beyond sweet to reply to my random tweets as I fan-girled and could find zero adequate words to describe my emotions), she shared while there are not plans for Margot P.II, more is in the works hopefully! So stay tuned - grab this one and look forward to more to come :)

Book Review: American Street by Ibi Zoboi

A FABULOUS debut - American Street will have you steeped in the magical realism of the a life at the crossroads of American Street and Joy Road in Detroit, Michigan. 

American Street is the story is of Fabiola Toussaint, a Haitian teen immigrating with her mother to reunite with family in Detroit. She is so hopeful for all that will be "American Street" but after her mother is detained by immigration, Fabiola is left to navigate solo. Living with her Aunt Jo and three cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess, she realizes it's really nothing like she thought it would be - and works to make a home in this new, unexpected place. Torn at times between loyalty to her new family and friends and her own mother - she learns American Street is not the golden ticket she once thought. Her new American life is layered in complexities she was in no way prepared for.

What makes this book magic is the voice, heart and soul Zoboi gifts Fabiola. She is a narrator grounded in her identity, and has a depth unlike many YA protagonists. While this novel is an immigrant story, the themes and questions Fabiola struggles with are of course universal. Love, Family, Belonging, Sense of Home, Racism, Sexism, Abuse, Trust, Right, Wrong, Justice, and the gray matter in between it all. 

The depth of Fabiola is informed by Zoboi's personal experiences, as she reflects in her author's note: "While working on American Street, I pulled from my own memories of living in between cultures, the experiences I had in high school, and the many tragic stories about violence and trauma that girls have endured. In Haiti, many girls dream of the freedom to live without the constraints of oppression. Yet more often than not, these girls and their families leave their home countries only to move to other broken and disenfranchised communities." 

Zoboi also notes inspiration for the novel from Rachel Jeantel, the daughter of a Haitian immigrant who was brought into the spotlight after the killing of Trayvon Martin, as he was on the phone with her at the time. Zoboi reflects on watching Jeantel testify during George Zimmerman's trial: 
"...I recognized a little bit of myself in Rachel, and in the many Haitian teen girls I've worked with over the years. We fold our immigrant selves into this veneer of what we think is African American girlhood... This tension between our inherited identity and our newly adopted selves filters into our relationships... and into how we interact with the broken places around us. I saw Fabiola in these girls, and that's how this story was truly born." 

The question that emanates through this novel seems to be the one Zoboi's mother also asked years ago, as she recalls a time on the L train where they saw someone steal a diamond ring off of a woman's finger, "We'd made it to the other side, just like Fabiola, but what was this life?

This book is a beautiful addition to any classroom. Age-wise, I'd say High School readers would be best. There is a sweet (at a few times steamy) love interest between Fabiola and a boy...  I'll leave that for you to discover when you read! Primarily I'd say HS readers because of some of the more abusive relationships in the book, as well as some drugs and violence. Ibi Zoboi actually wrote more about the complexity of the 'bad boy' love that makes its way into American Street - definitely worth the read!

In Summary: read it, read it, read it! And get it into your students' hands! And Ibi Zoboi, I cannot wait to read more of your work! 

Book Review: Strong is the New Pretty by Kate Parker

This book! As its subtitle perfectly captures, "A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves" - this is a mandatory book for anyone with a daughter, niece, god-daughter, classroom, library, (can you tell I love it?). 

The project was started by Kate Parker who is a professional photographer. She captures girls in the moment - not 'picture perfect' not 'still' not any of the adjectives you may associate with portrait photography. This book is a collection of those incredible photos, along with a quote from each girl alongside their photo.

The photos are organized into 9 categories with a brief intro by Parker, all themed around strength. The 9 chapters ring with fortitude, "Confident is Strong" (Chapter 1), "Wild is Strong," "Resilient is Strong," "Creative is Strong," "Determined is Strong," "Kind is Strong," "Fearless is Stong," "Joyful is Strong" and "Independent is Strong."

Each quote by these girls just makes you want to cheer. From the youngest to the oldest girls, they just are wise beyond their years.

Take for example, Emme, Age 7, captured up in the trees. "We weren't supposed to climb this high, but the view is better up here."

Magic. Pure magic y'all.

One of the things I love most about this collection is that it's so positive. We hear so much about negative images of girls and women (everywhere - TV, music videos, magazines, ads, etc.), and while that certainly is massive problem, instead of just complaining about it, let's replace some of these unrealistic images with real ones. And even better, let's give some awesome advice while we're at it. The photos are absolutely invaluable, but them quotes and advice on top of that? Even more magical.

Lesley, Age 18, sums it up pretty well, "Many girls grew up dreaming of a hero to save them. I grew up dreaming of becoming one."

All the feels and all the girlpower in this book.

Check out this fabulous video of Kate Parker explaining how the project started, and so many of her beautiful photographs! And get the book :)

Book Review: Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting it Done by Andrea Gonzales & Sophie Houser

I love memoirs. Seeing life paths, decisions and making a book-friendship by the end always leaves me feeling empowered as I carry these stories with me. Bringing to mind Randy Glasbergen's comic - the power of books as a way for people to "install new software into their brains" - Girl Code has my neurons firing from end to end.

