Skylark

Angie lives in an old car with her brother and mother. Homeless after their father left to find work, the family struggles to stay together and live as normally as possible. It is difficult though. Between avoiding the police and finding new places to park each night, it is a constant struggle. When Angie discovers slam poetry, she finds a new way to express herself and find meaning and comfort in a confusing world.

Living in a car makes Angie’s life difficult and she tries to hide the fact that her family is homeless. Performing slam poetry gives her an outlet to explore her feelings. While performing, Angie meets several people her age. However, these relationships are superficial and add no depth to the story. For example, one boy continually glares at Angie, but the reason for his hostile behavior is never explained.

Through flashbacks, readers also get a look into Angie’s family life before her father left. While Angie’s father left to find work, Angie still wonders if he will ever return. Through Angie’s experiences, readers get a glimpse into the world of a homeless teen and her complicated family life. However, Angie’s poetry and the poetry slam are the main focus of the story. Because of this, readers who aren’t interested in poetry or language may find Skylark a difficult book to complete.

Written as a part of the Orca Soundings books, which are specifically written for teens, Skylark is an easy to read story that uses large text, short chapters, and a relatable protagonist to keep readers engaged. Despite this, Skylark is not a typical, fast-paced story, but instead, Angie’s thoughts are what drive the story. Readers who love delving into the inner thought of characters will enjoy Skylark. However, none of the supporting characters have any depth; instead, they are flat and add little to the story.

Because of the story’s slow pace and lack of dynamic characters Skylark is not for readers who love action and adventure. Even though the book shines a light on homelessness, readers interested in the topic may want to read books with more depth and character development such as Almost Home by Joan Bauer.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Angie’s mom gets injured, and her dad “got her painkillers from the drugstore and fed her a couple every few hours.”

Language

  • Crappy, hell, piss and ass are all used once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Horse Girl  

Wills is a seventh-grader who’s head-over-hoof for horses, and beyond excited when she gets the chance to start training at the prestigious Oakwood Riding Academy. But Amara—the queen of the #HorseGirls—and her posse, aren’t going to let the certifiably dork-tagious Wills trot her way into their club so easily. Between learning the reins of horse riding, dealing with her Air Force pilot mom being stationed thousands of miles from home, and keeping it together in front of (gasp!) Horse Boys, Wills learns that becoming a part of the #HorseGirl world isn’t easy. But with her rescue horse, Clyde, at her side, it sure will be fun.

Wills’s embarrassing father, sensitive sister, and the members of the riding academy combine to make her story relatable and humorous. Every preteen will understand Wills’s desire to make friends as well as the embarrassing moments Wills suffers through. While Horse Girl has plenty of funny moments, readers will connect to Wills and understand her desire to find a place where she belongs. In addition to girl drama, mystery is added when someone begins leaving Wills encouraging notes and Wills begins investigating the members of the riding team.

Wills’s relationship with her parents is another positive aspect of the story. As Wills is trying to navigate life, she often thinks about her mom’s words of wisdom: “she says that whether you’re riding or flying or even just brushing your teeth, you have to be ready for surprises—the happy kind or the sad kind or the refreshingly minty kind. She says if you stop looking for surprises, they’ll stop looking for you—and what fun would life be then?”

The short paragraphs, text bubbles with emojis, and the list of Oakwood friend suspects makes the story engaging and fun. Plus, the text has footnotes that explain the horse terminology. The footnotes also include references that preteens may not know. For example, when Wills compares a rider to the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the footnote says, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a movie from a million years ago (aka 1961) starring actress Audrey Hepburn wearing a little black dress and pearls.”

Horse-loving readers will enjoy Horse Girl because horses are a pivotal part of the plot. However, Horse Girl will also appeal to a wide range of readers because of Wills’s relatable conflicts, friendship worry, and embarrassing moments. Wills isn’t afraid to embrace her dorkiness, her frizzy hair, or her love of horses. And in the end, she learns a valuable fact about friendship; “Your friends—even the least expected ones, even the ones you thought were out to get you, and especially the ones with four legs—will be there to help pick you up.”

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • OMG and OMGE are used occasionally.
  • Holy smokes and holy cow are both used as an exclamation once.
  • Heck is used five times.
  • Wills’s father says, “Dang it” once
  • Wills’s sister calls her a weirdo.
  • When Wills is feeling sorry for herself, her dad says, “But you’re behaving like an immature, whiny, selfish. . . brat.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Before Wills’s competition, she takes “a deep breath and says a silent prayer to the #HorseGods.”

 

Hollywood

Juniper dreams of slaying dragons and rescuing villages on the back of her trusty horse, Able. She knows that Able has star quality that will make him perfect for television. And the show she’d love to be on more than anything is Castle McAvoy. Though her dad doesn’t think Able is ready, Juniper decides to take matters into her own hands and help Able make it through an audition, even if it gets them both in a lot of trouble.

Juniper loves her horse and wants him to be a star, which is one reason that she is excited when she’s offered a part as a stunt rider in her favorite show. With Able on her side, Juniper is confident that they can impress the casting director. But once on set, Juniper begins to think that she isn’t as good as the other stunt riders. When she overhears a conversation about the show featuring a spectacular trick, Juniper volunteers to do a dangerous stunt, even though she has never done it before.

Many readers will relate to Juniper’s insecurities and her desire to prove herself. Juniper often wonders, “What if my best isn’t good enough?” Unfortunately, along the way, Juniper isn’t always honest. In the end, Juniper is so desperate to prove herself that she unhooks a safety harness and ends up falling and breaking her arm. The accident teaches Juniper that her and Able’s safety are more important than being on television.

While Hollywood has plenty of horse action, the story also explores Juniper’s relationship with her sister, Rose. When Rose finds out that Juniper is going to be on Castle McAvoy, Rose begins spending more time with Juniper. Rose also encourages Juniper to do the dangerous trick. When Juniper is injured, Rose confesses that she told “those girls at school that you were on the show. . . I did it because none of them wanted to be my friends. . . So I kept telling them about your show so they’d keep liking me.” Rose learns that it was wrong to use her sister to try to impress the popular kids.

Hollywood will appeal to many readers because of the relatable conflicts as well as the focus on becoming a Hollywood star. While Juniper has moments when she is sneaky and dishonest, she learns valuable lessons about the importance of protecting her horse and herself. One positive aspect of the story is Juniper’s two parent family that is supportive and encouraging. Plus, both the children stunt riders and the adults directing the television show encourage Juniper and do not get upset when she doesn’t do the stunts correctly. In the end, Juniper learns that no one is perfect and the best part of being a stunt rider isn’t being on television, it’s being able to work with her horse.

Horse-loving readers will enjoy the American Horse Tales Series because of the wide range of topics. Despite being a series, the books do not need to be read in order because each one focuses on a new character. Readers who want more horse action should gallop to the book store and grab a copy of Fear of Falling by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • OMG is used as an exclamation once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When Juniper is planning to sneak into the horse trailer, she is looking to see where her father is. When she thinks he went to get Able, Juniper “prayed that he’d take a long time.”
  • After sneaking into the trailer, Juniper tells her horse, “Pray that Dad isn’t too mad. But even if he is, when he sees you get that part because I’m here, he’ll forgive me.”

Just Roll With It

As long as Maggie rolls the right number, nothing can go wrong…right?

Maggie just wants to get through her first year of middle school. But between finding the best after-school clubs, trying to make friends, and avoiding the rumored monster on school grounds, she’s having a tough time . . . so she might need a little help from her twenty-sided dice. But what happens if Maggie rolls the wrong number?

Maggie struggles with OCD and feels compelled to roll a dice before she makes any decisions. Soon, Maggie is rolling dice to decide if she should have lunch with a friend, if she should let a friend borrow a book, and other everyday decisions. Maggie’s OCD begins to interfere with her daily life. At the beginning of the story, the reader sees Maggie rolling the dice, but a lack of explanation makes the dice rolling confusing. However, later in the book, OCD is explained in kid-friendly terms that are relatable.

In English class, the students are reading The Crucible, which ties into Maggie’s life. For example, Maggie’s friend, Clara, says, “I think it must be really hard for Sara. She knows she’s not a witch, but when everyone is saying that kind of stuff to you, sometimes it’s hard to remember they are wrong.” Likewise, Maggie wonders if others think she is crazy, because of her OCD.

Maggie’s story unfolds with quick looks at different aspects of her life. While this allows Maggie to be well-developed, the constant change of scene may be confusing for some readers. In addition, part of Maggie’s emotions are shown when she talks to an imaginary dragon. The dragon doesn’t hesitate in making Maggie question her abilities. At one point the dragon tells her, “Every time you forget your homework, or are afraid to ask a question, and even when you’re not sure if you want seconds at dinner? That’s me, reminding you that you’re weak. You’re shy. You’re nothing.”

Just Roll With It has several positive aspects, including Maggie’s relationship with her family and her friend, Clara. Maggie’s sister encourages Maggie that “fear and pain can’t be avoided, no matter how much we try. Coming out to mom and dad was really scary for me. But I’m glad I did it. A lot of the worries I made up in my head ended up not coming true. So I put myself through a lot of heartache for nothing.” With her family’s reassurance, Maggie agrees to see a therapist in order to deal with anxiety. Middle grade readers will relate to Maggie who worries about what other people say about her, forgets to do her homework, and struggles with figuring out what clubs she wants to join.

Maggie’s story comes to life in brightly colored panels. When Maggie is feeling stressed, the pictures use a darker hue to illustrate her anxiety. The illustrations mostly focus on Maggie, her friends, and her family. When Maggie is at school, the students are a diverse group including a girl in a wheelchair and a Muslim. The story also includes Clara’s two moms and Maggie’s sister’s girlfriend. Reluctant readers will enjoy Just Roll With It because it uses easy vocabulary and has a fast pace. Each page has one to seven simple sentences, which make Just Roll With a quick book to read. Readers interested in exploring the theme of anxiety should also read the graphic novel, Guts by Raina Telgemeie.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • A boy shoves Maggie’s friend Clara twice, knocking her to the ground.
  • When a boy goes to hit Clara, Maggie steps in and hits him across the face with a fat book.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Heck, darn, and OMG are used several times.
  • Crap is used once.
  • There is some name-calling including jerk, snake bait, and babies.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

On a Scale of One to Ten

Tamar is admitted to Lime Grove, a psychiatric hospital for teenagers with a variety of issues. She’s asked endless questions. But there’s one question she can’t. . . or won’t answer: What happened to her friend Iris? As Tamar’s past becomes more and more clear to her, she’ll have to figure out a path toward forgiveness and find a way to live.

Tamar tells her own story which allows her self-hatred, guilt, and desire to die take center stage. While readers may not understand Tamar’s struggle, she is a sympathetic character who isn’t sure how to take control of her life. While in the psychiatric hospital, Tamar does little to help herself and she describes most of the hospital workers in a negative light. The staff members are either incompetent or too worn out to expend any energy on the patients. When a psychiatrist sees Tamar, his lack of compassion makes the sessions useless. While in the hospital, Tamar continues to try to harm herself and even attempts to end her life. Even though the story has a hopeful conclusion, the reason that Tamar is beginning to heal is unclear.

On a Scale of One to Ten is difficult to read because of Tamar’s graphic descriptions of her suicide attempts and her self-hatred. Tamar often refers to herself as a murderer because of Iris’s death. The constant reminders of Iris create suspense, but the circumstances of Iris’s death aren’t revealed until the very end. The reasons that led to Iris’s suicide are unrealistic and horrifying. When a girl sets Iris’s hair on fire, Tamar does nothing to help Iris, which is one of the reasons Tamar feels guilt. Tamar’s lack of empathy for Iris and her own despicable behavior is heartbreaking.

In the end, Tamar is on the path to recovery, and she realizes “there isn’t a cure. Except me: I am the cure.” On a Scale of One to Ten gives readers insight into one girl’s struggle with mental illness; however, the story doesn’t include how Tamar is finally able to cope with her guilt and suicidal thoughts. On a Scale of One to Ten excellently depicts Tamar’s emotions and gives insight into teens who struggle with mental health. Mature readers who want to delve into another book that explores mental illness should add Turtles All the Way Down by John Green to their must-read list.

Sexual Content

  • Tamar wonders if a charity shop is “a front for drugs, kidnapping, or prostitution.”
  • Tamar goes to a party at Toby’s house. While there, “I feel his face close to mine even though my vodka-brain is swirling my vision and Rihanna bursts on. . . I brush my lips against his and I don’t think it lasts for more than a few seconds.” Later, Tamar describes the “burnt taste of weed on his lips.”
  • Tamar, who is wearing a dress, wonders if the “person in the street is looking at me weirdly. . . [is] planning to stalk and rape me.”
  • After Tamar gets out of the hospital, she begins dating. Kissing is involved.