Reading Andrea (Andy) and Sophie's story has me feeling all the typical memoir feelings a million times over. I wish I could go back and give this book to every young woman I've taught. I wish I could go back and teach this book each year. I wish I could be like Sweden and send a book to every 16-year-old student because I would send this one. There are so many important issues to tackle in our world, and this book highlights one corner of how we can do so.

While attending a Girls Who Code intensive, Andy and Sophie met and worked on their final project together. That project just happened to be the viral sensation Tampon Run. With coverage from Teen Vogue to the Today Show, they struck a nerve with people of all ages. Their book Girl Code takes you from just before they begin their summer coding intensive, sharing brief intros of themselves and their family and how they ended up at the intensive. They then weave the reader through their first lines of code, the successes and frustrations of learning their new skills, perks of the 'tech life' and collaborating with different partners and mentors. After presenting the game at their Girls Who Code graduation, they continued and launched the game online. The rest of the book is the 'after launch' story - the best and worst of the game getting so much attention, some great opportunities they've had subsequently and where they're headed as of now. Their story is such an inspiration for girls everywhere. It is so powerful to have this on the shelves in a bookstore -- representation matters. And we certainly need it in tech.

I was particularly struck with one of Sophie's reflections early on as she writes about when she first arrives to Girls Who Code, and takes in the all-female environment.
"As I stood there scanning the group, I realized that I had never once imagined a coder as a girl. I'm embarrassed to admit it now, but until that moment, my mental image of a coder was a young guy in a ratty Star Wars T-shirt and sweat-pants hunched over a large desktop int he corner of a room, headphones atop a greasy head of hair. I wondered why I had never pictured a girl... probably because I'd never seen a female coder before. I'd seen pictures of the founders of Google and Facebook and other major tech companies, but they were all men. I had watched movies and TV shows that depicted hackers, but they had all been men too." (25)

Andy and Sophie show us what happens when females are at the table. Their common bond being forged over feminist and socially minded action in their final project - turned into a game highlighting a social taboo  (periods! oh no!) and our de-sensitization to violence (killing in most video games with blood spatter, no problem! but periods? Step back now!). And this is just one project. Imagine the creativity that will continue to when we truly have both halves of the sky.

There are so many impressive, wonderful, and insightful things about this book. But I'm going to stop and let you read it and form your book friendships and girlcrushes. Because in the end, the power of books is in sharing your story so it can bring us all a little closer together. And I am so glad that Andy and Sophie have shared theirs!

(P.S. Take a few minutes to play Tampon Run, if there were more games like this, heck, I might be a gamer!)

Monday, February 27, 2017

Books Review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies & The Radius of Us

I don't want to short-change either of these beautiful pieces, but as I read them side by side, I think it may have been in the fates to not just read together, but review together. Both are new YA romances released in January - The Radius of Us (Jan 17) and Under Rose Tainted Skies (Jan 3) - and they both feature young female protagonists struggling with their own issues when in comes a love interest that turns it all around (give or take a few side plots). Now, part of me is withdrawn from falling deeply in love with either because of the semi-archetypal guy-meets-girl, nothing-else-matters, guy-fixes-girl plot line - but I think what makes these two pieces beautiful and worthwhile are the fresh characters and other themes and inclusive messages in these novels that keep these characters relatable, new, interesting and not just typical YA romance 'fixers.'

Let's start with The Radius Of Us. Written by Marie Marquardt, a self-described "author, college professor, and immigration advocate," this novel's characters are overflowing with voice, passion, and emotion. Her work as an immigration advocate, her purpose to connect using stories as a "powerful tool against the hate, fear, and misunderstanding that plague our society," emanates out of this novel.

Gretchen, who is still working to recover from being attacked late one night after work, suffers panic attacks and immense anxiety. This is why when she first sees Phoenix, an immigrant from El Salvador she bolts with her niece and nephew because from a distance he reminds her of her attacker. When she goes to find him to apologize, they end up hitting it off, and the rest of their romance will keep you winding through the pages of this novel. It alternates first-person point-of-view between Gretchen and Phoenix throughout the novel, which lets you in so close to the heart of these two. You soon learn Phoenix's radius becomes their shared radius that Gretchen keeps trying to help him expand. This as she learns (and the reader will as well) of the pitfalls of the United States immigration system and the risks former gang members face for trying to leave gangs and seek asylum. Phoenix also works to save his brother Ari, who he forced to flee with him into the US from El Salvador through Mexico and treacherous, scarring experiences along the way. Through many difficult experiences, memories, and conversations, the radius between Gretchen and Phoenix grows smaller as they fight their demons together, working to overcome every obstacle life has to throw their way. As Karin Greenberg wrote for School Library Journal, "VERDICT A must-have for all YA collections." :)

This brings us to the second selection, a debut novel from Louise Gornall, Under Rose-Tainted Skies. Norah, for the past several years has been struggling with agoraphobia, anxiety, and OCD. She dreams of going to study in Paris but can't make it out of her house on most days. Her life revolves around her mom and her therapist, and avoiding pretty much everything else. At times, even that bare minimum is too much. Then Luke, a new neighbor her age moves in next door. Intrigued, feeling things she has never felt before, she struggles to both navigate her feelings about him as well as pretending to be 'normal' around him. From the pits of the worst moments, "I can't help thinking it would be so much easier if we just didn't bother" (7), "This is not about dying. This is about trying to get back some control" (143), to the sweet young romance, "Then he smiles at me and I forget why I am frustrated" (51) - the friendship they form is sweet and heartfelt, and the lessons they learn from each other are as well as they both work to heal from their own pain. Gornall's writing is raw and you can almost hear and sense the humor she was gifting to Norah's character as she wrote. The glimpses into Norah we get really develop her character so deeply, but it still left me wanting more as far as the plot was concerned. I worry the message coming out of this book is more of the "a boy can help fix you" than "therapy and/or professional, certified counselors can." I think it's AWESOME to have more books even broaching the subject of mental illness to even be able to have the privilege to lodge that request! It's a great read, but just concerns me the depth of her struggles and what seems to be not really the amount of care she needs. Definitely a fresh voice in YA, and one I look forward to reading more from!

Cupid has really struck so far with these 2017 YA New Releases! Happy reading!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Book Review: City of Saints & Thieves

Just when you think you know what's happening... another clue has you at the edge of your seat. The brilliant writing of Natalie Anderson will keep you turning the pages until you learn along with the incredible protagonist of this novel, Tina, exactly what happened to her mother.

Here's the gist - Tina is part of the Goondas, the local gang that she's worked with as a skilled thief since her mother was murdered. Kiki, Tina's little sister, is safe in a boarding school, mostly insulated from the life Tina leads on the streets. Tina and her mother originally came to Kenya as refugees from Congo. Tina's mother worked as a maid for Mr. Greyhill in the Ring, the rich, security-guarded part of Sangui City until her tragic murder. Since then, Tina has scraped by and focused on one goal - survival and justice for her mother. When the opportunity arises to rob Mr. Greyhill's estate is where the adventure truly begins. Everything she thought she knew comes into question about Mr. Greyhill, her mother, her family and her past - and you'll be hooked through the twists and turns of Tina's journey. Her determination, strength and pure grit makes her unlike any other YA protagonist I've seen.

She takes you through her story narrating through her 'rules' of theiving:
Rule 2: Trust no one. Or if you must, trust them like you'd trust a street dog around fresh meat. (7)

And the glimpses Anderson's narration gives into Tina's deeper levels are just effortless - it feels so natural:
I got better and better at thievery, moving on to actually stealing cash, jewelry, electronics. And soon, when I was creeping into a dark shop or a merchant's plush home, or bumping with choreographed precision through a crowd toward a mark, I found that I was more myself than at any other time. I was a new person. A thief. Solid, strong. Unbroken. (121) 

Themes emerge far beyond the bonds of family strength - this novel deals with the horrors of war crimes, assault, abuse, extortion, ethics and rules of conflict, refugees, revenge, socio-economic disparity, racism, and beyond. Much of this is brought by gentle comparisons and contrasts that leave all the What if's and If I knew then what I know now moments of wisdom for such a young character:

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Book Review: Watched

I'm watched.
There's a streetlight near my parent's store, and I hear the click, a shutter snapping as I round the corner. My gaze swivels up, but there's nothing. Just a white-eyed orb, a lamp, ticking. The dim sky floating behind. I shiver, tell myself it's all in my head. Nothing.
Click. Click. (5)

So begins Marina Budhos' brilliant novel Watched. This piece, published in September 2016, came on my radar after recently being selected as an Honoree Book for The Walter, or Walter Dean Myers Award. It could not be more relevant for our current climate.

Watched tells the story of Naeem, his father Abba, step-mother Amma, and step-brother Zahir - along with friends and extended family along the way making their path as immigrants to the United States. Naeem's father immigrated from Bangladesh and operates a store in Jackson Heights, New York City. Naeem joined him when he was ten after living with family back home for most of his childhood. Now a teen and navigating his way through the world - he faces the reality of surveillance and profiling in the post 9/11 world. Trying on different identities, he molds into various aspects of his surroundings, "no one thought I was Bangladeshi anyway. Some of the guys on the street called me Nino instead of Naeem..." (24). He runs the streets and thrives on the energy of the city, constantly moving as a way of survival, "We're both the same that way. We like to move. We don't stay long enough to say what hurts" (31).

All of his conflicting future visions stop short after getting caught with weed in his bag and his friend's stolen merchandise. He's presented with a few options by the cops, basically - do the time, or become a 'watcher.' What cops market to him as a career in intelligence, he soon realizes may not be optional: 

At that moment, I realize this isn't a choice. not really. If I say no, I'm back to the station house, where I'm just another Queens kid with goofy ears and a lousy high school transcript, pressing thumbs on ink... I'm the failure son, calling Abba, his face worse than before, lines of grief running down his cheeks. Amma in the back of the store, silently crying. (81)