Violence

  • To get the bad thoughts to stop, Tamar hits her head against the wall. “If you slam your forehead hard enough, then it bleeds under the skin and the bruises are swollen and sore, but at least the thoughts disappear for a third of a second.”
  • Tamar cuts herself. “I make three thin scratches on my thigh, watch to see which one draws the most blood.” She then gets in the bath and, “I stretch out my arm in front of me and press down, slice the blade across the skin. I watch it split, blood starting to ooze out. . . I’m slashing, wildly gashing deeper, deeper into my undeserving body. . .” She is taken to the hospital and given stitches.
  • While in Dr. Flores’s office, Tamar begins “shouting and swearing every swear word in the English language. I’d . . . hurled the books with the hardest covers I could find at him. . . He’d swerved just as the Holy Bible smashed into his computer.” When the nurses tried to restrain Tamar, she “tried to bite them as they held my squirming body. . .”
  • Tamar tries to drown herself. She fills the bathtub and then “plunging below the surface, water burning nostrils, dancing into lungs that in equal measure try to accept and reject in confusion the muddy flood that prances into them.” The scene is described over two and a half pages.
  • Again, Tamar tries to kill herself. She talks about “how tight the noose felt as it dug into my soft flesh, how my eyeballs felt like they were going to burst out of my sockets, and I could feel my brain swelling against my skull . . .”
  • Ellie, one of the patients in the psychiatric hospital throws a fit. “She thumps on the corridor walls outside the bedroom, dashing and darting away from nurses who want to inject her. . . I don’t look out the window or my door, but I’m sure if I did, I would see the chairs that I heard land, flying across the corridor and slamming into walls. . .”
  • Iris is a new girl at Tamar’s school. One day, Iris, Tamar, and Mia (Tamar’s friend) go outside to smoke. “Mia lifted the lighter to Iris’s red hair. Iris’s face said it all before the flames did, and her hair billowed into a smoking russet plumage. Someone. . . engulfed Iris’s head in a blazer.” There were “sheens of crimson lining her scalp. Shiny tracks of peeled skin running across her forehead.” The paramedics treated her burns. Neither Tamar, nor Mia was punished.
  • Iris and Tamar go to a dam and get wasted. When Tamar leaves, Iris “put her boots back on and filled them with stones. . . [she] jumped into the surging pool below. For a few minutes her body was tossed around as if all her bones had been removed. . .” Her death is described over one-third of a page.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Tamar and her friend, Iris, were drinking and smoking after school. Both girls got extremely drunk.
  • Tamar and her friends smoke cigarettes often. Once, Tamar “smoked half the pack of cigarettes out of my window, curled up into my curtains. It made me feel sick . . .”
  • While in the psychiatric hospital, the teens are given a variety of medications such as risperidone, lamotrigine, and fluoxetine. For example, Tamar is given a sleeping pill.
  • Tamar describes her dad as “beer-guzzling.”
  • In the ER, a man is given acetaminophen.
  • A girl in the hospital says her “mother overdosed on heroin in front of her when she was three.”
  • Tamar ’s friend gives two guys money and assumes they will buy “a can of Budweiser and a packet of Royals.”
  • While on a home visit, Tamar goes to a party where the teens wait “for tipsy to kick in.” Tamar drinks “one shot, then drink the rest of the bottle single-handedly, like it is water. . .until the room swirls. . .” Tamar was so drunk she was taken to the ER and didn’t remember it in the morning.
  • When Tamar tries to kill herself, she is taken to the hospital and given antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers.

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes bullshit, damn, fuck, hell, piss, and shit.
  • A girl says, “my mum was a whore.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • While in the hospital, Tamar hears “Patient A” freak out. Then, “Distressed Patient A prays to God for it all to end, fractured cries between weeping. God doesn’t hear.”
  • At one point, Tamar is in so much pain that she prays, “Oh, God. Please make it end.”

 

She is Not Invisible

Laureth Peak’s father has taught her to look for recurring events, patterns, and numbers—a skill at which she’s remarkably talented. When he goes missing while researching coincidence for a new book, Laureth and her younger brother fly from London to New York and must unravel a series of cryptic messages and frightening clues to find him. The complication: Laureth is blind. Reliant on her other senses and on her brother to survive, Laureth finds that rescuing her father and spotting the extraordinary, and sometimes dangerous, connections in a world full of darkness will take all her skill.

Laureth, a sixteen-year-old blind protagonist, desperately wants to find her father. Laureth’s experiences highlight the difficulties she faces because she is blind. Because of her disability, Laureth takes her seven-year-old brother, Benjamin, to New York to look for her father. The sister-brother relationship is sweet, and it allows the reader to see the different ways Laureth and Benjamin communicate, which allows Laureth to navigate without making her blindness apparent.

While looking for her father, Laureth finds his notebook that has his research notes about coincidences, patterns of the universe, and scientists’ research. For example, he ruminates about the mathematical probability that coincidences happen, synchronicity, as well as some scientists’ obsessions with a meaningful number. The excerpts from the notebook are incredibly boring and they slow down the plot. In the end, Laureth’s father decides to dump all his research and resume writing the same type of funny stories that made him famous. There seems to be no point to the tedious passages about coincidences.

While She is Not Invisible is unique because it focuses on a smart, blind protagonist, Laureth’s story lacks believability. For example, a blind teenager and a seven-year-old boy would not be able to navigate the streets of New York alone. The story concludes with Laureth’s family reuniting, but in the end, none of the clues that Laureth follows help her find her father. Instead, her father just miraculously appears in the hotel’s stairwell just when Laureth needs him most. The conclusion is anticlimactic, and all the pieces of the puzzle come together too easily.

Many teen readers will relate to Laureth, who often doubts herself. Along the journey, she gains confidence and comes to realize that “no one should want to be invisible. To have no one notice you or speak to you. That would be really lonely, in the end.” If you’re looking for a compelling mystery that will be hard to put down, forego reading She is Not Invisible and instead grab a copy of Six Months Later by Natalie D. Richards.

Sexual Content

  • Laureth wonders if her dad is “sleeping with someone else.”
  • Laureth and her brother go into a bar in the hopes of finding their father. A man yells, “Take your clothes off.”
  • The bad guy traps Laureth in a dark hotel room. He says, “You and me can still have a good time together. In the dark.”
  • When Laureth’s parents are reunited, she “heard Dad kiss Mum, who giggled like she was young.”

 

Violence

  • Laureth reads a story about a man who “is cannibalized by his shipmates.”
  • A man pulls a knife on Laureth, Benjamin, and a boy named Michael. Michael runs off and finds his brother. Laureth heard “a soft thud and the sound of air coming out of someone all at once… There was another thud, and I heard the Smoke scream.” Later, the police find the man tied to a fence with his own belt.
  • One of the bad men is in Laureth’s hotel room. Laureth leaps onto the bed, “straight across, and felt his hand grab my ankle. . . then I kicked out wildly with my free leg. My heel hit something that was sort of hard and soft at the same time, there was a crunch, and he yelled, really loud.” She manages to escape.
  • Laureth has her brother break all the lights in the hotel’s hallway and the stairs. Laureth runs down the stairs and hears the bad man scream. “It was followed by a series of terrible thuds and thumps as the man fell down to the ground floor.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Laureth overhears her parents arguing about her dad taking pills for his “state of mind.”
  • Sometimes Laureth’s father “has another glass of wine or two.”

Language

  • Profanity is used rarely. Profanity includes ass, crap, hell, and damn.
  • Ass is used twice. For example, a blind samurai in a Japanese film is “blind but he still kicks ass.”
  • A man says, “Goddammit. . . Can’t smoke anywhere in this damn city now.”

Supernatural

  • Laureth’s brother Benjamin has a strange effect on electronics which his family calls the “Benjamin Effect.” When Benjamin touches electronics such as cell phones and TV screens, they stop working.

Spiritual Content

  • In Laureth’s father’s book of notes, he writes, “There’s a word for the feeling that we are in touch with something great, something powerful, something outside ourselves, and that word is NUMINOUS. It used to only be used in connection with religion; that feeling that you’re in touch with God.”
  • Einstein said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
  • Laureth thinks about a poem. “It’s a pious poem about God. It’s about how, although you might try to ignore Him, and turn from Him and even flee Him, He will keep following you, faithfully, like a faithful hound follows its master, all of your life.”
  • Occasionally Laureth prays. For example, when a man says something rude, Laureth “prayed Benjamin didn’t understand.”
  • In his research, Laureth’s father found that George Price, “one of America’s greatest thinkers, gave in and had to admit that God existed.”

A Face for Picasso

There was danger in the kind of beauty I was desperate to achieve.

At only eight months old, identical twin sisters Ariel and Zan were diagnosed with Crouzon syndrome — a rare condition where the bones in the head fuse prematurely. They were the first twins known to survive it.

Growing up, Ariel and her sister endured numerous appearance-altering procedures to keep them alive. Doctors expanded the twins’ skulls and broke bones to make room for their growing organs. After each surgery, the sisters felt like strangers to each other, unable to recognize themselves in the mirror. Their case attracted international attention. A French fashion magazine said Ariel and Zan “resembled the words of Picasso,” as if they were abstract paintings, not girls just trying to survive.

Later, plastic surgeons cut and trimmed, and tugged their faces toward a tenuous aesthetic ideal. The girls dreamed of appearing “beautiful” but would settle for “normal.”

Fighting for acceptance was a daily chore. Between besting middle school bullies, becoming a cheerleader in high school, and finding her literary voice in college, Ariel learned to navigate a beauty-obsessed world with a facial disfigurement to become the woman she is today.

Ariel’s story is spellbinding and heart-wrenching. While Ariel’s story is not pretty, she brings to light what it means to live with a facial disfigurement. Not only did she and her sister have to deal with the excruciating pain of countless surgeries, but they also had to deal with the cruelty of those around them. From an early age, Ariel had to deal with constant painful encounters with children, teachers, and adults. Ariel said, “the everyday stares, comments, and subhuman treatment were constant reminders of our painful medical history and perceived shortcomings. We were treated as less attractive, less intelligent, and less worthy of basic respect.”

In her memoir, Ariel uses the backdrop of Picasso’s life to help explain how she and her sister were dehumanized. Ariel connects her experiences with Picasso’s work and his hate for women. While the connection is clear, the long descriptions of Picasso’s behavior become tedious. Another negative aspect of the story is that Ariel talks about her obsession with food but does not fully explain how her eating disorder fits into her overall story.

Readers who want a fun, fluffy YA novel should steer away from A Face for Picasso which is an honest memoir about how society’s beauty standards can affect someone who has a deformity. Ariel does not gloss over the painful surgeries, the cruelty of peers or the constant desire to be normal. By reading A Face for Picasso, readers will see how silence can be just as painful as spoken cruelty. Ariel’s memoir will help readers be more compassionate and kinder human beings and hopefully will make them rethink society’s focus on beauty.

Sexual Content

  • Because of Ariel’s unrelenting anger, her mother “thought I had been violated because both anger and bed-wetting are signs of sexual abuse.”
  • Picasso was “heavily inspired by his obsession with sex.”
  • Picasso had several affairs while married to his first wife. He was “a sexual predator” who had sex with a seventeen-year-old. “He would take his young mistress to a cabana he’d rented on the beach and have sex with her. . . she was a child and the affair was illegal at its beginning.”
  • One of Picasso’s women “hanged herself” and another one “shot herself.”
  • Someone tells Ariel’s friend, “You’re super gorgeous. . . You could be a Playmate.”

Violence

  • Picasso had a string of affairs and “two of his partners had mental breakdowns from his abuse and had to be institutionalized. Two of them committed suicide. He was a volatile hypocrite when a God complex.”
  • Ariel was angry at Zan “because when Zan and I were together, we were treated even more terribly.” Ariel would tell Zan, “I hate you.” Ariel would also “kick her under the table as hard as I could. When she’d rise from her seat in an effort to hide the tears in her eyes, I would stomp on her toes.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • During surgery, Ariel and Zan were “doped up on painkillers, steroids, and antibiotics.”
  • Before her wedding, Ariel’s sister “took a daily dose of phentermine to lose weight.”
  • One Halloween, a group of girls went trick or treating. “One of the houses in the neighborhood had shots of alcohol on a tray on the porch; candy for the children, vodka for the parents.”
  • While Ariel was having surgeries, “other kids my age . . . went to parties and got drunk together and had sex for the first time.”

Language

  • Oh my God and Oh God are used as exclamations several times.
  • At times, Ariel is “pissed off.”
  • Both shit and crap are used twice.
  • After surgery, Ariel returned to school with a bruised and swollen face. When one boy sees her, he says, “Damn. Did you see her?”
  • Ariel was often called names and one boy compared her to an ugly dog. Another classmate tells Ariel, “You look like you had a bomb explode on your face.”
  • After a meeting with Ariel’s teacher and the principal, Ariel’s principal told her that the teacher was an idiot. He said, “We’re getting you out of this shithead’s class.” He also called him an asshole. Later, the teacher told the class that Ariel and her sister were removed from the class because “our faces were too distracting and not conducive to their learning.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Ariel’s mother told her, “You are God’s artwork.”
  • Before surgery, Ariel and Zan would “sleep huddled together, praying God would not take one of us alone.” During that same time, Ariel “repeated silent prayers. ‘Please make this pain stop,’ I kept begging, over and over again. . . I don’t know who I was talking to. Maybe to God, maybe to myself. I just wanted it to end.”
  • When Picasso’s sister was ill, Picasso “tried to make a deal with God to save her. If he spared Conchita, Picasso vowed never to paint again.” After Conchita died, “Picasso felt simultaneously angry toward God and relieved about what his sister’s death meant for his future. He was still free to be a painter.”
  • Before one surgery, Ariel prayed, “God I’m so scared.
  • Many people teased Ariel because of her eyes. She says, “Not a day went by that I did not pray, asking God to give me eyes that were symmetrical.”
  • Before the homecoming queen and king were announced, Ariel prayed, “Even if neither Zan nor I win, I pray the day comes when we can be seen as beautiful, too. Please help others not to see us as ugly anymore.”
  • Ariel’s counselor tells her, “And until we meet again, ay God hold you in the palm of his hand.”

Run

Bo Dickinson is a girl with a wild reputation, a deadbeat dad, and a mama who’s not exactly sober most of the time. Everyone in town knows the Dickinsons are a bad lot, but Bo doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

Agnus Atwood has never gone on a date, never even stayed out past ten, and never broken any of her parents’ overbearing rules. These rules are meant to protect their legally blind daughter, though protect her from what, Agnus isn’t quite sure.

Despite everything, Bo and Agnus become best friends. It’s the sort of friendship that runs truer and deeper than anything. So, when Bo shows up in the middle of the night, with police sirens wailing in the distance, desperate to get out of town, Agnus doesn’t hesitate to take off with her. But running away and not getting caught will require stealing a car, tracking down Bo’s dad, staying ahead of the authorities and – worst of all – confronting some ugly secrets.

Bo and Agnus are unlikely friends mostly because of Bo’s bad reputation. Everyone in town believes that Bo is white trash, who drinks too much and sleeps around with anyone and everyone. Even though Bo has done nothing to earn this reputation, she does nothing to dispel it either. Unlike Bo, Agnus is resigned to live a boring life in her hometown that she will never leave. Because of her disability, her parents are overprotective, but Agnus never talks to them about how she feels trapped. The two girls form a strong bond, and readers will enjoy seeing how their friendship progresses and changes them.

Run alternates between Bo and Agnus’s points of view; it also jumps from the past to the present. Bo and Agnus’s voice are very similar, so readers will need to pay attention to the name that appears at the beginning of every chapter. Despite this, the story’s plot is easy to follow. However, while Bo and Agnus are interesting characters, they are not necessarily relatable.

Unfortunately, the girl’s relationship doesn’t necessarily make either one of them better people. Once Agnus begins spending time with Bo, she begins lying to her parents, using profanity, and even drinking beer a couple of times. Although Agnus’s parents come to like Bo, when Bo’s mother is thrown into jail, Agnus’s parents do nothing to help her.

Run will appeal to teenagers because it deals with many teenage issues such as false rumors, gossiping, parent disapproval and trying to find your way in life. However, at times the frequent profanity is distracting and Bo’s unwillingness to correct false accusations is unbelievable. Despite this, Run is an entertaining story that teenagers will enjoy.

Sexual Content

  • Someone tells Agnus that over the weekend, Bo “went down on him in the hayloft at Andrew’s party Friday night.” Later, Agnus wonders if she should be friends with Bo because “Bo was the kind of girl who cussed in front of teachers and stole her mama’s whiskey to bring to parties and went down on other girls’ boyfriends.”
  • In the middle of the night, Agnus’s sister invites a boy into her room. The story implies that they have sex.
  • When Agnus and Bo run away, they are looking for a hotel that will rent to underage teens. Bo knows they can find one because “too many girls get pregnant on prom night, and I know they ain’t doing it in their parents’ house.” They find a hotel that looks like “a lot of drug deals have gone down in [it].”
  • Agnus’s friend can’t take her home from school. Her friend says, “I think today’s the day. I think we’re going to . . . you know.”
  • While at school, a boy asks Bo, “Wanna hang out? I’ll give you ten bucks and some whiskey if you’ll come over and suck my dick. . .. What’s the problem? You do it for every other guy in town. Why not me? Is my dick too big for your mouth?”
  • After dancing with Colt, Agnus thinks about kissing him. “I’d laid in bed remembering the way his hands felt on me and trying to imagine what it would feel like to kiss him.”
  • Agnus goes to Bo’s house. When Bo’s mother comes home, she yells, “Is that why she’s here? You fucking her too? Gone through all the men in town, so you gotta start sleeping with the girls too?”
  • Bo tells Agnus about being in foster care. The dad “was always walking in on the girls while we were changing or. . .”
  • Agnus and Colt start kissing. “He kept kissing me, and eventually, I picked up the rhythm and followed his lead. . . I’m not sure how we ended up lying down, twisted together on top of his bed. Or how my shirt and bra ended up on the floor. . .” The two have sex, but the act isn’t described. Later Angus thinks, “Sleeping with a boy who wasn’t my boyfriend, who’d be gone by the end of the week—it sure hadn’t been part of my plan.” However, she doesn’t regret her choice.
  • On New Years, Bo and Dana “made out in the car.” The two won’t date because, “Her daddy’s a deacon at the church down on Peyton Street.”

Violence

  • When a boy calls Agnus a “fucking fat bitch,” Bo hits him. “So, after I get a few good punches and kicks in, he gets his senses together and shoves me on my back. My head hits the concrete, and for a minute I see stars. . . I might have a black eye, but he’s gonna be missing a tooth.” At one point, Agnus hits the boy with her cane. The fight is described over two pages.
  • While in foster care, Bo saw, “The older kids were always fighting. I saw one of them pull a knife on the other. But the foster parents didn’t do nothing about it.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Bo’s family has a bad reputation and many of them are known to be drunks.
  • Before Bo’s father took off, she remembers him drinking. “Then, usually, both my folks would end up getting drunk and yelling at each other.”
  • Bo and Agnus go to several parties where kids are drinking. Bo says that at one party, a boy “spilled beer down the front of my white shirt, too. Still ain’t convinced that was an accident. Kinda a waste, though. Not like I got the boobs to rock a wet T-shirt.”
  • Bo’s mother uses meth.
  • While hanging out by the river, Bo gives Agnus a beer. Agnus said, “It’s kinda what I’d imagine pee tastes like. Why do people drink it?”
  • When Agnus and Bo go to a party, Agnus drinks a beer.
  • When Bo’s father won’t let her stay at his house, she steals a bottle of alcohol and “the first drink burns. The second not so bad. And by the fourth or fifth, I don’t feel a thing.” Bo gets so drunk that she begins throwing up. Despite the rumors, this was the first time Bo had drunk alcohol.

Language

  • Profanity is used in excess. Profanity includes: damn, hell, piss, fuck, shit, goddamn, and holy shit.
  • There is frequent name calling including bitches, asshole, fucking redneck, fake motherfuckers, prick, harlot and dyke.
  • Jesus, Jesus Christ, and Oh my God are used as exclamations a few times.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Agnus’s grandmother thinks the Dickinsons are “dirty drunks and thieves. And godless, too. None of them stepped foot in a church in generations. Probably get stuck by lightning if they did.”
  • Christy, Agnus’s friend, calls Bo a slut. Christy says, “God thinks she’s a slut, too.” Bo overhears part of the conversation and Christy says, “Jesus loves you, Bo.” As Bo walks away Christy calls her a “whore.”
  • Bo is bisexual. Agnus thinks, “I’d grown up my whole life in the church, been told it was only all right for girls to like boys. Anything else was wrong.”
  • While at church, Agnus and Christy have a mean conversation about a girl who was a sinner. When Agnus refuses to stop talking, the Sunday school teacher kicks her out of class.

Breathing Underwater

Olivia is on the road trip of her dreams, with her trusty camera and her big sister Ruth by her side. Three years ago, before their family moved from California to Tennessee, Olivia and Ruth buried a time capsule on their favorite beach. Now, they’re taking an RV back across the country to uncover the memories they left behind. But Ruth’s depression has been getting worse, so Olivia has created a plan to help her remember how life used to be: a makeshift scavenger hunt.

Throughout their journey, they’ll be taking pictures and making memories, like they’re pirates hunting for treasure. Olivia will do whatever it takes to snap the picture that will make her sister smile. But what if things never go back to how they used to be? What if they never find the treasure they’re seeking? As the two girls face these questions, all Olivia can do is love her sister, not change her—and maybe that’s enough.

Anyone who struggles with depression—whether it’s themselves or someone they know—should read Breathing Underwater. The story is told from Olivia’s perspective which puts the spotlight on her desire to help her sister. Despite Olivia’s love for her sister, Olivia often struggles with the burden of always having to watch for signs that Ruth is falling into “The Pit.” Everyone in the family is understandably concerned about Ruth’s mental state; however, this often leaves Olivia feeling as if she does not matter. The story explores the topic of mental illness through a sister relationship which allows the reader to see how Ruth’s depression affects everyone around her.

One positive message that is reinforced in the story is the idea that each person has wonderfully different “superpowers.” Olivia observes her cousin, Darcy, comforting someone, and Olivia realizes Darcy’s “superpower is making people feel relaxed.” At that point, Olivia wishes that she was more like Darcy. Olivia thinks, “I just wish my power was to have whatever power people needed, to do exactly what they needed, exactly when they needed it, and I wonder if anyone has that power.” However, Olivia comes to realize that “one person’s weird is another person’s Vincent van Gogh, and where would we be without our Vincents?” When Olivia thinks about the question “where would we be without our Vincents,” she realizes that her—and Vincent van Gogh’s “superpowers”– may not be appreciated by everyone, but they still have value. In the end, Olivia becomes comfortable with herself, which allows her “superpower” to shine.

Olivia would do anything to help her sister. However, she comes to realize that she is not responsible for Ruth’s happiness. Olivia learns that no one can be in control of someone else’s happiness or unhappiness. This pivotal lesson allows Olivia to love her sister without trying to change her.

Breathing Underwater would make an excellent book to use as a discussion starter because it highlights the complexities of families and mental illness. Despite this, some readers may have a difficult time reading the entire book because much of the story focuses on Olivia’s inner monologue. Readers who would like to read more stories that explore mental illness may want to read The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim and My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Ruth takes medication for her depression. At first “it took lots of tries with different kinds of medicine and different doses before the doctors and Ruth found one that calmed the whirlpool going on in her mind.”

Language

  • Ruth occasionally calls Olivia names such as wierdo, dork, punk, and prick.
  • Crap is used once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

A Kind of Spark

Ever since Ms. Murphy told us about the witch trials that happened centuries ago right here in Juniper, I can’t stop thinking about them. Those people weren’t magic. They were like me. Different like me.

I’m autistic. I see things that others do not. I hear sounds that they can ignore. And sometimes I feel things all at once. I think about the witches, with no one to speak for them. Not everyone in our small town understands. Not Jenna, who used to be my best friend. Not Nina, my older sister. But if I keep trying, maybe someone will.

I won’t let the witches be forgotten. Because there is more to their story. Just like there is more to mine.

A Kind of Spark is told from Addie’s point of view, which allows her to explain how it feels to be “neurodivergent.” For example, Addie explains, “Masking is when I have to pass as a neurotypical person, as someone who is not like me. I have to ignore the need to stim, to self-soothe, and I have to make firm eye contact. Keedie told me it’s like when superheroes have to pretend that they’re regular people.” Addie’s experiences will help readers understand autism and how people with autism experience the world differently. However, the frequent use of neurodivergent vocabulary becomes a little overwhelming.

While A Kind of Spark teaches readers about autism, it is also a story about sisterhood, friendship, and speaking up for what you believe in. Addie and Keedie both have autism, which gives them a special bond. Keedie often gives Addie advice. For example, Keedie says, “It’s better to be open about who you really are, what you’re really like, and be disliked by a few than it is to hide who you are and be tolerated by many.” Even though both girls struggle with their autism, autism is not portrayed as something that should be fixed. Keedie acknowledges that autism causes some difficulties, but she would not want to be any other way.

Throughout her journey, Addie faces bullying from both her classmates and her teacher. When her parents find out about the bullying, they remind Addie that she should have reached out to a trusted adult, instead of staying silent. As Addie learns about the women who were accused of witchcraft, she realizes that some of the women were different like her. However, some younger readers may be confused by the connection. While the unfair and violent way the women were killed is not described in gory detail, it may still frighten young readers.

A Kind of Spark is an entertaining book that allows readers to learn about autism through Addie’s experiences. While Addie sometimes feels misunderstood, her family helps her navigate the world in a positive manner. In the end, Addie is reminded that “The ocean needs all kinds of fish. Just like the world needs all kinds of minds. Just one would be really dull, wouldn’t it?” Readers who would like to read more books that focus on autistic characters should also read Tune It Out by Jamie Sumner and A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Addie is learning about women from the past who were accused of witchcraft. Addie’s teacher explains that “witches were dunked in the Nor’ Loch. Their thumbs and toes were tied together, and they were tossed into the water! . . . Guilty witches were removed from the loch and taken to Castlehill to be burned or hanged.”
  • An adult babysitter got upset at Keddie and “threw a plate and dived at Keedie. . .” Keedie began “Screaming, and crying, and beating her own head. . . Mrs. Craig sprang into action, cursing Keedie all the while, and using her considerable weight to restrain my sister. She pinned Keedie’s wrists to the floor and got right in her face.” A neighbor intervenes. The scene is described over two pages.
  • On a field trip, a man describes “crudely made thumbscrews, whipping, and other forms of torture” that were used on accused witches. In their town, two women “were dragged [to a tree] by the baying mob. . . the Juniper residents decided to use this very tree to carry out their vigilante sentence.”
  • Addie tells someone that “Lots of women were hanged here in Juniper . . .And some witches were burned, or put in barrels full of nails.”
  • A girl in Addie’s class destroys Addie’s thesaurus and writes “retard” on it. Addie gets upset. “I’m flying through the air and I land squarely on top of Emily. . . I hear her shouting, screaming, and people rushing around. I’m dimly aware of Emily shrieking beneath me as my fists flair and come raining down on her.” A teacher pulls Addie off Emily and only punishes Addie. The scene is described over two and a half pages.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • One evening, Addie’s parents went “to the living room with some wine.”
  • Addie says one of her neighbors “gets drunk and sings on our street corner at night.”

Language

  • The kids in Addie’s class call her various names such as stupid.
  • Addie uses the word bloody once.
  • An adult babysitter called Addie’s sister a spoiled brat and a little animal.
  • Keedie says her sister’s teacher is a vicious cow.
  • Addie’s teacher tells her, “You are a vile girl.”
  • Someone asks Addie, “What the hell are you doing?”
  • A woman calls Addie and her friend miscreants.
  • Oh God and hell are both used once.
  • Addie’s sister tells her teacher, “you’re a disgraceful, ignorant, ableist coward, a monster, and a bigot.”

Supernatural

  • A man explains that “a curse is like an evil spell. It’s when someone calls down a higher power, or magical force, to harm another person.”

Spiritual Content

  • As Addie researches the accused witches, she thinks, “I bet you wished you were a witch. I bet in those moments, as they accused you of supernatural powers, you prayed to be able to cast a spell upon all of them.”

Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope

For much of her youth, Ana’s life consisted of secrets. Her Abuela, who took care of her after her mother died, warned Ana never to tell anyone the truth about herself – the truth that she was HIV positive. Ana clung to her grandmother’s words despite the fear and isolation secrecy brought. Although she was infected as an infant, Ana did not fully understand the virus and what it meant to live with HIV, but Ana listened to her grandmother and “did what she was told. She accepted her life at face value.” Ana kept the secret of her HIV and the death of her Mamá and baby sister, Lucía, who both died of the virus, to herself, dwelling in the loneliness her dangerous secret produced.

After her father’s death when she was about eleven years old, Ana had to learn how to grow up quickly. She promised her Papá she would protect her little sister Isabel, but this proved difficult as her Abuela’s home was far from a safe place. Ana and her sister endured sexual abuse from their Abuela’s boyfriend, Ernesto, and when Ana tried to tell the truth to her grandmother, she was beaten. After addressing her abuse in a letter to the Church, the police arrived to remove Ana and Isabel from their Abuela’s house.

Ana and her sister went to live with their great-aunt Sonia and her family but had little luck finding love and comfort there. Although Isabel was better at staying quiet and invisible, Ana, with her rambunctious spirit, was often fighting with her family and suffered more beatings and abuse. Ana preferred the company of her trusted friend, Yolanda, and Yolanda’s mother, who accepted Ana as her own daughter. With the help of a trusted teacher, who witnessed Ana’s bruised arms and sad eyes, Ana was moved out of her great-aunt Sonia’s house to a reform center. Unfortunately, this meant she had to leave her sister, Isabel, behind.

At the center, Ana met Berto and the two instantly clicked. They found comfort in their similar journeys. Both had lost their parents, and both were HIV positive. Eventually, Berto and Ana were moved to a home for people living with AIDS. Living at the house was the first time Ana really felt comfortable talking about her HIV. For once, Ana did not have to feel the shame or burden of her secret; instead, she was loved and accepted. Ana learned more about HIV and how to protect herself and others. Feeling safe at her new home, Ana and Berto fell in love, and although she was told to always use condoms, the two neglected protection for one night and Ana found herself pregnant at the age of seventeen.

Rather than feeling burdened by the pregnancy and having to quit school, Ana found hope with the birth of her daughter, Beatriz. Ana was determined to raise her with all the love and support that Ana was denied. After Beatriz was born, Ana moved into her Aunt Aída’s house and reconnected with her family, including Isabel. Although Ana and Berto eventually drifted apart, Ana continued to raise her daughter with unconditional love. Ana took every precaution during and after birth to protect her daughter from HIV.

Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope was inspired by Jenna Bush’s experience working with UNICEF in Latin America and the Caribbean and the amazing children she met. Bush adapts a genuine and personal tone while telling Ana’s story, and even though Ana faced many difficult moments in her life, her journey is thoroughly uplifting and inspiring. The book is written in a way that allows young readers to understand the gravity of Ana’s situation while also acknowledging the hope that permeates her life. Although the book ends abruptly before Beatriz’s final HIV test, Bush assures readers Ana’s story is far from over.

By sharing Ana’s story, Bush teaches the importance of hope. Although Ana’s journey seems dark and tumultuous at times, Ana stays optimistic, doing all she can to give her child and herself a better life. Ana’s story also serves to inform readers about HIV and AIDS in the hopes of breaking the stigmatization of those living with the virus. While Ana is HIV positive and takes medicine daily to protect her health, she does not let the virus define her. At the end of the book, Bush includes multiple resources on HIV/AIDS, safe sex practices, ways to prevent sexual abuse and bullying, and other useful information about volunteering and helping children, like Ana. The book is intended to inspire others to make changes, big or small, to better communities around the world.

 Sexual Content

  • When Ana was ten years old, a nurse explained to her “when she was older and ready to have sex that it was very important to always use condoms” because she was HIV-positive.
  • On bad days, when Ana offered to bring beer to Ernesto, “he often reached for the beer and then grabbed Ana by the wrist, pulling her close, rubbing his fat belly against her . . . Sometimes his hand slipped across her chest or between her legs.” Ana described feeling “dirty and embarrassed when it happened to her” and “enraged and powerless when she watched it happen to Isabel.”
  • “When Isabel got up to go to the bathroom, Ernesto slid his hand under Isabel and felt her behind.”
  • One night, Ana woke up to see “Isabel leaning against the door, sobbing. Her hair was tangled, her skin red and blotchy.” Ernesto followed Isabel in the bedroom shortly after and threatened Ana not to tell her father. It is implied Isabel is further sexually abused by Ernesto, but the extent of the abuse is not mentioned as the story follows Ana’s perspective.
  • Another night, Isabel forgot to lock the bedroom door and Ernesto came in. His “grimy hand covered Ana’s mouth so she couldn’t scream. Isabel ran out of the room and locked herself in the bathroom. Then Ernesto started touching Ana all over.” He threatened Ana, telling her not to tell anyone.
  • Ana’s aunt confesses to her niece that “both your mama and her sister were raped by their stepfather when they were young girls. Their stepfather had AIDS and he made them both sick.”
  • At the reform center, Ana meets Pilar, a girl who “believed their only way to survive was to sell sex on the streets.” Pilar explains that becoming a prostitute was the only way to earn money to feed herself.
  • After her first day of ninth grade, Berto and Ana go for a walk, and he kisses her. “Ana had kissed other boys before, but she had never felt a connection like this; shivers ran up her spine, and her mouth curved into a perfect smile.”
  • One day, as Ana and Berto were kissing, “Berto ran his fingers through Ana’s long, wavy hair. She looked into his eyes and saw pleasure and desire.” Then, Ana asks Berto, “Do you have any condoms?” Berto promises he will get some the next day. They have sex for the first time, unprotected, but it is not described in detail.
  • Ana and Berto have sex multiple times, but it is not explicit.
  • Ana and Berto break up and Ana grows closer to a new boy, Guillermo. One day, “Guillermo began kissing her more intensely,” but Ana made him stop as she wanted to take things slow.
  • There are resources in the back to provide information about safe sex, using condoms, HIV/AIDS, and how to avoid sexual abuse. The information is informative but not explicit and is not intended to encourage sexual behavior.

Violence

  • When Ana tries to recall her last moments with her mother “she didn’t remember Mamá’s face becoming gaunt and skeletal; she didn’t remember her Mamá’s breathing becoming labored and slow . . . Ana’s Mamá was not yet twenty when she died of AIDS.”
  • Ana tells her Abuela about what Ernesto has been doing to her and her sister, but instead of believing her, “Abuela shooed Ana away by spanking her, hard, on the back of her thighs with the broom handle, then turned abruptly back to her work.”
  • After Ana refuses to clean up her things, “Ana’s grandmother snapped. She reached down and grabbed a metal clothes hanger. She came at Ana in a rage, swatting her hard on the back, again and again and again.” Abuela left Ana “lying on the ground, her legs on fire as if a hive of bees had attacked.”
  • Despite being removed from her abuela’s house, Ana still suffered beatings from her aunt’s family. “Ana usually remained quiet and passive when she was out with her family, but if Ana was belligerent or talked back, they slapped or kicked her.” Ana learned to become a fighter.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • “Many nights Ernesto and Ana’s Abuela drank heavily and smoked cigarette after cigarette until the house stank like a disco, saturated with the sour smell of beer and the thick fog of smoke.”

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • At her father’s funeral, Ana “called out to God, crying: ‘Why did you take Papá?’” Ana found herself “angry at God; she was angry at Abuela; she was angry at everyone.”
  • After her father’s death, “Ana attended a first Communion class at her church. Every Sunday, a priest and a nun met with a dozen sixth-graders to prepare them to accept their first Communion.”
  • After joining her Communion class, Ana “no longer blamed God for taking her mother, father, and sister, and for not protecting her from Ernesto. She no longer felt that God had forgotten her or lost her somewhere along the way.”
  • At her first Communion, “Ana dressed in the traditional white lace dress with a veil covering her eyes. She looked at her reflection in the mirror and prayed to God and her parents, asking, “Papá, ayú-dame, help me. Mamá protégeme, protect me.”
  • Ana compares her experience in reform center to “being in hell—not the fiery red hell of the Bible, but a drab, colorless one.”
  • At the reform center, “two women from one of the local churches came by to pray with the girls and give them a lesson in scripture.”
  • At her Quinceañera, the priest explained to Ana that she wore a tiara “because she was a princess in the eyes of God.”

by Elena Brown

A Time to Dance

Veda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance—so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.

First and foremost, Veda is a likable teenager who deals with many types of normal teenage problems including conflicts with her parents and friends, crushes, insecurities, as well as the loss of her leg. Readers will connect with Veda because she is an imperfect teen who feels an array of emotions. Throughout her journey, Veda refuses to give up. Despite the loss of her leg, she is determined to continue Bharatanatyam dance. For Veda, dance is “a sacred art, an offering of devotion to God.” When Veda wrestles with the way her disability affects her dancing, her grandmother tells her, “There are as many perfect poses as there are people. . . Shiva sees perfection in every sincere effort. He loves us despite—or maybe because of—our differences.”

When Veda is learning how to use her prosthetic limb, the story skips past the difficulties of learning how to use the prosthetic as well the other physical ailments. Instead of explaining the difficulties, Veda’s time with the doctor is spent describing her infatuation with him. To learn more about how amputation can affect an athlete, The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen is an engaging story that can give you more insight.

A Time to Dance is written in beautiful verse that magnifies emotions and conflicts but is never confusing. The inspirational story shows Veda’s courage, perseverance, and the importance of personal growth. A Time to Dance is an entertaining story that contains positive life lessons and teaches readers about Veda’s traditions, culture, and religion.

Sexual Content

  • Veda’s grandmother tells her about the history of dancers. Brahmin dancers “weren’t allowed to marry. And somehow, somewhere along the way, / society retracted / its promise to respect these women. / They were treated as prostitutes / and their sacred art degraded / into entertainment to please vile men.”
  • Govinda helps Veda overcome her leg’s phantom pain. “His fingers feel good/stroking my invisible skin./So good I want him stroking my real skin. / Want to reach out and stroke his. / My desire scares me, and I reach for the safety of my teacup.”

Violence

  • Veda is on a bus when it crashes. “Pain / sears through me / as though elephants are spearing my skin with sharp tusks and trampling over my right leg. . .” Her dance teacher covers her eyes, but “through his fingers I see / shredded skin, misshapen muscles. / Mine. Feel sticky blood pooling / below my right knee.” Veda’s leg is amputated below the knee. The bus driver “hit a tree. He died.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Veda’s Hindu religious belief is an integral part of every aspect of her life. Below are some specific examples; however, it is not a complete list of everything in the book.
  • When Veda was a child, she climbed up a ladder to touch Shiva’s feet. The priest tells her, “You don’t have to climb ladders to reach God. He dances within all He creates. . . God is everywhere. In everybody. In everything. He is born at different times, in different places, with different names.”
  • Veda believes in reincarnation, which is mentioned often. For example, Veda’s grandmother says Veda was always able to “shape thoughts” with her fingers. “It was as if you remembered the sign language of Bharatanatyam from a previous life you’d lived as a dancer before being reincarnated as my granddaughter.”
  • When Veda dances, she loves “portraying Shiva, who, through the steps of His eternal dance, creates and destroys universes.”
  • After Veda’s accident, her grandmother says, “God’s grace moves the mute to eloquence and inspires the lame to climb mountains.”
  • After the accident Veda doesn’t “feel God is anywhere nearby let alone inside of me.”
  • Veda wonders if losing her leg is a punishment from God or for “bad Karma we built up in a past life.” Her grandmother says, “I don’t believe in a punishing God. I believe in a compassionate God. To me, Karma isn’t about divine reward or retribution. Karma is about making wise choices to create a better future.”
  • Veda’s grandmother tells her a story about God. “The sight of you—poverty-stricken, overcome by age and illness—turned Buddha from a mere man into a reincarnation of God.”
  • When Veda’s grandmother is dying, Veda gives her “a drink of this water from the holiest of rivers. She believes it will help wash away her sins.” After she dies someone says, “I’m sure her soul doesn’t need to be reborn in the world. She’ll now be reunited with God.”

Almost American Girl

In her graphic novel memoir, Robin Ha shares the story of her experiences leaving her home in Korea for America, and her journey trying to navigate a new world and form a new identity. Despite living with her single mother (something considered taboo in Korea), Chuna (who later chose the name Robin in America), found her place with her Korean friends. After school, Robin would eat snacks from food stands, shop for comic books, and attend after school classes. Robin was happy and content in Korea until one day, her mother told her they would be taking a trip to Alabama.

Curious by this mysterious location, Robin assumed it was just another vacation her mother had planned. However, in Alabama, Robin was introduced to Mr. Kim and his daughter, Lena. Robin also met Mr. Kim’s sister and her children, Grace, Ashley, and Daniel. Finding herself bored and lonely in Alabama, Robin was excited to return to Korea. However, her life was severely shaken when she received the news that her mother and Mr. Kim were getting married, and they would be staying in Alabama indefinitely.

Robin resented her mother for making this decision without her, but she was unable to change her fate. Soon, Robin selected her English name and was sent to a new middle school with Grace and Ashley. Initially, Robin found life in Alabama utterly miserable; she could not understand why her mother believed life in America was better than life in Korea. Robin knew little English and could not communicate with her peers well enough to make friends. In addition, Robin was the only Asian student at her school and suffered racist comments from school bullies who taunted her and made her say rude things in English.

Despite what Robin believed, her mother was not blind to her daughter’s suffering. One day, Robin’s mother took Robin to a comic-book store and enrolled her in a comic drawing class. There, Robin found herself surrounded by people who shared her love for comic books. She also met Jessica, who instantly became her best friend.

Just as Robin began to grow comfortable in Alabama, things between her mother and Mr. Kim grew rocky. Robin’s mother, who always valued her independence, refused to move to Los Angeles with Mr. Kim because she feared it was too unsafe. Her refusal to move sparked tension between her and Mr. Kim’s mother who believed she was being a bad wife to her son. Making a desperate attempt to preserve her freedom, Robin’s mother made plans to move with Robin to Virginia.

Despite her fears of moving again, Robin adjusted well because her new school was more diverse, and Robin grew very close to a group of Korean girls. In Virginia, Robin finally began to see America as her home. After graduation, Robin and her friends visited Korea, and while Robin still enjoyed certain aspects of Korean culture, her visit allowed her to appreciate American culture even more. These feelings were compounded upon witnessing Korea’s harsh treatment of single women and unmarried mothers. In the end, Robin identifies herself as neither Korean nor American, but a combination of both.

Staying true to her love of comics, Robin’s memoir is a graphic novel. For most of Robin’s story, the comic panels consist of simple and colorful drawings. Each image has a one to two sentence caption, explaining the actions or emotions of the scene. Many images also include dialogue or thought bubbles that provide a good balance of words to pictures. However, some powerful images fill the whole page with just a small amount of text to convey an emotion rather than reality. For example, an image of Robin lying in a dark forest with the caption, “cast out in a strange and hostile land,” conveys the loneliness and isolation Robin feels in her first few months in America. The images become more vibrant and colorful when Robin starts to feel more confident and comfortable. While some Korean words are used, a glossary is provided in the back of the book for an explanation. In addition, the blue-colored text is used to imply characters are speaking in Korean, while black text signifies English.

Robin’s story speaks to the experience of many immigrants trying to find their cultural identity in a new country. Through her vibrant memoir, Robin Ha shares the beauty of her home country while still being able to look back on the negative aspects through a more mature lens. Through visual flashbacks, characterized by a more neutral color palette, Robin explores how her mother endured shame and insults because she was unmarried, with a young daughter. Despite prejudices against single mothers, Robin’s mother did all she could to give Robin a better life. Robin begins to truly realize all the sacrifices her mother made for her, and she learned to appreciate the opportunities America provided.

Overall, Almost American Girl is about embracing change and learning how to value different cultures and appreciate differences. The memoir also reveals how finding your identity is not always an easy process, but it’s okay to just be authentic to yourself. Robin’s story is inspiring and heartwarming to read. It’s fast paced and engages readers by teaching about the cultural differences between Korea and America.

Sexual Content

  • Robin is surprised by American traditions during her first Halloween. When she saw her friend in a rather revealing costume she thought, “Wow, I can see the top of her boobs.”
  • Later in life, Robin becomes aware of the prejudice against single mothers in Korea. An image shows a teenage Robin watching a T.V in Korea that says, “I didn’t raise a slut! You are no child of mine . . . ” The show is referring to an unwed mother.

Violence

  • In her first week of school, Robin is shoved against a locker by two bullies. Robin is not hurt, but she is confused as to why they were being mean.
  • In a flashback sequence, Robin recalls a time her third-grade teacher called her up to the front of the class and beat Robin’s hands with a ruler because she made a slight mistake.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Robin was a baby, Robin’s dad would frequently come home late and drunk. Robin’s mother said, “You reek of alcohol. Don’t come closer!”

Language

  • A bully at school gets Robin to say, “I eat shit.” She is unaware of what she is saying.
  • When Robin shares that Ashley [her step-cousin] has not been helpful at school her mother cries, “What a little bitch!”
  • Frustrated with her new life in America, Robin screams she “was happy living in Korea. I had friends and I didn’t have to deal with this stepfamily bullshit!”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • None

by Elena Brown

 

Brown Boy Nowhere

Sixteen-year-old Angelo Rivera is from the bustling city of San Diego where his parents owned a Filipino restaurant. Now, Angelo has moved across the country to Ocean Pointe where Angelo and his family are the only Asian people in the entire town. He’s left behind all of his friends, and his girlfriend Amanda, so his mom and dad can run a new restaurant called Sloppy’s Pit Stop. To make everything worse, Angelo wants to participate in a skateboarding competition in California, but the only way he can go is if he pays for his own plane ticket by working at Sloppy’s. But Angelo has a plan: Convince his aunt to let him stay in California so he can be with his friends and Amanda. He’s determined to leave Ocean Pointe behind for good.

Angelo’s plans go awry when he meets fellow outsiders Kirsten and Larry. All three of them are seen as outcasts by the students at Ocean Pointe High School where football players and cheerleaders are at the top of the social hierarchy. Kirsten abandoned cheerleading for art and Larry is the grandson of a known drug dealer. Both ask Angelo to teach them how to skate, boosting their self-confidence and creating a small group of friends for Angelo. After Amanda breaks up with Angelo over the phone, he begins to grow closer to Kirsten. As a result of bonding with Kirsten, a fight breaks out at OPHS that results in Angelo being more seen than ever.

Brown Boy Nowhere is a prose-style novel that is told from Angelo’s first-person perspective. As a result of being told in Angelo’s perspective, the reader will experience the same prejudice and violence Angelo does. This allows readers who aren’t Asian to understand the unique situations Asian people face in a racialized society. The story hits close to home for many Asian readers who understand what it’s like to be the only Asian person in a majority white town, school, or area.

Readers who aren’t Asian will also learn that some “jokes,” such as Asian people eating dogs and cats, are microaggressions that create lasting scars for their Asian peers. Even simple questions can be microaggressions depending on the person to whom they’re directed. For example, when Angelo first meets Larry, Larry asks Angelo where he’s from. When Angelo says he’s from California, Larry responds with, “No. I mean, where are you really from?” Such a question insinuates that Asian people do not, and will never belong in America and isolates Asian peers from their white peers.

Angelo also does his best to educate his new friends Kirsten and Larry on anti-Asian racism and microaggressions, calling them out on their blanket statements about Asian people. Angelo even tells Kirsten that saying, “I do not see race” is a microaggression and explains to her why. Angelo says, “I get that some people who say it mean well. But saying you don’t see race disregards my identity. I’m Asian. I’m proud of it. If you don’t see race, then you’re ignoring that part of me.”

Brown Boy Nowhere is a fascinating novel that tells a story about an Asian teenager finding himself in a town where he feels like he does not belong. The book has many early 2000s references, such as Angelo comparing Kirsten to actress Kirsten Dunst, and even has the feel of a 2000s teen movie. The book is not set in the early 2000s, but it provides Angelo with another interest and supplements his thoughts. It also tackles the incredibly complex issue of anti-Asian racism and the unique experience of a member of the Asian diaspora. Some events in the novel, such as the star football player named Grayson, vandalizing Sloppy’s, feel unrealistic and have unrealistic consequences. However, the novel is a perfect read for people who like coming-of-age dramas and want to learn more about the challenges Asian teenagers face in a world that expects them to be invisible.

Sexual Content

  • Angelo recalls that on his last night in San Diego, he had sex with his girlfriend Amanda. “Heat creeps into my cheeks. I don’t know what I expected losing my virginity would be like, but my fantasies certainly didn’t include me blubbering like an idiot, telling her how much I’d miss her.”
  • After Angelo saves Kirsten from being hit by a car, she gives him a kiss on his cheek. “I frown curiously as she takes a giant step toward me, letting out a soft gasp when she presses her soft lips against my cheek.”
  • While in the warehouse together, Angelo expresses a desire to kiss Kirsten. “My gaze flits down to her bottom lip. I want to kiss her. I want to kiss her more than anything in the world. More than skate competitions, burger patties, and even plane tickets to California.”
  • When Kirsten takes him to the beach, Angelo finally kisses her. “Pushing all second-guessing aside, I finally lean forward. I press my lips against hers. She takes a sharp breath against my mouth, stiffening for a second. Quickly, she relaxes and kisses me back, raking her fingers through my wet hair, tugging at the ends lightly.” They continue to make out for a page.
  • Angelo’s ex-girlfriend, Amanda, accidentally sends him a sext which includes “a photo of her chest with nothing but a tiny bikini top covering her, um, assets.”
  • After clearing up the misunderstanding because of the sext, Angelo and Kirsten kiss again. “Kirsten opens her mouth to speak, but before she can say anything I reach over and cup my hand over the back of her neck, pulling her into me. I press a kiss into her lips, quieting any lingering doubt she might have about me. My feelings for her. Us.”

Violence

  • Angelo decides to skate away from a group of boys who are harassing him. One of the boys throws a rock at Angelo which results in him falling off his skateboard. “The next thing I know, something jams against my front wheels. Before I can react, I’m flying off my board. On instinct, I stick my hands out to stop my fall, but I’m at a weird angle and land cheek first into the parking lot.”
  • When Grayson learns that Angelo and Grayson’s ex-girlfriend are friends, Grayson punches Angelo in the school hallway. Angelo tells Grayson he’s being racist. The scene lasts for 8 pages. Angelo doesn’t “even get to finish my thought. A blinding pain hits me square in the jaw. Sharp and intense. I stagger back, gasping for anything to hold on to, only to smack my open palms against the cold locker . . . Grayson keeps his fist up to my nose. His knuckles are bright red.”
  • To prevent Kirsten from being seen by the Sheriff, Angelo tackles her onto the grass. “Without thinking twice, I push off my board and tackle Kirsten onto the grass lining the street. We crash and find ourselves rolling into a ditch.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When exploring Ocean Pointe, Angelo ends up at the high school where he sees a group of guys holding cigarettes. “Cigarettes glow from between their fingers as they stare me down, scanning me from head to toe.”

 Language

  • The word “shit” and other variations of the word are used frequently.
  • The words “ass” and “asshole,” along with their variations, are used often.
  • “Bitch” and “bitchy” are used often in the novel, typically in relation to female characters.
  • “Fuck” is thrown around a lot by the characters in the story.
  • Angelo faces multiple microaggressions from his white peers, many of them relying on the racist stereotype of Asian people eating cats and dogs. A football player even says, “Guess that makes this here brown boy the dog, huh? You are what you eat.”
  • The football players who bully Angelo often call him “brown boy” as an insult due to Angelo being Filipino and having brown skin.
  • Angelo calls his friend from San Diego, Mackabi, a “dipshit” affectionately.
  • Angelo says he “feel[s] a bit dickish” for objecting to teaching other students how to skate.
  • When Kirsten implies that Angelo’s bullies confront change by being aggressive, Angelo says, “That’s bullshit. Being scared isn’t an excuse to be racist. That’s just damn ignorant. You don’t call someone ‘brown boy’ or say he eats dogs just because he’s new to town.”
  • When Grayson says he isn’t racist, Angelo calls Grayson a “delusional dick”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • None

by Emma Hua

Blackout

The sun beats down on the city of New York where there are places to go and people to see. As a heatwave takes over New York City, electricity goes out. This creates the infamous blackouts causing the lights to go off and the trains to stop running. No electricity also means no air conditioners, and that everyone outside is sweating through their clothes from the summer heat and humidity. Amid the blackout, six couples spark a different kind of electricity in the City that Never Sleeps as old loves, and new ones, meet and head to a massive block party in Brooklyn.

Blackout features six short stories following six couples. “The Long Walk” follows two exes named Tammi and Kareem. Kareem needs to get to a block party and Tammi needs to go back home to Brooklyn – coincidentally where the block party is being held. Together, Tammi and Kareem begin a long walk to Brooklyn during the heatwave. “The Long Walk” is also split into 6 parts and scattered throughout the novel instead of being compacted like the rest of the short stories.

“Mask Off” is a queer, MLM (Man Loving Man) love story that follows Tremaine and basketball star JJ. The two of them are riding on the subway before it is shut down by the blackout. “Made to Fit” is another queer, WLW (Woman Loving Woman) love story that follows Nella and Joss at a senior living facility. Nella’s grandfather accidentally loses a picture of his wife, Nella’s grandmother, and Joss offers to help Nella look for it in the dark.

“All the Great Love Stories…and Dust” features two characters named Lana and Tristan, who are trapped in the New York Public Library during the blackout and play a game to see who can find the best book. “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” follows a love triangle on a double decker bus between Kayla, Micah, and Kayla’s boyfriend Tre’Shawn. The final story, “Seymour and Grace,” is a first meeting between Grace and her Ryde driver Seymour. Grace needs to get to the block party in Brooklyn, but the trip gets interrupted by Seymour’s car running out of gas.

All six short stories follow a prose narrative style in the first-person perspective of their respective narrators. Each writer has a different writing style and format. For example, “All the Great Love Stories…and Dust” features footnotes at the bottom of the page to convey Lana’s truth and demonstrate her character. “The truth: I [Lana] just wanted us to have our adventures together away from anyone we might run into. The people we are in Brooklyn aren’t the same people we are in Manhattan or the Bronx or Queens. Do you think you can be a totally different person in a different place? Your insides and outsides transforming into another you?”

There is a sense of consistency between all six authors, allowing the reader to easily grasp the flow of the stories and connect them to the other five. The stories feature romance, and the novel is meant to celebrate young black love. All the characters are teenagers, and most of them are in their late teens. This makes them relatable to a young adult audience as the characters deal with friendships, their identity, and college. For black young adult readers, Blackout provides them the representation they need, and the novel perfectly portrays each character in their own, individual light with their own individual stories and identity.

Blackout is a beautiful novel written by six black authors who bring to life the idea of young love. Each story celebrates young black love and the diversity that occurs in the black community. Queer black teenagers get their own love stories separate from their straight counterparts. Each story provides a small twist on the romance genre due to the authors’ distinct writing style and the story’s format. This book is for readers who are a fan of romance and for Blackout’s targeted audience of black readers. The book is extremely entertaining and will have fans wanting more.

Sexual Content

  • JJ brings up rumors about Tremaine, saying, “there are rumors he “deflowered” both the starting quarterback and his girl.”
  • JJ recounts a sexual encounter he had with a girl on his eighteenth birthday. She “danced me into a corner and started kissing my neck. And I did kiss her back—she was a great kisser, objectively speaking—and when she pushed things a bit further, I rolled with it.”
  • At the queer party, JJ kisses Tremaine without Tremaine knowing it was JJ. “When he turned back to me, I lifted the bottom of my mask, closed the space between us . . . and I kissed him right on the mouth.”
  • Nella was in love with her ex-best friend Bree, who Nella “used to dream about kissing.”
  • In a brief flashback scene, Nella relives the experience of Bree telling Nella that she only kisses other girls when she’s drunk. Nella says, “Twig saw you kissing girls at all those house parties?”
  • Joss puts on some purple lipstick and Nella thinks, “. . . her mouth is suddenly very, very distracting.”
  • In the laundry room, Nella and Joss kiss three times. The scene lasts for two pages. “When we kiss, it’s slow and warm. It’s thickly sweet, like the butterscotch candy we took from Queenie’s bedside table, but there’s something underneath the syrupy flavor that I know must be essentially Joss too.”
  • After Lana confesses her love to Tristan, the two of them make out. “Before I [Lana] could finish, his hands are on my back and his bottom lip brushes against my neck, my ear, then my cheek, before he kisses me.”
  • Tre’Shawn tries to kiss Kayla, but Kayla doesn’t let him. This happens twice.
  • Tre’Shawn tries to kiss Kayla a third time and this time Kayla lets him. “I let him kiss me this time. It’s comforting and familiar.”
  • After having a panic attack on the Brooklyn Bridge, Tammi brings Kareem close to her and kisses him. Tammi grabs “his shirt, pull[s] him close, and kiss[es] him. I kiss my messy, forgetful, silly-ass ex-boyfriend. And as we hover over the water, I forget the world as he kisses me back.”

Violence

  • While at the masquerade party for queer men, JJ gets hit on by an older man against his consent. The man says, “Oh, don’t play coy, now,” as he breathes down JJ’s ear and grabs his arm.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • The words “shit” and “ass” are used a variety of times and in a variety of ways. For example, when Tristan is talking to Lana about them going to separate colleges, he says, “I’m supposed to help you and your dads move you into your fancy-ass Columbia dorms before I bounce to Binghamton.”
  • When talking about her ex, Taylor, Joss says, “That bitch missed out too.”
  • During an argument with Kareem over Tammi not trusting him, he says “Fuck it.”
  • Tammi reminisces over a middle school memory where Kareem was bullied. She calls those bullies “assholes.”
  • Kareem says that Tammi called him “a fucking liar” because Tammi thought he lied and cheated on her.
  • Kayla confides in her best friend, Jazmyn, about her issues with her relationship with Tre’Shawn. Jazmyn says, “Is he on some fuck boy shit?”
  • Kayla calls her classmate Micah a “jackass” lightheartedly.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • None

by Emma Hua

One More Step

Fourteen-year-old Julian’s parents separated when he was a baby, and he is still angry and hurt. His mother has had relationships since—all of which have ended disastrously—but this time it seems serious. Jean-Paul looks like he might be the real thing. Julian is wary—and critical—as he comes to terms with the fact that he and his brother may have to let down their defenses and allow their mother to find happiness. On a road trip with his mother and her new beau, Julian finds that love and happiness can come in many guises.

Anyone who comes from a broken family will relate to Julian, who is frustrated with his mother’s less-than-perfect boyfriends. Plus, Julian is still angry at his father for leaving when he was just a baby. While the story delves into the relationship between Julian and his father, the father-son relationship is not explored in depth. Instead, much of the story revolves around Julian’s relationship with his mother’s boyfriend, Jean-Paul. Even though Julian is often rude to Jean-Paul, Jean-Paul is always supportive of both Julian and his mother. In the end, he realizes that it is not blood that determines true family, but the willingness to stand together.

In One More Step, Julian also must deal with the death of his grandfather. However, Julian’s grieving process is not explored in detail. Despite that, Julian’s positive relationship with his grandfather is funny and endearing.

Julian’s story is told through his diary and much of the action takes place before the book begins. Since the story’s focus is Julian’s emotions and relationships, there is little action. While Julian’s story is not action-packed, his relationships are realistic and interesting. Written as a part of the Orca Soundings books, which are specifically written for teens, One More Step looks at the complicated nature of families. Readers interested in reading more books that explore family dynamics should add In Plain Sight by Laura Langston to their reading lists.

Sexual Content

  • For Christmas, Chris’s mom gives him “purple condoms in his Christmas stocking. Mom must think things are heating up between Chris and Becca.”
  • After receiving a Christmas gift from her boyfriend, Jean-Paul, Mom gives him a kiss. Julian thinks, “No tongue, just a peck on the cheek. Thank God.”
  • Julian is glad his grandparents are coming over because “Maybe that would mean Mom and Jean-Paul would keep their hands off each other. I saw hickeys on my mother’s neck when she was in her bathrobe.”
  • Julian sees his mother and Jean-Paul outside. Jean-Paul “was planting these little quick kisses on her mouth, her nose, her chin, and her forehead. Kind kisses. Sugar kisses. . .”
  • When Mom and Jean-Paul get married, Julian “boogied the night away with sweet Bernadette. I even got a real French kiss before the night was through. Maybe two. Maybe three.”
  • When Chris comes home from college, Julian thinks Chris “probably finally kissed Becca or used a condom.”

Violence

  • When Julian was being disrespectful during dinner, his Nana “kicked [him] under the table. For eating with my mouth open! She kicked me! In the shin!” Later Julian burps just to be rude and “Nana kicked him again.”
  • Julian upsets his father and “his fist found the wall. He punched a hole right through.”
  • One of Mom’s boyfriends, who Julian calls the Shark, stalked her after they broke up. The man showed up at their house “high as a kite.” The Shark “grabbed a fistful of Mom’s hair and was screaming at her.” When the Shark refuses to let go of Mom, Chris “whacked him a good one across the back of the neck with a bat. The guy was out cold. There was blood. We were bawling and screaming by the time we heard the sirens.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Julian’s grandfather had a retirement party, “they’d all had a bit to drink.”
  • One of Mom’s boyfriends was “only interested in drinking beer.”
  • Julian’s father is a “harmless drunk who holds down a good paying job.”
  • While at his father’s house, his dad had coke “spiked with rum.”
  • While meeting Jean-Paul’s family, he allows Julian to have a beer. “I realized the other kids my age were sipping beer too.” Later, Julian “was feeling a bit dizzy from the beer.”
  • Julian goes out with his friends and comes home drunk. He “hurried to [his]room and prayed for the ceiling to stop spinning.”

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes: ass, asshole, damn, frickin’, hell, pisses, and shit.
  • Holy crap is used once.
  • Julian refers to one of his mother’s ex-boyfriends as “the Turd.”
  • Julian tells his brother, Chris, to “Frig off.” Chris replies, “Bite me.”
  • My God and Lord are both used as an exclamation once. Oh, Jesus is used twice.
  • When Julian’s stepmom went to feed the baby, Julian walked into the room just as “Erika popped her breast out of her shirt.” He says, “Oh, Jesus! Sorry, Erika.”
  • Julian’s grandfather calls him a “peckerhead.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • On an outing, Mom wants everyone to “hold hands in a circle and listen to the stillness” and say a prayer. Julian thinks, “a wave thumped so loud below us, it seemed to me that God was mocking her.” Mom says that they are praying “to the Source.”

I Am Alfonso Jones

Fifteen-year-old Alfonso Jones has had an interesting life. His class plans to put on a hip-hop rendition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Alfonso starring as King Claudius and his crush, Danetta, as Queen Gertrude. Danetta is also Alfonso’s best friend, and he wants to let her know how he really feels about her.

To complicate matters, Alfonso’s father is in prison after being wrongfully accused of murdering and raping a white woman. But now his father is finally being released from prison after being proven innocent! Alfonso’s mother sends him to buy a suit for his father’s return.

While shopping and changing jackets, a police officer fatally shoots Alfonso, thinking the coat hanger was a gun, despite the two objects having no similarity in appearance. Alfonso is transported onto a ghost train where he meets victims of police brutality. In the world of the living, Alfonso’s friends, family, and classmates struggle to come to terms with his death, and his death sparks massive protests throughout the world.

I Am Alfonso Jones is a touching novel about the Black Lives Matter movement and why the movement matters. The graphic novel uses a striking art style and simple, but effective prose, that allows the point to come across well; black lives do matter, and the loss of black life is a human rights issue. The novel also shows the different realities black people, especially boys and men, face. A mundane activity, such as buying a suit for a special event, can instantly turn into another death plastered all over news media outlets.

In America, there are unwritten rules for black people to follow. This is depicted in a scene where Alfonso’s grandfather, Velasco, gives his grandson “the Talk”—a conversation about race. Velasco tells Alfonso, “Son, this ‘talk’ is not what you think it would be. This is not about birds—or bees—flowers or any of that mess! This is about what it means to be black in America. You have to learn how to conduct—I mean, protect—yourself, especially in the presence of police officers. This is not a country that values black boys, men—women or girls, for that matter. Too many of our people are getting vacuumed into the prison industry or killed for no rational reason whatsoever but the skin they’re living in….”

I Am Alfonso Jones is told from the perspective of Alfonso and readers follow his daily life up to his death and beyond into the afterlife. The reader will experience the stories of other victims of police brutality from their point of view. The reader also sees the world of the living through the perspectives of Alfonso’s friends and family, most notably Danetta and his mother, as they struggle to get justice for Alfonso in a system that is rigged against them. They become organizers for Black Lives Matter, showing that the foundation of BLM is BIPOC women.

Because the story is told from the perspective of the BIPOC characters, the reader gets to see firsthand how the justice system fails marginalized groups. The plot even showcases the demonization of BIPOC for the system’s own failings and its ways of upholding white supremacy.

The graphic novel’s art uses black and white. The lack of color minimizes the violence committed by the police to prevent readers from seeing any real blood or injuries. The lack of color, however, centers the narrative and the violence toward black people. The character’s faces are expressive. The prose and emotional dialogue are easy to understand because it appears in speech bubbles, while the character’s thoughts are in air bubbles. The pages are heavy with words, averaging about 300 words per page.

I Am Alfonso Jones is a quick read that holds a lot of emotional weight. It encompasses why the Black Lives Matter movement is extremely important, especially in America, where massive injustices have been carried out to victims of color. If readers are confused as to why Black Lives Matter is an important movement, then I Am Alfonso Jones will answer that question.

Sexual Content

  • Alfonso and Danetta almost kiss once. Danetta wants Alfonso to make a move, while Alfonso is worried about getting rejected. Eventually, he thinks, “Oh, forget it! I’m just gonna do it —” before he’s interrupted. He doesn’t kiss Danetta because of being interrupted.

Violence

  • The book displays multiple events of police brutality, which usually end with the deaths of black people. Alfonso is shot and there are multiple flashbacks dedicated to what happened to him. One ghost was also shot by the police, and another was beaten to death. These scenes don’t last for more than four pages. The book opens with a page showing Alfonso running away from the bullet and the bullet eventually hitting him in the back. He shows a strong expression of intense pain. Unlike the other scenes, this is the most brutal because it was done to Alfonso, who is 15 years old.
  • Alfonso’s dad, Ishmael, returns home from work and is beaten by a police officer because he’s the main suspect for the rape and murder of a white woman. The scene lasts for a page. The officer slams Ishmael to the ground after Ismael saves his wife, Cynthia, from a fire in their apartment complex. After being slammed onto the concrete, Ishmael cries out, “Wait a minute! Wait! That’s my wife! That’s my wife! And my baby! My baby!”
  • During a peaceful protest, police throw tear gas into the crowd and the tear gas affects Alfonso’s classmates and Danetta. The scene lasts for two pages and shows police in full body armor, throwing the canister of tear gas. Panels show shots of Alfonso’s friends, who are teenagers, being hurt by the tear gas and punched by police. Danetta yells out, “My eyes are burning! I can’t breathe!” The police are attempting to take in some of Alfonso’s friends amidst the chaos.
  • An arsonist sets the store Alfonso was shot at on fire with a molotov cocktail. The scene lasts for a page and shows the lit bottle in midair before progressing into a panel with an explosion. A reporter recounts the incident, saying, “Markman’s department store, where African American teen Alfonso Jones was shot and killed, was the scene of a fire. Fire department officials suspect arson.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When he was a child, Alfonso smoked a cigarette which quickly caused an asthma attack.

Language

  • Danetta calls the character of Gertrude from Hamlet “a skank” twice.

Supernatural

  • Alfonso is turned into a ghost who rides on a train with other ghosts – all victims of police brutality. A few times he travels to the world of the living to check on his family and friends.

Spiritual

  • Alfonso’s grandfather, Velasco, is a reverend.

by Emma Hua

I Am Not Starfire

Mandy Anders is the daughter of Koriand’r/Kory Anders, otherwise known as the superheroine Starfire from Teen Titans. For most of her life, Mandy has lived in the shadow of her mother’s fame as a superheroine, and Mandy’s lack of superpowers only enhances her stress. Kids at school constantly pester her for information on her mom. They look for Mandy’s superpowers. They even theorize about her online. Combine that with high school and it’s easy to say Mandy’s life is a bit of a disaster.

Mandy’s only real friend is a boy named Lincoln, she has a crush on popular girl Claire, and she walked out on her S.A.T which her mother is completely unaware of. After walking out on the test, Mandy has become more distant with her mom. What appears to be a normal, yet rocky mother-daughter relationship devolves into a massive fight over Mandy’s future and her life.

I Am Not Starfire is told from the perspective of Mandy and follows her life at a normal high school in Metropolis until it is upended by the arrival of Blackfire, Starfire’s sister. Readers get to follow Mandy’s emotions as the story progresses, as well as experience her relationship with her mother from her point of view. Mandy’s story centers on learning to not take her mother for granted, understanding the importance of her connection with her mother regardless of her being Starfire the superhero, and taking risks in all manners of life.

Some readers may relate to Mandy’s struggles with school, college, being unsure of what she wants to do in the future, as well as her rocky relationship with her mother. Queer readers will especially relate to Mandy as she has a crush on a female peer, Claire, and her attraction and eventual relationship to Claire is presented as normal– not something that requires a grand “coming out of the closet” moment. However, some may find Mandy’s dialogue and thought process too edgy and sometimes misogynistic. For example, Mandy makes a comment about her mother’s outfits: “She wears less than a yard of fabric to work every day, yet somehow, I’m the one who’s dressing weird.”

I Am Not Starfire has beautiful art that readers will find attractive. The character’s faces are expressive, and the color composition of certain scenes highlights the emotions Mandy feels in that particular moment. Readers may also appreciate the outfits in I Am Not Starfire. Starfire and Blackfire’s outfits are modern, the kind that the targeted audience would recognize, but they are presented in a way that will make them timeless.

I Am Not Starfire is a quick read with simple vocabulary and pretty pictures. Each page has about fifty or fewer words, all of them either in speech bubbles for dialogue, boxes for the characters’ thoughts, or rounded rectangles for text messages. However, I Am Not Starfire doesn’t have a good plot or good character development. While the graphic novel provides a good entrance to the DC universe, it falls flat on its message: the people around you don’t define who you are, and you can be whoever you want to be.

Anyone who is looking to get into its massive and ever-expanding universe will find I Am Not Starfire entertaining. New fans will be incentivized to investigate DC as a whole and learn more about Starfire and the Teen Titans. However, readers who are already fans of DC comics will find this graphic novel very disappointing as it has inaccurate information on Starfire’s powers, goes against DC’s established lore, and overall is written poorly. If you’re looking for a fun, well-written graphic novel with a positive message and an LGBTQ character, Pumpkin Heads by Rainbow Rowell & Faith Erin Hicks would be a good choice.

Sexual Content

  • A guy at school yells from the background, “Hey Mandy! Like your mom’s tits.”
  • Mandy recalls a summer camp romance experience where she kissed a girl. “I did have this girl who kissed me at camp one summer.”
  • In a two-page spread, Mandy and her crush, Claire, kiss for the first time.

 Violence

  • When Starfire tells Mandy about her past on Tamaran, she brings up that her sister killed their parents. Their death is not shown. “Our parents…were killed by The Citadel.”
  • Blackfire and Starfire battle against each other to determine Mandy’s fate. However, Starfire loses to her sister which causes Mandy’s powers to awaken. Mandy fights Blackfire in her mother’s place and wins. The fight lasts for about 16 pages. The illustrations are kid-friendly, and the characters end up with a few scratches and cuts with a little bit of blood.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Lincoln calls a group of Teen Titans fans assholes for not respecting Mandy’s boundaries.
  • Multiple characters often use the word “shit” and other variations of the word. For example, Lincoln says Claire’s friends “are shitty but [Claire] seems okay.”
  • When Mandy’s mom wants to talk about Mandy’s college plans, Mandy says, “Fuck.”
  • After Blackfire has knocked out Starfire, Mandy says, “Why don’t you just fuck off and die?!”

Supernatural

  • While not exactly supernatural, the story features aliens; Starfire is an alien from the planet Tamaran and thus, Mandy herself is an alien. Starfire’s sister, Blackfire, also appears in the book.
  • The Teen Titans make brief appearances in the book. Beast Boy is a green metahuman (human with powers) who can turn into any kind of animal and Raven is a superheroine who is a Cambion (half human and half demon).

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Emma Hua

Written in the Stars

Naila’s fate always seems to be under her parents’ control, especially when it comes to boys. Following Pakistani tradition, Naila’s parents will choose a husband for her when the time comes. Naila, however, did not grow up in Pakistan and the idea of an arranged marriage seems very old fashioned. Besides, she has fallen in love with a boy named Saif—of whom her parents do not approve– so she must keep him a secret. However, after lying to her parents to attend her senior prom, Naila is caught with Saif and her parents ignore her apologies and explanations.

Believing their daughter has gone astray living in America, Naila’s parents take the family to Pakistan for the summer, causing Naila to miss her high school graduation. At first, Naila enjoys spending time with her family, but she still looks forward to starting college in America where she will finally be with Saif and her best friend, Carla. However, Naila soon discovers her parents are planning a much longer trip. Her cousin, Selma, informs Naila that her parents are planning an arranged marriage. To escape this fate, Naila contacts Saif and plans her escape, which is thwarted by her uncle. Afraid their daughter will try to run away again, Naila’s parents force her into a marriage with Amin without Naila’s knowledge or consent. Naila is met with a choice: accept fate and try to find happiness with her new husband or continue to fight for her true love, Saif.

Despite everything she must endure in Pakistan, Naila is a strong character who never gives up on the possibility of love. While multiple aspects of Pakistani culture are represented in the book, the tradition of arranged marriage is especially prominent. The intent of the novel is to demonstrate that while some arranged marriages have been successful, others can trap men and women into loveless marriages that are more harmful than beneficial. Through Naila’s experience, the novel reveals the importance of having a choice, especially when it comes to love and marriage.

The novel, which takes place mostly in Pakistan, gives poignant depictions of Pakistani culture. Urdu words are used throughout to help capture the setting and culture, and a glossary is provided in the back of the book to aid understanding. The novel also includes mature themes of violence, inter-marital rape, and pregnancy.

Naila is an easy character to root for because, despite the situation she is in, Naila stays true to herself and her beliefs. In addition, Naila discovers that honesty, no matter how hard it can be, is always best. Naila’s conflict is relatable because she wants what anyone else would want—the freedom to have a choice. Although the limitations of her situation sometimes slow the pace of the novel, the tension consistently builds as readers anxiously wait for Naila to be freed and reunited with Saif. If you’re interested in how women are treated in the Middle East, add A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini to your must-read list.

Sexual Content

  • Amin, Naila’s husband, forces her to have sex with him. In an attempt to stop him, Naila tries “to sit up, to reach for the light on the nightstand, but his hands press against my shoulders, pushing me down. I twist my body, trying to wrench free, but I can’t move.” Amin continues to force himself onto Naila. He whispers to Naila to forgive him and “suddenly, I [Naila] scream. Pain envelops me. The world is white, illuminated with pain.” This is all that is described.
  • Naila discovers she is pregnant with Amin’s child. “I tried denying it, I made excuses for my growing fatigue, my delayed period. But when the first wave of nausea overtook me shortly after, I could deny it no more. I’m pregnant.” Later, Naila explains that she lost her baby.
  • When they are reunited in Pakistan, Saif and Naila share a passionate kiss. “Suddenly, he leans down; his lips press against mine. Pull away. But no part of me knows how. . . I run my fingers through his hair, trace the outline of his face—And then I kiss him back.”

Violence

  • When Naila tries to run away, she is caught by her uncle. Her uncle gets on the bus and Naila is “yanked from [her] seat, dragged down the aisle, down the rough metal steps.” To defend herself, Naila tries to “kick, twist [her] wrists to pry [her]self away from him. I bite his arm. He does not let go.”
  • Furious with his daughter for trying to run away, Naila’s father slaps her across the face. She describes the “metallic taste of blood in [her] mouth.”
  • After Amin’s mother, Nasim, discovers Naila is still in love with Saif, she attacks Naila. “Nasim seems possessed by a demon. I try covering myself from Nasim’s feet—she kicks me with each curse.”
  • When Saif arrives to defend Naila, “Amin shoves Saif to the ground.” Amin punches Saif until Saif’s uncle arrives.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Naila’s uncle forces water down her throat and “almost instantly, I [Naila] feel hazy. The drink. He’s drugging me, I realize.” Naila is drugged and her parents force her to sign the marriage papers.

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • In Pakistan, Naila hears a “melodic sound” she recognizes to be “the call to prayer.”

by Elena Brown

Super Fake Love Song

Sunny Dae is a third generation Korean-American and a 17-year-old high school student in Ruby Rancho, one of the richest areas in Southern California—a town that in which a majority of people are white. He calls himself a “super-huge mega-nerd” and a loser. His friends are Milo, a Guatemalan-American boy, and Jamal, a Jamaican-American boy. Together, they form the group DIY Fantasy FX where they create cheap, safe, and cool practical gadgets for all the LARPing (Live Action Roleplay) nerds out there.

Sunny, Milo, and Jamal love D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) and, for the most part, they spend their time making props. Sunny’s room is filled with boxes of props he’s made for DIY Fantasy FX while his brother Gray’s room is filled with guitars, amps, chords, and clothes that are opposite of Sunny’s. Gray hasn’t been home in years since he went off to Hollywood to in hopes of being a rock musician.

A new family in Ruby Rancho arrives and as fate would have it, the parents of said family are friends with Sunny’s parents. Through this connection with family friends, Sunny meets Cirrus Soh. When they first meet, Cirrus mistakes Gray’s room for Sunny’s and assumes that Sunny is a musician. Sunny, who finds Cirrus very pretty and develops a crush on her quickly, decides to play the role of a rock musician to impress Cirrus. He eventually ropes Jamal and Milo into joining him with the ruse, pretending they are a band known as The Immortals. To truly convince Cirrus they are a band, they sign up for the school’s annual talent show to perform one of Gray’s songs. Sunny’s new persona is getting him places with Cirrus, but then Gray comes home and shakes the balance Sunny had created. As Sunny attempts to navigate his relationships, he also struggles to truly understand who he is and wonders if he can ever truly be himself around Cirrus.

Super Fake Love Song is a high school romance told from the perspective of Sunny Dae, who is unapologetically a nerd. The story follows Sunny’s emotions, allowing the readers to feel his sense of division with his identity as he tries to understand himself. The complex relationships Sunny has with his friends, and especially his brother Gray, shape the entire story. Sunny is only able to pretend he is in a band because of Milo and Jamal. He does so convincingly because Gray takes Sunny under his wing. Oftentimes, Sunny reminisces about the better days with him and Gray, such as when they were younger and went on dungeon adventures or stole the spoons from the country club they visited. Then, Sunny returns to the bleak reality that he and Gray are just no longer close. These memories allow the readers to feel just how far apart Sunny and Gray have drifted while also showcasing a natural sibling relationship that’s both turbulent and loving.

Sunny is a nerd who tends to talk about events as though they were a D&D campaign. For readers who are just being introduced to D&D, the specific references to the game may be confusing. Sunny is unique in that he understands things in D&D terms, which is his way of figuring out problems and how he accomplishes building his rock star persona. For example, Sunny understands that performing on stage is just like LARPing which helps him bridge the gap between Rock Star Sunny and Nerdy Sunny. He attributes different kinds of musical performers to the different classes of characters in D&D. To research being cool, Sunny decides to watch videos of rock stars. “As I watched, I became convinced of my hypothesis that music performance was a form of LARPing in itself. Rock performers, after all, hoisted their guitars like heavy axes; their screamsong was a kind of battle cry. Rappers swayed their arms and cast elaborate spells with cryptic finger gestures and fast rhymes. Pop stars danced love dramas, superstar DJs commanded their hordes via mass hypnosis, country crooners sold a pastiche of folklore simplicity long vanished.”

Super Fake Love Song is reaching out to a certain audience: teenagers that play and understand D&D. D&D references are sprinkled throughout the book and show that anyone can participate in D&D. In addition, teens will relate to Sunny’s struggle to understand himself.  The story subverts a traditional romance novel, ending with its own nerdy twist. However, some plot points are wrapped up too quickly and need to be fleshed out. Super Fake Love Song is a book for readers who want a love story and who also love D&D or want to be introduced to it without needing to campaign.

Sexual Content

  • Sunny and Cirrus kiss several times throughout the novel.
  • Cirrus tells Sunny that one of the hottest things a girl can imagine is a guy singing rock and roll to them.
  • At Cirrus’s housewarming party, Sunny takes Cirrus upstairs to her bedroom where they make out. The scene lasts for two pages.
  • Cirrus invites Sunny to a panopticon live. In the virtual world, he and Cirrus become sylphs and kiss using their avatars. “We kiss in that awkward way avatars do: the polygons of our faces glancing off each other, never really touching.”
  • Sunny goes over to Cirrus’s condo where “Cirrus kissed me at her front door.”
  • Cirrus and Sunny have a picnic where they cuddle with each other and kiss.
  • On the way back home, Cirrus and Sunny kiss again. This time, they also confess to each other that they love each other. The kiss is not described.
  • At Fantastic Faire, Sunny and Cirrus reunite after months of missing each other. They “kissed, and the beautiful nerds around us laughed and cheered.”

 Violence

  • Gunner bullies Sunny and his friends. “Gunner would invade my table at lunch to steal chips to feed his illiterate golem of a sidekick and tip our drink bottles and so on, like he had routinely done since the middle school era.”
  • Sunny imagines testing a prop he made on Gunner. “The wires streaked across the stone chamber in a brilliant flash and wrapped Gunner’s steel helm before he could even begin a backswing of his bastard sword. The rest of my party cowered in awe as a nest of lightning enveloped Gunner’s armed torso, turning him into a marionette gone made with jittering death spasms, with absolutely no hope for a saving throw against this: a +9 magical bonus attack.”
  • Gray catches Sunny sitting in his old room with his guitars and friends and doesn’t fall for the ruse of them being a band. Sunny is very frustrated with his brother’s snide behavior. He imagines himself using an FX prop he made against Gray. “I wished I could stun him with Raiden’s Spark for real from one hand, and then cast Esmeralda’s Veil with the other so that I could abscond with the iPod while he choked on clouds of sulfur―no constitution-saving throw, automatic lose-a-turn.”
  • Gunner has bullied Sunny ever since Sunny moved in middle school. Gunner apologizes for being a bully and Sunny thinks about how he “had always fantasized about propelling Gunner with a seventeenth-level Push spell into a fathomless crevice full of lava.”
  • Sunny is practicing how to shred on a guitar and he compares the experience to a D&D campaign experience. “And when I was done, I flung the neck aside like I had just sliced open a charging orc.”
  • Sunny’s anger boils over when his brother hijacks his performance. Sunny pushes Gray into oncoming traffic. “When I shoved him this time, Gray was unprepared. Gray tripped over a pipe jutting from the concrete; He hit the ground backward. . . He found his feet, looked right, and held up a polite hand as tires shrieked. Then he was taken down.” Gray ends up being injured and taken to the hospital. He doesn’t die.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • When imagining himself as a rock star performing for the first time, Sunny describes the air as “stinking of smoke and sour spilled beer of the ages.”
  • While hosting a housewarming party, Cirrus says that there’s a variety of alcohol to drink such as “chevre, manchego, membrillo for said manchego, mild ojingeo, spicy ojingeo, stuff from my parents’ liquor stash like Aperol and Richard and makgeolli and like six bottles of clara in the fridge if you’re not into makgeolli, which I get, makgeolli’s definitely an acquired taste, ha!”
  • At the talent show, Sunny sees Gray “standing in the underlit glow of the stage wings, he held onto a truss and raised his beer in a swaying toast at me.” Because he is drunk, Gray ends up hijacking Jamal’s mic and ruining Sunny’s performance.

 Language

  • Both Sunny and his friend Milo call Gunner, “Asswipe.”
  • Jamal says that Gray is “kind of a dick.”
  • After learning someone keyed his car, Sunny’s dad goes into a cursing fit. He yells, “What kind of GD MF-ing A-hole SOB would pull this kind of BS on me?”
  • In a text message thread, Jamal says, “So Gray’s gone from garden variety dick to full on douchetube.”
  • Gray has been treating Sunny very poorly which frustrates Sunny. He says, “Why did Gray have to be what he was―the lord of all douchetubes?”
  • Gray mentors his brother and his friends on how to be a band. He describes a certain face to make saying, “Just grit your teeth like this and mouth a bunch of angry stuff like, You ugly guitar with your dumbass frets and your dumbass strings.”
  • Gray confesses to his family that when they moved to Ruby Rancho, someone asked him “if he ate dog.” Sunny also says that happened to him. Asking an Asian person, especially an East or Southeast Asian person, if they eat dogs is a racial microaggression.

 Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • None

by Emma Hua

Wild Thing

Twelve-year-old Winnie Willis loves horses—just like her mother did. But since her mom died two years ago, Winnie, her sister, Lizzy, and her father have moved five times. Winnie never cared much—until now. She has a chance to buy the horse of her dreams at an upcoming action—but how will she even earn enough money? More importantly, how can she possibly convince her dad not to move them to another town. . . again?

After the death of Winnie’s mother, Winnie feels as if the accident that killed her mom was her fault. But when Winnie begins working with a frightened horse, Wild Thing, Winnie uses the same methods that her mother taught her. As Winnie shows Wild Thing unconditional love and trust, Winnie begins to process her own feelings. With the help of new friends, Winnie learns that “God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. Jesus didn’t die for nothing!”

Told from Winnie’s perspective, Wild Thing explores themes of friendship, death, unconditional love, and trust. Through prayer, Winnie explores her conflicting emotions. In addition, Winnie explains the methods that she uses to “gentle” Wild Thing. The connection between Wild Thing’s healing and Winnie’s healing is made clear—both of them need to learn that they are loved, and they can trust God.

One positive aspect of the story is that Winnie explains horse terms in a simple way that readers will understand. As Winnie works with the horse, she explains the horse terminology in a way that naturally blends with the text. Plus, the back of the book includes a diagram of the parts of a horse, a dictionary of the different ways horses talk, and includes other horse-related terms.

Wild Thing is an easy-to-read story that blends horse action with Winnie’s personal struggle. Along the way, Winnie meets a variety of people who are all a little bit quirky. While none of the supporting characters are well-developed, their kindness shows how a community of people can help each other. Through Winnie’s prayers and Bible verses, the story highlights God’s unconditional love without being preachy. Wild Thing will entertain readers as well as reinforce Biblical truths.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • A character is called an idiot three times. For example, when Winnie accidentally throws manure on a girl, the girl asks, “Did you see this idiot throw Towasco’s manure all over me?’

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Winnie believes in God and often thinks about his words. For example, Winnie’s mom used to say, “Winnie Willis, in the beginning God created heaven and earth and horses. And sometimes I have to wonder if the good Lord shouldn’t have quit while he was ahead.”
  • Often, Winnie prays to God telling him about her emotions and her wants. For example, Winnie prays, “I know we haven’t had much to say to each other lately, since Mom’s. . .well, you know. . .it’s tough to talk to you. So I’m sorry to be coming just because I want something. But I guess you already know—I want that Arabian. I want to love her. I want her more than anything in my whole life. . .except for wanting Mom back.”
  • Winnie gives a prayer of thanks four times. For example, when Winnie thinks God answered a prayer, she prays, “Did you do this, God? If you did, thanks.”
  • Winnie and her sister have two framed needlepoints hanging on their wall. One says, “For your unfailing love is as high as the heavens. Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. –Psalm 57:10.” The other needlepoint reads, “God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. Jesus didn’t die for nothing!”
  • When a neighbor drops by to see Winnie, the woman says, “I’ll be praying for you and that horse!”
  • Winnie doesn’t think God understands her pain. Her sister tells her, “Jesus lived inside skin like ours, so he’d understand. He knows, Winnie. And he loves you. You have to believe God loves you.”
  • When Winnie worries about the cost of raising a horse, her dad says, “Your mother always said God’s love could see us through anything. All things are possible with God, right?”

 

Koda

Set in Independence, Missouri in 1846, Koda is a bay quarter horse with a white blaze. He loves to explore the countryside and run free with his human friend, Jasmine. But after Koda sets out with Jasmine’s family on a long and dusty wagon train journey on the Oregon Trail, he finds out what is truly important to him. Here is Koda’s story . . . in his own words.

The first part of the book focuses on Koda, a newborn colt, who is already curious. His curiosity gets him into trouble and his mother has to remind him, “Curious is good. Foolish is not!” Koda must learn how to navigate the world, avoid prey, and interact with humans. Readers who love horses will enjoy Koda’s growth from a newborn colt to a two-year-old.

The second part of the book focuses on the Oregon Trail. The story teaches about some of the hardships of the Oregon Trail, including interactions with Native Americans and illnesses. Some of the people on the wagon train caught cholera. “And then one day, a little child became sick. She got sick in the morning and was dead by nighttime. Then more children sickened and died, and grown people, too, old ones and young ones, mamas and papas.” Even though some people die, Jasmine and her father make it to their new home and are hopeful about the future.

Koda is accessible to many readers because of the large font and black and white illustrations that appear every 5 to 6 pages. The illustrations help readers understand the plot as well as see the clothing of the time period. The Appendix has eight pages with more information about quarter horses.

Readers who love horses and are interested in the Oregon Trail will enjoy reading Koda. However, readers who love action and adventure may quickly become bored with the story. None of the human characters are well developed which will make it difficult to connect to them. While Jasmine’s journey contains some danger, her character will be quickly forgotten. Advanced readers ready for a longer book with a more advanced plot should read the Riders of the Realm Series by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Koda sees a mountain lion that “leaped off the top of that rock. It came at me. It was all fur and twitching ears and claws that stretched out toward me. And it had a foul smell.” Mama horse leads the mountain lion away from Koda.
  • When introducing Koda to the herd, “Mama was busy making it plain to the other horses who was the boss of me. She kept shoving and nudging at the ones who came up to inspect me, and a few times, she took a little nip at the side of the bigger ones who got too pushy.”
  • Koda gets angry and “nipped” at a girl.
  • Jasmine, who is dehydrated, lays on the ground and buzzards begin to circle her. Koda “roared up to the buzzard, rearing up on my hind legs, boxing furiously with my front hooves. The creature just hopped backward, out of my reach, flapping its nasty wings.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • After an encounter with Native Americans, “some folks said that Jasmine and the Indians had brought us good luck.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

 

Blue Moon

Bobbie Jo didn’t set out to buy a limping blue roan mare—she wanted a colt she could train to barrel race. But the horse is a fighter, just like Bobbie Jo. Now all she has to do is train the sour, old mare whose past is unknown. While she nurses the horse back to health, Bobbie Jo realizes that the horse, now called Blue Moon, may have more history than she first thought. With the help of the enigmatic Cole, she slowly turns the horse into a barrel racer.

From the very first page, Blue Moon sets up the conflict in a fast-paced story. Bobbie Jo clearly loves horses and readers will quickly be pulled into her world. Even though Bobbie Jo isn’t well developed, readers will be interested in her life. When Cole begins working on her family’s ranch, Bobbie Jo doesn’t trust him. When the two are forced to work together, Bobbie Jo realizes that Cole’s bad attitude hides his true nature. Bobbie Jo and Cole’s relationship adds interest to the story and readers will enjoy watching their friendship grow.

Blue Moon is specifically written for teens who want to read short, interesting novels. The book has large font and short chapters which will appeal to reluctant readers. The easy-to-read story revolves around Bobbie Jo’s horse and family which makes the story relatable to many teens.

The story is told from Bobbie Jo’s point of view, which allows the reader to understand her thought process. Her relationships with her family, Cole, and her horse give the story enough depth to keep the reader turning the pages. The ending has a surprise that emphasizes doing what is right. More advanced readers may be disappointed in Blue Moon because of the simple plot and lack of character development. However, both struggling readers and horse-loving readers who want a quick read will enjoy Blue Moon.

Sexual Content

  • Bobbie Jo and Cole are in a truck talking. Bobbie Jo’s sister taps on the window and then says, “you guys steamin’ up the windows in there or what?”

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Bobby Jo and her parents have a conversation about Cole’s father. Afterward, Bobby Jo wonders, “Why didn’t anybody ever see this Mr. McCall around? Maybe he was a hopeless drunk who just sat home drinking up the grocery money. . .”
  • Cole’s family was in a car accident. Cole says, “One night we were comin’ home for the city in a thunderstorm and a drunk driver hit our truck. We all got hurt.”

 

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

Fear of Falling

David’s father left town a year ago, abandoning his family. David’s family struggles with the changes that David’s father forced upon them. The bright spot in David’s day is riding horses and volunteering at Dr. Mac’s veterinary clinic.

When David’s father suddenly appears, he promises to teach David how to jump on horseback. David can’t let his father know how frightened he is, because the only thing that scares David more than falling off a horse is disappointing his father. Can he overcome his fear and earn his father’s pride?

Fear of Falling is a fast-paced, interesting story that blends David’s family problems with horse action. David has been working with Trickster, a horse that is afraid of getting into a trailer. As David works with the skittish horse, he must be patient and not force Trickster to work on “people-time.” The key to Trickster’s healing is allowing the horse to work at his own pace. This helps reinforce the idea that horses and people should learn at their own pace and not hurry into things before they are ready.

Many readers will relate to David, who has learned that his father’s promises cannot be trusted. Because the story is told from David’s point of view, readers can understand both David’s hopes and fears. David’s fear of falling off a horse connects back to Trickster’s fear, which adds interest to the story. Through David’s experiences, readers will see the danger of pushing yourself to do something that you are not ready for—including trusting others.

Since the story is only 111 pages, the themes are not well developed. While the story focuses on horses, Fear of Falling lacks facts about horses and instead focuses on David’s struggle with his father. While the conclusion doesn’t resolve David’s conflict with his father, the story ends on a realistic, hopeful note. The short chapters, interesting plot, and relatable characters make Fear of Falling a book that will appeal to readers of different ages. Horse-loving readers who are ready for more advanced books should also read The Rose Legacy by Jessica Day George.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • While riding a horse, David feels like “I’m on a runaway train, heading for disaster—and I don’t know how to stop.” The horse sends David “flying through the air like a catapult. And then I fall, fall, fall . . .” David is taken to the hospital, but he doesn’t have any serious injuries.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • While David is in the hospital, the doctor tells his parents, “I’ll give him a prescription of painkillers if you want. But I think ibuprofen should take care of it.”
  • A woman brings her sick cat to the veterinarian, who gives the cat “a fast-acting steroid.”

Language

  • David’s brother calls him an idiot and a dork one time.
  • When he finds out his dad has lied to him, David calls his father a coward.
  • Darn is used twice.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

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